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Hindu-Muslim Communal Violence in India: Genesis and Historical Roots
Fifty-nine years after our independence won on the basis of ideals of secular democracy we see more and more communal violence and still minorities feel insecure and feel deprived of their right to honourable and dignified existence. In fact our leaders of freedom struggle like Gandhi, Nehru and Abdul Kalam Azad had expected that with the passage of time communal rancour will be forgotten and all citizens, as propounded in our Constitution, will be able to lead an honorable secure life enjoying all fundamental rights. But not only that this goal has not been realized it is receding ever further.
Religion plays a vital role in India’s way of life. Religious laws govern the people’s clothing, food, marriage and even occupations (Shah 1998). Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis are the major religious communities of India. Religion as an element of personal belief remains the biggest force in India. There is, of course, absolutely nothing in that. The trouble arises when the personal faith is converted into communal antagonism. Religion comes into fray because it is a part of the social order in which men live. Religion cannot be disassociated from the modes of thought that characterize a society. While religion as such has not been responsible for the origin and growth of communalism, religiosity, that is deep emotional commitment to matters of religion, has been a major contributing factor and at the popular plane, imparted passion and intensity (Ghosh,1987).
Religious tolerance in India finds expression in the definition of the nation as a secular state, within which the Government since independence has officially remained. Separate from any one religion, allowing all forms of belief equal status before the law. Although India has been committed to what is referred to as ‘unity in diversity’ there have been frequent clashes between the different linguistic, regional and religious groups in the country. Of these conflicts, the relationship between Hindus and Muslims has been particularly salient.
Hindu-Muslim communal violence in India: the historic perspective.
The roots of communal disharmony and violence between the Hindus and Muslims in India go back to the history of several centuries. Historical analysis of Hindu- Muslim communal conflict, its causes and preconditions, has been highly contentious in character. Contemporary historians of India do not even agree that there were Hindu or Muslim communal identities before the 19th century and Hindu-Muslim conflicts were endemic (Brass 2003). Historians like Sirkar (1983) view that Hindu and Muslim conflicts are essentially modern phenomena as communal riots do seen to have been significantly rare till the 1880s.
Some historians who argue that there is more continuity between past and present extending backward at least to the early 18th century and in some arguments, in to the earlier period of Mughal rule. In this view, inter religious strife and riots that resemble contemporary Hindu-Muslim conflict were present, even endemic, in pre-modern times (Brass2003). The victimization of one religious community by the other started as the suppression was initiated by the rulers who invaded India. In 712 AD, Mohammad Bin Al Quasim overran Sind. The Arabs, the Turks, the Afghans and the Mughals invaded India in hordes from 1206 onwards, reducing temples to rubble putting hundreds of thousands of Hindus to the sword, and forcibly converting the survivors to Islam. Later during the Mughal period relations between Hindus and Muslims were not cordial during the regimes of Babur, Jehangir, Shahjahan, and Aurangazeb (Ghosh1987).
Among the Mughal emperors, Aurangazeb reversed the enlightened policy of Akbar and he was determined to make India a strictly Muslim empire. Thousands of temples at Prayag, Kashi, Ayodhya, Haridwar and other holy places were destroyed. When these temples were destroyed, there were disturbances at many places on account or resistance of the Hindus against the demolition of temples. There was a prolonged fight between the Hindus and Muslims around the Mosque built on the ruins of the veni, Madhava and Bindu Madhava temple at Banaras. The rioters destroyed all temples whether new or old (Mahajan 1993). From Mahajan’s analysis it can be noted that communal rioting and victimization of both the religious communities started during Aurangazeb period.
When the British established their dominance in India through the East India Company, they initially adopted the policy of patronizing Hindus, but after the First war of Independence in 1857 in which Hindus and Muslims fought shoulder to shoulder, the Britishers adopted the policy of divide and rule which resulted in fostering communal clashes deliberately for keeping intact their hegemony. The relations between Hindus and Muslims were further strained when during the freedom struggle, power politics came into play. Thus though antagonism between Hindus and Muslims is an old issue, Hindu-Muslim communalism in India can be described as a legacy of British rule during the freedom struggle.
