Communalism and Electoral Politics

Is it simple coincidence that we witness some kind of communal flare up before any state or Parliament election in India?


Notwithstanding the by & large peaceful conduct of polls in India, it does see some contours of communal violence before the onset of such large mandate seeking exercise. Those behind such polarizing machinations have a clear agenda in mind, that of whipping up communal strife on either side of the divide in order to eventually benefit at the hustings. Invariably with every election on the anvil, one hears of instances of desecration of a temple, Gurudwara or a mosque that divides the people right in the middle. While BJP policies are perceived to have deepened communal tensions in some BJP-governed states, and Hindu nationalist state leaders might view a Hindu-nationalist campaign as a signal to incite low-level violence to animate their supporters, there could be a counter to such provocations in Muslim dominated localities like Chandni Chowk or a Hauz Qazi in Delhi.

But such orchestrated campaigns not only cause a cleavage between communities who till now have lived in absolute peace & harmony, it is likely to further polarize the electorally crucial states of Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra and Bihar. Some of these states have been witness to several low-intensity episodes of communal violence over the last few years.

India is characterized by more ethnic and religious groups than most other countries of the world. Aside from the much noted 2000-odd castes, there are eight “major” religions, 16odd languages spoken in various dialects in 29 states and six union territories, and a substantial number of tribes and sects.Three ethnic or religious conflicts have stood out of late: these occurred in the states of “Assam, Punjab& Kashmir; another, the more widely known Hindu-Muslim conflict continues to persist. The Assam problem is primarily ethnic; the Punjab problem is based on both religious and regional conflicts, while the Hindu-Muslim problem is predominantly religious.

The spread of religious conflict to urban & rural areas seems to be directly connected with electoral arithmetic. Various parties of national importance begin to milk the most vulnerable aspect of their vote constituencies by inciting them over trivial matters concerning their belief & faith. In doing so successfully they very craftily bypass the more critical issues of governance, struggle for jobs, poverty alleviation, healthcare, education, rids & infrastructure. The issues of underdevelopment being fresh & raw in people’s minds tend to get some oxygen to flare up with any other dangling of perilous subject like religion.

Hence whipping up communal strife between two communities is the easiest route for political parties to gain heft in the draw to the elections. Recently we heard of an instance in old Delhi that is predominantly Muslim, where a temple was supposedly vandalized after one Hindu had allegedly blocked the others way by parking his vehicle. Even such a trivial issue can snowball into major controversy & political parties unabashedly side with one section or the other further fueling communal disharmony in the hope of consolidating their vote banks. Such a myopic way is avoidable.

Almost all political parties more notably BJP & AIMIM, Shiv Sena, Leftists, Akali Dal use such polarizing mobilization for their narrow political gains. It is unlikely that these links would have automatically led to political action without the mediation of political parties. While the Congress has also played such electoral games in the past as they did in Punjab during Bhindranwale’s rise, others including BJP are consistently at this game to garner majority support during the election time.

Of all the religious and ethnic issues in contemporary India, history has cast its deepest shadow on Hindu-Muslim relations. The most critical contemporary phase of this history was the partition of 1947. A Muslim sovereign state of Pakistan was born amidst ghastly communal violence but almost as many Muslims as there were in the new constituted Pakistan, for various reasons, stayed in India. The partition did not solve the Hindu-Muslim problems; it caused the situation of the Muslims in India to deteriorate. They were blamed for the division of the country, their leadership had left and their power was further weakened by the removal of all Muslim-majority areas except Kashmir. Most of all, the conflict between India and Pakistan kept the roots of the communal tension perpetually alive and pushed Muslims into the unfortunate situation of defending their loyalty to India. Even 72 years after independence, the problem has not been overcome; Hindi-Muslim riots have in fact increased in the last few years.

Discrimination exists at all levels in other parts of the country. Decline in the status of Urdu in north India, widespread use of Hindu mythologies and symbols in school textbooks and continuing controversy over the foremost educational institution of Muslims, the Aligarh University, have indeed done much to provoke Muslim fears. Evidence that the police and administrative machinery in recent riots have sided with violent Hindus has further deepened widespread feelings of discrimination.

The emerging character of electoral politics has made matters worse. Communal Hindu parties apart, even the ruling Congress Party, professedly secular, has, since independence, had a dualistic character. The secular strain in the Congress was represented by Nehru but the communal strain was also present in the form of Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, and was more pronounced at the provincial level. Nehru’s stature kept the communal strain in check, but in the seventies, the party machinery has been taken over by the new generation of leaders, whose power and mobilization is based less on secularism or socio-economic programs and more on exploiting caste and religious divisions at the local levels.

It is about time that politicians & political parties desisted from making political capital out of the divided communities. As lawmakers & people expected to uphold the basic tenets & allegiance to the constitution, all parliamentarians & legislators must rise above party & vote bank politics to uphold the best traditions of serving the people without any bias, free of favor & as duty to the constitution. While it is easier to resort to short –term shortsighted maneuverings that bring in immediate favour to one political party or the other at the cost of communal harmony, peace, mutual trust & respect, it is imperative that such tendencies are curbed & an atmosphere of harmony & happiness created amongst society at large.

A conscious attempt needs to be made to improve the educational attainment and economic level is easily demonstrated of Muslims whose socio-economic backwardness is easily felt. The Muslim elite could do much in this respect. Special educational privileges are constitutionally sanctioned but they ought to be worked on. The government, for its part, could allay the apprehensions of the Muslim community by better representing Muslims in the police and paramilitary forces. Partisan communal leaders and communal electoral mobilization, both within and outside the communal parties, but particularly within the ruling party, should be exposed. Aware leadership, political, social and intellectual has to work for this political reconstruction.