Think communalism, talk Narendra Modi. For the 'secular' media, while the Gujarat Chief Minister is the ultimate embodiment of all that is evil, thanks to the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the state, the role of Congress governments where riots are a frequent happening, have surprisingly gone unnoticed. A shining example of this paradox: a three-month-long communal outbreak currently in the works in Assam, has gone virtually unnoticed after the initial light and sound.
Go back a little further and see Maharashtra, the state of riots, terror attacks and jehadi indoctrination and you will notice a distinct Congress flavour – all quite subtle of course.
The communal question, never too far below the surface in Maharashtra, revisited Dhule on January 6 this year. The ostensible reason for the rioting was an unpaid restaurant bill but as later inquires have revealed, the flimsy issue was stoked by policemen who also indulged in rampant vandalism which has been well captured on video clips.
Six police personnel were held in incidents of looting and violence: The toll: 6 dead, 42 injured, and legs of two had to be amputated bringing back memories of 2008 riots in which 11 people were shot dead.
But what catapulted Maharashtra into global limelight were the Mumbai riots which began in the immediate aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition on December 2, 1992. The Sri Krishna Commission report, which probed the incidents, said the first was mainly a minority backlash as a result of the demolition in the week which followed. The second phase was a Hindu backlash, which came after the killings of Hindu Mathadi Kamgar worker by minority fanatics in south Bombay’s Dongri area, stabbing of Hindus in Muslim-majority colonies and the burning of six Hindus, including a physically handicapped girl in Radhabai Chawl.
How much has the communal scenario changed in Maharashtra after 1992-93? Justice B. N. Srikrishna who headed the famous Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry constituted by the Government of Maharashtra, told TSI that things have changed but not much. "While I would not say that the issue of communal divide in Maharashtra has completely died down, I would say it has improved greatly as compared to 1992-1993. It is like a scar tissue over wound – does not bother you normally, but scratch it deep and it may bleed,’’ he adds for good measure.
According to Justice Srikrishna, there should be a concerted effort to remove this communal divide. “What is needed is building bridges across the hearts of people. Stressing that we are Indians first and all else later, better understanding of each other and the resolve to solve dissensions and disputes without resort to violence,’’ sums up Justice Srikrishna.
He should know. For five years until 1998, the justice examined victims, witnesses and alleged perpetrators of the riots. The Commission was disbanded by the Shiv Sena-led government in January 1996 and on public opposition, reconstituted on May 28, 1996 with a major change in its terms of reference: it would also probe the Mumbai bomb blasts that followed in March 1993.
How serious is the Maharashtra government in bridging this communal gap? Noted journalist Meena Menon, author of a book “Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation”, who painstakingly captured the horrors of those days, says, "I would prefer to look at this question in terms which are less black and white. Because intrinsically communities have lived together and continue to live together in a city like Mumbai. What one has to examine is why are there an increasing number of ghettos dominated by a single community and why there is so much insecurity that communities, both Hindus or Muslims, are flocking to live with their own members. To a large extent, it is driven by fear, violence and past experiences. Before the Bhiwandi riots, which also took its toll on Mumbai in 1984, and again the post-Babri Masjid violence, both communities enjoyed a certain degree of trust but that was shattered after these two major happenings.''
According to her, "the role of political parties in furthering this sense of insecurity and fear using violence cannot be underestimated. That's the major issue which is not being addressed. The role of Right Wing parties, actions of extreme elements in both communities and the lack of accountability for their deeds or words. Hate speech is a crime that often goes unpunished but plays a majorly divisive role.’’
But the good thing is that there is consensus on not politicising religion. Says Sayyed Bhai, founder of the Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal in Pune, a reformist organisation dedicated to communal harmony, "politicisation of religion is the biggest cause of communal divide. This is fountainhead of all communal problems”. Sayyed, who has been working for women’s rights and reform in Muslim society, is a much-decorated man. As initiator of the Muslim reformist movement after his sister was summarily divorced by her husband 50 years ago, he was an active campaigner for equal women rights during the Shah Banu case back in the 1980s. He went headlong to support Shah Banu, the Muslim woman and mother of five from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, who was divorced by her husband in 1978 and was subsequently denied alimony.
This case caused the Rajiv Gandhi government, with its absolute majority, to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 which diluted the secular judgment of the Supreme Court and, in reality, denied even utterly destitute Muslim divorcées the right to alimony from their former husbands. "I bluntly told Rajiv Gandhi that he was doing great injustice to Muslim women," he recalls.
Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), a political outfit that seeks the unity of Dalits and backward castes in Maharashtra, says that in addition to a communal divide, there is also a casteist estrangement. "The Maratha community in Maharashtra is the biggest proponent of casteism. This factor is so strong that it will not vote for any person who does not belong to the Maratha community,’’ asserts Ambedkar, a man who is prone to making statements that capture headlines.
As far as communalism is concerned, Ambedkar tars both the Congress and the BJP with the same brush. "They are both interested in feathering their own political nests by ensuring that the communal and casteist divide is never bridged. Such a divide serves their vote-bank politics best”, he adds.
Journalist Meena Menon too believes the Maharashtra government is not serious. "If they were, they would have implemented the recommendations of the D. P. Madon Commission into the communal riots in Jalgaon and other places in 1970 and later the Justice Srikrishna Commission which probed the 1992-1993 violence.
The state government did not give permission to prosecute late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and also dragged its feet over the cases of senior police officers indicted by the Srikrishna Commission for their adverse role in the riots,” she points out.
According to her, "only one Sena leader, the late Madhukar Sarpotdar, was convicted of hate speech many years later. In Dhule had it not been for the video clips showing policemen indulging in violence, none of them would be suspended. The ruling Congress has for decades cultivated the Sena which also supports it when needed, for instance in two Presidential elections. There is a quid pro quo and in the end, the Congress pays mere lip service to its secular principles."
Are there solutions? "There are no instant solutions. Communal ideologies have to be fought politically, not just in the courts and streets. But for that you need political will," says Menon. Well so far, there is no evidence of it.