It is a short step from something as simple as colouring the old city green and the outer city saffron on a VHP map of Ahmedabad in 1991 to the violence Gujarat witnessed in 2002, explains Teesta Setalvad. And a short step from carrying the coffin of Swami Lakshmanananda around Kandhamal to the gutting of 100 villages. Communalism is not about religion but the manipulation of religion and religious symbols for political mobilisation; it is not about history but the construction, reconstruction and deconstruction of history
Communalism is not about religion, but the manipulation of religion and religious symbols for political mobilisation.
Romila Thapar delivered a very interesting lecture at Mumbai University in 1999 on the Somnath temple (thereafter published by Kali), which was integral to the growth of communalism in Gujarat. The ICSE history course that I studied in school mentioned only the 16 raids by Mahmud Ghazni on the Somnath temple. Thapar tells us that till 1843, that is about 13-14 years before the first war of independence in 1857, there was no historical discourse around Ghazni’s raids on the Somnath temple. The Somnath temple had been raided almost three dozen times before it was looted by Ghazni, because it was one of the richest temples of its period. Therefore, the Satyavahanas, the Pratiharas, whoever wanted to get hold of the wealth, raided it. The raid by Mahmud Ghazni, which was of course very critical in the early medieval period, became important in historical discourse in 1843; until then Gujarat experienced no greater angst over Ghazni’s raids than over other raids, before or after. Thapar tells us that 400 years after Ghazni’s raids on the Somnath temple, the panchkula (committee of village people, pundits, etc) gifted a part of the temple land to one Noor Ud Din Firoj(z), an Arab trader, to build a small mosque within the wider temple precinct. The sources for this historical analysis are original and contemporary, the temple inscriptions themselves. Would this have happened if there were this huge historical Hindu anger against the raids on Somnath?
Thapar further states that these kinds of raids, small conflicts and negotiations kept happening through history, not always between Hindus and Muslims, sometimes between this caste and that, sometimes between brother and brother, and sometimes between sister and sister, and it was only in 1843, when somebody approached the British administration, that the so-called demand of bringing back the (mythical) gates of the Somnath temple was articulated in a British administration-led bid to reduce this ‘Hindu angst’. The Hindu angst was thus, in a sense, the creation of the British administration of the period. Somewhere in the British administration, documentation began that if we create feelings of historical Hindu angst against Muslim invaders, maybe we can stem the uprising that is taking place against us. Then the wrong set of gates were brought from somewhere near Taxila and were put away in some fort near Agra. The whole debate was in that sense concocted in 1843.
In 1940, K M Munshi, a prominent figure of the freedom struggle who became a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, and who was sought to be appropriated as a right-wing ideologue afterwards, wrote a book called Jai Somnath, which ran into several editions and was critical in resurrecting this interpretation of the raids on the Somnath temple, that were an echo of the British administration’s constructed interpretation. Except that coming from Munshi, a prolific writer and well respected, at a time when the subcontinent was being divided and reconstructed by the forces of communalism, majority- and minority-driven, it found instant resonance. Anyone from Gujarat will know this book, which went into 20 editions and was widely read. It contributed to the mythical Hindu angst becoming a reality, and becoming the sub-text in a sense of the wider freedom struggle and its fallout within Gujarat.
This is how history gets constructed, re-constructed and de-constructed the world over.
How did Slobodan Milosevic, who finally died mysteriously in jail whilst facing charges of crimes against humanity, begin the movement that led to the massacre of thousands of Bosnians not so long ago? He began by digging up coffins of people who had been killed by the Turks and he took those coffins in a procession all over his country, causing bloodshed and creating newly-constructed hatreds. What did Praveen Togadia and the BJP ministers in Naveen Patnaik’s Cabinet do on August 25, 2008, after the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda in the Kandhamal region of Orissa? The coffin of the swami was taken all over the 220 km of Kandhamal (I’ve been to Kandhamal four times; it takes 16 hours to reach it from Bhubaneshwar, and the poverty of the tribes of Kandhamal is extreme). Three hundred villages were gutted as the procession wound its way, and 100 people -- tribal Christians and dalits who were being converted to Christianity -- were killed. This is how communal conflict is manufactured and manipulated.
Exclusion and inequity are other ways in which communalism manifests in democratic or non-democratic structures. In 1953, when the Sri Lankan constitution was written, there were two members belonging to the Sri Lankan left who actually said that the Tamil language should be included as an official language in Sri Lanka. By excluding Tamil, and privileging Sinhala, the Sinhala Buddhist-Tamil divide was created and the seeds of the civil war that ripped the country apart were sown.
