On Self-Hate and Romance


            In the latter part of the 1980s, as Rajiv Gandhi’s honeymoon with the voters who had given him a thumping majority in Parliament came to an end, people began muttering about alternative leadership. Some names were muttered more than others. One was V.P. Singh, who in fact became the next PM. Another was Arif Mohammed Khan, the dissident Congressman who had opposed the government’s handling of the Shah Bano affair and resigned soon afterwards. Arif was (and remains) a Muslim, of course, and for that reason few took him seriously as a prime ministerial candidate. He later joined the BJP. But in that moment, when the Congress – internally eroded by Mrs. Indira Gandhi – was showing its weakness, various Indian politicians who had no nationwide base became viable contenders for the top job: not only V.P. Singh, but also Chandra Shekhar, Inder Gujral, H.D. Deve Gowda and Narasimha Rao. Arif’s religious identity, which made him an unlikely candidate, also gave him a certain romantic appeal, quite apart from his reputation as a man of conscience in a cynical capital. I want to suggest that although it came to nothing – his political career went downhill – Arif’s brief moment in the sun reflects a strain of Hindu self-hate that is worthy of recuperation.
            The romance of the Muslim is both an unlikely and a resilient part of Indian nationhood. The cultural history of the republic is littered with it, from Mughal-e-Azam, through the cricket captaincy of Pataudi, to the popularity of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at the height of the Hindutva wave. It may be argued that Akbar, Pataudi and Abdul Kalam were all “safe” or “palatable” Muslims: one dead, one secular-debonair, and one a missile scientist. They did not hold forth on unpleasant subjects like police brutality or discrimination in housing and employment. But the fact remains that they were also quite different types, and the nationalist imagination had room for them all. Had Abdul Kalam been a Hindu, he would have been a rather ordinary figure. But a Muslim president who wrote poetry about nuclear weapons and presided over a BJP administration was, well, romantic. It was as if the historical project of national purging, or Muslim-exclusion, had unexpectedly unearthed – even produced – a miracle of inclusion. The novelist Anita Desai recognized the dynamic in Clear Light of Day, which is probably her best work: as the Partition takes its bloody course, the bed-ridden Hindu poet Raja fumes at the ongoing attacks on Muslims, pens derivative shairi and fantasizes about heroic feats of rescue. Desai is somewhat unkind to Raja, who “saves” (marries) a Muslim neighbor with a rich father and becomes rich and fat in consequence. Nevertheless, the self-indulgence of his heroism and bad poetry do not altogether efface a particular type of romantic majority-subjectivity that is very much a part of Indian nationalism. As much as Indian secularism, from which it is not fully distinct, its most basic function is the rescue and protection of the religious minority – specifically, Muslims – from the dangerous margins of majoritarian nationhood.
            In general, romantic nationalism is an artifact and instrument of the right; our understanding of the phenomenon is inextricably bound with the histories of European fascism. But it would be more accurate to say that all nationalism is romantic: sooner or later, even the most drily civic and liberal nations acquire fuzzy, feel-good mythologies in which liberalism itself becomes a romance and a bloodline. Romance is both a necessity and a danger within nationalist projects, sustaining the community by making the exclusion of outsiders a source of pleasure. Indian majoritarianism (and indeed, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi) indicates, however, that alongside this exclusive “mainstream,” with its erotics of violence and demonization, there is a romance of inclusion which produces alternative communities in which majoritarian considerations are not so much set aside as differently deployed, often by the same people who subscribe to the more conventional constructions of identity and nationhood. Simultaneously normative and deviant, these other romances are redemptive possibilities within majoritarian democracy.
