Communalism and its impact on India
1997 Montreal Lecture at CERAS
Prof. KN Panikkar
| (Following is a summary of a lecture by the renowned historian KN Panikkar. He was invited by CERAS, a forum of south Asians committed to the defense of Secularism in the subcontinent and create awareness about south Asian issues among the people of North America. The following version of Prof. Panikkar’s lecture is unauthorised and unofficial. We may replace it soon with a properly authorised version, checked by the author.–ed.)
I thank CERAS and thank you for providing me this opportunity to be with you this evening to raise certainn issues which I suppose are of common interest and concern. The sub-continent is in the process of celebrating 50 years of independence. These celebrations have diverse and different responses from different groups and agencies in different regions in the sub-continent. It is obviously not only a time for celebration for the people of India and Pakistan, but also a time for self-questioning, introspection and also critically looking at what happened during the last 50 years. I would say that such a process is taking place really intensively in India, symbolized by people in Parliament of India deciding to have a special session of 4 days to discuss about what happened in India during the last 50 years and the ways in which India will progress in the future.
One very forceful problem, very important one for Indians, for people of the sub-continent, to talk about and think about when looking to the future, is the problem of communalism, which is a common concern in the sub-continent as a whole. But before I get into a discussion of that, let me recall what happened about a month back in the sub-continent. Many of you I am sure would have heard about a very outstanding singer of the sub-continent, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He passed away. When he passed away, the response in India, the reaction in India, was extremely touching. Perhaps it was equally if not more than the response in Pakistan, not only because he was responsible for giving music concerts and did music for several Indian films, but he was seen by the Indians as a cultural representative, cultural symbol of the sub-continent as a whole and he shared the perception of people in the sub-continent as a whole.
Why I say this is because there is a common share of culture, identity for people all over. You can go to Pakistan, or India, or in Bangladesh and you can see how this cultural identity is shared by people despite political differences, despite even wars, despite even recent incidents of fighting on the borders. This to my mind is a significant message. Why I say this is to contrast this with the fact that there is another phenomenon, which is also commonly shared by South Asians as a whole, particularly of the sub-continent; and that is communalism. Communalism is a common phenomenon, common danger, and all of the sub-continent suffers from it. It is also mutually inflicted. Something which happens in India immediately influences the situation in Pakistan, and what happens in Pakistan also influences India or Bangladesh. So there is a mutuality as far as communalism is concerned in the sub-continent as a whole.
Now this mutuality, if you look at most proactive experiences that India had during the post-‘47 period, the destruction of Babri Masjid on 6th of December 1992, led to communal riots in India, communal riots in Pakistan and communal riots in Bangladesh. In all the three countries it led to communal riots primarily because communalism is irrational. Not only communalism and the communal phenomenon are coercive in their character, but they are also irrational. It is that irrationality that you find in the expression and articulation in December 1992 and January 1993 throughout the entire sub-continent. But regardless of that, the Hindu communalists today hold Muslims of today responsible for what their co-religionists supposedly did five centuries ago. Similarly in Pakistan, when the 6th of December incident took place, the Muslims held the Hindus in Pakistan responsible for that Hindus in India did. In Bangladesh most of the Hindus were made responsible, though many of those Hindus, either in Pakistan or in Bangladesh, were opposed to Hindu communalism. But they were made responsible just as the Muslims were made responsible in India. So there is this irrationality, there is this illogical way of looking at the identity and responsibility of people.
Why I am saying this is because, such community affinity is central to communalism today in South-Asia. Such an affinity is attributed to members of communities regardless of where they are, regardless of the time sequence. And that is in fact central to the way communalism is functioning in India today. The question that I want to ask you and the reason for me spending some time with you is to examine how did such a consciousness emerge among communities in India, in the sub-continent as whole. What is the process? What is the historical process responsible for generating such a consciousness?
I say that such a consciousness evolved during the colonial period. When I say this I would like to make the statement that communalism is a modern phenomenon. Communalism is something, which emerged during the 19th century and then intensified during the 20th century. But when I say that it is a modern phenomenon I do not mean to say, as many scholars say today, that it is a creation of modernity, that it is a part of modernity. It is a very fashionable argument these days in certain circles of social scientists and historians. When I say it is a modern phenomenon I do not mean to say that the communities, Hindus and Muslims, communities that I am using for the sake of convenience, did not have differences of opinion in the past. I also do not mean to say that there were no conflicts between Hindus or Muslims or other communities before the second half of the 19th century.
