Partition was an example of it: competitive politics built around the idea of separatism triggered a veritable holocaust in which countless perished. The idea of separatism gained wide currency because it was a manifestation of the socio-cultural cocoons in which Hindus and Muslims lived, their interaction rife with suspicion.
The bloodletting during Partition spawned the hope that our politicians would seek to bridge the gap between communities, not widen it, eschew communal mobilisation that enhances the degree of separation existing at a point of time between them. Crafting a riot is the most effective method of communal mobilisation, which the Indian political class took recourse to within a decade of the first general election in 1951-’52.
From Jabalpur in 1961, often cited as the first big riot post-Partition, we have erected several tombstones mourning the blood spilled in Hindu-Muslim violence. On these tombstones are etched the names of Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Bhiwandi, Tellicherry, Meerut, Moradabad, Biharsharif, Bhagalpur, Jaipur, Bombay, Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar, etc. Add to this the tension and violence under which much of North India reeled during the three stages of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement – the shilanyas yatra of 1989, Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani’s rath yatra of 1990, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. By comparison, the current communal polarisation in Uttar Pradesh pales into insignificance. Yet media reports have lamented the division between Hindus and Muslims, and noted, with alarm, the reluctance of Hindus to vote for Muslim candidates and vice-versa. But even this trend isn’t new. This is why Muslims are rarely fielded from constituencies in which their community is around 10% or so.
For instance, the Congress thought it prudent to field Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad from the Muslim-dominated Rampur in India’s first Lok Sabha election, much to his dismay. The maulana believed he wasn’t just a leader of Muslims, but of the nation as such, deserving of support of all. He had, after all, battled the Muslim League during the great Partition debate of the 1940s. His own self-assessment was rudely undermined in Independent India’s very first tryst with democracy.
Changing role of communalismThis backdrop raises the question: Why is it that communal polarisation of relatively low intensity today alarms us more today than it did in previous decades? The short answer to it is that the role of communalism and the popular perception of it have changed since the late 1980s.
Until then, in what is called the era of Congress dominance, riots were localised and strategic. They were localised in the sense that they affected a district or two-three constituencies. Many of these communal conflagrations were triggered even then by Hindu rightwing groups, at times though in connivance with Congress leaders. Either the Congress-led administration was inept in controlling them or deliberately allowed it to teeter out of control, as so many Commissions of Inquiry in their reports concluded.
These riots were strategic in nature because it was a ploy of local Congress leaders to polarise the electorate to bolster their chances of notching electoral victories. But these did not constitute the meta-narrative of Congress leaders, neither at the State nor the national level. They didn’t portray the riots as an expression of justifiable Hindu assertion, and a method of showing Muslims their place.
In fact, the Congress leadership, whether hypocritically or otherwise, expressed apologies and sought to atone for riots through such measures as formation of peace committees, which aimed to repair the broken relationship between Hindus and Muslims. It was their way of ensuring that if the separateness between the two communities couldn’t be bridged, it wasn’t at least widened beyond what it was. For all these reasons, riots did not have the kind of resonance that, say, the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat had.
The only exception to the localised, strategic nature of riots in the era of Congress dominance were the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. It was pan-India. Congress leaders were implicated in fomenting it. Congress administration was guilty of idly watching Sikhs being killed with impunity. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi even sought to rationalise the pogrom against Sikhs through his infamous quip: “When a big tree falls, earth shakes.”
Yet, after weeks of insanity and intemperate remarks or, as some would rather say, after securing a brute majority in the Lok Sabha in the 1985 elections, the rhetoric of the Congress no longer dripped with venom against Sikhs. Subsequently, it was seen to have atoned for its guilt by appointing Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. On August 12, 2005, that is, 20 years later, Singh apologised to the nation in the Lok Sabha, “because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood in our Constitution”.
Ideological communalismBy contrast, communalism and riots for the Bharatiya Janata Party, as this writer argued in a piece in the Hindu in 2013, are elemental aspects of the Sangh Parivar’s politics. Its ideology is predicated on articulating and redressing the real or imagined grievances of Hindus, which have their provenance in the medieval past or in contemporary times in which contentious issues have been manufactured.
The BJP’s ideology seeks to pit the Hindus against Muslims until the former’s grievances are addressed. But these cannot be addressed to the satisfaction of the BJP and its followers because the list of grievances is inexhaustible. Is it possible to assuage sentiments seemingly hurt by tales cherry-picked from centuries of Muslim-rule, deliberately delinked from their historical context and often fictionalised or exaggerated?
Then again, the Ram Mandir issue has been festering for long. But should it be resolved in the times to come, demands for relocating mosques abutting the Krishna and Shiv temples in Mathura and Varanasi will be raised. Apart from these pan-India Hindu symbols, disputes over places of worship having state-wide significance have been imagined – for instance, the Bhagyalakshmi temple located at the base of the Charminar monument in Hyderabad, the Babu Budangiri-Guru Dattatreya shrine in Karnataka, and the Bhojshala complex in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh.
