The Origins of Communalism


Book: Issues of Communal Violence: Causes and Responses
Author: Irfan Engineer
Publishers: Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, Mumbai
PB, Pages: 52


Aria Thaker

In his Issues of Communal Violence: Causes and Responses, Irfan Engineer discusses the societal conditions that bring about and perpetuate communal riots in modern India. Most of the time, Engineer’s analysis strikes an effective balance between theoretical and empirical explanations. He discusses the nature of communalism, but also provides ample proof of his reasoning by citing both scholarly studies as well as documented incidents from the 2002 Godhra riots, 1992 Mumbai riots, and many other instances of communal violence. In a few parts, however, Engineer’s explication of particulars regarding the formation of riots seems to be a bit simplistic or difficult to apply. Overall, however, Issues of Communal Violence is a persuasive text, one that disentangles many issues that are often confused in media and popular discourse surrounding riots today.

Engineer begins the book with a broad, theoretical exploration of the nature of communalism. The first chapter quotes liberally from different scholarly texts, so much so that it is a challenge to discern which beliefs Engineer agrees with and which he is simply offering as counterpoint. His heavy engagement with other works, however, ends up providing a thoughtful portrayal of the complexity-and controversy-surrounding the idea of what communalism is and how it happens. He describes scholars’ varied explanations for the causes of communal violence; some describe it as resultant of mounting religious tensions, some state that it is caused by political and economic factors instead, and some describe it as being caused by a confluence of factors, both ideological, religious, political and material.

The second chapter takes a distinct departure from the continually referential style of the first. In the chapter introduction, Engineer makes powerful, assertive statements that dispel much of the propaganda surrounding riots, such as the idea that communal organizations exist to “protect” people of their faith against violence from other communities. “There is not a single instance,” Engineer writes, “where Shiv Sainiks marched to the largest Muslim ghetto in Mumbai--Bhindi Bazaar--to secure Hindu minorities in the area when some of them were attacked as a revenge to Muslim casualties in other areas, nor did Muslim armed groups that were attacking Hindus in the Bhindi Bazaar area ever try to protect Muslims in the areas where they were vulnerable and in the minority” (p. 11).

Engineer makes a persuasive argument to explain the flawed logic behind communal violence; aggressors think that in attacking members of another religion, they are “imputing guilt” to members of faith in a “primitive and barbarous” way to avenge previous wrongs done by members of that same, targeted faith. “A collective punishment,” Engineer states, “is handed down in order to deepen and polarize communal identities within members of both communities” (p. 12). This explanation of communal reasoning powerfully illustrates the vicious cycle of bloodshed that is perpetuated when violence is attempted to avenge previous acts of violence.

In his discussion of the constituents of communal riots, Engineer delineates four categories of people who participate in communal violence. These categories, in order, are the organizers, the trained fighters, the people who spread rumours to inflame communal sentiment, and the people who have motivations other than communal hatred. Engineer’s categorization does effectively convey the diversity of efforts that go into the planning and execution of what is often incorrectly perceived as spontaneous violence. It may be true that the four listed roles form the backbone of most communal riots and wanton violence. However, it is simplistic to conclude that therefore there must be only four distinct categories of people who contribute to the violence. The distillation of communal elements into four distinct categories discounts the possibility that some people occupy two, or multiple of the niches Engineer presents. The first and fourth categories, in particular, seem to have a great deal of overlap, as do the first and third.

Not only do the four main categories of participants fail to include lax (and therefore complicit) law enforcement and political officials, they consciously omit the inclusion of people who are swept up in mobs and become participants of communal rioting. “Their involvement,” Engineer asserts, “was not on large scale” (p. 13). It is unclear what Engineer’s source is for this fact. He cites two examples of interviewed Hindus who have, out of confusion and curiosity, engaged in throwing bombs and rocks at Muslim buildings, but he dismisses such involvement, saying that the same people later helped shelter and aid Muslims. What were the circumstances that allowed the interviewed people to be receptive to the ideas of throwing petrol bombs and rocks? While moral culpability might be a tricky issue when it comes to mob mentality, and no one will dispute that a riot planner is much more at fault than someone “caught up in the moment,” participation in communal violence at all levels must be acknowledged and examined if we are to fully investigate the manner in which communalism and religious bigotry become entrenched in society. After all, many of the same social forces that caused the two interviewed subjects to throw weapons at mosques may have caused riot planners to become as prejudiced and vengeful as they are now.

The third chapter--the strongest one in the book--addresses police complicity in communal riots and makes a nearly indisputable case for the need for more impartiality in the world of law enforcement. In “Role of Police in Communal Violence,” Engineer strikes the ideal balance between referring to other scholarly data as well as making original, compelling arguments of his own. He liberally cites a paper written by IPS officer Rai, who argues that because “Indian society is not torn apart with civil war and existence of armed militias” as other nations are, “if the police and administration is unable to control a riot within 24 hours, it only means that their actions, conduct and behaviour need proper examination” (p. 19). Rai’s research concludes that the Indian police operate under dangerously extreme communal biases, which results in communal bloodshed continuing and escalating for far longer than it should. Engineer states chilling statistics; for example, during the first phase of the communal rioting in 1992 Bombay, 192 of the 250 Muslims killed were shot by police. Out of those killed, over 90% died of injuries above the abdomen, “proving that police had fired to kill and not to disperse a rioting mob.” (p. 23) After the 1992 riots, 97% of riot victims from the Muslim community saw the police as their enemies. Meanwhile, 93% of Hindu victims stated they would approach the police for help during riots. These are only a small fraction of the frightening statistics, not to mention the numerous, appalling anecdotes, which Engineer provides to support his case.

