//The invention of communal ill will

The invention of communal ill will


Professor Muhammad Habib, in his brilliant essay on Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, concluded his statement as follows: “We owe him the bitterest drop in our cup, the poison of communalism.” A recent essay on the destruction of the Somnath temple suggests that there may be an element of the misreading of evidence in the statement. The essay fails to find in contemporary sources a great upsurge of Hindu revanchism generated by the happenings at Somnath. The event, it seems, did not instantly produce broods of Togadias asking for Ghazni’s blood. The destruction of temples and sacking of cities surely do not endear conquerors to the victims. But was temple destruction more hurtful than murder and rapine, which accompanied all military conflicts?

The great champions of Hindu glory according to one school of thought, the Marathas and the Rajputs, spent more time fighting one another than in defending the Holy Motherland against the vile Yavanas. Did that create any permanent sense of grievance in one clan of Rajputs or one branch of Marathas against their counterparts whom their ancestors had fought? If Togadia had read any history he would know that his beloved Gujarat had suffered more at the hands of the Marathas than through the lightning incursions of Ghazni. He has not suggested, so far, that all Marathas including Bal Thackeray should be hanged, a measure he has warmly recommended for the country’s Muslims — the Ghaznis, as he calls them.

I have raised these rhetorical issues to make two related points. Wars and invasions, which have long been integral to human experience, do not create permanent wounds in the psyche of a people. Oriyas do not hate the memory of Asoka, nor the Sri Lankans the memory of Prince Vijaya. The very painful experience of early Norman rule is not cited in English school textbooks as a reason why British children should grow up to hate Frenchmen. The English and the Germans, who have fought two bitter wars within a period of three decades are now close allies, as are the Japanese and the Americans, Hiroshima and Nagasaki notwithstanding. Memories of conflict become sources of long-term hatred only in very special circumstances and if, in the light of later developments, such hatred can be generated and sustained for some specific political ends.

There is, indeed, a long record of temple destruction in India under rulers of Turkish or Turko-Afghan origin. This fact has been over-played in a certain type of historical writing and soft-pedalled in another. Very recently, an American historian, R.M. Eaton, has tried to analyse the nature and motivation of such acts in 80 cases. He shows that they were mainly centred round the shrines to presiding deities of the ruling dynasty and were meant to deprive the latter of legitimacy derived from divine protection. It is not certain that the acts provoked great popular resentment any more than the horrors accompanying conquest usually do. As evidence, I have pointed out elsewhere that 150 years after Aurangzeb’s death, Hindus and Muslims fought together to restore the iconoclast’s descendant to the imperial throne.

A second and more important question: how was the conqueror, the iconoclast, or the oppressor perceived? Did the Hindu subjects of Turkish or Afghan kings see them first and foremost as Muslims? The historical evidence suggests that the rulers certainly did not lay primary emphasis on this single dimension of their identity. The chroniclers emphasized the family or clan the rulers come from and the dynasts, of course, as happily fought other Muslims as they did the Hindu chieftains. And there is no evidence to suggest that the Hindu subjects, especially their vast majority the peasantry, saw their Muslim counterparts as rulers, especially oppressive rulers. If temple destruction and other forms of oppression did generate resentment, there is nothing to suggest that it was generally directed against the Muslim component of the civil population, visiting the sins of the dynasts on their co-religionists among the subjects.

Yet traces of mutual resentment are certainly there in the medieval record. I shall cite a few stray examples. The fundamentalist mullah was uncompromising in his emphasis on the need to suppress idolatry. When Alauddin Khalji stated his inability to concede Qazi Mughisuddin’s demand that all Hindus be converted or killed, the Qazi advised that Jaziyah be collected with appropriate humiliation; the kafir should be asked to open his mouth as he paid the tax and the Muslim collector should spit into it. Such extreme prescriptions were not implemented, but the attitude which informed these must have had their ramifications both among Muslims and Hindus. In short, there was a persistent tradition of fundamentalism which resented the toleration of idolatry. It is difficult to imagine that intolerance did not breed resentment. The chronicles often refer to the wars of conquest as jihad when directed against Hindu chieftains. In Bengal, the Muslim punthi literature is full of imaginary episodes of battles between Hindus and Muslims, though interestingly they inevitably end in tales of reconciliation. In Bengali Vaishnav literature, Chaitanya’s biographies all refer to tyrannical acts by Muslim rulers. The term used to describe them is Yavan and such tyranny is cited as one reason for the advent of Chaitanya as an incarnation.

A couple of centuries earlier, Vidyapati, in a well-known passage, described the oppression by Turkish soldiers, adding that the Sultan would have punished the miscreants if he had come to know of their misdeeds. This allusion provides a clue to our understanding of communal disharmony. The oppressor here is no remote tyrant, but a humble soldier not very distant in terms of social level from his victims. And one can see how the hatred of such petty tyrants, often settled as iqtadars among the local population, could turn into the hatred of a community. The notion of ‘Muslim tyranny’ probably derived from such experiences. Doctrinally, the medieval smritis bracketed Muslims with the Chandalas and other untouchables. This may simply express the Brahminical obsession with purity that prohibited all contact with people whose ways were ‘unclean’. Muslims certainly learned to live with this quaint barbarism, but it is not possible that the classification and the practice did not generate resentment. More than one medieval Bengali text refers to the oppression of Brahmins and Vaishnavs, their being forced to carry baskets of beef and the ritual markings on their foreheads being wiped out with spittle. No one has suggested that these were daily occurrences, but a single such incident can have widespread ramifications.

