Communal violence is not new to India. But something is different now

India has a long history of communal violence. Just how similar or different are the recent episodes? And what kind of dangers do they pose to the polity and society?

Let me begin with religious processes. It should first be noted that such processes have historically been some of the largest triggers for communal riots. In the dataset I co-created with Steven Wilkinson (Yale University) on communal violence for the period 1950-95, the reported cause of roughly every fourth riot was a religious procession.

Participation in religious processions is not about collective prayer and piety, spiritual restoration, mourning of loss, mending broken lives, extending compassion and seeking forgiveness. Such processes can be, and have been, intensely political, often morphing from the religious to the communal. Communalism in South Asia has always been distinguished from religiosity. It has signified a highly political and often violent use of religion. Religiosity may be about deeper meanings of life, but communalism is about a coercive assertion of power or a bloody search for retribution, often historically construed and presented. If in the Middle Ages some Muslim rulers were repressive or violent towards the Hindus, the modern Hindu communalist would like to take revenge by targeting even poor Muslims, who had nothing to do with the Muslim rulers or aristocrats of the pre-modern era.

Thus, it is not the coexistence of religious processes and riots that is surprising today. The novelty lies elsewhere and is two-fold. First, in our dataset, Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti are not the principal religious processes touching off riots. Barely three per cent of riots are linked to Ram Navami and only one riot — in Chaibasa, Bihar, in 1970 — has Hanuman Jayanti as its precipitant. Ganesh, Moharram, Dussehra and Durga processes have the highest incidence. Along with Holi, they lead by a huge margin.

The larger implication ought to be obvious. Processes that were rarely connected to riots are now being used for creating them. Mahatma Gandhi’s devotion to Ram was encapsulated in the saying “nirbal ke bal Ram” (“a helper of the weak”). Gandhi also thought of Ram as “maryada purushottam” (“an epitome of ethical conduct)”. For the communalists, Ram is not about helping the weak or ethical behaviour. For them, Ram is about exacting revenge and inflicting humiliation.

The second difference is both more important and infinitely more dangerous. In the past, processes might have caused riots, but the state rarely gave up the principle of neutrality in dealing with them. In many riots, there were doubts about whether the state behaved in an equidistant manner, but neutrality vis-à-vis religious communities was not openly abandoned as a mode of state conduct and intervention. The anti-Sikh riots of Delhi in 1984 and the anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat in 2002 were the two clearest exceptions to this larger principle.

Conceptually speaking, when a state either explicitly favors a community or looks away when a particular community is hounded, intimidated and attacked, it is no longer a riot, but a pogrom. Unleashing bulldozers on any given community without proper process is not simply illegal, it also qualifies as the beginning of a pogrom if the community is ethnically, religiously or racially defined. Had the court not intervened, the devastation of Muslims in Jahangirpuri would have been incomparably greater.

Indeed, the rapidly eroding religious neutrality of the government in several states — UP, MP, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Haryana — is one of the most alarming political developments. Luckily, the entire nation is not the site of communal bigotry. Eleven states are still ruled by non-BJP parties or coalitions, so variation in state behavior exists. But the BJP states and the BJP-ruled federal Center are dropping all pretenses of state neutrality vis-à-vis religion. Not only the everyday conduct of state apparatus, but a rising body of laws and executive decrees — on hijab, azaan, “love jihad” — are making much of the nation openly hostile and discriminatory towards Muslims.

Consider some other instances of such behaviour. In recent months, we have witnessed the spectacle of calls to murder in Dharam Sansads (religious assemblies). Some Hindu religious leaders have openly urged the Hindu community to acquire weapons and kill Muslims. Such speech is criminally liable. India’s Constitution prohibits speech that endangers “public order”. But, instead of applying the law correctly, the state has basically looked the other way, and when arrests have been made, the weak prosecutorial cases have been unable to withstand judicial scrutiny.

While I was doing full-time research on Hindu-Muslim relations in the 1990s, it was invariably hard to find clear evidence of who led the riots. The riot instigators or organisers would almost always be hidden in the shadows of ambiguity. Inferences could be drawn, but no clear-cut evidence would normally be available. The riot leaders now openly proclaim “desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro saalon ko (kill the bloody traitors)”. Such leaders are either not punished, or are merely given a slap on the wrist. Worse, reflecting the temper of the times, some of them are even celebrated as heroes and rewarded with high office.

These trends are coming dangerously together in the notable growth of vigilante violence, especially in BJP-ruled states. Muslim fruit sellers can be openly harassed and their carts overturned. Muslim traders selling sweets and flowers near Hindu temples can be prevented from doing business. Muslim girls can be stopped from going to school if they cover their heads, but Sikh boys can wear turbans and Hindu boys can wear a tilak.

New research on vigilantism makes it clear that vigilantism, especially lynchings, cannot flourish unless the state provides impunity to vigilante groups. By enacting anti-Muslim laws and issuing anti-Muslim decrees, BJP-ruled polities today are providing the impunity that vigilantism needs for its success. The effect is to terrorise Muslims, who are simply doing their regular business, traveling in buses and trains, attending schools, going to government offices for permissions and clearances.

An enduring belief of Hindu nationalism has been that Muslims only listen to the language of force, not to the language of persuasion. To them, force means combining state power above with street power below. Research shows that this kind of belief can easily lead to conditions for a large-scale anti-Muslim pogrom. If that happens, the consequences will be unpredictable.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University

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