Being Muslim and Working for Peace: Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Gujarat


Raphael Susewind

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    The anthropologist in the first world, regardless of her national or ethnic background, does not necessarily lack critical reflection or empathy or even responsibility; what she is divested of, crucially, is insecurity. (R. Robinson 2005: 15)

    While pursuing this project on Muslim peace activists, I travelled through many disciplines, institutions and even countries. I learned a lot, and am indebted to many for their support and guidance. First and foremost, I would like to thank the 21 anonymous peace activists, who sat down with me in 2008 in Ahmedabad and Halol, shared their experience and urged me to voice their struggle in academic fora. It is their insecurity that I am divested of, while this study is based on their courage. I can only hope that I do them justice.

    In Gujarat, Gagan Sethi opened many doors for me and critically commented on my findings once they took shape. I am grateful that he agreed to write some of his critique down in a no-nonsense commentary at the end of this book—a small experiment in giving voice. Further, I am deeply thankful to Pushpa Yadav, my research assistant; Nayan Patel, my contact at Jan Vikas, Ahmedabad; and Azim Khan, Academic Director at School for International Training, Jaipur, who helped me through the field phase. I am also indebted to the Cusanuswerk, and by extension the German Ministry for Education and Research, which continue to fund my life with scholarships and generous travel grants: thank you.

    Back in Germany, Thomas Noetzel and Mathias Bös, University of Marburg, supervised my analysis and guided me in the many methodological issues that came up. Jayendra Soni helped with language issues, while Hannah Franzki read through several drafts and ripped them apart, always for the better. After I submitted the first version of this work as my diploma thesis in political science (Susewind 2009a), I went on to the Contemporary South Asia Studies Programme at the University of Oxford. Amidst dreaming spires, I found distance from Gujarat, gained perspective and learned to write. I am particularly grateful to Barbara Harriss-White for this year, and also for keeping me as an Associate once familial consideration compelled me to return to Marburg in 2010. There, Andrea Fleschenberg and Daniel Pineu urged me to rework my thesis into an academic book and initiated me into the mysteries of academic publishing. Claudia Derichs, in turn, employed me as a full-time research fellow, which allowed me to write without financial worries; she also kept teaching manageable and held administrative tasks at bay. During the last weeks of writing, expert copy-editing by Anna-Maria Müller of TextExMachina made my task considerably less stressful than what it could have been. In 2011, I shifted disciplines and institutions once more, and began my doctoral studies in social anthropology at the University of Bielefeld. I thus write these lines while technically on fieldwork in Lucknow for the next project; my current supervisors, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and Lucia Michelutti, deserve special thanks for their patience with my detours.

    In all these years, many more people have contributed in one way or the other to the success of this book, knowingly and unknowingly. I am grateful to the German Research Network on Religion and Conflict at FEST, the German Association for Asian Studies, the Catholic Academic Exchange Service, the Religion and Development Programme at the University of Birmingham, the German Oriental Society and the Gujarat Studies Association for inviting me to present at their conferences, and to the audiences for their critique. Likewise, I had the opportunity to present my work in seminars and workshops in Jaipur, Marburg, Oxford, Allahabad and Lucknow, and benefited much from the feedback received. Earlier versions and cut-offs have been published elsewhere (Susewind 2009b, 2011, in press); I thank the editors and readers of those for their comments and, where necessary, for their permission to reproduce.

    Overall, it remains unusual for a young scholar like me to publish an academic book before he obtains his doctorate. In addition to all those named above, I am thus especially thankful to my editor at SAGE, Rekha Natarajan, for her encouragement and willingness to take a risk, and to the anonymous reviewer of the manuscript for his or her wholehearted endorsement of quality and relevance. Neelakshi Chakraborty and Dhurjjati Sarma steered me through the production process: thank you.

