By Ajaz Ashraf
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its affiliates, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have constructed a narrative in which the Supreme Court of India is fast emerging as the new other. Over the last one month, there has rarely been a day without the Sangh Parivar’s luminaries fulminating against the Supreme Court for taking a position perceived to be hostile to Hindus.
The other is a term applied to social groups whose beliefs and practices are depicted to be against the interests of the nation. It then becomes a national imperative to reform the other. Democratic societies, however, rarely resort to othering institutions. This is because institutions have a degree of social diversity, and are organised on rational principles for the benefit of people. Their very structure makes it conceptually difficult to other them.
Bucking this trend is the Sangh Parivar, which appears insistent on adding the Supreme Court to the Sangh’s ever growing list of the other — religious minorities, Kashmiris, urban Naxals, and Ambedkarites. The design behind the othering of the Supreme Court is to frighten it into accepting the supremacy of Hindu faith and culture as defined by the Sangh and subscribe to Hindutva’s imagination of the nation.
Initially, the othering of the Supreme Court seemed little more than the BJP’s wariness in implementing judicial orders seemingly inimical to its electoral interests. For instance, in the winter of 2017-2018, the BJP governments of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana tried their best to circumvent the Supreme Court’s order rejecting the plea to ban Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat. The BJP feared the film’s release could upset its voters among Hindus, particularly Rajputs. Though its leaders frothed and fumed, they refrained from stridently criticising the Supreme Court.
Not any longer. Ever since the Supreme Court delivered its verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple, the BJP has adopted the strategy of othering the Supreme Court. It is portrayed as opposed to Hindus and inclined to ignore the tenets of their faith. In other words, even though not stated explicitly, the apex court can’t be allowed to disdainfully treat the sentiments of Hindus.
For instance, in his 27 October speech in Kannur, BJP president Amit Shah said, “I want to tell…those who pronounce orders in court that you should issue orders that can be implemented, not the ones that break the faith of people.” Shah then went on wonder how the right to equality can subsume the right to freedom of religion. In his Atal Bihari Vajpayee memorial lecture, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley spoke of harmonising two fundamental rights.
These remarks are not mere rhetoric but constitute elements of the strategy for othering the Supreme Court. As is true in the case of othering of social groups, the Sangh seeks to compel the Supreme Court into submitting to the will of Hindus.
This is evident from RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s customary Vijayadashmi speech on October. In it, he laid out the ideological foundation for the othering of the Supreme Court. Articulating his idea of social change, Bhagwat said, “The decisions taken without…patiently creating the mindset of the society, will neither be adopted in actual practice nor will they help in creating a new social order in tune with changing times and positions. The situation arising out of the recent verdict on Sabarimala temple shows the similar predicament.”
It set the tone for Bhagwat to cavil against the Supreme Court’s judgment on Sabarimala. He faulted it for not taking into consideration the “tradition that has been accepted by society and continuously followed for years”; for not taking into account the version of heads of religious denominations having crores of followers; for not acceding to the plea of women who willingly accept the Sabarimala temple’s proscription.
Though the precise number of people opposed to the Sabarimala judgment has yet to be determined, Bhagwat concluded that it is a vast multitude, constituting perhaps Kerala’s majority. For him, the proof of it is the vociferous protest against the judgment. It is another matter that both the Sangh and the Congress are seen to have engineered it. Yet the blame is the Supreme Court’s because its “legal verdict” has given rise to “unrest, turmoil and divisiveness in the society in place of peace, stability and equality.”
Bhagwat’s remark raises the question: If the Supreme Court’s verdicts are not to have a legal basis, what principles should it follow then? The answer: It must accept the supremacy of faith and what religious leaders deem as sacrosanct traditions. Of this, the RSS sarsanghchalak leaves no doubt: “The question such as why only the Hindu society experiences such repeated and brazen onslaughts on its symbols of faith, obviously rise in the public mind and lead to unrest. This situation is not conducive for the peace and healthiness of the society.”
Bhagwat chose to gloss over the Supreme Court’s 2017 judgment invalidating the instant triple talaq, as he did the Bombay High Court’s intervention allowing women to enter the Haji Ali dargah. Even before the instant triple talaq was struck down, several courts had ruled the practice un-Islamic. Yet Muslims did not take to streets in these instances.
