Article: The last barrier against communalism in India

Narendar Pani

It takes no great insight to record that India is seeing a sharp rise in communalism. There have been calls for the genocide of Muslims by leaders associated with the ruling dispensation; what are supposed to be more moderate voices on that side are raising a series of issues that target everyday practices Muslim, from their calls for prayer, to the hijab that Muslim women wear, to the sale of Halal meat.

Some individuals popularly associated with India’s information technology industry have also taken partisan, right-wing positions in the more contentious debates, suggesting that this effort will not fail for want of economic resources. And the economic support for aggressive Hindutva can be expected to be enhanced by Hindus in the Indian diaspora who would like to carve a Hindu identity in the West, without having to directly deal with the ravages of communal conflict at home.

These trends have invited frightening comparisons with Germany of the 1930s. But before India falls fully into the abyss of communalism, which will take many more lives than it already has, there is still one last barrier that communalism has to breach; a barrier that is resilient even though it is not always apparent.

To be sure, this barrier has not been created by opposition politicians. The ideological opposition to Hindutva in Indian politics is largely muted. Any significant ideological resistance is largely confined to the Left and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which means it is restricted to just two states.

Many of the other regional political forces are either seeking short or long-term alliances with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) while the others currently opposed to the BJP, like Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), are busy establishing their own regional version of an aggressive Hindu identity.

The Congress has also evidently decided that discretion is the better part of valour. There may be the occasional Congress leader who takes a consistent ideological position against Hindutva, like former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, but he is clearly an exception rather than the rule, even in his home state.

If political pusillanimity has not yet pushed India completely into the abyss of communalism – and the mass murders it will bring – it is largely because the diversity of India’s local socio-politics has emerged as a final barrier.

India is, and has always been, a deeply divided society. It has deep-rooted caste and other identity divisions in every village. Social hierarchies were established through brutal practices, the worst of them being untouchability.

But relationships between non-Dalit castes did not always follow established hierarchies, ensuring that they had to be continuously negotiated. These negotiations inevitably involved the economic and social powers of different castes. These powers could – and did – change.

A caste that was lower in the social hierarchy could use opportunities outside the village to strengthen its economic power within the village. The British army offered this opportunity to a variety of castes that were lower down in the social hierarchy. The large number of Indian soldiers participating in wars in other parts of the world, as a part of the British army, was a reflection of this process.

The combination of battle experience in the army and the changing economic hierarchies in the village did little to help peaceful negotiations within the village. The changing hierarchies meant that the negotiating groups would keep changing. The traditional Indian practice of no one being a permanent ally or a permanent enemy, was further consolidated.

Moreover, there was no real aversion to violence as an instrument of local negotiations. M.K. Gandhi recognised this reality when he limited his objective to trying to make the negotiations peaceful. He did not try to impose his own ideal solutions on the existing Indian reality, but only emphasised tolerance as a means to peaceful negotiations. Gandhi’s Collected Works has multiple treatises on tolerance, while secularism only emerges when he is responding to journalists during the few months of his life after Independence.

The Indian village community responded to Gandhi by treating him as an idealist saint; a ‘mahatma‘, while they went about their own ways. His presence during a murderous riot helped reduce the extent to which people were willing to go in their violent ways, but it did not completely remove the role of violence in local negotiations.

The phenomenon of aggressive local negotiations has, if anything, grown in the decades after liberalisation.

The effort to attract foreign capital included abandoning the earlier, undoubtedly limited, efforts at reducing regional inequality. As capital moved towards the relatively more developed metropolitan centres in the south and west of the country, large numbers of workers were being released from agriculture in the north and east of India. These workers could not afford to migrate permanently to expensive cities, being forced instead to make do with short-term urban assignments.

They typically lived in extremely difficult conditions in the city so that they could use their savings to improve their economic status in the village. Their changed economic status, in turn, altered negotiations between social groups in the village.

Changing local negotiations do not automatically lend themselves to a larger anti-Muslim narrative. Muslims in India are concentrated in cities and a few rural regions. In most Indian villages, there are few, if any, Muslims. The changing negotiations are, thus, largely among different Hindu castes. These negotiations have gained an additional edge with the Dalits breaking out of the shackles that have bound them for centuries.

It is this multiplicity of negotiations, without a prominent place for Muslims, that has emerged as the final barrier to the universal spread of anti-Muslim communalism.

