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Understanding Indian communalism

Inspite of having a poor track record on communal front India is unlikely to go Yogoslavia way because Hindu- Muslim conflict in this country is highly localised. Secondly, in Indian polity linguistic or caste affinities often surpass religious loyalty.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2004 12:45 IST

Ashutosh Varshney, in his book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, has pointed out two reasons why India is unlikely to go Yugoslavia way. First, the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India is highly localised, and so any communal violence has limited potential to spread throughout the country.

Secondly, the polity of India is made up of a range of constituencies with over-lapping interests in which linguistic or caste affinities often surpass religious loyalty. Hindu nationalism is therefore unlikely to become the kind of cohesive murderous force that Serb nationalism turned into.

Moreover, he argues, the need to cater to these cross-cutting interests forces all political parties to the secular center once they are in government. The glaring example is the present government at the Centre, formed by a Hindu nationalist party, the BJP.

Based on the statistics from 1950 to 1995, Varshney shows that the majority of communal riots have been concentrated in four states. These states are located in the northern, western, and eastern parts of India. The four southern states, which have a relatively larger number of Muslim population, have remained largely calm over the past 50 years -- even while the India's northern and western region have been periodically ravaged by Hindu-Muslim riots.

Varshney's data also reveals the sub-regional nature of Hindu-Muslim violence. Even within the four states in which communal violence has been concentrated, most of the riots have been restricted to a handful of cities. In fact, 70 per cent of Hindu-Muslim violence takes place in only 30 out of India's more than 400 cities. More startling, just eight cities are responsible for almost half of all deaths in Hindu-Muslim riots.

The findings show that ancient hatreds have little to do with ethnic conflict in India. Although India is a predominantly agricultural society, violence between Hindus and Muslims is an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon. During the 45-year period that Varshney's data cover, rural violence accounts for just over three per cent of all deaths in Hindu-Muslim riots. India's villages has been largely unscathed by the communal killings that have swept its cities.

India's three cosmopolitan cities are among the eight that top Varshney's list of "riot-prone" areas -- New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

Each of the eight cities that top Varshney's list has a large middle class, a high literacy rate, and an old and established Muslim minority. Two of them are in Gujarat, and it is a testimony to the predictive value of Varshney's data that he ranks Ahmedabad as the second most riot-prone city after Mumbai. Ahmedabad witnessed the worst of the recent killings in Gujarat. The city where the riots began, Godhra, also appears in Varshney's data, on the longer list of 30.


Why these cities, with better standards of living, greater economic opportunity, and more power to shape government policy, suffer from a pattern of recurrent Hindu-Muslim violence?

Varshney's answer to this is deceptive. He says that each of these cities has suffered a gradual and progressive decline in civic life. Ahmedabad, for example, was largely untouched by the violence between Hindus and Muslims that hit other cities in the early 20th century and during the partition in 1947.

Gujarat was Mahatama Gandhi's homeland and a testing ground for his policy of non-violence. The state also had some of the strongest civil associations in India, built by the Congress as well as by Gandhi's disciples. Varshney opines that these associations served to integrate Hindus and Muslims and stepped in to prevent Hindu-Muslim violence during the partition. After independence, however, the Congress neglected its various programs promoting co-operative credit, women's health and employment, and educational and media outreach. Following the death of Nehru in 1964, the party leadership started fragmenting. Its different factions began to focus on wooing specific voting blocs by cultivating the more chauvinist elements within India's different castes and religious communities.

Ahmedabad witnessed its first serious Hindu-Muslim riots in 1969 as a result of a local dispute over a religious procession. They were followed by more violence in subsequent years. Gujarat was then relatively peaceful between mid-1970s to mid-1980s. But this calm was deceptive; during that period the Congress Party's civic decline was followed by its political decline. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did away with Congress' internal elections and limited the powers of the party's local bodies. The party's vast apparatus in Gujarat, its one remaining integrative network for Hindus and Muslims, dwindled to a shadow of its former self.

At the same time, there was a parallel decline in Gujarat's largest non-party organisation, the Textile Labour Association. Based in Ahmedabad, the Gandhian trade union was the last significant source of Hindu-Muslim co-operation in the city. When its numbers dwindled as mill production gave way to the rise of the power-loom sector, the vacuum was filled by Hindu nationalist organisations that founded new schools and newspapers and performed a range of social services.

