Multiple pasts, multiple identities: The role of narrative among Hindus and Muslims in some villages in Bihar

Gottschalk, Peter Stephen

     This project focuses on the residents of a constellation of villages in western Bihar, India and examines a variety of their group memories in an attempt to discern the interconnection and interplay within individuals between various group identities including those of family, class, caste, territory, nation, gender, language, and religion.
     Many Western scholars of South Asia rely too heavily on Hindu and Muslim as descriptive adjectives and analytic categories, readily deferring to Hinduism and Islam as self-apparent terms for exclusive arenas of religious activity. Too many students come away with the impression that South Asian cultures can be viewed, de facto, through bifurcated glasses which discretely discern two halves of India--Hindu and Muslim--in time, space, and society.
     By emphasizing only religious identity, scholars rarify religions, removing them from the social milieu in which they develop. This environment involves economic, political, and other interests around which group identities form. These other interests may compete with or complement--but certainly influence--religious interests and the identities that they foster. Ironically, in order to understand better the religious identities of Hindus and Muslims in India, it becomes necessary to decentralize these identities as the sole locus of research and return them to a broader social context. A study of group identity in India demonstrates how religious interests inform and are informed by other concerns in Indian constructions of society, and how narratives told by Indians can reflect these interests.
     Because groups often express their common interests and, thus, define themselves through narratives of the past, these serve as this project's medium by which to examine group identity. Narratives serve as a bridge by which individuals emplot themselves in time and space through the group. But what acts as one group's narrative of the past may appear to another as a story of fiction and, so, I argue for these narratives to be considered as the group memories for those concerned. This notion aptly captures the dynamic nature of these narratives, their intersubjective construction and reconstruction, and their preservation and expression through bodily commemoration.

Doniger, Wendy