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Communalism : A General Perspective
[Based on a Talk by] K.N.Panikkar

Q. What are the different dimensions of Communalism?
There are two dimensions of communalism. Communalism as a state of consciousness and communalism as an instrument of power. What do we mean by communalism as a state of consciousness? This has to be understood in terms of the manner in which communal awareness, a sense of being communal, is constructed in society, or, how people become aware of being communal. What are the elements which are easily available to people to construct this consciousness. What are the elements which are used in creating a sense of being communal? We will now address these questions. It is rightly said that being religious does not necessarily mean being communal. Believing in one's own religion does not mean that one is opposed to the members of other religions. Despite this, religion plays a role in creating a communal consciousness. In fact, religion is used in a decisive way in creating communal consciousness. Or, if I may re-state it, in several situations religious consciousness is transformed into communal consciousness.
We have examples of this in history. Take for example what happened in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in late 19th century. The Aligarh movement was a social reformist movement, which transformed itself into a communal movement at a later stage. Similarly, in Punjab, the Arya Samaj movement which was a religious reformist movement was transformed into a communal movement. We can take innumerable such examples. The point that I want to emphasise is that at certain junctures of history religious consciousness is transformed into communal consciousness. We can see this happening during the last few years. It is both a conscious effort as well as an unconscious transformation. The communal mobilization during the last ten years was based on efforts to transform the sense of being religious to a sense of being communal.

Let me take an example from one of the southern states, that is, Kerala. A housewife who is religious but not communal, during the course of the Ayodhya movement, identified herself with communal politics. Even though she is not political, she became a supporter of the BJP at that time. When I probed the reason, it appeared that she had unconsciously related the Ayodhya movement with her religious belief. She doesn't go to temples everyday, maybe once in a while, but reads a few pages of Ramayana every morning. This practice she related to the whole question of the Rama temple. Therefore, an interconnection was established between the two. This process to a large extent was unconscious and thus she became a supporter of a communal movement even though she herself is not communal. I think it is this propensity which has been exploited in the rapid communalisation that has taken place in Indian society. That is, a section of our society has been communally mobilised. I want to make a distinction between the communally mobilised and the communally convinced. The followers of Guru Golwalkar and Savarkar are communally convinced. But the large number of people whom the Hindutva movement was able to bring into their fold are not communally convinced. They are communally mobilised, internalising several of their arguments and propaganda.

Q. Why do the communal forces invoke religious symbols?

There is one religious undertaking that the communal forces are good at: invoking religious symbols. If we look at the communalisation of society during the past ten years, you will find that the Communal forces tried to continuously invoke religious symbols. Rama and Ayodhya became important religious symbols for mobilisation. Related to this several other symbols were invoked : Ram (shila) or Ram paduka and so on. The use of these symbols, by continuously appealing to religious sentiments has helped to create, over a period of time, a state of communal consciousness. When I say this, do not misunderstand me to be saying that there are no other elements which go into this state of consciousness. But the use of symbols has created an emotionally charged commitment and this has led to a state of communal consciousness.

Q. Who have been the targets of this consciousness creation? Who have really internalised this consciousness?
It is often said that the middle class is the base of the communal movement and communal consciousness in Indian society. This is true as far as the past is concerned. I think the middle class, if one may say so, an illegitimate Indian middle class, is culturally uncertain of itself and has been continuously going through a cultural crisis from the early part of the 19th century. They became much more culturally uncertain about themselves during the post-Independence period. With growing consumerism their crisis is bound to be deeper as globalisation and liberalization proceeds further. And then there would be much greater support for communalism in Indian society. Though `modern', they are the most obscurantist sections in our society. This section has undoubtedly been the base of the communal movement for a long time. But not any longer. The communal consciousness in now seeping into other strata of society also. After December 6, 1992, the communal forces have changed their method and their target. In fact, in the UP elections, they understood that it is not possible to get to power by mobilising the middle class alone or even mobilising other sections through the symbols which are to a large extent of the upper castes. Therefore, there were attempts to broad-base the support. The Hindutva movement if to be broad-based, has to incorporate the lower castes. Therefore, two new yatras were taken out, in the name of Kabir and Raidas.

