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LIVES OF MUSLIMS OF INDIA: Politics, Exclusion and Violence edited by Abdul Shaban. Routledge, Delhi, 2012.

THIS edited volume focuses upon two conceptually tricky and empirically challenging issues. Drawing attention to the Muslim socio-cultural, and even religious, heterogeneity and political diversity, the book makes a serious attempt to understand various forms of ‘Muslim exclusion’ – an emerging area of academic research, which has also been transformed into a significant political question in recent years. Precisely for this reason, the book also tries to map out the changing relationship between the state and Muslims in the post-1990 period. The recent ‘affirmative action policies’ for Muslims are taken as a point of reference to investigate the ways in which the contours of conventional ‘identity-centric’ Muslim backwardness discourse is reconfigured in the post-Babri Masjid era. Thus, the complex formation of Indian-Muslim identity, its relationship with political and bureaucratic institutions and practices, its apparent exclusion from the so-called national mainstream, and the tactical Hindutva campaign against it, turn out to be the objects of analysis. These issues revolve around the Sachar Commission Report (SCR), which is recognized as an acceptable framework to revisit the debates on identity, security, and equity (p. 19).

Broadly speaking, the book makes three wide-ranging claims. The transformation of Muslims into a religious minority and various manifestations of this process in colonial and postcolonial India is the first major argument of the book, which is elaborated in the first section (chapters 1-4). The essay by M.J. Akbar traces the historical origin of the politics of ‘minorityism’ in India to explain the contemporary Muslim situation. He suggests that Muslims have to accommodate themselves in the existing framework of party politics so as to secure adequate political representation and benefit from developmental policies (p. 33).

Markha Valenta’s article elaborates this discussion by examining the ways in which ‘Muslim’ as an analytical category is constructed. Valenta suggests that the Islamization of Muslim communities in the 19th and 20th century reflects a specific form of Muslim modernity. She contends, that ‘ "The Muslim" as a distinct identity… is a modern one. Such a modern identity… should not primarily be conceived as a form of self-consciousness that shapes self-expression, personal life and/or social interactions… but instead as a form of self-consciousness that links individuals to the collective through processes of social and political claim making’ (p. 49). Critically evaluating Satish Saberwal’s recent work on Muslims, Valenta evokes this ‘Muslim modernity’ formulation to understand the nature of the contemporary Indian state. She claims that the post-1990 Indian state is a ‘transcendent state’, which ‘dissolves and enables the tension between citizen and modernity, human rights and economic development’ (p. 54). Thus, the SCR, according to Valenta, seems to respond to the requirement of this transcendent state. She argues that an alternative approach would have been to read minority as well as majority as deficient and backward so as to underline the democratic commitment to equality and unity.

Ranu Jain approaches the question of minoritization of Muslims from the vantage point of multiculturalism. Jain follows the debates on multiculturalism and implications of these debates in the Indian context. Following the recent policy discourse, especially the SCR and the Equal Opportunity Commission, she makes an interesting comparison between academic debates and policy initiatives. Jain argues that the concept of social exclusion, at least at the level of policy, needs to be stretched to increase the scope of democratic practices.

The ‘structural forms’ of social exclusion of Muslims is the second main thrust of the book. Taha Abdul Rauf offers an interesting analysis of the structure of violence against Muslims. Reflecting upon the recent works on violence and exclusion, Rauf draws our attention to the relationship between the socio-economic backwardness of Muslims and various forms of direct violence (riots etc.) and indirect violence (production of Muslim otherness). R.B. Bhagat’s essay provides a demographic perspective to Hindu-Muslim riots. This empirically rich and analytically sophisticated essay underlines the fact that the complex urban living patterns of communities are intrinsically linked to the production of communal riots.

Abdul Shaban’s article on Muslims and space in Mumbai can also be put in this category. Shaban takes us beyond the question of violence by problematizing the idea of space, not merely in the apparent physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense. This interpretative strategy is used to identify ‘three distinct territories based on contiguity of social spaces, though quite differentiated in physical space’ (p. 220). Thus, he finds a Hindustan, which is dominated by upper caste, upper class Hindus; a Dalitistan, which is inhabited by lower castes and Dalits; and finally a Pakistan, which is a popular name given to Muslim localities. Shaban uses this metaphorical division of Mumbai’s neighbourhoods to explain the nature of communal conflicts and the increasing ghettoization of Muslims. Sanjukta Sattar’s article on the city of Kolkata also raises the question of space in relation to exclusion. She examines the ways in which Muslims have been ghettoized in Kolkata and how this multilayered ghettoization contributes to their social-political backwardness.

Finally, a set of essays looks at the relationship between Muslims and politics. Ram Puniyani traces the origin of Muslim politics of exclusion in colonial India. For Puniyani, the exclusion of Muslims began in the post-1857 period, when they were systematically marginalized by the colonial state. Despite the efforts of people like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Muslims remained relatively backward. The Partition of India in 1947 was another setback. Puniyani mentions the SCR and Ranganath Misra Commission (2007) to substantiate the claim that Muslim exclusion is an outcome of a historical process. Jyoti Punwani’s article offers some concrete factual details to this very broad generalization. This essay looks at the role of police in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots to understand the growing sense of insecurity among Muslims.

Irfan Engineer’s essay attempts to examine the nature of Muslim political leadership and the issues around which Muslims are mobilized. Engineer touches upon the debates over personal laws, marginalization of Urdu and the recent rise of organizations such as SIMI to stress upon the divide between the liberal and radical Muslims. Nistula Habber’s article looks at another important aspect of politics – the BJP’s engagement with Muslims. She argues that the BJP has a very tactical relationship with Muslim issues. The party takes a centrist position when it comes to power and behaves like any other political party. However, its strategies, slogans and even methods of mobilization in relation to Muslims, change considerably when it suffers defeat in elections.

The article on Muslim women’s politics by Noorjehan Safia Niaz and J.S. Apte problematizes the given notions of Muslim politics. This article examines the relationship between the general marginalization/exclusion of the Muslim community and the specific exclusion of Muslim women. The authors make no sweeping generalizations, offering instead a systematic analysis of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.

All the essays in the volume certainly enrich our knowledge of various forms of Muslim exclusion; yet the multifaceted narrative of Muslim victimhood, which the book as an intellectual project seems to offer, remains problematic. I identify at least three such contentious issues. First, the book does not make any serious attempt to expand the conceptual scope of the term ‘social exclusion’. The idea of social exclusion is taken as an established theoretical premise around which the empirical case studies, as well as interpretations, of state policies (especially the SCR) are organized. This mode of explanation is based on a strong assumption that the theory (in this case exclusion) is applicable in all contexts and therefore empirical realities (of Muslims) have to be adjusted and/or accommodated into the contours of theory, so as to make it workable. In this framework, Muslims as a social group emerge either as a ‘legitimate/possible recipients of state benefits’ or ‘victims’ of Hindutva politics!

It does not mean that ‘social exclusion’ as a concept is insignificant; rather, it is an important tool to make sense of the inequalities and deprivation one particular social group experiences. However, if we are really interested in exploring the explanatory potentials of this concept, we must give adequate importance to the specificities of our empirical complexities and, at the same time, the limitations of given theoretical structures. Such a creative encounter might help us locate some of the unexplored and context-specific meanings of social exclusion. Since the essays skirt this complex exercise, the multiple Muslim responses to the recent shifts in policy discourse of the state and the forces of globalization, do not become relevant issues.

This leads us to the second set of issues: the politics of Muslims. The discussion on Muslim politics evokes conventional binaries – communalism-secularism, development issues-identity issue and/or liberal-radical Islam – to explain a few identified forms of Muslim ‘political’ engagements. We are introduced to colonial Muslim politics of separate electorates, Syed Ahmad Khan’s contribution, the Partition saga, Urdu, personal laws, Aligarh, the BJP’s shifting politics towards Muslims and, above all, the Gujarat riots of 2002 to highlight a simple, linear history of Muslim exclusion in which even the findings of SCR could easily be accommodated and interpreted. Surprisingly, there is almost no discussion in the book on the sources and trajectories of multiple forms of Muslim politics. In fact, one contributor remarks: ‘The Muslim leadership has become marginalized and the course of the development of the community largely depends on the effectiveness of secularists from the majority community’ (p. 129).

