14 Oct Understanding Communalism: The Past is No Guide to the Present
By Anjum Altaf
The present in South Asia is messy, gruesome and unpleasant; no wonder we keep referring back to the past to make sense of it. Most of the time, however, we end up distorting the past to craft seamless narratives that accord with our current sensibilities. I will argue in this essay that there is no such continuity to be crafted and enter a plea for the past to be left alone.
My point of departure is a recent op-ed by Justice Markandey Katju that begins,
Though many Hindus and Muslims in India are today infected by the virus of communalism, the fact is that before 1857 there was no communal feeling at all in most Indians. There were, no doubt, some differences between Hindus and Muslims, but there was no animosity… How is it that around 150 years later, suspicion, if not animosity, has developed between the two major religious communities on our subcontinent?
For Justice Katju, the turning point was 1857:
In 1857, the First Indian War of Independence broke out, in which Hindus and Muslims jointly fought against the British. After suppressing the revolt, the British decided that the only way to control India was to divide and rule.
He goes on to cite convincing evidence for a conscious British strategy, and ends with a plea for secularism:
Secularism does not mean that one cannot practise one’s religion. Secularism means that religion is a private affair unconnected with the state, which will have no religion. In my opinion, secularism is the only policy which can hold our country together and take it to the path of prosperity.
I don’t have much issue with the veracity of the claim about British strategy; it made political sense and there is enough documentation in support, some of it cited by Justice Katju. If I were to argue in this framework, I would push back on two aspects of the thesis: First, if there were no communal feelings before 1857, why was it so easy to generate them afterwards? Second, why is it so difficult to practice secularism in India today given that it was sanctified by the founding fathers?
However, I do not wish to argue in this framework at all; the first question is, in fact, a deadly trap into which a number of those who have commented on Justice Katju’s op-ed have fallen. Many of them have dismissed his claim of the absence, before 1857, of communal animosity, lining up the cruelties of Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan and their ilk to prove that the most vicious kind of communalism existed ever since the arrival of the Muslims in India (some of them suggesting that it was that unfortunate arrival that brought “social animosity” to a peaceful land where such a thing had been hitherto unknown). Justice Katju himself cannot help but concede a little on this point when he says that “No doubt, Muslims who invaded India broke a lot of temples.” But he dismisses that by pointing to the good behavior of subsequent rulers, which he attributes to royal self-interest: “But their descendants, who became local Muslim rulers, almost all fostered communal harmony. This they did in their own interest, because the vast majority of their subjects were Hindus. They knew that if they broke Hindu temples, there would be turbulence and riots, which no ruler wants.”
The claim I wish to advance for consideration is that both these readings of the past, by the commentators and by Justice Katju, are wrong.
1857 does mark a turning point but not simply because the British decided to adopt a policy of divide-and-rule after that year. Much more significantly, 1857 marked a huge break – between the end of empire and the beginning of the nation-state. The two are completely different structures, different worlds with different world-views and different rules of socio-political interaction. To look at the interactions of one through the lens of the other is a major conceptual error.
Just think of this: Notions like majority and minority, electorates (joint or separate), representation, legislatures, states and provinces, borders and passports – nation itself – did not exist in South Asia before 1857. The first census was not even held until 1871 and it was only then that the new world began to take shape. The ‘subject’ began the transformation to ‘citizen’; there emerged a calculus to determine who would govern; religion, caste and nationality became part of that calculus and hence contentious elements in the identity of the proto-citizen.
This conception led to the birth pangs that are a part of our history, the evolution of the communalism as we know it today, and the final delivery in 1947 of a two-headed offspring at odds with itself.
Other parts of the world as well – other colonies and Europe itself – went through the transition from empire to nation-state, but anyone who has studied their histories will be aware of all their different trajectories. To mention just a few of the critical differences in the European case: the wars of religion were over before the transitions; the ideas of the Enlightenment (equality, liberty, fraternity) were the common currency of the times; subjects were the active agents of change; social equality preceded the emergence of electoral politics as the basis for governance; the journey to universal suffrage stretched over a century and a half. These were organic transitions, not one shoe-horned from above on a population that had little sense of what was being done to it and why.
Let me now step back and look at the two worlds separately to substantiate the point I wish to make – that the huge discontinuity in the Indian trajectory makes any projection of the present into the past a grossly misleading venture.
