Understanding the Beast

Delhi 1984        Courtesy: Ram Rahman
Communal Violence in independent India

Painful yet proud birth
India won her political independence in 1947 amidst a cataclysm of bloodshed and violence which targeted men, women and children only because of their religious identities, and left a million people dead and ten million people permanently displaced from their homelands. This ancient country, traumatically reborn after two centuries of colonial bondage as a secular democratic republic, laid great store therefore in its Constitution on the equal citizenship, security and rights of its religious minorities. 

However, beginning with a communal conflagration in 1961 in Jabalpur, 14 years after independence, many parts of India have witnessed sporadic episodes of communal violence through most years since. There has been no year of complete nation-wide communal peace. There have, on the other hand, been periods during which this violence has spiked, especially since the 1980s, targeting Bengali Muslims in Assam, Sikhs in Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, and Muslims in many parts of India during the Babri Masjid movement which gathered steam in the late 1980s, setting off the massacre in Bhagalpur in 1989 and peaking in the carnage in Gujarat in 2002. The selective mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley in 1989, after brutal calls to violence from Islamist groups,  also rendered thousands of this community wrenched from their homeland.

These recurring episodes of post-independence communal riots are marked by disproportionate loss of life and property among religious minorities. The targets were, in large part, mostly Muslims, but in 1984 the violence was against Sikhs, and the last two decades in particular have witnessed growing attacks against Christians. These episodes typically constitute targeted hate killings, gangrapes, arson, large-scale looting and destruction and desecration of places of worship.

Universal Impunity
Two other features are common to all these episodes. The first is almost universal impunity, by which we mean the failure of the criminal justice system to punish – and often even bring to trial –those who commit these communal hate crimes. If at all, it is the foot-soldiers who committed these crimeswho have been charged, but the law almost never catches up with those who instigate and organise these mass attacks. These include senior members of the police, civil administration and political leadership who deliberately fail to prevent, enable through inaction, encourage and sometimes actively participate in these acts of mass violence. The second feature of all episodes of communal violence in independent India is the failure of the state to extend reparations to survivors of the violence at levels which enable them to rebuild their lives, livelihoods, habitats and social relations.

In extensive research undertaken in the Centre for Equity Studies on major episodes of communal violence, we find remarkably common trends of failure of legal justice, failure of reparation and failure to hold public officials accountable.Despite the fact that the episodes under study were widely separated by time and geography, and on occasion by the religious minority which is targeted by the violence, we find similar trends and strategies which systematically deny justice to minorities. We therefore can only conclude that the denial of justice and protection to India’s minorities are not simply random institutional failures, but reflect endemic, widely prevalent and deep-rooted institutional bias against minorities in all arms of the criminal justice system. These denials of justice are not the arbitrary result of chance but are systematic and planned. We also find consistent evidence of the state’s failures to help extend reparations and support to survivors of communal violence, extending their suffering for long after the violence has ended, even across generations.

In South Asia, episodes of violence in which persons are attacked because they belong to a particular religious identity are commonly described as communal riots. The word ‘communal’ in other parts of the world has quite different and often positive connotations, viewed as a source of integration and social solidarity, and its breakdown a major sourceof violence and strife.In South Asia on the other hand, the word has a specific negatively charged meaning of social and political mobilisation of persons based on their religious identity, usually in opposition (sometimes violently) to persons of other religious identities. Prof. Ashutosh Varshney, in Ethnic violence and civic life, 2002 suggests that ‘whenever conflicting groups from two different religions, which are self–conscious communities, clash, it results in a communal riot. An event is identified as a communal riot if (a) there is violence, and (b) two or more communally identified groups confront each other or members of the other group at some point during the violence‘.
It is commonplace to use the word ‘riot’ to describe communal violence, in popular usage, reportage and scholarship. But we have grave reservations with this usage, especially if the word riot is understood in its literal sense, which suggests implicitly that people of two communities battle each other, usually spontaneously.But this may not actually be the case, for instance if the communal violence is one-sided, or engineered by dedicated social and political groups, and as we shall see, this indeed is very often the case. For instance, it is an obvious travesty to describe the violence against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 as anti-Sikh riots, because it was exclusively the Sikhs who were the victims of violence in almost all the attacks. The same is the case with many other episodes of communal violence.