The rise of Muslim caste politics or the pasmanda politics is a good example to elaborate the limitation of this linear and uncomplicated story of Muslim political subjugation. Questioning the hegemony of upper caste Muslims, pasmanda groups argue that Muslim Dalits also face caste-based social exclusion. These groups demand that adequate legal protection must be given to Muslim pasmanda groups/Dalits; in fact, it has been persuasively argued that certain Muslim castes must also be accommodated in the Scheduled Caste list. Interestingly, pasmanda groups evoke Islamic egalitarianism (to oppose upper caste dominated Muslim politics) as well constitutional principles of equality (to oppose the legal provisions, such as the 1950s constitutional order that states only Hindu and Sikh communities can be included in the SC list) to make a case for pasmanda Muslims. In this sense, a specific kind of Muslim politics is played out, where pasmanda Muslims are not asked to give up their Islamic identity; yet they are encouraged to mobilize in questioning all sorts of caste, class and cultural dominance. Can the secularism/communalism binary explain these complex forms of Muslim politics?

The essays in this volume concentrate on the relatively ‘contemporary’ lives of Muslims in a post-1990 India, which takes us to the third problematic issue. We note that this thematic focus on the ‘contemporary’ is essential, not merely to reflect upon the specificities of the post-SCR discourse on Muslims, but also to deal with a much larger Islam-modernity debate. In fact, though a few essays in the book directly touch upon these issues, they do not make an intellectually significant contribution. The contemporary of Muslims is merely restricted to the vestiges of the past. This Muslim ‘past’ is not evoked to historicize the ‘present’ in a legitimate sequential order of time, but to provide some kind of timelessness to everything associated with Muslims.

Thus, Islam as a religion is represented as an eternal entity, as if religiosity has nothing to do with changing forms of culture, and Muslim social and educational backwardness turns into an everlasting phenomenon as if nothing has happened to Muslims since 1858! Even Markha Valenta’s essay, which attempts to highlight the limitations of the Islam versus modernity debate, does not get out of this timelessness syndrome. She fails to recognize the discursive formation of postcolonial Indian Muslim modernity (or rather modernities), which has shaped the socio-cultural and even religious practices of Muslim communities in a highly significant way. There is a photograph of an Indo-Islamic historic building on the jacket of the book, which perhaps symbolically captures these perceived meanings of the ‘contemporary lives of Muslims’!

One may argue, and quite justifiably, that the diverse background of the contributors (academics, journalists, activists and independent researchers) could be a possible reason behind this uneven or rather inconsistent scholarly treatment of the subject in the book. Nevertheless, this ‘diversity of viewpoints, perspectives and orientations’, which the editor might have envisioned as illustrating analytical plurality, actually do not bring out the intended argumentative profoundness.

Hilal Ahmed


INDIA’S ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY: From Ancient Times to the Colonial Period (Vol I); Colonialism, Modernity, and the Nation (Vol II) edited by Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2011.

MUCH more than most issues of injustice and inequity, environmental concerns now evoke responses and mobilization by elite and middle classes and even multi-nationals. In such a context, the challenge for environmental studies is to emphasize the intertwining of social and economic issues. As Sivaramakrishnan indicates, it is in the ‘sociology of intermediations’ (p. 201) where social and environmental transformations are imbricated that one will have to locate the shifting terrains of environment and society. These two volumes have achieved this goal and, in addition, bring to the fore a range of issues, concerns, concepts, processes and agents.

From unpacking the details and complexities of the ancient remaking of the subcontinent’s geophysical terrains to that of the challenges of contemporary environmental governance, this carefully collected (from previous publications) and edited volume of essays will be an indispensable reference source for environmental studies. This is evident in both the collection of essays and also in the comprehensive introductions to both volumes in which the editors, Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan, live up to their track record of engaging with emerging and pertinent issues related to studying and understanding environmental concerns. Shifting from the purely ecological and the cultural ecological approaches that marked early environmental studies, the two volumes encapsulate a range of theoretical and interdisciplinary perspectives – from those of political ecology to current discussions in science and technology studies (STS).