Firstly, these tensions or communal conflicts were not limited to Hindus and Muslims. There has been tension, conflict before, between different communities.It did exist. It did exist did not mean that communalism as it happened during the late 19th and 20th century was a phenomenon which is inherited from history. Secondly, once you also understand the fact that communal riots, as many historians and scholars have argued, are not necessarily an outcome, a consequence of communal politics. It is generally said and it is one of the strongest opinions of the early scholars on communalism that communal riots are episodic. They are episodic as a result of, as a consequence of, the communal politics. In fact today or during the last 25-30-40 years, communal riots have been the beginning of communalisation. One can find so many examples where there was a new communal feeling, communal riots start off as a process of communal consolidation and the communalisation takes place. In many cases this process is externally induced. This is a very important dimension of the current communalism.
Let me return to what I was trying to say about the primary development of communalism during the colonial period. I am not going to the origins of it but I would say that during the course of the 19th century a process of communalisation of society took place. This has something to do with the social and cultural regeneration and the development of social and cultural consciousness in colonial India. If you look at the cultural regeneration in India during the colonial period, it was community based and it was within the parameters of religion. So the religious “communitarian” boundaries within which the social and cultural regeneration took place. This was an important factor in the process of communalisation. This consciousness was “communitarian”. It was not communal because “ communitarian “ consciousness transformed itself into communal consciousness. Such transformation took place during the last quarter of the 19th century.
I can give you several examples. If you look at what happened in Punjab or if you look at Uttar Pradesh where a social religious reform movements became communal oriented movements in the 1880’s and 1890’s. There are several other factors which were responsible for this communalisation. Let me isolate two and draw your attention to the importance of this.
One is in relation to the language. Many of you actually know that in North India, in Punjab, in Uttar Pradesh, in parts of Bihar and in Delhi, Urdu was the major language. Urdu was used both by Hindu and Muslims and there was no distinction. Even in the 1940s and 1950s, people would not know any other language; that is Hindus would not know any other language than Urdu. So what was the common language? By the last quarter of the 19th century there was a demand that officially Hindi should be the language and there was a demand which emerged among the Hindus. Slowly and slowly a division took place on the basis of Hindi and Urdu. Hindi was seen as now the language of the Hindus and Urdu was seen as the language of the Muslims. It was an extremely important development. Now this transformation, which started from the basis of language, led to what later became a so-called nationalist slogan, that is, Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan. You know this equation between India and Hindi and Hindushad devastating consequences. and Urdu then became the language of the Muslims.
Let me take a second example, which was another factor in the communalisation of Indian society. That is the cow protection movement, Goraksha andolan. In 1880s and 1890s, there is a very strong movement all over India for the protection of cows; which is a legitimate one because corruption came up sometimes in cow protection societies and of course the argument about the protection of cows was a given. But when this movement came up, the movement was really not for pure protection of cows but those who are protecting the cows, demanding the protection of cows were identified as Hindus and rightly or wrongly, and more wrongly than rightly, it was believed that the Muslims opposed the protection of cows. So this protection movement became once again an issue between the Hindus and Muslims which led to the largest number of communal riots in India. Beginning from Uttar Pradesh, down to Gujarat and Maharashtra, the series of these communal riots between Hindus and Muslims on the pretext that it is the Hindus that want to protect the cows and the Muslims don’t want to. And this was a very major issue in the communalisation of society.
The point that I am really trying to make is that there is a process of communalisation taking place. Let me also say that the national movement, the anti-colonial movement in India, which as you know was one of the strongest popular movements anywhere in any colonial country, had a very great importance as far as Indian society is concerned. It had a lot of positive aspects. I am saying this because the Hindu fundamentalists, Hindu communalists in India say that the anti-colonial movement, anti-colonial national movement was a negative movement. It wasn’t. Since I am not going to talk about nationalism I will not go into it but I just want to show that it was said. It had very, very positive aspects. But at the same time the period of anti-colonial movement is also the period of communalisation of Indian society. It is a paradox in many ways but that is very true.
I am tracing it in order to suggest that the emergence of communal politics in India is a consequence of this communalisation. It is an important thing to underline this because communalism is not a result of communal politics. I really suggesting that there is too much emphasis given by scholars on the role of the colonial state, the role of the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. Not that they did not try it, but there is something more than the divide and rule policy. Now when I say this I put it in a fashion that this is an argument, scholarly in the sense that there is a group of scholars in India who always counterpose one form of communalism to the other form of communalism. That is, you have both minority communalism in India and majority communalism in India. This way of looking is very dangerous. In fact, the majority communalism is a much more dangerous than the minority communalism. What these scholars do when they counterpose this is suggest that Hindu communalism is a result of Muslim communalism. The 1920s in India is the period in which Hindu communal assertion became formidable. The ideological elaboration of Hindu communalism was very, very strongly attempted during this time. Then the scholars asked this question: why did this happen? According to them this happened because the Muslims became very aggressive during this time. The Khilafat movement of 1919-1920 and in some of the fights, which took place during this period and subsequently, were responsible for Hindu communalism. I want to say that this is an absolutely wrong interpretation of communalism. Because what happened in the 1920s and in 1905-06, etc., is, as I said earlier, a result of the communalisation process, equally the Partition of India in 1947. Without going into the politics of that, I could say it was the final expression, articulation of this communalisation process. It is not because of the result of the failing of a political leader or the insistence of another political leader that Partition in 1947 took place. There is a historical process in Indian society, which became very intense during the 20th century, which led to the Partition of India in1947.