Yet Bhagwat chose to harp on “repeated and brazen onslaughts on the symbols of Hindu faith.” His amnesia was deliberate — the process of othering requires showing the other to be either hostile or biased against the majority. Since the other here is the Supreme Court, it can’t be portrayed as anti-Hindu unless it is also shown as pro-Muslim.
The Supreme Court, according to Bhagwat, has become anti-Hindu because it believes in the supremacy of legal principles over the religious sentiments of Hindus. The process of othering demands that the other must accept the primacy of the majority’s sentiments. All other principles must be subordinated to what is presumed to be the popular will.
The othering of the Supreme Court bears a resemblance to that of Muslims. Since India’s culture, from Sangh’s perspective, is Hindu, Islam alienates Muslims from the majority. Unless Muslims are culturally assimilated into the Hindu society, they are doomed to be othered. So will the Supreme Court as long as it does not recognise the primacy of Hindu faith over legal principles.
It is only in the Supreme Court’s interests to pronounce judgments that are acceptable to Hindus. Otherwise people will react against it, as they do against Muslims ferrying cattle, as they did against Jawaharlal Nehru University students who allegedly shouted anti-India slogans.
The othering of the Supreme Court has yet another message for the judges: If Sabarimala can trigger unrest, imagine the consequences of delivering a judgement against the Hindus in the Ayodhya dispute. For instance, in his Vijayadashmi speech, Bhagwat said, “The place of (Ram) Janmabhoomi is yet to be allocated for the construction of the temple although all kinds of evidence have affirmed that there was a temple at that place.” It was indeed a case of prejudging the issue pending in the Supreme Court, of conveying to the Supreme Court the consequences of turning against the wishes of Hindus.
It is now to be seen how the Supreme Court responds to it being depicted as the other.
India’s Muslim obsession
By Adil Bhat
Pakistan has always been central to India’s right-wing political imagination. The bellicose narrative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the current leadership and direction of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached its nadir, with the two sides adopting offensive foreign policy postures. As India moves closer to the elections in April-May 2019, the public discourse on Pakistan is likely to become more obtrusive in the country, mainly for domestic political gains. While this is symptomatic to the Modi-led BJP, Pakistan has always been fundamental to the BJP’s politics, including those of the former and the late prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Saba Naqvi’s book, Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi, traces the evolution of the BJP through these two towering figures who led a nation of complex cultural and religious diversities by first creating an enemy within — the Indian Muslim — and associating it with the enemy without — Muslim Pakistan. Naqvi is a senior political journalist and commentator who worked as the political editor with India’s leading current affairs magazine Outlook. As a beat reporter she has covered the developments in the BJP for the last two decades. Arguing that the BJP has evolved in its political strategy, ideology and approach, her book also shows that there are continuities from its own ideological past.
As Indian politics gradually spiralled towards Hindu nationalism with Modi’s victory in 2014, the aggressive discourse on Hindu identity politics — diluting caste divisions and accentuating communal polarisation — came to prominence. While the issue of appropriation of caste is more about the BJP’s social engineering programme within the fold of Hinduism, the antagonisation of the Indian Muslim is in proximity to the political rhetoric on Pakistan.
The subject of caste mobilisation has been broached by the BJP leadership at all times. Continuing with the tradition of expanding its Hindu mass base, the party has persisted in its outreach towards backward castes and Dalits (untouchable caste). In pursuing its social engineering process, Banguru Laxman, a Dalit leader from Andhra Pradesh and member of the BJP’s ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), became president of the BJP in 2000. His appointment was a radical move in keeping with the party’s social engineering approach.
The BJP has mastered the art of expanding and retaining its social base. Moreover, in legitimising this strategy, the BJP tactfully abandoned the trend of anointing chief ministers from castes that are traditionally dominant in the states. For instance, in the Jat-dominated northern state of Haryana, the BJP chose Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi-Khatri and former RSS pracharak (ideologue), as the first non-Jat chief minister. While a little misadventure with caste politics can disturb the social mass base of the BJP, its divisive communal politics have, on the other hand, consolidated the support of the previously warring castes.