Empires were marked by invasions – they were a completely normal and acceptable part of that world. Alexander invaded India over 300 years before the birth of Christ. Genghis Khan (no, he wasn’t a Muslim, please) invaded almost all of Eurasia. Invaders fought, burnt, pillaged, looted, took away whatever they could. None of them invaded with the objective of imposing their religions on those living in the lands they had invaded.
In this framework, there also came to India around a thousand years ago a set of invaders who happened to be Muslims. Their being Muslims had nothing to do with their decision to invade. They were not representatives of Islam nor had been designated as such by anyone. Their invasions were nothing like the First Crusade, which was launched roughly around the same time by a Pope in Europe with the explicit purpose of regaining Christian holy lands in the Middle East from Muslim rule.
Like all invaders before them, the invaders who came from Kabul also burnt, looted and pillaged when they needed to. They broke temples because that is where wealth was stored (as it still is today, in many cases) and because temples symbolized the power of local rulers. But this is where the study of history becomes important: It is not as if the destruction of temples began with these invasions. The empires of Chandragupta and Ashoka were marked by similar expansions over contiguous territories and similar destructions, some of much greater magnitude.
So temples were indeed looted, but not to establish the supremacy of one religion over another. The looting of temples, much as we shudder at the thought given our current sensibilities, was a part of the world of empires and invasions. If we wish to read humiliation and a lack of machismo into those incidents, the problem is with us and our projection of the present into a past that conformed to different rules. Such destructions cannot, should not, be looked at in the same context as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas or the Babri Masjid or the Twin Towers (temples of the capitalist world), which we have much more justification to condemn.
It only requires a little bit of thought to reveal the absurdity of projecting the present into the past. If the actions of the past had been motivated by religion, why would not the vast majority of Hindus have risen up together to defeat the relatively small number of invaders? Why would Muslim invaders from Iran have weakened Muslim rulers of India? Why would Muslim rulers in the north of India have spent years in conflict with their co-religionists in the South? Why would contending rulers have entrusted their armies to generals of ‘enemy’ religions? Why would the ruling elites have been so cosmopolitan? Why would the poor have comprised people of all religions in proportion to their populations? Why just 150 years after 1857 would Muslims be amongst the poorest of the poor in India today?
To argue that there was a lack of communal animosity before 1857 – except for the unfortunate destruction of some temples – is incorrect and impossible, because the backward projection of a modern category into the world of empire is flawed. It leads to the grave error of imagining an idyllic past that never existed. All social systems are characterized by animosities – it is just the nature of the animosities that changes shapes and forms.
Hindu society itself is characterized by animosities of a peculiar nature in which differences of caste can lead to the infliction of the most brutal violence. But all societies adapt to their peculiarities – Hindu castes co-existed with one another most of the time and the rules of the system ensured social harmony till some unforeseen incident temporarily breached the order. In this world Muslims were integrated almost as another caste. There was no more animosity between Muslims and Hindus than there was between Muslims of different sects and Hindus of different castes. Muslims and Hindus did not drink water from the same vessel; nor did Brahmins and non-Brahmins. This was not communalism, nor was it animosity; it was the way of that world.
When the invaders who were Muslims stayed on and intermarried, they became as Indian as all other Indians of those times (compare the physical profiles of Babur and Jehangir to see the transformation of a Turk into an Indian), there being in the world of empire no need for passports or birth certificates as proof of citizenship. As Muslims, they negotiated their place in the social world of the empire much as anybody else. It was not considered odd to be the Muslim subject of a Hindu ruler or the Hindu subject of a Muslim one. Some Muslim rulers lost their marbles just as some Hindu ones did. That too was part of dynastic rule. Ironically, the world of empire in India was a much more secular (and decentralized) one than the world of the nation-state.
Today, because a system of governance based on a counting of hands is in place and an allocation of resources based on the accident of birth is in operation, both religion and caste have become instruments of politics and therefore much more rigid markers of identity than in the world of empire. And because South Asia, with no social or religious revolutions in its recent history, remains an exclusivist and hierarchical society, its order continues to converge to a patron-client system in which the politics of ideas is trumped by the politics of identity. 1947 was just the most visible outcome of these contradictions; their presence continues to leave its marks on our lives today in all the countries of the region.
In such a world, it is virtually impossible to be secular in the sense of the word employed by Justice Markandey Katju. Communalism is an integral part, indeed it arises out of, the model of governance we have inherited, a model that is not in consonance with the social reality on which it has been imposed. Communalism is an ugly offspring of the misbegotten nation-state in South Asia.