This is a guest post by ANAND VIVEK TANEJA
In the discussion around Aarti Sethi’s essay on Remembering Maqsood Pardesi some very important questions arose. As these questions are directly relevant to my work, but also to the larger concerns of the Kafila community, I decided to dwell on them at some length. As these reflections were written in response to the comments of one particular person, I address him directly in what follows below.
In your comments on Aarti’s essay, you say the following things about my work:
The tragedy of secular moderns of India is their fascination with Islam… And it appears secular modern Hindus are too busy analyzing jinns of Delhi, which is really sad!
… what do I do with the knowledge of emerging liberal ideologues working for the empire writing enchanting texts about chattan baba or the jinns?
I think that your opening statement is profound. But to understand its true depth, we need to revisit the terms “secular”, and “modern”, as well as our understandings of “Hinduism” and “Islam.” As an entry point into these questions, I will address your (rhetorical) question about what one should, and can do with “enchanting” texts about jinns.
For a start, one should read them first. My apologies if I am wrong, but it is seems very clear to me that you have not read my work at all before commenting on it vociferously in a public forum. For my work, in the most straightforward, limited, and obvious senses of the term, is distinctly political. In my one published article on the jinns of Delhi (published in an open access journal), I look at how the realm of politics, the ways in which people interact with and are affected by the post-colonial state, might affect transformations in popular theology. To reduce my argument to its simplest, the theological novelty of jinns emerging as venerated saints in contemporary Delhi cannot be understood without also paying attention to the ways in which the state, haunted by the violence of Partition, continues to erase and deaden Muslim landscapes of memory. In stories told in contemporary Delhi, long lived jinn act as transmitters connecting human beings centuries apart in time. These stories acknowledge the break in human genealogies of memory in the face of the violence of Partition and the cultivated archival amnesia of the post-colonial state. But they also attest to ways in which this break can be and has been surmounted. In petitions deposited to jinn-saints in the ruined medieval palace of Firoz Shah Kotla, medieval Islamic ideas of justice come together with modern bureaucratic techniques. What I call jinnealogy, the supercession of human chains of memory by the long lives of the jinn, brings up other temporalities, political theologies, and modes of witnessing against the empty, homogenous time of the modern state, which wishes to forget all states of affairs, all forms of life, all claims to belonging prior to 1947.
Is this, as in your characterization, an “enchanting” text? I wish that were the case. But it is a text which deals explicitly with questions of enchantment, and its role in public life. Does this engagement with enchanted practices make this text, and my work, any less political? I don’t think so. At the most obviously political level, my article explores how violence perpetrated by Hindutva ideologues in 1947 utterly transformed the secular Indian state’s relationship to the monuments of its Islamic past. Is this irrelevant to our understandings of the ways in which Hindutva ideologues have successfully transformed public discourse and state practices in India, paving the way for our current government? And what do we do with people depositing letters of petition written to Muslim jinn-saints in the ruins of a fourteenth century palace, a ruined space of pre-modern Muslim sovereignty? Surely, if not an evocation of and relation to other forms of life, and other modes of being, even to the most disenchanted gaze, it is a form of critique of the contemporary state and its dealings with its own people. The letters addressed to the jinns, often photocopied, open up an alternative imaginary of how one could relate to the state. This is an imagination of a relation to sovereignty, and to justice, which transcends people’s experiences and expectations of the current state.
If an enchanted form of popular Islam can hold open the potentialities of critique (and not merely “resistance”) to the modern post-colonial state and the limits of its imagination, then what light might this cast on the relationship between Islam and the secular modern Hindus who are tragically fascinated by it?