Matching the varied contexts which range from the early settlement of frontier lands to that of industrialization, the dramatis personae in these essays include humans who are represented in their altering contexts as hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists, agriculturists, kings, tribals, peasants, and industrial workers. By also including animals as subjects of shifting environmental terrains, the essays present before us a parade of animals: elephants, tigers, horses, bullocks, wolves, pigs, sheep, rats, goats and the cheetah. The essays include those that are located within the broad frames of longue duree changes: in the patterns of pastoral cultures (M.L.K. Murty for the ancient period, Neeladri Bhattacharya for colonial period), and in climate changes, V.N. Misra summarizes the fall of the Indus civilization and Richard Grove provides a comparative perspective that links Australia and India. Divyabhanusinh’s essay on animals in the Mughal court finds continuity in Mahesh Rangarajan’s essay which traces the shifts in the colonial attitudes towards ‘dangerous beasts’. The essays reflect on macro shifts in land use (Indu Agnihotri, David Ludden, Makhan Lal, Umesh Chattopadhyaya, Aloka Parasher-Sen), to ones that cast micro-gazes (Simon Digby, Divyabhanusinh, Gunnel Cederlof, Gold and Gujar) to provide details and represent voices and experiences of environmental change.

Several essays of this collection present key concepts and perspectives that have become part of the parole of environmental studies. Romila Thapar’s elucidation on complementary relationships between the kshetra and the vana indicate the importance of going beyond narratives of devastation or conservation in the early period. Daud Ali’s evocative description and analyses of gardens in early Indian court life concludes by asserting that gardens must be seen as ‘… "heterotopia" – a place both real and unreal, capable of evoking and articulating a variety of collective and individual desires, whether embodied in political intrigue, erotic dalliance, de-sexualized fecundity, or ethical order’ (vol I, 207). Ludden’s stance that natural resources ‘…are social phenomena, composed of social investments that give nature social life’ (vol II, 64) provides a foundational perspective to understanding the contemporary intense contestations over natural resources.

Challenging the established separation of agriculture from forestry, Sivaramakrishnan emphasizes the hybrid category of ‘agro-forestry’ to recognize that in India ‘…forests were anthropogenic and embedded in agrarian landscapes’ (vol II, 198). Freeman eschews the romanticized and idealized representations of ‘folk models’ of nature and calls attention to ‘…actual local conceptions and entailments of practice, as opposed to supplying some external logic derived from an environmentalist’s ideal of conservation’ (vol II, 172). Calling for conservation work to recognize the importance of ‘interspecies accommodation’, Greenough elaborates on contemporary ‘bio-ironies’ in which either illegalities, contestations or compassion mark human relationships to nature and natural resources.

Bina Agarwal’s early formulation of the ‘Gender, Environment and Poverty Index’ finds elaboration in her overview of regional variations in these indices. Elaborating on questions and dilemmas that the Bhopal gas disaster poses to scholarship, Rajan draws on Piers Blaikie’s idea of the ‘politics of expertise’ to indicate how ‘…agendas of capital and of (the) elite control the making and enforcement of state policies’ (vol II, 601).

That issues of power impinge on and inflect production patterns, relations and even processes which in turn alter landscapes and human-nature relations is highlighted in the essays by Kathleen Morrison (about spice trade in the South), K. Sivaramakrishnan (on land use in colonial Bengal), Archana Prasad (about Baiga cultivation in central India), and Amita Baviskar on Adivasis’ attempts to organize against the Narmada dam. The absence of power in the contexts of land rights, governance, and resource use is highlighted in the essays on famine and dearth (Sajal Nag, Darren Zook, and N.S. Jodha) and has implications for the current debates on food security and malnutrition.

Since the editors recognize the interlinks between agriculture, knowledge, and the results of varied power relations, it would have been pertinent to include some essays on the impact of the Green Revolution and the current state of agriculture in India. The volume is thoroughly edited and the references are a wealth unto themselves. A brief biographical note on the contributors would have provided a social touch to knowing the authors. This apart, the seminal issues that are raised in the volume warrants that we flag the new challenges and issues that future environmental studies can consider.

