Communal Riots in Secular India

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Since  no honest effort was ever made in secular India to bridge the gap of  communal mistrust between the two major religious communities that  was primarily due to historical wrongs, one should not be surprised  that communal riots continue to occur frequently.

The  repeated blame games of all the political parties over this social  menace as seen recently in Kistwar of Jammu and Kashmir state and in  Muzaffarnagar and its adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh without  tackling the issue in all its aspects gives the impression that the  parties are only practising political gimmickry!

Medieval Legacy:

Is  it not an irony that in post-British India, the country’s political  leadership in pursuit of votes and vote banks is carrying forward the  violent medieval legacy only for their political interests and  dividends that come from such riots?

The  pre-medieval invaders of India generally settled in Indian soil and  merged in the cultural cauldron of this land. But the Islamic  conquests were different. The conquerors indulged in mass killings,  forced conversions with the superimposition of an alien  Arab-Turk-Perso culture all in the name of religion. This created a  permanent conflict between the two major religious groups.

The  creation of Pakistan in the name of religion and the failure of post  independence Indian rulers to bridge the gap between the two  communities have only exacerbated the distrust between the two  communities.

Praising  their faith as God’s final and perfect religion, these conquerors  declared that it was their divine right to conquer the non-Muslim  world and to superimpose their culture on the people of the conquered  territories. This mindset of the invaders clashed with the spiritual  beliefs of the conquered people and thus created a permanent chasm.  One cannot but agree that this was not just a conflict of religion  but a conflict of civilization between the ruling class and the  ruled.

The  invaders had earlier succeeded in their mission in Persia and other  gulf countries and rejected Judaism and Christianity as defective  variants of Islam but the response of the natives in India was  different and the ruled continued their resistance all through. Since  then, the socio-cultural division between the two communities had  remained a permanent feature of Indian society.

Nobel  Prize winner V. S. Naipaul in his book Half  a Life observed that “Islam has had a calamitous effect on converted  peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your  history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say “my ancestral  culture does not exist, it does not matter".

The  British Rule and its narrow objectives.

After  the end of the imperialistic Islamic rule in 1857 and shift of power  from the Muslim rulers to the British, there was a marked change in  the attitude of the Hindus also towards the former as well as the new  ruler. While “the Hindus looked upon the British rule as  deliverance from Muslim yoke, and considered English education as a  blessing, the Muslims in their eagerness to preserve their religion  and religious views rejected English education". (Muslim Politics  and Leadership in South Asian Sub-continent by Yusuf Abbasi, page  13).

The  British ruler did not like to resolve the conflict between the two  communities. They looked at the whole issue as a law and order one  and emphasis was on communal harmony to prevent a break down in law  and order and nothing more.

The  post-Mogul historians repeatedly wrote about the Indo-Arab composite  culture of this land but ignored the wounded psyche of the natives.  Though the Hindus and Muslims were living together for more than a  millennium both the groups always remained in social isolation from  each other. At the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindus joined the  Khilafat Movement launched by the Muslims against the British for  restoration of Ottoman Empire but this unity was also a temporary  one.

Partition  & thereafter:

The  Indian National Congress had opposed the two-nation theory tooth and  nail but its leaders succumbed to the pressure of Muslim League  leaders who gave a call for Direct Action in 1946 that led to  widespread communal riots in the sub-continent. These riots were said  to be one of the immediate causes of Partition.

When  India emerged as an independent democratic and secular republic, the  then ruling Congress only tried to philosophise the Hindu-Muslim  issue by repeating the same Marxian theory of composite culture by  ignoring the fact that the “pang of toothache cannot be borne by  philosophical speculation". Of course the term secular was not  incorporated in the constitution at the time of its framing, its  spirit was secular. But instead of formulating a practicable policy  to resolve the historical communal conflict, the ruling political  party carried forward the same policy of the earlier rulers.  Ironically, the Marxists and Left-liberal intelligentsia also  supported them.

Revival  of the Muslim League politics by the Muslim leaders and their  parties:

This  resulted in the Muslim League reviving the movement for the separate  identity of the Muslims on the basis of religion which was nothing  but a fight for a shared political power on the basis of a separate  religious identity. For them, democracy and secularism were alien to  their faith. “Democracy is a concept completely alien to the Muslim  psyche to the extent that there is no equivalent terminology for it  in Arabic or other languages spoken by Muslims (Understanding  Mohammad – A psychobiography of Allah’ Prophet by Ali Sina, a  Canadian Muslim of Iranian descent). They ignored the concept of  common national identity as accepted by other minorities like Jews,  Christians and Zoroastrians (Parsis) who hardly had any communal  conflict in this secular country.

