a publication of
the forum of indian leftists

Volume 1: Number 2                 November 26, 1997

Breaking the Communalist Mould: The Left in Independent India

by Biju Mathew and Gautam Premnath

his past summer the slogans of the numerous Left student unions of Hyderabad were, as always, ubiquitous on the streets of the city. But for anyone revisiting the city after a gap of a few years, one quite drastic change was evident. Until recently these groups would have painted their slogans in both Telugu and Urdu. Now it was in Telugu alone that their stirring cries for social and economic justice were made.

Urdu, it would seem, is no longer a worthwhile vehicle for the politics of the Left in Hyderabad. In a city with a substantial and longstanding Urdu-speaking population, the language appears marginal to the ambitions and communicative strategies of local Left groups and parties. Yet this is not an issue that can be framed only in terms of a lack of "translation" or "outreach." That these groups should dispense with Urdu is one sign of their abandonment of a cultural space that in an earlier moment was perhaps a natural arena for the Left--and of their accompanying abandonment of an entire population, Muslims. It suggests too how this abandonment is connected to an understanding of that population as somehow alien to the space that the Left is attempting to occupy. Thus, paradoxically, it is Muslim identity, as much as Hindutva chauvinism, that poses a problem for avowedly secular forces. By virtue of this aloofness in relation to Muslims, even secularists have been unable to conceive of them as part of a larger collectivity, the Indian masses. This has drastically undermined their ability to advocate and safeguard their political and economic welfare.

Of course it is inadvisable to treat the career of Urdu as the primary index of Muslim welfare, or to treat Muslims themselves as some kind of monolithic entity whose interests are uniformly served or disserved by particular policies or political choices. Yet it is equally, if not more problematic to err in the opposite direction and fail to identify the concerns that bind together Muslims as a community of interest. In this regard Urdu is not just a symbol--not just the bearer of Muslim "status" or "pride." It is also a reservoir of cultural capital--a material resource for the economic and political enfranchisement of a disadvantaged population. It is common to conceive of anti-Hindi movements in the South or calls of angrezi hatao in the North in terms of their egalitarian, democratizing dimension, and this is one reason why these struggles have been able to build substantial legitimacy and broad-based political support. In Hyderabad itself there is ample evidence of the fruits of such struggles, as proficiency in Telugu has been a stepping-stone towards upward mobility and access to bureaucratic power for a new Telugu-speaking middle class. Yet the promotion of Urdu has rarely been conceived of in such terms, that is as other than a parochial and "purely cultural" form of self-aggrandizement, and thus has never been able to attract the wholehearted backing of Left and progressive forces. These forces have neglected the secular dimension of the promotion of Urdu. Thus the floor has been left clear for the BJP to raise slogans such as "Ek Rajya, ek Bhasha, nahi chahiye dusri Bhasha" (one state, one language, we don't want any other language).

It is all too clear what such neglect has helped to shape. The statistics collated by Mushirul Hasan in his recent Legacy of a Divided Nation: India's Muslims since Independence anatomize one of the shocking failures of independent India. Muslims, 12% of the population, hold only 6.6% of public sector jobs and an average of less than 6% of jobs in Hasan's sampling of private sector employers. Their representation in the police is less than 5%, and in the central services it is less than 3%. Muslim under-representation in the babu class has limited their access to state power and bureaucratic circuits. And it has been accompanied by the emergence of many arms of the state as distinctly communalist spaces--as suggested by reports of Indian Administrative Service probationers distributing mithai and celebrating the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

In examining this catalogue of deepening inequity, it is all too common to hear laments for the passing of the "Nehruvian consensus." What is less often realized is that post-1947 Nehruvian secularism was itself a diluted and fundamentally compromised political formation. As Aijaz Ahmad has recently reminded us, Nehru's Muslim Mass Contact Programme of 1937 was the last time that the Muslims of India were addressed by a national-level leader as members of a secular collectivity. The collapse of this project, combined with the rise of communalist forces and the resurgence of a hard right within the Congress Party, drastically curtailed the space available for a left-secular political discourse by the time 1947 rolled around.

This realization can help us to delineate the complex and contradictory political conjuncture immediately following Independence. On the one hand, especially after the assassination of Gandhi, the Hindu right was at its most defensive, allowing the space for the "Nehruvian consensus" to establish itself and to create the conditions necessary for long-term hegemony. On the other hand, Partition was the moment of triumph for the two-nation theory ultimately shared by both the Muslim League and the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. So by the time Partition arrived, and created those conditions of rupture that made Nehruvian hegemony possible, the space available for a left-secular discourse had been receding rapidly for years. The Left was thus beginning from a marginal space, marginal because the debate of the previous few decades had finally, in the moment of freedom at midnight, been fully "resolved" as Muslim vs. Hindu nationalism--nationalism, that is to say, had by this point had its contours clearly shaped around the mould of communalism.

Thus the historic task posed for the Left in the moment of Independence was to work towards de-linking nationalism from communalism. Did the Left succeed in doing this? Or in the years to come did it only re-inscribe the nationalism of 1947? Here we must remember that the cultivation of communalist nationalism is not necessarily effected only through active collaboration with the communalist forces; equally damaging is the failure to seize opportunities and undertake activities that might have broken the communalist mould of post-1947 Indian nationalism. It is here that the secular institutions of Muslim India--such as the Jamia Millia Islamia University and Urdu itself--needed not just a pious disregard, but active engagement and strengthening. Muslim leaders such as Maulana Azad and Zakir Husain laboured in these fields with little attention or interest from potential democratic and secular allies. In the absence of backing from the Left, such liberal leaders were either co-opted into Congress culture or faded into insignificance; in any event this liberal leadership was unable to reproduce itself for a new generation of Indian Muslims. This generation has had only "vote-bank" politics and Syed Shahabuddins to look to. Surely that is a devastating indictment of our present.

(Biju volunteers as an organizer with the Lease Drivers Coalition in New York. Gautam is a graduate student at Brown University.)

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