NO other phenomenon has affected life in the subcontinent so adversely as communalism. When this monster came on the stage as early as the beginning of the 18th century, as evidenced by a communal riot in Ahmedabad, no one perhaps had an inkling about the magnitude and character it might assume in future.
Although it took a long time for it to take centre stage, when it did, it had a devastating effect on Indian polity and society. Its inherent ability to divide people on the basis of religion and sow the seeds of mutual hatred led to the partition of the country. The people of India and Pakistan can ill afford to forget the human tragedy that Partition entailed. The pathos of Partition, which the Urdu writer Sadat Ali Manto so touchingly captured in Toba Tek Sing and Khol Do, or the masterly account in Bhishm Sahnis Hindi novel, Tamas, tell us how devastating and brutal communalism can be.
The heart-rending experience of Partition, however, did not put an end to communalism. It only exacerbated it, at least in India, as the memories of inter-communal violence were invoked for political mobilisation. As a result, during the post-Independence period, communalism continued to plague social consciousness and colour political perspectives in the country. By the end of the 20th century, its influence had assumed such proportions that Hindu communal forces succeeded in wielding power at the Centre and in some States. This success heralded a new stage in the development of communalism and at the same time a tumultuous phase in the political history of the nation.
The access to power that the communal forces gained by the end of the 20th century was important for a variety of reasons. Among them, the most significant was the two-fold agenda that the communal forces pursued in order to perpetuate the newly acquired political power. They realised that controlling the state institutions in itself was not sufficient if they were to consolidate power and exercise it for a long time to their political advantage. It would be necessary to transform the character of the administration itself.
The secular administrative practices, which the Indian state had followed since Independence, albeit with limitations, were out of sync with the new regime. The Sangh Parivar expected from the state institutions active involvement in the pursuit of its communal agenda. In other words, it wanted the administration to shed its secular character and serve as the communal arm of the state. In pursuit of this objective, the governments led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), both at the Centre and in the States, ensured that communal elements were extensively, if not exclusively, recruited into various branches of the administration.
The extent to which it succeeded in this endeavour is difficult to ascertain, but it is fairly apparent that a conscious policy to induct Sangh Parivar cadre was followed. A good example is the police. It is widely reported that the police force in States ruled by the BJP, such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, has been saffronised by inducting recruits from the Sangh Parivar. The consequences are by now well known. In the communal conflagration in Gujarat in 2002, the police not only refused to intervene to save the victims but actually abetted members of organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal in their crimes.
Police partisanship has also been reported from Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other States in which the BJP is or was in power. Almost all state institutions underwent such a transformation under BJP rule. When the National Democratic Alliance was defeated in the last elections, it was hoped that the secular character of the administration would be retrieved. However, it did not happen. The lack of political will was not the only reason. The communal elements were so well entrenched in the administration that they could prevent the attempts to recover secular practices. This has led to a paradox: a government pledged to secularism, but an administration predominantly manned by communal elements. As a result, communal influence remained unabated in administration. Even the Army, it is reported, was not free from the communal influence. If so, it is possible that the example of Lieutenant Colonel S.K. Purohit, who is accused of being the brain behind the Malegaon bomb blast, may not be an isolated instance.
What distinguished BJP rule from the previous administrations was the manner in which the government was used to realise the political agenda of creating a Hindu state. The Sangh Parivar looked upon the government not from the perspective of what was immediately possible, but as an instrument to create a communal future. As such, its main interest was to construct a social and political consciousness that would usher in and sustain a Hindu nation. That was the purpose for which the institutions of the state, particularly the ideological apparatuses, were used extensively.
Almost every initiative in the fields of education and culture were undertaken with such an intention. In order to realise it, the ideological apparatuses of the state were placed under the control of communal activists, ideologues and fellow travellers. They rewrote the national agenda in communal terms. Their interventions in the educational, cultural and intellectual fields sought to privilege indigenous knowledge over others and thus create a Hindu nationalist fervour. In the process, they sought to redefine the nation as Hindu.
The work of these captive state institutions was complemented by the activities of a large number of civil society organisations. There is hardly any area of social and cultural life in which the Sangh Parivar has not made its presence felt. Educational institutions have received particular attention because of the role they can play as channels of ideological dissemination. Over the past 70 years, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has set up thousands of schools. A relatively recent initiative is the single-teacher schools, Ekal Vidyalayas, established in tribal villages.