Had  the ruling establishment been bold enough and abandoned the concept  of minority and majority in framing the constitution, the Indian  Muslims like their counterparts in other non-Muslim majority  democratic countries of the world would have resigned themselves to  being equal citizens. They would have either opted for Pakistan or  accepted the concept of common law for all. But our constitution  makers ignored the hard historical fact of religion which was the  main reason behind Partition and again divided the people into  majority (read Hindu) and minority (read Muslims) on the basis of  religion by incorporating some articles which provided special  privileges to the latter. This generated a communal consciousness in  both the communities and also revived the secreting historical wounds  in the psyche of the majority community particularly when the ruling  establishment remained more concerned with the communal demands of  the minorities. Emergence of other communal organisations could not  be prevented.

Vote  Bank Politics to the Fore:

In  between Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh, a number of  commissions and councils like National Integration Council, Minority  Commission, Rangnath Mishra Committee, Sachchar Committee were set up  by the Central Government but such efforts could hardly resolve the  communal conflict in the country. These exercises rather prompted  almost all the political parties to go for competitive bidding to go  for “vote banks" in the elections. Distribution of communal sops  to the minorities particularly in pre-election year by the so called  secular parties only accelerated the identity politics played by the  minority religious leaders.

By  and large only the vote-seeking political parties are blamed whenever  there is any communal riot. But the so called secular media should be  held equally responsible for not agitating against the vote bank  politics being played by the political parties. If only the  government had not interfered with the Shahbano case, things could  have been different today. But it was not to be as vote bank politics  appeared to be more important and crucial for survival of some of the  political parties.

Keeping  alive the communal issues like over a decade old Gujarat riots,  arrest of Muslim suspects in terror cases, arrest and conviction of  Batala House encounter in 2008 and 2013 respectively suggest that the  Muslim leaders have made it a strategy to flex their muscle on any  issue which goes against the Muslims.

The  Batla Encounter

Within  a month of the Batala House encounter in September 2008, various  Muslim organisations organised a meeting in Jama Masjid Delhi on 14th  October and condemned the arrest of Muslim youths who were suspected  as accused in this encounter. It may be mentioned that Shahi Imam of  this mosque in his invitation letters had highlighted the “bomb  blasts, blame game, illegal arrests, and torture of Muslim youths"  and also alleged: - “ the highly discriminatory actions of State  police forces and central intelligence agencies have let loose a  reign of terror to which Central government has turned a blind eye".  He felt that “if we don't unite by closing our ranks to meet this  challenge, history will never forgive us". The meeting made this  encounter a political issue which is still persisting.

Surprisingly,  even the then Jamia Milia Islamia Vice Chancellor Mashirul Hasan a  widely acclaimed campaigner of ‘moderate and tolerant Islam’  joined the communal polarisation move and offered to provide legal  assistance to the two arrested students of the university. He even  led a street march in support of the Islamists.

Thus,  with a sustained campaign the Muslim leaders succeeded in convincing  the community members across the country that their community members  killed in the police encounter and arrested were innocent and not  terrorists. They went to the extent of preaching that the death of  Mohan Sharma was caused by the bullet fired by his own colleague  either deliberately or by accident.

Revisiting  Pre Partition Scenario:

The  increase in communal riots since the beginning of the new millennium  on the eve of election years namely 2004, 2009 and 2013 shows that  India is revisiting the pre-partition challenge of the communal flame  engulfing the country. But the most unfortunate part of the scenario  is the role of political parties, ‘secular’ intelligentsia,  journalists, writers and academics in running down the image of the  country in the world.

If  the people of the country in general and ruling class in particular  do not take lessons from the historical wrongs committed by Indians  who brought defeat and dishonour to the nation either to save their  throne or skin, we are bound to fail in bridging the gap of communal  mistrust in the society. The prevailing dissatisfaction of the Muslim  community and consequent unrest is a dangerous sign for both the  internal and external security of the country.

The  answer lies in a strong political will of both the state and central  leadership to shed their politics of vote bank and one sided approach  in handling the communal riots as otherwise the country will continue  facing the challenge of the medieval legacy. Muzaffarnagar riot will  not be the last and we will only see more riots in future.

Also  read

1. Why Secularism is not an Indian concept
2. Not just Modi: Guide to communal riots before 2002 and after
3. Insights into 1992/93 Mumbai riots and blasts
4. The politics of hate in India
5. Arabization of Indian Muslims and its ill-effects