There is a growing intolerance to difference

“Muslims in India and their so-called protectors would do well to realise that most Indians endorse the Karnataka High Court verdict […] because they are avowedly against any emotional or cultural secessionism or spreading a sense of separateness for the sake of being politically correct.” — Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, IE, April 1
“We Indians love our freedom. When any attempt has been made to snatch our freedom, our alert citizenry did not hesitate to seize the power back from autocrats.” — CJI NV Ramana, IE, April 2

The strange idea, prevalent, that diversity leads to lack of unity, and “cultural and emotional secessionism” presumes that there is one homogenous cultural and emotional core, and that any divergence from it results in separateness. What is that cultural core, and what are the divergences that apparently display emotional secessionism? I am thinking of families that prefer to not cook meat in their kitchens, and yet the fathers, and the children happily step out to gorge on chicken tikka masala, without ever feeling that they have emotionally seceded from their mother, or from “dadaji who doesn’t like to eat non-vegetarian food”. Nobody, unless it’s a dysfunctional family, throws hissy fits about the non-veg cultural core and secessionism, or thinks too much about which eating habit within the family is the core, and which is peripheral. Indeed, the very idea of ​​“cultural and emotional secessionism” attacks all such possibilities, where families and people intuitively learn to live and let live.
I am quite intrigued with this idea of ​​“emotional secession” in merely following one’s own cultural or individual choices, like wearing the hijab, or a strapless dress on the streets, or lamb chops, or mutton biryani from a street vendor. The idea that each of these attitudes represents a disregard for sentiments is reminiscent of sulking, bullying husbands in matrimonial cases who insist that their wives are cruel, only because they do their own thing. This thissis proposes, much like the bullying husband, that one limited worldview should occupy the cultural universe of the nation.

However, this thissis deftly avoids naming that cultural core. Which is it, and what makes it the core to exclusion of all other practices? It avoids naming it, for even within the “majoritarian culture” that it alludes to, there are in fact no common, set cultural practices. It would like very much for Hinduism to also develop a central tenet, mostly as a tool of political organisation.

For the moment, the thissis focuses rather more on pointing randomly at certain practices and declaring that they are “definitely not the core”, and for no apparent reason, thus creating “insiders and outsiders” out of thin air.
There is a fine line between the old grievance that Muslims in this country are pampered, and a subtle shift reflected in the new position that claims that any expression of Muslimness is an example of cultural secession from the nation. This thesis sways wildly across that fine line, when it mixes up the old grievance against Muslim appeasement with the new demand for all to conform.

I had heard of “secession from reason”, centerd on love and inclusiveness, in an effort to explore the relationship between the self and the divine. Such traditions focused on experiencing, rather than rationally understanding, the divine. The experential practices, in turn, involved an unmooring from social rules, and a more instinctive turn towards social openness. The Sufi and Bhakti traditions are replete with examples of cultural and emotional secession from the regimented mainstream.

The present thissis is much less successful both in its literary form and in the philosophy that it espouses. It inverts the traditions of love and cultural and individual explorations, and ties the idea of ​​“cultural secession” to a regimented notion of culture. Moreover, the assumption that the default national cultural position should be the Hindutva one, which is only a politically defined religio-cultural universe, is without any reason, other than offered the claim that it has the force of numbers behind it. The thesis doesn’t explain why the proposition that follows community traditions, or individual choices are “culturally secessionist”, is in itself not an idea that is emotionally secessionist to the Constitution.

In any case, this odd formulation is suggestive of the medieval European principle, cuius regio, eius religio (the king’s religion is the religion of his people). Only here, “the king” is replaced with the party.

This articulation also resonates with the logic of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s trial for disaffection, which was, in the colonial state’s reading, exactly the kind of cultural and emotional secessionism that this propaganda also encourages. The colonial state demanded overt affection and cheer for her majesty’s government: Judge Strachey ruled that “disaffection” meant a lack of affection, while the defence had argued that there was a long distance to be traversed between showing lack of affection, actively dissenting, and being seditious. This idea takes us down the same slippery slope as the colonial government.

This philosophy of demanding conformity, and treating difference as an affront is already quite common in popular discourse and vigilante actions (forcibly closing shops selling meat at Navratri, forcing women to disrobe and take off burqas in public places, and treating the mobilisation of Muslim political society as dangerous and substantially different from the mobilisation of Hindutva political society).

This insecurity at the visible display of difference is counterproductive. It results in the kind of ruptures that end centuries-old traditions of Muslims participating (and trading) at temple festivals, for instance. It prevents communities from introspecting about violence together, in Kashmir and elsewhere, and instead makes it an excuse to reiterate conformity, and to be intolerant of any difference.

The writer is a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court


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