Friday, October 25, 2013

Fighting Communal Forces Dividing India

I was fortunate to speak to a vibrant group of young professionals, about 850-900 under the age of 45 years in Bangalore last month. It was an energising experience.

Teesta Setalvad 
Hate Hurts, Harmony Works has been our credo and Sabrang which means "all colours" was started by us in 1993 to provide information on, analyse and expose the machinations of communal politics in India, on the subcontinent and abroad and to publicise the attempt of secular individuals, groups and organisations engaged in fighting them. We stand for equal respect to all religions but are opposed to the cynical manipulation of faith in the pursuit of power. Therefore we are opposed to both majority and minority communalism. The riot in the mind festers for long before it spills onto the streets... and can often be prevented by responsible information, debate and dialogue.

Communalism Combat, a monthly in an attractive reader-friendly format, has been, since August 1993, doing just that. Publishing analyses and exposures of the manipulations of communal political parties, both of the majority and the minority, as also soul-searching personal accounts of individuals from India, the sub-continent and abroad engaged in battling the forces that divide.

One of the unique aspects about communalism is the cynical and scary ability of the spread of this pernicious ideology to subsume all our identities and thought processes into an extremely divisive “us” versus “them”. The us and them are interchangeables depending on which side of the communal divide we view things from and can in fact even shift and change as we have seen often happen. Our region, not just India has brute manifestations of communalisms of different hues and it has been my personal pursuit to understand and expose each one of these. No one faith has exclusive claim or right to become perverted through the misuse of religious symbols and faith itself, in the pursuit of power. We are seeing it today in the overtly crude measures to convert our nation, founded on the ideals of Articles 14-30 of the Constitution that are weddedto equality and non discrimination, to a Hindu majoritarian state, a prospect that has frightening and exclusivist implications.

We saw it in the very creation of Pakisan built on a movement that asserted that Muslims could not live in the same nation as Others/Hindus and saw that very assertion receive a setback when East Pakistan broke away on the issue of linguistic domination and hegemony and Bangladesh was formed in 1971. Sri Lanka, an emerald isle till the bitter seeds of communalism sown way back in the official Language Bill of 1956 and Tamil deliberately left out as an official language of the country, reaped the harvest of bitter alienation and violence that has left hundreds of thousands dead. The absence of linguistic, ethnic and religious parity and egalitarianism within the Sri Lankan legal framework and State sowed the seeds of this bitter alienation. On my first visit to Sri Lanka in 1997 I carried with me a secular humane vision of Buddhism, banished as it has been from the land of its birth. The fortnight long stay in several cities in Sri Lanka, the machinations of the Buddhist Sangha on Lankan politics (Buddhist Monks have a say in the functioning of the Sri Lankan Cabinet), the divisive policies of ensuring that Sinhala Buddhist speaking children and Tamil Hindu speaking ones attend separate schools and are taught different histories ecploded the myth of Buddhism ever and always being a peaceful faith. History is the playing field for communalist ideologues, historians and ordinary citizens alike, from every community in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan today. Myanmaar with a birthing democratic experiment faces its first real challenge on how it is dealing with the minority “Rohingyas”.

No faith remains peaceful or non-violent once it is linked to state power and control. State and religion are a pernicious mix, something that the founding fathers and mothers of our republic realised when they made a sound, considered, pramatic and wise decision to ensure that India remains a sceular, democratic republic despite over 5,00,000 persons massacred over the divisions and hatreds caused by the vivesction in 1946-1947.
A little bit of history would not be amiss here to enable us to look back at this period that always will cause us pain but needs to be visited with rationality and maturity. What were the factors that resulted in partition? Our national movement against colonial rule(over 150 years old) was inclusive, representing different sections of our peoples and spanned a variety of regions affected by the repressive policies of the British, squeezing us of the last cent and life, ignoring the horrors of poverty and the famine, filling coffers of their governments while bleeding us dry. It spread across the length and breadth of the country. The first war of indepedence against the British in 1857 (first mis-represented to us in our text-books as just a “Mutiny”) was inclusive of several kingdoms and all religionists who came together to throw off colonial yoke. Rebel soldiers estbalished the last Mughal emperor as the emperor on 11.5.1857 in Delhi. V.D. Savarkar writing about this historical moment in his book titled, "National War of Independence" described the 1857 War and its culmination with the crowning of Bahadur Shah Zafar on Delhi’s throne as the "five glorious days of Indian history."

