Appropriation and Erasure of Marginalized Cultures of South Asia: An Anti-Caste Approach to Counter Cultural Genocide

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When we speak of cultural appropriation and cultural genocide, the predominant image that comes to our mind is that of colonization by Western Europeans appropriating or erasing Indigenous traditions or African and Black cultures, as well as colonized Asian cultures. In the postcolonial context, the erstwhile colonized countries tend to unidirectionally focus on the global dominant culture and its tendency to appropriate and erase other cultures in the past few centuries. The discourse on decolonization has brought many of these issues to the forefront by highlighting the ongoing project of cultural domination by the West, which has also led to important changes like bringing down public statues of slave owners, much-needed changes in the curriculum, inclusive hiring, and much more.

However, a narrow conception of decolonization can easily be weaponised by a local hegemonical culture and be used to hide its own project of cultural domination by using the language of decolonization, as I have described in a talk in 2019. Tabish Khair also argues that ignoring such local hegemonies can sometimes be more harmful than the harm caused by global ones. He uses the example of Hindutva and Islamism in South Asia to further substantiate the point that by focusing only on European colonization we tend to paper over how local hegemonies have resurrected themselves in the guise of decolonization. In recent times, decolonization has been used as a moral shield to consistently thwart any attempts to problematize and dismantle local hegemonies.

Of course, both Hindutva and Islamism in South Asia now are not merely a rejection of colonial in favour of reviving pre-colonial hegemonies. In fact, they are quite modern and colonial in nature, both in their interpretation and deployment as Audrey Truschke has shown in many of her writings. We know that even during the colonial context, precolonial hegemonies were instrumental in shaping the colonial discourse as both Savarna Hindu and Ashrāf Muslim interlocutors worked alongside British colonizers to produce this knowledge about South Asia, as Nicholas Dirks has argued in his works. The precolonial hegemonies based on caste-gender shaped and got re-shaped in turn in its interaction with colonial state apparatus. Most importantly, the South Asian social life became reconstituted by the colonial knowledge that religion[2] was placed as the central category of discourse while caste and gender were seen to be governed by theological rationale (Ludden, 1993). It is for this reason we have come to see caste as endemic to Hinduism but not to South Asian Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, or Jainism, even though empirically caste-gender shapes social relations and material lives of people across all religions.

In this article, I will highlight that the roots of current practices of cultural appropriation, erasure, and genocide in South Asia draws on a long history of local cultural hegemonies, predominantly of Brahminism and Ashrāf Islamism (not to say that upper caste Christianity, Sikhism, or Jainism doesn’t do it but just to focus on the predominant two).[3] Thus, for us to make sense of our current predicaments and the responses by the marginalized communities to counter cultural genocide, we need a good understanding of both the Brahminical strategy as well as the Ashrāf Islamist strategy of cultural domination. Only then can we understand “why and how such practice continues in myriad forms, who benefits from it, and how to prevent the loss of (marginalized) cultures.”[4]

 

Brahminical strategy – fusion, integration, and repulsion

Sebastian Kappen, a liberation theologist and Marxist thinker from Kerala, conceptualized the Brahminical strategy of cultural domination as a curious mix of three strategies: symbolic fusion, symbolic integration, and symbolic repulsion (Kappen, 2019, pp. 10-11). By symbolic fusion he implies the practices through which local male deities were fused into the Brahminical pantheon of gods. For instance, pre-Aryan Siva was appropriated in the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva by identifying him with Rudra of Rig-Veda, whereas Krishna and Narayana were seen as avatars of Vishnu (ibid.). Many other local deities from indigenous traditions were similarly linked to either Vishnu or Siva and fused into the Brahminical pantheon. Even Buddha, who presented one of the strongest critiques of Brahminism, was fused as the 9th avatar of Vishnu so that the critique could be completely neutralized. When we look at reclaiming culture later in the article, we will see how Buddhism became an important cultural tradition to turn to for many anti-caste thinkers, of whom Iyothee Thaas and Ambedkar are the tallest figures. For other cultural forms like language, food, music, dance, etc. the folk tradition is appropriated and classicized. For instance, classicization as fusion allowed the Tamil Brahmins in 20th century to appropriate Sadir into Bharatanatyam[5] and completely change its aesthetics and material practices. Thus, symbolic fusion becomes a vicious strategy to erase the traditional meaning of these local cultural practices and replace them with completely antithetical values.

