As anyone who follows Indian public discourse is aware, the rhetoric of ‘Muslim appeasement’ is now ubiquitous. No longer limited to the rabid Hindu right, it has penetrated the language and perception of citizens who consider themselves secular and moderate, and who are, indeed, often opposed to the nakedly violent elements of the Sangh Parivar. These moderates nevertheless offer the word up as a reason, if not a justification, for the behavior of the rabid, conceding that the various phenomena of Hindutva in Indian political life were produced by the appeasement of minorities (specifically Muslims) by politicians (specifically the Congress and the Left parties). Effectively, then, they agree with a key plank of the Hindutva platform, and reflect its increasingly hegemonic presence in what constitutes common sense in both private and public life.

The word ‘appeasement’ has a wider history. Its popular usage began with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to postpone the Second World War by agreeing to Adolf Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland in 1938. It soon became shorthand for a range of interconnected political faults: shortsightedness, cowardice, cynicism, betrayal. Its application in the Indian case has included all those implications. This is curious, because Chamberlain’s perceived mistake was to have appeased a foreign enemy. His appeasement was a foreign policy, rather than an ideological position. Appeasement in India, on the other hand, has been a discourse anchored in domestic politics and national ideology. It is more heavily loaded and pernicious than a handshake in Munich. The original implications of the accusation are very much present in India, but the line between foreign and domestic enemies has become blurred. Indeed, the rhetoric of appeasement is useful precisely because it blurs that line, continuously turning a portion of the Indian population into an alien entity and democratic politics into treason.

Objectively, the idea that minorities – and Muslims in particular – have been pampered by the Indian state is ludicrous. Muslims in India are, on average, considerably poorer than Hindus. Their presence in the institutions of government and public life does not remotely approach their percentage of the population, and they suffer from chronic discrimination in housing and employment. Harassment, intimidation and worse by the police, army and paramilitary forces is a fact of life. They are increasingly subject to the violence of vigilantes and lynch mobs that are either ignored or assisted by the state. They cannot complain about intolerance or criticize the Indian state – let alone the army and other sacred cows – without immediately provoking a firestorm of public outrage and being told to shut up or move to Pakistan. They are, moreover, subject to pervasive and unquantifiable abuse in what might be called personal interactions with the majority community. This abuse overflows into the public domain, saturating the press and online forums with vitriol about ‘mullahs,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘love jihad,’ people who have too many babies, and the rape of disinterred corpses. If Indian Muslims have been appeased for seventy years, it has not accomplished very much.

If we look at the body of evidence that is held up to demonstrate appeasement, it quickly falls apart. Nobody can demonstrate how this appeasement has hurt the majority community, let alone been illegitimate. Indian Muslims can vote, it is pointed out defensively, as if this is some sort of extraordinary generosity in what is supposed to be a democratic republic. They are allowed to live in India, it is proclaimed in the same vein. Again, what generosity, ‘allowing’ people to live and vote in their own country! Indian democracy and pluralism are not charity to an undeserving minority; these are gifts that, in the words of the Constitution, the Indian people gave to themselves. Not only are these the substance of freedom and the justification of independence (because otherwise, what is independence for?), they are essential to multi-ethnic nationhood.

The Muslim Civil Code and Article 370 of the Constitution (which gives ‘special status’ to Jammu and Kashmir) are perennial targets of those who believe that appeasement is real. Such claims reflect a total obliviousness of the historical context of these policies. Article 370 came out of the extraordinary political, military and legal circumstances of Kashmir’s accession to the Indian Union. Without it, the National Conference would not have given its assent to the annexation of the state, and without that assent, the Indian position would have been untenable. The Instrument of Accession was not enough to ensure either legitimacy or order, and negotiators in Delhi and Srinagar understood that a measure of popular consent was needed that could be acquired only through political concessions. The ‘special status’ of Kashmir is not some inexplicable foolishness on Nehru’s part; it is a hard-headed compromise based on recognition of the actual specialness of the political situation. Muslim personal law is a product of the aftermath of the Partition, when it was important for the Congress to demonstrate its commitment to the principle that India was neither Pakistan nor Jinnah’s version of Hindustan, i.e., to ensure that the Indian state did not belong to any particular ethno-religious community. Moreover, given the horrendous violence that had just taken place, it was necessary to reassure the remaining Indian Muslims that they were safe in India, not just individually but as a community. That reassurance was essential to the stabilization of the fledgling state and its fragile institutions.

