The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Mutual Hindu-Muslim ill-will exists, and can be put to ugly use

This essay addresses the theme, not of electoral politics, but of a poisonous cancer in our social body, which the black magicians of the parivar used cynically to facilitate their capture of power. The nurturing and manipulation of hatred against a minority community produced the desired result of power. That hatred remains firmly ensconced in our social and cultural consciousness. One has only to listen to the laments of the NRIs and many in our corporate sector at BJP's defeat in the polls to appreciate the sustained intensity of that hatred.

The pattern of inter-communal hatred has not been uniform across the social space and historical time in our subcontinent, but there are some general and persistent features.

A recent volume of reminiscences, Bishad Briksha by Mihir Sengupta, describes the nature of this mutual hatred in a small rural area in eastern Bengal which has had no record of communal violence over the centuries. The population, in those small rural communities, has lived not only in peace, but perforce with mutual cooperation and some mutual sharing of beliefs and religious practices, induced by experiences of shared danger and insecurity. The sharing got disturbed by the aggressive postures of the Pakistani military regime and the ideology it produced. The author returned to the area a quarter-century later to find that sharing restored but disturbed again in very recent times through the access to power secured by fanatical and cynically interest-motivated elements after the last elections in Bangladesh.

The texture of hatred is different in the two communities and it also varies from class to class. The landed classes with rental interests ' all had a measure of contempt for the lower orders, especially the Muslims. It was contempt mixed with hatred, often handed down from generation to generation as a pattern of unquestioned and hence unquestionable belief. An old grand-aunt, who could be a mother to both the Muslim and lower-caste dependants whose work supported the rural economy, had no doubts at all about the evil that was the Muslim community. And she told them so in unequivocal language. Mihir's uncle, who typified the attitude of the Hindu landed classes, simply hated Muslims, though he manipulated them for his own purposes all the time. 'Muslims cannot be trusted' was his simple slogan and it summed up the beliefs of his class. This despite the fact that they had perforce trusted them for generations without any ill effect.

At the level of the underprivileged, where a community like that of weavers or fishermen had been divided into two through conversion, there was a historic sense of betrayal, a belief that everything about the other was the opposite of one's own cherished practices. The Muslims, unlike the Hindus, wrote from the right. Hindus used the top side of the plantain leaf to eat from, the Muslims the bottom side, and so on. Interestingly, these themes cropped up again and again in Uma Bharti's vicious attacks on Muslims. The central belief underlying such statements is that the twain could never meet, though they were meeting all the time and working together as well with very little acrimony. Yet, in theory, Muslims were not to be trusted. A Hindu widow of the weaver caste was pilloried before an assembly of both communities for her affair with a Muslim. The paramour came forward and offered to support her and her sub-teen-age daughter. The child refused because she would not accept sustenance from a Muslim.

The folk cults celebrated a pattern of syncretism and Muslims secretly prayed for forgiveness to the more aggressive Hindu deities: it was not safe to defy them. But the aspiring agricultural classes, who coveted Hindu lands, could hardly wait for the kafirs to leave. Their sons waited anxiously for the field of opportunities to be free from Hindu competition. This did not, however, undermine co-existence in practice until fear rather than active persecution induced the Hindu mass exodus in stages.

The politics of the Muslim League engendered another pattern of hatred and counter-hatred: so far as the majority of the League's supporters were concerned, mindless hatred rather than rational calculation was a major stimulant of their politics. Its roots, in the case of east Bengal where the Muslim middle-classes were still emerging from the upper strata of the peasantry, lay in their long experience of humiliation and contempt. Hindu middle-class distrust and hatred of Muslims were reinforced when they were paid back in their own coin.

I have paid detailed attention to the mutual attitude of Hindus and Muslims in a remote rural area of eastern Bengal, not because these necessarily typify a wider subcontinental reality, but because we have here one of the very rare and truthful statements of inter-community hatred. The sangh parivar in their statements, especially oral ones, have spouted hatred against yavan-snakes since 1924-25, but nowhere have they conceded that such hatred is a major pillar of their dogma. Fanatical elements in our Muslim community writing in some Urdu journals and the preaching of fundamentalist fanatics provide a counterpoint to the parivar's song of hatred. Yet the existence of such widespread mutual hatred, from which our educated Bengali middle class is by no means free, is hardly ever acknowledged in serious analysis until the poisoned boil spouts its putrid pus as in Gujarat. Since we are here to discuss solutions as well, I suggest that our first task is to acknowledge the existence of this hatred and then to measure its depth and magnitude.

There are several alternative perceptions of inter-community hatred and its origins. The liberal nationalist thesis underlines the fact of co-existence and cultural synthesis over the centuries, ruptured only by the British imperial policy of divide and rule. A more radical version of the same thesis underlines economic factors ' the competition for economic opportunities and political power between two aspiring colonial bourgeoisie, aggravated in regions like Bengal by the Hindu landlords and moneylenders exploiting Muslim peasants. Such, incidentally was Nehru's understanding of the problem. His hope that the material base of communalism would disappear in a decolonized subcontinent proved to be sadly false.

Directly opposed to the emphasis on syncretism and happy co-existence is the two-nation theory which posits the presence of two mutually opposed solidarities, monolithic by implication, ever since the advent of Islam. In India, in its Hindu patriotic version, as in the writings of R.C. Majumdar, the thesis emphasizes the alleged fact that all other cultures which came from outside were absorbed into the great Indian civilization. Islam was the one exception. That Indian Islam is significantly different from other manifestations of that great tradition goes unnoticed in this version of our past: syncretism becomes a patriotic myth. Moreover, the alternative myth of 'Muslim' oppression, implying that the medieval kings who were Muslims by faith systematically oppressed Hindus, is projected using a very primitive historical method: incursion into historical research ' based on stray quotations from one particular bunch of source material. This is one pathetic if vicious instance in point. The notion of mutually exclusive solidarities has been reinforced by the post-modernist perception, which privileges community consciousness over all other definitions of identity.

A full history of inter-community relations is an urgent intellectual ' academic as well as social-political ' necessity. What follows is a mere sketch of some interrelated hypotheses which need to be tested rigorously. My thesis concerns not the totality of the Hindu-Muslim relationship, but only one strand in it, ' the element of mutual hatred, which has been exploited and manipulated as a road to power by some of the most vicious elements in our political life.

This hatred has a long history, though it has varied in intensity from time to time and not often been a determining influence on our social and political life. Nor, for the greater part of our history, has it disrupted co-existence, co-operation and the on-going symbiosis of cultures. These, not the hatred, have been the dominant features in the relationship between the two communities. Yet the ill-will is real, persistent and pervasive and can be put to horrendous use.

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