            That redemption is most readily visible in the movies. Indian popular cinema retains a small but powerful and resilient niche for narratives of Muslim-inclusion: Mughal-e-Azam, Jodhaa Akbar, Bombay, Pinjar, Veer Zaara, and so on. These are very different films. Mughal-e-Azam invited the audience to identify with protagonists who were largely Muslims. It succeeded at least partly because Akbar’s status as the patron-emperor of Indian unity meshed with the Nehruvian secular ethos, allowing a momentary nostalgia for Mughal Hindustan. Since then, secularism has acquired the “pseudo” prefix and Akbar has become a marginal icon (streets and jumbo jets are no longer named after him), needing a Rajput princess to capture the sympathy of Hindu cinema-goers. But the films continue to articulate fantastic desires for union or reunion, or an alternative/hybrid Indian self that not only admits the greatest possible intimacy between Hindus and Muslims, but that spotlights the menace of pure selves. In this recuperation of a self that is “both,” there is the modern promise of a secular Indianness that arches over communal identities, as well as a residue of older, un-partitioned maps and imaginations. Each is a romance of a nationhood that may never have existed, but that is nevertheless experienced as both lost and real. It exists as a ghost ideology, or a recurring dream to which even fascists are susceptible.
            This brings me back to Arif Mohammed Khan and Muslims in the BJP. Quite apart from the big names – Najma Heptulla, M.J. Akbar and others – some three millionMuslims have joined the party this year alone. It is not difficult to understand why Muslims might join an overtly anti-Muslim party. The reasons are entirely prosaic: affiliation brings a measure of security and patronage. There is also the nature of the BJP, which is not just an anti-Muslim organization. It is increasingly taking the place of the Congress as India’s “big tent” political party. It is possible, given the right incentives, to overlook the more rabid expressions of Hindutva and focus on other things. 
            It is harder to gauge the effect of Muslim participation on the BJP. In theory, small numbers of Muslims function as a fig leaf, giving the party the respectability of a secular veneer. In practice, however, even modest numbers of Muslim politicians and voters function as brakes on the chariot: every vote counts in a tight election, and the hate-speech must be tamped down to give spin doctors like M.J. Akbar something to work with. Just as importantly, it reflects and strengthens a political and ideological environment in which respectability comes from inclusion, and the realism of the minority is tied up with the romantic imagination of the majority. This is why the presence of Muslims in the BJP is qualitatively different from a hypothetical situation in which Jews join the NSDAP, and even the participation of Palestinians in Zionist parties. No Arab politician could be a spokesman for Likud in the way that M.J. Akbar can be the spokesman of the BJP.
It can be argued that the Muslim who joins or votes for the BJP exhibits a form of self-hate. But what is self-hate? If we consider the modern Jewish concept of the self-hating subject, it is immediately evident that there are two, intertwined, forms of this perversion. One is the angst of Herzl’s “new Jew,” who remained insecure about his distance from the “old Jew,” who he saw much as gentiles did: stunted, weak, cringing, easily murdered, unenlightened, Oriental, and so on. The other is the treason of the Jew who refuses to align uncritically with Zionism. Among Indian Muslims, something akin to the first variety can be glimpsed in Syed Ahmed Khan’s remark that compared to the English, his compatriots were dirty animals. The second variety would materialize later, in the post-1937 Muslim League narrative of Congress Muslims. Ironically, in independent idea, a diluted version of that second criticism has been adopted by the secular left and aimed at BJP Muslims. But generally speaking, Indo-Muslim self-hate has migrated to Pakistan and more problematically, to Bangladesh, where like Hindutva (with its contempt for the “pseudo-secular” Indian and obsession with “appeasement”), a reformulated Two-Nation Theory can thrive on epithets pinned on critics of the unfettered power of the majority.
            Self-hate in Indian nationalism is primarily a phenomenon of the modern Hindu who loathes what he sees as the historical weakness of his compatriots: their indiscipline, effeminacy, cowardice, fatalism, servility, softness, excessive spirituality, military incompetence, indifference to the hard requirements of the material world, and reluctance to embrace the prerogatives of the majority on its own land. The Hindu right’s hatred of Gandhi, Faisal Devji pointed out, was rooted in the perception that he practiced a politics of minority activism: coming out of South Africa, where Indians were a minority, Gandhi never made the switch to majoritarianism. Indeed, it may be accurate to say that modern self-hate is intertwined not so much with fear of a particular minority as with fear of minority-ness, or the minority condition in the scheme of popular sovereignty.
