Opinion: Communalism is a colonial legacy

Venkat Parsa

Communalism, and the riots it entails, is not an ages-old problem in India, but only a recent phenomenon. Hindu-Muslim Unity survived for 12 Centuries and that, in itself, is indicative of the fact that there is no animosity between the adherents of the two religions.

Clearly, it is a Colonial legacy and is not a historical, or an inherited, problem. It is a recent and modern phenomenon, where communalists in both religions were encouraged to push for the pernicious Two-Nation Theory by the British rulers. This problem was non-existent in the pre-Colonial era.

Indeed, it is not so much a question of lack of social harmony, as it is a question of political ideology of communal polarization. It is aimed at rupturing Hindu-Muslim Unity for petty political and partisan ends.

Post-1857 Phenomenon

This was evidently, a post-1857 phenomenon. The Arya Samaj Movement of Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1875) and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, pioneering the Aligarh Movement around the same time, laid the foundation for such a communal mobilization. In sharp contrast to this is the truly Nationalist mobilization of the Jamia Movement under the stewardship of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Zakir Hussain.

Both the Muslim League, started in 1906, on the one hand, and the Hindu Mahasabha started in 1915 and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) started in 1925, on the other hand, relied solely on communal mobilization for political ends, sharpening the communal polarization.

This was the finding of the Six-Member AICC Inquiry Committee Report, which investigated into the communal riots that rocked Kanpur on March 24, 1931.

Basic Insights

This important Congres document provides three seminal or basic insights. One, communalism is injected through communal thinking. Riots are never to be seen as an isolated or unusual occurrence. It is the direct result, or manifestation, of a communal ideology. Once communal thinking pervades, riots can be caused almost at will by interested parties, wherever and whenever it suits them. The report goes on to suggest that temporary palliatives are of no avail. What is needed is a thorough examination of the problem and adoption of long-term measures to deal with the menace.

Two, the largely perverse view of Indian history promoted by Colonial writers was picked upon by both the Hindu and Muslim communalists, as it suited them. It became the basis for building up communal ideology, which was further widely propagated by them through a communal narrative, to suit their political agendas.

Three, religious differences exist, but these were not responsible for the growth and spread of Communalism. The British and the communalists, however, seized upon these differences to promote and propagate communal thinking, which is the springboard for Communalism.

The AICC Report states, “Surely, there is nothing in their religions, which makes it impossible for Hindus and Muslims to live peacefully as good-neighbours and fellow-citizens.”

As Allama Iqbal puts it, “Mazhab nahi sikhaata aapas mein bair rakhna, Hindi hain, hum-watan hain,
Hindustaan humara.

(Religion does not teach mutual recrimination and hate, We are Indians and India is ours).

There is an underlying fundamental Unity of Thought weaving together varying forms of Islam and Hinduism, or, for that matter, all the principal religions of the world. In Hinduism and Islam, the underlying Unity of Godhead was recognized by the Sants and the Sufis.

Tum Ram kaho, woh Rahim kahen
Donon ki gharaz Allah se hai

Tum Deen kaho, woh Dharam kahen
Mansha to usi ki raah se hai
Tum Ishq kaho, woh Prem kahen
Matlab to usi ki chaah se hai
Woh Yogi hon, Tum Saalik ho
Maqsud dil-i-agaah se hai
Kyon ladta hai, murakh bande!
Yeh teri khaamkhayali hai
Hai par ki jadh to ek
Har mazhab ek, ek daali hai

(Say Ram, or say Rahim,
both mean but God
Say Deen, or say Dharam,
both are Ways to reach Him
Ishq or Prem, both mean Love of Him
Yogi, or Saalik,
both Hearts in tune with Him
Why do you then fight like mindless brute
God is one Root,
All Religions are branches)

AICC Sets Up Panel

Towards the end of March, 1931, the Karachi Session of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) set up the Six-Member Inquiry Committee to probe the Kanpur Riots of March 24, 1931. With Bhagvan Das as Chairman and Pandit Sunder Lal as Secretary, the panel comprised of four other members, Purushottam Das Tandon, Manzar Ali Sokhta, Abdul Latif Bijnori and Zafar-ul-Mulk.

The AICC Panel submitted its report to Congress President Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in October, 1931. Patel took the political initiative to publicize findings if this Report, recognizing the larger import for the society and the polity.

At its meeting on December 31, 1931, the CWC, after considering it, resolved to publish the Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee Report. The CWC felt that the Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee Report is important and worthy of being read by the common people, as it deals with the genesis, rise and spread of Communalism, in the country, besides proposing a set of remedial measures. The British Government banned the report, causing delay in its publication; but, the Congress finally managed to publish it in 1933.

Deeper Malaise

Years later, Prof Bipin Chandra, as Chairman of National Book Trust, brought it out in Book-Form. Since Communalism still poses a major threat to Indian polity and people, surely this study continues to be relevant even in the present times.

On the one hand, the AICC Report unearthed how the perverse version of history was at the root of the malaise.

On the other hand, the AICC Report goes on to point to the evolution of the Ganga-Jamni Tehzeeb, or the Composite Indian Culture, which has been the sheet-anchor and the defining character of the Indian cultural and civilizational ethos, down through the ages. It is one of the most comprehensive reports ever drafted.

This important Congress document is a must-read, to understand what had gone into the poisoning of social relations that flourished for over 12 Centuries, between Hindus and Muslims.

