The word, ‘communalism’, is frequently used by politicians to denounce their opponents. By that token, it is by far the most abusive term in recent political discourse. The expression may be interpreted as the attachment of a person to his own community and an urge for its preservation and uplift. If this is so, there can be no objection. Due to the diversity of language, creed, religion, race, and caste, people are variously grouped in a pluralistic society. These groupings gradually turn into distinct communities and when such communities exist, then, each of them is sure to foster among its members a sense of keen attachment.
In the realm of politics, however, communalism has a connotation of hatred and animosity towards other communities and it is often associated with a narrow, selfish, divisive and aggressive attitude of the members of the politico-religious groups. Thus, when communalism turns into religious fanaticism, it becomes a canker which eats into the very fabric of society.
In India, politics is associated with this sort of communalism, and this has poisoned national life in various ways. The tragedy of this brand of politics is that while the people are more religious than communal, the political leaders are more communal than religious. For this reason, communalism is gradually leading us towards a cursed labyrinth from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to come out. Of course, communalism in India is a historical legacy of the past.
When Hindu revivalism stirred the country towards the end of the 18th century, the British realised the need to neutralise the trend by encouraging the Muslim sentiment. Sir Charles Wood, the Secretary of State for India, wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Elgin, in March 1862 ~ ‘We have maintained our power by playing off one part against the other and must continue to do so. Do what you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling.’
This policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ actually sowed the seed of bitter communalism which almost divided the country into two halves. As the Indian National Congress began to gain popularity since 1885, the Government dubbed it as a purely Hindu organisation, and in order to offset its gains, it encouraged some Muslim leaders to form a separate organisation. Thus, the Muslim League came up in Dacca in 1906 with overt governmental patronage. In fact, this divisive policy engendered the politics of frenzied communalism which gradually led to wanton destruction of life and property and, ultimately, to the partition of the country in 1947.
The makers of the new India were very sincere in their desire to create a secular state and to separate politics from religious fanaticism. The Constitution thus underlines the concepts of democracy, equality, liberty and unity. But, unfortunately, communal sentiments have often unleashed bitter hatred and ghastly bloodshed. Sometimes violent riots have broke out without any rhyme or reason, and, thus, innocent people of different communities were the worst victims.
The fact of the matter is that ordinary people, be they Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, like to live in peace and harmony. In fact, from time immemorial, India has been a country of endless diversity. There may have been occasional crises, but they are rather the examples of sporadic and temporary deviations from the age-old and glorious tradition of toleration and fellow-feeling.
However, there is little doubt that things are now drifting from bad to worse. It is true that the Hindus form the largest segment of the population and, as such, they have a huge responsibility to dispel the fears and doubts among the minorities. But, at the same time, the minorities in India, have miserably failed to mingle with the mainstream, because a sense of separate identity has always kept them far away. In fact, the Constitutional guarantees and even the secular activities of the national leaders have failed to wean them away from religious orthodoxy, fundamentalism and fear psychosis.
The Constitutional right to ‘propagate’ religion was practically a concession to the Christians. Dr KM Munshi, a member of the Drafting Committee, admitted that though propagation and conversion were the essential features of Christiany, such opportunities were granted to all by Article 25 of our Constitution. Similarly, Articles 26, 27 and 28 have guaranteed equality in religious rights and, hence, no person of a minority community can allege that he has been denied the rightful opportunity.
The Muslim leaders often allege that they have little share in offices, local bodies, legislatures and other institutions. But this is, by no means, a case of religious discrimination. In fact, a sense of bitter apathy towards English education before the days of Sir Syed Ahmed is the primary factor behind their intellectual backwardness and the resultant failure to achieve major success in the competetive spheres.
Moreover, the adherence to personal laws has also alienated them from the majority. While the Muslims in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Egypt and many other Muslim countries have largely modified their at itude and have made a liberal interpretation of ‘personal law’ based on the Shariyat, a section of Indian Muslims seeks to stick to medieval mores and obscuranatism. Thus, though Article 44 of the Constitution speaks of the formulation of a ‘uniform civil code,’ such an enactment has not been possible during the past 70 years… in the face of bitter opposition. It is essentially a socio-legal affair, but communalism has practically made it a political issue.
In the net, Hindu chauvinism, though equally objectionable, has gained ground in recent years. Certain organisations are now emphasising Hindu beliefs and, hence, the conflicts that can trigger a crisis. In recent years, some Hindu outfits have also opposed conversions to Christianity. Conversion per se by force or fraud is illegal.
Things have worsened because of self-seeking political leaders. Covert opportunism is the major reason for the communalisation of Indian politics. Political parties hardly follow any norm or ethics and, very often, even the big parties tie-up with the communal outfits in order to reap electoral gains. Even the Marxists, who are professedly internationalists and above sectarianism, indulge in such opportunism in order to create a favourable vote-bank.
All parties encourage communalism purely out of self-interest. They nominate their election candidates after a careful scrutiny of their communal character of the constituency. The campaign speeches are influenced by the communal aspect. They mention sensitive issues in order to woo the minorities, seek the help of the religious leaders (like the Imam or the Sanyasi) and even use one community against another. Political leaders of different communities take sides with the hoodlums of their respective religious group. This nexus between politics and crime vitiates the scenario. As often as not, even minor issues are given a communal tinge.
So, if India is to be freed from the curse of communal politics, pre-emptive measures are imperative. The parties must also be ideologically re-modelled and the activities of communal organisations regulated. The spread of education can also help address this problem by expanding the mental horizon of the people.
However, unless there is a fundamental change in attitude, nothing important can really be achieved. All religions lead to the same goal, though there may be differences in their external forms. The problem of communalism will be addressed when political parties regard citizens as the people and not voters. In turn, the people must realise that they belong to the same nation and are a part of humanity. When leaders mislead the people, a nation cannot reach the desired objective.. This is the reason why Plato was in search of the ‘Philosopher-King’ and Aristotle was afraid of the ‘Demagogues.’
(The writer is Griffith Scholar and former Reader, New Alipore College, Kolkata)