According to Bipan Chandra (1984), the congress from its very inception adopted a policy of “Unity from the top” in which the effort was to win over the middle class and upper class Muslims who were accepted as leaders of the Muslim community, leaving it to them to draw the Muslim masses into the movement instead of making a direct appeal to the anti- imperialist sentiments of both the Hindu and the Muslim masses. This unity from the top approach could not promote Hindu-Muslim cooperation in fighting imperialism. During the Khilafat movement launched by the Muslim League against the British interference, the congress only extended its support to this struggle. All the serious efforts between 1918 and 1922 at bringing about Hindu-Muslim unity were in the nature of negotiations among the top leaders of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities and the congress.
Quite often the congress acted as an intermediary among the different communal leaders instead of acting as an active organizer of the forces of secular nationalism. There was thus an implicit acceptance within the early nationalist leadership that Hindus and Muslims were distinct communities which shared only the political and economic concerns but not the religious, social and cultural practices. This is how seeds of communalism were sown in the first and second quarters of the 20th century. It was only after 1942 that the Muslim League emerged as a strong political party and claimed the right to speak for all Muslims. They described the congress as a’ Hindu’ organization, a claim that the British supported. Thus the congress could not purge its ranks of communal elements
The slogan of Pakistan was first articulated by the Muslim League in Lahore in 1940. Different sections of the Muslim population had different perceptions of Pakistan. For the Muslim peasant, it meant freedom from the exploitation of the Hindu Zamindar; for the Muslim business class, it meant freedom from a well established Hindu business network; and for the Muslim intelligentsia, it meant better employment opportunities. Later, when the congress leaders accepted the partition in 1946, it resulted in 1947 in the displacement of millions of Hindus and Muslims amid bloodshed and carnage. Both nations became independent, yet more bloodshed followed the partition as one of the largest population transfers in history occurred as many Muslims left India to reside in Pakistan while Hindus moved to India (Shah1998). Thus communal violence was institutionalized in the state structures to weaken the unity and resistance of the people and used as a pretext to further attack them and cause divisions. This communal nature of the institutions and state structure did not change with the transfer of power in 1947 and this transfer of power itself was done in the midst of communal carnage (Eh Din 2002).
The birth of Pakistan in 1947 did not settle Hindu-Muslim differences or end conflicts. To, the contrary, all the old problems remained. However, the problems are more complex and involve more than simply a difference in values. Violence and communal strife have defined the relationship between the Muslims and Hindus, since partition (Shah 1998). India has regularly experienced communal rioting particularly between Hindus and Muslims, but has occasionally involved other minority communities, since its independence. Even before independence, there were serious communal riots in Varanasi (1809), Lahore and Delhi (1825), Kolkota and Dhaka (1926), Bareilly (1871), Ahamadabad and Mumbai (1941), and of course, the horrendous country wide riots of 1946 and 1947 (Dhar, 2002).
Communal riots: 1947-2002
India-Pakistan partition in 1947 led to widespread violence resulting in the death or displacement of millions of people. Since then, communal riots have occurred every year, with varying degrees of severity. The occurrence of communal violence in Post-independence period can be divided into five phases: 1951-1960, 1961-1970, 1971-1980, 1981-1993 and 1994-2002. The period immediately after Partition saw eruption of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims on an unprecedented scale resulting in massacre of more than half million people. This was direct result of Partition and led to the displacement of population on a massive scale. This Partition violence continued right up to 1950.
The period between 1950 and 1960 was relatively calm. One finds very few instances of communal violence during this period. Muslims in India were terrified by the Partition riots and were keeping a low- key existence. This non-assertiveness on the part of Muslims was important in maintaining communal peace. Communal riots again broke out in Madhya Pradesh (Jabalpur) in 1961, which was considered as the first major riot between Hindus and Muslims after Partition.
