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Editorial: Beyond Assam and Mumbai, 2012

Events have a strange way of accentuating a sense of immediacy.

The first issue of Café Dissensus is a consequence of this sense of immediacy experienced after the Assam riots and subsequent Mumbai violence in July-August, 2012. While the ordinary Indian Muslim experience is most often non-newsworthy, every time an incident involving Muslims erupts, Indian Muslims themselves become acutely aware of their ‘difference’ and the non-Muslims wake up to the Muslim malice.

While ordinary practices provide a sense of meaning and continuity to our life, the events, by usurping the space of the mundane, engender moments of critical consciousness. Those moments define who and what we are. They shape our world-views. For example, Indian Muslims often invoke the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Gujarat Massacres in 2002 as the more definitive markers of their identity. In many ways, this issue is our way of understanding the afterlife of events – what compels the near invisible mundane to the critical point of events, what happens when the rhythm of the ordinary is interrupted, and how to retrieve the ordinary stories that are often forgotten.

In the immediate aftermath of Assam riots and Mumbai violence, the print and electronic media generated a cacophony of opinions about ‘Indian Muslims.’ The voices of ‘Indian Muslims’ themselves were by and large muted barring a few sound-bites, that too, most often by religious, community, and political leaders, and celebrities.

Here, we must sound a note of caution regarding the term, ‘Indian Muslim’. It would be fallacious to assume that there exists something like a homogenous Indian Muslim community: Kerala Muslim experience and the Assam Muslim experience have cultural differences, although they might share religious rituals. Likewise, the socio-economic indices vary widely. Gujarati Muslims, especially the trading Bohra Muslim community is economically infinitely more successful than the Bengali Muslims, most of who survive on subsistence economy. Yet, we deliberately use the term, ‘Indian Muslim’ as shorthand for representing the diverse Indian Muslim experiences. As noted before, the term assumes more significance whenever Muslims in any part of the country face a critical event. It’s the event, we would like to claim, which produces the category of ‘Indian Muslim’ by providing a sense of coherence to these diverse experiences.

The first issue of Café Dissensus sets out the humble task of hearing out Muslim voices from across India in the context of the Assam and Mumbai events. The majority sentiment about Muslims did not differ much from the mainstream media which reiterated the image of a violent Muslim man waiting to explode at the slightest provocation. We, however, wanted to hear what the ‘ordinary’ Muslims had to say about the events. Again, by ‘ordinary’, we do not imply the man on the street or the one on the lowest rung of the socio-economic indices. However much we would have liked to hear those voices, the idea of a transparent ‘ordinary’ Muslim voice is a myth. The ‘ordinary’ Muslim voice will always be mediated by those who are endowed with the cultural capital of literacy. To put it more modestly, we wanted to hear Muslim voices which we don’t get to hear often. We are delighted that many of the contributors to this issue are students and first-time feature writers, some are more used to the methods of academic writing, while yet others have already been writing for newspapers and journals.

Despite the significant difference in perspectives, there seems to be an agreement among the writers about a few basic issues: Indian Muslims face appalling socio-economic challenges; the Indian state has overtly or covertly failed to address their needs; Indian Muslims must learn to protest within the framework of democratic norms; the representation of Indian Muslims in the Indian media (both film and television) must be positive; and most importantly, Indian Muslims are no different from other Indians and they require what other Indians require to lead a decent everyday life. We hope the readers will find these threads of continuity in the pieces.

Finally, our authors reiterate their faith in democratic politics. Yet, to address India’s ‘Muslim Question’, the traditional framework of consensus might not be very helpful. That is why we would like to invoke Jacques Rancier’s (French philosopher) notion of ‘dissensus.’ Dissensus, according to him, is the essence of democratic politics, which cannot be reduced to the state or to an exercise of power. It is, rather, an activity that dislodges us from our assigned, taken-for-granted places.  It denotes a suspension of our normal experiences and a distancing from the ‘sensible’.

Dissensus, Rancier insists, is not a confrontation of interests or opinions. Rather, it is the act by which a subject/s makes visible what was invisible for those who do not occupy the same frame of reference to see this shared world. Dissensus does two things – it reveals the differences in a society but also gestures toward a possible world where the two parties share a frame of reference. Thus, dissensus makes possible for someone to see and hear something that he/she would otherwise not have had reason to see or hear. Consensus, so often taken to be the last word in democracy, is, for Rancier, the annulment of dissensus, and not peaceful discussion or agreement.

The first issue and the magazine are committed to this ideal of dissensus for generating an assortment of different views with the ultimate purpose of strengthening the democratic space shared by different stake-holders: Indian Muslims are just one of these stake-holders.

As we end our first editorial, let us remember Rumi’s ‘field’ beyond right and wrong, good and evil. Dissensus is our way of reaching that field. And our authors have already initiated a journey in/to dissensus.

Read on!


Mary Ann Chacko

Mosarrap H. Khan

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