(This post appeared at indianmuslims.in 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.