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Factors responsible for the growth of communalism

The stagnant economy of India and the policy of divide and rule during the British period were important factors for the growth of communalism in India.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2004 14:37 IST

The stagnant economy of India during the British rule was an important factor for the growth of communalism in India. It was deeply rooted in and was an expression of the interests and aspirations of the middle classes in a social set up in which opportunities for them were inadequate. The communal question was, therefore a middle class question par excellence. The main appeal of communalism and its main social base also lay among the middle classes.

It is, however, important to note that a large number of middle class individuals remained, on the whole, free of communalism even in the 1930s and 1940s.

According to Bipan Chandra communal politics till 1937 was organised around government jobs, educational concessions and the like as also political positions - seats in legislative councils, municipal bodies, etc - which enabled control over these and other economic opportunities.

According to him communalism developed as a weapon of economically and politically reactionary social classes and political forces. Communal leaders and parties were in general allied with these classes and forces. The vested interests deliberately encouraged communalism because of its capacity to distort and divert popular struggle, to prevent the masses from understanding the real issues.

British rule and its policy of divide and rule

The British government used communalism to counter and weaken the growing national movement and the welding of the Indian people into a nation. It was presented by the colonial rulers as the problem of the defence of the minorities. Hindu-Muslim disunity was sighted as the reason for the continuation of the British rule.

They favoured one community against the other in services and promotions. The British policy of acting late to crush the communal violence also contributed to the growth of this phenomenon. The British policy of separate electorate was another factor.

Hindu Tinge in nationalist thought and propaganda

During the national movement, a strong religious element was introduced in nationalist thought and propaganda. They tended to emphasise ancient Indian culture to the exclusion of medieval Indian culture. Hindu idiom was introduced to its day-to day political agitation. Thus Tilak used Ganesh puja and Shivaji festival to propagate nationalism; and the anti-partition Bengal agitation was started with dips in the Ganges. Many prominent writers including Bankim Chandra Chatterjea often referred Muslims as foreigners in their writings.

Communal view of Indian history

A communal and distorted view of Indian history, particularly of the ancient and medieval period, was also responsible for its growth. A beginning in this regard was made by the British historian, James Mill in the early 19th century, who described the ancient period of Indian history as the Hindu period and the medieval period as the Muslim period. Other British and Indian historians followed him in this respect.

These writers declared that all Muslims were rulers in the medieval period and all Hindus ruled. Thus, the basic character of the polity in India was identified with religion. Hindu communal view of history relied on the myth that Indian society and culture had reached ideal heights in the ancient period and fell into permanent and continuous decay during the medieval period because of the Muslim rule and domination. In turn the Muslim communalism harked back to the 'golden age of Islamic achievement' in West Asia and appealed to its heros, myths and cultural achievements. They tended to defend and glorify all Muslim rulers, including religious bigots like Aurangzeb.

Other Factors

Paul R Brass in his edited book Riots and Pogroms says that riots occur in waves, records, and in the wake of a "psychological atmosphere". Yet, after the trauma of Partition, riots decreased in frequency. The graph began to rise only after the Jabalpur riots in 1961.

According to Brass riot is "a violent disturbance of peace by an assembly or body of persons," a pogrom is "an organised massacre". We have had at least two pogroms since Independence. One was against the Sikhs in Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. The other was in Mumbai in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in December 1992 and January 1993.

According to Asghar Ali Engineer fundamentalism has its roots in Jawaharlal Nehru's mechanics of education and science being less effective than he wanted them to be. Firstly, the partition deeply wounded the Hindu psyche. Secondly, the resurgence of Hindu-Muslim economic competition fuelled a communal ideology. Third, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), formed by Hedgewar in 1925 began to flourish.

Since then, a systematic process of historical distortion has sought to perpetuate a demonised Hindu-Muslim history through school textbooks and academic treatises.

Word of mouth

Rumours, abetted by the media, play a role in almost every major communal riot. By virtue of their proximity to the source, many vernacular newspapers disseminate rumours as "news".

In fact, the system of communal information dissemination and perpetuation is far more sophisticated than that of mere words. During the 1969 Ahmedabad riots, newspapers headlined rumoured reports of attacks on Hindu temples.

Politics of appeasement

Political parties, prompted by political considerations, take decisions, which promote communal violence. Take the example of Shah Bano case. Muslims reacted aggressively against the Supreme Court judgement which granted a Muslim divorcee, Shah Bano, maintenance in excess and in protraction of the Shari'ah, which permits maintenance only for the iddah (three months post-divorce) period.

The then Central government headed by Rajiv Gandhi overturned the judgement by passing the Muslim Women's Act in early 1986.

Decisive phase

On August 8, 1990, the VP Singh government at the Centre announced implementation of the Mandal Commission report on job reservation to the SC/ST/OBC groups. Apprehending a split in the BJP's Hindu vote bank, its president, LK Advani, announced a "Rath Yatra" on August 23. His communal odyssey meandered from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in UP, leaving a rash of riots in its wake.

This campaign led directly to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. In Mumbai alone, more than 800 people were killed in the subsequent December 1992 and January 1993 riots. The death toll in Surat was over 300. In Mumbai, the police was brazenly partisan.

According to Asghar Ali Govind Ballabh Pant had ignored Jawaharlal Nehru's admonition to remove the Ram Lalla idols installed in the Masjid in 1948. If he had not, the demolition, more than four decades later, would perhaps never have happened.

Communal disturbance necessitates a communalised context and intervention by a political party. A communally surcharged ambience is often the result of a political tug-of-war between secular and communal parties for the votes of majority and minority communities. A partisan police aggravates the breakdown of law and order, through incitement, active participation, and letting rumours fester and fly. The slightest indication of minority communalism fans a multi-fold release of majority communalism. True history takes a beating, as does the incumbent administration. Finally, secular forces become victims no less than the communities in question.