The Muslim Civil Code is quite rightly a contentious body of law. It authorizes the most reactionary elements of Indo-Muslim society to speak for the community, and consequently it infringes upon the rights of women as equal citizens of a democratic state. It can also be argued, albeit tenuously, that a nationally-organized society should have a uniform code of civil law. (Why? The assumption is reminiscent of the case for a national language that was abandoned in 1965.) In any case, the Indian Constitution unambiguously looks forward to a uniform civil code; religion-specific legality was originally intended to be a temporary arrangement. But while the activism of Muslims who want to abolish triple-talaq and reform unjust divorce laws is entirely admirable, the professed sympathy of Hindus must be viewed with great suspicion. Hindus can legitimately protest the plight of divorced Muslim women only when they give up their own habit of turning away Muslim renters, and are ready to welcome Muslim sons-in-law. Until then, they would do well to examine the reactionary elements within their own civil code (there is a considerable body of scholarship on this), to stop beating their wives and bullying daughters who make their own sexual choices, and to insist upon the recognition of marital rape as a criminal offense – none of which they are willing to do. They might also try to understand that the reform of Muslim personal law will become politically feasible – i.e., acceptable to those Muslims who are themselves ambivalent about it – only in an environment of security and tolerance, or in the absence of the naked hate that now runs casually through Indian society and its public discourse. A beleaguered minority will cling to the symbols of its identity even when those symbols are themselves oppressive. Not even majorities are exempt from this dynamic: it is worth noting that the ‘reformed’ Hindu civil code became possible only when colonial rule had ended. Until then, the most repressive laws and customs were zealously protected as markers of national sovereignty, and even Vidyasagar found it necessary to oppose the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which outlawed sex with girls under the age of twelve.

For the appeasement-wallas, there is also a constant accumulation of petty and local complaints: about municipal authorities telling Hindus to desist from playing music near mosques, state-subsidized Haj, government support for madrasas, Muslim criminals who are supposedly protected by politicians, and the tendency of non-Sanghi political parties to protect (occasionally) what are understood as ‘Muslim interests.’ They barely notice that Hindu pilgrimages are also subsidized by the state, Hindu criminals also receive the patronage of politicians, and that Hindus are louder and more effective than Muslims when it comes to demanding that the state protect their ‘sentiments’ from assorted insults. They forget that so-called 'vote-bank politics' - the articulation and protection of particular interests - is the normal stuff of democratic politics, and not the equivalent of giving in to a foreign enemy (unless Muslims themselves are imagined as aliens) or some peculiar ‘pseudo-secular’ vice. Do Hindus not form 'vote banks' when they organize themselves by caste, class and language? Democracy without vote banks would require a level of individuated citizenship that does not exist anywhere in the world, let alone India. These complaints are typically accompanied by outrage at the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits and religious minorities in Pakistan, the implication being not only that the ill-treatment of Muslims in India (and Kashmir) is a reasonable retribution, but also that Pakistan is the preferred model of the relationship between the individual, the community and the state. For them, democracy and politics – i.e., the need to work through constitutional means and make concessions at the negotiating table – are weaknesses. They would prefer that the Indian state simply bludgeon its way to produce the results desired by ‘the majority,’ even if that means killing, terrorizing, disenfranchising or expelling a hundred and fifty million people. Those options are still voiced mainly as wistful fantasies and in private conversations, but the overflow into the media and the street – slogans of ‘Pakistan ya kabristan’ (‘to Pakistan or to the graveyard’) –  is already apparent.

‘Appeasement’ in the Indian context is thus a fundamentally anti-democratic discourse in more ways than one. It equates the citizenship – i.e., freedom – of a minority community with an intolerable weakness of the nation-state. Any sign of the political equality of the minority becomes not only a sign of treason (by minorities and their sympathizers), but a sign of the superior power of the minority, inverting the actual status quo in a perverse nightmare of Hindus ‘losing control of their own country.’ The ultimate version of that nightmare is the frequently-expressed anxiety about the ‘Muslim birth-rate,’ or the fear that Hindus will cease to be a majority in India. Not only is this highly paranoid and numerically improbable, it negates a basic principle of the liberal-democratic nation state, which is that there can be no permanent majority and minority. Today’s minority must, hypothetically, be able to become tomorrow’s majority without nullifying the nationhood that is expressed in the state. If that prospect is so horrifying that one would rather resort to ethnic cleansing or invent a mythology of appeasement/treason, then it is necessary to ask what kind of nation Hindus (or Israeli Jews who resent having to share their state with Arabs, or white Trump supporters who also complain incessantly about 'pampered' minorities and the 'neglected' majority) inhabit. An objectively dominant majority that feels, acts and speaks in the mode of an oppressed and aggrieved minority is one of the surest symptoms of fascism. It is a danger to itself as well as to others, because its peevish violence inevitable rebounds against itself, eroding its own democratic rights and freedoms. That erosion, in which the state has repeatedly compromised its own liberal principles at the behest of the majority, is where 'appeasement' is truly manifested in India.

