Neeti Nair’s ‘Hurt Sentiments’ is contextualisation of present in past : The Tribune India

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Neeti Nair’s ‘Hurt Sentiments’ is contextualisation of present in past

Neeti Nair’s ‘Hurt Sentiments’ is contextualisation of present in past

Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia by Neeti Nair. Harvard University Press. Pages 352. Rs 699

Book Title: Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia

Author: Neeti Nair

Radhika Ramaseshan

The title of this historiography cannot be more evocative because it integrates themes and feelings which conjure up a socio-political milieu harking back to the past and drawing from it to deconstruct and reconstruct the present in South Asia, particularly India, by conjoining a sense of “hurt” sentiments felt by every faith. The gamut of ideas and interpretations impinge on secularism (or its absence), belonging and alienation which characterise lives and preoccupations in the sub-continent.

Neeti Nair’s seminal work is bookended by one of the most significant issues of our times: the contentious and divisive Citizenship Amendments Bill (now an Act), which is used as a throwback to the past because for her the contemporary is embedded in the past. It is impossible to understand the two in isolation. The opening lines of the introduction set the work’s tone and tenor. “On a cold December afternoon in 2019, I paused work to listen to India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, explain the rationale for the Citizenship Amendments Bill about to be passed through Parliament... Shah shook his finger accusingly and declared that through the Bill, the Narendra Modi government intended to undo the wrong committed by the Liaquat-Nehru pact” (signed on April 8, 1950, to ensure the security and rights of the minorities). In one stroke, the statement shook the bedrock of the Indian Constitution.

The book concludes with a passage on the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that set afire the country in the winter of 2019. Its last line is prescient and hard-hitting. “Secularism was no longer an abstract constitutional principle; it had become an imperative to uphold, a slogan to embrace fully, wholly, in substantial measure” because the Act was “widely regarded as having the awesome potential to target and disenfranchise Indian Muslims, often described as ‘illegal’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ in the writings and speeches of BJP leaders”.

Its vast sweep of history, dating back to pre-Independence, straddles the space that sits between erudition and expatiation as well as reflection and retelling without descending into pedagogy and pamphleteering. The author, a professor of history at Virginia University, has an ideological viewpoint but never lets it colour her narrative. Her contextualisation of the present in the past by weaving together the myriad strands making up a persona and an event into a comprehensible whole shines a light on issues that are tangled in dialectics. What explains the Congress’ manifest ambivalence over secularism despite claiming to be its chief spokesperson? What were the compulsions brought to bear on Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar while resolving the vexatious questions on India’s minorities? Were the proponents of a Hindu “rashtra” always united in their espousals of a rival ideology opposed to secularism? How did Pakistan’s dismemberment amend the Jana Sangh’s interpretation of secularism as “Muslim appeasement” when the Mukti Bahini fought the Pakistani army to create a secular, independent Bangladesh?

Gandhi emerges as the idealist, the savant and the hard-headed politician who adroitly escaped some of the quandaries by a mix of pragmatism and compromise. The chapter on “Gandhi’s Assassination, Godse’s Defence, and the Minority Question”, with two telling epigraphs which set out their worldviews, poignantly depicts the Mahatma as isolated by the Left and the Right. To Gandhi’s assertion that “a prayer meeting is not a debating assembly... freedom of worship, even of public speech, would become a farce if interference became the order of the day”, his assassin Nathuram Godse’s salvo was, “I (am) determined to prove to Gandhiji that the Hindu too could be intolerant when his honour was insulted.” Godse’s sentiment was understandable in the background of his unwavering beliefs. What of the Congress?

A remark by Acharya Kripalani on June 14, 1947, explained why he would no longer support Gandhi. Kripalani said Gandhi had not found a way of tackling the “problem of non-violent non-cooperation” on a “mass basis” because his policies had to be carried out by others and “these others” were not converted to his way of thinking. Were “these others” leaning towards the Godse school of thought of the “hurt” Hindus and the case for an “Akhand Bharat”? The author conceded, “Some amount of bigotry seeped into the soil, became acceptable. With Gandhi’s death died an idea of India.”

The author chronicles a meeting of Gandhi’s associates after his assassination which reflected their political turmoil on dealing with the aftermath of Partition, the anger among the refugees and the plot behind the Mahatma’s killing which caught them unawares. Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, among those present, wondered how India got out of control. They had no answers.

The authoritative work dwells painstakingly on the Constituent Assembly debates, Indira Gandhi’s tortuous engagements with the RSS, Jana Sangh and BJP, and the Babri mosque’s demolition and its aftermath. Nair concludes with a reaffirmation of Gandhian secularism in the “earlier moment” and an “Islam that was particularly considerate of non-Muslims”.