This ancient country, traumatically reborn after two centuries of colonial bondage as a secular democratic republic, laid great store therefore in its Constitution on the equal citizenship, security and rights of its religious minorities.

The use in reportage as well as survivors’ own testimonies of other terms,including metaphors such as ‘like a storm’, etc are now more popular. The Gujarat survivors we speak to widely describe the mass violence in 2002 asa ‘toofan’,or storm – but this alternate terminology is more evocative than analytical. The suddenness of monumental disruption and destruction suggested by the metaphor of the storm is what catches the imagination, but analytically this doesn’t sufficiently reflect the planned, intentional violence that we will argue characterise most ‘riots’. Other terms like carnage, slaughter, massacre or bloodbath, are more apt descriptionsevoking the actual character of such violence.

The pertinent analytically rigorous terminology for this phenomenon could be hate communal violence or targeted communal violence, and these terms are mainly what we use here. Even so, we still sometimes describe episodes as riots, because this is how these have been described in judicial reports and scholarly studies. However although sometimes we do use the term riots, it is not to suggest anywhere that these are spontaneous clashes between people of diverse religious communities.

It is also important to recognise that hate and targeted violence can be directed at people not only because of their religious identity, but also because of their caste (as in anti-Dalit atrocities), ethnicity (attacks on north-eastern Indians in Delhi and other cities), gender, region (attacks in Mumbai by the Shiv Sena on South Indians and later from UP and Bihar), language (riots against Hindi in Tamil Nadu), sexuality (attacks against homosexual men and transgendered persons), and occasionally stigmatised ailments (attacks on people living with leprosy or HIV/AIDS). These groups of victimised people can also be conceptualised as communities, just as self-conscious religious groups have been. However, because of the peculiar history of India’s bloody partition on religious grounds and the continued fractures created across South Asia by religious identity, when we speak of communal violence we are concerned conventionally with a specific kind of hate violence which targets people for their religious identity.

The word ‘communal’ is also closely tied up with the idea of communalism, or social and political ideologies and mobilisation of people on the basis of their religious identities. In Prof. Bipin Chandra’s view in Communalism in modern India, 1984, communalism as an ideology comprised of these three basic elements or stages; each element functions as an assumption upon which the next is based. The three also form a continuum, feeding into each other. The intensity of hostility against other religious groups increases as people move from one stage to the next. The first stage of beliefs in this continuum is that people belonging to a religious group (rather than a socio-economic – class, caste, occupational – or gender, linguistic, regional, age, disability or other cultural or political categories) have common secular interests.  The belief is that people can act politically and protect collective interests only as self-conscious members of these communities. Religious leaders for each community become the only people who can protect the groups’ interests.
The next level of communal beliefs is that secular interests – economic, cultural, social and political – interests of followers of one religion diverge from those of others. ‘Liberal’ or ‘moderate’ communalism, as Chandra terms it, is when an individual could publicly profess that (often) conflicting  identities and interests are capable of existing in harmony and can be accommodated simultaneously, while holding on to essentially communalist views which privilege religious identities over all others and homogenise people following a particular faith. During India’s freedom struggle, Madan Mohan Malviya, Lajpat Rai and Jinnah, according to Chandra, in India’s struggle for independence (1857-1947), which he co-authored in 1989,functioned under liberal communal frameworks. The third stage and final stage of ‘extreme communalism’ is reached when interests of followers of different religion-based communities are seen to be incompatible, antagonistic and mutually exclusive. Extreme communalists use the language and instruments of hate and violence against people, cultures and beliefs of the antagonist ‘other’ religious community. It is this third phase which spawns communal violence, although the grounds for its emergence is paved by the first two stages. Chandra goes on to argue that communalism is not specific to India, comparing it to movements such as fascism and anti-Semitism in other countries, which he suggests were produced by similar belief systems.

We also find consistent evidence of the state’s failures to help extend reparations and support to survivors of communal violence, extending their suffering for long after the violence has ended, even across generations.