By now the Muslims had regained their confidence in Indian democracy and were asserting themselves for their rights. The process of democratization made them more assertive on their rights. It was the beginning of communal violence on a major scale in post-independence India. This was followed by a series of riots in eastern parts of India like Jamshedpur, Rourkela, Ranchi and several other places. Most of these riots were instigated by the tales of woes of Hindu refugees from Eastern Pakistan. Some riots also took place due to Indo-Pak war in 1965.
Towards the end of 1960s some major riots in western India took place due to basic changes in Indian politics. Mrs. Indira Gandhi succeeded in sidelining the big political bosses in the Congress party and consolidated her position as the supreme Congress leader besides being prime minister. This brought split in the Congress party and those opposed to her regrouped along with other opposition parties and tried to weaken her position by instigating communal violence. Thus Gujarat witnessed major communal riots in 1969 when Morarji Desai’s faction, who was opposed to Mrs.Gandhi, was in power. Again, Bhivandi-Jalgaon in Maharashtra saw eruption of communal violence in 1970 mainly instigated by the Sivasena, which had emerged as the political power and was trying to consolidate its position in Maharashtra politics.
The period from 1971-77 was again relatively peaceful firstly due to India’s involvement in liberation of Bengladesh and then Nation’s attention was focused on Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement against corruption. As a result of this movement Mrs.Gandhi imposed emergency in 1975 which lasted up to 1977. Because of these developments communal clashes subsided during this period. Also, during emergency those responsible for instigating communal violence were in jail.
However, a fresh bout of communal violence broke out from1978 to 80, which ended with cataclysmic Moradabad riot in which more than thousand persons perished. Most of these riots for eg: the ones in Jamshedpur, Aligarh and Benares (1978-79) were instigated by RSS to assert its existence which was then threatened because of the merger of the Jan Sangh in the newly formed Janata Party. The dual membership controversy led to these riots.
The decade beginning with 1981 witnessed maximum number of communal riots. They are due to either political controversy or economic competition. At the heart of the present day dispute is the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, in North Central India (Shah1998). On December, 6, 1992, a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was demolished. During the preceding months, a movement of political parties, religious groups and cultural organizations, including the BJP, RSS, VHP and Sivasena, had called for the construction of a temple on the site of the mosque as an integral move in their struggle for Hindutva, or Hindu rule. Over 150,000 supporters known as Kar Sevaks (voluntary workers) converged on Ayodhya, where they attacked the three domed mosque (Human Rights Watch, 1996).
It is interesting to note that the number of major communal riots in Post-Babri Masjid demolition period went down considerably. Three major riots took place in this period are Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu in 1997, Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh in March 2001 and Malegahy in Maharashtra in October 2001 (Engineer, 2001). However, the post- Babri riots saw the growth of communal terrorism and the spread of communal virus to the southern part of India in Tamil Nadu in 1997 by way of Coimbatore communal riots. Violence replaced terrorism to kill innocent citizens.
Communal violence in India reached an unprecedented level in 2002. The communal violence that occurred in Gujarat (2002) is considered as genocide of Muslims. Between February 28 and March 2, 2002, a three day retaliatory killings spree by Hindus left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless and dispossessed, marking the country’s worst religious bloodlshed in a decade. The looting and burning of Muslim homes, shops, restaurants, and places of worship was also widespread. Tragically consistent with the long standing patterns of attack on minorities in India, and with the previous episodes of large scale communal violence in India, scores of Muslim girls and women were brutally raped in Gujarat before being mutilated and burnt to death. According to official records, since February 27,2002, more than 850 people have been killed in communal violence in the state of Gujarat, most of them Muslims. Unofficial estimates put the death toll as high as 2,000 (Human Rights Watch 2002).