The present leadership of the BJP has been more inclined towards hard Hindutva that has interchangeably been used as ‘Moditva’, which may be defined as that ‘phase of Hindutva personified in an individual’. Unlike his predecessor Vajpayee, who had visibly softened his approach towards Muslim minorities in 2004 in an attempt to project a secular face, Modi has, since his early days in the RSS, believed that in chasing Muslims the BJP may end up alienating Hindus.
Moreover, the hardening of communal sentiment was a fallout of the 2004 election debacle, which, according to Naqvi, led the party hardliners to revisit their “original agenda — focus on ideology and forget everything else.” While there has been constant change in the political narrative of the party — depending on the leadership — the ideological nucleus, that is, the RSS, has been committed to its Hindutva doctrine.
Veteran patriarch L.K. Advani faced the ire of the party and the mother organisation soon after his visit to Pakistan in June 2005; he was at the time leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha [Lower House] and made some controversial statements during his week-long visit. Advani’s overwhelming stature was diminished for his political naivety exhibited abroad; his invocation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah cost him his glorious political career, never to be redeemed again. Calling Jinnah a “great man” who promoted Hindu-Muslim unity, Advani expressed his remorse at the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the 1990s, calling it “the saddest day.” Adding further insult to injury, Advani sent ripples down to New Delhi when he said that Partition was irreversible and that there is a Pakistani in every Indian.
This was nothing short of “heresy for the party of the faithful”, writes Naqvi. Their ideological guru had just debunked an entire body of beliefs. This led to a political debacle within the party which resulted in Advani losing the support of the RSS. Another casualty was senior party leader Jaswant Singh who published an empathetic book on Jinnah, titled Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence. Following the publication of his book, Singh was unceremoniously expelled by then party president Rajnath Singh and reduced to insignificance.
Incidentally, the ghost of Jinnah still lurks in Modi’s India and continues to shape his present and future politics. A case in point is the May 2018 controversy over Jinnah’s portrait in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which led to a violent confrontation between Hindutva forces and AMU students. The outrage over the presence of Jinnah’s portrait, which had been hanging at the university since 1938, defines the BJP’s communalisation of politics.
Naqvi’s account of the BJP is a glimpse of modern India’s realpolitik that has wilfully sacrificed the principles of freedom and secularism enshrined in its Constitution at the altar of majoritarian Hindutva politics. As the author candidly narrates her journey inside the BJP, she foregrounds the party’s obsessive pursuits — Muslim first and Muslim last — from the Mughals in pre-colonial India to post-Partition Pakistan.
The relevance of the book lies in its detailed account of the evolution of the BJP and right-wing politics in India. As the country inches closer to the 2019 elections, it remains to be seen if the ghosts of history still haunt the political landscape of India and shape the uncertain future of the largest religious minority in the world: the Indian Muslims.
Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi
By Saba Naqvi
The tyranny of vowels
By Syed Nomanul Haq
Urdu script — which is, in fact, an augmented version of Arabo-Persian script — does not by default indicate short vowels, as is the case with its primogenitors. The doubling of a letter, such as the ‘r’ in the popular name Khurram, is not normally indicated either, the diacritic indicator being familiarly called tashdeed.
Likewise, those letters in a word that are not followed by a vowel — quiescent letters, that is — these, too, are left unmarked in normal writings. An example of this last case is the word amn [peace] in which there is no vowel after ‘m’ and so it is quiescent; but then, almost universally this word is becoming aman: yes, if the script has no vowels, it allows for such possibilities.
Note that all Semitic scripts, Hebrew and Syriac among them, share such peculiarities — they are all consonantal and they all move from right to left, and yet there is one exception, a telltale exception. This is the case of our common numerals, what are known as Arabic numerals, based as they are on a place-value system shared by the Latin/Roman script, moving from left to right. The appellation ‘Arabic’ numerals is a kind of misnomer, for these are Indian numerals, but since they reached the modern world through the Arabic writings of the 8th/9th century mathematician Al Khwarizmi, they were named so.
Now there are some intriguing consequences of all this. For example, a word in the Urdu script can be read in numerous ways, given that the three unspecified short vowels, zaer (the ‘i’ vowel), zabar (the ‘a’ vowel), and paesh (the ‘u’ vowel), can occur in different combinations; then, there can be that unmarked doubling of a letter as well as quiescent letters in it, too. It so happens that, quite often, many different readings of the same word in an expression all make equal lexical sense at once, leading to what one may call a semantic anarchy. So how does one cope with this anarchy?
