Book review: A collection of essays that revives the debate on communalism

Hindustan Times | By
Jul 16, 2016 03:46 PM IST

A quasi-academic collection, that reviews the “changing contours” of the violent antagonism between India’s Hindus and Muslims, seeks to revive the debate on communalism

“Astonishing thought,” Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India about India’s common civilisational continuity of nearly six thousand years, about this multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multicultural land suffused with a unitary wholeness. It was a good repudiation of Churchill, who, stumped by the subcontinent’s diversity, once said India was “no more one country than the whole of the tropics”.

A billboard put up in public interest in the 1990s.(The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
A billboard put up in public interest in the 1990s.(The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In the preface to a later edition, Indira Gandhi wrote that Nehru had dived deep into history to dig out the sources of India’s “national personality”, at the heart of which lies an invisible thread binding us all. Nehru thus set a numbing precedent, a case for India’s exceptionalism.

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Numbing because this Nehruvian consensus, long celebrated by sanguine liberals, contrasts with the vicious threats from so-called communalism, India’s own version of Fascism.

One would recall Perry Anderson’s Indian Ideology, an alternative history, which cites some popular but serious books by eminent writers to demonstrate this sealed sanguinity.

Take Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s The Burden of Democracy, which finds in Indian democracy a “leap of faith”. Or Meghnad Desai’s The Rediscovery of India, which calls our diversity “nothing short of a miracle”. Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian celebrates the country’s glorious “toleration” of “public arguments” and “intellectual heterodoxy”.

To what extent do these scholarly reveries also reflect a potential breakdown of the consensus? In fact, Indian social science awaits a definitive work on what this correspondent believes is the sure crumbling of India’s unwritten covenant. Although not quite written with this premise in mind, Communalism in Postcolonial India is a long overdue reassessment of communalism at an opportune time.

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A tough cultural climate threatens to undo Sen’s “intellectual heterodoxy”. Polarization has become the accepted paradigm of electoral politics. Public arguments, even in the domain of the ‘dismal science’, aren’t welcome. Consensus? That’s for wimps.

Arson in a Bombay slum during the 1993 riots. (Soumitra Ghosh/HT File Photo)
Arson in a Bombay slum during the 1993 riots. (Soumitra Ghosh/HT File Photo)

Communalism in Postcolonial India is a quasi-academic collection that reviews the “changing contours” of communalism. Invariably, in India communalism refers to the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims, which often assumes violent forms. This book would naturally be judged against some eminent works in the field. Ashutosh Varshney told us how communal violence is mostly city-centric. Steve Wilkinson’s empirical work showed us another dimension: electoral politics. The biggest gainer, he showed, has been the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Wilkinson analysed elections to find the BJP’s vote share tended to go up by up to 24% in seats where riots had taken place.

Paul Brass’s brilliant inquiry into the sociology of communalism brought out the actual play of riots. He finds an institutional riot system, a ready network to set riots off when needed. Everyday incidents are overplayed, passions roused, riots started, are sustained and then ended by actors with well-defined roles.

The 12 essays in this volume claim to use new conceptual and theoretical tools to understand communalism and give the reader both a historical sweep as well as an interdisciplinary insight.

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Here, Pritam Singh, professor at Oxford, looks at the underexplored issue of institutional communalism and asks if Indian communalism is systemic, and whether it permeates public life and institutions such as the judiciary and the police. There has been no defining inquiry of this along the lines of the UK’s Macpherson report, which concluded that Britain’s public institutions are institutionally racist. Macpherson probed the attack on an 18-year-old black man in 1993 and the subsequent acquittal of the murderers. Perry Anderson wrote that “Indian secularism is Hindu confessionalism by another name”. Singh finds Hindu confessionalism in the Indian Constitution. Although counter-intuitive, this is a bold line of argument. The Indian Constitution’s secular stance is generally understood to be an equality of all religions. In sharp contrast, Western secularism is focused on taking out all potency of religion from public life.

Singh finds elements of a Hindu world view in the Constitution, such as its definition of Hindu, “supportive of a Hindu assimilative agenda towards Buddhist, Jains and Sikhs”, its stance towards cow protection, and the pre-eminent status accorded to Hindi and the Devanagari script. (According to census data, 60% of Indians do not speak Hindi.) Notably, this chapter goes beyond just Muslims to find Sikhs too at the receiving end of communalism.

Martha Nussbaum’s essay investigates what is now evident: the contribution of American Indians to “Hindutva 2.0”. Former bureaucrat and author Prateep K Lahiri provides a historically-grounded view of communalism to conclude that the only solution lies in all political forces voluntarily giving up “communal politics”. Two chapters, including the one by editor of the volume, Mujibur Rehman, analyse Indian Christians and Kandhamal as the first instance of the anti-Christian genocidal experiment in modern India.

This is a topical volume which seeks to rightly revive the debate on communalism at a critical juncture. However, a book on communalism may seem late as we may now have entered a post-communalism phase. This transition is marked by the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh (RSS)’s high-geared agenda to normalize and mainstream Hindutva cultural nationalism. Another facet of post-communalism is the RSS’s attempt to vertically expand right-wing spaces in newer constituencies, such as the adivasis, tribals in the north-east, Dalits, and even Muslims. The effort is to replace Nehruvian pluralism with a more compromised and conformist version of Hindutva-certified pluralism. That apart, rioting continues to be a standard tool, despite the advent of a hegemonic form of persuasive communalism. These strands will haunt new inquiries of Indian social science.

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    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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