In the post independence India it is found, that majority of the riots have started as clash between the two communities on issues related to religion. It is either clash over desecration of religious places, demolishing religious identities and rumours related to these issues. The rise and growth of fundamentalist outfits from both the communities have fanned the communal violence more in the post independent India. Here it is to be seen whether the 82% of Hindus are against the 12% of Muslims in India and vice versa.
Thus the dynamics of the group clashes between Hindus and Muslims should not be sought in religion or caste but in other material factors like distribution of economic and political power resources. Creation of Pakistan also was basically motivated not by Islam or Islamic teaching but by the political dynamics of the time. In short the Hindu-Muslim antagonism can be ascribed to a complex set of factors. These are:
- Muslim invasions in which the invaders looted the property of Hindus and constructed mosques over/near Hindu temples.
- British encouragement of Muslim separatism for their own ends during their imperial rule
- The behavior of some of the Muslims in India after partition, like hoisting of Pakistani flags when the Pakistani team wins the cricket match and or observing National Independence Day as a ‘black day’ after a call given by some Muslim leaders. Such behaviour creates a feeling among the majority community that these Muslims are non-patriotic
- A new aggressiveness on the part of the Muslim political parties in an effort to find a place in the country. Reports are rife about some Muslim extremists obtaining ‘foreign money’ turning into foreign agents, indulging in a well- designed plan to soil the secular ideal of the country, and attempting to incite Indian Muslims.
- The Government is also responsible for neglecting the Muslims, large sections of whom feel alienated and consequently become willing victims of selfish leaders. The ruling elite merely preach religious amity and have little understanding of the real problems of Muslims. The Hindu leadership only deals with those Muslim leaders who toe their line.
- The militant Hindu maintains that the Muslims in the country are being pampered. The Ramajanma Bhoomi - Babri Masjid issue of 1992-93 further affected the delicate balance of communal harmony.
- Finally, after getting disillusioned with in the Congress, the Muslims began to develop faith in so many other political parties including Janata Dal (1990), Samajwadi Party (1995) and Bahujan Samaj Party and United Front (1996) and all created confusion. The Muslims today feel far more concerned about their safety and security.
Prescriptive measures to meet communalism.
Today, communalism is on the March and secularism on the retreat and the State is on the defensive. The challenge of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communalism has to be met by the Indian state at political and ideological levels both with short-term and long-term strategies. Before independence, it was easy to argue that communal violence was the result of the British policy of divide and rule. Now the reality is more complex. Religion has come to be politicized and the politics has come to be criminalized. Unless all communities consider themselves a part of one nation, the containing of communal disharmony will remain difficult. Stopping communally minded politicians and debarring them from contesting elections, giving deterrent punishment to religious fanatics, adopting corrective measures like keeping the police department free from the politicians’ control, strengthening the police intelligence section and reworking the training programme of police officials and enabling them to acquire a secular outlook and making them responsible for effective measures to tackle the problem of communal riots.
Measures to meet the challenge of communalism and communal violence can be of two types: long term and short term. The long-term remedy lies;
- In initially the process of de-communalizing the people at all levels, say, by bringing home to them that communal assumptions are false, and by explaining to them the socio-economic and political roots of communalism.
- Communalization of the state and of the political elite in power has to be checked because it leads to inaction against communal violence and covert or overt political and ideological support to communalism by the state apparatuses, including the media under state control
- The communalization of the civil society also needs to be checked because it leads to more communal riots and other forms of communal violence. People with communal ideas and ideologies pressurize the Government to act in a manner which is always against the principle of secularism.
- The role of education, particularly emphasizing on value oriented education both in schools and colleges, is important in preventing communal feelings.
- The media can also prove to be significant in preventing communal feelings. Communal press can be banned and legal action can be taken against communal writers.
- The ideology that economic development, industrialization, growth of capitalism and the growth of the working class would automatically weaken and ultimately eliminate communalism should not be over played. It is not class struggles which eliminate communalism but communalism surely hampers class unity. Communal violence is more prevalent in developed states like Maharashtra, Punjab and Gujarat and in developed cities like Mumbai, Ahamadabad, Jamshedpur and Kanpur.