To my mind it is quite unfortunate that it is a part of the discourse on 50 years of independence. The entire media was obsessed with the question of Partition. If you look at media then you will find the whole focus was on Partition and not on the historical process that led to the Partition. Anyway Partition is very significant. Significant in many ways, not because it is one of the greatest tragedies that Indian society had experienced—the sufferings that are entailed, and the whole trauma that it created in1946-1947 and 1948, but to me it is a political marker in the history of India. In the evolution of India, and all the countries in the sub-continent is a very major political marker and more importantly today it is a symbol for further communalisation.
One believed for a very long time that Partition would end communalism in India, particularly because the way in which the constituted assembly of India between1948 and 1950 faced the question of Indian nationhood. But unfortunately today it has become a major symbol of communalisation of Indian society. The majority communalism uses it as a rationale and justification. This, using it as a rationale and justification, is done in many ways. For instance, what is being argued today by majority communalism in India is that Partition is the handiwork of Muslims. Who is responsible? The question of Hindu communal forces in this is often overlooked. That is why I said this media attention of Partition unfortunate because in all of these pieces of writing that appear in media today the question that is ultimately asked is: “who was responsible for it?” And the answer that many come up with: “Yes, the Muslims are responsible for it.” The entire leading upto this disaster is glossed over. The second and more dangerous preposition is if the Muslims have done it once, that they will do it again. India will be further partitioned, particularly because, as the Hindu communal argument goes, Muslims are still there in large number and their population is ‘growing faster’.
One of the most popular argument is the argument for akhand Bharat, a unified India. The reality in the sub-continent is that politically there are three sovereign independent States and this cannot be ignored at all. You do not really undo it. But what the Hindu fundamentalists want, based on the Partition lesson, is to undo this and establish what we call akhand Bharat.
If you look closely at what happened in the sub-continent during the last 50 years, the ruling classes of all three countries use communalism as an ideology of their politics. In many cases and many times the most important ideology of the ruling class politics has been communalism, both within the countries as well as without, that is the relations between different countries. This is a very important point because it was operative not only internally but in relation between different States. Internally let us look at this. I will just take the example of India. In India, if you will take the recent example of the demolition of Babri Masjid. the Masjid was demolished by a group of Hindu fundamentalists, Hindu communalists, but the Indian State is equally responsible for it. Indirectly though, the Indian State was responsible because their policy towards that was one of isolation, indifference and to some extent of corruption. Right from the time when it really occurred, the State in many ways was isolated and corrupted. As early as 1947, from the first time when an idol of Rama was put inside the mosque. I went through the correspondents of Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, with Govind Ballabh Pant who was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Nehru was enraged, as anything should happen. He said that it should be removed immediately. But the government did not move anything. It is exactly a repetition of that which happened in 1989 and1991-1992. So internally they are using communalism as an ideology of their politics.
So the State is using communalism, and as a result of that India or Pakistan or Bangladesh also come into this in their mutual politics. You have seen whenever this is an internal crisis in any of these countries, there is always speculation in the media about possible war between India and Pakistan. Many politicians who really do not have support base will use this bogey of the communal State (India being seen as a Hindu State, Pakistan is a Muslim State) in order to re-enforce their power. So the sub-continent, the relationship as a result of that is based on such media perception and protection. Given that, the last ten years have been a period of intensification of communalism, particularly in India. Communal politics, the politics of the majority communalism gain strength.
I am saying this in regards to intensification of communal politics in India to suggest to you the way in which this intensification has taken place, to suggest the manner in which communalism,particularly the majority communalism has succeeded in advancing further. It is not through the ordinary ways of electoral politics. A way that they have tried to advance in Indian politics is not through the normal manner of campaigning politically during the election itself. The attempt on the part of the communal parties has been to establish power, social power, at different levels of society by working through local organizations, working through local, cultural and social organizations. Starting from education to any area like environment, women, local history societies and so on and so forth. It is true that in various levels of society they have tried to establish their power.
