The battle for a secular India

The term “Communalism” is peculiar to South Asia, and perhaps, most specifically to India, where it has a meaning quite different to the peaceful derivatives of ‘commune’ and ‘collectivism’, all denoting social harmony and cooperation that the rest of the world is familiar with. In India, communalism connotes rabid hate and divisiveness on the basis of religion with the erstwhile Indian subcontinent having been divided into India and Pakistan in 1947, on the basis of a created communal divide between Hindus and Muslims.

India will be witnessing a revival of communalism in the 2014 general elections, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, the Hindu nationalists party) making a decided pitch for power with their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. The so called Hindutva agenda seeking to establish a theocratic state is being given a decisive push with the BJP hoping to divide the electorate along religious lines, and thereby consolidating the majority Hindu vote in its favour. Recent violence in Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, has succeeded in dividing the Jat Hindu and Muslim populations, with the former now likely to vote for the BJP.

Historical Background

The seeds pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other were sown during the two centuries of British rule in India, where the colonialists used an effective ‘divide and rule’ policy to control the Indian masses. The 20th century, thus, saw the birth of aggressive Hindu and Muslim communalism in India that not only divided the subcontinent into two countries (subsequently three when East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971) but created levels of discord and animosity that have continued to plague the region. The Hindu Mahasabha (the great Hindu congregation) was founded by V. D. Savarkar and the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS, the National Service corps) was set up by B. Hegdewar in the 1930’s. Historians have written of their close links with fascists, both Savarkar and Hegdewar sharing a world view seen to be very similar to the Nazi doctrine. An approver identified Savarkar as having been a co-conspirator in the assassination of Gandhi by the Hindu-fanatic Nathuram Godse. The RSS and Hindu Mahasabha directed its members to stay away from the struggle for Independence as for these right wing groups the Muslims, and not the British, were the real enemies.

The All India Muslim League was formed in 1906 as a counter to the freedom movement being led by the Indian National Congress at the time. The Muslim League was a communal organization that projected itself as the political savior of Muslims. Its declared objectives were to encourage Muslims to remain loyal to the British government, to safeguard the rights of Muslims, and to prevent the rise of “prejudicial feelings against the other communities of India.” Interestingly it did exactly the reverse insofar as the last point is concerned, and worked systematically to create a sense of alienation amongst the Muslims from “Hindu India.” It stood as a counter to the secular nationalist movement for Independence under the leadership of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become India’s first Prime Minister, Maulana Azad, Sardar Patel, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and others. The Muslim League campaign sharpened as the years rolled by and under Muhammad Ali Jinnah it proposed a separate nation for Muslims. The British encouraged the politics of Partition, and to cut a long history short, India was divided into India and Pakistan on the basis of religion in 1947.

The RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League were both opposed to the Congress and to the freedom movement that had emerged as a secular platform, determined to move India towards a democratic republic where religion would have no place in state affairs. Both the Hindu and Muslim right wing groups were supported by the British who preferred to give in to the Muslim League’s demand for the division of India that led to the worst communal violence the region had ever known. Thousands were killed as populations of Hindus and Muslims left their villages and homes for the other side; with the bloodshed leaving deep scars that remain with both sides till today.

Pakistan emerged from the debris of violence as an Islamic country, a Muslim nation in its strange quest for equality and rights. India emerged as a democratic republic, as despite considerable pressure from within, Nehru and the others with him were able to resist efforts to declare the country a Hindu rashtra (Hindu country). Later when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, the constitution was further amended to add the term ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ to the ‘democratic’ identification of Indian polity in the preamble, in that the initial ‘sovereign democratic republic’ became through the 42nd amendment in 1976 the ’sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’. And thus made it clear that while all citizens had full freedom to follow any religion, there was no official religion, and governments would treat all religious beliefs and practices with equal respect and honor.

