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Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India
By Ashutosh Varshney
384 pp, Yale University Press, 2002
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India once stood tall in the annals of postcolonial nations. Beset by deep poverty, great inequality, and a vast population, the country still managed to avoid the dictatorships that befell so many of its neighbors. India's democracy, now encompassing a billion people, may have been maddeningly slow to reform, but at least it was resilient. Governments rose and fell, new participants swelled the ranks of the political elite, and the middle class kept expanding. Although the country's many religious, linguistic, and caste groups frequently squabbled -- and sometimes exploded into violence -- they also coexisted.

Whereas other multiethnic countries underwent violent breakups leading to ethnically homogeneous states, India appeared to have pulled off that unlikely feat: maintaining a pluralist administration under a secular government. The country's rulers proved surprisingly responsive to diverse ethnic and minority claims when compared to other developing nations, and even some developed ones. In its first 15 years of independence alone, India created 11 new states based on linguistic and cultural identity and also implemented a broad system of affirmative action to redress traditional discrimination. This record, combined with booming economic growth in the 1990s, led many in the international community -- and indeed, many Indians themselves -- to view the country as a force for stability in a volatile region.

Then came the Hindu-Muslim riots of this spring in the prosperous western Indian state of Gujarat, six weeks of violence that left more than a thousand people dead and a hundred thousand in makeshift shelters. The riots began when a Muslim mob torched a trainload of sloganeering Hindu nationalists, killing 59 of them. A wave of retaliatory rioting rolled over Gujarat; the overwhelming majority of the riots' victims were Muslim. Unlike earlier riots that ended as abruptly as they began, the bloodletting in Gujarat has not ceased. Although reduced in intensity, violence continues to flare up, primarily in the underpoliced Muslim areas of Gujarat's major cities, where there are daily instances of murder, looting, and arson.

The central and state governments, both run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been disturbingly slow to curb Hindu retaliation. While India's parliament debated whether the Gujarat government should be dismissed for failing to restore the rule of law, even more disturbing reports emerged that some of the Hindu mob leaders were activist members of the ruling party or its allies in the wider "family" of Hindu nationalist organizations. Is India beginning to suffer the same kind of communal convulsion that has ravaged so many multiethnic countries in recent years?

KEEPING SOCIETY CIVIL

That would be the wrong conclusion to draw, says University of Michigan political scientist Ashutosh Varshney in Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. In his view, there are two reasons why India is unlikely to succumb to the maelstrom that broke up countries such as Yugoslavia. First, Hindu-Muslim conflict is highly localized, and so any one wave of violence has limited potential to spread across the country. And second, India's complex polity is made up of a range of constituencies with cross-cutting interests in which linguistic or caste affinities, for example, often supersede religious loyalty. Hindu nationalism is therefore unlikely to become the kind of cohesive murderous force that Serb nationalism turned into. Moreover, argues Varshney, the need to cater to these cross-cutting interests forces all political parties to the secular center once in government -- even when that government is, as at present, formed by Hindu nationalists.

Varshney's first argument is more convincing than his second. Using data for a 45-year period from 1950 to 1995 -- that is, covering most of independent India's history -- he shows that the

vast majority of communal riots have been concentrated in 4 of India's 28 states, located in the northern, western, and eastern parts of the country. All four have large Muslim minorities. But so do several of the southern Indian states, yet southern India has remained largely calm over the past 50 years -- even while the country's northern and western areas have been periodically ravaged by Hindu-Muslim violence.

By itself, this is not a surprising finding. It is fairly well known that Hindu-Muslim relations in northern and southern India are poles apart. The real surprise of Varshney's data lies in their revelations of the subregional nature of Hindu-Muslim violence. Even within the four states in which ethnic conflict has been concentrated, most of the riots have been restricted to a handful of cities. In fact, 70 percent of Hindu-Muslim violence takes place in only 30 out of India's more than 400 cities. More startling still, just 8 cities are responsible for almost half of all deaths in Hindu-Muslim riots.

In other words, ancient hatreds have little to do with ethnic conflict in India. Although India is a predominantly agricultural society, violence between Hindus and Muslims is an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon. During the 45-year period that Varshney's data cover, rural violence accounted for just over three percent of all deaths in Hindu-Muslim riots. India's traditional heartland, its villages, has been largely unscathed by the communal killings that have swept its cities.

If ethnic conflict is limited chiefly to a handful of Indian cities, then why do we fear its destructive potential for the country at large? One reason is that these cities are the power centers of the country. They include India's metropolitan and trading hubs and several of its state capitals. India's three largest and most cosmopolitan cities are among the eight that top Varshney's list of "riot-prone" areas -- the nation's capital, New Delhi, and the influential state capitals Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta). Each has a population of over 12 million, and together they are linchpins of India's economy.