In this situation, ironically, the fate of liberal democracy comes to rest more with the minority, which is invested in it, than with the majority, which chafes against it and longs for the unrestrained ability to coerce. The idea that minorities are the conscience-keepers of liberalism has a history that goes back to the early twentieth century. It has generated one of the roles played by Jews in American political life until the late 1960s, and as Faisal Devji has pointed out, by Muslims at one point in the history of the subcontinent. I will go a step further and suggest that democracy needs minorities to survive. Majorities are thuggish by nature, undeserving of democracy and resentful of it. They do not ensure the democratic rights of minorities; it is the other way around. Freedom - understood as a rights-bearing relationship with the liberal state - is inherently a minority condition.

April 18, 2017

Hometowns and ghost towns

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Most modern societies have a romance of the hometown: a place that ‘one is from,’ and that serves as an anchor of reference and identity when one is adrift, happily or unhappily. It – or rather, the idea of it – provides continuity when the spaces and compartments we inhabit collapse or converge. In much of the world, the hometown is detached from everyday life. It is a place that one has left behind, and that functions as an identifier even when a permanent return is unlikely. In the refugee and migrant worlds of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, hometowns have been not only the places left behind as people moved in search of education, work, safety and nationalities, but also the unseen places that parents and grandparents had once known. Such hometowns – Pabna, Lucknow, Lahore – are constituted by the thinnest of nostalgia. A cousin of mine recently crossed the India-Bangladesh border to see the ancestral family home in Dhaka (‘lost’ since 1947), could not find the building, went back disappointed, and only later realized that he had gone to the wrong address.

The American hometown is less ethereal. It is a place that one has never left. Its heart is the local high school, with its football rituals that one continues to attend as an adult, and mascots that one continues to revere. Those who actually play football or basketball expect to be recognized and flattered at the local hardware store or diner, or to run the store itself someday. Students graduate from these schools – which their parents also attended –  with the expectation that they will never leave town. Their circle of acquaintances will not expand much further beyond those who are already their friends and enemies. They will, they hope, find jobs or take over family businesses that allow them to marry and have kids, to divorce and pay child support, to buy a home and a couple of cars, to retire, sicken and die with dignity.

That hometown is easy to find but hard to hold on to. It is, one might say, a mythology of community and reassurance in a vast, thinly populated land, where pioneers could go only so far before needing to stop. The place where you stopped became home: homestead, little house on the prairie, island in the wilderness, Mayberry, surrounded by the combination of emptiness and savagery that gives shape and meaning to the settler colony. Unarguably, only a part of America has actually lived even a portion of this dream, and today the hometown is more beleaguered than ever. The savages have multiplied faster than the homesteaders, and the economy has moved to the wilderness of university towns, coastal cities and foreign parts, demanding that people follow. The wilderness is also America, a competing myth with its own power and cruelties, but without that paranoid insularity.

The American hometown is a historical phenomenon. It is a product of datable, identifiable and intersecting episodes in the recent past: industrial employment, unionized wages, job security, home ownership and welfare assurance, brought together by the New Deal, the Second World War, the unchallenged manufacturing hegemony of the 1950s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. These brave new hometowns fattened on the mythical homesteads; the self-righteous and existentially imperiled innocence of William Jennings Bryan became the images and soundtracks of the multi-layered ‘security’ that was a central part of American ‘greatness’ at a particular moment in time, which was the Cold War.

When the Cold War economy unraveled, hometowns became unsustainable. High school degrees became inadequate for securing jobs, and the self-inflicted injuries of the Reagan era not only weakened the unions that had allowed white workers to live middle class lives, but also began to gut the concept and institutions of social security. It became necessary to contemplate Tom Joad all over again, and this could only be a stepping down from greatness. People who should have left found themselves unable to contemplate actually leaving, because they imagined they would be leaving themselves behind, and because they were afraid of where they might have had to go. Not surprisingly, it was in this period – the 1980s – that the hometown was reified as a melancholy myth of an endangered American identity: the subject matter of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, charged with betrayal. Because that betrayed place had been more real between the 1940s and the 1970s than, say, in Bryan’s time, it was now that much more frightening to see it turning into yet another American mythology of place: the ghost town, in which you were the ghost.