It is not as if the forces of Hindutva are unaware of this barrier; they have sought to break it down by falling back on an aspect of Indian politics that no one likes to talk about; that there is a prominent place in Indian politics for anger and the violence that emerges from it.

Contrary to the image of a peaceful polity we Indians like to project, Indian democracy has repeatedly rewarded large scale violence. The riots in Delhi that left thousands of Sikhs dead contributed to a landslide victory for Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress party; the party that was associated in the popular mind with the reprisals against the Sikhs for the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Similarly, the killing of a large number of Muslims in Nellie was associated with the Assam movement – and the political force of that movement, the Assam Gana Parishad, won elections soon after.

More recently, the Gujarat riots provided electoral rewards for the BJP. It is, thus, in the interests of the BJP to keep up the anger against Muslims so that local Hindu communities can rally under the communal banner. Indeed, it has done so through a variety of instruments, from rewriting history to developing images of Muslim threats, whether real or imagined.

To treat the BJP’s electoral victories as entirely a matter of this communal polarisation would, however, miss an important part of the story. The communal narrative has not always been sufficient to ensure electoral victories for the party. The party has had to go beyond its communal rhetoric to try and reach a majority. It has made systematic efforts to get the winners of local negotiations into its fold. It has been able to attract successful members of other parties before and, if need be, after elections.

A major part of this success lies in the BJP’s ability to present itself as the permanent centre of power in the country. This ensures that all the winners of local negotiations who hope to benefit from the patronage of state and national governments, rally behind the party. Over the last decade, the party built a two-dimensional campaign to create this impression.

At one level, it built Prime Minister Modi into a larger-than-life figure for whom nothing is impossible. The Hindi slogan it uses, ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai‘, loosely translates to ‘Everything is possible if Modi is there’.

At a second level, it conveys the impression that there is no other national party that can challenge it. The success of this narrative lies in its ability to keep facts away from popular discourse.

In the 2019 general elections, two parties, the Congress and the BJP, got over 20% of the votes in 25 states and Union Territories (UT) each. No other party was able to cross the 20% mark in more than one state. The BJP and the Congress had a presence in an equal number of states and UTs, yet the Congress is popularly seen to have virtually disappeared from the political scene.

The importance the BJP places on keeping the Congress away from the national political scene is perhaps best reflected in the emphasis it lays on mocking the Congress’s leader, Rahul Gandhi.

Targeting the Congress does not help when others, especially regional parties, have developed closer links with local negotiations. There may even be aspects of the BJP’s communal umbrella that the regional parties would not like to share.

This is particularly true of language. The BJP pushes policy designed to make Hindi the de facto national language, arguing that those who speak it form the largest of many linguistic groups in India. But regional parties would lose a major part of their appeal if they allowed Hindi to ride roughshod over their local languages. And since all the other languages combined are spoken by 60% of Indians, this resistance is not easy to brush aside.

The difficulties in presenting a complete ideological view in support of its communalist agenda need not, however, be a dampener for the BJP. It only leads to the party relying even more heavily on generating local communal anger. It has taken more aggressive communal stances in states like Karnataka, where it had previously chosen to be moderate.

This aggression has its costs in terms of the lives and livelihoods of Muslims. And once the communal fire is lit, it can also burn other sections of society.

Apart from the brutality of riots, which can easily spread beyond the targeted groups, there is also the reality that the livelihoods of other social groups are adversely affected by social uncertainty and unrest. The costs of such continuous social unrest may well have contributed to recent communal riots not spreading as widely as they could have.

The diversity of local negotiations, thus, creates several barriers to a nationwide communal narrative. It brings to the fore divisions on issues that cannot always be brought under the communal umbrella. And there are a number of such issues that can emerge, from language to wider battles around caste.

In order to keep the focus on the communal divide, the forces of Hindutva have to keep communal fires burning. When these fire singe not just their target communities but also Hindus, they could very well generate a discomfort with social unrest.

This discomfort could, in turn, prevent communal fires from spreading rapidly. The diversity of local negotiations can thus act as the last line of defence against communalism.  But before this happy result comes about – if it does – the communal fires will burn lives, livelihoods and the idea of a tolerant India.

 Narendar Pani is Professor and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Courtesy The Wire