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How India's heritage of pluralism is being undone

September 19, 2013 18:09 IST

Empty streets in Muzaffarnagar during the riotsThe main culprit in vitiating the inter community/caste/class relations has been the so called ‘targeted’ approach. This is nothing but discrimination on the basis of faith/caste/class. When an equally poor and deprived child is denied scholarship, despite equal merit, resentment begins to brew, says Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.

The last of the two-part on the Muzaffarnagar riots.

Part 1: The danger signal from the Muzaffarnagar riots

Faith based conflict was unknown in India till the advent of Islamic invasions of the 13th century. Arab trading colonies existed peacefully on the western coast. India has a long, long tradition of pluralism of faith, language, race and way of life. St Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to India in the first century AD. The Indian Syrian Christians are one of the oldest communities in the world that embraced Christianity.

Around the same time, Christians in Europe were being persecuted and the Italians in Rome fed them to hungry lions for sport. El Barauni, an Islamic scholar and traveller has left an account of his journey so Southern India where he found colonies of Arab traders staying peacefully under Hindu Kings.

Closer to our times, Maratha King Shivaji was a contemporary of Aurangzeb. While Aurangzeb went about forcible conversions of Hindus, especially in Kashmir and in Uttar Pradesh and a temple destruction spree, Shivaji did not follow his example. Kafi Khan, the Mughal historian of the period, otherwise critical of Shivaji, has openly acknowledged this fact.

It was in 1940s, under a westernised Mohammed Ali Jinnah, that the Muslim League raised the bogey of Hindu rule and danger to Islam. Their aim was to create a separate Muslim majority state where they could exercise political power. Sixty five years after separation from India, Pakistan has created a new narrative of ‘oppression’ by Hindus to justify the separation and existence of Pakistan.

Ironically, it is the so-called secularists of India, that are now talking the same language to stoke fear and insecurity amongst the minorities in India. While in the Muslim Pakistan the proportion of Hindu minority has come down to mere 1 percent from original 13 percent, in India the Muslim population is now estimated to be over 15 percent up from the original 10 to 11 percent at Partition.

Latest figures on religious divisions in population from 2011 census have been kept under wraps by the current government. Eyeball evidence shows that population of Muslims has certainly risen in the last ten years. It also needs to be noted that unlike in many Muslim majority countries, there is hardly any Shia-Sunni conflict in India. It is indeed rather intriguing that despite all this evidence, a bogey of threat to security of minorities is regularly raised in India.

The so-called ‘secularists’ often invoke Jawaharlal Nehru and his policies. Nehru indeed did go out of his way to re-assure Muslims. The reason was twofold -- he did not want India to be Hindu Pakistan and wanted it to maintain its plural character. In the surcharged atmosphere post secession of parts of Punjab and Bengal, this was a real threat. Secondly, he wanted to shield the Muslims in India from Pakistan ideology. Wooing the minority for ‘vote bank’ purposes was not his aim. Such was his popularity in India that he did not need the electoral support of minorities; he would have won any which way! His policies, whatever their effect in terms of encouraging separatism amongst the minorities, were well intentioned and had no hidden electoral agenda.  

The main culprit in vitiating the inter community/caste/class relations has been the so called ‘targeted’ approach. This is nothing but discrimination on the basis of faith/caste/class. When an equally poor and deprived child is denied scholarship, despite equal merit, resentment begins to brew. This business of dividing society in ever smaller and smaller groups is akin to a doctor tearing patient’s limbs and treating them separately. To call this divisive approach ‘inclusive’ is height of hypocrisy.

Though the circumstances of exactly what happened in Muzaffarnagar are still far from clear, it appears that the police were instructed to go slow in case of offenders of one community. That appears to have been the last straw on the camel’s back. The saddest part is that in all such conflagration, it is invariably the minority community that suffers the most.

What happened in 1947 despite a proportionately large army (the population in India was less than half of what it is today) is a grim warning. It must be noted that the soldiers of British Indian Army, both Hindus and Muslims, acted impartially and possibly saved millions of lives. Even then the soldiers or presence of tall leaders like Nehru or Jinnah could not save the hapless millions when the rioting reached rural areas.

In the immediate aftermath what was needed was an all party delegation visiting the riot hit areas to restore confidence of the people. Instead what we see is the usual blame game and partisanship. In the long term, the country has to evolve a set of incentives and help on a non-discriminatory and ‘secular’ criterion like income levels for financial or other help.

But the minority community also must introspect and reform its social practices if it wants to compete in modern world. Before blaming the majority community for all its ills, it must have a look at the neighbouring country where despite being over 97 percent of the population, there is mass killing and violence day in and day out!

But if we are to arrest the slide into greater violence, the government of the day must give up its cynical policies resembling the South African apartheid where there were separate laws for each community and assiduously maintained divisions. Minority does not lose its identity by joining the majority in secular pursuits. This creates linkages at personal level, as seen in the field of sports and art and is the best guarantee of security and not special minority rights or demonising the world’s most peaceful religion.

As the National Integration Council meets on September 23 and debates the recent riots, one hopes it will do some honest introspection. If it is to indulge in its favourite past time of majority bashing, consequences for the country would not be fortunate.

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale is a military historian; studied internal violence in Kashmir, the north-east, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Northern Ireland as a Shivaji fellow of the United Services Institute (New Delhi) and medieval history as fellow of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.


Colonel (retd) Anil Athale