The Pitfalls of Pluralism
Talibanization and Saffronization in India
by N. J. Demerath III
From Religion, Vol. 25 (4) - Winter 2004
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N. J. Demerath III is Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Gujarat is India’s westernmost state, and the home of the subcontinent’s two great leaders in the movement for independence from British imperialism: India’s Mohandas Gandhi and Pakistan’s Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But the last two years have been anything but kind. In January 2001, the state was devastated by a massive earthquake that took some 40,000 lives. A little more than a year later, Gujarat was the site of a different kind of disaster. On February 27, 2002, a train car filled with politically active Hindu devotees returning from the Ram temple in Ayodyah was set on fire by Muslim extremists, and 58 people burned to death. Hindu extremists responded violently. Over the next week, anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat’s capital of Ahmedabad and other cities took 700 lives by official counts and more than 2,000 by unofficial estimates.

The figures are eerily similar to those of earlier riots in Gujarat in 1969. But more shocking than the number of deaths was the nature of the killings. The brutality seemed to mock all civilized norms as rioters attacked women and children and mutilated the dead. Even more shocking, the events occurred as the police and military stood by and watched under orders from the state’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. Modi is a member of the right-wing “Hindutva” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is now in power at the head of a somewhat precarious parliamentary coalition. Rather than disciplining or reprimanding Modi, the BJP leadership in New Delhi implicitly supported him by featuring him as a campaigner in upcoming elections around the country.

Sociologists often find themselves analytically unraveling civilizations. But India seems to be a civilization that is coming apart in reality. What are some of the factors behind these disturbing developments? It is important to consider four overriding themes: the fallacy of a truly united India, the victimization of Muslims within Indian society, the problems of identity faced by many Hindus, particularly among the middle classes, and the conflicts unfolding as religious politics develop into a religious state.

India as a Construct Deconstructing

To say that India is coming apart suggests that it was once a seamless whole—and uniformly Hindu at that. But this notion is more revisionist myth than reality. Any unity that India experienced prior to its independence in 1947 was due at least as much to Buddhist emperors, Muslim moghuls, and the Christian British Raj, as to Hindus themselves. Hinduism’s co-existence with Islam is longstanding. However, while the early Muslims came from the west, most later Muslims, as well as Christians and Buddhists, have been converts from the ranks of the “untouchables.” “Dalit” is now the politically correct term for this group, and in deference to the change, the Indian press now often refers to “ex-untouchables,” a term that conveys unwarranted implications of mobility to an untutored outsider. There have long been many Indias representing diverse cultural constructions and diverse points of view. This is also true of other states, including the United States, where negative “diversity” has been reconceptualized as positive “pluralism” with self-congratulatory smugness. Realistically, conflicted diversity falls far short of tolerant pluralism on the subcontinent. Immediately following India’s independence from Britain in 1947, the predominantly Hindu India officially separated from the Muslim West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). This produced one of the most grotesque episodes of the 20th century, when streams of Muslims heading north and Hindus heading south used the same roads and the same train stations, resulting in some 500,000 deaths due to collisions. The recurring Hindu-Muslim violence in cities such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Hyderabad, and Gujarat’s Ahmedabad, signals a refusal to put this history of altercations to rest.

In the intervening years, there have been three full-scale wars between India and Pakistan, and the continuing dispute over Jammu-Kashmir has left both sides perpetually poised against each other—with more than a million troops and both Hindu and Muslim nuclear bombs at the ready. Meanwhile, extremists on both sides exacerbate tensions, especially in India, the third largest Muslim society in the world with some 120 million believers. There is particularly tension in Gujarat, which shares a leaky border with Pakistan. Consequently, an attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi by a small group of Muslim extremists did not aid Hindu- Muslim relations across the rest of the country.

But in a globalized world, there are no more wars that can be easily classified into regional, local, or civil; the stakes are higher and more dangerous. After more than 50 years of continuing disputes and abortive negotiations over Kashmir, it is clear that India and Pakistan cannot resolve their differences. While Pakistani politicians are eager to negotiate because they can rely on Kashmir’s overwhelmingly Muslim population, this advantage makes their Indian counterparts quick to refuse negotiations. By now it seems that any realistic solution will require pressure from international powers.

Muslims as Victims

There are two common mistakes in estimating religion’s role in violence. The fi rst is underestimating it, as many of my secular colleagues in sociology are inclined to do. The second is overestimating it, as do my colleagues in religious circles. There is little question that religion is important, in part because many Hindus regard conversion out of the faith as a betrayal both of the faith and of the cosmos itself. But religion alone does not provide a sufficient explanation for violence; it generally requires other, more secular correlates. In this case, both Muslims and Hindus have grievances that go beyond their faith. While Muslims are seen as religious extremists elsewhere in the world, in India they have primarily been victims. Especially in areas like Gujarat, Muslims are not only of low caste, but also of low income. Many members of the Muslim elite moved to Pakistan just after the partition, and replacing them has been difficult in a country whose educational infrastructure is stunted.

Meanwhile, the Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950, extended a major concession to Muslims by allowing them to conduct their personal affairs involving such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance according to the shari’a (Islam law) rather than India’s new civil law. The traditional Hindu community was granted no corresponding religious privileges; if anything, it was constrained by secular reforms intended to soften its sharper edges, such as its treatment of “untouchables.” Right-wing Hindus have harbored simmering resentment ever since. By the mid-1980s, the then-ruling Congress Party found itself in a cycle of quid pro quo favors extended alternately to conservative Muslims and Hindus. This culminated in Ayodyah in 1992, when BJP extremists tore down the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque because it is built on the alleged birth site of the god Rama.

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