The British launched a severe counter-offensive on the attempts to drive them out, a veritable seige of Delhi was launched and by September 1857, the rebellion crushed, hundreds of thousands from the old city killed and several prominent Muslim families placed under house arrest.

In the early 1900s, the British tried to ensure continued rule through crass attempts to divide Bengal, Hindus and Muslims spilt out on the streets, Rabindranath Tagore’s famour song “…………” was sung by every Bengalee in the streets of Calcutta and Dacca and a self serving British policy had to be reversed. The Partition of Bengal was abandoned (1905).
What then made the final vivisection possible barely three and a half decades later? What turn did politics take to ensure that this? If the Muslim League demanded a Pakistan as a nation separately for all Muslims, a fact drilled into us by our history texts, why are we not so knowledgeable on the contemporaneous demands made by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for a “Hindu rashtra”? In 1923 the very same VD Savarkar who had, decades earlier, spoken about composite nationhood, espoused the theory of Hindutva. According to this thesis, all Hindus were tied together by bonds of common fatherland, ties of blood, a common civilization, common heroes etc. The membership of the Fatherland depended on accepting the land as both the Fatherland and the Holyland. It is also the basis of pitrubhumi (fatherland) and punyabhumi  (Holy land) concept of nationhood propounded by MS Golwalkar We and Our Nationhood defined. This deliberately excluded Jews, Christians and Muslims and even castes and working classes, who are not permitted, by the scourge of caste to enter temples, eat the same food or even breathe the same air. The scourge and indignity of manual scavenging – carrying human excreta on heads prevails even today seriously challenging India and Indian’s modernity and compassion.

For the proponents of a Muslim state of Pakistan or an imagined Hindu state, the man who threatened this most of our own apostle of intra-community faith and harmony, a man who lived by his ideals and  who’s death was caused by the bullets of hatred. Gandhi. Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi a wily lawyer turned politician from Porbander, Gujarat. Struck by a film I once saw, a black and white film that shows Gandhi arriving back, suited and booted from a successful strugge in south Africa, he listens to the wise counsel of Gokhale who advises him to travel the length and breadth of rhis country, listen to people before he launches his struggle, Gandhi does that. Listening writing and evolving an understanding of this vast land, its peoples, its diversities, its pluralisms and their binding sense of belonging. For him, as he writes in Hind Swaraj that shared life, social and economic concerns, neighbourhoods, regions, different languages and cultures constitute a composite nationhood. More explicitly he says in the early 1940s to pernicious communal propaganda that for him, his Ramrajya and I quote “ is not a rule of Hiondus. Ramrajya for me is the same as Khuda ki Basti or the Kingdom of God on Earth.” No wonder, then, he died a violent death. An apostle for peace and army, who drew inspiration and ethics from the Geeta, Koran and Bible –who if he faltered ethically at all, it was on the issue of withdrawing from the temple entry movement -- simply to keep his upper caste, Hindu supporters and others under a united flock—but who’s assassination was attempted five time before the one that brought us grief and loss—on 30.1.1948.

Have any of you as you read your history texts or wondered at prevalent public discourse, ever asked yourselves, why are we so reticent, evasive or silent on the forces that killed Mahatma Gandhi?  I dare to ask this question because it was, after all, the first ever act of violent terror in Indpendent India. Is it the fact that this action was the handiwork, carefully planned and plotted by Hindu majoritarian exclusivist forces that make us edgy or uncomfortable?