Let me give you two examples. Some 20 years before they decided to write the history of India. What they were doing is creating new history. Some years ago they decided to write a history of each district of India. They appointed three member teams for each district. Nobody knew about it. I at that time didn’t know about it. Today, of course, last year they had their national convention. So you imagine when history for each district being written, that is a history which will be available to everybody. You can imagine the havoc that this kind of fake history will play in coming years. The second very important area for them is education. Today they run 15,000 schools in India, and for different age groups. You can imagine if in each year, from these 15,000 thousand schools, a hundred students come out and out of these hundred 50% are ideologically brainwashed. This is what is happening in Hindu society every year.
These were only two examples. There are several other. Basically their project is establishing what they call as cultural nationalism in India. That is really a re-interpretation of Indian Nation, an Indian Nation which is based on culture, which is Hindu culture, and in which others have no place now. So the territorial notion of culture, the question of democracy and secularism which India inherited in the cultural movement, are only the legacies of the national movement. They want to remove all the legacies of the anti-colonial struggle; in that way the idea of a cultural nationalism based on religion, based on Hindu religion is being attempted.
Now, to my mind, this has very major implications for the sub-continent as a whole because this will undeniably lead to continuous tension. Communal States which will come into effect as a result of such an effort will only foster major antagonisms. So the possibility of or the implication of a communalism for the sub-continent is disastrous from the point of view of development, disastrous from the point of view of peace, disastrous from the point of view of prosperity, because the attention of the State, of this communal State, will obviously be based on much more antagonism than it is otherwise.
Let me, before I end, ask this question: “If this is what communalism is attempting to do in the sub-continent, what are the prospects?” One possible answer to that is the creation of secular action in the sub-continent, and the creation of secular action not in the manner in which it has taken place in the past, but in a new way. Anti-communal secular activity in India is as old as communalism itself. What was always attempted was reactive action, demonstrative action. The agenda was set by communal forces and the secular activists had been marching for peace and signing statements and so on and so forth. But nothing has happened. Communalism is not dead and they have used different ways of advancing in further. This actually means that new ways will have to be thought of for similar action and participation.
There are two ways in which one has to think about what could be done or what is necessary to be done in each State and the other in term of the relationship. Let me briefly say what many people in India are trying to do and thinking about, that is to create a secular movement which addresses itself to grassroots level problems and create what is known as, what is called, secular communities at local levels. These secular communities will not necessarily be involved in anti-communal activities but creating secular consciousness by taking up problems which are closer to the every day life of people, whether it is sanitation or the cleanliness or water or environment, for whatever they are. It is only through those secular communities a secular consciousness can be created. Understanding of this is that communalism is going to be a long term problem. Fire fighting is not sufficient or it will not be very effective.One has to think about actions which are with a long term perspective and long term strategies. In India, there are several groups which are involved in such activities. I will say that during the last ten years, as I said, communalism intensified itself, but it is also a time when there is a re-assertion of secularism in India. I don’t know if any of you have asked this question as to why in 1996 BJP could not remain in power despite forming the government. No party was orepared to support. It was not because these parties were great secularists. Many of them are not, many of them wont even like to be clearly identified as secular, but what these parties did in 1996 is the reflection of the assertion of secularism in Indian society. It is a very clear reflection of that. So certain processes have taken place and it is necessary really to build upon this, and that is the area which is open.
Secondly, we have what is known as the “people to people contact”. One way in which it could be widened is to establish contact and collaboration between different groups. In all the three countries, that is, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are groups working like that, professional groups, voluntary groups, etc. For instance, there could be collaboration or some sort of coming together of the teachers, the lawyers, the doctors, peasants, workers and so on and so forth. I recall about 14 years back I met some Bangladesh scholars. We discussed the possibility of a social science forum for social scientists of all the three countries. At that time I happened to be the dean of the school of social sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and so they asked me to take the initiative and send faxes to social scientists in all the three countries. Their response was everybody wanted such a forum so that the issues could be discussed frankly and in depth.
I think such moves are necessary to widen the scope so that at some time, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not after five years, but maybe after 25 years or 30 years, the people would say that this is not acceptable to us because we understand what are the basic issues in the sub-continent.
I would end by making two points. One is that the peace and prosperity of the sub-continent depends upon the elimination of communalism..Secondly, and more importantly to my mind, communalism is anti-democratic. It is unimaginable that there can be a democracy in a communal State. So it is not just religious communalism; and demand for secularism is not only a demand for the unity or harmony among Hindus and Muslims. It is a much greater problem in the sub-continent, it is much more wider as far as the the growth of democratic culture is concerned. Thank you very much.