By Amulya Gopalakrishnan
September 15, 2019
A few days ago, a cobbler called Ashok Parmar opened a chappal shop in Ahmedabad, called Ekta (Unity). It was inaugurated by a tailor named Qutubuddin Ansari. Nearly two decades ago, these two men were famous. They were the instantly recognisable faces of the Gujarat riots.
The photographs of Ansari, crying and pleading with folded hands, and of Parmar in his saffron headband, arms aggressively raised and fists balled, had become iconic images of the 2002 violence.
Today, Parmar and Ansari want to present a picture of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation as they inaugurate this Ekta Chappal shop. Parmar, who insists he was falsely framed in the picture, told reporters he had not been driven by religious resentment as much as the frustration of losing work and daily wages, during the riots. “I was a mochi then, and I am a mochi now”, he has said.
Of course this was not a spontaneous friendship. It was also partly a photo-op, engineered with an “agenda”. Ansari and Parmar first met in Kerala, through a Left-organised initiative. And why not? No one political side has a monopoly on symbol and gesture. The coming together of these two famous faces is an attempt to change the plot, present an image of Dalit-Muslim unity and working-class solidarity, and drain communalism of some of its force.
In India today, national unity is taking a majoritarian shape — any other form of identity, of lower-caste or regional assertion is tarred as “tukde-tukde” activity, because it disrupts Hindu unity. In this view, the dominant group must dominate, and political and cultural equality of all citizens is cast as appeasement.
Meanwhile, in the constitutional idea of India, to divide on the basis of religion would be a tukde-tukde impulse. In the liberal model, ekta is the bond between Parmar and Ansari, it values the interdependence between people, the hum of productive activity rather than the drumbeats of conflict.
Let’s not delude ourselves, the narrative of this Ekta chappal shop is not an easy sell in these times. It is proving difficult to craft a coalition even between groups most marginalised by majoritarianism. For all the fond hopes of progressives, Dalits or adivasis or women or minorities have not come together to defeat its project.
Even people who are materially worse off now, who are slumped and worried about their prospects, are still receptive to the messaging of religious supremacy or jingoism. Economic sentiment and political sentiment seem to have taken forking paths. Why is that? Because to many people, there is a holy cause that seems more pressing than the government’s economic record. Under its spell, even farmers and traders and workers and those out of work are not blaming the government for their lucklessness; they cheer it on for decisively inflicting pain on some perceived enemy, or for keeping minorities cowed.
Ashok Parmar may have come to the realisation that communal animosity doesn’t improve anyone’s life, but for many others, economic despair doesn’t dent majoritarian passions. In fact, material frustration may even increase support for such mass movements. It may answer a psychic need — when one is anxious, isolated and deprived, a mass movement that demands loyalty and submission can provide structure and identity, what Hannah Arendt called a “band of iron”. Unable to bear a self-sufficient existence, they merge gladly into a group identity; we see these energies in many parts of the world today. We don’t know what shape these reactionary movements will take, as they roll on, or how their recruits can be persuaded otherwise.
But either way, the Ekta chappal shop is a different model of peace and solidarity, where unity does not demand uniformity, where we can be stronger together.
The poet Seamus Heaney told a memorable story about a bus of workers in Northern Ireland stopped by armed men. They make all the workers line up, and order the Catholics to step out. The group is mostly Protestant, except for one Catholic, who is terrified, preparing about to step out, when his neighbour squeezes his hand to signal: “no don’t worry, we won’t betray you, whatever your faith or party”. The man steps out of the line anyway.
But suddenly, he is thrown backwards, alive, as the armed men open fire on everybody else in the line, because in fact, these gunmen are from the IRA which claims the Catholic side. Heaney writes: “The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.”
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author's own.
Original Headline: A small Ahmedabad initiative holds out a different unity model
Source: The Times of India