Q. What is the goal of communalism?
Now, let us take the question of goals of communalism. Communalism is basically a part of a strategy to capture power. It is an effort to establish a Hindu state. But the communal political agenda is not purely an agenda for capturing power in an election. Here the concept of power is more fundamental. The communal forces aim to capture power through the establishment of social power, through capturing the minds of the people.

It is as much a cultural agenda as a political agenda because in this attempt to capture power, the deployment of culture, the manner in which they want to invoke and deploy culture, becomes the crucial element. That is the reason why the Hindu communal forces devote so much time, energy and importance to the creation of cultural institutions. Is there any other political force in India which can claim that they have got about 12,000 schools running in different parts of the country? About five years back it was only about 5000 to 6000. Today, the 10,000 mark has been crossed. Out of these 12,000 schools, about 100 students, let us say, come out every year. After ten years of education imagine the numbers of communally convinced people these school would produce! It is not only in schools the cultural activity of Hindu communal forces is going on. You think of any cultural area in India and they have got an organisation. Not one but several organisations. Whether it is music, or history, or archaeology, or environment they have got associations for everything. Not only do they intrude into existing organisations, they constantly create them, one after the other. Through these organisations culture is being reinterpreted.

The point that I'm trying to make is that the question of power, `access to the instrument of power, is not a simple view of power, is not just an electoral view of power. It is a view of power which is linked with history, culture and a notion of permanent capture of the state. And therefore it becomes important that the distinction between the existing political power that we have experienced from 1947, and this possible political power, which the Hindutva is seeking is understood very correctly. Is there any difference, for instance, between the existing parties which are all vying for power and the communal forces? I would say, yes. Take, for instance, the Congress party. This party was secular and continues to claim to be secular. Its a secular party which fought for Independence, though even during that time within the Congress party communal elements were present. Even after 1947, the Congress continued to profess, and to a large extent even practice, secular ideas.

But, as we know, after the 1970's, the Congress party indulged in communal politics in order to retain its vote bank, given the fact that the legacy of nationalism was lost, and its populist slogans did not work. In fact, the strategy of the ruling class is to invoke communalism. Just as the colonial power used the divisions within society, the ruling classes in India during this period used religious differences. Communalism or communal politics became a major aspect of ruling class politics in India. Yet, the Congress is not a communal party, Congress goal is not communal, its goal is not the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. But the goal of a communal party like the BJP is communal to establish a Hindu Rashtra. So, there is a distinction. The type of state the BJP would like to establish is a religious state. This is not the goal of other parties in India, however much they resort to communalism. This distinction is important and therefore the question of using communalism not only as an instrument of power but also as a goal is what distinguishes the BJP from other political parties.

Q. What are the dimensions and implications of communal activities?
Communal activities have severe implications as far as the intensification of communal consciousness is concerned.
Those engaged in fighting communalism today are to a large extent preoccupied with the immediate necessity of preventing riots or coping with post riot situations. Generally a distiction is made between communal politics and communal riots. It is said that communal riots which are episodic in character are the end product of communal politics. Riots take place at certain points of time because of an intensification of communal politics.

One implication of this proposition is that the focus of attention should be more on what happens before the riots. Riots are bad enough, they are to be prevented and activities undertaken for relief also. But it is the arena of communal politics where one should pay more attention to - the manner in which communal consciousness is created in society. I want to suggest that communal riots are extremely important in heightening communal consciousness. In fact, in many cases, a communal division is created by a riot in an area where no communal tension existed before, where even a communal consciousness did not exist. Therefore, a riot often becomes the beginning of communalisation.

The best example of this is the Rath Yatra of L.K. Advani. Throughout the route he chose, communal tension was created even before the Rath reached there. The entire route of the yatra became highly communalised. It is important to understand that riots are now used as an instrument for heightening communal consciousness, in creating division between communities. One should perhaps understand the role of riots from this point of view also.
If we proceed from that to the nature of the movements which try to create this consciousness, one can perhaps look at specific instances in Indian society, particularly during the last 10-15 years, and examine whether there is a pattern followed by communal forces in creating consciousness of this nature.

