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The Local roots of India's riots
By Ashutosh Varshney
|The writer is director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, was recently published by Yale University Press. Hindu-Muslim riots in India are understood to have two causes: the underlying and the proximate. The underlying causes are linked partly to perceptions of history. Since the 1920s, Hindu nationalists-those who believe that India is a Hindu nation-have argued that Muslims are fundamentally disloyal to India. Some also believe that the so-called Muslim period of Indian history, stretching from the 11th century to the 18th century, was a period of Hindu humiliation, when Muslim rulers ruthlessly attacked the pillars of Hindu culture, especially its temples of worship. Finally, some Hindus also think that Muslims are essentially aggressive by nature, and a demonstration of superior brute strength is the only way to alter their behaviour. The biggest exponents of such views are the Hindu-nationalist ideologues, many of whom rule Gujarat, the state where riots broke out recently.
Such views are inaccurate and defy history. First of all, the intolerant strains of Islam in India have always coexisted with the peaceful strains, especially in the form of Sufism, a mystical and nontextual variety of Islam prevalent not only in India, but also in countries like Indonesia. Moreover, only some Muslim rulers in medieval India sought to attack Hindu beliefs. Mughal rulers such as Akbar, in fact, built bridges across the two communities, handsomely contributing to the evolution of a common Indian culture. India's music, dances, architecture, languages, poetry, dress, cuisine and what a leading Muslim politician of the 20th century, Maulana Azad, called "the innumerable happenings of our daily life" bear, as he put it, "the stamp of our joint endeavour." Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of its democracy, subscribed to this belief.
The Hindu nationalists do not. They do not recognize Muslim contributions to India's history and culture. They selectively concentrate on the intolerant Muslim rulers, extending their often brutal conduct to the entire period of Muslim rule and, even more problematically, to all Muslims. Such an interpretation is neither good history nor a recipe for peace, for it breeds hatred. A necessary distinction between peace-loving Muslims and intolerant Muslims is lost in such a discourse. As a result, riots in states where Hindu nationalists are politically powerful can be awfully brutal.
Though Hindu nationalists repeatedly express the views described above, my own research shows that the most striking fact about Hindu-Muslim riots is their highly localized nature. First, villages figure insignificantly in instances of communal rioting. Between 1950 and 1995, rural India, where a majority of Indians still live, accounted for a mere 4% of all deaths resulting from communal violence. Hindu-Muslim violence has primarily been an urban phenomenon. Moreover, within urban India, Hindu-Muslim riots tend to be locally concentrated. Since 1950, eight cities-including Ahmedabad and Baroda, where the recent riots were at their worst-have accounted for nearly half of all deaths in Hindu-Muslim violence. As a group, however, the eight riot-prone cities represent a mere 18% of India's urban population and only 5% of the country's total population.
Eighty-two percent of India's urban population and 95% of its total population has not been "riot-prone."
Many of India's cities and towns may have tensions and small clashes, but tensions do not explode into riots. Even in the recent flare-up, most of the violence took place in three cities: Ahmedabad, Baroda and Godhra. Moreover, the riots in Gujarat did not spread beyond the state-to the other 28 in the country. What explains these local concentrations of communal violence? My research in six cities, three riot-prone and three entirely or mostly peaceful, suggests that pre-existing local networks of civic engagement between the two communities-business associations, political parties, trade unions, professional associations, clubs-stand out as the single most important cause. Where such integrated networks of engagement exist, tensions and conflicts get regulated and managed; where they are missing, segregated lives lead to ghastly violence. This was as true late last month as it has been historically since the 1950s.
Such local patterns of violence suggest that despite the Hindu-nationalist claims about Muslim attacks on Indian culture in the past, only some Hindus, and only in some places, believe them. Most Hindus and Muslims manage to live quite peacefully with each other. Gujarat's riots represent a sick imagination about the wrongs of history.
(Source: Far Eastern Economic Review, March 21, 2002 -
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