What does it mean to be “secular” individual, as opposed to a secular state? The common-sense of the term in India is a person who does not differentiate between people on the basis of religious identity. I would certainly hope that I am secular in this sense. But there is another meaning of the term secular, one at which we can arrive via putting the work of philosophers Charles Taylor and Akeel Bilgrami in conversation. To be secular, in this sense, is to inhabit a desacralized world, a world of brute and inert matter, a material world which makes no ethical and spiritual claims on us. To be secular, in this second sense, is to inhabit a posture of disenchantment with regards to the natural world. I would certainly hope that I am not secular in this second sense. But Hindutva ideologues certainly are, as we can see by the kinds of environmental legislation passed by the current government, and the ways in which paves the way for even more ruthless exploitation of India’s natural resources (an exploitation which first needs an understanding of “nature” as “resources”). In my work, I draw attention to how the sacred geography of Delhi, shared by both Hindus and Muslims—a landscape whose sacrality and enchantment was intrinsically tied to both Muslim saints and to local ecology—was systematically destroyed by both colonial and post-colonial governments. The fact that this destruction has passed largely unmourned and unremarked can be attributed in part to the “secular” nature of both Hindu and Muslim reformist thinking, both of which increasingly value transcendent divinity outside the material world and not inherent in it. Given the enormous ecological crisis we are living amidst, not at an abstract remove but as a keenly felt everyday reality in urban India, attempts to revisit and reanimate formerly enchanted life-worlds is certainly not apolitical, or lacking in urgency.
What does it mean to be “modern”? Let me offer a basic minimum definition which most people will not (I hope) disagree with. To be modern is to be conscious of inhabiting a break—epistemological and ontological—from a “pre-modern” past. For many, this break is something to be celebrated. We can call this triumphalist modernity, characterized by a valorization of the present and its achievements, and a denigration of the past. Hindutva ideology is a good example of triumphalist modernity, with the past that it denigrates increasingly assimilated under the sign of “Islam”. But there are other ways of being modern. Walter Benjamin epitomizes a melancholic modernity, a modernity which is skeptical about the triumphalist narratives surrounding the break from the past. This melancholic modernity is acutely conscious of the tremendous destruction of life-worlds and ways of being that accompanies becoming modern. The melancholic modern actively looks for fragments of forms of life from the other side of the break, seeking to revive them, seeking to be revived by them. What does it mean to be a melancholic modern in contemporary India? What forms of life do we revisit? What of our inheritance can we reclaim from the other side of the break? (The term ‘break’ perhaps does not do enough justice to the military and epistemological violence visited upon India in the processes of colonial modernity, violence bookended by the disasters of 1857 and 1947). Certainly not Hindutva, with its need to re-invent Hinduism to be ever-closer to fascist forms of discipline and nationalist mobilization.
What does it mean to be “Hindu”? This is a question to which we might get radically different answers if we think of the millions of Hindus, perhaps not so easily assimilable under the labels “secular” and/or “modern”, who continue to pray at dargahs, Muslim saint shrines, despite over a century of communal polarization and the Hindutva-ization of contemporary Hindu religious and ritual practice. Or if we think of the immense popularity of “Muslim social” films till only a generation ago for a Hindu majority audience. I bring together these two seemingly disparate examples to make the larger point that the cultural memory of Islam continues to inform the ethical, religious and cultural life of north Indian Hindus. This is precisely why the Hindutva-vadis hate Islam so much. Not because it is completely alien to them, but because it is too intimate.
“ Muslimness,” as Aamir Mufti writes, “has an ability to metonymically stand in for the culture of the pre-modern elites of north India… ”. And Muslimness, as Mufti notes, was marked by a deep ambivalence towards the project of colonial modernity. This ambivalence, as Mufti goes on to note, was typically misrecognized in secular nationalism as the sign simply of a lag in development. One of the things Hindutva shares in common with more recognizably “secular” nationalist forms of triumphalist modernity is a deep contempt for Islam, and all that they associate with it, as a sign of backwardness. The other side of the break. And herein lies the tragedy for melancholic moderns like myself. In the North Indian context, if we want to look for forms of life from the other side of the break, forms which have survived the developmentalist state and Hindutva, we are invariably dealing with things labelled as Islamic—the Urdu language being a paradigmatic example. The tragedy is not that we are fascinated with Islam, the tragedy is that our own intellectual, cultural, literary and linguistic heritage is now marked by the sign of otherness and religious difference. In no small measure thanks to Hindutva.
What are we to do with this tragedy? Does studying “Islam” while being identifiably “Hindu” make me a new-fashioned Orientalist, an “emerging liberal ideologue working for Empire” as you say? Or does the brief the brief conceptual history that I have sketched above give all our work a different political urgency, and a different relationship to power? As a comrade who seems to share similar political concerns, especially when it comes to the rise of Hindutva, I eagerly await your answer.
Yours in solidarity,
[Anand Vivek Taneja is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Anthropology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is currently writing a book on time, Islam, and enchantment in the medieval ruins of Delhi.]