The Philosophy of Number

The Philosophy of Number - by Dilip Simeon

NB: This paper is due to appear in a volume entitled Communalism in Post-colonial India Changing Contours; Edited by Mujibur Rehman; Routledge India (2015). It was completed in 2013, and discusses why our understanding of communal politics is constrained from the outset by the faulty concepts we use, which only serve to re-inforce communal ideologies. DS

The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got - Marx & Engels

The foundation of power is somewhere other than this or that person or this or that dynasty, which could be said to incarnate it. If God is absent, there are only human beings left, and the matter of sovereignty - its foundation - can only be elucidated among them. Sovereignty is a human not a divine matter. 
Gerard Mairet

But now our requirements have changed, and the facts have changed behind us
- Hilary Mantel

It is difficult to judge which is the more grievous of our predicaments: the acceptability (for a large number of Indians) of mass murder as a fact of life; or our unwillingness to understand communalism outside of a communal lens. To put it differently, many people consider the theft of money to be a greater evil than the assassination of large numbers of people; and even when we try to understand genocidal events, most of the time we end up with a variant of the proposition that ‘my murderers are better than yours.’ And in a country where even atheists are cast as Hindu, Muslim or Sikh etc, an obsessive awareness of religious identity tends to colour all discourses, even theoretical ones, about communalism – ‘my communalists are not as bad as yours’, or even, ‘my communalists are not communalists at all, yours are.’ 

Despite the terrible tragedies that have convulsed South Asia over the past century, it appears we are no closer to an understanding of the most intractable issue in modern Indian history than we were seven decades ago. Our consciences and minds are held in a vice-like grip, and the very vocabulary of our utterances only generates misconception, self-deceit and further animus. Incessant violence and hatred have resulted in a nihilist situation.

In the period between the two assaults on the Babri Masjid, there took place a political conversation in the office of the Indian Peoples’ Front, a front organization (now defunct), of the CPI (ML). A prominent leader of the ML party was hosting a discussion on contemporary issues with public intellectuals. The conversation veered to the matter of Advani’s 1990 Rath Yatra - Advani’s arrest had led to the downfall of the V.P. Singh government. The Yatra had been obliged to skip Chhatisgarh, on account of the resistance of the Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha led by Shankar Guha Niyogi, who was later assassinated.  I asked the leader why, when Advani’s pilgrimage of hate could be turned away from Chhatisgarh by strong workers resistance, the CPI (ML) did not turn it away from the areas in Bihar where it had its strongest mass movements. 

The answer was symptomatic of the leftist common sense about communalism. He replied that if the Party had done so, the ‘people would have assumed we were siding with one community against the other.’ For this theoretician, the issue was (by implication) not one of upholding lawful government or the constitutional obligation to protect historical monuments; rather, what was happening was a conflict between communities. It did not call for a defence of democracy against mob violence, or an exposure of the claims of communal groups to ‘represent’ entire communities, it was a Hindu-Muslim issue, and the best way out of it was to get ‘community leaders’ to sort it out amicably. Since the communist position on bourgeois democracy is deeply ambivalent, its position on fascism is equally compromised. However, Indian communists have not theorized fascism at all, so the comrades’ position reflected the stance of an entire spectrum of left opinion on communalism.

My attempt in this essay is to place some fresh ideas on this debate. If there is a political and philosophical corollary to these ideas, it is a plea for moderate speech. Extreme positions and hyperbolic utterances have become commonplace these days, and very often emanate from the heart of the establishment. It is doubtful whether meaningful communication is taking place on burning questions ranging from public security, political violence and police reform, to women’s rights, education and criminal justice. Activists of mainstream political parties have been known engage in hooliganism, and attacks on the freedom of speech and expression have become the norm.

It is arguable that the Indian constitution is under threat, not only from declared insurgents, but equally from the actions (and inaction) of persons sworn to uphold it. The important questions are not reducible to party politics, and answers to them cannot be found in partisan manifestos. It is not a Party but a platform of political moderation and social democracy that is lacking. What we need to question are commonsensical notions, the vocabulary in use by all protagonists, the concepts that rule without challenge in the domain of ideas. These concepts include nation, majority, and minority. Let us begin with a quick look at a little known report from one of the most violent and tragic periods in Indian history.

A line in the ground
In September 1947, two Indian communists presented a report to Jawaharlal Nehru that was later published under the title Bleeding Punjab Warns. They began with a mention of one of their comrade-witnesses, ‘Baba Gurmukh Singh, veteran revolutionary who had put in 27 years in imperialist prisons and whose blood was boiling at the way Punjab was reduced to bloody shambles..’, and continued:

what happened in the Punjab cannot be called a riot. It was a regular war of extermination of the minorities, of the Sikhs and Hindus in Western Punjab and of Muslims in East Punjab. It cannot be compared to Calcutta or Noakhali, Bihar, or even to Rawalpindi for in all these cases it was mobs of one community that took leading part in killing, looting and burning the minority in the area, their communal passions being roused to a pitch of frenzy and savagery.. In the Punjab, however, in the recent biggest killing ever seen, it was the trained bands equipped with firearms and modern weapons that were the main killers, looters and rapers.

These were the storm troops of various communal parties such as National Guards of the Muslim League in the Western Punjab, and the Shahidi Dal of the Akalis and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of the Mahasabha in the Eastern Punjab. They were actively aided and often actually led by the police and the military in committing the worst atrocities.. in violence and in brutality, in the numbers killed (which Syt Shri Prakasha, India’s Ambassador to Pakistan places at 1 ½ lakhs) in the use of plenty of modern deadly weapons, in the devastation spread over 14 districts of the Punjab and in the way in which the police, the military and the entire administration was geared not to stop the riots but to spread it – the Punjab tragedy is without parallel..

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