Feelings of hurt and hate in post-partition South Asia: A Conversation with Neeti Nair

In the book, Hurt Sentiments, historian Neeti Nair traces a political history of secularism, one which made a virtue out of hurt in twentieth-century India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Nair asks how a religious sentiment of hurt come to define the place of law, culture, ideologies, and belonging in this region. In constituent assembly proceedings, courtroom accounts, media debates, and hate speeches Nair finds tangible answers to this extrasensory claim to hurt. Hurt acquired prominence in sacred-secular politics, Nair argues, not as opposing elements but as co-constitutive forces to the extent that sacred religious thought became paramount to secular imagination. By paying attention to critical events and recurring discussions on the ideas of secular-sacred Nair reveals the slow processual erasure of the place of minorities in majoritarian assertions. An inquiry in history of hurt in Hurt Sentiments eventually explains how the political mobilization and weaponization of this sentiment prompted intolerance, harm and neglect felt most by the religious minorities in these nations.

Neeti Nair teaches History at the University of Virginia and is the author of two books, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (Harvard University Press and HarperCollins India, 2023) and Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard University Press and Permanent Black, 2011, pbk 2016). She is also Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. I had the opportunity to speak with her about her latest book, Hurt Sentiments.

Saumya: Thank you for your time, I really enjoyed engaging with your work. I wanted to start by asking how did you come about to study the history of hurt sentiments? In the process if you could explain what you mean by the phrase, hurt sentiments?

Neeti: I was inspired to work on a book-length project because of the huge amount of interest that was generated by an article that I wrote in 2013. This article, on the making of section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, examined the enormous support for a law that would protect the founders of religions, and “the religious feelings of any class” of British subjects, from insults or even attempts to insult their religion. It was a very broadly-worded law, passed in late colonial India in 1927, that remained a part of the post-independence penal codes of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

My 2013 article was discussed in both India and Pakistan, among legal scholars, because this law was being used especially frequently in India to censor the writings even of academics. In Pakistan, there was renewed interest in another incarnation of this law, 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code, commonly referred to as the blasphemy law, in the wake of the 2011 assassination of Punjab’s governor Salman Taseer, who was opposed by his assassin for having recommended the amendment of this law.

Saumya: A striking feature of hurt in this book is its extent. From the 1947 manifestation of hate speech in India about who belonged where; the rise of Savarkar’s Hindutva in the 80s; to 1955-56 discussions in Pakistan’s parliament about the egalitarian place of minority Hindus in the ideologies of a Islamic state; a consistent disregard of the Bengali Muslim culture in East Pakistan; Bangladesh’s precarious implementation of secularism in 1971; to subsequent violence around blasphemy laws, and so on. In writing this political historiography, how did you think with the question of scale? When did you come to realise how huge and consequential was this production of hurt in the political realm?

Neeti: I realized that if I limited myself to reported case law on section 295A, I would not get a grip on the phenomenon of hurt sentiments. So I decided to examine cases of censorship, more generally. That led me to try and understand why Godse’s defence statement was censored in 1949, and to a broader discussion of hate speech at the time of Partition. Section 295A had had its utility, and I wanted to underline this at a time when there was talk of reforming this law. In more recent decades, the law has been weaponized by religious majorities, but this was not always the case.

I also wanted to learn more about Hindus and Christians in Pakistan since this was a common right-wing stick with which to beat the secular left. What might a turn to the archives, necessarily always fragmentary, reveal? So I read old issues of the Organiser alongside Pakistan Constituent Assembly debates. All this was new to me, so I supposed it would be new to my readers. I wasn’t in a hurry to write this book – I already had tenure – and I did want to cover a broad swathe of time, not focus on only one or two decades. Only then could I reflect on change through different eras. But then the Citizenship Amendment Act that amended the law to fast-track Indian citizenship to all religious minorities from neighbouring countries except Muslims was passed in December 2019, and as city after city witnessed huge crowds of Indians chanting the preamble and holding seminars on secularism, I was motivated to finish writing the book. I do feel that there are two books rolled into this one book, and that it will take time for readers to fully absorb my arguments. It took me a long time making them!

Saumya: Your work pays attention to Gandhi and his Hindutva assassin, Nathuram Godse’s India as two completely opposing ideologies. While Gandhi emphasised multifaith India, Godse created fear about the Other. One would think Gandhi’s death by Godse, and the propagation of Hindutva violence would reinstate trust in Gandhi’s acceptance of multiple faith. Yet in the chapter on Gandhi’s assassination and the rise of hurt sentiments you write, ‘Some amount of bigotry seeped into the soil, became acceptable. With Gandhi’s death died an idea of India.’ (p. 34) Could you elaborate on this, especially in the context of the rise of Hindutva magazine, Organiser and the 1979 ironic claim in it that, the Hindutva cultural group “RSS is more Gandhian than any other mass organisation” (p. 57)?

Neeti: Well, the chapter goes on to explain why I think some amount of bigotry became acceptable. Look at the debates in the Constituent Assembly after Gandhi’s assassination!

