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Terms of Trade | Is the communal tail wagging the secular dog in India?

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At least four states in India saw incidents of communal violence on the occasion of Ram Navami, an important Hindu festival in the country. In National Capital Delhi, the municipal corporation tried to shut meat shops during Navratri, the nine-day period which ends on Ram Navami. The southern state of Karnataka has been witnessing one communal flare-up after another for the past few months.

What do these incidents signify? The easy answer is that all of these are signs of the politics of polarisation playing out.

The more difficult question, however, is the following. Does an overwhelming majority in India agree with such politics? If there is such support, does it mean that the fate of secularism, or more importantly, communal harmony in the country is doomed? If the majority does not support such acts, why are there no protests when they happen?

For whatever it is worth, findings from a 2019-20 Pew Survey suggest that while an overwhelming majority of Indians border on conservatism and segregation when it comes to religion, they are also committed to respecting other religions. “Across the country, most people (84%) say that to be “truly Indian,” it is very important to respect all religions. Indians also are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community (80%). People in all six major religious groups overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths, and most say that people of other faiths also are very free to practice their own religion”, the survey found.

If the findings are indeed accurate, we seem to be in the proverbial situation of the (communal) tail wagging the (secular) dog in our society. But, is this the case?

Answering this requires clarity on one more question. How does one know whether people are being truthful in responding to surveys such as the one conducted by Pew?

One does not, shows research. A 2016 Social Psychology Quarterly paper by sociologists Phillip S Brenner and John DeLamater found that “direct survey questions about normative behaviour (such as voting or attitude towards other religions) are pragmatically interpreted to be about the respondent’s identity, asking whether he or she is the “kind of person” who conforms to the norm”. This kind of interpretation, the authors argued transforms the question “from an inquiry about “what I do” to ask about “who I am.” Importantly, this self-view may not be rooted in the actual self. Rather, it may be strongly reflective of the ideal self—the person the respondent aspires to be, the paper added.

In their 2019 book Good Economics for Bad Times, Nobel Prize winning MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo cite research based on an experiment, which suggests that people feel more confident in showing their true selves in the aftermath of a favourable political verdict. The experiment asked Americans to donate to an anti-immigration charity and found that the prospect of others learning about such a donation was likely to reduce the chances of people agreeing to make such a donation. This difference between willingness to make such donations, depending on whether others came to know about it or not, however, disappeared after the 2016 election victory of Donald Trump, whose campaign championed anti-immigrant politics.

The findings cited here open up the possibility that many people might have become vocal about their Hindu majoritarian views with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gaining political strength. While this is unlikely to have had an effect over the Pew Survey numbers, it can help explain a massive exodus of political leaders from other parties to the BJP.

To be sure, neither of the two arguments cited above — namely people lying about their normative choices in surveys or becoming more vocal about their majoritarian beliefs after favourable political verdicts — necessarily imply that majority of people in India are happy to see communal harmony is disturbed. However, if one does assume that the majority supports mutual respect for religions, the question to ask is, why do people not protest when attempts are made to disrupt communal harmony? And why has communal politics not suffered in elections?

Answering these questions necessitates delving into the subjective factor in politics. It also brings into play the role of the so-called secular parties in the country today. To understand the importance of both these factors, historical facts can offer important insights.

Before delving into contemporary research which can help us answer such questions, it is worth asking a question that goes back into India’s history. Is communalism, or at least communal violence, a new thing in India or has it always existed? A large section of Left-liberal scholarship claims that communal harmony was the norm in India, and the seeds of what is described as communalism today were sown by our colonial rulers to suit their political ends.

While it is nobody’s case that the British Raj did not encourage fissures between Hindus and Muslims in India, blanket claims of communal harmony have been questioned by many Indian scholars.

One such academic is the historian Sunil Khilnani. “Religious conflict was restrained by distinctive methods: not, as later nationalists fondly liked to suppose, on the basis of a genuinely ‘composite’ culture founded on an active and mutual respect among practitioners of different religions, but on routine indifference, a back-to-back neglect, which on occasions like religious festivals could be bloodily dispensed with,” Khilnani argues in The Idea of India.