    Since the self-doubts of the young remain, however, my last vote of thanks goes to those who accompanied me on my personal journey throughout these four years. My wife, Julia, and my parents, Angelika and Alexander, missed me for months in India, had to face the fallout of frequent frustration, joined in occasional jubilation and continue to support my academic passion in many, often less obvious, ways. I am forever grateful to them.

    Despite all the help of so many people, however, I am the only one to blame for the shortcomings that remain. If I learned one thing from the various transformations of this project, it is that mediocrity in retrospect is the fate of all research. I thus sincerely wish that future contributions de-construct and re-construct my arguments in exciting new ways, and I am curious to hear about those.

    RaphaelSusewindLucknow, April 2012
  • Epilogue: An Activist's Comments

    Many activists portrayed in this book opened their minds and hearts in the hope that perhaps through me, the foreign scholar, their voices might at last be heard. They knew that I would soon return to distant lands, building a successful career out of whatever they told me—and they expected that I would likely never come back, at least not to them. This is not my fault, they consoled me: it simply is the way in which the global knowledge economy operates. The accurateness of their observation, and even more so the certainty in their voice, continue to greatly disturb me, even while I can offer little else than my best intentions. I am thus very glad that Gagan Sethi, one of my closest contacts in Gujarat, agreed to follow up on my findings and interpretations from an activist's perspective. Gagan is a senior human rights activist and social worker, co-founder of Jan Vikas, Centre for Social Justice and Dalit Foundation and sits on the board of several other civil society initiatives. He was also part of a special monitoring group on the Gujarat riots for the National Human Rights Commission (on which he reflects in Nampoothiri and Sethi 2012). Here is his reaction to my study:

    It has been a privilege to be associated with Raphael Susewind on his journey of immersing himself in the Indian Muslim reality post the Gujarat 2002 carnage. His lens of an outsider-insider is important, as most people within the country are only seen as taking sides, and their accounts are often brushed away as biased towards an incident that caused immense pain and injured the body politic of the Indian Nation—a nation that some say had just about healed from the trauma of 1947. Thus, the initiative of a German scholar, young, intense and wanting to understand peace activism in the context of Gujarat's communal violence was extremely welcome. It also proved that human rights are a universal concept and that people of different cultures can be moved to start asking fundamental questions, to extricate the truth and also to deepen the knowledge-building process around this topic.

    Raphael unfolds the incidents of 2002 from the lens of different peace activists who are engaged in relief and rehabilitation work post the Gujarat carnage—and herein lies the first question: were they all really peace activists or were they not rather human rights activist/defenders and victims seeking justice, who could not call themselves by these identities because these very identities had been degraded and denigrated by the local state government? On the first visit of the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, there was slogan shouting by the Hindu activists and even damaging of his convoy; this was much before the chairperson even gave his first public report, while the commission was still in a fact-finding mode. Somewhere in the penumbra of the Indian consciousness, the word human rights has acquired a negative connotation with the police and the establishment. Hence, my question whether these activists, who were actually engaged in relief and rehabilitation work, and in the attempt of bringing people to justice, were really peace activists—and are not rather ordinary human rights defenders who could not call themselves that?

    Moreover, while Raphael focuses on individual stories of being Muslim, I wonder whether he did then not overlook the identity of many of them as being competent, trained social workers? Be it as NGO staff doing a project or as a faith-based organization (FBO) person doing what their leaders asked them to do, whether one understands peace as absence of conflict or as more, whether one redresses victims of violence or were supporting individuals to seek justice, one question always prevails: in which sense was there any real effort during this time to engage with ‘the other’? The Muslim identity was in any case such a ghettoized identity in Gujarat, seemingly above all other identities; this often reduced Muslims to being just Muslims and nothing else. Now this identity of being Muslim also consumed the identity of the peace activists and NGO workers—seen as pro-Muslim and little else. Could these activists really contribute in any way to peace in this context? Or did they not rather end up stabilizing their community as a community victimized, because they, too, now appear above all as Muslims?

