In the early years of the twentieth century, the British raj began loosening its steel grip over the administration of Indian life. A limited degree of local participation in the institutions of governance became then on, a commitment of the raj.
The zone of autonomy granted was narrow and constricted, but still afforded enough space for a collision of sectarian demands, which often descended into violence. In May 1903, a commentator in the Aligarh Institute Gazette, the forum of choice for the rising Muslim intelligentsia, spoke of a sense of frustration at the growing alienation between the two main religious communities. “We do not like it, we do not enjoy the existing estrangement”, he wrote: “If local self-government has brought it about, curse on local self-government”.
This was the prehistory of communalism in modern India, when the putative leaders of the two religious communities were competing over the space they could rightfully claim in urban local bodies. As the space available for this competitive play of sectarian loyalties expanded, to the provincial and then the national level, the antagonisms sharpened.
If that was how matters were viewed then, sovereign and republican India, where citizens are guaranteed equality before the law, should have a better way of managing the clash of identities in public spaces. This is partly about confining cultural identities to a sphere deemed private; partly about politics affording the space for a civilised dialogue between faiths.
Yet, to judge by the recurrence of communal violence, politics in India has not been a very effective forum for building consensus on matters involving cultural identities. Indeed, in the absence of a solid civil society consensus, the competitive impulses unleashed by electoral politics may well be the principal factor aggravating the clash of identities.
A fortnight after simmering tensions in Muzaffarnagar district broke out in murderous riots and a mass flight of the religious minority from several of its villages, versions about what lit the first spark vary widely. Indeed, in the longer historical view, the narrative of the original cause may only be important for its indecisive outcome. What is more relevant is simply that as political competition intensifies in the months leading in to the 2014 general elections, local animosities are likely to be nurtured and unleashed as a matter of strategy.
Political scientist Ashutosh Varshney points to a circumstance of some hope: places that have a long history of civic engagement between communities – in apolitical bodies such as libraries, sports clubs and chambers of commerce – are less prone to outbreaks of violence. But can these civic bonds withstand the power of political movements orchestrated from above, when the agencies of the state are themselves sucked into vortex of fierce partisanship? From his own study of a long history of communal riots, the political scientist Paul Brass thinks not. He arrives indeed, at the conclusion that far from being “spontaneous occurrences”, riots are “produced” with a specific agenda. This would typically involve “calculated and deliberate actions by key individuals, the conveying of messages, recruitment of participants, and other specific types of activities, especially provocative ones that are part of a performative repertoire”. Parts of India with a history of communal violence, Brass has pointed out, are unique in having an “institutionalised system of riot production”.
Can these institutionalised systems be contained and dismantled? Experience says yes, though only with serious doses of political statesmanship and administrative will – one severely at a premium, the other likely to be under serious pressure as the fierceness of political contestation mounts.
Successive electoral contests since the 1990s have cast the minorities in varying political roles. In the days of Ayodhya, the main religious minority was stigmatised as legatee to the various indignities inflicted in the past on India’s original, primordial cultural identity. Later, it was portrayed as an impediment to the glittering promises of modernity that lay ahead for India as it sought its merited place in global councils. And “terrorism”, portrayed in the dominant political narrative as a virtual monopoly of fundamentalist Islam, was the weapon deployed to thwart India’s march towards global prestige and modernity.
Neither of these propaganda planks retains much potential for mobilisation in the next round of general elections, when a variety of strategies will likely be deployed. In this regard, Muzaffarnagar offers crucial indications. Well before the incident of August 27 that is believed to have lit the spark for the conflagration that ten days later engulfed the district, there had reportedly been a progressive embitterment of the atmosphere.
Community honour, as represented in the dignity and bodily integrity of women, was among the themes constantly played on to sharpen the growing estrangement. A further twist was imparted by rumours made up in the Hindutva ideological factory of a “love jihad” launched by attractive young Muslim boys equipped with the full range of the tools of enticement – modish clothes, mobile phones and sweet-talk – to entangle young girls of the other faith. In a region of the “vanishing female”, where the sex ratio is believed to have fallen to near critical levels, this was an ideological ploy of insidious power.
These ideological agendas are now wedded to the power of new modes of communication, evident last year in the riots that engulfed Assam’s Bodoland areas and the subsequent mass flight of people of north-eastern origin from some of India’s most cosmopolitan cities. The official response then was to ban and block, showing yet again a conspicuous lack of the political statesmanship and administrative will to use these modes of communication for the good. Muzaffarnagar again spotlights that dilemma: it is easy to press the best of modern technology to mischievous purposes, far more difficult to combat its effects.