Communalism and Politics in India

22 Apr, 2004    ·   1380

Report of the lecture delivered by Prof. Ashis Nandy on 15 April 2004

Text of the lecture

I would like to put before you some propositions to explain the phenomena called ‘communalism’ and its impact on security. First of all, I would like to state that security is also a ‘state of mind’. As far as the issue of communalism is concerned, it would be surprising to know that the number of people killed in communal violence in the last 50 years is lesser than the people killed in street crimes in the city of Detroit alone. Two million people were killed during the Partition violence, which again is below the five million people involved in separatist movements in various parts of the country. These statistics reveal that communalism is not as grave and hopeless a problem as is made out to be.

I would like to begin my lecture by narrating a small story that typifies communalism in India.  During the communal riots that rocked the nation in 1992, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a Hindu family gave refuge to an old Muslim man. The man was provided refuge in the room of their young daughter-in-law. When the rioters went scouting door-to-door to kill any Muslims they could get hold of, the host family saved the old man’s life by introducing him as their daughter-in-law’s uncle. While this entire drama was unfolding, the son of the house went missing. Many days later when the riots subsided and the old man rejoined his family, a prayer was held for the safe return of the son. It was only later that they came to know that the son who had gone missing was a part of the mob that destroyed the Babri Masjid. This story reveals two facts: 1) There can be internal contradictions between the members of a single household on communal issues; and 2) Common people of both communities have come to each other’s rescue during riots. All these prove that communalism is a complex phenomenon and has many facets.

Now coming to the propositions

1. Communalism is an urban phenomenon. Though 3/4th of India’s population lives in the villages, only 3.5 percent of that population is affected by riots. Urban India, which earlier consisted of 25 percent of the population and now consists of 30 percent, is where the communal drama unfolds. 98 percent or more of the communal riots originate and take place in cities and villages close to cities. Perhaps city dwellers must learn a thing or two from the rustic, illiterate Indians about co-survival with fellow beings in peace and harmony.

2. Communal violence is triggered more often by secular issues. A little more than half the communal violence is triggered by secular issues like land disputes, eve-teasing, mixed marriages, and professional rivalry. Only later does it acquire a religious tone. Thus, secular events trigger non-secular events.

3. Communal violence is precipitated as part of political strategy. All political parties indulge in this policy. No party is innocent in this game, including the secular ones, who have a communal base within the minority communities. There are numerous instances of minority leaders instigating and even participating in riots to gain political mileage.

4. Communal rioting is one of the most secular spheres in Indian politics. The elite, who are largely responsible for instigating communal violence, are fiercely secular. While they speak the language of hatred for the other community in public, they maintain cordial relations with members of that community at a personal level. It is similar to the manner in which the European royalty behaved. While being at loggerheads at the political level, they promoted familial ties at a personal level. The elites in political parties cannot afford to believe in what they preach. Animosities are for politics. The language/ideology of violence is kept apart from personal preferences. There is a tight compartmentalization of political and personal interactions.

5. Communities need to be mobilized on the basis of primordial group identities like caste and religion. In India, unlike the West, society is organized into communities and not along democratic and individualistic lines. The middle class is the new target for mobilization. The 250 million semi-modernized, semi-westernized middle classes are the ‘new emerging caste’, which forms the key to electoral success. The BJP has successfully tapped this caste.

6. Fear of the ‘other’ prompts communal violence. Hindus see themselves as disorganized, effeminate and cowardly. They believe that the road to salvation lies in emulating the Muslims and Christians, as they know how to run a state system, are organized, courageous, scientific, and rational. This explains why RSS literature targets Muslims and Christians but reserves the choicest abuse for Hindus. Self hatred among the Hindus gets projected into secret admiration for Islam and Christianity, which is portrayed as the ‘other’. It also leads to a fear of the ‘other’ – physical fear and fear of temptations within oneself.

7. Communalism is promoted by the absence of ideology in politics. Only 10 percent of the population votes on ideological grounds. Ideological stridency is no longer a prerequisite for electoral success. Most political parties/leaders have an inelastic support base. Irrespective of their ideological moorings or performance they are voted in for the simple reason that their community wants them in power. This is more so in the case of groups moving from the periphery to the centre like the Dalits or the OBCs like Yadavs, Kurmis, Lodhs etc. Hence, Mayawati or Laloo, despite their grand failures, still manage to stay in power. This trend is resulting in the absence of any depth in ideology.

8. NRIs fuel communalism by providing moral and material support from abroad. Unlike the masses in India, the NRIs have a strong ideological proclivity. For these uprooted persons, who fear a loss of identity in an alien land, ideology is all they have to fall back upon. It is a marker of their roots. Hence they fiercely hold on to it. This sentiment is exploited by Hindu nationalists to further their own agenda of establishing a Hindu rashtra. Inspired by nationalistic sentiments, NRIs provide financial support to right wing organizations that promote communal polarization in the name of nationalism. NRIs despatch large sums of money in the form of donations to temples and parivar organizations which resembles the support that LTTE gets from Tamilians settled around the world or Israel gets from American Jews or the Irish movement obtains from Irish Americans.

9. Communal politics remains a way of secularizing politics. Even a party like the BJP has to take every shade of opinion into consideration, if it wants to stay in power. With 28 percent of its support coming from the backward classes, the BJP is in search of generic Hinduism to hold on to its support base. This is leading to the emergence of a de-ideologised secular politics.

10. Communal politics is leading to the emergence of a new kind of a political culture. We are witnessing the last hiccups of the political culture set in place by Jawaharlal Nehru. The new atmosphere is a free for all.  There is minimum conformity also with the laws.

The issues touched upon in the ensuing discussion are as follows:

  • Dalits and Backward Cates aspire to rise within the Hindu fold. Riots provide that opportunity and generate a new set of heroes. One’s Hinduness is established in riots. The lower castes, seeking upward mobility, have a vested interest on this and hence participate in riots. Consecutive riots have changed the dominant caste complexion by providing a superior status to castes like Kurmis, Jats, and Reddys.

  • External compulsions are the only limitation that can avert communal conflicts.

  • Westernisation is a part of ‘Sanskritisation’.

  • Many countries, including France, became secular after driving out their minorities. Secularisation creates its own insecurities.

  • Fortunately, the legitimacy of democracy is not in question. Commitment and a sense of civic responsibility is very high among the least empowered communities. The rural masses at the grass roots level compensate for the urban indifference towards the democratic process. Lower voter turnout among the middle classes is a global trend.

  • Coalition politics will have a softening effect on communal politics. For instance, the BJP has many coalitional partners, which have a large Muslim base like the TDP, and the Trinamool Congress.  The BJP will have to tone down its communal rhetoric to accommodate them.