The second part of the strategy that Kappen mentions is symbolic integration. Symbolic integration happens when the dominant culture does not fuse the subjugated culture completely into itself but instead integrates it in a hierarchical manner. Kappen provides the instances of merging the Tantra Mother Goddess cults into Brahminism by marrying them into either the Aryan gods or pre-Aryan gods that have been already fused into the pantheon, but they remain subservient to the male gods. For instance, Sri who was an autonomous goddess during Buddha’s time, got married to Vishnu and became Lakshmi, while Parvati got married to Siva. Through their symbolic integration by marriage, the independence and power of these autonomous goddesses were neutralized. Once Sri and Parvati became integrated into the Brahminical pantheon, they also became sites for further fusion. “In Maharashtra, local goddesses like Tukai, Jokhai, and Satavi fused with either Parvati or Lakshmi…[whereas] local female deities worshipped by lower classes of North Kerala have been canonized and identified with Durga” (ibid., p. 12). Even in terms of temple architecture, one can observe that the main temples are inhabited by the dominant caste deities whereas the folk deities are put in a smaller shrine just outside the temple. Kappen further highlights that integration not only happens with mother goddess traditions but also other deities of marginalized cultures like the Cobra, which becomes a garland of Siva, or Hanuman who becomes a servant of Rama (ibid.). Many other deities also got included in the myth as Rakshasas, Asuras, Daityas, or Danavas who were dominated and killed as part of Brahminical myth-telling. Integration in this way is different from fusion as some history of the original deity is maintained, but at the same time it is transformed to be subservient to the dominant culture. Additionally, the continued storytelling of these newer myths over generations reifies the power hierarchy between the dominant and marginalized cultures by showing the latter “their place”.

The third aspect of this strategy is symbolic repulsion, which is the most obvious exclusionary practice of Brahminism, “where a myth or ritual represents the exclusion of alien elements”. We can observe this strategy of symbolic repulsion in numerous examples:  rules about who can enter the temple and till which section of the temple they can go (outside, inside, or the inner sanctum sanctorum), eating of beef, usage of language and literature, types of music and dance, erasure of certain deities, exclusion of mlechhas (non-Vedic communities as well as foreigners), the segregation of menstruating women from home and temples, and many other such practices informed by purity and pollution. Repulsion has a specific embodied dimension that really humiliates and dehumanizes the person seen to be inhabiting practises of a “low culture”. All these three strategies combine into a vicious and potent weapon for executing a cultural genocide invisibly – sometimes without even explicit coercion. This makes it quite difficult to be challenged by the oppressed.

 

Ashrāf Islamist strategy – superiority and erasure

When Tabish Khair is speaking of the dangers of blindness towards local hegemonies of Hindutva and Islamism in his article, he makes the oft-repeated mistake of clubbing the Islamism of ISIS with all other parts of the world, be it South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, or anywhere else where Muslims live. This papering over differences within Islam (or for that matter within Christianity) perpetuates a false conception that Islam is the same everywhere because it is governed by a central text of Qur’an and the life of prophet captured in Hadees and Sharia code. This problematic understanding emerges from the same colonial knowledge production that gives priority to the idea of a universalist religion governed by central texts rather than everyday customs and practices of people, which are far more embedded in cultures of that particular place. Even to talk in terms of Ashrāf Islamism is a generalization over many cultures and is limiting; however, as a discourse it has played a major role in the politics of South Asia. As discussed earlier, in South Asia it is the caste-gender matrix that shapes the cultural practices of almost all religions, and therefore it is important to discuss how the cultural domination of Ashrāf Islamism works.

Ashrāf Islamist strategy of cultural erasure and genocide works differently from Brahminical cultural domination and many times its unable to govern the same kind of hegemony, at least in India. It doesn’t use the important Brahminical strategies of fusion and integration of local cultures into its hegemony. Instead, it imposes a high culture of tehzeeb and tameez that has its basis in Arabic and/or Persianate culture. Khalid Anis Ansari, an important Pasmanda[6] scholar, has problematized the workings of Ashrāf Islamism in many of his writings, which I draw upon here.

