Politics of Majority-Minority Identity in India

Ram is an Indian scholar who hails from the southern part of India. He lives in a city called Bangalore, and is part of the Centre for Study Culture & Society (CSCS). He came to Yogyakarta to teach graduate students at Gadjah Mada University for three months for the International Summer School. In this interview, Ram describes the relationship of majority of Hindus and Muslim minority and the Christian which becomes an important issue in relationship among adherents in India since the 1980s. Besides the problem of radicalism Hindus, India also faces problems of the border with Pakistan and the emergence of several separatist movements, therefore Ram emphasizes that the real problems in India is similar to those problem faced by the Indonesian government.

Hatib: Could you tell me who you are?

Ram: For the shortest name, I called Ram. My own background, I initially studied commerce, then study political philosophy; then studied political sociology. My PhD is political sociology in the empirical kind of work for human rights groups in India. Then I studied human rights laws. I taught in a law university for about ten years before jumping to CSCS. So, I have a hybrid self, partly political theorist, political philosopher, and partly human rights lawyer.

Hatib: Could you tell me what CSCS is?

Ram: It is an interdisciplinary centre. Broadly it is called “cultural studies,” but it is also on rethinking social sciences and media. In this faculty, I also have students who come from non-social science subject, such as medicine, psychotherapy, architecture to English literature. We have about 30 PhD students until this year. For this year, we have about 15 PhD students, so to put together, we have about 44 to 45 PhD students, and we have 15 faculties. So, it is not about the big centre, even though the PhD student’s number has increased, but the faculty itself is still about 15. And now, largely there is called assistant professor, associate professor, senior fellow, research fellow etc, so, we follow some research organizations in the US with fellows. It is a ten-year old institute, not very old, and it is privately funded.

Hatib: I want to look back, how do you think your parents had shaped your thinking about the world and thinking about India?

Ram: My father is a priest and my mother is a housewife. Then my father background was Sanskrit because he was a priest. He did not attend any schools just as my study now. Because of that, their orientation to live was not about for Indian nation or state, but their orientation to live is about neighbourhood, where do you belong? And what kind of conduct you should have? So, it is about relating yourself to the neighbourhood, your family, your community, and your best in town. What values should be there? Given the fact that I am 49 now, 40 years back during my childhood, communication in India is not so much developed and I lived in a very small town, until I was 20 to 21, I lived in a very small town and very poor government; I did my bachelor’s degree in a college in that town, and I learned from my parents that the whole question is not about a big nation but on how you associate with your community. That is what they were concerned of.

Hatib: Could you tell me how is your language and cultural construction?

Ram: Unlike Indonesia where there is a national integrating language. We, Indians for some reason, live with our languages, we speak English among ourselves if we are literate or elite, but otherwise, we speak on our own local languages. My mother-tongue is something called Tehlu, and another local language from Bangalore called Tanada. They have some similarities like Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. In terms of script, I understood that Javanese script is close to one language in the southern part of India which we call Malealm, which is in Kerala and Tamil. So the similarity if I show you between Malealm paper and Tamil paper it is very close in terms of script.

Hatib: If you compare India with Indonesia, what is the important problem in India?

Ram: We have a similar problem. Of course the nature of the problem as we understand is slightly different, but actually it is of the same type. The tension between religious groups in India and the tension within Islam in the case of Indonesia, as I understand, is almost same.

If here the discussion is between Radicals and Liberalist, in India the discussion is between Hindu Majority and Moslem Minority, or Hindu majority and Christian minority. As you know, in India we have a broad category called Hinduism. I don’t understand, though I am Hindu by birth. And how do you describe yourself? So, I will say that I am Hindu by birth and sceptic by faith, because I am not seriously practicing Hinduism, but I came from a very seriously practiced Hindu Family. My brother, for instance, is hugely orthodox, they continue to do the family faith, but I am completely out of the faith in some sense.

But these categories called for Hindus is a problem, because so many kinds of practices within. As you know proverbs by some ethnologists that we have millions of God. In other words, one person has more than one God. So, it is very diverse in lifestyles. It is not centralized lifestyles. Hinduism does not have. People know Bhagavad Ghita, but most people also don’t practice it as well. Rama and Mahabharata stories, they are not scriptures that teach you how to behave, but they give you stories about Krishna, Rama etc. That’s it. This is a very loose religion in structure. There are some people who call it not a religion. One member of the supreme justice calls Hinduism not a religion, but it is about the way of life. That is the problem I think.

