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PEOPLE WITHOUT HISTORY: India’s Muslim Ghettos by Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui. Navayana, Delhi, 2011.

FOR well over three decades, ever since West Bengal came to be ruled by the Left Front, it has been the proudest boast of the CPI(M), the leading partner in the Front, that they have been guided by a secular ideology and that, as a result, Muslims in West Bengal have been spared the excesses of communalists more evident elsewhere. At one level, the claim is true. Communal riots of the kind witnessed in other parts of the country, most recently in Gujarat (2002), have not been permitted in West Bengal. Little surprise that the publication of the Sachar Committee Report, which documented the economic, educational and social status of different Muslim communities, created such consternation when pointing out the depressing situation in West Bengal. Even more shocking was the revelation that, on these counts, Muslim communities in Gujarat, seen by many as epitomizing the worst possible situation for Muslims, appeared better-off than their co-religionists in West Bengal.

Without getting into a debate on the relative merits of the Sachar Committee exercise, or even whether such inter-state comparison is valid, it is critical to get a better appreciation of the ground reality in West Bengal. Clearly, if despite formal security, Muslim communities, particularly the poor, still continue to experience serious deprivation, rather than jump into reactive defence we need a more empathetic exploration of the issue. People Without History, about life in the inner-city areas of Kolkata’s mainly Muslim settlements, might help both the scholars and activists to do precisely this. Its focus on how the vast majority of Muslims, especially the poor, in the inner-city ghettos live, work, love and die aids a richer understanding of the communalization of urban poverty. The attention to the fabric of daily life – the pursuit of gainful occupation, affective and social affinities, networks of kinship and neighbourhood – capture how persistent benign neglect (and that is a charitable characterization) perpetuates a deep sense of resignation, if not alienation.

Muslim communities in the inner-city slums of Kolkata reflect more than the general ‘growing separation of Muslims in India from the Hindu mainstream’ and the ‘isolation of the poor from the concerns of contemporary India Shining.’ As migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa, many of them are Urdu speakers among Bengalis, making them triple disadvantaged. Most work, when work is available, in the most degrading of the informal sector occupations – rickshaw and thela pullers, construction labour, recycling waste and as domestic servants. Unlike rural Muslims – peasants, labourers and craftsmen – they have remained spatially segregated and thus forced to turn more inward-looking. Finally, is the role of policy. In the main, the Communists in West Bengal chose to focus on rural concerns, doing little to stem if not further contribute to the process of urban decay.

Despite depressing existential conditions, Kolkata Muslims have not fallen prey to extremism. As the authors document, the circumstances of their lives create constant insecurity. It generates social and cultural conservatism and makes for ‘inturned’ communities, apart and fretful, distrustful of outsiders – qualities that inhibit the growth and development of its members. They, like the poor elsewhere, show tireless energy in their attempts to survive. Like most of us they too dream of a better life, gain greater access to modern education and skills that might help them exit their ‘open air prison’. Nevertheless, since unemployment is high, many, particularly the young, are willing recruits to gangs controlled by criminals, politicians or developers.

Unfortunately, the narratives and testimonies in this troubling book rarely generate hope. Living conditions are bleak and there is little access to health and education facilities. Discrimination is common both in the formal employment market, in the granting of loans for small enterprises and, above all, in the treatment meted out by the law and order machinery. Though there is little evidence to suggest that the Muslim underclass is more prone to violence or crime in a post 9/11 world obsessed with terrorism and security, it remains the first target of suspicion. There are a few NGOs that work with these communities. Not so far the government or the dominant political parties. The former seems to desire an undemanding citizenry – out of sight, out of mind. The political parties approach them only during elections. And here, though the book does not discuss this, the situation in Kolkata appears far grimmer than in other large cities, say Hyderabad, which too has a large Muslim underclass. There, at least, the efforts of the MIM, given its better links with the West Asian labour market and the growth of the local IT industry, has fuelled a hunger for modern education which has helped Hyderabad Muslims access new jobs and thus experience social and economic mobility.

There is, as the book documents, a great gulf between the official responses to the needs of the modern economy and the social reality of life in the poor settlements of Kolkata. The combined labours of NGOs, educational institutions, human rights and communal harmony activists have so far been unable to dispel the impression of separation. And that for a party and government espousing an inclusive and pro-poor ideology cannot be a matter of satisfaction.

People Without History is not an account bristling with anger or rage. It is, nevertheless, tinged with great sadness, even though it makes great effort to somehow retain an optimistic outlook. Maybe the forthcoming elections, ostensibly being fought around the need for change, parivartan, will finally result in an otherwise marginalized and invisibilized community getting its due.

Harsh Sethi


MAOIST AND OTHER ARMED CONFLICTS by Anuradha M. Chenoy and Kamal A. Mitra Chenoy. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2010.

THIS slim and handy volume on armed conflicts in India – their causes, impact and consequent state and societal responses – comes at a time when a culture of political violence pervades the country. Worse, it is not only the Indian state, which like any other sovereign state has a monopoly over the use of legitimized violence, but also our society with a deeply ingrained culture of violence in its stratified structure, that is increasingly resorting to avoidable violent conflicts, with or without provocation. Certain theatres of conflict in the country – Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the Northeast, Maoist, which is cause related rather than region specific – have endured, while the one in Punjab has been ‘brought under control.’ More worrisome is the seepage of a culture of violence in mainstream politics. During the past couple of decades, many protests, campaigns and counter-politics in the social and political realms in the country too have slid into violence. Obviously, an analysis of the manifestations and causes of violence and conflict and suggestions on their solutions is welcome.