The first step of this cultural domination is to present a genealogy of one’s family from West or Central Asia to establish a superior claim to Muslim-ness, as compared to those in South Asia who converted locally. Thus, the distinction of Ashrāf from Ajlāf and Arzāl is primarily made by finding their proximity to the Prophet and his lineage – the further you are from that, the lesser claim of being a Muslim you have. Of course, the socio-economic privileges of Ashrāf are the main reason for them to be able to control this discourse and impose cultural superiority over others. This also manifests in Ashrāf’s controlling the major religious-cultural institutions of South Asia and has its effect on how Pasmanda Muslims are made to stand in the back queues while praying in mosques or go to different mosques altogether, having separate burial grounds, as well as suffer due to caste-based endogamy and untouchability practices.

Another important site of cultural hegemony for Ashrāf in many parts of India and Pakistan has to do with the Urdu language. To distinguish from the local languages of a region, Urdu is constructed through its literature and poetry by adding more Arabic and Persianate words while removing influences from Punjabi, Sindhi, Khadi boli, Braj, Awadhi, Magadhi, Maithili, Bangla, Marathi, and other local languages. The construction of “pure” Urdu and its literature and poetry is not only used to assert superiority but also to taunt and make fun of those who are unable to pronounce it correctly in the ‘right talaffus (pronunciation)’. The association of Urdu with Muslim identity is so deeply constructed in both academic and popular discourse that a recent OUP book by Ali Khan Mahmudabad, Poetry of Belonging,  connects Urdu Mushairah, and Muslim citizenship in almost a linear fashion without problematizing the cultural hegemony of Urdu on Pasmanda Muslims (apart from a passing reference on p. 56 that non-upper caste poets in mushairah would be an exception than the norm).

The vicious side of Ashrāf Islamism shows up the most in exercising its power and judgment over what can be considered as Islamic and what cannot be. A constant judgment looms over all cultural and religious customs and rituals of Muslims on whether that practice is Islamic or un-Islamic. Be it visiting a Sufi shrine to pray to a saint, or the use of music and dance, or food practices, or marriage rituals, or the way festivals are celebrated, everywhere Ashrāf Islamism seems to have a compulsive disorder to pass a judgment (sometimes including fatwa) as to how something is un-Islamic by referencing West Asian Islam. This strategy ends up erasing many local cultural practices as they are deemed as un-Islamic or pagan by the Ashrāf Islamist discourse. Such cultural erasure by censuring cultural practices based on a universalist normative Islam and labelling Pasmanda communities as not fully Muslims is used time and again to assert cultural hegemony of Ashrāf discourse.

In the case of Dalit or tribal communities that follow pre-Aryan cultural practices, it is not important to gauge whether the Brahminical strategy of fusion and integration is more harmful than the Ashrāf Islamist strategy of superiority and erasure. Instead, rejecting both supremacist projects in favour of inclusive cultural intermixing is of far greater importance. In the next section, I attempt to provide some examples from such a perspective.

 

Anti-caste approach to counter cultural genocide – reclaiming and assertion

The effects of cultural erasure by Brahminical and Ashrāf Islamism on the marginalized communities is immense. By fusing, integrating, and/or erasing the culture of a community, one can destroy the sense of self-worth at a very ontological level. To challenge such kinds of cultural domination, we have historically seen many forms of cultural resistances that have tried to either reclaim their cultural practices from appropriation or have asserted new creative forms. It is important to mention a few examples here for us to get a sense of anti-caste approaches to countering cultural genocide.

Kappen highlights that Buddhism and Bhakti movement have been the two most important challenges to Brahminical hegemony through history. Gail Omvedt, in her works like Buddhism in India, Seeking Begumpuraamong others, also highlights the challenges that Sramanic[7] traditions posed to the hegemonic Brahminical ones throughout India’s post-Aryan history. These challenges have been primarily in the form of reclaiming religion from upper-caste orthodoxy so that it can again be made democratically available for plural and ethical interpretations. Myths, poetry, and music have been the critical sites where many Sramanic saints, including Bhakti and Sufi poets, have been able to provide new imaginations and worldviews, while attacking the so-called “high culture” of Brahminism and Ashrāf Islamism.