Some immediate measures are imperative for removing communalism and communal riots. They are as follows,
- Peace committees can be set up in which individuals belonging to different religious communities can work together to spread goodwill and fellow feelings and remove
- feelings of fear and hatred in the riot affected areas.
- The state has to plan and use new strategies in dealing with communal violence.
- The Government in power has to treat the extremist communal outfits as its immediate targets and cripple their capacity to disrupt law and order.
The secessionists in Kashmir, the militants in Punjab, and other extremist organizations of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities have to be dealt with by the state through its law and order machinery. The small insecure communities always look to Govt. or move towards communal riots in Mumbai, U P, Gujarat and other states and the victims of violence of extremists in Bihar, Assam etc look towards the secular state of India for the security of life and property.
The Govt. has to take measures for removing the feelings of discrimination and deprivation which do not actually exist. The Minorities Commission set up in 1978, was recognized as a statutory board in 1992 with a view to enhancing its effectiveness. The Commission is intended to safeguard the interest of the minorities whether based on religion or language. Its main objectives are:
- Evaluating the working of various safeguards for the minorities in the constitution and the laws passed by the Union and the State Govts.
- Recommending the most effective way to implement the laws pertaining to the minorities.
- Looking into specific complaints.
- Conducting studies and research on the question of avoidance of discrimination against minorities.
- Reviewing Union and State Govt. policies towards minorities.
- Suggesting appropriate legal and welfare measures to be undertaken by the Union and State Govts.
- Submitting reports on minorities to the Govt from time to time.
- Serving as a national clearing house for information in respect of the conditions of the minorities.
Its status was such that nobody took the Commission seriously because both the Centre and State Governments are not bound to follow its suggestions. Over the years, the Commission’s annual reports on the plight of the minorities gathered dust. But the statutory status will now change the position. Its role will not only be investigative but also a judicial one. It is expected that with more powers, the Commission would now become a truly effective tool in tackling the deteriorating communal situation in the country and ensuring the welfare of the religious minorities which comprised 17 % of the total population of the country.
- Along with these measures, other measures that should be undertaken by the Govt. to contain communal violence are:
- Posting of secular minded district and police officials in riot- prone areas.
- Setting up of special courts to try communal offences.
- Proving immediate relief and adequate financial assistance to victims of communal riots for their rehabilitation.
- Taking severe action against all those who insight communal tensions or take part in violence.
- It is necessary to look at the real problems of the religious minorities in terms of employment, literacy and getting them a fair share of representation in every field. Efforts are needed for the development of the minority communities and removing their mass illiteracy and unemployment.
- The reservation policy has to be reconsidered.
- A common civil code in the country is the need of the day. There should be no special laws for specific communities and no special status for any state.
- Secular structures have to be promoted and preserved.
- Public opinion and mass enlightenment have to be brought about to make secular values functional.
Thus multi- pronged measures are needed to contain the communal tensions and bring about communal harmony in the country. We have not only to fight religious communalism but have also to contain political communalism which is more degrading and dangerous. We must learn a lesson and leave behind communal hatred and instill true patriotism in the minds of our youth. Patriotism does not lie in loving only territory but all the people of the country as well and respecting their right to dignified existence. If we want to be proud of our past let us be proud of the philosophy of Upanishads, compassion of Budha, love from the Bible and justice and benevolence from the Quran. Let us bury the hatchet of Mandir-Masjid conflicts for ever.
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- Engineer, Asghar Ali. 2004. Communal Riots after Independence. New Delhi: Shipra pub.
- Krishna, Chaithanya. 2003. Fascism in India, Faces, Fangs and Facts. New Delhi: Manak Publications.
- Puniyani, Ram. 2003. Communal Politics, Facts versus Myths. New Delhi: Sage Publications.