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Those Enemies of Freedom

Why does the political agency of the Muslims and other so-called marginalised groups, so often end up arrayed against the liberal values of secularism, freedom of speech and liberty? This article argues that the structure of politics in the Indian republic is such that any marginalised group wanting to exercise autonomous political agency beyond the paternalistic reform allowed by the state, will end up appearing sectarian and illiberal.

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conferencing with Rushdie had to beThose Enemies of Freedom cancelled due to protest by Muslim groups), were questioning, almost grilling (rightly so), Salim Engineer of the Jamaat-Saroj Giri e-Islami who was opposing Rushdie.

Why does the political agency of the Muslims and other so-called marginalised groups, so often end up arrayed against the liberal values of secularism, freedom of speech and liberty? This article argues that the structure of politics in the Indian republic is such that any marginalised group wanting to exercise autonomous political agency beyond the paternalistic reform allowed by the state, will end up appearing sectarian and illiberal.

Saroj Giri (saroj_giri@yahoo.com) teaches political science at the University of Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 17, 2012

L
eave out the vested interests and the self-styled spokespersons of the Muslim community, including the vote-bank politicians; also leave out the “sectarian attitude”, “closed minds” and so on. Is there not something more than just this in the opposition by Muslim groups to the freedom of expression in the recent Salman Rushdie affair? In other words, sectarian opposition by a minority group might not always be “yet another instance” of the “atmosphere of intolerance in society”, or of the suppression of dissent and artistic freedom and other such generalities. It might instead indicate something else.

That it might have a different specifi city was already indicated by the nature of some of the arguments defending free expression and supporting Rushdie’s participation in the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). At least one major defence of this freedom was not really about free speech as such but about socioeconomic deprivation.

On the last day of the JLF, enlightened

and progressive liberals, saddened and

angered by the turn of events (the video

vol xlviI no 11

They were saying that yes indeed the Muslim community has been at the receiving end in this country and are mostly deprived, yes they need support. But then they posed the question, deprivation is a concrete issue which you (like the Jamaat-e-Islami) should be concentrating on rather than raking up issues that do not help the community. Is Islam so vulnerable that the writings of one man can undo its glory and greatness?

Indeed, the enlightened and progressive liberals questioned, how will stopping Rushdie help in solving the socioeconomic deprivation of Muslims in this country? Further, the panellists declared how some of them have been at the forefront of the fight for the rights of Muslims, that they are no Muslim-haters – but this opposition to Rushdie and the undermining of artistic freedom cannot be accepted and is totally irrational.

So far, so good. But how come the debate over the pros and cons of freedom of speech and expression ended up focusing on socio-economic deprivation and rights? One can argue that this is very positive and points to a socially sensitive idea of freedom of expression. However,

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these progressive liberal arguments are actually structured fundamentally by a pernicious division they uphold (all the more worse because it is not subjectively so intended): freedom of expression and artistic freedom is the preserve of a select few people, while socio-economic rights are for the others. There is here an apportioning of needs and desires, of capacities and talents, of the high political and the lowly socio-economic needs, marking the asymmetries.

The realm of radical thinking, creative expression and, in that sense, of politics and freedom here somehow begins beyond the socio-economic realm – so that those in the latter category simply cannot, and perhaps are not supposed to, make it to the rarefi ed realms of “freedom”. Freedom of expression becomes actually the freedom of only those who are beyond socio-economic need – hence not a universal value, as is claimed. Freedom here applies only to a handful of people, which often translates into a Hindu uppercaste elite, mostly male. And yet it is touted as a general and universal freedom of expression – and those opposing as just “enemies of freedom”.

If this freedom is limited to a small minority, hence a particular and not a universal freedom, then opposition to it must, in all likelihood, be more than just what can be captured in generalities. Indeed it turns out to possess a specifi city deriving from the status of Muslims as a deprived and oppressed community. And here socio-economic deprivation is, as we saw, acknowledged but this is done with an expectation that they will only be passive benefi ciaries of welfare or quotas. In other words, what is fatally overlooked is that they might not thus remain passive but might, with all their “backwardness” and “parochial attitudes”, push themselves into the more rarefi ed and higher realms like freedom of expression – giving you “illiberalism”, “end of rational politics” and other such “problems”, including sometimes violence.