Hatib: How do the Moslem and Christian minority in the western part of India face Indian Majority?

Ram: We have a large Moslem populace, just next to Indonesia in terms of population. Not even Pakistan, Egypt or even any countries in the Middle East that come close to our country in terms of Moslem population. I think we have 13% Moslem population in India, so around 116 million Moslems live in India. It is a huge population. Second, it is not contiguous, it is not in one part; it spreads all over India. Just like every village. It is so embedded; in every small village and in every part of India, Moslems live. In some parts, their number is far more than the national average, such as Kerala and Uttar Pradesh in the northern state. Some states are less than the national average; and in the western part where the Portuguese had long occupied before India became independent, Christians hold 2.1%, much larger than national average. So, there are variations. But in general national average, there are 116 million people Moslem. There is some kind of 800 million Hindus who don’t consider themselves a unified group as Hindus. And we have also about 25 million Christians. This is one level of discussion.

Hatib: Do you think that the tension among religions and its adherents, either in Indonesia or India, is part of the failure of secularism?

Ram: Exactly in India, the discussion is in two levels, one, the tension between Hindu and Moslem, and between Hindu and Christian, which is not very old, only about four or five years. But the Hindu and Moslem tension is already for about a long time but it became very prominent since the 1980s, 1980-1981. The tension shows the failure of the state, not the failure of secularism. There are human rights group, there are secular political organizations like leftist party and we still have parliament communism, we also have Maoism, and we have a small group of guerrilla movement nesting in the forest. Occasionally, they create some kind of sensational politics. If you follow the news, a couple of months ago, they took one small town in the state of Bengal, they seized control, and it took the army about two weeks to wipe out some of them and run away from the place. This is about Maoists who still do exist. Most of the Marxist parliament rule in Kerala and in west Bengal, for instance. There is sizeable group. So, I consider them secular parties, because they don’t require vote of religious law and participate in voting. Then I would imagine that as a Moslem you take vote in Qur’an and if you are Hindu you take a vote in Bhagavad Ghita. Marxist takes vote on their concern, and then they say that they swear on their consciousness. So, according to them it is the failure of the state.

Hatib: So what is the role of the state?

Ram: There is one critical academician who says that it is the failure of the secular terms as we understood. One of the arguments says that secularism imagines that it solves the tension among religions, always as mediated by the state. Another word, there is a tension between group A and group B, they must comes and resolves the matter, the community resolves themselves, and the tension becomes less or not existent. So, the argument is because the constituents imagine India as a secular state. And everyone has to begin rely on state. But, the state never solves it, because the assumption of having a neutral state is wrong.

Hatib: So how is the nature of minority of Moslem in India now?

Ram: Let us talk about one of the major resources of the problem. There is a fictitious place called Ayutthaya. This is the bathing place for Rama according to the Ramayana, but which Ayutthaya we don’t know, but there is a town called Ajodhya in Northern India, and the BJP (Barathya Janata Party) and what we call Sangh Family (youth, student, women organization). Sangh is the organization of Fundamentalist Hindus, so they are wholly called Ajodhya. The problem is there is only one temple and adjacent to it is a mosque.

In the past, there were a number of inter-religious structures, there were some structures like temples and there were mosques, even older. There was a Buddhist shrine because the Hindus occupied it and put a Shiva statue. So, it is constant practices that happened for a long time. Today, the Hindu groups don’t talk about what they had done to the Buddhists and Moslems. They really looked for anarchy. Hindus asked to demolish the mosque, and give it to them. Moslems give the mosque to Hindus because they wanted to build a temple reasoning that it is part of Ajodhya, a holy city. This happened in 1994. Obviously Moslem rejects it, because it is not a 1994 problem, but since the beginning of independence, in 1949 to 1950.

Actually what the Hindu group had done in the beginning of the 1950s is that they took the statue of Rama and installed it in what is considered now as the mosque, in order to say that this was one of the conflict resources. So, based upon this single issue, they created a whole movement, which is called a movement for reclaiming the birthplace of Rama. That was in 1950 which significantly changed the Hindu-Moslem relation. Now the question is, were the police and the military neutral? They were neutral in some times, but they were never neutral in many times. As a result, the present state making solution is a problem, and secular in that sense has become a problem. So, we should not keep secularism to the state, secularism is about mindset.

Hatib: Do you think that the notion of Abdullah An-Naim which is “Public Reason” can be implemented in India in dealing radicalism of BJP, and solving discrimination to the minority?