Dealing with communalism, facing the communal demon, much like racist bias or gender driven prejudice is worrisome because it always involves scratching the surface of our own skins and asking some deeply uncomfortable questions.

If you browse through the website of Sabrang,  you’ll see that our commitment to expose and fight communalism of all hues is evident for you to see. Way back in early 1994, six months into our birth we demanded a Gender Just Civil Code for girls and women of this country. Exposing the sectarian and hegemonical notion of a “uniform civil code” that was being argued without addressing realities, we pointed out that provisions for inheritance, marriage and divorce that are woman-centric require an understanding of things as they stand. The Special Marriages Act enacted to enabble persons like me to marry without religious ritual has been privileged for the partner who is “Hindu.” A Hindu partner retains her or his right to inherit as per Hindu law a right which is denied a partner from a religious minority. Financial privileges given to Hindus under an outdated provision of the Income Tax Act (“Hindu undivided family”) is not available to any other community. So labels like “appeasement” coming as they always do from brazenly majoritarian communal forces need to be de-constructed by us rationally and carefully.

We analysed the “Islamisation” of the “Kashmiriyat” movement in the valley and outrightly condemned the forced expulsion of Kashmiri pandits. In November 1998 before anyone in India, or the world had written about the dangerous growth of the Taleban in Afghanistan as its impact on Afghan women. “Hell On Earth” was the title of Combat’s cover story, a full two and a quarter years before the Bamiyan Buddhas were destoyed in full public view (in March 2001). “Welcome to Hindu Rashtra” was one of my many cover stories on dangerous tendencies growing in the western Indian state of Gujarat, long before 27.2.2002 when the tragic train burnings took place at Godhra and the state conspired to allow brute reprisal killings in 14 districts. Violence continued unchecked for three and a half months after. The wonders of electoral democracy apart, the concerns of doctored history in text books, partisan governance and divided neighbourhoods, have further consolidated there, never mind the selective wonders of electoral victories and development being touted.

It would be truly frightening to see the rest of Indian cities divided like Ahmedabad and Vadodara are, or have our classrooms, monocoloured as they exist in that state. Gandhi, born at Porbander in Gujarat, would have died a thousand deaths at the state of affairs here.
History and historical manipulation is the core strategy of communalist ideologies of all hues. If Swami Vivekanand is sought to be appropriated today by the likes of the violent and threatening, supremacist Vishwa Hindu Parishad despte his commitment to the Unity of all Faiths, then Akbar one of our greatest rulers along with Asoka, from our past, who tried to practice pluralism during his rule is ignored and scorned by Muslim communal organisations. For me the Jamaat-e-Islaami can never be progressive unless they shed their core beliuef in Maududism that was the inspiration for Pakistan. KHOJ, our Education for a Plural India engages with schools and teachers to correct histrical misinterpretations and re-vitalise the learning and teaching of social studies and history. I Invite Thoughtworkers to our Website ( and help our team to technologically ensure that the material we are generating is available in easily accessible and attractive formats and different age groups all over India. The website of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) also needs specialized attention. (

Did you know that the world’s first ever girls school was set up in my state –Pune, Bhidewada -- by Savitribai Phule 173 years ago in 1848 with nine girls from different castes and communities? That when she tried to set it up Jyotiba and she were ostracised by their caste for daring to educate girls that too breaking caste and community taboos? That when they were thus treated, it was Usman Shaikh who came to their rescue and Savitri and Fatima, Usman’s sister were the first two teachers in these schools?

Are we all aware of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan @ Badshah Khan @ Frontier Gandhi? Why he was made to vanish from our textbooks with the rise of majoritarian communal forces? Because he wept as India was partitioned, telling the leadership of the time, in anguish, “ You are throwing me to the wolves.”

