Let’s get over the idea that true secularism lies beyond iftar parties and Hindus in skull caps

Neo-Gandhian romanticism about ‘what is to be done’ genuinely gets in the way of thinking about a politics of the possible.

There is a certain kind of well-meaning but mind-numbing thinking that talks about finding authentic relationships – one that is beyond the barriers of class, caste, religion and the variety of other differences that, in fact, constitute the Republic. This form of theoretical timepass is frequently expressed by those who have not allowed their bookish views of human relationships to walk the footpaths where people actually come face-to-face. In this world view, somewhere out there are possibilities of pure relationships with those who are completely unlike us – where hearts meet hearts and chaste emotions co-mingle, creating a rainbow coalition of happy neighbourhoods and their joyous co-minglers. This is a version of just-add-water Gandhism and there is nothing like a minority festival to kindle longings for a lost age that never was.

The tyranny of our times has led a variety of groups around the country to respond with whatever interventions they can manage. In Gurugram, for example, a group known as the Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch decided to hold an inter-community iftar on June 10.

This may not lead to an immediate overthrow of the vicious majoritarianism that is now brandished as a wound long-suppressed, but quietism can hardly be the answer. There were also the usual iftar gatherings that are held by a variety of political parties, apart from the BJP.

There is a sentiment around, however, that true secularism lies beyond the (apparent) symbolism of iftar parties and state-led initiatives. That efforts like these constitute mere symbolism and media fodder in the age of an all-pervasive media landscape. According to this argument, genuine secularism requires tactile relationships, losing oneself (spontaneously, one assumes, rather than in a concert) in Sufi music, getting inside the skin of a Muslim brother and achieving an ethereal comity that – through an act of secular divinity – abolishes earthly barriers.

Politics vs theory

Such neo-Gandhian romanticism about “what is to be done” genuinely gets in the way of thinking about a politics of the possible. It merely feeds a sense of smugness that suggests that politics can never meet the standards of theory. It lacks any understanding of actual conditions of life by presenting the self as a heroic figure struggling against populist politics. And, it misses the point behind symbolism and performances through a mish-mash of instant Gandhism (the joining of spirits) and half-baked Marxism (moving beyond appearances to real relations).

The idea of authentic selves and the spurious nature of symbols is both a misunderstanding of the nature of human life and social interactions, and a symptom of armchair theorising. It is also a deeply patronising view of the possibility of relationships between the powerful and the powerless: that if we imagine our domestic worker or the Muslim butcher through kin categories, they become like us. This is a long-standing feudal perspective that frequently finds a place in the lazy thought of today. However, the more important point concerns the apparently inauthentic symbolism of everyday life: the iftar parties, eating Muslim food and various other everyday acts reaching beyond one’s own identity that, in this line of thinking, are nothing more than performances of tolerance and co-existence.

The performances of everyday life are no less (or, no more) genuine as acts of co-existence as any other attempt to deal with identities that are different from those of the performers. We must judge the performance through evaluating the stated intentions of the performers rather than adopt a moral high ground through condemning such public acts as spurious and phoney. This assumes an all-knowing observer who has a very precise idea of what political acts should actually be about.

Politics is – and should – always be an ad hoc performance depending on context. It is the grand narrative we should fear – particularly that based on the spurious notion of the pure inner self reaching out to another pure inner self. Among the affairs of humans, there are no pure selves, based as we all are somewhere along the spectrum of good and evil. Our lives are located firmly in the middle of symbols and performances and what is important to praise or criticise is their intent. It is impossible – unless one believes in one’s omnipotence – to predict outcomes.

Sending a message

The romance of the inner self that despises symbols and performances is at the heart of the neo-Gandhian inability to understand social structures and the importance of ad hoc politics that must be fashioned by shifting contingencies. The romance of the inner self is firmly located in that world of muddled thinking where 100 years of socialisation about being Hindu and Muslim, and the deep asymmetries of class and caste, can simply be overcome by a “meeting of hearts”. It cannot. Not at least in the near future. And in the meanwhile, we cannot wait for politics to measure up to theory. If performances of communal harmony – whether by political parties, citizens’ groups or individuals – contribute to the idea that it is a good thing, then that is a form of politics. And, any form of politics must be judged by its intent, not by whether it completely succeeds and manages to transform ways of thinking.

We may never know what the Hindu politician who wears a skull cap really thinks or what inner thoughts are harboured by those who organise or attend an inter-faith iftar dinner. This way of looking at the issue, however, misses the point that public performances such as these – irrespective of what the performers really believe – are powerful ways of sending out the message that our public spaces must remain hybrid. That the right to display symbols of identity, if it is to be given at all, must be given to all. Indian society is marked by such divisions that it would be bizarre to expect that such performances instantly dismantle such differences. Rather, we should think of them as attempts to unequivocally mark a space – no matter how constricted – where all are allowed the right to breathe publicly.

Fantasies of perfect politics – of the hearts-meeting-hearts kind – do nothing to address those contexts where everyday life is affected by formal and informal tyrannies. What we need more of are acts of imperfect politics – skull-cap wearing Hindu politicians and ad hoc iftar gatherings – that speak an everyday language of the public choices and acts. That language, which was common for even our head of state – the president – to speak but, this year, has been banished from the realms of symbolic inclusion.

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