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Lecture Series on Roots of Sectarian Conflict

Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June, 1991)

Publisher: Cambridge University Press (June, 1991)

The importance is that for an alternate political formation to emerge, a different winning political formula had to be created. And BJP’s winning electoral formula was to hive off the Muslims and use anti-Muslim to create a Hindu coalition, including the Patidars as well as other Hindu lower and middling castes. And so the BJP did this extremely successfully and so over the 1990s, once the BJP comes to power by having created an alternate electoral coalition which bridges the gaps, or cleavages, that had emerged across Hindu castes and creates them into a much more coherent political group by mobilizing them against Muslims. And this happens especially since post-Ayodhya (when militant Hindus demolished the 16th-century Babri mosque) in 1992.

The last decade, to be fair to the BJP, was relatively calm in Gujarat, but what was going on in Gujarat all through this decade was that the overall situation was getting highly communalized. All the conflict about beauty pageants and a variety of issues concerning Muslim personal laws one could go on and on. And in this charged communalized situation that has been created, the train attack absolutely should not have happened, but once it did, the consequences ought to have been understood by the leadership, it was not an impossible situation. If you ruled Gujarat and you understand the politics and you understand the main strategy has been to communalize the situation, one should have known Hindu violence and reprisals would be unleashed. The fact, however, is the government stood by and allowed the mayhem to proceed. And this inaction on the part of the government, to my mind, was politically motivated. It is a strategy to maintain a Hindu majority coalition. And any action that appeared to be soft on Muslims would have hurt the strength of this precarious but increasingly firmer coalition. I could, of course, talk in greater detail about both of these but let me move towards concluding the talk. I think you have got the gist of what I think happened in these situations.

Ethnic and communal violence dots India’s political landscape. However, these have to be kept in perspective. For the most part, most ethnic and communal demands have been accommodated. And considering the variety of groups that exist, that is not a minor political accomplishment. The Hindu Muslim conflict has proven especially difficult to accommodate in India. India was born of that conflict and traces of that linger. Most ethnic and communal violence in India is politically motivated. It is rationally orchestrated and it is implemented in a planned way. I have studies some of these things and the results are not pleasant. If you see people who have died in riots, for example, you will notice that the knife wounds are extremely clearly pointed at the heart, only trained killers are capable of this. If you look at riots, you wonder how in 10 minutes time 3 to 4 truckloads full of petroleum is delivered in a country where people can wait quite a long time to get petrol in their car. How hundreds of people can be mobilized in buses, ready with armed instruments. So there is a planned element to the whole thing that should not be underestimated. It is not crazy fanatical behavior.

I have only discussed two of the most recent newsworthy incidents, but numerous other cases can similarly be discussed. The Kashmir situation, for example, shares some important traits with what happened in Tamil Nadu in the 1950s and 1960s, the Tamil Nationalist Movement. And of course with Punjab in the 1980s. The big difference of course is the internationalized element of the Kashmir issue. The Hindu Muslim riots share much not only with other Hindu Muslim riots, but also with a variety of caste conflicts that dot India’s countryside as well as cities sometimes. The main message of my talk, then is, that ethnic violence in India comes about because ethnic and communal groups are mobilized by elites to achieve political ends. When political institutions do not function adequately, the normal political process of mobilization turns violent. And to conclude, therefore, I want to say that improving the credibility of elections, for example in Kashmir, avoiding mobilizing along explosive lines, strengthening the role of issue oriented parties, making timely concessions to mobilized groups before it becomes a highly conflictual situation, and improving the police are all institutional reforms that can further mitigate ethnic and communal violence in India. Thank you.