Gujarat: Thoughts on the Threat from Hindutva and Islam

(This post appeared at earlier this week as part of the series on Remembering Gujarat on the 5th anniversary of the Godhra incident and the Gujarat pogrom. My thanks to Mohib and the other folks there for inviting.)

Aiti maar payi karlande tain ko dardu na ayiya
(Such terrible orgies were wrought on us, O Lord
And you felt no pity, and no pain for us)
– Guru Nanak


In what is probably the first serious study and theorization of communalism in India, historian Bipan Chandra had pointed out in The Rise of Communalism in Modern India, that communalism is a modern phenomenon that arose when politics became mass politics- “communal” riots as we know them today started in the 1890s.

The second aspect that he pointed out and has been contested later by others, is that communalism is primarily an ideology, an ideology whose nearest historical precedent is that of fascism- and it was none other than the now beleaguered but one time hero of Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru who had pithily pointed out that if fascism will arrive in India, it will arrive in the form of majoritarian (Hindu) communalism.

Whatever be the exigencies of Nehru’s detractors, he has been proved right. Above all, in Gujarat in February- March of 2002, where the State itself turned against its own people and not just that, the government was returned to power by the people of Gujarat in the elections held in December 2002. As if to complete the irony, the elections were fought by the Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party in the name of “Gujarat’s Asmita” or Gujarat’s Pride.

The Indian National Congress, both in Gujarat as well as in neighboring states has been trying to play the “soft” Hindutva card, it was indeed the single minded doggedness of Mrs Sonia Gandhi who led from the front in countering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s communal venom that has provided a counter to Hindutva at the level of national politics, though the elections that led to the comeback for the INC led UPA were won not on the basis of the secularism but because of mass disenchantment with the uneven “benefits” of neo- liberalism.

Which is what, in my opinion, is the hard fact that liberals and the left have to confront with. For long have we believed, like Nehru himself, that economic development will lead to the elimination of casteism and communalism. Gujarat has shown quite the opposite. A society can continue to develop economically, but instead of eliminating casteism and communalism, it can actually exacerbate it.

The second aspect that Gujarat underlines is more frightening, and something that liberals and the left find it very difficult to accept- the idea that ghettoizastion or segregation of “Muslim” and “Hindu” communities is probably better than mixed neighbourhoods, less impact was felt in those areas in Gujarat where such intermixing did not happen. Eric Hobsbawm, in a different context, has eerily pointed out that ethnic cleansing can actually solve problems. To the further consternation of the liberals, Gujarat may actually prove this for India.

A third citadel of liberal belief that the Gujarat pogrom has attacked is that whatever be the case, the processes of secularization hold out hope- after all, it is pointed out, that rail travel did much more to reduce casteism than any ideological campaign. Again, Gujarat may prove the opposite.

Having listed some of the threats posed by Hindutva- and validated in its Gujarat laboratory,let me pose a different question: what is the nature of the threat from Islam that seems to galvanize Hindutva folks into such ghastly mayhem demonstrated in February 2002?

To answer this, one has to keep in mind the backdrop to the anti- Muslim campaign of the Hindutva outfits that has gained much momentum since the 1980s. There is an overall crisis in society, and as often is the case, a movement forward is often accompanied by a need to borrow masks and symbols from the past- in this case, the perceived past and contemporary threat from Islam to Hindu society.

This crisis is manifested in a further exacerbation of caste conflict in various parts- and Islam has a very significant role to play in this. It was, after all, the Meenakshipuram conversions in 1981, when an entire Dalit village converted to Islam, that led to the formation of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its various yatras (one of them flagged off by Mrs Indira Gandhi herself, in her shift to Center- Right politics after 1980).

Note also a point that Tapan Basu et al make in their tract Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags:

The centrality of Maharashtra in the formation of the ideology and organization of Hindutva in the mid -1920’s might appear rather surprising, as Muslims were a small minority and hardly active, and there had been no major riots in the region during the early 1920’8. But Maharashtra had witnessed a powerful anti -Brahmin movement of backward castes from the 1870:8 onwards when Jyotiba Phule had founded his Satyashodhak Samaj.