The AICC Report says, “The Kanpur Riots were only a violent manifestation of a deep-seated disease, which had been growing actively for the last 10 or 12 years, out of germs fostered in the body politic of India, for some generations, at least.” A riot, at best, is an aggravated symptom of a deeper malaise and not a problem in itself.

To tackle the menace, the AICC Report sets out at length remedial measures. That makes it unique and a complete report in itself.

Secular Ideal

In India, Secularism is not a new, nor is it a concept borrowed from the West, where the emphasis was more on separating the Church from the State. It has come down from the times of Ashoka, through Mughal Emperor Akbar and in our times, of Mahatma Gandhi.

Rock Edit of Ashoka reads, “King Priyadarsi (Asoka), Dear to the Gods, honours all sects, the ascetics (hermits) or those who dwell at home, he honours them with charity and in other ways. But the King, Dear to the Gods, attributes less importance to this charity and these honours than to the vow of seeing the reign of virtues, which constitutes the essential part of them. For all these virtues there is a common source, modesty of speech. That is to say, One must not exalt one’s creed discrediting all others, nor must one degrade these others Without legitimate reasons. One must, on the contrary, render to other creeds the honour befitting them.”

This Rock Edict of Ashoka sums up the essence of Indian Secularism. Extending all respect to different religions, that is due to them, is the essence of the Secular Ideal, Sarva Dharma Sama Bhaav.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru described Mughal Emperor Akbar as the Father of Indian Nationalism.

It was Akbar, who recognized Hindu-Muslim Unity as the basis for the Indian Nationhood. Akbar made Jodha Bai the Empress of India and named Man Singh the Prime Minister. Akbar not only allowed Jodha Bai to retain her religion and stick to her religious practices and observances, but celebrated with equal zest and fervour both Jamashtami and Eid.

Mahatma Gandhi sought to rekindle that spirit of Hindu-Muslim Unity by extending the Congress support to the Khilafat Movement in 1920.

Political Unity Upto 1857

The AICC Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee Report points out how, till 1857, not just the social, but even political synthesis was not seriously disturbed. The initial uprising in 1857 was under the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, under whose nodal leadership, even the likes of Rani Lakshmi Bai, Nana Saheb Peshwa-II and Tatiya Tope, united.

Significantly, the Mughals, who established a powerful empire under Zahiruddin Mohammed Babur, also were responsible for a credible uprising in 1857 under Bahadur Shah Zafar.

The AICC Report says, “The universal surge of loyalty and devotion towards Bahadur Shah Zafar, the symbol of political unity, conclusively showed for the first time in History that India had become politically self-conscious and that the foundations of Indian nationality had been truly and deeply laid.”

It is against this backdrop that the AICC Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee Report proceeds to set out its thesis. It is the British, who sought to encash and capitalize on religious differences, in order of drive a communal wedge and encouraged communal elements in both religions to do the same, in order to undermine Hindu-Muslim Unity. Sanghatan and Tanzeem were started with sole purpose to undermine Hindu-Muslim Unity.

That was the time when, on the one hand, likes of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Swami Dayanand Saraswati appeared on the scene. A conscious attempt was made to play on the false pride of Muslims and Hindus. A sinister move was to deflect the latent hostility from the British and pit each community against the other.

This was also the time when forces of National Unity and Secularism also stepped on to the national social and political scene, signaling Renaissance of the Indian Spirit.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy made the greatest contribution to modernize Hinduism by bringing about religious and social reform, through the Brahmo Samaj Movement. On the political scene, the Congress made its appearance, determined to carry forward these social and political revolutions.

Birth of the Congress

Reviving and re-remphaizing Hindu-Muslim Unity became the mission of the Congress under Mahatma Gandhi, who achieved the near-impossible feat by extending the Congress support to the Khilafat Movement. It paved the way for the convergence of interests and transforming the Congress into a mass-based organization.

Sir Syed tried to steer the Muslims away from the Congress. But Gandhiji, by supporting Khilafat Movement, brought about transformational changes in Indian polity. The Mahatma converted the Congress, from a party of prayers and petitions, into a mass organization, giving utterance the Soul of India.

At a time when seeds of communal organizations were being sown, the Congress was born on December 28, 1885, which went on to provide a secular national platform. The first Congress Session saw only 72 delegates from 27 districts. But, then, it was not the numbers, but the idea, whose time had come, that counted.

Soul of India was looking for a platform for self-expression and self-assertion, when the Congress was formed. Under the Congress, India found her political unity and political voice. From then on, the days of the British Empire in India were numbered.

Partition Matrix

Partition of Bengal in 1905 was the first such a sinister move, aimed at testing the waters over their larger game plan to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims.

Although the Nationalist forces, under the stewardship of the Congress, succeeded in forcing the British to rescind its decision and Unify Bengal in 1911, the seeds were already down for the eventual Partition of India in 1947.

The formalization of outfits on both sides of the divide started, with the British egging on a section of Muslim leaders to launch the Muslim League in 1906. In 1911, Bengal Unification took place under pressure from Nationalist forces. Celebrating the Bengal Unification, Rabindranath Tagore composed and sang Jana Gana Mana at the Congress Session.

In 1911, Maulana Mohammed Ali started Comrade. On the other hand, Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad started Al-Hilal.

Similarly, British proddings led to the establishment of Hindu outfits, as well.

It may be recalled that the Hindu Mahasabha was started in 1915 and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was started in 1925.

The AICC Report beacons one and all to return to the basic principles of all religions. This is also the way to shed prejudices that hold back many of us from embracing the truth.

Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi.

Views expressed are personal