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India’s Competing Communalism’s

by Harbans Mukhia, 9 October 2008

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The Times of India

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

On the communalism front, two divergent yet complementary strategies seem to be under way in India, both inspired by utter contempt for the nation’s democratic polity as well as for the country’s historical and cultural traditions: one envisioned and undertaken by the sangh parivar, the other by the various arms of minority communalism.

On the one hand, the sangh parivar, working through its myriad branches, has learnt its lesson well from the Nazi experiment: gradually, spread communalism in society’s nooks and corners, come to power in the states, and, under the government’s protection go all out to wreak on the social fabric, an unambiguous, aggressive communal divide.

Using their various organisations like the RSS and the Bajrang Dal, they unleash vicious and often wild propaganda against the minorities and organise riots, kill people and demolish properties. The perpetrators move with the confidence that when the state acts it will be on their behalf.

The law of the land is the last concern on their minds. Indeed, Narendra Modi has demonstrated through the travesty of truth that goes under the name of the Nanavati commission that law should be treated like an ass. Once you have succeeded in creating durable fissures in society through long, sustained hard work, political power follows in its wake even in a free and fair election. Elections won, the rule of law can be laughed at in different forums. The parivar has had to effect an improvement on the Nazi experiment here: it can claim electoral legitimacy for all its illegitimate actions. But the essence is the same - power remains the central feature. Law will always be its servant. If some day the parivar were to capture full control of the state in New Delhi, all its virulent constituents could be given free run.

Minority communalism, on the other hand, does not go by any of these pretences. Terror is its chosen weapon. The more the parivar succeeds in marginalising and "punishing" the minorities by using the state’s organs, the more legitimacy it creates in the minds of militancy’s adherents and followers. Even its failure to create widespread communal tensions by carrying out terror strikes on temples, mosques, bazaars and streets does not seem to deter it. Its strategy is to persevere in this endeavour and wait for simmering tensions to grow until they reach a tipping point. Conversely, militancy of the minority in turn lends force to the parivar. It is thus that the parivar and militant minority communalism are each other’s firmest allies.

But then minority communalism is not the by-product of the sangh parivar’s politics alone, even though militancy may have been fed by the parivar’s stridency. Indeed, it has a much longer history, although it does not go back to India’s five and a half medieval centuries, when the Muslims ruled over much of the land. In fact, this period was remarkably free of communal rioting, as we understand the phenomenon today.

The first recorded riot occurred in 1693 in Ahmedabad, when Muslim rule was nearing its end, and the whole of the eighteenth century was witness to five cases of rioting. In the later nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth, on the one hand a "siege mentality" grew among Muslims and on the other the freedom struggle, which mobilised masses of people, reinforced the siege mentality. This resulted in the country’s partition.

Since independence, such an attitude has found strength in various sources and challenges from none. If there was the constant RSS-Jan Sangh and subsequent BJP threat, the Congress has revelled in keeping this threat alive to corner the Muslim vote. The community’s own leadership too had a strong stake in indulging in rhetoric, and its liberal leaders never tired of crying themselves hoarse at the supposed "decline" of Urdu, etc.

The Left, ideologically most well-equipped to contest communalism, made a very questionable distinction between majority and minority communalism on the plea that the former alone was capable of turning fascist. Hence one could overlook the latter. In the process, it ignored the integral link between the two, with one feeding off the other. The result: the Left could effectively challenge neither.

Today, as a feeling of helplessness of the state and the citizens seems to stare us in the face, the writing appears on the wall highlighting two requisites. Since it is the state’s exclusive responsibility to deal with acts of disturbance of law and order and of terror, any strong, but impartial action by it to combat these can only earn it support from all citizens, belonging to all communities. The assumption that such strong action will antagonise one community or another is, among other things, grossly unfair to that community, for terrorism threatens us all equally.

Secondly, voices of opposition to terror and of acts of communal frenzy, still somewhat feeble within each community must grow much louder in the form of actual mass mobilisation, not only against the other’s communalism but also that of one’s own community. That includes the minority communities.

The writer was professor of history at JNU.