The realities of economic and social life begot a pattern of co-existence and co-operation, and both folk and high cultures were deeply enriched by the encounter between the two traditions. But occasional outbursts of tyranny at the grassroots level, probably cr
eated the hard core of communal hatred. The Dutch factor, Pelsaert, mentions that it was not safe for a Hindu to venture out during a Muharram procession. In a different context, we find the Vaishnav saint, Shyamananda, telling off the Malla Raja of Vishnupur for employing Muslim guards. They were duly dismissed. Bharatchandra, a highly Persianized scholar-poet, records the perceived differences between Hindus and Muslims in doctrine and practice, and describes with distaste Alivardi’s iconoclasm. In his writing, all such conflict ends in reconciliation and that almost certainly was the dominant reality. But the leitmotif of mutual ill will keeps surfacing over and over again.

In pre-British days, these were exclusively urban, localized and of very short duration. They were rooted in social friction — familiar issues of cow slaughter, music before mosque or the red powder of Holi applied to unwilling beards. These riots were marked by a degree of ferocity. These were little flames of hatred which, with the aid of a favourable wind, could develop into a forest fire.

Under British rule, such ill winds emerged as a dominant fact of life. The ill will underwent a change in character and assumed unprecedented dimensions. One factor contributing to this negative development was a radical shift in the country’s political culture. Social identities, especially the sense of community, had neither any political connotation nor any pan-Indian referent, in pre-British days. Two very different influences altered the character of social and cultural identities. Western education and the new print-culture made people aware of the possibility and attraction of nationalism and sub-nationalisms. People became aware, for the first time in their history, that there was honour and pride in being a sovereign nation. That other levels of identity — religion-based community, linguistic groups, caste, sect and so on — could also be matters of pride and bases for solidarity and, as such, for joint action to enhance one’s status and/or securing one’s rights became a part of the new social consciousness. Hence we have a plethora of organizations celebrating the glories of being Indian, Hindu, Muslim or Bengali, Vaishnav, Kayastha and so on.

Of these multiple levels of identity and identity-assertion, the two that proved most potent were the national and the communal. We have emerging associations of all Indians, and we have great movements for the cultural self-assertion of Hindus and Muslims respectively. The Hindu lamentation over fall from Aryan grace, unfortunately, marked the beginning of myths of alleged Hindu slavery from the days of the Turkish conquest. That conquest was always referred to as the ‘Muslim conquest’, and the long centuries when Turkish or Afghan kings ruled the greater part of India as ‘Muslim rule’.

The phrase, ‘Muslim rule’, is a misnomer. Unlike the British at a later date, the Muslims as a people or community never ruled India. But the notion projected by British historians became a part of India’s cultural baggage. Hindu patriots lamented the centuries of alleged Muslim tyranny. Muslim intellectuals shed tears over their community’s loss of power and glory, tracing back the fall from grace beyond India’s frontiers and comparing the current moral degeneration with the utopia under the orthodox Caliphs. These two mutually exclusive myths nurtured the seeds of conflict which were always there.

Exclusive identity for Muslims became an object of aspiration at two levels. Movements for cultural revival, like the one initiated by Shah Waliullah, traced the source of Muslim fall from power to the incursion of un-Islamic ways. This implied a direct assault on the elements of syncretism in Indo-Islamic culture: bida or departure from strict observance of the sharia, had to be given up. At another level, especially in Eastern India, ideologically similar movements, the Wahhabis and Faraizis, rooted in agrarian grievances, emphasized the need for a Muslim way of life unpolluted by Hindu influences. Since this emphasis was fed by exploitation in the hands of the Hindu zamindars and moneylenders, the movements acquired a sharp edge of aggression. Some fierce communal riots were among their products.

British policy did take advantage of such growing tensions justifying the thesis that ‘divide and rule’ was a fact of life. But the real contribution of the raj to the mutual alienation of Hindus and Muslims derived from a different dimension of imperial strategies. In the constitutional structure they adopted for India and their executive actions in distributing shares of power and resources, they recognized Hindus and Muslims as separate constituencies. Perforce the two began to compete for larger shares qua communities. Separate electorates clinched the division opening the road to Pakistan.

This political competition mobilized the elements of mutual ill will: the nationalist message of the need for unity transcending the barriers of community lost out. From the mid-Twenties, the underprivileged, especially in urban areas, were mobilized to fight on the streets in support of what were essentially elite causes. Current post-modernist analysis questions such theses and emphasizes the autonomous agency of the underprivileged. But the vicious communal riots, mid-1920 onwards, can be shown to be anything but spontaneous outbursts. Much of the horrendous killing during the partition riots were carefully orchestrated. Such studies as we do have of this violence do not unfold any pattern of spontaneity.