Ram: We have not seriously used that term, but perhaps there is usefulness to the concept of civic reason. In Indian case, especially talking to Moslems, the point is Moslem is the minority. And the majority has the comfort zone, although Moslems in India is big in number, but still they are the minority. And the minority live not with the same comfort as the majority, because there is always a big tension with the majority. So, the logic of identity in India for Moslem, from my own understanding, would be very different compared to the logic of Moslem identity in Indonesia. Secondly, being a minority tends to be put in a single structure. There is uniformity. People in Tamil Nadu speak only Tamil, they don’t speak Hindi. Not only until recently, where change has begun, all Moslems in India moved toward the language called Urdu, which rooted from Persian and Arabic. This language emerged in the 19th century. Urdu is widely spoken in other parts of India. So, linguistically, it is a very diverse group.

Hatib: What can you say about this? Pakistan separated from India; and Bangladesh separated from Pakistan, do you think it is merely a problem of majority and minority? And what do you think about the notion of nationalism facing the notion of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Hinduism?

Ram: That’s a big question. A fundamentalist Hindu believes that all the subcontinents are one unified nation. Their philosophy is to rebuild India from its glory, to include South Asian countries. India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, everything is put together; it is called “India that is not divided.” The assumption is that India became fragmented because these countries somehow emerged. It is a kind of a utopian sort of idea to build this undivided India So, it is a problem.

What happened, to my understanding, was a political decision was made which had to be pragmatically taken. There was a process in the beginning of 20th century; there were Moslems who believed that they should reclaim their homelands and not be a part of India. The British took this opportunity to divide Moslem and Hindu groups. The Congress Party of course had some Moslem leaders who were very prominent, but they were not sufficient to mitigate the problem. Obviously, there were sentiments. Some sentiments obviously persisted until 1947 when Pakistan became to a nation. It was a political decision. There were so many nations which were political nations. Pakistan and India’s division was called a compromise, necessary in that particular moment from whatever kind of solution we had. Of course, hundreds of thousands of people died, during their exodus from India to Pakistan, and from Pakistan to India, the major trauma in South Asia; probably it is the biggest calamity during the 20th century. So, I would think that nationalism has nothing to do with the natural forms. Nationalism is about political form. If you look at Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka, it just a political movement, because it has a basis of discrimination and constitutional sort of disparity, combined with the issues, it could create potentially strong movement. In the case of India, we have Nagas, the population is about two hundred thousand. They wanted to be independent in 1946 because they were never fully conquered by the British. The dream of Nagas is to be a free land, and that dream continues until now. So nationalism is a political movement.

Hatib: What do you think of the last general election in India? The victor was the Congress Party. And do you think India can solve the Kashmir problem for the future?

Ram: India is a country of contradiction, if you take just one year ago, before the election; all secular fellows were in deep depression. Look at Gujarat, where the major communal violence happened 5 to 6 years ago. It is a place where the government is directly involved. There were a lot of evidences showing that the government looked desperate. And you see, the current Congress government came back, it is a miraculous achievement. Even the ruling party does not know why it has come back. Because they did not know they will be coming back. Of course it is true that they had done an extraordinary level, not so much because of their own thing, but because BJP was not directly involved in the society development. It lost a couple of key allies in the critical movement during the election, like in Upanishad, there were riots between Hindu and Christian Groups just before the election. The local regional party broke away from BJP. So, now BJP is the fourth party, the largest party is Dallit Party. So, from being the very largest party in the country, it went down to being fourth. It is quite surprising for BJP and surprising for Congress Party to become the third largest party. But, I don’t celebrate that the result of general election will solve the crises in Kashmir because Indian elites today think that the solution to the problem in Kashmir is not in the political realm, not by sovereignty, but by business and economic development. By doing this cross border business, it will become more inter-independent, and slowly the Kashmir problem will be resolved.

Hatib: Ok, my last question. What advice could you give to your students who plan their education well and their future?

Ram: All of my students either in PhD class, in Law school or in the summer class, I always tell them to try and learn how to read the text. Generally, I don’t do recommendation, I don’t say “you should do this, or you should do that!” I would say “Let’s read this text and how do we interpret it.” And interpretation usually results opinion, you have an opinion and I have an opinion, then we try to see why we have different opinions. That is what we do. Actually, we are trying to do exercise using methodology. For me, pedagogy is an ultimate experience. So, what I do with my students is a sort of collective reading and sharing of interpretation.

Hatib: Ok, thanks.


This post is also available in: Indonesian


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