Indian pluralism was always hard won. The riots during Partition produced an enormous sense of insecurity among India’s minorities. Mahatma Gandhi’s death, by creating a sense of shock and outrage, allowed Jawaharlal Nehru’s government to isolate extremist Hindus, and bring the mainstream towards a more moderate, inclusive, plural sense of what it meant to be Indian. Through the 1950s there were no major communal riots. This allowed the government to unite the nation by framing a democratic and federal Constitution, allowing each major linguistic group its own state, and beginning the process of economic development.
This extended period of social peace was broken in 1963 by riots in Jabalpur and in Rourkela. For the next 20 years, many towns in north and central India witnessed sectarian strife between Hindus and Muslims. Each of these incidents was discrete, unconnected to any other. But each polarized Hindus and Muslims, creating suspicion, fear, and paranoia in the towns where the violence had taken place. Then, in the early 1980s, there was conflict between Hindus and Sikhs, first in the Punjab (promoted by Khalistani terrorists), and later in Delhi and other towns in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s death, when thousands of Sikhs were butchered by mobs led by Congress leaders.
In the second half of the 1980s, violence between Hindus and Muslims intensified. The Ayodhya movement led to a series of riots, small and large, across northern and western India. These claimed tens of thousands of lives and rendered several million people homeless. As numerous studies by scholars, journalists and civil liberties groups have shown, in these riots Muslims suffered disproportionately. There was, however, a significant exception — the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where, in the late 1980s, a secessionist movement took on an increasingly fundamentalist and jihadist cast, leading to the forced expulsion of perhaps 300,000 Pandits from the valley.
Through the 1980s and 1990s I lived mostly in north India. I witnessed, with an increasing sense of horror, the alienation between Hindus and Muslims. I visited Bhagalpur in 1989, and saw how mobs, encouraged by activists of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, had set upon Muslim homes and Muslim villages. I was also dismayed by the bigotry displayed by highly educated professionals. On December 6, 1993 — the first anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid — I was part of a selection committee in New Delhi, choosing a new director for the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. The other experts were the secretary of the ministry of environment, a distinguished Himalayan botanist, and a scientist teaching in a university in south Delhi. An hour after the scheduled time, the last-named had not arrived. This may have been because he carried a Muslim name, and feared that the streets had been taken over by Hindutva goons in a celebratory mood. While the secretary and I expressed empathy with our absent colleague, the botanist gleefully used a Hindi expression whose very inadequate English translation would be: “The b....r is shit scared.”
The savagery of the 1980s and 1990s is captured in a laconic book title of the time: M.J. Akbar’s Riot after Riot. It is thus that I raised a silent cheer in March 2012, when India completed a full decade in which there had been no major episodes of Hindu-Muslim rioting, the first such period since the 1950s. I attributed this quiescence to three things — that ordinary Hindus no longer seemed enchanted with Hindutva bigotry or with building a great glorious temple in Ayodhya; that Muslims were likewise not so enamoured of their own fundamentalist preachers or of nostalgic yearnings for the glories of medieval Islam; and that young people of both genders and all religions were increasingly focused on education and employment.
My optimism was premature. For in July 2012, riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Assam. The scale and intensity of the violence, and the suffering, may have exceeded Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002. This fact did not really register in public discussion; since the Northeast is peripheral in the national imagination, and because the conflict was partly a consequence of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. However, in recent months and weeks, the canker of communalism has begun to rear its head in districts and states in the heartland. For the past few months, bouts of Hindu-Muslim violence have scarred Uttar Pradesh. More recently, Bihar and Rajasthan — states that have experienced relative peace in recent decades — have also witnessed religious strife. Most seriously, in early August there was a major communal riot in the district of Kishtwar, in Jammu and Kashmir.
These may be but straws in the wind, but as someone who lived in north India during the 1980s and 1990s I cannot be sanguine. No one who witnessed that strife at first or second or even third hand would ever wish those days of blood and hatred to return. However, there are many Indians who had no immediate personal experience of the violence and sectarianism of those decades.They include Indians who lived in the South, Indians who were overseas at the time, and Indians everywhere who are too young to remember even the news headlines of those terrible, tragic, years.
It is to these Indians that this column is addressed. For the worry now is that these recent incidents of Hindu-Muslim violence will catalyze into something larger and more sinister. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Ayodhya ‘yatra’ fortunately fizzled out — yet the insecurities and paranoia it sought to intensify remain. With a general election round the corner, amoral politicians will seek to polarize the communities further, with the Bharatiya Janata Party stoking Hindu fears — real and imagined — and the Congress and the Samajwadi Party doing likewise with Muslim insecurities.
The 1950s were relatively free from Hindu-Muslim violence because of specific acts by specific politicians. Nehru apart, important state leaders like S. Nijalingappa, K. Kamaraj, Y.B. Chavan, and Sucheta Kripalani within the Congress, as well as Rammanohar Lohia, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and Jayaprakash Narayan in other parties, were committed — in spirit and in deed — to religious pluralism and social harmony.
The strife-torn decades of the 1980s and 1990s had their origins in other acts by other politicians. These included the overturning of the Shah Bano judgment by Rajiv Gandhi, the rath yatra of L.K. Advani, and the more general endorsement by the BJP of the scapegoating of Muslims as a route to political advancement.
On the other hand, the relative communal peace between March 2002 and July 2012 owed nothing to the political class, and everything to the citizenry. Ordinary Hindus and Muslims shrunk back from sectarian acts. Civil society groups worked energetically to build bridges between individuals and communities. The focused reporting of the Gujarat riots by the media acted as a deterrent to demagogues.
Indian pluralism continues to be hard won. Temporarily secured by a set of brave Central and state politicians in the 1950s, its safety now lies largely in the hands of the aam admi. In the next twelvemonth, as politicians of all parties seek to meet their short-term ends, we must continually remind them, as well as ourselves, of the inclusive ideals of our young and still fragile republic.