Each of the eight cities that top Varshney's list has a large middle class, a high literacy rate, and an old and established Muslim minority. Two of them are in Gujarat, and it is a testimony to the predictive value of Varshney's data that he ranks Ahmedabad, Gujarat's financial capital, as the second most riot-prone city in India. (Mumbai leads the death count.) Ahmedabad saw the worst of the recent killings in Gujarat and continues to burn as of this writing. The city where the riots began, Godhra, also appears in Varshney's data, on the longer list of 30.

CRASHING THE PARTY

Why should these cities, with better standards of living than most of the rest of India, greater economic opportunity, and more power to shape government policy, suffer from a pattern of recurrent Hindu-Muslim violence?

Varshney's answer to this question is deceptively simple. Each of these cities, he says, has suffered a gradual and progressive decline in civic life. Ahmedabad, for example, was largely untouched by the violence between Hindus and Muslims that hit other cities in the early twentieth century and during the partition of colonial India in 1947. Gujarat was Mohandas Gandhi's homeland and a testing ground for his methods of nonviolent resistance, and it also had some of the strongest civil associations in India, built by the Congress Party as well as by Gandhi's disciples in both industry and labor. These associations served to integrate Hindus and Muslims and stepped in to prevent Hindu-Muslim violence during the partition riots of 1947-48. After independence, however, the Congress Party neglected its various programs promoting cooperative credit, women's health and employment, and educational and media outreach. Following the death of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1964, the party leadership started to fragment. Its different factions began to focus on wooing specific voting blocs by cultivating the more chauvinist elements within India's different castes and religious communities.

Ahmedabad's first serious Hindu-Muslim riots occurred in 1969 as a result of a local dispute over a religious procession; they were followed by more violence in several subsequent years. Gujarat was then relatively peaceful from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. But this calm was deceptive, according to Varshney; during that period the Congress Party's civic decline was followed by its political decline. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did away with Congress' internal elections and limited the powers of the party's local branches. The party's vast apparatus in Gujarat, its one remaining integrative network for Hindus and Muslims, dwindled to a shadow of its former self.

At the same time, there was a parallel decline in Gujarat's largest nonparty organization, the Textile Labor Association. Based in Ahmedabad, the Gandhian trade union was the last significant source of Hindu-Muslim cooperation in the city. When its numbers dwindled as mill production gave way to the rise of the power-loom sector, the vacuum was filled by Hindu nationalist organizations that founded new schools and newspapers and performed a range of social services.

The BJP benefited from the Congress Party's decline in Gujarat. Varshney shows how the state turned to the Hindu right well before the rest of India did. In the 1980s, when the BJP won between 5 and 7 percent of the vote nationally, it polled over 15 percent in Gujarat. In the mid-1990s, when the BJP's share of the national vote rose to 20 percent, it was 42 percent in Gujarat. In 1990-92, Hindu nationalists were able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of the state's citizens for a nationwide agitation to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram -- who is as central to Hinduism as Jesus is to Christianity -- in his purported birthplace, the far-off northern Indian city of Ayodhya. The temple site was also home to a seventeenth-century mosque, which was destroyed in 1992 by a 10,000-strong mob of Hindu nationalists who had gathered from all over the country. Gujarat was one of the largest contributors of volunteers to this mission of destruction; when Hindu-Muslim riots followed, it was Gujarat that saw the largest number of deaths.

The BJP came to power in Gujarat in 1995 and in the central government in 1998 -- but at the national level it is part of a wider coalition including secular regional parties. The BJP leadership in New Delhi said that, out of respect for the coalition, they would put the more contentious issues on their agenda, such as building the Ram temple, on the back burner. The BJP's leaders had already begun to restrain the party's hard-liners after the riots that followed the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, and India remained relatively calm between 1993 and 2002. Like Varshney, many analysts concluded that India's polity forces all political parties to the secular center once they have to govern.

THE UNCERTAIN CENTER

The Gujarat riots of this spring, however, have made this conclusion look doubtful. They came quickly on the heels of the BJP's reelection in Gujarat under a new hard-line leadership. The state's chief minister makes no secret of his belief that Muslims must be second-class citizens in the Hindu nation he is bent on creating, and he is one of the most ardent supporters of the Ram temple campaign. Despite New Delhi's pleas for restraint, he was one of the leaders who supported the revival of the campaign in early March. The Hindus who were torched by a Muslim mob in Gujarat two weeks later -- the incident that sparked the recent riots -- were returning from Ayodhya. They had made a preemptive bid to begin building the temple on the ruins of the mosque but were thwarted by the central government, which had dispatched 2,500 troops to keep the peace.