The emergence of India and Pakistan, thus, as independent nations was steeped in violence that cast a long shadow over the celebrations at the time. The assassination of Gandhi by communal forces was an added blow, but even so the jubilation of being a free nation overcame the sorrow. But the freedom did not get rid of the communalism that had made itself felt during first half of the 20th century, and very soon communal incidents peppered the landscape of democratic India. Hindus and Muslims fought pitched battles on the basis of rumours and lies spread by vested interests, in a bid to weaken the secular forces and consolidate Indians on religious ethnic lines. However, prompt action and preventive measures kept the situation in relative check as India relished her independence in the initial years.

Communalism in contemporary India

But not for long, and as the country moved into the 1970’s, communal violence broke out in different parts of India. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar took the brunt with large scale violence between religious communities characterizing the 1980’s as the most violent decade since independence. Assam was plunged into a virtual civil war with thousands being massacred across the state as so called indigenous Assamese attacked Bangladeshi migrants (mostly Muslims) with deathly intent. Swords, bows and arrows, and spears were used as villagers attacked villagers in scenes reminiscent of the medieval era. Delhi, the capital of India, went up in flames after the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, with mobs attacking Sikhs and killing at least 3000 in three days. Kashmir saw huge terrorist atrocities directed at Hindus and Sikhs that led to the flight of Hindus from the Valley that was then overtaken by violent militancy. Communal violence took a heavy toll of lives in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar at the same time, with hundreds being killed in clashes between Hindus and Muslims, or between Muslims and the state police forces that opened fire on innocent persons in different instances.

In 1992 the ascendant communal forces made an ancient mosque their battle field in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh and brought down the structure dome by dome while secular India watched in shocked disbelief. Riots broke out all over the country as a result, with Mumbai bearing the brunt of the violence at the time.

It became clear through the years that communal violence is created, and does not just happen. Those with a vested interest in consolidating Hindu or Muslim support respectively spread rumours for days and weeks in the localities under their influence. This is based entirely on lies and distortions with the sole aim of arousing passions and hatred that then generates an atmosphere that can be ignited by any small incident. In Delhi, for instance, Hindu mobs gathered at the railway tracks just outside the capital following a rumour spread by vested interests that trains from the Punjab were rolling into the railway stations carrying dead bodies of Hindus. The mobs gathered for revenge, and in the process stopped the trains, pulled out the Sikh passengers, killed them and put the bodies back into the trains. Over 200 Sikhs were killed as a result of this one rumour, a revenge for incidents that had not taken place. Not a single Hindu had been killed.

In Assam villagers attacked other villages following rumours that they were going to be attacked. In most cases in the north eastern state, those who thought they were going out to kill in sheer defense became the attackers and the violence spread through the state, with even the para military forces unable to contain for weeks. In Aligarh, one of the many towns in Uttar Pradesh, that saw pitched battles between the two religious communities, both sides attacked each other following rumours that the ones daughter had been raped by the other, the ones son had been killed by the other and so on and so forth. In Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh, more recently, the long standing camaraderie between the Jat community and the Muslims was broken following weeks of rumours that the latter were waging a “love jihad” on Hindu daughters. “Your daughters and daughters in law are not safe” was the rumour that has killed and displaced thousands with no basis whatsoever. A legislator from the Bharatiya Janata Party, that is determined to come to power in the 2014 general elections, posted a video of a group of Muslims thrashing a person, as if it were from Muzaffarnagar. It added to the violence, and was later found to have been a video of an incident from Sialkot in Pakistan that had been used by the legislator to incite violence.

There are hundreds of instances like these, but suffice it to say that rumours and lies precede communal violence as these are essential to create an atmosphere where communities can then be incited to attack each other. In every incident of communal violence in India, there are those who create the violence, and then those in power who fail to prevent and control the violence and act against the perpetrators of the crime. In Gujarat the large scale massacre of Muslims was engineered by the right wing Hindutva brigade under the watch of the BJP’s own chief minister Narendra Modi. In Delhi in 1984, the Sikhs were massacred by Congress led mobs under the watch of a Congress government. In Muzaffarnagar now in 2013 the BJP was largely responsible for creating the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion amongst the communities through the widespread use of rumours, but it was the so called secular government of the Samajwadi Party that failed to prevent and control the violence leading to suspicions of connivance between the two for the votes.