It is difficult to ascertain how many educational institutions are functioning under the aegis of the Sangh Parivar, but the number is large enough to mould the outlook of a substantial section of the young generation. The importance of the work of these institutions is that they function as conduits for the recruitment of young children to the communal fold. The influence thus gained enables communal organisations to expand their activities even in the absence of political power. That is why during the past five years, when the political influence of the communal forces declined, as evident from the reverses of the BJP in elections, the social and cultural fronts, such as the VHP and the RSS, not only held their fort, but actually expanded their sphere of influence.
In fact, the political discomfiture did not mean a decline in its ideological influence. On the contrary, the past five years marked the spread of communal ideology to new sections of the population, particularly Dalits and Adivasis.
Faced with the prospect of losing political power, Hindu communalism has been resorting to violence and even terrorism to consolidate its militant cadres. The unprecedented indulgence in violence and aggression witnessed recently is a part of this strategy. Violence, both spontaneous and premeditated, has always been an integral part of communalism. But during the past few years, the character of communal violence has changed. It has become more intense, inhuman and brutal.
Earlier, communal tensions and resulting riots did not lead to large-scale mayhem and murder. Their reach was limited and they were generally suppressed quickly by the intervention of the state. Society and the administration then exercised a restraining influence. Not any longer. Communal riots are large-scale events now; some of them, such as the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the genocide in Gujarat of 2002, were like holocausts. Not only are they larger in terms of the number of victims, but their manifestation has become so cruel that it is difficult to associate the perpetrators with human beings.
It is most painfully exhibited in the cruelty against women. Rape is common in all communal riots. But the way in which rape was used in Gujarat as a weapon of terror and revenge had not occurred before. Slitting open the womb of a pregnant woman and throwing the foetus in fire was unprecedented even in the annals of communal violence. So was the manner in which Pastor Graham Staines and his children were burnt to death. Gujarat and Orissa testify to the extent to which communalism could dehumanise society.
A major social consequence of communalism is the segregation of people on the basis of their religious beliefs and, more grievously, the displacement of populations from their traditional areas of residence. The ghettoisation of minorities has been happening in almost all cities for quite some time. After each communal riot, people move to areas where their co-religionists can possibly provide safety. Such a process has happened in almost all cities: Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Lucknow and so on.
There is also a social selection on the basis of religion. Popular idols such as Shabana Azmi and Shah Rukh Khan have testified that they found it difficult to get a house in the most modern metropolis of India. Even they. Some of my Muslim friends could not rent a house in the capital of secular India. While looking for a house in Kozhikode, Kerala, I was told by the broker that the neighbour is not a Muslim. This natural selection which communalism is bringing about is a way of ensuring religious segregation. Ahmedabad already has a border separating Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Short of expelling the minorities from the country, is communalism aiming to create separate religious enclaves?
Large-scale displacement of populations has been a common consequence in almost all communal incidents in recent times. In Gujarat, more than 100,000 people belonging to the Muslim community fled their homes and lived for months in camps. It is estimated that about 80 per cent of them have not been able to return to their homes. In Orissa too, thousands of Christians have taken shelter in the forest to escape from the attacks of the members of Hindu communal organisations. A condition for their return is reconversion to Hinduism. Both these States controlled by the BJP have not discharged even the basic duty of protecting the lives and property of citizens.
Among the many reasons that attract people to a communal ideology and to communal violence are fundamentalism and poverty. For a long time, despite occasional outbursts, Hindu fundamentalism remained rather muted. It now appears to be breaking out of its self-imposed restraint. It may not be altogether inaccurate to locate in the Sri Rama Sene of Pramod Muttalik the signs of emerging Talibanism among Hindus. The question Muttalik has raised is what constitutes authentic Indian culture. The answer he and his ilk provide is that everything with an external origin is unIndian. According to him and Hindu fundamentalism, the syncretic tradition for which India is justly famous has no place.
On the eve of the elections, Hindu communalism is desperately seeking to refurbish its image. The strategy of violence and intimidation did not earn any dividend; it has actually backfired. The demolition of the Babri Masjid, for instance, alienated the liberal Hindu, as he or she saw in it an assault on the civilisational values of India. The recent violence in Gujarat and Orissa has generated revulsion towards the Sangh Parivar. There is also general disapproval of the fundamentalist antics in Karnataka and the terrorist forays in Maharashtra. Consequently, Hindu communal forces are no more reckoned as responsible enough to be entrusted with the administration of the country. As such, the BJP is not a major contender for power in the coming elections.
Yet, communalism continues to be an important issue. Therefore, it is imperative on other political formations, the United Progressive Alliance and the Left Alliance, to clarify to the people where they stand in relation to communalism.