It is very important to recognise that there are at least two ways of determining the correct reading. The first has to do with the context, the semantic environment is which the word occurs. One reads a word such that it makes plausible sense (qareena) in the general thrust of the expression. For example, the words aa‘lam [the created world] and aa‘lim [learned] are orthographically identical — but quite naturally one would opt for the latter vocalisation in a sentence such as ‘Zaid is erudite and informed; he is a great aa‘lim.’ But here two fascinating issues ought to be noted: one, that the moment of reading a text is also a moment of the interpretation of the text. So there is, in today’s parlance, an interactive relationship between the text and the reader. This is a mode of improvisation which we see in South Asian classical music too, where the moment of execution is also the moment of creation.
The other fascinating issue is that this interpretation can always be, in principle, challenged because this is a human judgemental act. Indeed, multiple readings of the same text have a whole history in the intellectual life of Arabic, Persian and Urdu. It is for this reason that the text of the Holy Quran is fully vocalised, with all diacritics given and all vowels specified, so that it is read in one and only one way; no other text has this privilege. The command of vowels in the script is so effective that the change of one single vowel can reverse the meaning. Thus, the word muntazir means ‘the one(s) who await(s)’; whereas muntazar reverses it, meaning ‘the awaited one(s).’ The first is an active participle, the second a passive one. Remember the well-known saying, literally, ‘my world became zaer and zabar’ — that is, ‘my world turned upside down, became messed up.’ Here is a pronouncement on the tyranny of vowels.
The second means of determining the correct reading of the text is recourse to poetry. Let’s pause here and carve it on our cultural consciousness that poetry — especially Urdu, Persian and Arabic poetry — is essential to learning a language, its sounds and its semantic range. Now we know that Urdu poetry is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, built until this day around certain fundamental metres articulated for Arabic prosody by the mathematician Khalil ibn Ahmad as early as the 8th century. Khalil’s system has ramified into numerous modified metres that poets use as their ground, even when they play with them or subvert them, as is the case with modernist poets such as Noon Meem Rashid and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
The historic point is that no poet who is considered a poet-proper would use a word destroying its standard vowels. If the reader omits a vowel when there is one, or adds a vowel when there is none, or does not double a sound when doubling is standard — this reader will destroy the metre of the poem. What does this mean? It means that the rhythm of a poem serves as the bridle to control the reading. How fascinating.
But there is one illegality that poetry does not control — placing a vowel when needed, but placing the wrong vowel. This is the offence often committed to Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s famous verse:
[O awaited Reality, manifest yourself in the cloak of metaphor!]
The fourth word here is muntazar, but, ah, it is often read as muntazir. And as I wrote in my last column, the same havoc is meted out to Faiz’s ahl-i-hikam — an expression almost ubiquitously misvocalised by readers. Poetry and therefore language is more than orthography.
Pride comes before a fall
By Anum Shaharyar
Certain stories, it seems, will never stop being adapted, either into other genres and settings, or on to various mediums. One such versatile tale is Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. From a British miniseries to a Bollywood adaptation (Bride and Prejudice) and even an online vlog (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries), it has also crossed genres from the detective (Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James) to the undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and has been a popular base for modern novels (such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary).
Each adaptation has fluctuated wildly in how faithful it is to the original. That is a given, as adaptations can, as a matter of course, differ in what they retain of the original concept. However, while the latest offering in the line — Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last — is quite exciting as it puts a Muslim take on the story, in failing to retain much of Austen’s original plotline or charm, the book loses its allure.
The basic plot of Pride and Prejudice is a proud hero and a prejudiced heroine slowly unlearning lifelong habits and falling in love along the way. It makes for a captivating story. Unfortunately, the execution of this story in Jalaluddin’s novel is weak at best. The protagonist, Ayesha Shamsi, doesn’t have a gaggle of sisters or a mother obsessed with marriage or a Bingley moving in next door. There is, in fact, no character based on Bingley at all. What we do have is an Ayesha whose father died in suspicious circumstances back in India, prompting her widowed mother to move to suburban Toronto with her two children and her parents. Ayesha has a younger brother (nowhere present in the original), a set of grandparents (also missing in the original), and wears a hijab. That’s because Ayesha is Muslim — a refreshing twist which adds another point to the representation of Islamic stories.
