Communal violence has been increasingly taking place in India for last several decades. There has hardly been any respite throughout period of independence. To understand the phenomenon of communal violence and its roots in our society is highly necessary to find solution if any. Many rationalists reduce it to religion and for them religion is the main culprit. Such reductionism would not help. It is not only oversimplifying an issue it also means ignoring the complexity of a social phenomenon.
Religion, at best, is one factor, among many. Religion, it should also be noted, is an instrumental rather than fundamental cause. Religion is used as a powerful instrument to achieve political, economic and social purposes for its powerful mobilizatory power. Religion has powerful emotional appeal and hence it is easy to exploit clouding real interests. What appears to be clash of religions is, really clash of interests.
Even partition was not result of clash between Hinduism and Islam as popularly thought. Jinnah was quite indifferent to religion and religious practices. He was a constitutionalist and was fighting for constitutional arrangements for the Muslim power elite. Had it been resolved satisfactorily our country would not have been partitioned. The theory invoked by communal forces that since Muslims were not loyal to the country they saw it partitioned, can hold no water.
Jinnah represented interests not of all Indian Muslims but only of elite Muslims. He had no concern for low class, low caste Muslims and overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims belonged to, and belong even today, to this category. The interests of poor Muslims left Jinnah quite cold. When the noted poet Dr. Iqbal wrote to Jinnah about acute poverty among the Muslims of Punjab and to do something about it to make Muslim League popular among them, Jinnah quietly dropped him from presidentship of the Punjab Muslim League. Muslim League was party of Muslim power elite.
In understanding the roots of communalism one must understand that communalism neither represents religion nor patriotism, it represents interests. Secondly, it should also be understood that no religious community is homogenous as communalists make it out to be; every religious community is divided along several lies - caste, class, culture and language. These are the fault lies of any religious communities. Muslim League, as pointed out above, did not represent the entire Muslim community nor Hindu communalists represent interests of all Hindus. The Hindu community is irreconcilably divided along caste lies apart from class and linguistic-cultural lines.
In any case Hindus are much more stratified (though Muslims too are) than any other community in India and no single formation like the Sangh Parivar or Muslim League (in pre-partition days) can represent entire community. However, since who knows this better than communal forces that they employ religious rhetoric much more aggressively to compensate for lack of political unity in the community.
The Muslim League tried to arouse religious passions to fanatical pitch as Muslims in pre-partition days were far from united. The low caste and lower class Muslims as well as Muslims from regions like North West province and South (particularly Tamil and Malayalam speaking Muslims) were opposed or indifferent to Muslim League and supported Indian National Congress or even left parties. The Muslim League used aggressive religious rhetoric precisely to make up for this lack of unity.
The Sangh Parivar transcended even pre-partition Muslim League in unabashedly exploiting Hindu religious rhetoric to promote its own political interests and to make up for total lack of unity among the Hindus. Since the caste consciousness is very deep among the Hindus and now every caste is pressing for its political interests, the task of leaders of the Sangh Parivar became even more challenging any time. And hence they are compelled to use much more aggressive rhetoric and also much more organised violence against the other community to try to forge unity among Hindus fragmented along so many lines. Greater the fragmentation higher the tendency to attack other community to create illusion of unity. High pitched rhetoric and maximum degree of communal violence reaching proportions of carnage help 'unite' disparate groups of Hindus though this 'unity' itself is extremely fragile and temporary. It is also important to note that the real carriers of communal virus are those belonging to educated middle classes. And most of these middle class people happen to be not so enthusiastic about religion and religious orthodoxy. The carriers of Muslim communalism were educated Muslim middle classes of colonial India. These middle classes become, through their education, more conscious of their caste and communal identities and then they articulate these identities in caste and communal idiom. Their whole political discourse veers round caste and communal issues.
It is in this sense that communalism is product of modern British colonial period, and not of medieval period as made out by the communal forces. It is not only the British colonialists who divided Indians to rule over them, the Indian elite too was equally divisive in its own interests. It got easily divided, as basically its interests were divisive.
The Sangh Parivar (The Hindu Mahasabha in the colonial period) created illusion of patriotism by employing rhetoric of 'Bharat Mata', 'Akhand Bharat' and so on but it was no less divisive of the country as Muslim League politics itself. Both Savarkar as well as Jinnah employed similar communal discourse and both talked of Hindu nationalism and Muslim nationalism. Savarkar also maintained that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations as Jinnah did. Only difference is that majority communalism leads to hidden inner division and minority communalism to visible external division. But minority communalism also does not lead to external visible division in all cases; it can lead to such division only if it is concentrated in some areas; but not if it is dispersed.
In independent India majority communalism slowly and gradually became much more aggressive and ultimately almost subdued the minority communalism. Jawaharlal Nehru maintained even during pre-partition period (when minority communalism was comparatively more aggressive) that majority communalism is aggressive and reactionary and minority communalism is defensive and borne out of feeling of insecurity.
The majority communalism showed its aggressiveness in post-independence India first in Jabalpur riots of 1962. Nehru never thought in post-independence India such aggressive communal violence can break out. He was greatly shocked. However, Nehru and Maulana Azad were great pillars of secularism and did everything to protect and even promote it.
The subsequent generation of Congresspersons hardly had such commitment to secular ideology and secular politics. They were more interested in power than ideology. The gradual de-ideologisation of politics further strengthened politics of communalism. The de-ideologised 'pragmatic approach' then began to deteriorate into opportunism and even unabashed use of caste and communal rhetoric by the Congress 'secular' leaders to capture power.
What mattered now was to win elections rather than promote politics of secular and socialist ideology though the rhetoric of socialism and secularism continued. Nehru's socialist -secular discourse now became an empty rhetoric. Indira Gandhi continued this discourse but for a short while. For her too power superseded ideology in less than a decade. And, she was much more of a secularist than other leaders of the Congress.
This weakening of secular commitment injected much greater degree of dose of opportunism, if not outright communalism, in Indian politics. The decade of eighties proved to be much dangerous from this point of view. The weakened secular commitment of the Congress and much more aggressive communal rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar brought about greatest spurt if communal violence in the decade of eighties. The Sangh Parivar raised new issues and began to seriously question the very concept of nehruvian secularism as 'psuedo-secularism' based on 'appeasement' of minorities. Such overtly communal discourse was never employed before as part of secular political discourse.
The result was not any serious debate from the Congress leaders but a feeling began to take roots in the Congress circles that we are getting alienated from majority community in order to court minority votes. Though such a stance was never officially adopted by the Congress, it was never seriously challenged either. The Congress commitment to secularism became so weak during the eighties that it even surrendered before minority leaders to overturn the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano maintenance case by enacting another law for maintenance for Muslim women. Rajiv Gandhi then went to the extent of laying foundation stone for Ramjanmabhoomi Masjid and got completely alienated from the minority community and lost subsequent elections.
Had the Congress maintained its commitment to secularism like Nehru and Azad communalism would not have been emboldened to such an extent and India would not have seen eruption of communal carnage in Gujrat. The Lohite socialists also wavered in their commitment to socialism often making compromises with the Sangh Parivar. It is only the Communists who remained steadfast in their commitment to both socialism and secularism.
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(*) Asghar Ali Engineer is a rights activist and heads two organisations, the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. He has authored or edited 44 books on such issues as Islam and communal and ethnic problems in India and South Asia in general.