Apart from the arena of culture which I mentioned before, there are certain other specific undertakings. In most cases, these practical undertakings are in some way or the other related to religion, or an attempt is made to create a relationship with religion. For instance, two religious institutions are extensively used. One, the institution of bhajan mandalis, (devotional song group) two, renovation of temples. I don't think it has been documented but in recent years there has been a big increase in the number of bhajan mandalis. These look like innocuous institutions, but in these bhajan mandalis, the activity is not only limited to recitation of hymns and prayers. They are sites for communal propaganda as well. Similarly, the movement for renovation of temples to which people are drawn purely for religious reasons has helped the Communal cause. The renovation of temples is something to which all believers would subscribe. There is nothing wrong in these activities. But there is an element of coercion inbuilt into these efforts. The coercion expressed in two ways. One, in the name of religion, certain participation is imposed upon people. In case of the temple movement, the question of being a Hindu is invoked. They would ask the question: Would you like to see a Ram Mandir constructed in Ayodhya or not? Those who have nothing to do with the politics behind it were still forced to say, "yes, we are not opposed to the building of the temple". This does not necessarily mean that they are supporting the politics of hatred which is a part of this movement.
If you take the temple renovation movement, you will find in a particular locality, a Hindu is asked the question: Would you like to see this temple restored to its original glory? It is decaying. Most people would answer, yes. Even those Hindus who did not go to a temple. So, there is an element of concealed coercion in it.

The second stage of coercion is involving people in politics to which they do not subscribe. This is done by introducing politics into religious congregations like bhajans and other activities which are
religious in nature.

Added to this is the question of irrationality. The movement which aims at creating communal consciousness is mainly based on the irrational. The question of rationality is never raised, what is raised is the question of belief. The rational is excluded completely, only the irrational is underlined. Take, for instance, the campaign for Ayodhya. The history of Ayodhya is presented as a matter of faith. I had a very interesting experience. Once I was travelling from Delhi to Madras and sitting next to me was a swamiji. I asked him which math he belonged to. He said, Gorakhpur. I asked him: "Are you (Mahant) Advainathji?" He said,"Yes, I am". So we entered into a conversation. For about two hours he gave me a very convincing(!) discourse on the history of Ayodhya. Whenever I raised some questions he has ready answers. The point I am trying to highlight is that if anyone not well versed in history listened to what he said, whatever he said would sound absolutely logical. One would believe 100 per cent of what he said. There is no way that you can counter him. During the last five years they have successfully introduced in society a sense of irrationality, an attitude of looking at issues in society from an irrational point of view. For instance, in M.P., or Rajasthan or Himachal where the BJP has ruled, they never raised issues which are important to material life of the people. Instead, all the time they insisted on raising only issues of faith. In a place like Rajasthan when I asked the people in a village: Do you want a temple or a well? The answer was that they want a well. It is a place where the villagers have to walk 10 kms to get sweet water. They said they are not opposed to the idea of a temple, they do want a temple but given a choice their preference would be water first.

Q. What is the mechanism of creation of communal consciousness?
The agenda of creating a communal consciousness has been by making people participate in certain programmes which will in no way help them confront and address the real problems of their everyday life. Therefore, I think the question arises: How do we break this state of consciousness? To begin with we have to understand how the communal consciousness is being created. This would mean that various dimensions, whether history, culture, religion etc., elements which go into the making of this consciousness are to be understood and their relationship with this consciousness studied. That would be a preliminary task. Secondly, we also have to understand how this state of consciousness is used for creating centres of power in different strata of society? And, thirdly, different activities of communal forces like schools, journals, mohalla (area) committees, entering into various cultural activities undertaken and how they contribute to the making of communal consciousness are to be closely studied

Understanding their mode of functioning in local areas is very important. When we talk about these things, we generally take a national view. But how does it happen in each locality? What is its manifestation in each mohalla? That is important for creating strategies for a local intervention. The communal undertaking vary from one place to the other. There may not be a school in your area, but there maybe something else. And that something else has got to be located, identified because it is not always done in the name of RSS or BJP.