    This question of ghettoizing the Muslim identity is crucial because it connects to wider processes. The Gujarat carnage was unusual in that the political right wing had systematically broken all associational linkages whether economic or social long before the actual violence started (challenging the proposition of Varshney 2002). The truth is that children were divided based on faith-based schools for already a long time. For instance, in Dang district and other Adivasi-dominated areas, one saw three schools: one school run by the local district panchayat (often merely on paper), one Saraswati Mandir (temple of learning) run by the different outfits of the RSS, and one school run by the Christians. In Bharuch, a Muslim-dominated district, it is the makatib competing with the Christian school. Everywhere, religious identity was being highlighted.

    Beyond schools too, special squads to promote vegetarianism by accosting transport of beef by private militia and so on have been on the prowl, and large sammelans (congregation) were held by Hindu religious leaders to win over the Adivasis. The Adivasi Hindu identity, which earlier was a misnomer, has dramatically changed through shudhikaran (cleansing processes)—again trying to put religious identity on top of everything else. All these processes beg the question: was the violence a starting point or the ending of a long-drawn conflict, which began with highlighting one particular identity above all others (and in contrast to all others)? The systematic use of the Dalit sub-castes to lead the violence in 2002—through offering spoils and not based on ideological belief—creates a guilt-based loyalty, which is dangerous to say the least. This, too, is something that Raphael could have gone deeper into.

    In the context of these two criticisms—about peace activism and about emphasizing Muslim identity—Raphael's classification of faith-based actors, secular technocrats, emancipating women and doubting professionals shows the ambivalence in and of identity. But at times, Raphael's categories—though real and very identifiable on the ground—will need further sharpening, both regarding the relative strengths the identity brings and regarding the specific vulnerability that mark the interventions of these four types of activists. Raphael's analysis of the attributes of these diverse ways of ‘being Muslim and working for peace’—be it that some do not like talking about themselves, that others subsume immediate pain to mysticism as a ‘flight’ and that again others resort to other forms of defense mechanisms—is interesting and will eventually help to unravel the inner motivations of peace activism. But in this unraveling, it remains important to see whether being a peace activist and being a Muslim are proactively chosen identities and are not rather reactionary ones coming out of convoluted fear, anger and hate, sublimated through religious discourse—as in the case of young people who, put through extreme trauma, find solace in religion.

    In his conclusion, Raphael rightly states that ‘the acknowledgement that religion is neither irrelevant, nor always violent, but not peaceful by default either, is an important first step to more clarity in the debate on peace and conflict’. Likewise, his own study is a departure in that he looks at the Indian Muslim mind from the lens of peace and brings to light both the ‘ordinary’ and the charismatic leadership within the community. While we should not forget the contextual restraints on identity, the individuals he portrays do extraordinary acts and can thus rightly be called peace activists. I hope this will be recognized more widely: all categories of people exist in all communities, and the gross labeling of all Muslims in the negative needs to be shunned. Raphael's book will hopefully also spur the imagination of other young researchers nationally and internationally to understand ‘what makes a peace activist’—and thereby dovetail the attempts to train people for peace. The above are, therefore, merely some points of critique which came to the mind of a practising conflict transformation student. However, the book is very readable and thought provoking and should be part of the mind space of students and practitioners of ‘understanding conflict’.

    GaganSethi, Ahmedabad, May 2012


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    About the Author

    Raphael Susewind is currently Associate of the Contemporary South Asia Studies Programme, University of Oxford, Oxford and Doctoral Candidate in Social Anthropology, University of Bielefeld, Germany. He was earlier Research Fellow in Comparative Politics and International Development Studies at the University of Marburg, Germany.

    In his studies, teaching and research, he explores the various relations between politics, religion and belonging and between development and violent conflict in South Asia. He has published articles on Muslim peace activists in Gujarat and on India's diplomacy vis-à-vis Bangladesh, and currently explores Muslim belonging and contemporary diversity in Lucknow, in affiliation with the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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