            At the same time, it is readily apparent that the rhetoric of self-hate secretes a series of fractures within the modern self. The separation between the hater and the hated remains unreliable. Moreover, the barb can be – and is – flung in either direction across the left-right divide, with each side accusing the other of being self-hating, and not without justification. (It is not a coincidence that in Indian politics, the charge of having strayed from secularism is a weapon of the right as well as the left.) Self-hate is, in fact, ubiquitous in nationalism. It reflects not so much a disavowal of communal identity, as a refusal or failure to be sealed within it. From the standpoint of justice, the acceptance of identity is as important as the ambivalence towards it, because it undergirds a responsibility that is otherwise diluted to homeopathic proportions within liberal-secular universalism. It is the combination of acceptance and refusal/failure that produces cosmopolitanism, and more specifically, the cosmopolitan citizenship that makes calculations of majority and minority contingent and fascists apoplectic. There is something salutary about it, and I am entirely in agreement with Mike Marqusee’s remark that people without a measure of self-hate are not to be trusted. It is precisely those nationalities that have been pushed by historical circumstances into hating themselves a little – Germans, the Japanese – that have produced the more encouraging examples of non-militaristic nationhood.
            In South Asia, the liberal form of secularism has not worked very well: that much, I think, is apparent to liberals as well as to those who do not care much for liberalism. Various romances have flourished instead: those of Syed Ahmed Khan, Bankim, Iqbal, Savarkar. Typically, the authors of these romances have urged their co-nationalists to remember: to remember Mahmud and Somnath, Shivaji and Aurangzeb, Punjab in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971, Saurabh Kalia and Papa II, and so on. But people also tend to forget, and what we see in India’s cinema of the intimate Muslim is a desire to forget, which is inseparable from the urge to conjure up mythical tales of Akbar-and-Jodhabai, and a self that has overflowed its communal boundaries. In Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, the frantic father searching for his children in the middle of a riot shouts that he is neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, only an Indian. To describe that desire as secular is to strip it of its meaning and power, because what it really is, is romantic. Self-hate, in other words, is as much about forgetting as about remembering, and where memory has been harnessed to the power and violence of the nation, forgetting functions as an intimate form of resistance to the hegemonic ideology. It generates unexpected variations on nationalist iconography. In Yash Chopra’s Veer Zaara – an utterly mainstream product and one of the most commercially successful Hindi films ever – the standard heroic figure of the uniformed warrior swaggers into the frame in the decidedly non-violent form of a rescue pilot in an unarmed helicopter, and even he resigns his IAF commission midway into the movie. Our self-hating Squadron Leader is no Top Gun.
            When the liberal foundations of secular citizenship are weak, as they are in India, the bases of tolerance and minority rights have to be sought within majoritarian nationalism itself. Forgetful desire is not, of course, a reliable means of justice. Modern states are by definition creatures of memory-making and record-keeping, and it is at best na├»ve to believe that the Indian state (or the Pakistani or the Bangladeshi) will wither away, leaving happily devolved communities of Gandhians and Nandians. The building and maintenance of secular-liberal institutions and the production and dissemination of histories that are not recycled Orientalist fables remains essential, even as we acknowledge that these will remain embattled in their existence and compromised in their operation. But it is also important to see that such institutions, which may be resented by the illiberal nationalist, can complement the unreliable boundaries of self-hating subjectivity, and that majoritarian romance is a resource that deserves to be taken seriously and better utilized in everyday discourse and practice. What makes the romantic fiction of Indian secularism hopeless also keeps it alive.

June 8, 2015