Ali Khan Mahmudabad's reflections on the Muzzaffarnagar violence.
Ali was a participant at one of CfP's workshops on Identity.
At CfP, we are struggling to address the underlying causes of violence, and believe
that all change must start with ourselves…
There is no way to write a history of violence. Perhaps the only thing
that can be analysed, however incompletely, is the context in which
the violence takes place. Unfortunately, this approach too has major
shortcomings, not from the point of view of an analyst or academic but
from the point of view of those who are affected by the violence. Part
of the reason for this is that in the arguments over religious identity,
socio-economic backwardness, ideology, political machinations, the
numbers of people killed, or injured, caste configurations, the importance
of class and money, the individuality of the victims are forgotten or
subsumed into a narrative that does not seek to truly address the issue
but just to further its own particular cause: nationalism, liberalism, secularism,
Islam, Hinduism- you take your pick. In trying to write the history of violence,
often the history of the future of the individual is silenced. The biggest tragedy
and injustice is that those who die, suffer or are uprooted are denied their
talents, denied their future.
Recently a town called Muzaffarnagar in Northern India has been torn
apart by what is labeled Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence. Many people
are outraged but sadly, behind a lot of the outrage are the calculations
of people who already know how they want to view what happened.
Therefore the sad fact is that the conversation about who is culpable,
who started the violence and who patronised it can never end.
With the kind of technology available today, which of course has so
many benefits, fake photos, videos and other material goes viral on
the Internet. This has been the case in Muzaffarnagar and no one
particularly cares for the truth but only how they can benefit from
what happened. On the other hands there are hundreds of photos
depicting the mass migration of entire villages, of frightened and teary
faces of little girls and boys, of those who survived horrific injuries and
of those who have been affected in some way. The problem then is of
how we view these photographs and therefore the people depicted in
them. The wider issue becomes one of what language to use to talk about
them. When you see two young sisters holding hands in the middle of crowd,
separated from their families, do you see Muslims, Hindus, Jats, Shias,
Sunnis, Dalits, Christians, Buddhists?
Language is ultimately the site of philosophy and therefore everyday we
consciously or unconsciously make existential choices about our beliefs,
our politics, and our bodies even. Philosophy might be talked about as
the hallowed preserve of old men sitting in ivory towers but in essence
we all partake in philosophical conversation every day. The real test
therefore is to question our presuppositions, our pre-commitments and
ourselves before we pass judgment. Ultimately of course it is not about
passing judgment but about understanding.
One thing that appears particularly striking about the victims of violence
is how they talk about themselves and this is bourne out by the testimonies
and experiences of victims from across the world whether they are in India,
Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, South Africa, Rwanda, Korea, Japan, America,
Russia or indeed any other country. Almost inevitably the loss which people
suffer is expressed as the loss of a brother, a sister, a husband, a wife, a father,
a mother, a son, a daughter, a neighbor or a friend and not as that of an Indian,
a Hindu, a Muslim, a tailor or a barber. It is ironic that even those who seek to
twist the suffering of others to suit their own agendas end up talking at the level
of the individual: at the level of the personal. So for instance the much-touted
slogan of a recent political rally, held in the same area that has experienced
violence, used the slogan ‘bahu-beti bachao’ or save our daughters-in-law and
daughters in order to make the issue one of community pride.
There are no quick fixes and easy solutions to resolve situations in which violence
spirals out of control and those that are offered are often with an ulterior motive in
mind or are so abstract and vague that they cannot translate into anything tangible.
However, the one thing that is possible is that as individuals we can look inwards
and interrogate our own views and ideas. The way in which we view others is perhaps
one of the few things over which we do have complete autonomy, no matter what
extraneous factors exist. So even though it is claimed that identities are inherently
antagonistic, this conflict is borne out of our own gaze.
One of the intriguing things about America is that when lives are lost in warfare
or ‘terrorist’ attacks the victims are always talked about in great detail. Their
relationships, their lives, their pasts, even the place where they bought coffee
are highlighted. Whether this is cynical propaganda or not is irrelevant. What is
important is that it helps others view the victim as no different from themselves.
Similarly, while sitting in a bus or train when two strangers speak, in itself an act
of trust and sadly an increasingly rare thing in today’s segmented world, they try
and establish common ground: perhaps a language, a country, a religion or
something very mundane even, like a common destination or a shared experience
like waiting for late buses.
Differences are inevitable, even within families, but these are embraced
because ultimately it is what is shared that matters. The question then that
we face everyday is whether we set out in order to determine difference and
therefore create distance or to seek out similarities and therefore establish trust.
Even in the most bleak of times there is always hope, provided we seek it out.
Amidst the tragic events in Muzaffarnagar, a few Muslim families decided to stay
on in their village despite most others having decided to leave. These people are
being protected by their neighbors who happen to be Hindu. Amongst the
people who stayed behind are 80 year old Nizamuddin and his wife Nabiyan who
said “even if our neighbors want to kill us, we will not say anything. We have
shared Diwali and Eid together. These Hindus are nothing less than my brothers.”