CURRENT ISSUE JULY 15, 2002  

BOOKS

Hate and Hysteria

A Hindu political identity doesn't inevitably produce killers

By Swapan Dasgupta

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Communal violence generates strong reactions. This year's bloodbath in Gujarat was no exception and created a climate of both anger and hysteria. Apart from dubbing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi a "mass murderer" who should stand trial in an international court for genocide, many secular activists concluded India had become a "fascist" state. Academics-mainly non-resident-joined the battle to point out that civil society in Gujarat had been so communalised over the past decade that democracy could no longer serve as the great healer. The implied Brechtian solution: abolish the Gujaratis and create new ones.

ETHNIC CONFLICT AND CIVIC LIFE: HINDUS AND MUSLIMS IN INDIA
By Ashutosh Varshney
Oxford
Price: Rs 495
Pages: 382

Some of this hysteria was understandable. The riots were horrible by any standard and the intensity of hate truly frightening. More to the point, the riots erupted after a nine-year respite from sectarian violence. For an entire generation that didn't experience the decade of rioting culminating in the Bombay riots of 1993, Gujarat 2002 was a novelty. The temptation, consequently, was to view the post-Godhra carnage as both a breakdown and an expression of the new Hinduised politics.

Ashutosh Varshney's study of Hindu-Muslim relationships shies away from these pamphleteering conclusions. Making an important distinction between ethnic violence and ethnic conflict, he believes the "real issue is whether ethnic conflict is violent or waged in the institutionalised channels of the polity as non-violent mobilisation". According to him, there is nothing inevitable about communal violence flowing out of Hindu nationalist politics or even Muslim exclusivism. The outcome depends on the interplay between competitive politics and civil society.

With a rigour that has become the hallmark of political scientists in the US-and which is, unfortunately, not replicated in India-Varshney looks at three sets of broadly similar cities and asks why communal violence is endemic in one but not the other. Aligarh, for example, has a record of riots, but not Kozhikode, a city where the communal balance is roughly the same. He then compares Hyderabad and Lucknow and Ahmedabad and Surat to explore a similar divergence.

FAIR THINKER: Varshney makes a distinction between ethnic violence and ethnic conflict

The answers are revealing. Communal conflict, Varshney concludes, tends to degenerate into violence when inter-community associational links are weak. In Kozhikode and Surat, for example, Hindus and Muslims are strongly connected by business and this engagement serves as a "bulwark of peace". This despite a strong Muslim League presence in Kozhikode and BJP dominance in Surat. No such professional or social connection is evident in Ahmedabad and Aligarh where Muslims are ghettoised.

However, while Varshney's analysis of what holds the peace is revealing, he does not dwell at any length on the organisation of communal violence. Considering the BJP's rise in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Aligarh are relatively recent, an automatic link between Hindu nationalism and recurrent communal violence is difficult to establish. A Hindu political identity doesn't inevitably produce killers.

The transition from identity to violence, judging by Varshney's study, is brought about by hatred of the "other" born of social unfamiliarity. Unfortunately, the policy conclusion-a conscious de-ghettoisation of cities-may be too radical for squeamish do-gooders to stomach.

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