That Shivaji had several close aides in his cabinet including his finance minister who were Muslims and that his battle against the Mughals was on the economic issue of taxation not religion? That Aurangzeb of the jezzia tax fame gave large money and land grants to temples, including Mathura and Kashi and raided the Mosque within the Golconda Fort to get to the wealth within?

That an ancient Indian King, Harsha, had an officer expressly for the purpose of raiding temples so that, whenever in a financial crisis, he could refurbish the royal treasury by these means? (Devaothpananayakas…)

Battling communalism, every day virtually for the past 27 years has been a nerve racking, testing and often lonely exrecise. The powers of communalism use violence, aggression, half lies and prejudice to spread the venom. Rumour is a time-tested technique to esnure the spread, outbreak adnd escalation of violence. The recent violent incidents in four districts of Uttar Pradesh (Shamli, Baghpat, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar), hitherto known for their inter-community amity errupted brutally, leaving over 60 dead and 41,000 displaced. Half truths about pernicious theories like “love Jehad” selectively pucking up stories of boys involved in gender violence who happened to be Muslim (ignoring at least the same number if more cases where molester, rapist criminals were “Hindu”) are being fostered and used on the eve of election season. Political forces that brazenly admit they need the magical two-digit seat from Uttar Pradesh are cynically attempting to return UP and India to the vicious and violent politics of the 1990s, making their ostensible ‘development plank’ a farce.

That is another critical feature of communal violence. In decades past, the communal riot was the culmination of some disputes festering and once it broke out and was controlled, things came under control. Now the fomenting of a riot with hate speech and hate writing ocurs for months before hand, the administration remains complicit or silent, it is allowed to break out and escalate, action is delayed and justice often denied. This then is used to reap electoral benefit. Today technolgy, internet and social media are being misused and that s where again TWworkers can come in. To help us build a nationwiude Preventive Network where the signals of brewing conflict are mapped, predicated and prevented with grass root level work with the administration. We have worked with police station level Mohalla committees to ensure the right kind of citizen’s pressure on the police and administration, continually, 24 X 7, to prevent the outbreak of violence, not merely react after a crisis has broken. We need to ensure cultural assimiliation, expressions of composite culture, history and nationhood, be inclusive in our approach, struggle against the ghettoisation of our classrooms, homes and neighbourhoods. Ghettoisation is rich breeding ground for fostering hatred and prejudice.

Does communalism have only one colour? Of course, not.
Is communalism/fanaticism supremacist ideologies the monopoly of either the majority or the minority? Certainly not.
If public discourse in India is frighteningly dominated by a corporatised media that is brazenly promoting the Hindutva right, sections of the minority are being induced through the inroads of a Saudi Arabian driven Wahabism to turn to more rigid versions of Islam.

Is one form of fanaticism more dangerous than the other?
We are clear, both feed into each other and have been historically observed to be two sides of the same coin-as I demonstrated on the issues related to Partition and Independence. One thing, however, that we who are among the majority need to chew over and humbly regoster and remember. Minority communalism breeds inwardness and can also foster a riot. But the insiduous spread of majoritarian communalism, be it Islam in Pakistan, Sinhala Buddhism in Sri Lanka or Hindutva in India actually starts influencing the functioning of the state apparatus. That is when we see manifestations of institututionalised prejudice and bias unravel. Manifestations that deny equality of citizenship and opportunity and thwart justice, economic, social and political. Exactly the promises that “We the People of India” in the Preamble to our Constitution gave to ourselves and made.

I end by some of my favourite lines, as I believe deeply and intrinsically that every Indian, the majority of us, believe deeply in the promise of a non-discriminatory citizenship and ethos that we formally gave to ourselves on 26.1.1950. Republic Day. Despite the perpetrated hatreds and manifest bloodsheds we remain essentially bonded as one.

Our failing lies in our silence, and this is a big one. It lies in our collective failure to speak up. To stand up, be counted. For the India that we believe in. The India of our dreams.
Hence these lines of Martin Luther King Junior that are so very appropriate to end with, History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.


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