A Summary of my Creative Project: a Reflection on Communalism and Identity in South Asia
More than anything, I have looked at the readings and knowledge that I’ve gained in this course through the lens of communalism and how religious communalism has both grown and dissipated through South Asian history. I am very much interested on how religion has been used to both divide and unite the people of South Asia, and why religious divisions are sometimes overcome and celebrated, while at other times they are used to drive people apart. Inevitably, when addressing communalism, there are many complex factors such as politics, regional structure, location and outside influence that come into play. To me, the historical trend seems to be pointed towards increasing communalism, as religious nationalism has only grown stronger, while much of the commonalities that South Asians share have been increasingly downplayed over the past century.
To engage with the idea of communalism, I have made sure that each one of my creative reflections interacts with religious, regional and other forms of identity, and attempted to use each one to investigate which factors of identity are being emphasized in the particular readings I’m reflecting on.
In my first response, I have addressed the idea of a Sufi dargah. To me, the dargah represents a strong rejection of communalism in South Asia, as the spiritual space has become important not only to Muslims, but also Hindus and others. We learned in class how the sargah was and is often an important spiritual place for women, as men tended to dominate areas such as the mosque in religious life. Thus, because the dargah is important to women, it represents the primary importance of gendered identity, rather than religious identity. In thinking about the dargah, I thought back to the interview we watched with two Hindu women who were going to a dargah, and treated it as a normal extension of their religious ritual. Thus the dargah represents the extent to which religious traditions can not only coexist, but also coevolve in South Asia.
The figure of Akbar elicits similar ideas of rejecting communalism and emphasizing religious unity and respect for India’s diverse religious and traditional fabric. We have read extensively about how Akbar not only respected but also took part in many different religious traditions, and thus we can envision Akbar as an important figure for representing Pan-Indian unity and mutual respect.
The ideas represented in the readings of languages and literature also represent this theme within Indian history of accepting religious difference and celebrating the diversity of India’s traditions. Language has shown me how regional identities often rank much higher in terms of importance for South Asians that religious identity. Thus, just as the dargah represents the elevation of gender identity above religious identity, language represents the elevation of regional identity. We have seen how linguistic traditions allow different faiths to interact, and how both Muslims and Hindus use the same linguistic devices and literary techniques to express their faith. I found that the unity that linguistic tradition provides is a prime example of how faith-based identity is not always the primary uniting factor for people in South Asia.
Despite the many examples of religious identity’s secondary importance in South Asia, it is undeniable that religious identity has not had a profound dividing effect on the people of South Asia, especially during the modern period of its history. Thus, in some of my reflections, I have interacted with the ways in which religious identity is emphasized and over-emphasized in creating an identity. I thought the readings on Architecture were especially important within this discourse, as we saw how architectural styles are now addressed using religious terminology, to the extent to which building with no religious function are defined by their allegiance to a religious group. This form of labeling often completely disregards the historical nature of the building in question, ignoring the fact that it might have been inspired by, built by or used by people of many religious faiths, and distilling the entire identity of the building into a religious marker. Notably, the way in which architecture takes on a religiously communalist tone reflects the impact that colonialism and imperialism has had on the growth of religious-based identity in South Asia, as we read about how British architectural historians deliberately injected religious terms into architectural historiography in order to emphasize communalist differences in India and thus make it easier for British rule to be established.
In my final response, I attempted to present a small snapshot of the dilemma existing in South Asia between the different forms of identity. On the one hand, we have elements of Indian unity and common practice, represented by the idea of a whole India, and on the other, we have a subcontinent divided based on religion, represented by the split India. Unfortunately, these two approaches to identity in South Asia cannot be reconciled, and thus I placed one upside down from the other—it seems to me that there has been a historical debate within India as to what should be the basis of identity, and while one camp emphasized the inter-religious commonalities all Indians share, the more prominent side of the debate, at least at this point in history, is the camp that emphasized religious communalism. This communalism has been present in almost every topic of the South Asian landscape that we have covered, which is why I chose it as the focus of my creative project.
This course has shown time and time again that the Indian subcontinent is an incredibly complex environment, containing an enormous amount of people, cultures, faiths and identities. What this course has taught me most of all is, while individuals can have many different elements of their identity, it is which identity is emphasized that defines the nature of a group. This question can be answered in so many different ways, and the same people can answer it differently within separate historical and political environments. More than anything, I wanted to use my final project to investigate the different types of identity that are made primary, and ask why it is that one element of identity becomes elevated over others given a particular context.