It was Islam, lest it not been forgotten, that woke up Indian society from its deep slumber in the early part of the last millennium- it brought the message of equality that the caste system denied, and continues to deny. It may seem incongruous today, but note what M.N Roy in his small but illuminating book The Historical role of Islam had observed:

… To the above highly illuminating statement, it may only be added that the rise of reformers like Kabir, Nanak, Tukaram, Chaitanya, etc. who evidenced a popular revolt against Brahmanical orthodoxy, was to a great extent promoted by the social ecects of Mohammedan conquest.In view of this realistic reading of history, Hindu superciliousness towards the religion and culture of the Muslims is absurd. It insults history and injures the political future of our country. Learning from the Muslims, Europe became the leader of modem civilization. Even to-day, her best sons are not ashamed of the past indebtedness. Unfortunately, India could not be fully benefited by the heritage of Islamic culture, because she did not deserve the distinction.

The attack on Islam and Muslims in India has deepened with a simultaneous crisis in the Muslim world and its supposed confrontation with the West and has confused the issue.

The crisis in India is not that of Islam, but of Indian society- Hindu society if you like. To see the “threat from Islam” in the same light as the West’s own conflict in the middle east leads to an obfuscation of the issue. The “threat from Islam” in India is more in the sense of Roy’s warning of ignoring Islam.

In the words of a contemporary Dalit writer:

The Hindutva maniacs believe that they publicly reserve the rights to call any Muslim a militant and every madarsa a Jehadi terror factory. The Parivar preaches: Hindu fundamentalism is patriotism. But, Muslim fundamentalism is terrorism. And they relentlessly work towards their fanatic goals, trying to turn the best of us into brutes. … We need to fight because the end of Islam in India represents the end of equality.


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

6 thoughts on “Gujarat: Thoughts on the Threat from Hindutva and Islam”

  1. Dear Bhupinder,

    I have been reading a few posts of yours on communalism and the central theme in them seems to be that Hindutva as an ideology sprang up in response to the conversion of lower castes to other religions. However facts and data belie your point. Why is it that most lower castes are still Hindu. Why is it that the caste system exists in all subcontinental religions (including Islam, Christianity and Sikhism). Why is it that the founder of the Hindutva Movement and the creator of the Hindutva rejected casteism?
    In light of the answers to these questions I am sure you will be able to make a more balanced assessment of the causes that created the Hindutva movement. However I do find it ironic that you use the Guru Nanak Dev ji’s Baburvaani to describe the plight of Muslims in Gujrat.
    Thank You.

  2. I read the post and comments on the indian muslims blog too. lots of great insights… thanks.

    I have seen lots of analysis of communalism at a macro level, most of them mainly have to do with the policies of the congress party in the indian national movement, or the rise of bjp in the early last two decades but very little at the level of the individual. what attracts him/her to the right wing ideologies, what is this pull towards identifying oneself with one’s community so strongly where does this come from? why do people feel so weak and powerless without a sense of belonging to the community? why is it so easy for such subliterate scumballs like togadia to attract such blind followers, even educated, so called modern ones… this problem is not just with the hindu community but with the muslims too. it is perhaps even worse there.

    I have been thinking about this topic ever since reading a section of the German novel The Man Without Qualities. It has young character called Hans Sepp who is some kind of an early German Nationalist, kind of proto-Nazi and Musil describes how his pessimism about the doom of western civilization, decadence of society, feelings of personal powerlessness makes him fall for the idea of an idealised community. It is a really frightening analysis, I will try to post about in detail sometime on the blog. reading it also made me realize how similar the hindutva and other religious ideologies that bedevil us are to the old european fascism. just an evidence that even after the horrors of one complete century, we still find ourselves adrift in this sea of modernity.

  3. @sunil:
    >Why is it that most lower castes are still Hindu.
    Why is it that the caste system exists in all subcontinental religions (including Islam, Christianity and Sikhism).

