In Indian society communal feelings and tensions have always been a part of the societal make-up. But what is communalism? Communalism is the politicisation of religious identities and by extrapolation, a form of religious nationalism which holds the ideology of promoting conflict between various religious communities. In India though, this turns violent as religion becomes the source of fanaticism and zealotry among those who seek to promote these conflicts. Religion gets mixed up with politics as numerous political parties come up with only one thing on their manifesto: the promotion of their own religion. They curry favours with their own religious community, get elected due to the vote bank politics they practice and then riding the wave of communal hatred they try to cause animosity between different religious groups, claiming their own to be the most superior in terms of history, numbers and people.
What happened in Muzaffarnagar was a result of inefficient administration at its worst. Briefly then, in Kawal village in the Muzaffarnagar district of Western U.P., a clash took place between a Muslim youth and two Hindu brothers over a motorbike accident. The brothers killed the boy and were subsequently lynched by a Muslim mob when they tried to escape. This is the version of events according to the police records. Another story which pervaded the district was that the Muslim boy was harassing a Hindu girl, which is common in Kawal, when her relatives, the two brother killed him and were again killed in turn by a Muslim mob that had collected. The version of the story is not the point, in the end members of one community killed the other and this started the violence which spread over the district and its outlying areas for more than a month.
There were numerous other Hindu-Muslim incidences of violence which keep the fanaticism and the killings going. At this time, there was a Jat Mahapanchayat being held in Jauli village with an ominous slogan of “Maa, beti, bahu bachao”. Hate speeches made by firebrand communalists at the meeting about how the growth of the Muslim community and their ever-growing presence was threatening the Jats and their means of livelihood, made the mob angry and they killed Israr, a photographer who was filming the event. As the members of the Mahapanchayat spiralled out of control, chanting slogans of hatred and revenge, they were allegedly attacked by a Muslim mob which was hiding near the Jauli canal and was armed heavily with sophisticated weaponry.
Regional political parties in the area fanned the flames. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad sent out rumours, which spread like wildfire, of how the administration was trying to politically appease the minority Muslim community seeing the seeming alacrity the police had acted with over the death of the Muslim youth but nothing was done about the murders of the two Hindu brothers. These rumours effectively destroyed whatever chance of peaceful intervention was possible; instead they sought to destroy trust and sowed suspicion in the minds of one community against the actions of the others.
A BJP leader posted a video of two Hindu youths being killed by a Muslim mob on his Facebook page and this video circulated amongst the people, fanning communal passions. But in actuality the video was an incident that happened two years ago in Sialkot, Pakistan which showed two youths being killed by mob violence. It had no bearing on the Muzaffarnagar riots but in the overheated environment it sought to regenerate the same violence and spread tension across the district. A warrant is out for his arrest but he hasn’t been nabbed as yet.
Muzaffarnagar 2013 can be seen as another Godhra 2002, the riots are more than a decade apart yet so strikingly similar in nature. Both involve violence at the most heinous of levels, the setting of one community against the other and their inevitable retaliation. Hundreds of lives lost and for what? In Godhra first the Hindu had died and then the Muslim. In Muzaffarnagar it was the opposite but the umbrella theme was the same: One of violence and religious fervour being mixed up with blind hatred. In both, regional demagogues had arisen to stir up these passions of hatred and blind fervour. And the worst part was that every person who lashed out at the other never saw anything wrong in his actions. They all believed in the ‘cause’. They all believed that they were doing this for protecting the ‘honour’ of their religion, and their women. Egged on by their respective regional parties and their firebrand leaders, they all participated in the killings with relish. Another parallel can be drawn with The Great Calcutta Killings of August 16, 1946 or Jinnah’s Direct Action Day where he set the Muslims on the Hindus in Calcutta to ‘reclaim what was theirs and theirs alone’ and the indubitable backlash. This violence then spread to Noakhali, now in Bangladesh, and then onto Bihar, the United Provinces, New Delhi, the NWFP and riot-torn Punjab. Everywhere the overarching theme was the same: communal fervour breaking out into riots, murders, mob violence and an attempt of annihilation by one religious community against the other.
But communalism wasn’t always about killing and violence. Earlier, it used to be about patriotism to your country without discriminating against the other religion. Hindu-Muslim unity was a prevalent feature of the First War of Independence in 1857 where both Hindus and Muslims fought back-to-back to oust the British from India. Even in 1922, during Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, the Khilafat Movement, for the restoration of the prestige of the Islamic Khalifa, was brought under the ambit of Non-Cooperation and both Muslims and Hindus protested peacefully against the British Raj. The movement may have taken an ugly turn at Chauri Chaura, in the Gorakhpur district of the U.P., but it wasn’t due to communal tensions between the two religious communities.
It was only after the Pakistan Demand of 1940 that communalism took an ugly turn. Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah believed that Muslims and Hindus could never co-exist peacefully in the same land because of the status of Muslims as a minority community. He advocated for the creation of a separate state, Pakistan after the obtainment of which only 12% of Free India’s population consisted of Muslims. The majority comprised Hindus and the miscellany of Sikhs, Christians and other religions.
Therefore, insecurity amongst the minority community was always a major factor. The Muslims were distrustful of the Hindus because of the latter’s numerical majority and the 66 years of Independence that India has enjoyed as yet, have also shown the worst communal rioting this country ever witnessed, barring Partition violence.
There is no simple solution to the problem of communalism facing our country. It is deemed, by the upper middle classes, as simply another evil facing India, poverty, hunger, purdah, dowry, child labour inter alia. News flashes of communal violence come and go, public memory is tediously short. In the case of Muzaffarnagar, it was the complete breakdown of order in the district, the violence being pathetically handled by the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government. Ultimately, it is always the government (both state and Central) which is responsible for the maintenance of law and order in a district, it is one of the most primal responsibilities of the State, after the defence of the realm. What happened in Muzaffarnagar was the direct result of state dis-government; the police and the officials were mute and apathic spectators to the ongoing killings. Neither took an initiative to stop the violence. It was dereliction of duty of all those who held positions of power and influence.
Communalism in India cannot be stopped. It is a mindset, and changing this mindset will take a long time, decades, maybe even centuries. But the killings could have been stopped by decisive actions by state officials. Something, anything could have been done to stop this pogrom. But the passivity with which the state government reacted gave an impetus to the murders and it went on. 48 deaths here, 5 there, the numbers kept rising. “Action” was taken against 11,000 people. 11,000 people. That’s a huge number and nobody knows what the action is or who was arrested. Deliberations are still going on at the highest levels and hopefully the slow-moving state machinery will achieve something. The arm of the law, though significantly shortened in length, needs to catch up with the ones who participated in the riots and hopefully something will happen. But this isn’t enough compensation for all those families who fled the district with nothing but their lives in hand. Many lost their children in the rioting and are now trying to build their lives again, piece by piece. They are helping themselves because nobody else is. They are utterly alone.
P.S. I would give citations but I’ve forgotten all the reports I read because let’s face it, it’s a tiring job. So, sorry.