Communalism, cumulatively and progressively, grows and festers on the residue of certain political decisions made in the past. The Constituent Assembly Debates, for example, are a very interesting set of documents, in 18 volumes, that are available with Parliament. They tell us how every single issue that was included in our Constitution was intensively debated for one-and-a-half years by different minds -- centre, left and right -- until agreement was reached. In that sense, it represents an excellent set of documents reflecting consensus-building. Partition took place right in the middle of this debate. We researched Constituent Assembly Debates related to majority-minority rights, gender, caste, community, etc, before and after Partition. Article 16, for one, changed dramatically in this period. Article 16 is the section that gives us the right to affirmatively reserve or commit affirmative action for socio-economically backward sections. It is under this article, for instance, that the Mandal and OBC reservations have taken place. There was a sub-committee headed by Sardar Patel, and there were six other members. And one of the most interesting discussions was that it had been assumed by everybody that when you talk about socio-economic backwardness, religious minorities must find inclusion because they are, within India, from the poorer sections. Exactly what the Sachar Committee told us in 2005. After Partition, however, the discourse in the Constituent Assembly changes and states that we don’t have to spell out religious minorities, everyone understands it. There is a whole discussion on this, and the only person who speaks very forthrightly is Frank Antony who says, no, today it will be assumed because the leadership is honest, but tomorrow it will be assumed that this section is not needed (if the motives and calibre of the political leadership changes). So please put it in. The Muslim leadership was very defensive because Partition had happened, they didn’t have the courage to argue it out. Only Frank Antony, on behalf of the Christians, was arguing it out and finally the two Muslim leaders in the committee actually struck a deal with Sardar Patel. They said fine, don’t include us in Article 16, but (in return) don’t touch the personal laws of Muslims. Muslim women have become the victims of this deal.
Competitive communalism, majority and minority, resurfaced again in the 1980s and, ironically, gender and Muslim women was again the issue of barter for the minority. It was in 1986 that the VHP’s three-decade-long demand for mobilisation around the temple of Ayodhya was finally accepted by the BJP as part of its national agenda and programme. It was also in 1986 that Rajiv Gandhi’s government, with a huge majority in Parliament, passed the Muslim Women’s Protection of Rights on Divorce Act in response to completely retrograde mass actions and protests on the Shah Bano judgment which had awarded just Rs 125/month to a divorced Muslim woman. I remember going to different areas in Mumbai and seeing the mobilisation of mostly the Muslim male clergy at the time. The enactment of this law kept Muslim women, for the purposes of maintenance after divorce, out of the purview of secular criminal law. Worse, it gave life -- and blood -- to a latent prejudice among Hindus of the inherently intransigent and ‘separatist’ tendencies among Muslims! Shortly thereafter, the locks of the Ram temple were opened. And a 40-year dispute was given life by the ruling party, when it had been a marginal issue.
The majority-minority communal politics has been replayed ever since in the most cynical ways possible, for the Ram temple movement was never about the construction of a temple, it was about demonising the minority community and attacking their lives and property. It saw Mumbai burn in 1992-93, followed by Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Jaipur and Hubli, which had never burned even during and after Partition. Wherever L K Advani’s rath yatra went it left a bloody trail behind it or before it. Worse, it left a lasting legacy for the BJP to benefit from. Acceptable ‘othering’ and hatred against India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, were now legitimised.
Addressing communal conflict
One of the ways to tackle communalism is by going to court and trying to book the perpetrators, as there cannot be peace without justice. But another way that is equally critical is through learning or education.
Language is an important factor in social inclusion or exclusion, and we need to consider language -- not just the mothertongue -- when we are constructing curriculum and deciding on the medium in which to teach. Premchand, for instance, wrote only in the Urdu script because that was the script in which the person speaking Avadhi Hindustani wrote. There was no Hindu-Muslim divide between Hindi and Urdu at the time. The aggressive division between Hindi and Urdu came only after Partition, on our side, while on the Pakistani side Urdu became a completely un-understandable elite language.
Apart from language, how do we address issues of conflict in the classroom? Given the exposure of all children to mass media, which is moulding perceptions and even language, we are forced to address issues related to personal and social conflict sensitively and creatively. We have to make children aware of how we live together, how we’ve always lived together, and how and why we are now being forced to live separately.