    ->The resilience of the caste system lies in the fact that the innumerable jatis are organized in hierarchies. Even within the Dalits, for example, one sub caste can be “higher” placed than another and so on. That I feel is a major reason why the caste system has persisted and persists.

    > Why is it that the founder of the Hindutva Movement and the creator of the Hindutva rejected casteism?
    -> Even Jawaharlal Nehru rejected casteism. The problem is that neither launched any organized assault on casteism. These assaults have come only in the periphery- in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, and few other regions. See my post on the The Significance of Being Kanshi Ram“.

    >In light of the answers to these questions I am sure you will be able to make a more balanced assessment of the causes that created the Hindutva movement.

    I think my assesment is quite balanced. That advise may be more pertinent for Mr Modi and co.

    >However I do find it ironic that you use the Guru Nanak Dev ji’s Baburvaani to describe the plight of Muslims in Gujrat.

    Nice to see that you bring this up. There is no irony in this. Butchery is butchery- it does not matter who commits it. Nanak’s criticism is of the violence of the marauders, he does not associate it with any religion. In fact, what is Nanak (or Sikhism) without both Hinduism and Islam? The syncretism assumes difference, but not continual conflict.

    Alok: Possible reason is that while Nazism grew out of the philosophical strands (especially Nietzche’s), its criticism also came in the form of psychological studies. in India, Hindutva asserted itself mainly in histriographical terms, and its criticism also came in the same sphere- which may account for the truly world class history writing in India.

    The only study that to some extent touches this (on an autobiographical note though) is the book In the Belly of the Beastby Partha Banerjee which is the account of a former RSS member.

    And yes, the novel about the 1980s and 90s is yet to be written around this theme.

    On the question of modernity- I think that I did comment once on this question that you raised earlier in one of your posts. Being modern is precisely being in a condition of being “adrift”. Allama Iqbal called it being in a state of “confident restlessness”. Sartre remarked: Man is condemned to be free, and captured the dialectic.

    Modernity also gives you the option of questioning it. And rejecting it.

  4. Hello Bhupinder,

    I dont think the Jaati system has got anything to do with the resilience of the caste system. What makes the caste system so resilient is that it provides an identity to an individual and creates a fraternal bond between people of the same caste. This is quite similar what Islam or Chritianity or Sikhism does (Hinduism does not do it because of a lack of codified structure) but only at a micro level. This ensures that even when a person belonging to certain caste moves on to another religion his primary identity remains one of his caste and not of his religion eg, rajput Muslims, rajput sikhs, jatt sikhs etc.

    I also disagree with the fact that nobody has tried to asssault casteism. There have been several movements to eradicate caste eg Vedanta, Bhakti, Arya Samaj, Gandhi ji’s Harijan Movement etc. Its just that centuries old mindsets cannot be wished away in a couple of hundred years. I have not been able to understand how you connect casteism with communalism when there is substantial evidence that even the lower castes participated in the rioting in Gujarat and all the so called Hindutva organisations accused of inciting the riots have universally rejected the caste system and in most cases have dedicated organisations working for the welfare of some lower castes. Communalism in my opinion is the end product of the centuries of grievences that Hindus and mUslims have against each other. Muslims cannot come around the fact that they are no longer in power and are subservient to idolators and Hindus sensing that for the first time the balance of power is in their hands are seeking retribution for the past crimes of Muslims. Both these viewpoints are wrong but matters are not helped by the fact that politicians on both sides of the divide (Communists, RSS, All India Muslim Law Board) routinely and flagarantly incense these latent sentiments in order to tighten their grip over their respective communities. It was in this context that I invokled the Baburvaani and not to justify what happened in Gujarat.

    Thank You.

  5. >that nobody has tried to asssault casteism.

    That is not my contention. my contention is about Hindutva founders not doing anything about it.

    >the centuries of grievences that Hindus and mUslims have against each other. Muslims cannot come around the fact that they are no longer in power and are subservient to idolators

    This is old colonial humbug.

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