The liberal elite is willing to acknowledge socio-economic deprivation (hence its praise for the Sachar Committee fi ndings) but is loathe in accepting its autonomous articulation or its political consequences. It pushes for empowerment and such like. But it is unwilling to

accept that this lame reformism of empowerment might now be short circuited by the “deprived” who now rush headlong, sometimes with raw energy (fundamentalism?), towards participating in (destroying?) the “higher political realm” of freedom, making politics irrational and all that.

Empowerment then appears to have actually been “containment”. Breaking this containment therefore has a positive mass impulse in spite of being illiberal, and regardless of the role of corrupt leaders and politicians who are apparently fomenting all this. This is not entirely different from dalit masses who want to break out of this empowerment/containment syndrome notwithstanding their deep involvement in quota politics. Mayawati might be corrupt and supposedly encouraging interest-based (and hence not “rational”) politics but she is riding on this defi nite political impulse of the dalits.

Even when this empowerment of Muslims is combined with something like protection from the onslaught of Hindu extremists (through strict implementation of the rule of law, invoking constitutional provisions and so on), the liberal-secular framework still does not seem to suffi ce – so that some kind of

political activity from Muslims cannot be contained from spilling over. Liberalism and secularism seem somehow designed to arrest this spillover political activity and subjective articulation of Muslims. They however fail: so you have the opposition to freedom of expression. This failure can also have extreme consequences as with certain terror groups that declare that they are trying to fi x what they understand to be the predicament of Muslims. At this level the state responds through security-centric measures, including false encounters and extra- judicial killings, against which the progressive approach can now claim to be really progressive and hence to be defended. Between these two – the pure security-centric approach and the socioeconomic approach – it feels like there is no other option.

Instead of fi ghting for basic amenities the masses will now get all agitated over issues and debates that in the liberal framework apparently do not and perhaps should not concern them – issues of freedom of expression and what is written in books that they never will read. Indeed which protesting Muslim would have read Satanic Verses and verifi ed that there was indeed something “blasphemous” – enough material again to bemoan the rise of uninformed debates and irrational politics. So the insistence: “Salim saab, why don’t you and your organisation focus on the socio-economic upliftment of the Muslims” and one may add, leave the rest to us (or join the political realm on our terms). It is against this demand, this handing out of a role, this distribution of whose brief is the merely socioeconomic and whose is the wider realm of politics and freedom – it is precisely against this that the irrational opposition to freedom of expression seems to be directed.

There seems to be some kind of a law at work here: when those cut out for the socio-economic role (the marginalised as they are called) assume a properly political agency, they somehow end up being less-than-liberal, or less than democratic or secular – and hence initiating irrational politics. Muslims bring in

march 17, 2012

vol xlviI no 11 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

sectarianism, dalits bring in irrational, interest-based politics, adivasis resisting bring in violence, north-easterners bring in insurgency, Kashmiris militancy and so on. Long back, Muslims (but dalits too) had refused to be mere benefi ciaries of secularism and had asked for separate electorates for their unhindered political development. They then came across as sectarian and divisive vis-à-vis the Hindu elite which could (always already) present itself as liberal, democratic and secular. So an otherwise modern and secular Jinnah then somehow had to, one way or another, end up being communal or sectarian. The

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most conservative and sectarian Hindu Baniya leader did not have to come across as just that – the field was laid out for him to uphold secularism, liberal democracy and so on. Hindu unity so nicely aligned with Indian nationalism, while Muslim unity could be easily maligned as communalism – perhaps the most oppressive equation afflicting Indian politics.

Similarly today whenever the Muslim breaks out of his passive socio-economic beneficiary role and gets active beyond the liberal-secular framework, he almost inevitably finds himself opposing “freedom of expression” and standing in favour of

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--closed minds and a sectarian attitude. His opposition then gets reduced to a case of general intolerance in society and things like that. It is against this reduction and appropriation that we must speak out for there is, I would argue, a serious political dimension to this opposition, allowing Muslims to directly participate in the political realm, in the realm of higher values of freedom and creative expression! And given their deprivation, perhaps the only way they can participate is in this perverted form of stopping your freedom, often through sectarianism and violence.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 17, 2012 vol xlviI no 11

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