A few more points are in order in the language of scholars and lay observers regarding communal violence. One relates to the prefixing of the word ‘mass’ to communal violence. When does a communal targeted hate attack become a mass attack? Is it merely a question of numbers? Is communal killing of one person not mass violence, whereas if three are killed is it mass violence?But this demarcation is in the end subjective. Also it can render invisible seemingly discrete small acts of communal violence, each not ‘mass’ in character when seen individually, but which actually are part of a larger orchestrated plan. Finally, there is the question of what constitutes violence as distinct from discrimination or segregation. There is a great deal of discrimination to which religious minorities are commonly subjected. These include a number of disabilities in accessing housing, jobs, credit, entry into educational institutions, access to basic services in their habitations such as drinking water. These were well documented in the Prime Minister’s High Level Committee set up the UPA government in 2006, presided over by Justice Sachar (link: http://www.minorityaffairs.gov.in/sachar), on the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community in India.These can also be seen analytically as forms of passive violence. Even more pertinently, there can be communally charged taunts and insults – in classrooms, workplaces, and places of community gathering.The Centre for Equity Studies’ India Exclusion Report describes many instances of communally charged taunts against Muslims in classrooms, by both teachers and peers; Sikhs children were also routinely subjected to this in the 1980s. There can be active hate propaganda, such as in the literature of communal organisations like the RSS and the Jamaat-e-Islami, or the speeches and writing of Bal Thackerey during the communal carnage in Bombay in 1992-93.  And then there is active physical targeted and hate violence, involving attacks on the body and property on persons of the designated ‘other’ religion, involving culpable heinous offences such as murder, injury, arson, and looting.

It is important also to focus on the particularly gendered nature of hate violence targeted against women.  Women are regarded within patriarchy as the property of the men of that community, and sexual violence is the ultimate humiliation of the community and its men. The social and legal impunity for sexual violence is so deep rooted that until recently, sexual violence in the aftermath of targeted violence was in the large majority of cases not investigated, recorded or punished. Often it was not even acknowledged, because victims were openly or subtly coerced by social shame to obliterate these histories. It is entirely due to the intellectual and political struggles of women in social movements in this country that sexual violence is now better acknowledgedand understood, and the layers of impunity that covered it are being peeled away. As a result, India’s rape law hasbeen re-examined and amended.  During targeted mass violence, sexual violence is used as a double edged weapon – while women bear the torture of rape, it culturally emasculates the men who embody the guilt of not being able to ‘live up’ to gender expectations: ‘I couldn’t protect my wife…,’  a masculine lament we often hear from survivors.   

Which of these various forms should one include in a discussion of communal violence? Usually scholars separate questions of discrimination from active physical hate violence including sexual violence, and hate propaganda stands in a somewhat twilit zone in between. Many recognise that hate propaganda incites violence, and therefore regard it to be criminally culpable violence, even if it is not active violence in itself, because it still instigates such violence. But there are those who are much more fundamentally convinced of the absolute value of free speech and expression, and would not like legal bars and state monitoring of hate propaganda, because this is subject to official interpretation, and can be used equally against people who oppose hate propaganda.

Scholars of communal violence construct diverse and often adversarial interpretations of what the roots of communal violenceare, but remarkably most are united in one view: they regard communalism to be a product of modernity, arising out of conditions existing in colonial India and the enterprise of nation-building.  In Bipin Chandra’s viewin India’s struggle for independence(1857-1947), ‘communalism is not a vestige of the past; it might use ideas that have roots in medieval/ancient times, but it’s a modern technology and political trend that expresses urges and serves political needs of particular social groups. Its social roots, economic, social and political objectives lie in the modern period of Indian history.’ Nehru too had noted, ‘One must never forget that communalism is a latter-day phenomenon that has grown up before our eyes.’
Many had hoped that Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination for his courageous and principled espousal, against enormous odds and opposition, of the equal rights of minorities, would stun the nation into a settled undisputed acceptance of the secular idea of India after freedom. But India’s continuing history of both communal violence and mobilisation, peaking at various moments such as the current time of writing in 2015, are reminders that communal violence today has evolved into a cynical but powerful ploy of political mobilisation through social division, and constitutes modern India’s democracy greatest threat.

  1. Who is to Blame, Communalism Combat, March 1998 (https://www.sabrangindia.in/sabrangthemes/who-is-to-blame)
  2. Srikrishna Commission Report,  http://www.sabrang.com/srikrish/sri%20main.htm
  3. Concerned Citizens Tribunal Report, Gujarat 2002, http://www.sabrang.com/tribunal/



Related Articles