New Delhi's prompt action to prevent violence in Ayodhya stands in stark contrast to its reluctance to intervene in Gujarat. The Gujarat government has made little effort to stop the riots; worse still, it has transferred out many of the police officers who did turn back the mobs. Reports indicate a total breakdown of law and order in Ahmedabad's mostly Muslim old quarter, as well as in several of the city's outlying areas. New Delhi has repeatedly expressed concern at

the continuing violence -- yet neither the central government nor the BJP leadership is prepared to take any action

that might run counter to the Gujarat government's wishes.

Trounced in state-level legislative elections last year, today the BJP governs Gujarat alone out of India's 28 states. So New Delhi has dug in its heels, and the BJP has ignored its coalition allies who have asked that the Gujarat government step down. Far from being constrained to adhere to the secular center, it seems that the BJP is now being pushed by Gujarat to move toward the far right. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has made no secret of the fact that he wanted Gujarat's government to step down, but BJP hard-liners persuaded him to yield. For their part, the BJP's allies are unwilling to see the government fall over this issue, so they have limited their response to mere remonstrations.

Nevertheless, the BJP's recent electoral losses suggest that Indian support for Hindu nationalism resembles support for the far-right anti-immigrant parties in Austria, France, and the Netherlands more closely than it does something like Serb nationalism. Each of the former has shown a disturbing rise in the past decade, but none has been able to capture the mainstream. Slobodan Milosevic's Communist Party, by comparison, did extremely well at the Serbian polls until his government lost the war over Kosovo.

Unlike the western European countries, however, India has not been able to cauterize the destructive potential of its ethnic and religious nationalists. Over the past decade, 4,000 Indians have died in battles over the Ram temple campaign, but the Hindu nationalists are unwilling to seek a compromise solution. The regional parties that are the BJP's allies have not been able to persuade the BJP to act in Gujarat; nor has the opposition. The corrective mechanisms of Indian politics appear to have only a weak hold over its legislators and government.

DEMOCRACY IN INDIA

As Varshney argues, this decay in India's party politics puts the spotlight squarely on civil society. Here the picture is more reassuring. The most stable Indian states are those in which Hindus and Muslims have joint economic, educational, and political associations -- even if the latter rely more on power-sharing than on integration. But it is not necessary to have the entire gamut or a combination of such associations: as Varshney shows, at the ground level any one Hindu-Muslim group can successfully prevent the spread of conflict. In one textile-producing city in Gujarat, for instance, the local manufacturers' and traders' association kept the peace in the old city area; indeed, press accounts of the latest riots tell the story of a Hindu-Muslim workers' colony that successfully turned the mobs away.

Top-down initiatives can also work, says Varshney, citing an industrial city whose poor record of violence was turned around by a police officer who set up Hindu-Muslim peace committees in all the city's localities. But they are inherently weaker because they are not subject to the same tests of accountability that locally based associations face.

Sadly, Varshney does not examine religious organizations in his analysis; he addresses only Hindu-Muslim associations. Yet the greatest conundrum of all might well be the role that religious organizations play in sparking or dampening Hindu-Muslim tension. Unlike the Christian and Muslim religious leaders who added to communal conflict in Bosnia, or the priests and nuns who were implicated in genocide in Rwanda, most Hindu religious leaders shun the Ram temple campaign. At one of Hinduism's largest and most important religious festivals, the Kumbh Mela, Hindu priests expelled advocates of the Ram temple campaign. After the Gujarat riots began, several of India's leading Hindu priests offered to help find an alternative site for the temple. Ironically, their offer has yet to be accepted by the BJP government.

It is a pity, too, that Varshney does not examine government institutions such as the judiciary, the National Human Rights Commission, or the National Commission for Minorities. All three have displayed a new activism in the wake of the Gujarat riots. The Indian Supreme Court is currently holding a landmark hearing on the human rights commission's findings about the violence. India's attorney general has also criticized the Gujarat government for its failure to protect minorities. And the minorities commission has just organized the first meeting between Gujarat's chief minister and representatives of the Muslim community.

These are heartening indications of Indian democracy's willingness to reclaim the secular center. Varshney's findings are more heartening still for India. If the task of building unifying networks is a daunting one, it is encouraging to know that improving civic life in just eight cities could make all the difference. Tellingly, too, the recent Human Rights Watch report on Gujarat makes many of the same policy recommendations that flow from Varshney's book: in particular, that support for integrative civic associations is now the need of the hour in cities such as Ahmedabad.

Apart from the immediate policy relevance of Varshney's book, his material also makes a lasting contribution to our understanding of how to tackle the roots of communal violence in India. This is an issue that Indian policymakers have ignored for too long. Perhaps Varshney's book can help close that gap.

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  • Radha Kumar is Senior Fellow in Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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