The basic point I am trying to make is that when we talk about the communal state of consciousness, it should be understood not only from an all-India perspective but also from a local perspective. It is important for your intervention. Let us take a locality where there is a school -- Vigyan Bharati or Shishu Mandir. In another locality, there may not be a school but a group which is trying to write the local history of that area. Or in another place there may be only a bhajan mandali. Elsewhere it could be a committee for renovation of a local temple. Now, each one of them is ultimately trying to create communal consciousness in that locality. We have to understand what is the exact local manifestation of communalism. Q. How can the communal consciousness be changed? This requires some elaboration. When I talk about all this, there is a possible impression, that we are responding to or reacting to what the communal forces are doing. We are trying to understand this state of consciousness and we are moving towards finding a solution. I think in the given circumstances in India today it is important. Though I would say after the demolition and particularly during the last two years a space has been opened up for secular action which was increasingly reduced in early '90s. With the heightened communal onslaught, the space that was available to people for secular activity was decreasing, particularly because liberal opinion in India and liberals who were supporting secular ideas and secular movements were slowly withdrawing. It is unfortunate but I think it is understandable. Particularly in 1991-'92, this had taken place. But after the Ayodhya destruction, the liberal opinion is coming back again, liberal support is coming back again. Generally speaking the space has opened up once again for anti-communal activity. But, still, despite this availability of space after December, 1992, we are thinking only in terms of reacting to communal consciousness. That is one of the reasons why during the last two years, you will notice that all over, there is a lull in secular activity. This is because people feel that to a large extent the threat of communalism has been contained. In fact, many believe that they have been defeated. This of course is not true. They have not been defeated, they are re-grouping, they are finding ways to strengthen themselves. It is an appropriate time to change from a reactive to a proactive role. That means the secular agenda has to change. And that change of agenda consists of exploring the possibilities of creating secular consciousness in society. We have to think positively, creatively, about activities at local levels. How do we create secular institutions at local level, institutions which will undertake cultural, political, intellectual activity, which would lead to a different state of consciousness? That is the question to which we should seek answers.

Q. What will be the perspective for secular interventions?
So far we have tried to understand the broad outlines of communal activity, the character of communalism, the nature of its undertaking and the manner in which history is being invoked for communal purposes. In-built into that is the idea that communalism is using different aspects of our existence and slowly making inroads into our daily life. With that background, we will now go further to understand and articulate our ideas for action. To begin with, I'd like to return to the two categories that I had used earlier: the communally convinced and communally mobilised. I have mentioned that I am using these categories in order to think about our action plan. To these two categories, I want to add two more: non-communal and secular sections of society. This categorisation is simply for the sake of convenien ce and it does not really mean that there are no penetration of ideas of communalism even in secular sections of society or vice versa. When we adopt this categorisation, you would realise that the focus of our attention, our activity would necessarily be the communally mobilised and the non-communal sections. The reason is that communally mobilised is a group in society which has been considerably affected through the propaganda of communal forces. The non-communal group is the one that would be targeted by them. Therefore, when we undertake any activity, non-communal sections would obviously be a priority, in the sense that we can consolidate our position with them. It is a group easily available to us because they are not yet swayed by communalism. But an important, and at the same time more difficult group would be the communally mobilised because they have already been influenced by communal forces.

When we talk about the communal situation, one question often raised is about the effort of communal forces to homogenise the Hindus into a single community. It is true that a religious community formation is taking place, such a construction is one of the major efforts of communalists. This is not only induced by communal forces and their propaganda but there are several objective factors which help this process. Historically, if you look at certain processes in the 19th century, they have helped the formation of religious communities.
As a result of this community formation, certain linkages are established in the community on the basis of religious belonging. As I said previously, in situations of crisis or of manipulation, the religious identity can be transformed into communal consciousness. It can happen in many ways. How it actually happens is very difficult to say as to at what point of time, because of what reasons, because of what realisations, a person undergoes this transformation. All the same a community based on religious solidarity is being formed.