In the last election, the ghosts turned out in force to vote for Donald Trump. In the process, they aggravated the injury that their Reagan-loving parents had inflicted. They did so for reasons that have to do with the nature of the hometown itself: the security and superiority conveyed by the conviction of roots in the soil and separateness from the rootless, and, of course, fear of being uprooted. They did not just vote for a fascist leadership that is contemptuous of every liberal safeguard within democracy; they revealed the Volkisch underpinnings and fascist possibilities of an existentially insecure Homeland made up of hometowns, in which folksiness is an established political idiom, indulged without reflection by liberals and conservatives alike.

The fetish of roots and the folk’s fear of the unrooted is, of course, a common aspect of fascism. It brings together entitlement and anxiety, typically expressed as racism, because race is among other things a perceived relationship to place. Those who are out of place, without a place, or indifferent to place are not only races apart, but also racial enemies and enemies of race itself. Like any matter out of place, they constitute dirt: the dirty Jew in Germany, the dirty Arab in Israel, the dirty Mexican in the American southwest, refugees in upstate New York, immigrants everywhere. And as dirt in the age of sanitation, they are invitations to cleansing and other forms of intervention. As animals that have wandered in from the wilderness, they threaten the hometown resident with the prospect of invasion, or of having to enter the wilderness himself. It generates music like “Welcome to the Jungle,” the Indiana redneck’s response to Los Angeles.

Along with the fear of savages and animals, the prospect of being exiled to the jungle brings the fear of emasculation. The narrative of the American hometown is a richly gendered text, consisting not only of the culture of team sports, guns, pick-up trucks (or muscle cars) and the predictable comfort of marrying your ‘high school sweetheart,’ but also the ritualized expectation that you will, upon graduation, become a newly-carded member of the same labor union to which your father belongs. When these expectations and rituals become threadbare even as mythology, the crisis of manhood takes the form of racist, homophobic and misogynistic violence, and overrides rational calculations of economic and political self-interest, not to mention ethical considerations and the niceties of liberal democracy, which can only appear effeminate. It produces the compulsive bullying and the stormtrooper phenomena that Arthur Rosenberg identified, in 1934, as the essential ingredient of full-blown fascism.

The citizen in that mode of reaction functions as a modern peasant, hostile to science, even more hostile to the arts, resentful of educated outsiders and of education itself. (The American high school is primarily a location of socialization, and only secondarily of learning.) The modern peasant is, in one sense, a contradiction in terms, but is actually a common creature. He or she retains the provinciality of the peasant and the fetish of the soil, but it is now national soil, and suspicious outsiders are national enemies. The forms of hate remain familiar and assimilate the old, but the content is substantially new. Hannah Arendt once remarked of European anti-Semitism that it was ‘not about the Jews,’ indicating a difference between the ‘classical’ pogroms of rural bigots and the nineteenth-century urban Gentile’s dislike of the emancipated Jew. The new hate, she suggested, was more about the nationalizing citizen’s resentful relationship with the liberal state and its allies. The particular target was incidental. In present-day America, it would be inaccurate to say that the racism, anti-intellectualism and gender norms of the hometown are merely byproducts of a government policy or even a cluster of policies such as neoliberal capitalism; they are imbedded in much deeper histories of the settlement of the continent. But they are nevertheless intertwined with global economic currents that have made the American hometown obsolete, and made it necessary for the peasants to do what other peasants have typically done, which is to embrace the city. The obsolescence of the hometown is inseparable from the reluctance of its denizens to do move to where the colleges are, where the jobs are, where the strangers and savages are.

The American hometown – which is not just a place, but an idea in which Trump and Springsteen are both complicit – is not a benign sentimentality. It is a nostalgia of arrested development, intertwined with white privilege, violent masculinity, and the fundamentally unreasonable and unhealthy refusal to grow up and leave home. There is something pathological about a political reality in which adults who cling to their high school selves vote for a man who consistently behaves like a spoiled child. It is, after all, not rational to confuse cities and the wilderness, or to expect that manufacturing jobs that have disappeared due to automation will return if foreign-made products are hit with tariffs, or to act as if the mass deportation of undocumented aliens will help unemployed Americans who do not want to pick oranges or drive cabs. It is irrational to be terrified of Muslims when the overwhelming share of the killing in this country is done by Christians, and by the police. Rationality in political decision-making may be unfashionable and ‘elitist’ (on this point, there is a perverse agreement between the far right and the post-modern left), but if we are going to have a modern state, then the primacy of verifiable information over ‘feelings’ in governance is an essential hedge against fascism. 

February 9, 2017