Review of: The Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism Edited by K.N. Panikkar

The Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism
Edited By K.N. Panikkar
Viking Penguin India, New Delhi
Price Rs. 395/- (HB) Pages 252 + xxxvii

The volume under review is a collection of 6 essays by well- known academics and writers. It seeks to understand and rebut the communal offensive that has taken a new dimension after the installation of the BJP government last year. The BJP has faced a slight handicap of having to work within a coalition of 18 parties. However, the communalist drive has been marked by the unwarranted explosion of nuclear bombs, the offensive against the minority Christian community, attempts to replace the school syllabi in BJP ruled states and the jingoistic hype accompanying the Kargil intrusions.

Sumit Sarkar provides a historical backdrop to the attacks on the Christian community and points out that conversions are generally not a one step jump. Historically, these have often taken long periods of interaction between communities before conversions actually take place. There are different reasons for conversions, including the advocacy of social and economic demands of the people by missionaries.

During the Indigo revolt in the last century in Bengal, Christian missionaries took up demands of Hindu planters and even went to jail. This particular event, interestingly, has been well recorded in a Bengali folk song that recounts the efforts of a Rev Long during the revolt.

He also points out the close association of the Church with Liberation Theology during the last few decades especially in the Third World countries where the Church has identified itself with the aspirations of the downtrodden. That the Hindutva attacks on Christians have been concentrated in Orissa and Gujrat, where the Christian population consists primarily of tribals and the poor, is indicative of the Sangh Parivar’s real intentions.

Similar movements from the Right are active all over the world. Jayati Ghosh looks at the global economic situation and links the current social unrest to the changes in the distribution of economic growth that are increasingly loaded against those who are already poor and deprived. Between 1960 and 1991, the income share of 85 percent of the world’s population actually fell, as the income share of the richest 20 percent rose from 70 percent to 85 percent, while that of the poorest 20 percent fell from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent.

In India, from 1993-94 to 1997, the percent share of the population below the poverty line increased from 37.3 percent to 38.5 percent in the rural sector and 32.4 to 34 percent in the urban sector. Employment in the total organized sector increased by less than 1 percent between 1990-97.

These increasing disparities provide the objective conditions for the growth of ethnic and religion based unrest. Why and how such movements originate, however, are specific to the history and political conditions in each country.

In a scintillating essay on the attempts by communalists to use history, Romilla Thapar critiques the viewing of Indian history in terms of two monolithic communities identified by religion. Historical works before the 19th century, including those in Sanskrit and local languages, used a variety of terms like Turushka, Tajika, Yavana, Shaka and mleccha to refer to those who today would be referred to by the blanket term of Muslims.

It was in the 19th century that the two communities were described as not only monolithic but were also projected as static over many centuries. That people in India have multiple identities (like those of caste, language, religion etc) was completely ignored. This well served the British colonial interests.

The anti- Babri Masjid movement in the eighties threw up a host of women leaders like Uma Bharati and Ritambra. This was really surprising since the RSS, fountainhead of the Parivar, has been a typically patriarchal organization known for its conservatism. Tanika Sarkar has written earlier on the gender dimension of the movement. The essay included in this volume updates her studies on the same theme in the late nineties.

She finds that there has been a shift in the role of the women’s organizations linked to the Parivar. These have now been relegated into the background after the attainment of state power. Women’s issues per se had never been important for these organizations, but now not only the membership has plummetted, these organizations have withdrawn from active politics and even reduced their meetings and the social space that they occupied at the height of the movement.

Sarkar points out that while mainstream Left movement has been either stagnant or declining, Leftist women’s organizations have continued to grow and have strongly implanted bases among working class and poor sections. These have a combined strength of over 50 lakhs, while the Sangh related organizations have barely crossed thousands, besides having been confined to the upper class, upper caste sections.

Siddharth Vardarajan, senior editor with a Delhi newspaper, writes on the use of the media in general and that of the newspapers in particular in propagating communalism. Modern media have contributed in fostering communal hysteria and the construction of the “Other” in the enemy image (the Sikhs in the eighties, then Muslims and finally the Christians in the last one year). He points out that most of the media is controlled by large businesses. Most of the editorial staff comes from the same social base that has also been at the forefront of Hindu communalism. The Sangh Parivar has proved to be an expert in handling “pseudo- events” in the media and raking up emotive non- issues.

In one of the finest essays in the collection, Rajeev Dhawan focuses not so much on communalism as on secularism with respect to the Indian constitution. He points out that it will be near impossible to come up with a document like this in our times. The constitution adopted in 1950, even though in the immediate aftermath of one of the bloodiest events in the sub- continent (the Partition) is full of compromises and adjustments on part of all the parties.

He points out, however, that a number of desirable progressive measures were relegated to the Directive Principles instead of Fundamental Rights. Overall, he feels that the Indian Constitution provides the bedrock for Indian secularism, ambiguous though it is in many senses. He also points out that communalism can no longer be attributed to the colonial condition, it is also a condition of post- colonialism.

The title of the book is well thought of, and so are Ram Rehman’s photographs on the cover. The work comes as a most welcome addition to existing literature on the one of the most acute problems of our times, and one which is going to be around for a long time to come. The incisive academic analysis of the contributors, buttressed with their deep social concern is evident in each of the essays. That is an assurance against the prophets of doom as well as ammunition in the intellectual armoury against communalism.

10 August 1999
Published: The Tribune 22 Aug 1999

One thought on “Review of: The Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism Edited by K.N. Panikkar

  1. yes, good books by great scholars .
    it was written well before the Gujrat riot.
    how true and visionary were the writers of the book.

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