Three key pressing questions that have implications for the understanding of future environmental issues are embedded within the essays. The first relates to the draconian shift from the abundance of resources but shortage of labour of the colonial times to that of the current conditions of diminishing resources but with large reserves of labour. The second pertains to what Cederlof observes: if the Todas (of the Nilgiris) were constituted by a narrative of rights during the colonial period, then what implications do the contemporary regime of rights (including that of the Forest Rights Act) portend for other indigenous peoples and their relationships to the environment and natural resources of their provenance? Third, if the Bhopal gas disaster is emblematic of the violence of industrialization in a context of uneven development, what models of industrialization can be envisaged in which environmental and worker safety are assured?

Similarly, if the enclosures of the pre-colonial and colonial times rendered the forest into a contested space, what implications do the current forms of forced enclosures, as evident in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, have for the history of new regimes of resource expropriation?

In addition to the agency of the varied actors (both human, geo-physiographic, and animal) that these volumes have identified, future work will have to factor in the role that plants and a host of new ‘manufactured organisms’ will play as both agents and subjects. For it may be in our own historical period that plants will gain a new stronghold where seeds are now mutating from naturally evolved entities to being technologically-engineered, and a host of new crops may mark humans and their environments in unanticipated ways. More especially, new work will have to reckon with the contemporary conjuncture where the received developmental model is now so well-entrenched that those once considered outside the model are its biggest adherents. In this period of unprecedented pace and volume of economic change, the tube well, the pitchfork (represented predominantly by one model, the JCB), and ‘packet seeds’ have now become ubiquitous in our landscape. What they forebode for the environmental history of the nation will perhaps be the focus of the new and emerging environmental studies.

A.R. Vasavi


AN INDIAN POLITICAL LIFE: Charan Singh and Congress Politics, 1937 to 1961 by Paul R. Brass. Sage, New Delhi, 2011.

Charan Singh was one of the most loved and most hated politicians – loved by the middle and backward landowning castes in the rural North India and hated by the middle and upper classes in its urban counterpart. His was an undoubtedly narrow vision but, unlike most present-day politicians, he at least had a vision. He was one of the last leaders from the pre-Independence era who meticulously maintained personal files on various issues, regularly wrote letters to important personalities of the day, and replied to each and every letter that they received. He also gave serious thought to agrarian questions and wrote some very important books.

Paul R. Brass, eminent American political scientist and an old India hand, is a self-confessed but not uncritical admirer of Charan Singh who also liked him sufficiently to hand over all his files to him in 1983 for the purpose of research. Brass is embarrassed that he sat over these files for so long and was able to bring out the first book of the three-volume study, The Politics of Northern India: 1937 to 1987, after 28 years. However, this inordinate delay does not in any way detract from the value of his study which looks at the crucial post-Independence politics of Uttar Pradesh through the prism of Charan Singh’s personality and political activity.

As one goes through the book, one is reminded of the French saying: ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’ Last year, land acquisition by government agencies was symbolized by Bhatta Parsaul and was keenly debated. This year, after the anointment of Akhilesh Yadav as the youngest chief minister of U.P., criminalization of politics has once again returned to the centre of public discourse. Such issues grabbed headlines and attention of politicians such as Charan Singh even in the years immediately after Independence and Part IV of the book makes it amply clear that corruption and criminalization of politics are old ailments afflicting our polity.