Q. How do we understand community identity?
Since every individual has multiple identities, it is possible to think of an alternative to a community based on a single identity. A man has different activities in society. We have different areas of existence in our daily life. At one point of time, one is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc., that is our religious identity. At the same time we also have an identity as a worker, as a white-collar employee, as an artisan, as a social worker, etc. Each one of these are different. Somebody may know you within a religious community as a Hindu or a Muslim, but when you are in an office your identity may be that of a superintendent or a clerk and so on. Now, what happens to these identities? In the past we used to have guilds of artisans, and this used to be a very well-knit group in different cities. Nothing could happen in a locality in the past without the permission of this guild. So, the guild was a community. To a large extent there are possibilities of different communities within society and these communities, when made operational, that is when people become conscious of being members of that community, the religious identity would be supplanted by other forms of identity. This would mean that as a worker, as an office person, you have an identity of being that in the company of people who profess other religion. But an individual has to be conscious of that identity. What is difficult in our situation is that these other identities, other communities are not strong enough. They are not active. Even when there are associations, what happens? For example, trade unions? It is noticed that in Bombay, trade union members work as union members during the day time, but in the evenings they become totally communal groups, they could be Hindus, Muslims, whatever, giving up the entire consciousness of their other identity. I think this is something that needs to be investigated.

One of the reasons which appears important is that all such communities are pure and simple associations in which people have no emotional involvement. People have only involvement for trade union purposes, for purposes of their work, but there isn't any emotional involvement. Is it possible that these associations could develop into communities and as counter to the identity of religious community that is becoming stronger and stronger? That is a question I would like you all to ponder over as a possible alternative. To move on, I want to draw your attention to a sequence from the film Tamas that many of you may have seen. This is a film based on a novel written by Bhisham Sahani. It will be wrong to call it a novel, it is almost lived experience in the India of 1947. In this film, there is a scene where a Hindu family in the midst of the charged communal situation wants to go away from the town to a place of safety. Their trusted friend, a Muslim, says, "I will take you". They were taken to a safe place. Once he had taken them there, the lady of the family remembers that she had left some jewelry behind. The friend says, "I will go and get it for you". He goes to the house where they had left the servant, a handicapped person, behind. The friend goes to the attic where the jewelry box is kept and from there he looks outside and sees dead bodies. And then you see a sudden transformation: a secular man, very friendly with Hindus, prepared to risk his life for their safety, suddenly changes. He turns around and kicks the handicapped boy. The boy topples down the stairs and dies in the process. Now this is a very important point about the sense of belonging to a religious community in which a non-communal person is transformed into a position of hatred. And he gives expression to this anger and hatred by kicking a handicapped boy. This transformation is at the heart of how a non-communal person turns communal.

Q. How do communalists use tradition?
I think the majority communalism as well as minority communalism brings up the question of our tradition: What is our tradition? What communalism does is to selectively adopt a part of our tradition. Hindu communalism selects tradition from its ancient past. And Muslim communalism forgets about that past and locates its tradition only from medieval times. So, in both you find a selective appropriation of tradition. This would mean that what we are heir to, what we have inherited from the past, we are forgetting some and only adopting some. Now, in all societies adoption of tradition is always selective. In no living society, the entire tradition is remembered and adopted by that society. The question is on what basis do you select? The communal selection is based on the criteria of religion. There has got to be a different criterion for this selection. That is, in place of a religion-based selection, we have to bring in a critical approach to tradition. What is this critical approach? Do I mean that religion based tradition is to be denounced, is that something which should be forgotten? Not at all. I'll give you one example of a mistake we have been prone to for quite sometime. This became a point of discussion specially when the much-maligned Doordarshan telecast of our epics Ramayana and Mahabharat. Some historians issued a statement condemning it. But the point is that epics like Ramayana and Mahabharat are an important part of Indian tradition. I need not perhaps tell you that the original version of Ramayana is qualitatively different from the television version. Ramayana is an expression of knowledge, political, religious and philosophical, of that time. As some historians have argued it was not originally a religious text. Increasingly it came to have a religious character, even if the idiom was religious. It is because that was the only idiom then available for expression. I wonder how many of you have read the Sermon on the Mount. I have read it at least 50 or 60 times and the feeling it arouses in me is not religious but feeling related to universal values. Just as in case of the Gita. I think there is this important dimension to these epics -- they contain the traditional wisdom of our society. These are now sought to be selectively appropriated by Hindu communalism. I think that though we should have a critical approach, we should accept them as important in our intellectual and cultural life.