But while it is very exciting that Muslim youngsters — who rarely see themselves represented as anything but a teenager about to be recruited for terrorism or, at best, a funny sidekick — can now see themselves as part of the main narrative, it is disappointing how weak the story itself is. Everything from the writing — middle-grade at best — and the characters — so very different from the original — to the plot itself, fail to impress. This might be the fault of the publishers who chose to market this book as a P&P retelling for young adult audiences. This creates false expectations; it would have made more sense had the novel been touted as a story about navigating this world as a regular girl who happens to be a hijabi.
Ayesha’s family includes a Shakespeare-quoting grandfather and cook-extraordinaire grandmother, a moody teenage brother and an overworked mother with a broken heart. Then there is the extended family, complete with flighty younger cousin Hafsa who receives multiple marriage proposals per week and for whom Ayesha is forced to act as the responsible, mature older cousin.
Because of a misunderstanding at the local mosque, Ayesha — who spends her days handling teenage students in her day job as a substitute teacher at the community school while simultaneously dreaming about being a poet — is forced to pretend to be Hafsa. As a consequence, she must now plan a conference with Khalid, the Mr Darcy to Ayesha’s Elizabeth Bennet.
Khalid — in a refreshing turn of events — is an actual practicing Muslim. It is important to get this point across because, even though the occurrence of Muslim characters has increased in recent years, it is still rare for those who practise the religion faithfully to be depicted as anything but evil, much less the actual hero of the story. The Muslim characters you do encounter in much of modern fiction are there as token representation, fine with drinking alcohol and never once mentioning prayers or actual Muslim holidays. This is why Khalid, who wears a thobe and a skullcap to his work as an e-commerce project manager, is such a welcome relief. Our handsome and conservative hero, who believes love comes after marriage, moves to Ayesha’s neighbourhood at the beginning of the story with his widowed mother — a scheming character completely new to the P&P narrative. However, Khalid’s sister, banished from the family to India for mysterious reasons, draws some parallels to Darcy’s sister Georgiana, and Wickham is introduced here as the charming rogue Tarek Khan, a slick conference organiser working with Ayesha and Khalid for the mosque.
A fun thing about reading an adaptation is identifying which parts of the new story were inspired by the original, or where the author linked the work to the source, and Jalaluddin does give quite a few nods to Austen. From the oft-quoted opening line “It is a truth universally acknowledged” to pivotal scenes such as the couple’s first, supremely awkward meeting or the horribly botched proposal, there are brief flashes of connection between this book and the text published in 1813. And since it is an ‘adaptation’, we already know most of what is going to happen. We know Tarek has his eye on Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa and that he is ultimately untrustworthy. We also know that even though there might be misunderstandings at first, our couple will eventually find their way to each other. I will concede that here, Jalaluddin does deliver on what she promises: Ayesha and Khalid, initially not willing to trust or like the other, find themselves taking comfort in each other’s presence and the various scheming characters — threatening to undo it all — ultimately lead our protagonists to fight their own pride and prejudices to find their ways back to each other.
There are several contemporary and cultural nods as well. Jalaluddin uses the story to talk about workplace Islamophobia, with Khalid facing a discriminatory boss and finding help in a supportive human resource manager. Ayesha’s lack of marriage prospects at the age of 27 gets a mention, pointing towards communities that value early marriages. Then there is the reference to political idealism and journalistic principles of fighting to report the truth, as Ayesha’s father died as a journalist fighting for worthy causes in India. Jalaluddin incorporates a number of issues into her story but, unfortunately, her deviations from the original plot, while relevant, don’t manage to retain the reader’s interest.
It is hard to feel invested, much less moved, by the plight of our protagonists — probably because, unlike Austen’s witty commentary on the times or the romantic comedy of manners she sketched, Jalaluddin doesn’t hold that same command over language. In the times in which we live, this story might be important, but here’s hoping there are multiple other adaptations as well, so that with increased representation of the modern Muslim, we also get better literature.
Ayesha At Last
By Uzma Jalaluddin
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