In addition, foot soldiers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have sought to appropriate graveyards and shrines which scarcely have resonance beyond a district or two. Not only this, fertility rates, a Uniform Civil Code, the triple talaq practice, the Enemy Property Act, in fact anything having a faint whiff of Muslim-ness or the community’s opposition to it, is turned into examples of insult to Hindu pride and unjustified pampering of Muslims.
In other words, the Sangh’s ideology aims not only to maintain the separateness of Hindus and Muslims, but to also erect a barbed wire-fence, so to speak, between them. Unlike the strategic and localised communalism of Congress, that of the BJP is ideological and pan-India and does not seek closure. Because the BJP’s endeavour is to make permanent the separateness between Hindus and Muslims, the communal polarisation in Uttar Pradesh, relatively of a lesser intensity than experienced in the past, appears so menacing.
True, the Sangh’s ideology dates to its very inception in 1924. But its influence on the Indian psyche was marginal until 1989, when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement boosted its political fortunes and clout. Acquisition of power enhances manifold an entity’s capacity to spread its defining ideas, palpable in the link between the BJP’s rise and its growing ideological influence.
Middle-class supportBut it is also true that the BJP’s ideological influence might not have acquired such salience but for the conversion of a large segment of the Hindu middle class to the cause of Hindutva, directly or indirectly. As such, the middle class around the world believes it is responsible for transforming society. To the Indian middle class, dominated by the Hindu upper caste, the decision to introduce reservations in jobs in 1990 seemed a setback to its agenda of transformation, not least because it sliced half of the cake that had been theirs until then.
In its anxiety, it lurched towards the BJP and its Hindutva philosophy. For one, this was because among all parties supporting reservations, the BJP was the most reluctant, manifest even as recently as in the 2016 statement of the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat that suggested revisiting the policy of affirmative action. For the other, Hindutva’s lure for the Hindu middle class-upper caste stemmed from the possibility of that philosophy becoming a lightning rod to unite the Hindus for overcoming caste cleavages and countering subaltern assertion.
Economic liberalisation expanded the middle class, further enhancing its clout. Yet it was also gnawed by anxiety. As eminent sociologist Yogendra Singh, in an interview to Scroll.in last year, said,
“By nature, global studies show, that the middle class is the most nationalist class. It is also the most narrow-minded in its nationalism. This is because…it resents any force which it thinks (or threatens to) disrupt its agenda of transformation. Anxiety is a natural consequence of it… Its anxiety, in turn, inspires it to promote (narrow-minded) nationalism.”Apart from the fear of subaltern assertion, the anxiety of the middle class was fanned by secessionism in Kashmir and Punjab, where religious minorities are in majority, and because of Pakistan sponsoring heinous terror attacks. Already partial to Hindutva, the middle class found in its narrow nationalism an antidote to their insecurities and anxieties.
Its members are opinion-makers whose influence is disproportionate to their numbers. It is the same middle class which, 30-40 years ago, spearheaded the agenda of bridging the separateness between communities. It is the same middle class which now thinks otherwise. No doubt, the Indian middle class isn’t a monolith – students and teachers of, say, Jawaharlal Nehru University or Ramjas College, are as much part of it. Yet it is perhaps not wrong to say that a substantial section of the middle class is now wedded to Hindutva.
The Hindutva section in the middle class isn’t apologetic or ashamed of its beliefs and feelings, openly voicing what till now had lurked beneath the surface or deliberately suppressed. Hindutva is a badge of conservative politics worn unabashedly, with pride, an observation which so many report in horror on meeting acquaintances and friends from the past. This feeling is similar to what journalists experience on listening to lawyers or doctors or academicians or engineers openly voice their hatred for Muslims, busting the myth that communalism is exclusively the passion of the poor and illiterate.
But all this wouldn’t have mattered for one unprecedented development during the Uttar Pradesh election campaign. For the first time in India’s electoral history, a prime minister has sought to enhance the degree of separateness between Hindus and Muslims. This was indeed the motive of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allusion to qabristans and shamshan ghats, as was also of BJP president Amit Shah, Modi’s most trusted lieutenant, when he coined the acronym Kasab to represent the Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.
With no less than the prime minister and the president of the ruling party seeking to retain if not exacerbate the degree of separateness between Hindus and Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah must be laughing in his grave. After all, it was his logic that the separateness of Muslims and Hindus is unbridgeable – a condition of living in which minds and hearts are forever divided. This is why even the low-intensity communal polarisation of Uttar Pradesh frightens so many.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
This article was first published on Scroll.in