Another academic who has questioned such claims is one of India’s most famous economic historians Dharma Kumar. In a polemical piece called Left Secularists and Communalism, which was published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 1994, Kumar argued that claims of existence of a composite culture during the period of Muslim rulers in India might be a half-truth as such accounts only captured the culture of the royal courts rather than lives of people at large. “Undoubtedly, a courtly culture in art, architecture, music and literature evolved under certain rulers welding various strains—Hindu, Persian, Saracemic and so on…Undoubtedly this north Indian courtly culture can accurately be termed as composite culture, and in my view its achievements in architecture and music are glorious. But this was a very small part of north Indian life. The beauty of the Taj tells us nothing about the absence of conflict between Hindus and Muslims at the time it was built,” wrote Kumar.

It is important to note that Kumar declared herself as a “modern unbeliever” and passionate believer in secularism and was trying to point out that the Left Secularist take on history vis-à-vis communalism in India was not just wrong history but also “bad politics, since these histories have alienated many Hindus who should support a secular policy”.

In retrospect, Kumar had an unlikely ally in Aijaz Ahmad, one of India’s most prominent and partisan Marxist intellectuals, who passed away recently. In a lecture delivered days after the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, Ahmad warned his peers from the Left against relying on history to assume favourable political outcomes in the present. “When you don’t have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself comes eventually to be identified with a series of defeats…real will takes on the garments of an act of faith in a certain rationality of history”. Ahmad quoted the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to argue that “History, does not, in other words, lead automatically to Reason, Progress, Socialism; it may, and often does, equally well lead to mass irrationality and barbarism”.

Does an acceptance of the fact that India’s past has not been as harmonious as it is claimed to be mean that communal harmony can never be achieved in a country like India? Not necessarily.

Research by Brown University political scientist Ashutosh Varshney offers an interesting answer to this question. In his 2002 book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Varshney tries to answer the question why some Indian cities saw riots whereas others did not. He argues that the usual response of blaming complicity or apathy of the administration and police is not enough, as the communal situation varies even within states, which have by and large similar administrative machinery. The book argues that “it is the environment of a peaceful city that makes the police and administration perform its law-and-order functions better, irrespective of the biases or the level of professionalism”.

One of the examples Varshney cites to make his argument is the role of neighbourhood committees comprising Hindus and Muslims in preventing communal riots in Bhiwandi, a town just outside Mumbai which had a troubled communal history in the 1970s and 1980s. After such committees were made in the late 1980s, Bhiwandi managed to avoid communal violence despite major communal riots in Mumbai in the aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition.

The idea, while it appears to be completely intuitive, does not seem to have many takers today, even within the ranks of so-called secular parties. Even in states where the BJP is in power, it is worth asking whether the recent violence could have been contained if there were efforts to engage members of both Hindu and Muslim communities beforehand.

This brings up the last question we want to answer. Why are there no large-scale protests when efforts are made to disrupt communal peace?

The secular cause might have become a victim of its weakness, suggests research by political scientists Selim Aytac and Susan Stokes. In their 2019 book, Why Bother? Rethinking Participation in Elections and Protests, Aytac and Stokes have tried to develop a theory of why people participate in protests. A critical factor that determines participation or lack of it in protests is the cost of abstention, the authors argue.

“Individuals who care about the protest’s goals will bear higher costs of abstention, and thus will be more likely to participate, the larger the (expected or actual) size of the protests…Larger crowds might signal that “success” is imminent, and not participating in these circumstances would lead to greater psychic dissonance than when fewer people are participating. Still others might be drawn emotionally to protests when large crowds are involved; they might experience enthusiasm when they agree with their goals, driving up costs of abstention,” the book says.

Their research suggests that every instance of a muted protest against attempts to disturb communal harmony is likely to increase the probability of bringing down participation in similar actions in the future as a perception of lack of support for the secular cause will bring down abstention costs even for people who support the cause.

While there is no point in arguing whether Indian society will become completely immune to communal flare-ups, it can be said with a reasonable degree of confidence that the tactical silence of most anti-BJP political parties on such instances might be bringing down the abstention costs for people who could have stood up for communal harmony in India.

Antonio Gramsci’s belief that history does not automatically lead to reason did not make the Italian Marxist an escapist. In fact, Gramsci always believed in the dictum of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will and spent the last 10 years of his life in prison. But, unfortunately, India’s secular parties seem to have reversed Gramsci’s principle. While they continue to wax eloquent about India’s composite culture and the eventual defeat of communalism, there seems to be extreme reluctance to make efforts on the ground to counter communalism.

The views expressed are personal

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