Engineer’s barrage of evidence conveys the dire need for better, more responsible law enforcement and administration. The various solutions he proposes the police should attempt-to maintain greater vigilance in the formative stages of riots, provide more impartial and immediate assistance to all victims of violence, facilitate dialogue and reconciliation between community leaders, and counter rumours through the dissemination of truth--are almost all excellent. However, he comes close to suggesting a measure that would only result in further abuse of power: the curtailment of freedom of speech. In addition to the above activities, Engineer suggests that pro-active police intervention should consist of police “arresting those making provocative speeches” (p. 20). Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy, and whenever possible, it should be upheld regardless of how abhorrent a speech’s content may be. Having communal leaders punished for merely making speeches would likely make martyrs of them among their respective communities, further inflaming communal sentiment. In addition to that, encouraging an already-biased law enforcement system to arrest people based on inflammatory speech would result in leaders of marginalized communities being arrested at a far more frequent rate than leaders of the majority community. Detaining people for acts of speech, of course, requires that police pass subjective judgment in order to deem certain speech “inflammatory” or not. And as Engineer very correctly states, “police believe that to be communal is only prerogative of Muslims;” therefore, encouraging police to arrest more people based on violence-inciting speeches would simply result in the disproportionate and unjust arrest of Muslims and the turning of many a blind eye to any inflammatory speech made by Hindus. Law enforcement in India should instead concentrate on consistently halting instances of violence, because no police force alone is capable of changing ideological currents that shape the motivations for such violence. It is possible for police to vigilantly respond to hatred-fueled speech acts-with increased security, countering of false rumours, surveillance of the speakers’ other activities, crowd control, etc.-without arresting people for simply making speeches. Encouraging the arrests of people based on their speech acts only further justifies and allows for acts like the Gujarat Congress Party’s shutdown of an entire television channel during the 2002 Godhra carnage, or the Mumbai police’s arrest of a young woman who posted a facebook status that was perceived to be anti-Shiv Sena.

In another extremely rhetorically powerful chapter, Engineer discusses the impact of a communal social climate on minority communities themselves, describing how groups respond to violence by isolating themselves from diversity, thus leading to more strife and distance between communities and thereby causing more violence and tension. This chapter should be required reading for anyone who makes the extremely common, victim-blaming argument that people, particularly minorities, who suffer communal violence should have known better than to openly “flaunt” their religion through their clothing and other orthodox practices. According to Engineer, it is the fear of violence that causes religious identity to “suddenly become the most important aspect of [people’s] existence--that can save or endanger [people’s lives.] (p. 33).” A community’s turning inward is caused by “development of perception of “self” and “other” binary in ethno-religious or religious-nationalist terms (p. 33).” Engineer shows how this polarization is manifested outwardly in many practices-”more men start wearing skull caps or growing beards increases after riots, men pray in mosques more often as identity markers. Muslim women start wearing burqa and conform to the expected norms of behaviour to identify with the community or as a measure for security.” (p. 33) In an extremely disturbing footnote, Engineer cites Sophia Khan, director of SAFAR, Ahmedabad, who reported a significant decrease in the amount of Muslim women filing domestic violence cases, despite the fact that domestic violence was on the rise.

In the fifth chapter, Engineer explores the impacts of communal profiling, especially when it comes to accusations of terrorism. He alludes to a global, not just an Indian, issue when describing how “Muslims are often subjected to stricter security checks at airport and other check points, more likely to be suspected for offences, including those linked with the underworld, organized crime and terrorism, subjected to more severe tortures, and more likely to be subjected to third degree methods...” (p. 42) The humiliation and ostracism that come along with these accusations result in the community’s further social marginalization and impoverishment, only sharpening communal tensions.

In the final chapter of Issues of Communal Violence, Engineer briefly explores possible avenues for ameliorating communal violence in today’s society. He correctly asserts that building peace has to exist both at the State level as well as within society. The State, he argues, “will have to perceive the threat posed by communal violence and terrorism as a threat to democracy. One cannot be fought in isolation from the other (p. 45).” He is correct; in order for a democracy to function, all constituents must be able to participate in a society without fear for their lives and livelihoods. At only two pages, Engineer does not leave much room in this chapter for the elaboration of actual schemes that might start solving endemic problems of communalism, but that, of course, can be a topic for another book.

As it currently reads, Issues of Communal Violence is an extremely well-crafted primer on the basic issues and causes behind communalism and its violent iterations.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 July 2013 on page no. 21

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