In a classroom in 1997, when we were discussing course curriculum, we said let’s give the children some words in Hindi and Marathi and ask them to write sentences about what they have experienced in the city in the last few weeks (there had been police firing in a dalit neighbourhood). We asked the teachers to choose words that were not too obvious or leading, so they chose words such as ‘eat’, ‘leave’, ‘come’, ‘go’, ‘starve’, in Marathi. Despite this, many of the children wrote out brutal sentences related to the violence that had taken place in Mumbai. There is a desire among children to be able to communicate these feelings.
In Gujarat we saw signals of the violence that was to come at least 15 years before 2002. I remember seeing a map of Ahmedabad prepared by the VHP when I was covering the post-rath yatra violence in July 1991: the old city green and the outer city orange. It is a short step from this to what I witnessed at the height of the violence in 2002. They were sending out the message that Muslims should stay confined to the old city. This is how communalism enters a conscious personal space.
Why do we have laws and safeguards in the Indian Penal Code on things like hate speech and inflammatory writing? Not in order to become a police state, to curb freedom of expression, but to say that even something like Article 19 has some limits (vide Section 153a and 153b), and what are those limits, and what is to be done when the line is crossed. Unfortunately, these laws are never enforced in the build-up to violence.
The police rarely take action against hate speech and hate writing, so it swirls around us and becomes accepted, and we become complicit in the violence by not reacting to it.
In 2008, I visited Dhule, Digras and Akola districts of Maharashtra, where property worth Rs 40 crore had been lost only by the Muslim community in a targeted exclusion. Those people have not been able to stand on their feet again. I was very disturbed when I saw the pattern of violence in these three places because it confirmed the stereotype about both communities. There’s a particular cassette which, ghost-like, has been doing the rounds of Maharashtra for the last three years. In police circles it’s called the Mandir Wahin Banayenge cassette. It’s horribly crude, it’s a terrible song, but it’s available everywhere in Maharashtra and I’ve got four copies of it from four different places. It is played deliberately by forces such as the VHP, Bajrang Dal and RSS, at procession sites or near Muslim clusters. It has been played on Durga Puja and during Ganesh Chaturthi, and each time it has faithfully provoked the Muslims into going berserk. The moment there has been one spark lit from the minority side there has been such a vicious payback that the property of 85-90% of the minority community has been destroyed. I’ve seen this, visiting these places within two or three days of the violence taking place.
But to get back to history and social studies, it is extremely important for our children to be able to look at our neighbours and understand our age-old historical, cultural connections. Equally, they need to be able to look at the majority-minority divides across South Asia, and the geographical/topographical boundaries that we’ve created as a nation-state. All this needs to be explored with the young in the classroom, through the curriculum. In Maharashtra, our history textbooks haven’t been revised for a long time but minor changes keep taking place. I remember that Khan Abdul Gafar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, who has now reappeared, had disappeared for 25 years. Why had he disappeared? I think he disappeared because he did not suit the dominant political mindset that was manipulating history, which did not want to accept that there were Muslims out there like Maulana Azad who actually challenged the premise of Partition, who felt that this is going to harm, not help, the interests of any particular section.
Take our history textbooks on Shivaji, who signifies an egalitarian rule that few have seen in the latter parts of the feudal period, quite apart from the fact that he had a lot of Muslim generals and a Muslim accountant, which is very important in terms of secularism. Most admirable of all was the fact that he decided that even when he raided areas he would not allow women and children to be part of the war victory, the loot and plunder. When we discuss the contributions of women like Savitribai Phule why don’t we add that when her school, with just nine girl-students opened, she was targeted, and the only person who stood by her was her longstanding friend Osman Sheikh? That it was a brahmin who offered space at Bhidewada in solidly brahmanical Pune? Why don’t we mention that the first teacher in her school was Fatima Sheikh? You don’t have to look very far for communal harmony stories; they are all around us, because that was the sub-continent’s interwoven history. It just depends on what you look for and what you pick and what your approach is, and the problem is that if you look at history through either the lens of identity power or politics you tend to undermine it and, worse, manipulate it as a tool of hate.
Instead of portraying history and historical figures with this open-ended mindset, history teaching and syllabus writing has now become a method of manipulation. And I think it is very important as cultural educationists, as people who want our children to grow up with open minds, to look at what our children are studying, how they are being taught, what the languages are, what the content of the syllabus is, and engage with it.
(This article is based on a talk by Teesta Setalvad, human rights activist and educationist and co-editor of Communalism Combat, in Pune as part of the CCDS-Open Space lecture series entitled ‘Keeping the Peace’, in 2010-11)
Infochange News & Features, October 2011