The Sramanic counter-culture traditions have continued in the present through critical interventions by anti-caste thinkers, poets, and musicians in the past two centuries. Savitribai and Jotiba Phule, Iyothee Thass, Ayyankali, Tarabai Shinde, Birsa Munda, Komaram Bheem, Periyar, Jaipal Singh Munda, and Babasaheb Ambedkar among many others have provided tremendous resources to resist the attempts of cultural fusion, integration, and erasure by local hegemonies. To name just one example, the lokshahiri tradition of Maharashtra and surrounding regions, that provided a strong poetic and musical critique to casteism, has had a continued tradition from the Bhakti poets like Chokhamela to Phules’ Satyashodhak Jalsas in 19th century and Ambedkari Jalsas in the 20th. In the 21stcentury not only the lokshahiri tradition has continued to flourish with the likes of Gaddar, Sambhaji Bhagat, and Shital Sathe but also new forms of anti-caste hip hop have emerged. Both the music and poetry in these songs provide a strong critique of the local hegemonies and attempts to shape egalitarian sensibilities among the listeners.

However, as both Ambedkar and Kappen highlight in their works, time and again counter-revolutionary and reactionary forces somehow “seem to gain the upper hand over the force of regeneration” (Kappen, 2019, p. 20). Kappen calls this “cyclical regression” where revolutionary forces burst into the scene, change things substantially for a period of time, but then slowly succumb to the same orthodox forces. This is what happened to the bold challenges posed by Buddhism and the Bhakti traditions, as the upper-caste orthodoxy reasserted its hegemony through various strategies explained above. In the current times, we are witnessing a similar upsurge of local hegemonies again in the form of Hindutva in India, Ashrāf Islamism in parts of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, as well as militant Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Hence, to prevent the loss and obfuscation of marginalized cultures, we need to understand how the global and local hegemonies persist while at the same time how they are challenged and resisted by the oppressed.

 

References

Kappen, S. (2019). Hindutva and Indian Religious Traditions. Chennai, India: Notion Press.

Ludden, D. (1993). Orientalist empiricism: Transformations of colonial knowledge in C.A. Breckenridge and P. van der Veer (Eds.) Orientalism and the postcolonial predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (pp. 250-278), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[1] I am thankful to my colleagues for the conversations on culture and politics, especially Dr Khalid Anis Ansari, Dr Kalyani K, Dr Prashanth D and Dr Adil Hossain among others.

[2] I’m using religion here in the way colonial knowledge constructed its definition in a universalist sense without much focus on the particularist interpretations, experiences, and local practices of it.

[3] I’m using Ashraf Islamism here to distinguish the current of Islamism in South Asia from West Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa as caste has a central role to play in understanding South Asian Islam differently.

[4] I’m using this quotation from the concept note of this issue of Shuddhashar to emphasize the necessity of understanding these strategies.

[5] For an in-depth understanding of how hereditary dance practices of so-called lower caste women were appropriated and sanitized into the classical form of Bharatanatyam, please see the works of anti-caste dancer-activist Nrithya Pillai, such as – www.epw.in/engage/article/re-casteing-narrative-bharatanatyam

[6] Pasmanda, literally those who are left behind in Persian, is a term being used by anti-caste Muslim thinkers to distinguish between the dominant and oppressed castes among Muslims in parts of South Asia. Pasmanda as a political identity aims to bring together Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi Muslims to challenge caste oppression of lower caste Muslims. Please see the following article for more details – www.forwardpress.in/2020/05/pasmanda-movement-questions-the-myth-of-a-monolithic-indian-muslim-identity/

[7] The distinction between Brahmanism and Sramanism was first conceptualized by Romila Thapar by looking at early Indian religion. She highlights how early Brahmanism was interested in demarcating the twice born upper caste following Vedas and Dharmashastras from the labouring and heretic groups that denied the fundamentals of Brahminism and were subjugated to the lowest rung of caste hierarchy. For more on Brahmanism and Sramanism, please see this article – www.jstor.org/stable/312738

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