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  • Nations, Nation-State and Politics of Muslim Identity in South Asia
  • Ali Riaz (bio)

In February 2002, Gujarat, a prosperous western state of India, saw the beginning of carnage that continued for more than a month. In retaliation for the killing of fifty-eight Hindu activists, at least 2,000 Muslims were murdered, hundreds of women raped, thousands made homeless, and millions of dollars of property destroyed. Media reports suggest the state government and almost all law enforcement agencies were complicit in these heinous crimes. At times, the chief minister inflamed the situation with comments directed against the Muslim community. The situation reminded everyone of December 1992 when the Rashtriya Sayangsebak Sangha (RSS), the fountainhead of the Hindu 'nationalist' party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its various wings, demolished a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and unleashed a reign of terror and a series of bloodbaths in various cities. Has the "secular Indian nation-state," headed by the Hindu nationalists, reached the point where the "minority community' in general and particularly Muslims are destined to be the perennial victims of state supported violence? Does the nation-state want to efface the difference and distinctiveness of the 'minorities'? The questions need to be posed in such fashion because these events were very much consistent with the dominant discourse of Indian politics. Without undermining the significance of the particularity, the questions needed to be put in general terms because another "minority community" in another South Asian country has been facing the identical questions since October 2001. Following the general elections of October 2001, the Hindus in Bangladesh have been subjected to severe persecution. The difference, if any, was of degree, not of kind. The alliance that came to power through the elections has as its partner, among others, an Islamist party with a checkered past. There too, the state machinery was blamed for complicity and the ruling regime for incitement. Without exonerating the individuals or groups for these dreadful acts, the nation-states in South Asia, the political processes that brought them to life, and the discourses that rationalize their existence need to be examined. The nation-states in South Asia have not emerged as a culmination of a political process, but rather from a failure to negotiate and accommodate the multiple identities of the Indian population within a single nation-state. Unwillingness to address the identity question at its core resulted in the creation of Pakistan in 1947, and hence Bangladesh in 1971. India, at one point seemed, to have escaped through its "secular" constitution and "democratic" political structure, but it is now obvious that the unresolved issue has come back to haunt the nation in full force since 1990s. The process leading up to the partition of India in 1947 had accepted religion not only as the social demarcator of identity, but also as the basis upon which the statecraft had to be built, whereas, this is a marker that any 'nation-state' should be fighting against. What we saw in 1947 was not only the emergence of two states, but also, and perhaps more importantly, religious identities essentialized over others in a manner that in some form or other attempts to justify a certain interpretation of two-nation theory. Probing analysis of the events and processes leading up to the partition of India shows that the articulation of this theory was independent of the very statehood with which it has later been associated. Indeed the Muslim community in India aspired to be recognized as a "nation," but neither the Muslim community of India nor the "Father of the Pakistan Nation" wanted Pakistan to become a separate state.1 Studies in Indian historiography that explain colonial India with the dichotomous division of secularism and communalism and/or secular nationalism and religious communalism abound, but it has also been aptly challenged and laid bare on many occasions during the last decade. However, the nuances and the complexities of multiple identities and their implications for contemporary South Asia are yet to be understood. That is why it has remained one of the most gnawing and lingering problems of the subcontinent. This paper attempts to examine this issue within the...


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pp. 53-58
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