Religion Reviews

‘Indian Muslim(s) after Liberalization’ review: The ‘othering’ of Muslims

How do we look at the Muslim-question in India today? In what ways has the era of liberalisation transformed the identity question? From which vantage points have Muslim identity and Muslim politics been looked at in India? Has the academia and progressive politics failed to understand the Muslim predicament in all its nuances? Do we need some course correction or modification here? These are some questions which are dealt with by the author in Indian Muslim(s) after Liberalization.

The Muslim question in India envelops various strands and it has been a subject of enquiry from different but typical standpoints. The “Muslim” has been studied through the lens of cultural identity; the majority-minority framework; the citizenship framework; the process of “othering”; the secular-communal axis, etc, to name a few perspectives. Since independence, there have also been efforts to designate Muslims as appeased, socially regressive and violent.

The predicament

As the author points out, Muslims have carried the triple burden of social discrimination, economic hardships and being labelled anti-national. They have lacked a control over major means of production and have had no major say in policy-making. They have been targets of majoritarian violence and propaganda. With the political rise of Hindutva and economic liberalisation these attacks have become more vicious and economic deprivation is still an issue.

If this is the Muslim predicament, the author asks: why is the Muslim question articulated more in relation to identity issues, minority cultural rights, and the axis of secularism and communalism rather than in relation to their relative deprivation and marginalisation? Why has the political and academic discourse been preoccupied with identity and cultural questions rather than those of equality and distributive justice? The author argues that by being so preoccupied, the field has been left open to a kind of politics of Muslim particularism that lacks a perspective to stand up to neoliberalism. There is a lack of progressive politics and leadership among Muslims that could have organised the community against the neoliberal power bloc.

Role of culture

The author analyses mainstream contemporary Bollywood cinema and brings out its role in the vilification of Muslims. He argues that the sustained manner in which Muslims are portrayed as villains has gone a long way in creating the image of Muslims as rogues and violators of the national ethos. Their portrayal as terrorists, anti-nationals, smugglers and gangsters has deepened the process of Muslim ‘othering’. This influence of reel life on real life has not only reinforced a certain image of Muslims but has made it harder for them to struggle against adverse socio-economic conditions.

The author attempts to make a case for engaging with the Muslim question as a class and citizenship question and salvaging it from the ‘communal-secular’ trap. Drawing on the ideas of Nancy Fraser and Ernesto Laclau, he looks at Muslims as a class facing socio-economic backwardness and discrimination, and urges left and progressive politics to initiate and establish a dialogue between the two philosophical positions of egalitarian distribution and politics of recognition. He endorses the idea that there is convergence of the two positions of equal opportunity and identity (difference) and that the former should not be abandoned in favour of the latter. The author is emphatic that the left and other progressive movements have to engage with the progressive and marginalised voices among Muslims. These solidarities and common struggles will not only strengthen the voice of the Muslims but also change the way the world looks at them.

While bringing up these issues, Maidul Islam presents a serious analysis of the Muslim predicament in the era of economic liberalisation. He gives a good overview of literature and sheds light on the contemporary debates on Muslim politics. However, the analysis could have gained immensely if some light had been shed on ‘Muslim agency’ or ‘Muslim voices’. The Muslim-self like any other identity is an evolving self. How does it look at liberalisation? How is it dealing with the difficulties or possibilities of liberalisation? What are the sectional and regional variations here? The author shies away from these questions and leaves them unanswered.

Majoritarian domination

There are two other questions, which need further thought. One, how does a community, which has seen socio-economic deprivation and political under-representation, move out of the set mould of identity and begin to see itself as a “class”? Two, the community-identity discourse which developed post independence became the dominant discourse on the Muslim question mainly to deflect majoritarian domination. Subsequent scholarship remained largely within that discourse. The Sachar Committee Report brought about considerable rethinking. Now, though the times have changed, they have brought with them the real threat of majoritarian domination, which has foregrounded the ‘identity’ question even more. In these circumstances, will it be possible to move from the identity framework to a distributive justice framework?

Indian Muslim(s) after Liberalization; Maidul Islam, Oxford University Press, ₹995.

Manjari Katju is Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, and author of Hinduising Democracy: The Vishva Hindu Parishad in Contemporary India.


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