The Communalisation Project: The Tamil Nadu story

Communalisation of a place is done with only one intention - to polarise people and to grab power through the democratic process of elections


My first inspection of the district prison as the District Magistrate of Mangalore was an eye-opener. The prison was divided into two blocks, physically separated from each other. The Muslim and the Hindu blocks held prisoners of all sorts; the only common thing was the communal fanaticism that filled the air. Jail authorities warned me that some areas are even out of their access as it was the domain of the most extreme kind. But, I persisted, curious to know the human stories and how the communalisation project managed to debilitate a thriving plural cosmopolitan culture.

A two year long tenure in the district that included numerous interactions with varied people brought me a systemic understanding of the issue. The genesis and the sustenance of the communalisation project has a set pattern in most parts of India. The lessons from it are significant for states like Tamil Nadu, which are facing the onslaught today.

Let me put it straight; the communalisation of a place is done with only one intention. To polarise people and to grab power through the democratic process of elections. It is not done to protect the majority or keep the minority under control. Numerous closed-door interactions with Right-wing extremists have made one thing clear to me. Their interest in protecting their ‘Dharam’ is a farce. They have found polarising people as a tool to garner power and nothing else. The Hindu right-wing organisations are made up of three layers. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political arm, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the intellectual and human workforce, and the para organisations are the frontal agencies. The communalisation project has four distinct stages.

The Organisational buildup

This is the first of all stages and that which happens over a period. The RSS was constituted in 1925, and this was what they had set to achieve silently for the next 100 years. When you notice a few youngsters regularly meeting pot-bellied uncles in your local school ground, this is what is being built. The ‘Shakas’ (branches), as they are called, are breeding ground for creating communal fanatics in the name of Service, Discipline and Nationalism. Talk to anyone who has attended a shakha, and he would vouch that it is not about communal hatred but about “Seva” and “Deshbhakthi”. The function of this system is to create intellectual discourse on the subject and recruit the most socio-economically vulnerable to para-organisations designed for overt action.

The growth of para-organisations like the ‘Hanuman Sena’, ‘Hindu Munnani’,’ Hindu Jagran Vedike’ etc., is the second stage of the organisational buildup. These are the frontal organisations that involve themselves directly in action. They frame questions with a communal tinge, aimed at the administration and people. These organisations are filled up with most underprivileged caste and class members who are promised a new sense of identity and acceptance by the “higher” order. The proposition that RSS does not propagate any violence is true only to an extent as most of the violence part is outsourced to these para-organisations. They regularly conduct sessions in which events of direct action is discussed. These organisations are significantly funded and supported by the RSS and the BJP.

States like Tamil Nadu have managed to prevent this organisational buildup of the RSS amongst the people. The former Chief minister J.Jayalalitha, a devout Hindu herself, understood the importance of not allowing this organisational buildup. During her tenure, she had banned all route marches that the RSS routinely took and had even rounded up the RSS congregation, which had gathered to celebrate the Founder’s Day in 2014. After her demise, the RSS has immediately managed to get their act going. It is now said that the RSS has managed to increase its number of shakas from 1,355 to 2,060 in the last three years. The number of attendees has also increased from 10,000 to 25,000 in Tamil Nadu alone.

The prime reason why attempts toward polarisation like the ‘Vel Yatra'(equivalent for Rath yatra) did not succeed in Tamil Nadu is that the organisational buildup stage has not reached a tipping point in the state. But the RSS has put considerable work in the hinterland and is continuously on it. When enough organisational strength is achieved, the system moves into the second stage, i.e. “The Polarisation Phase”.

The Polarisation phase

This stage revolves around creating a general sense of victimhood amongst the majority community. It is achieved by posing queries in which the administration is forced to take a position. For example: the controversy generated in Tamil Nadu by the BJP around a random Youtube channel named “Karupparkootam”, which was accused of making derogatory comments on a Hindu religious text; or, the decibels raised around the leader of the Dalit party ‘Viduthalai SiruthaigalKatchi’ Shri Thol. Thirumavalavan’s comments on Manusmriti etc., are exemplars of this phase. The para organisations involve themselves in raking up issues like cattle transportation, moral policing, complaints of forced conversions or simply erecting saffron flag poles in public places to force the administration into action. They then use these actions to create a general feeling amongst the public that the administration is ‘biased’ against the majority community and do not support their communal sentiments. Simultaneously a campaign is also run to show how the administration involves itself in ‘minority appeasement’.

Recently, the death of a school going girl Reshma (name changed), in the district of Ariyalur, was taken up by the BJP’s state president Mr Annamalai, who made accusations that the death was due to forced conversions. This is also a classic example. Mr Annamalai, an ex IPS officer himself, even ignored the fact that publishing of the minor girl’s video and details would amount to a crime under both the POCSO and Juvenile justice acts. He went on to create this massive campaign around the death based on sheer falsehoods with the only demand that the minority Christian institution involved in the case be closed and, that, an act preventing forced conversions should to be enacted in the state. It may be noticed that often these cases are not taken to their logical conclusion as the party is only bothered about disturbing the ‘sphere of indifference’ to religious overtones present within the community. Once the indifference is disturbed, the party moves on to the next issue. However, the germs of communally polarised society are injected and these bear continual fruit.