Communalism and elections

Large scale communal violence in India can be directly linked to the vote bank and elections. In 1984 the massacre of Sikhs in a highly charged communal environment consolidated the Hindu votes for the first time in the history of independent India to usher in the Rajiv Gandhi government with 400 seats in the Lok Sabha (House of the People). The campaign cut across the caste divisions to bring in a pan Hindu vote that has since kept open the possibility of a repeat performance for political parties like the BJP and the Congress at some point in time. In 2002, a low profile Narendra Modi facing the real possibility of defeat in the state elections in Gujarat, was able to give a major boost to his sagging image with the violence that left thousands dead and injured. He used the large scale attack on the Muslims to build an image of a macho nationalist, an able administrator and a no-nonsense politician.

Muzaffarnagar is still waiting to be tested in the electoral field, but it is clearly an attempt to divide and conversely consolidate the vote in the 2014 general elections. The Jats and the Muslims are two powerful voting blocs in western Uttar Pradesh and as pointed out earlier, had set standards in social harmony. The Jats in this part of the country are both land owning Hindus and Muslims, with another section of Muslims working as labour on Jat fields. The violence here followed a series of incidents across Uttar Pradesh, the most populous and largest state in India. This violence had led to open speculation of a covert understanding between the so called secular Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, with the common aim of consolidating their respective vote banks; namely the Muslims behind the Samajwadi Party that is currently in power in Uttar Pradesh and led by Mulayam Singh who has prime ministerial ambitions, and large sections of Hindus behind the BJP that is fielding Narendra Modi as its candidate for Prime Minister.

But the violence in Muzaffarnagar did not go according to the Samajwadi Party’s plan, and moved out within hours from the township into the villages where it went out of control. Even today, several weeks after the first incidents of violence, tension continues in the area with sporadic incidents keeping the communities apart. Nearly 60 persons were killed, and over 50,000 Muslims displaced as villagers looted, killed and raped those they had lived with for decades. This was also a first, as the attackers were from the same villages making it difficult for the ‘refugees’ to return to their homes with any sense of security. The state government was unable to prevent the violence as it claimed to have no intelligence inputs on this; it failed to control the violence that went into the villages, and even now has not fully subsided; and worst still it has not done much to rehabilitate the victims. In this case, the government in power has lost from the violence, losing the support of the minorities that were sympathetic towards it earlier. The BJP has gained, as there are reports of a consolidated Hindu Jat vote in its favour.

Communalism has unfortunately become part of India, with divisiveness emerging as the possible hallmark of the 2014 elections. Political wisdom predicts more violence in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that together return a large contingent of 120 Members of Parliament to the 545 members strong Lok Sabha. These states have strong regional parties that are currently in power, thereby sharpening the electoral contests in what will be a razors-edge poll for power at the centre. Lessons from history, and indeed from contemporary politics, have convinced the politicians that power flows from a ‘divide and rule’ policy where communities pitted against each other can then be persuaded to vote for those who they see to best represent their respective interests.


There is a fight back from secular political parties and organizations, but at the moment it appears weaker than the communal offensive that is on the ascendant. In the states the regional political parties are contesting the Hindu nationalist communal forces with campaigns that continue to harp on pluralism and communal harmony. The sizeable Muslim vote in India ensures the resistance, with most of the political parties keen to ensure that this vote bank is not alienated.

It is imperative for all such secular forces to work together and ensure that stereotyping is countered, lies are replaced by facts, and all effort is made to keep communal harmony intact. A grand anti-communal convention called by 14 political parties set the tone in Delhi recently, with the Left and regional leaders calling on the large gathering to resist the divisive forces. Significantly, the Congress and the BJP were placed in the same bracket by most of the speakers, who blamed the Congress Party for laying the ground for the more extreme right wing groups to exploit to their advantage. The Convention made it clear that secularism will be one of the main points of the election campaign in India, as a direct counter to the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi.

However, the secular parties are not being able to match the stridency of the BJP and its front organizations as yet and will have to come together in a sustained campaign to ensure some level of success as India is heading towards elections in only a few months.