The conventional wisdom associate these afflictions primarily with the Congress that is supposed to have initiated the process of taking the support of criminals and later propping them up as its candidates in various elections. However, Brass, basing himself on the extensive files of Charan Singh, brings out the interesting fact that in the post-1947 decades, parties that were considered left-of-Congress actually took the lead in institutionalizing this tendency. The case of Ram Sundar Pandey in Azamgarh district is a good pointer in this direction. Initially elected to the U.P. Assembly on a Socialist, Praja Socialist or Sanyukt Socialist Party ticket from 1952 to 1969, he joined the Congress only in 1974 and won the election. He had a police record from 1938 through 1960 in three cases but was not convicted in any of them. A note from the SP, Azamgarh, sent to the assistant of the IGP Lucknow, notes that Pandey, in his capacity as an MLA, had expressed interest in a case involving the ‘recovery of several maunds of Ganja.’ In Aligarh, the situation was so bad that even Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to intervene with Chief Minister C.B. Gupta to get the various warring Congress factions investigated by the Intelligence Bureau. It is thus not surprising that till his final days, Charan Singh continued to have a penchant for maintaining law and order at any cost. Perhaps his self-styled political heir Mulayam Singh Yadav can keep this in mind, now that his Samajwadi Party is back in power in U.P.

The ease with which Lokpati Tripathi, son of Kamlapati Tripathi, secured orders from government departments, including the one headed by his father, a minister in the state government, indicates how corruption and nepotism found their way into the institutional functioning of the government and became acceptable social and political behaviour. Though a man of integrity, Charan Singh too faced all kinds of charges in the course of fighting his factional battles in Meerut and other districts and he, in turn, always kept a close watch on his political rivals. Paul Brass, with his deep knowledge of how political parties, especially the Congress, actually function at the lower levels, offers absorbing details of Charan Singh’s factional feuds with Kailash Prakash in the Meerut District Congress Committee and with Sampoornanad and C. B. Gupta in Lucknow. The book also tells us that Nehru, for some reason, did not warm up to Charan Singh, who regularly wrote to the prime minister but without much success in convincing him of the soundness of his case. Probably Nehru felt that he (Charan Singh) was not beyond playing political games and would not always honour his word.

Charan Singh was, first and foremost, a Jat leader. Though not casteist, his championing of the cause of backward castes and poor and middle peasantry brought him into conflict with the so-called elite castes as also the Scheduled Castes which, according to him, were better represented in government services on account of the reservation granted to them by the Constitution. He, however, did not argue for proportionate representation of positions for backward castes and was satisfied with the 15 per cent reservation policy of the U.P. government.

As became clear in the course of Garh Mukteshwar riots in 1946, Charan Singh’s thinking could also get coloured by communal considerations. Even after the Partition, he openly favoured the stance adopted by Sardar Patel and spoke of meeting force with ‘greater force’. This obviously could not have endeared him to Nehru who, as head of the government, was doing all he could to bring the communal situation under control.

Charan Singh made a lasting contribution to zamindari abolition in U.P. In the formative years of his political life, he became convinced that India’s economic growth needed to be based on agriculture and not industry, a line of thinking in stark contrast to the prevailing Nehruvian dogma about rapid industrialization being the motor of economic development. When the Congress adopted a resolution in Nagpur regarding the establishment of large-scale cooperative farms, Charan Singh wrote his seminal book, Joint Farming X-Rayed: The Problem and its Solution, subsequently published in London as India’s Poverty and its Solution. He considered the system of peasant proprietorship as the most appropriate for economic development as well as democracy. He viewed large farms as concentration of power and projected small farms as representing democratic plurality. He championed the ideal of economic democracy at a time when he was described, in an earlier study by Brass himself, as a ‘dictator’ in the Meerut Congress organization. However, while Charan Singh sought to put forward the demands of the poor and middle peasantry, the consensus among scholars is that he ended up furthering the cause of the middle and rich peasantry and the latter were the major gainers of his policies. This brought the charge of protecting the interests of the ‘kulaks’ against Charan Singh.

Paul Brass, though sympathetic to his subject, has been honest enough to not offer a sanitized version of Charan Singh’s life. In the book, he emerges as a man who, despite his high ideals and keen intellect, shows a propensity to cling to power, makes a show of resigning but in reality procrastinates, conspires against his leader and is always dissatisfied with his present status. This is the reason why he eventually lost the support of even Govind Ballabh Pant who was a father figure to him. A careless remark made by Nehru about his Jatpan seems to have turned him into an implacable foe of the Nehru family. Brass’s book is full of detail and insight and will be treasured by every serious student of Indian politics. However, the book’s editing and proof-reading leave much to be desired.

Kuldeep Kumar