The BJP benefited from the Congress Party's decline in Gujarat.

Varshney shows how the state turned to the Hindu right well before the rest of India did. During 1980s, when the BJP's national vote share was between five to seven per cent, it polled over 15 per cent in Gujarat. In mid-1990s, when the BJP's national vote share rose to 20 per cent, it was 42 per cent in Gujarat. In 1990-92, Hindu nationalists were able to mobilise thousands of people from this state for a nation-wide agitation to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Gujarat was one of the largest contributors of volunteers to this mission of destruction; when Hindu-Muslim riots followed, it was Gujarat that witnessed the largest number of deaths.

The BJP assumed power in Gujarat in 1995 and at the Centre in 1998. Because of the political compulsion, of being supported by other secular parties, the BJP leadership at the Centre said that they would put the more contentious issues on their agenda, such as building the Ram temple, on the back burner. The BJP's leaders began to restrain the party's hard-liners after the riots that followed the destruction of the Babri masjid, and India remained relatively calm between 1993 and 2002.

Centre's Role

The recent Gujarat riots, however, have made this conclusion look doubtful. They came quickly on the heels of the BJP's re-election in Gujarat under a new hard-line leadership. The state's chief minister makes no secret of his belief that Muslims must be second-class citizens in the Hindu nation he is bent on creating, and he is one of the most ardent supporters of the Ram temple campaign.

Despite New Delhi's pleas for restraint, he was one of the leaders who supported the revival of the campaign in early March. The Hindus who were torched by a Muslim mob in Gujarat two weeks later -- the incident that sparked the recent riots -- were returning from Ayodhya. They had made a pre-emptive bid to begin the construction of the Ram temple on the ruins of the mosque but were thwarted by the Centre, which had dispatched 2,500 troops to keep the peace.

Centre's prompt action to prevent violence in Ayodhya stands in stark contrast to its reluctance to intervene in Gujarat. The Gujarat government has made little effort to stop the riots. Worse still, it has transferred many police officers who did turn back the mobs. Reports indicate a total breakdown of law and order in Ahmedabad's mostly Muslim old quarter, as well as in several of the city's outlying areas.

Vajpayee has made no secret of the fact that he wanted Gujarat's government to step down, but BJP hard-liners persuaded him to yield. For their part, the BJP's allies were unwilling to see the government fall over this issue, so they limited their response to mere remonstrations.

Unlike the western European countries, however, India has not been able to cauterise the destructive potential of its ethnic and religious nationalists. Over the past decade, 4,000 people have died in the Ram temple campaign, but the Hindu nationalists are unwilling to seek a compromise solution. Regional parties that are BJP's allies have not been able to persuade the Centre to act in Gujarat; nor has the Opposition. The corrective mechanisms of Indian politics appear to have only a weak hold over its legislators and government.

Political Decay

Varshney argues that this decay in Indian polity puts the spotlight squarely on civil society. The most stable Indian states are those in which Hindus and Muslims have joint economic, educational, and political associations -- even if the latter rely more on power sharing than on integration. But it is not necessary to have the entire gamut or a combination of such associations: as Varshney shows, at the ground level any one Hindu-Muslim group can successfully prevent the spread of conflict. In one textile-producing city in Gujarat, for instance, the local manufacturers' and traders' association kept the peace in the old city area; indeed, press accounts of the latest riots tell the story of a Hindu-Muslim workers' colony that successfully turned the mobs away.

Top-down initiatives can also work, says Varshney, citing an industrial city whose poor record of violence was turned around by a police officer who set up Hindu-Muslim peace committees in all the city's localities. But they are inherently weaker because they are not subject to the same tests of accountability that locally based associations' face.

Unlike the Christian and Muslim religious leaders who added to communal conflict in Bosnia, or the priests and nuns who were implicated in genocide in Rwanda, most Hindu religious leaders shun the Ram temple campaign. At one of Hinduism's largest and most important religious festivals, the Kumbh Mela, Hindu priests expelled advocates of the Ram temple campaign. After the Gujarat riots, several of India's leading Hindu priests offered to help find an alternative site for the temple.

First Published: Feb 10, 2004 00:00 IST