Home I Index | Whats new

PUCL Bulletin, 2006

Future of communal relations in India

-- By Asghar Ali Engineer

What is the future of communal relations in India? What will be the likely scenario in coming 30 years? This is an important question. Is India doomed as a secular democracy? Or does India’s future lie in secular democracy? Will the Hindutva forces gain or loose? There are different answers to these questions, which is quite natural. In complex social and political problems there are no easy answers. To get some probable answers one has to get at the root of the problem.

India, it is important to note, has been a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society for centuries. Forces of tolerance have always been strong in its soil. Besides others Emperors Ashoka and Akbar have been great symbols of tolerance and openness to other religions. Throughout medieval ages, one hardly finds instances of inter-communal clashes though among religious priesthood there was bigotry and sectarianism. This bigotry and sectarianism as exposed by poets like Kabir.

However, the Sufi and Bhakti movements acted as bridge builders. They effectively countered the narrow mindedness of priestly class and spread love and humanism. The Sufi and Bhakti saints were more spiritual than religious in ritualistic sense. Their whole emphasis was on love, peace and harmony. They had their roots among common people, poor and of lowly origin. They kept their distance from rulers and ruling classes.

It is important to note that it is clash of interests, which brings about unrest and communal tensions in society, not clash of religions. Religions do not clash; it is vested interests, which do. In medieval ages religious communities were not politically organised, they were distinctly different yet not hostile to each other as they did not cater to political needs.

It is with the event of colonialism on one hand, and, subsequent parliamentary democracy that led to politicisation of religion and religious communities. Thus inter-religious clashes are in fact, inter-political clashes. Different political parties carve out their vote-banks among different religious communities and target some community, in order to emerge as champion of ones own community. In fact, they are champions of their own political interests, rather than community’s interests.

In India such communal division occurred mainly due to colonial machinations. It ultimately led to division of our motherland. This political vivisection became a running sore for people of India, particularly for those of majority community as they saw Muslims as responsible for division of the country. Muslims as a community were not responsible for division but only a section of upper class Muslim elite in collaboration with British colonial power brought about this division. In fact common Muslims are really suffering today on account of this division.

The right wing Hindu politicians exploited the issue of partition to the hilt with an eye to Hindu votes and often incited communal violence. This violence intensified during the decade of eighties in post-independence India. Most of the major riots in independent India took place during 1980 to 1992-93. There are number of reasons for this. By the time we saw dawn of eighties about 40 years had passed since India became independent. The democratic processes intensified and brought more democratic awareness among the minorities and weaker sections of India and they got better organised by then to demand their due share in power.

The upper caste Hindus felt that in coming years they will have to yield more and more share of power to minorities and low caste Hindus (dalits) and hence the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), mainly representing the political and economic interests of upper caste Hindu elite, raised alarm and began propaganda blast against minorities and dalits and led to heightened inter-communal and inter-caste tensions. The BJP used Ram Temple controversy as a powerful symbol to mobilise Hindu votes and ultimately rode to power in 1999 and remained in power until 2004.

The Sangh Parivar (which includes Rashtriya Seva Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and BJP) tried to weaken secularism and Hinduise Indian plot during their rule. It was during the BJP rule (both at the Centre as well as in Gujarat state) that Gujarat carnage took place in 2002, which officially 1000 and unofficially 2000 Muslims were brutally killed. Thus inter-religious violence achieved its climax during the BJP rule, which bases its politics on hatred of minority communities. It was during the BJP rule that attacks against miniscule minority of Christians also began. An Australian Christian priest James Staines, working for lepers among tribals in a distant village of Orissa in Eastern India was burnt to death along with his two young children. Many other Christian priests and nuns were also attacked or murdered. This was the darkest period of secular India.

But it is to be noted that people of India rejected the BJP rule because of its communal excesses and voted the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government led by the Congress to power in the elections of 2004. Thus the people of India once again proved that they are secular and tolerant and desire communal harmony and better inter-religious relations. Though one cannot see inter-communal relations in straight line as much depends on political dynamics in the country.

However, on the whole, it can be said that common people of India are desirous of peaceful co-existence and do not appreciate communal turmoil in the country. The dark side of economic development is vast poverty-stricken underbelly of India. India is still at 137th place out of 139 countries surveyed as far as malnutrition and deaths caused by hunger are concerned. Such stark poverty cannot but have political implications.

The ruling classes use caste and communal issues to divert attention from such horrific problems. Many politicians are tempted to resort to communal-based, instead of issue-based politics. The Gujarat carnage of 2002 took place precisely when the BJP Government was signing various international trade treaties and liberalising economy benefiting handful of economic elite.

Thus in coming 30 years one cannot expect smooth inter-caste and inter-communal relations as the ruling classes would certainly tempted to employ emotional issues to catch votes of common people without solving their problems. This process of emotionalising and communalising politics is aided and abated by the media also, as media itself is controlled by political and economic elite.

The Sangh Parivar has consolidated its base during six years of its rule and possesses disciplined cadre and thus possesses great capacity to communalise politics and provoke communal violence. But there are countervailing forces too which go in favour of more secularised democracy.

The lower castes (dalits) though at times get used by upper caste Hindus and are swept off their feet by powerful emotional propaganda but on the whole tend to be anti-Sangh Parivar force. These dalits are main victims of upper caste elite politics and their leaders try to counter communal politics in order to keep their caste flock with them. The caste awareness is increasing with spread of education among dalits and with spread of democratic awareness. Though dalits and minorities are far behind in the field of education, yet more and more are getting educated and are becoming aware of their political rights. Greater the political awareness among dalits and OBCs (Other Backward Classes), more challenging it would be for communal politicians to manipulate religious and communal sentiments.

Another factor is increasing globalisation, which in itself creates contradictory effects as far as communal situation is concerned. On one hand it intensifies urge for religious and cultural identities to face homogenising global processes and on the other, it opens up economic opportunities for educated middle classes and induces their out-migration thus reducing communal potentialities.

It is also interesting to note that today there is increased awareness among Muslims in India to make a concerted effort to better their position through more education and better economic opportunities and avoid emotional issues which bring nothing but disaster for them. There were entangled in Ramjanambhoomi politics and suffered a great deal. Thus with few exceptions, Muslims are shedding their communal past, and preparing themselves for better future prospects.

Also, communal forces are loosing credibility among people of India. They have no achievement to show except communal rhetoric and bloodshed. Before coming to power they claimed to be ‘clean’ and non-corrupt. However, now many corruption scandals are coming out in which their leaders were involved during their rule. On this count also, they have lost much ground.

Thus in coming 30 years, it appears, communal forces will find it very difficult to regain their lost ground and communal politics will be weakened. However, much will depend on performance of secular forces also. Communal forces thrive more due to failure of secular forces than on account of their inherent strength. Communal forces gain strength only because secular forces fail to assert and perform. Communal forces, it appears, will loose ground and one will see greater urge among people for co-existence and harmonious leaving in coming thirty years.

People's Union for Civil Liberties, 81 Sahayoga Apartmrnts, Mayur Vihar I, Delhi 110091, India. Phone (91) 11 2275 0014