Then only space that is left to them entirely as the champions of Indian tradition can be reclaimed by us. What I am trying to suggest is that we have to think about this question of tradition much more creatively and critically. If I may borrow a term historian D.D.Kosambi has used in another context, "critical introspection" for this effort. I think a critical introspection of our tradition is absolutely necessary. I am suggesting this not because of the analytical importance of it but from a practical point of view. One of the reasons why secular activists are not able to inject an emotional content into their activities, one of the reasons why secular activists are not able to relate themselves to the mass of people is because of the inability to invoke such elements from our tradition and culture which is very much a part of peoples' lives. Whether it is religion that we discussed earlier, or the questions of culture, the ability to invoke them and at the same time being critical is important. If you are only critical you cannot get an entry into the people's consciousness. Once you invoke and then be critical, it would be possible that you establish a dialogue. If you are not able to establish a dialogue, the whole game is over. So, it is from that point of view that it is necessary for us to talk of tradition and what is happening to tradition by its selective appropriation by communal forces.

Q. What can be the role of cultural expressions in secular movements? We should also devote some attention to the area of culture. What the communal forces are doing to our culture? What is their attitude towards it? They are very conscious of the fact that this field is wide open to them because the westernised intelligentsia are incapable of relating themselves to it. And they have moved in to appropriate it and to make Indian culture a homogenised entity. This homogenisation of culture is not something that the RSS or the BJP has suddenly discovered. It is very much part of our history in a fashion that we adopted rationality and modernisation-the twin ideals of the Indian middle classes during the 20th century- for social progress. One of the important points of the cultural agenda of Indian nationalism under Mahatma Gandhi was temple entry. Secondly, the eradication of obscurantist practices of worship by the lower castes was another part of it.

Why should the lower castes be taken to the temples of the upper caste Brahmins? It is important for removing inequality within Hindu religion. But doesn't this preach, doesn't this assume, a greater importance to the form of worship of the Brahmin? The lower castes did have their own form of worship and there is no reason to believe that it is less important or inferior than the Brahmin form of worship. The form of worship of the Brahmin is given greater importance only because they have scriptural recitations. Many of the lower caste reformers never asked for temple entry. I am sure Jyotiba Phule did not, I am sure Narayana Guruswamy did not. In fact, he himself established many temples without idols. But the worship practices were sought to be homogenised by the national movement. Some of the most vigorous, active, popular cultural expressions in these temples of the lower castes were homogenised in a fashion that they do not find expression now.

The important question today is: What is the reality of cultural practices? What is our cultural situation? Our situation is that of a completely variegated culture which is so variegated that from one locality to another, one town to another, from one section of Muslims to another section, there exist a wide variety of cultural practices. This is to a large extent not being focussed upon. The emphasis is on Hindu national culture. There isn't anything like national culture. There are national cultures. But a national culture is being constructed and imposed. This is something we have not explored. How do we enter this arena? I think most secular activists are conscious of it but we have not yet found a way to operationalise it in a fashion that it becomes a movement.

Q. What should be our plan of action?
When we talk of a plan of action, think of an alternative. It is very important to understand theoretically and in practical terms and think about ways which are available to oppose homogenisation, the idea of a national culture and instead to emphasise the vitality, creativity and variety of cultures in India.

The last point as mentioned earlier the communal forces are seriously engaged in building a large number of institution. They have then brought different areas of activity
under their influence and have brief infrastructure to support these activities. They function as feeders. Each one of these institutions has a set goal. They, in fact, form the base of the communal forces. We too have to build institutions. When I say institution-building, you might ask am I not being utopian! How can we build institutions? We have to start institutions in the smallest possible way. We can begin by making each one of us an institution. After that, slowly we can get support. And thus creates small secular communities at the local level - small communities engaged in local problems of the people.

Based on a talk by Prof.K.N.Panikkar at the Workshop organised by Vikas Adhyayan Kendra at Khandala

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .