The Changed Grammar of Communal Mobilisation in India
Ajinkya Mujumdar writes:
In August, Ashwini Upadhyay, a Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, organised a protest in central Delhi against what he termed ‘colonial-era laws’. The event culminated in anti-Muslim sloganeering of the most offensive and violent nature. Upadhyay was later arrested, but immediately granted bail. Also in August, a 46-year old Muslim e-rickshaw driver was forced to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’ by a mob in Kanpur. In the videos that circulated afterwards, the victim’s daughter can be seen pleading to the aggressive crowd to leave her father – only to fail. In the same month, a Muslim bangle seller was attacked by an angry Hindu mob in Indore, for allegedly using a fake name to hide his Muslim identity. He was further warned by the crowd from entering the Hindu parts of the city.
[W]hat if the society imbibes, reciprocates, and legitimises the communal culture?
Delhi, Kanpur, Indore: these are a few samples of what India is going through under its new hegemonic power – the Hindu right. Unlike in the past, the contemporary Hindu Right seldom relies on large-scale communal violence. Violence against Muslims is more specific, targeted, and particularistic, deployed just to keep the communal temperatures high and fuel its newly established hegemony. Since 2014, even as there has been increased communalisation of society, we see a simultaneous decline in large-scale Hindu-Muslim communal riots. What drives this paradox?
Thinking on communal violence usually focuses on the role of the state, political parties, leaders, and institutions. But what if the society imbibes, reciprocates, and legitimises the communal culture? The rise of Hindutva hegemony post-2014 presents us the opportunity to consider a causality between a communalised society and communal violence.
Hindu right’s defiance of conventional wisdom
The dominant understanding of Hindu-Muslim riots took recourse to electoral and state-driven explanations and argued that the riots are ‘produced’ – in Paul Brass's words – through the activation of an “institutionalised riot mechanism” activated at the time of polls for electoral benefits (Brass 2004, 4839). Civil society cannot withstand and prevent powerful and well-organised political movements. Pushing this line of argument further, Steven Wilkinson asks: who can prevent the communal riots, and when? He concludes that only the state governments can do so — if they choose to. If the party in power at the state level enjoys electoral support of the minority community, only then are riots prevented (Wilkinson 2005, 476-8).
These models captured the essence of communal politics in India before 2014. Take for instance the Gujarat 2002 riots. Based on Wilkinson's explanation, the violence was allowed to spread because the victim community – the Muslims – were not electorally and ideologically inclined towards the ruling BJP. Moreover, the riots succeeded in uniting the Hindus towards it, as evident from the 2002 state election results.
A riot entails a deeper message, a reminder – to the minority community – to accept its ‘subordinate position’ in affairs of the state and the society.
Considering the electoral mandate for the BJP in the 2014 general elections and state elections soon afterwards, the record of its new leadership, and the foot-soldiers the Sangh Parivar had at its command, conventional thinking would have predicted an increase in fierce communal tensions, episodic communal violence, and riots. Yet, the years since then have been peaceful, seen in the light of the number of deaths due to riots – with the notable exception of Delhi in 2020. The Hindu right today rarely resorts to large-scale communal riots.
A change in strategy: No more riots before elections?
Something new began in 2014 – new politics, a new society, new ideas, and new sensibilities (Palshikar 2018, 36). The received wisdom on riots was defied, primarily because a highly communalised society no longer needs communal riots to stigmatise and alienate the minority community.
Historically, communal riots led to the violation and breaking up of the existing social contract between communities, giving way to updated social relations – a new normal – marked by the redrawing of boundaries, and the forming of a relationship based on strategic social distancing. As Dipankar Gupta notes in his analysis of the post-riot scenario, normalcy returns in all cases, but with ‘underlying tensions’ (Gupta 2011, 4). Hence, the new normal of the past was a post-riot arrangement, which pulled society out of the brutal remnants of violence, and lasted for months.
In the absence of serious challenges to its domination, the tactic is to sustain communal tensions just enough to keep the communal pot boiling.
The ‘new normal’ of today is about these underlying tensions, but without large-scale communal riots. This ‘normal’ is thus more peaceful, for the simple reason that the incidents of communal tensions have not gone beyond their context, curtailing the potential violence Indian society has seen in the past. However, to argue that peace has been positively enforced would amount to a misinterpretation. This newfound arrangement is merely a strategic attempt of the Hindu right to further its goals, with minimal bloodshed and violence of high magnitude.
In the absence of serious challenges to its domination, the tactic is to sustain communal tensions just enough to keep the communal pot boiling. This model was first documented in Uttar Pradesh by Sajjan Kumar and Sudha Pai. Today, what Pai and Kumar (2018, 24-38) called “institutionalised everyday communalism” is the reality across the country. The new normal thus represents the communalisation and internalisation of the Hindu right hegemony by a society that otherwise had strands of resistance towards these ideas, electorally and through popular mobilisations.
The exceptional nature of Delhi riots
Unlike the riots of the past, the Delhi violence did not take place before elections, but a month after. There was no need for the BJP and Hindutva forces to engage in violent communal confrontation for immediate electoral purposes: they had lost the electoral battle to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Yet, violence erupted, causing 53 deaths.
The ‘production’ of the riot, just a month after the state elections, thus points towards a purpose which was beyond electoral – to give minorities a message for an act of perceived transgression and communalise the society beyond repair. A riot entails a deeper message, a reminder – to the minority community – to accept its ‘subordinate position’ in affairs of the state and the society. It is aimed at tilting the power balance towards the majority community. The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) in December 2019 were the first instances after 2014 when Muslims across the country took to the streets in large numbers. These non-violent protests across the country posed an unprecedented challenge to the established hegemony, which saw them as an ‘anti-national’ act amounting to transgression, enough to justify violence.
What a communal riot otherwise does, has already been achieved through ‘more peaceful’ means – more efficiently and conductively.
The only exceptional challenge posed to the hegemonic power— to restore democratic citizenship—led to a one-off intervention, the large-scale violence. This is what made the violence of Delhi an exception. The riots marked a break from the ‘new normal’ – until it was restored again.
The communalisation of society has invited two kinds of reactions from secularist observers. The first approach has come from India’s universities, academia, and intelligentsia. However, the communalisation of society has also ensured a massive discrediting of these individuals and spaces. Their criticisms, protests, have thus centred around the domain of ‘elite politics’ – failing to go beyond a predictable audience.
The second approach is exemplified by authors like Pavan Verma and Shashi Tharoor, who recently published books titled – The Great Hindu Civilisation: Achievement, Neglect, Bias and the Way Forward, and Why I Am a Hindu, respectively. Hilal Ahmed sees this as nothing but the revival of the Hindu Right’s slogan ‘garv se kaho hum Hindu hai’ [say, proudly, that we are Hindu] from a different direction. Both authors blame secular politics for being indifferent to what they see as Hinduism’s central message of inclusivity and acceptance of diversity, and take it upon themselves to spread the essence of Hindu civilisation amidst the onslaught of Hindutva. However, by denying ‘legitimate space to Muslim identity’ and propagating the ‘history of Hindu subjugation’, this approach only helps — even if indirectly — the Hindu right forces.
A non-communalised society can pose a challenge to a communal state – politically, electorally, and through popular movements. But if the society itself has been communalised beyond repair, acceptance of the ‘new normal’ is the only outcome: which amounts to acceptance of current boundaries, hierarchies, alienation, and stigmatisation. Communal riots are immaterial in this new communalised society. In ‘New India’ boundaries have been drawn and hierarchies set between Hindus and the Muslims. What a communal riot otherwise does, has already been achieved through ‘more peaceful’ means – more efficiently and conductively. The need of the hour is to understand the subtlety of this violent project, and its acceptance by society. The answer to ending communal riots lies there.
Ajinkya Mujumdar is a Research Associate at Meraki Research Labs, and a Young India Fellow ' 21 from Ashoka University.