Without claiming to present an in-depth analysis of conflicts across the length and breadth of India, which in fact is not feasible in a 254 page paperback, the authors theoretically contextualize their analysis in a human security perspective and underline the specificity of terrorism, which ‘is a method, a tactic, and not a reason for conflict’ (p. 19). They rightly point out that the human security perspective in analyzing conflict brings development policies, the impact of international system, state policies, identity issues, militarization of people’s lives, forms of violence and historical background of the affected people under the diagnostic lense.

They pick up the following conflicts for analysis: the conflicts in the Northeast (with emphasis on Manipur, the Naga conflict and insurgency in Assam), J&K, the Khalistan movement in Punjab, and the Maoists. Their regional ramifications and impact on people of the affected areas in terms of militarization, enforcement of special laws and human rights violations are reasons for their selection. Also, ‘(s)ince these conflicts are not part of the Indian growth story, the communities affected by them are not the visible, upper-caste elite, and their stories and voices are not part of mainstream discourse’ (p. 30).

In discussing the Northeast, the authors contend that the Indian Constitution, despite recognizing and celebrating ‘cultural variations’, inheres ‘a notion of "composite culture" incorporating strands from all of India’s diverse cultures, rather than the recognition of a multiplicity or plurality of cultures corresponding to different nationalities or nascent nationality formation’ (p. 32). This, they believe, contributes to a mainstream tendency of Hindutva. As example, they cite Article 351 of the Constitution of India foregrounding the promotion of Hindi language with a particular emphasis on Sanskrit. This interesting formulation indeed deserves further discussion from the perspectives of constitutional text, policy implementation and popular culture.

In fact, Article 351 is situated in Part XVII dealing with official language; it begins with Article 343 (declaring Hindi as official language, not ‘national language’) and ends with Article 351 (seeking a development of Hindi, in both the emerging ‘national’ and ancient cultural spirits) and all the sections need to be read together. For, this part places emphasis, as much a constitution of a country with diverse cultures can, on the many languages of India, on the development of Hindi which, along with Urdu, is a new language as compared to many established ‘regional languages’ of the country. Note that the Constitution stressed their development too. The question, however, arises whether a language should be linked to a religion or religious tradition, particularly in India. It is instructive that Urdu, an Indian language, and the national language of Pakistan since 14 August 1947, has suffered immensely due to its religious identification in the country of its origin.

Barring the above contentious formulation (which is a useful attempt at raising a debate we shy away from), the authors have succeeded in highlighting various social, cultural, political, economic, developmental (including governance related), security (including militaristic), and institutional issues that lie behind the many conflicts being examined in this slim volume, no mean achievement by any standard. They are right in concluding that these impact on ‘every aspect of civil society which gets marginalized and intermediate spaces are lost to the partisan opinion’ (p. 72).

Since each of the conflicts is rooted in both political as well as socio-economic concerns, a purely security solution is unlikely to resolve the root causes. However, that continues to be the major paradigm of the Indian state, leading to the promulgation of a number of special laws enacted to fight ‘extremist violence’. These range from draconian anti-terror laws, to the laws granting ‘special’ policing powers to the security forces, over-riding the local police. Unsurprisingly, these have contributed to gross human rights violations in each theatre of conflict. More disturbingly the dominant statist discourse even questions simple human rights support to the victims, as we have seen in the case of Binayak Sen.

The authors analyze whether the ‘accord’ framework works as an alternative paradigm. It seemed to have worked in Mizoram, as also partially in Assam, to end the extremism and agitation in these states, but did not make much headway in Punjab and has also failed in Nagaland, so far. Obviously, engaging in political negotiation, even in cases of extremist politics, is a strategy that continues to find some purchase with the Government of India. However, as the J&K imbroglio shows, recurrent lapsing into partisanship and continuing to deploy a vague concept of ‘mainstream’ that deserves a discourse beyond a homogenizing process, have come in the way. The Chenoys’ discussion on the nature of state response also raises a fundamental question: Why do grievances and protests turn violent in democratic India? Indeed, even as transparency in governance is rightly underlined, we must also interrogate India’s democratic and civic culture and probe actors and factors beyond the state. Similarly, the question of a transparent security mechanism and policy must be discussed from the perspective of feasibility, efficacy and public good.

Militancy and the structured violence it generates creates its own political economy of sustenance and everyone is a part of this, even those who appear to be fighting it. The authors have done well to dwell upon this aspect, particularly the centrality of the extortion racket inherent in helping sustain long drawn out battles such as the Maoist conflict and some of the insurgencies in the Northeast. Does it ‘tax’ the people it is supposed to help? The debate on human rights in a militarized situation naturally extends from this. There are three dimensions of militarization in such situations – militancy (insurgency, terrorism, et al.), counter measures by the government, and citizen militias (SULFA, Salwa Judum, citizen vigilantes in J&K and so on). The victimhood of ordinary citizens pressed from the three sides is complete. The resulting alienation is further aggravated by the relative absence of rehabilitation policies.

The gender perspective (chapter 7) is a value addition to the discourse this book offers. Women emerge as a compulsive auxiliary to militant movements. Socialization and acculturation are the first set of motivations, though it is not clear if an alternative view ever emerges. They are indeed the victims of the instrument of dishonour (or of the lust of gun-toting soldiers, even militants) used against a rebel society. Factoring in children in this competent and sensitive analysis would have further enriched the discussion.

The utility of a book of this kind lies more in raising complex questions for further inquiry rather than in providing answers. And this the book succeeds in doing.

Ajay K. Mehra