These actions are augmented by approaching the households directly by the shaka members through seemingly innocuous gestures. It is known that over the last few years, the RSS has visited 18 lakh households in the slums of Tamil Nadu with a Tamboolam (an auspicious way of greeting followed by Hindus) to simply touch base with people. Propaganda materials are also printed and distributed in large numbers. So far, the RSS propaganda magazine”Hindu Sanga Seithi” has distributed over 40,000 copies in the last few years.

The political arm, i.e. the BJP, does not involve itself directly in these activities but provides logistical and financial support. The active role of the BJP can be witnessed in their involvement in protecting the cadre of these para organisations who get into trouble with the law. But through this three-pronged approach, the BJP keeps itself free of any criminal culpability and is in a position to reap the benefits of the polarisation project politically.

These gestures grow from tiny innocuous attempts at polarisation, which continue to normalise them to a point where retaliatory gestures are provoked from the minority community. Once these retaliations are normalised, every opportunity is used to sustain this polarisation cycle. This is pushed to the phase where bodily harm and killings start between the communities, and every death is used as a point of leverage. The infamous dead body processions are used to increase the feeling of victimhood of the majority and set new agendas for the administration. These worked their sordid, maccarbre magic in Gujarat 2002 and later, in the Kandhamals in August 2008. The role of a homophilic social media in amplifying propaganda is well known and has been extensively written about.

The Power capture phase

When the polarisation phase creates enough traction on the ground, the elections are used to capture power by highlighting communal issues. The elections revolve around the failure of the government and the administration to protect the feelings of the majority community, mixed with accusations of corruption in connivance with the minority community. This is a lethal combination for which even the most liberal in the majority community fall, and it invariably ends in the capture of power.

The BJP has perfected the art of micro-management of elections and opinion-making, with the RSS providing support in terms of human resources on the ground. The booth management of the elections starts very early with the sanghparivar. The voter list of a polling booth is divided into three categories. The A-List consists of voters who would invariably vote for the Right-wing forces, the C-List, which are votes who absolutely would not vote irrespective of the propaganda. This list would mostly comprise people belonging to other communities and faiths. The B-list would be that of the fence-sitters. The RSS cadres are given the responsibility to convert as many of the B-listers to A-Listers.

The major difference here is that the other political parties use booth management only during the elections and from a perspective of polling, whereas the Right-wing uses booth management for both opinion formation and creation, then outright polarisation. During the counting of votes in these areas, one could find all the counting agents of the BJP stay until the last vote is counted as they have to account for their predictions of how many people have been converted to A-Listers in their booths.

Institutional Damage

Once the capture of power is accomplished, the state machinery is used to completely overtake democratic institutions to exhibit an overt bias towards the majority community. This is done to make the minority more apprehensive and to elicit retaliatory action from the extreme elements of the minority faith. This is exactly where the bureaucracy fails as a system to provide an unbiased administration and protect constitutional values.

Other institutions like the media are overtaken by placing both negative and positive incentives for their open support. The bureaucracy also tries to prove its faithfulness to the ruling dispensation by going the extra mile to propagate the theory of criminalisation of the minority. Once the institutions are captured, there is very little chance to return to normal times as the minority community loses faith in the system and strives toward self-action.

After these four stages are complete, the cycle is sustained by using various incidents to assert the need to keep the minority under control. The cycle, in a way, sustains itself until the bureaucracy restores sanity by acting in an unbiased way toward both groups. Nevertheless, the damage will be done to the social fabric, especially to the youth. It is very important to remember that this communalisation affects individual families and the general economy of the district or state. It is a dangerous spiral toward moral authoritarianism that will soon spread and affect the majority community too. A new brand of moral watchmen will be created who will exhibit blatant patriarchal gestures without any compunction. The two entities which will bear the maximum brunt of this atmosphere of doubt and mistrust are the women and the economy.

Tamil Nadu has been climbing the development scale at a fast pace and is now amongst the most developed of states in socio-economic terms. The state has a lot of lessons to be learnt from other places where this communalisation project has been quite successful. So far, the polarisation efforts of the right-wing have not found much traction in the state, and hence they have relaunched the efforts with new narratives involving the Tamil language and Tamil Gods. The anti-intellectual posturing against Ambedkarite-Periyarist Dravidian thought leaders is the classic narrative. It is aimed at bringing the fence-sitters into the Hindutva ambit. Tamil Nadu has to see these signals upfront and keep these regressive forces at arm’s length. The political defeat in elections to the right-wing forces should not end the vigil and should continue watching the growth of the RSS and affiliated para-organisations within the state. Every individual should ultimately think about the long-term effects this project will have on their children and families.

As I had first found out in Mangalore jail, 70% of those who were incarcerated from both communities were very young, just like the teenagers we all have in our families. With the BJP being successful in almost all the states, only a few, like Tamil Nadu, have proved difficult to polarise. The party has reoriented its strategy and had deputed an ex-IPS officer who had seen this politics in coastal Karnataka, Mr Annamalai (he did one tenure as Superintendent of police in Udupi), to the state. He too, has not lost an opportunity to import the method and style from Karnataka and is toiling day and night in communalising the state. Tamil Nadu has so far warded off all attempts at communalisation by the sanghparivar.  Driven idelogically by the subaltern social movement created by ThanthaiPeriyar, the state will hopefully prove to be the ‘Sparta’ for BJP.

(The author is former IAS officer, Karnatkaka cadre, and also Trustee, Citizens for Justice and Peace)


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