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Wednesday, January 12, 2000

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Communal violence in India

By Asghar Ali Engineer

THE TWENTIETH Century has come to a close and we are in not only a new century but also a new millennium. It would, therefore, be interesting to take stock of the communal trend and communal violence in India, particularly in the last 50 years since India became free. There is no doubt that communalism is a modern phenomenon and began with the establishment of British rule in India.All historians and social scientists agree with this. Communal politics is closely associated with electoral politics and as the base of electoral politics widened in the 20th Century, communalism and communal violence also intensified. The British introduced electoral reforms in the early 20th Century to counter the nationalist movement but at the same time tried to widen the rift between the Hindus and the Muslims. Separate electorates were a deliberate and mischievous measure. It would not be unrealistic to maintain that had separate electorates not been introduced, part of India would not have been divided. Partition was the greatest tragedy for India and it left permanent scars on the Indian psyche and nourished a communal mindset.

Partition was not basically brought about by religious differences but by differences between the elite of the two communities on a power-sharing arrangement. The Muslim elite led by Jinnah demanded more representation in Parliament than the Muslim population warranted. The Muslims were 25 per cent of the population but Jinnah and his followers insisted that Muslims be given 1/3rd representation in Parliament. Jinnah was apprehensive that if Muslim representation was less, the Congress would change the agreed constitutional arrangement. The Cabinet Mission Plan which was a better solution to the political tangle did not work because of mutual suspicions.

After the formation of Pakistan, it was thought that the communal problem had been resolved and that independent India would not inherit it. The Indian Constitution not only guaranteed religious and political rights for the minorities but also declared India a secular state (though the word `secular' was not used in the Constitution until 1975). It was also thought by eminent leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru that with the spread of a scientific education, a secular mindset would develop. This proved a simplistic assumption. As democratic politics is nothing if not competitive, communal trends re-emerged in post-independence India. The post-Partition riots continued up to 1949. The Constitution was framed and enforced in 1950 and the first general elections took place in 1952. No major communal disturbances took place until 1961 when the Jabalpur riots shook the country. This was more a result of economic competition between a Hindu and a Muslim bidi manufacturer than any electoral competition. But since it came so soon after the Partition, it was alleged that Pakistani spies were active in organising the riot and that instructions were being received by local Muslims on a hidden transmitter from Pakistan.

A series of riots broke out particularly in the eastern part of India - Rourkela, Jamshedpur and Ranchi - in 1964, 1965 and 1967, in places where Hindu refugees from the then Eastern Pakistan were being settled. Hindu communal organisations exploited their tales of woe to incite communal passions. The riot in 1967 in Ranchi took place on the question of Urdu. The CPI in Ranchi took out a procession pressing for recognition of Urdu as a second language. The procession was attacked and communal riots broke out.

These were followed by the Ahmedabad riots in 1969 and those in Bhivandi-Jalgaon in 1970. The Ahmedabad riots shook the conscience of the nation. More than 1,000 people perished. The main cause was intense opposition to Indira Gandhi's leftward thrust by the Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party. The Jan Sangh was at its aggressive best and it was in 1968 that it passed a resolution on Indianisation of Muslims. The gravity of the issue can be gauged from the fact that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who was then in India for treatment and Jayaprakash Narayan together formed an organisation called ``Insani Biradari'' (Human Brotherhood) and organised a number of conventions to promote communal harmony. The 1970 Bhivandi-Jalgaon riots were equally cataclysmic and were provoked by the Shiv Sena which was trying to establish itself in Maharashtra.

Communal violence erupted again in 1978 when the Janata Party was in power in the post-Emergency period. The Jan Sangh had merged with other socialist parties to form the Janata Party and took an oath to follow secularism and Gandhian socialism. But soon socialist leaders such as Raj Narain, Madhu Limaye and others raised the dual membership controversy and the Jan Sangh leaders refused to resign from the RSS and the Janata Party Government led by Morarji Desai fell. It was when the dual membership controversy was at its height that communal violence broke out at a number of places such as Jamshedpur, Aligarh and Benaras. But the worst was to follow.

It was during the Eighties that the worst happened in terms of communal violence. A series of riots took place beginning with Moradabad in 1980. The Eighties can be designated the communal decade in the history of post-independence India. Moradabad was followed by Biharsharif in 1981 besides Meerut and Baroda. In Moradabad, the unofficial toll was over 1000. In Biharsharif, Indira Gandhi could not hold back her tears when she saw a truckload of bodies. The Baroda riots were no less disastrous in terms of loss of life. But Neli in Assam broke all records with 4,000 people dead in communal violence which broke out in 1983. Village after village was wiped out. The main sufferers were the so-called Bangladeshi Muslims.

The Neli riots were followed by two major riots in 1984 - the Bhivandi-Bombay riots of May and the anti-Sikh riots of November after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. More than 4000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi and other parts of India, particularly Uttar Pradesh. In the Bombay-Bhivandi riots the Shiv Sena was mainly involved. Mr. Bal Thackeray provoked these riots with his anti- Muslim outburst to revive the political fortunes of the Shiv Sena which had lost its appeal. It jumped on the Hindutva bandwagon to revive its fortunes. The Meenakshipuram conversion of a few hundred dalits had given a boost to the VHP and the controversy was fully exploited to boost the appeal of Hindutva forces. Indira Gandhi also allegedly tried to use the VHP for enhancing her dwindling appeal among the Hindus.

The Shah Bano controversy in 1985 made waves in India and Muslim fundamentalists and political leaders exploited this judgment about maintenance of a Muslim divorcee. This gave a boost to both Hindu and Muslim communalism. After the Meenakshipuram conversions, the Shah Bano case was the most major communal controversy. Both these controversies became powerful tools for intensifying communalism in the Eighties. This was followed by the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy. The Rajiv Gandhi Government gave a boost to it by changing the law for Muslim divorcees, on the one hand, and by opening the doors of the Babri Masjid, on the other. Several riots took place after this - Meerut 1987 and Bhagalpur 1989.

It was in 1990 that Mr. L. K. Advani took out a Rath yatra which turned into a blood yatra and more than 300 small and big riots took place that year. It appeared as if communal chauvinism had gripped the middle classes. The BJP boosted its vote-catching capacity by using this controversy. The final disaster of the 20th Century communal violence occurred in December 1992 when despite assurances to the contrary the BJP, the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal demolished the Babri Masjid. This was followed by the worst riots of post-independence India - in Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Delhi and other places.

It can be said that communal violence touched its apogee in 1992- 93 and nothing worse could happen thereafter, at least in the 20th Century. Let us hope that in the new millennium religion will not be misused politically and it will become an important resource for peace rather than an instrument for hatred and conflict.

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