It is true that nations are imagined and re-imagined all the time. India is no exception to this universal rule of change; it has truly been transformed and re-invented since independence. If this reinvention has democratized a largely hierarchical and unequal society, it has also released horrific forces of ethnic and communal violence with such regularity that ethnic violence has also become part of what Ashutosh Varsheny calls “ravages of routine politics”.
It excites lunatic fringe, offers politicians and partisan officials to excuse to stir democratic politics, but it is here where democracy in India continues to remain vulnerable and suspect.
There was a time when many of us especially post-modernist theorists who revolved against primordial and instrumentalist theories of communal violence, believed that since we lived in “fuzzy communities”, we are insulated from violence and also guaranteed of peaceful life. Though constructivist theorists Eric Hobsbawm, Linda Colley and anthropologist duo of Jean and John Comaraoff cautioned that that ascriptive identities .
such as religious, race, caste etc. emerge through processes of construction and contestation which are simultaneously cultural and structural and are experienced differently by groups according to their position in the social division of labor, post-modernists blamed knowledge elite and ‘master narratives’ or ‘discourses’ for turning “trivial incidents’ fuelled by rumors and gossips into ethnic/communal violence. At best, instances of ethnic riots constituted rare exceptions to normal life.
At worst, they signified temporary periods of chaos and breakdown. Under the overpowering gaze of post-modernists, scholars, administrators and politicians found riots as instances of “abnormalities” or “acts of spontaneity” which would be solved by sending reinforcements of security forces, setting up relief camps, and announcement of inquiry commissions and distribution of ex-gratia payments to the kins of those died in the violence. And these measures would be enough to restore normal cycle of life.
Compare statements of Bodo leaders in Assam violence and statements of Sangh parivar in the communal carnage in Gujarat that the communal carnage in Gujarat in the early months of 2002 was a natural and an expected response to Godhara and that therefore, it was spontaneous. It is this notion of spontaneity and increasing similarity in cases of ethnic/communal violence that is puzzling and also dangerous. If we think of riots in this fashion and stereotype them as only “abnormalities”, or “spontaneity”, as if they have nothing to do with ethonicidal and genocidial politics of violence then we end up condoning perpetrators of violence.
It is in this light of falsity of communal violence as natural calamity, the sentencing of former minister in Narendera Modi’s cabinet Maya Kodnani in Narodoa Patia massacre is historic. Calling communal violence as the “cancer for our cherished constitutional values of secularism”, the Judge in the Naroda Patia massacre in 2002 in which 97 Muslims were killed in the wake of Godhara carnage, rejected the theory of spontaneous violence and attributed communal killings to a larger political conspiracy. Confronted with cases of deliberate acts of pogrom and massacres since demolition of Babri Masjid, the post-modernist thesis falls flat.
And this also throws light on how riots have increasingly acquired the status of annual ‘Durga Puja’ where ritual killing of demon exonerates us of the collective guilt. In the words of Stanley Tambiah ‘violent behavior can become routinized, even ritualized, and putative root causes can become illusory”. In this notion of ethnic riot, violence becomes faceless and also fecund. And it creates conditions for a genocidial politics reminiscent of ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda.
It is here I recall Ashis Nandy’s chilling and provocative analysis of Gujarat riots in 2002. In his characteristic style of shock and awe, he noted that “the most venomous, brutal killings and atrocities take place when the two communities involved are not distant strangers, but close to each other culturally and socially, and when their lives intersect at many points.
When nearness sours or explodes it releases strange, fearsome demons”. Ashis Nandy, however, missed the larger point that “nearness” explodes into violence only when it is exploited by rational politicians for power, privilege, and pelf in turbulent conditions of electoral politics.
It is no secret that Gujarat witnessed many cycles of communal violence in the past but it needed what the judgment in Naroda Patia massacre referred to “political conspiracy” of Narendra Modi government to inflict state-sponsored program on Muslims. Interethnic economic rivalry polarized party politics, segregated neighborhoods, and communal ideology often creative conducive conditions for riots.
In other words, riots are outcome of interests, ideology and agency. If you consider the regularity and impunity with which rioters exploit what Paul Brass calls “institutionalized structures of riots” and organize mayhem for ‘electoral incentives”, there is hardly any difference between Bodo violence and Gujarat riots. The hostility of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) against Muslims and other minorities is too well known. Bodoland Territorial Council chief, Hagraman Mahilary has often blamed so-called ‘foreign nationals’ for the conflict in the region.
Though Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) shares power with the Congress government, the ideology of prominent leaders of Bodo leadership is inspired by politics of Hindutva. It comes as no surprise that BTC was created after an agreement was inked between the Bodo leaders and then Deputy Prime Minister Shri L.K. Advani. And the BJP government at the Center handed Bodos control over territory where they constituted merely 20 to 29 percent of the population while the majority comprised indigenous Muslims, Adivasis, Koch-Rajbongshis and others. Further, the farce of allocating 30 seats out of 46 to Bodo Territorial Council (BTC). In other words, this perverse politics of Hindu Majoritarianism is at the center of Assam violence.
The all out attempts by Sangh Parivar organizations like ABVP, Rashtra Sevika Samiti, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Vedike etc,. to provide security to people from North East especially ‘Bodo Hindu refugees’ at various railways stations in the country have led to further deterioration of communal relations in the country. Sensing a golden opportunity to emerge as savior of Hindus including indigenous population, the Deputy chief Minister of Karnataka has embarked on so-called ‘goodwill mission’ aimed at wooing back North east people who had left Bangalore and other cities fearing for their safety after riots in Assam sparked rumors of counter-attacks. With a large network of RSS and like minded organizations, Sangh parivar fancies to tap into so-called “ancient animosity” and exploit the expanding arc of ethno-nationalism in the North East.
Using a spurious and dangerous thesis of ‘homeless refuge” in Bodoland, Tarun Vijay, one of the leading ideologues of Sangh Parivar, writes in Observer that “This is the time for the Hindu society to ponder over their decline and why the foreigners have gained so much of power to attack them in their own land. We have seen the destruction of Kashmir and the mass exile and ethnic cleansing of Hindus in the valley. Will that be repeated in Bodoland also and we, as a nation would remain a mute spectator to this anti national assault?” It is clear from Tarun Vijay’s statement that Sangh parivar is at the center of a larger political conspiracy to communalize the country.
Therefore, the so-called ‘illegal foreigners’ or “ outsiders” from Bodoland to chawals in Crawford market in Mumbai, are deprived of what philosopher Michael Walzer calls “second life”, a moral life whose reality depends upon recognition of their rights to pursue well being as co-equals by their fellow-citizens. This recognition of well being also means recognizing right to protest and dissent without which ”second life” is almost irrelevant. To conclude, communal violence is not about “illegal immigrants” or “foreign nationals or “ outsiders” but about accepting rights of “second life” of minorities in India. And passing Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (access to justice and reparations) Bill 2011 as drafted by NAC may be the first step towards realizing this. And this will be fully materialized by mass mobilization of progressive and secular forces against the illiberal ravages of routine liberal politics!
Author Ashwani Kumar is Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai)