ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Communalism - on its Way Out of Indian Politics?

The last months have seen some excellent analyses of the BJP’s poll prospects; the reasons for Narendra Modi’s rise to power in the last decade within his party; and what seem to be their critical stakes in the coming elections. Undoubtedly, I am in general agreement with those who more recently have been attributing the party’s, and indeed Modi’s, success to “crony capitalism” (http://svaradarajan.com/2014/03/27/the-cult-of-cronyism/http://www.truthofgujarat.com/aap-must-carry-forward-struggle-crony-capitalism-fir-ambani-right-step/ ). That is evident from the cross ‘constituency’ support Modi’s BJP has received – from big industry, with Ambani being its most visible representative these days, to academics ranging from economic and political analysts like Surjit Bhalla, and Ashutosh Varshney.

I don’t wish to rehearse here what is being debated energetically, and with great detail and sophistication, elsewhere. I wish instead to respond to what could easily become a frightening turn in this ongoing discussion of the future of Indian politics. That is the idea that a “growth” and “development” oriented Moditva would veer away from communal politics, simply because riots would no longer suit the interests of big capital. In this light, an excellent survey piece done a couple of years back (http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?280032) is worth revisiting. In this the authors looked at the history of communal riots in independent India, focusing their analysis, correctly, on reading certain important continuities that act as triggers in the riots that have occurred after the Gujarat carnage of 2002.

Repulsive, and reprehensible, as riots are, we know that communalism has several other dimensions too. And in the changing political landscape of independent India, these have not only flourished but have tragically become naturalised.  A quick look around the country in the last decade will show us the existence of communalism in myriad different forms. An issue that has received some attention in recent times is the steady ghettoization of Indian cities. As we now know, this is no longer restricted to Gujarat’s cities; it is widespread and encountered by Muslims all over the country (http://www.firstpost.com/living/renting-while-muslim-shutting-out-the-other-in-modern-india-1218569.html; http://kafila.org/2009/03/20/the-shame-of-a-name/).

A chilling piece in Al Jazeera reported about Muslims, in what is often considered (despite the harrowing experience of Partition violence) one of the most non-communal cities of India – Calcutta, changing their names and appearance  (read, “looking Hindu”) to get jobs (http://www.siasat.com/english/news/shocking-story-al-jazaeera-muslims-masquerade-hindus-india-jobs). Many of us have known, more informally, for this to be true in Delhi too. In another supposed bastion of secularism, Kerala, the latest in a series of attempts at vilifying Muslims has been the dangerous bogey of “love jihad”. It is the increasing sense of anger, and vulnerability, at this kind of targeting that has been discussed in the past some years in many social media discussion fora (for instance, https://www.facebook.com/groups/beemapalli/).  Informal discussions, including on social media, and reports produced by autonomous groups and activists have repeatedly drawn attention drawn to the fact that thousands of Muslims (especially men) have been in judicial custody on the mere ‘suspicion’ of being terrorists.

Indeed, it is patently obvious that it is in the last decade, both nationally (post Gujarat 2002) and internationally (post 9/11) that the equation of Islam with terror has become an unquestionable part of a general common sense. The repeated state sponsored announcements addressed to landlords on mainstream media on the necessity of ‘background checks’ for all prospective tenants – lest they be terrorists – is but one small example of how routinized this has become in Indian cities. And we all know what such state sanction actually achieves. While all these are merely the more frightening, and patently oppressive and discriminatory, aspects of any number of other forms of prejudice (“they” look/dress/eat differently, amongst others) that have a much longer genealogy, they have become well lodged in all facets of everyday life in India.

What is even more terrifying is how aligned the statist agenda of India (security, sovereignty, arbitrary use of militarised force, collusion with Capital) is with such quotidian forms of communalism. Indeed, it is quite obvious that truly critiquing communalism would also involve a simultaneous critique of all these factors that have become foundational to Indian sovereignty, not to mention its international ambitions. To my mind, therefore, it is impossible to launch a critique of Modi or the BJP without constantly addressing the changing face, and complexity, of communalism, and the extraordinary dangers it poses to Indian democracy. Otherwise one will end up subscribing to, ironically, the BJP’s own self-representation as distanced from religious violence, and complex communal manoeuvring, while relentlessly pursuing a path of  ‘national development’, and ‘good governance’. 

About Author

G. Arunima (arunima@jnu.ac.in) is a historian by training, and teaches at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has researched and written on different areas of social and cultural history, including family and kinship; aesthetics and visuality; and more recently religion and faith practices.
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