As for the claim that the RSS is more Gandhian than any other mass organization, this was made in numerous articles and editorials in the Organiser, and also in a biography of the RSS authored by K R Malkani, long-time editor of the Organiser. I think it stems from a fundamental misreading of Gandhi, of reducing his philosophy to one or two messages about which he wrote earlier in his career. Gandhi had a very long tenure in public life, over forty years. It is natural that he changed his views on matters such as a common language for India or on cow slaughter (being abolished by statute). The RSS worked by convenient cut-copy-paste, selectively choosing which of Gandhi’s messages, enunciated in an earlier time, it would reproduce in independent India and then claim to be Gandhian. Critical reading is not an RSS trait; indeed, it cannot be.

Saumya: The Hindutva ideology was not just attacking Muslims in India but also subversive thoughts that did not play by the rule book of Brahminical ideologies in 1954. A portion on the Riddles of Rama and Krishna in B.R. Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism ‘received sustained protests’ by the Hindutva elements such as the Shiv Sena, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Patit Pavan, and so on. They demanded that the portion be ‘deleted for offending Hindu religious sentiments’ (p. 124), and subsequently Dalits were attacked. This conversation arises again in early 1990s when Hindutva political party, the ‘BJP made a bid for Dalit votes.’ How did Hindutva ideologues at once claim to be Ambedkar’s ardent supporters, yet reject his work for hurting Hindu sentiments on Valmiki’s Ramayana? What kind of historical and legislative imagination on hurt was enabled by these (/similar) incidents of Orwellian doublethink, something that has become a characteristic feature in today’s political realm?

Neeti: Selective appropriation of icons happens all the time, and the Hindu Right has done so with Ambedkar. It had to, in the context of Mandal – wherein reservations were extended to Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in jobs in government and public sector undertakings – and its need to mobilize a Hindu constituency for the cause of the Ram temple.

My book’s focus on censorship allows us to clearly track some of these landmark cases and how they contribute to a general sentiment of accumulating hurt, against an alleged perpetrator, howsoever many centuries ago. The charge of Muslim appeasement would be hilarious, if it weren’t so deadly and tragic.

Saumya: In your narration of the 1956 draft Constitution debates in Pakistan on what entailed an “Islamic state,” among many other things, I was most struck by how the sentiments on naming Pakistan by Mian Abdul Bari of the Muslim League and the like were drawing from the history of naming of Hindustan and Bharat further arguing that Islam should be the grounding principle for East Pakistan and West Pakistan. And then we have Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as well as Basanta Kumar Das reflecting on the sentiments of Jinnah that true Islamic thought of Quran and Sunna should not make distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims (p. 169, 196). We see ideas of secularism vernacularised in this interpretation of Islam as a sacred place of all religions. I was wondering if you could comment a little on how and in what ways your research speaks with/departs from earlier theoretical framings of secularism as a Western import?

Neeti: I haven’t come across an appreciation of how meanings of secularism have evolved, in practice, and in tandem with political developments across the border, for and in South Asia. There is a very large literature on what secularism has been in the West—such as A Secular Age by Charles Taylor —and how it ought to be understood in India—such as Rajeev Bhargava’s Secularism and its Critics, but these are typically reflections on secularism in theory, or on certain developments in legal doctrine – on the maintenance of temples, or on laws against religious conversion, such as in Ronojoy Sen’s Articles of Faith: Religion, Secularism and the Indian Supreme Court and Sumit Sarkar’s Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History. I have tried to situate debates on censorship and hurt in a broader discussion on state ideology, because my archives led me in that direction. Others will ask different questions of the same archives, and different archives, and that is how it should be.

Saumya: It was really intriguing to see the delicate shift you make from historical records to interview (/oral history) as method/source where you spoke with Bangladesh’s first law minister, Kamal Hossain, ‘who had been under arrest and in solitary confinement in West Pakistan for the duration of the war, when secularism became relevant to the Awami Leaguers’ (p. 219) Could you shed some light on how did you decide to include this as part of your methodology and in what ways did this help you advance your thoughts on secularism’s place in Bengali Muslim Bangladesh that was deeply immersed in cultural practices of Bengal (a geographical place) more so than elite politics of West Pakistan?

Neeti: The interview with Dr Hossain happened almost by chance. I was speaking about his recently published memoirs to a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Ambassador William Milam, where I had a fellowship, when the ambassador suddenly offered to put me in touch with him as he would soon be visiting the US. It was only when I met Dr. Hossain and he firmly credited the late prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad with including secularism as one of the four founding principles that I began to search for more writings by Mr Ahmad. That led me to a close reading of old issues of the Bangladesh Observer that carried daily proceedings of the Constituent Assembly and to a two-volume set of press statements brought out by the Ministry of External Affairs in 1971, and to speaking with Ahmad’s daughter and biographer Sharmin Hossain. I gradually gained a deeper understanding of how secularism in Bangladesh evolved as a response to the misuse of religion in politics, not as in any way implying a separation of religion from state or being misconstrued as “anti-religion.” These misinterpretations were deliberate, strategic, political interventions that developed a bit later in the history of Bangladesh.

I find oral histories a hugely significant resource, though I didn’t have as much of a chance to do as many for this book as I did for my first book, Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition in India. Still, I learned a lot from each interview, regardless of whether I directly quoted from transcripts of these interviews.

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