Book Extract: Weaponising communal history

Eminent historian Romila Thapar explores the paradoxes of looking back in history in order to satisfy the politics of religious communities

A shop in Gokulpuri area of north-east Delhi ravaged during the 2020 communal riots. (Photo: Getty)
A shop in Gokulpuri area of north-east Delhi ravaged during the 2020 communal riots. (Photo: Getty)

Romila Thapar

The projection of the past in terms of communal history, namely that the history of India is to be seen as the glory of the ancient period when Hinduism was in the ascendant and its decline during the medieval period when that place was taken by Islam, continues to be the simplistic view of Hindu communal groups.

The variation is that Muslim communalists see the period of Islamic dominance as the period of glory and Sikh communalists perceive their relations with the Mughal state entirely in terms of the religious confrontation between Muslim and Sikh.

The appeal to history for legitimation by communal groups is in effect a red herring. The issue is not that of the historical correctness of the claim, for the claims being made are in fact political and relate to the society of today. But by reiterating a communal history, justification is sought for trying to undo the past by communal actions in the present.

A communal interpretation of the past, even where clearly untenable, is useful for whipping up hysteria in mobilising a community.

Book Extract: Weaponising communal history

Title: The Future in the Past; Author: Romila Thapar; Publisher: Aleph; Pages: 336 ; Price: Rs 999 (hardcover)

If, however, history is to be brought into the controversy, then communal interpretations of history have to come to terms with many facts which are now conveniently ignored. It has to be conceded that there has been intolerance and persecution of religious sects not just under Muslim rulers but also under Hindu rulers and by powerful Hindu groups even in pre-Islamic times.

The evidence of Shaivite persecution of Buddhists and Jains is conveniently ignored, even though it involved some killing of monks and the desecration of religious sites. The very notion of untouchability is an extreme form of intolerance and persecution. Will the Hindus of today first come to terms with their own intolerance and victimisation of the Other before rushing to set right the intolerance of others from the past?

The bulk of the conversions to Islam were not by force of arms but under the influence of various religious teachers. These conversions were frequently by jati where an entire professional group would convert. This raises questions about the nature of Hindu society and what might have encouraged conversions.

Relations between groups in society, even if identified by religious practice and belief, are never simplistically black or white. The evidence on such relations in the past and the analysis of this evidence by present-day historians suggests a very different interpretation from that which was current fifty years ago. But in spite of historians constantly reiterating this change, the old theories still hold in the popular mind.

The fostering of communalism in some cases requires the issuing of fatwas and hukumnamas. Alternatively, riots are made the excuse to damage if not destroy the religious sites of those one is rioting against and this ensures a continuing hostility and problems of rebuilding.

Frequently such sites or others which become the focus of dispute are in the centre of urban areas and therefore, as property, extremely valuable. The acquisition or control of such sites becomes an economic asset as well.

But communalism can also spread in a far more subtle manner in the gradual building up of hostile feelings against other communities which results in the expression of sub-conscious discrimination. It is strange that in spite of the large numbers of educated Muslims, few seem to reach the upper echelons of government. A creeping discrimination against Sikhs was noticeable after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

There is of course in addition the involvement of the Indian diaspora with communalism. The Vishva Hindu Parishad and other Hindu organisations with the same agenda receive extensive support, financial and otherwise, from Indians settled in the United States, Canada, and Britain, as indeed do Sikh communal organisations from equivalent bodies in these countries.

Centres of the VHP in Britain have received hefty monetary donations from official British agencies on the grounds that the VHP is a purely cultural organisation. Muslim communal organisations are said to receive support from the wealthy in West Asia as well.

Financial support is not, however, the only encouragement to such organisations. The question of identity is crucial to Indians in the diaspora, for in Europe and North America they are the minority groups in an alien culture. Yet they have to come to terms with this insecure situation and their solution is the attempt to assert their identity by recourse to mobilisation on the basis of a religious idiom.

Their minority character in foreign lands isolates them and they frequently seek unity in religious organisations, trying to combine a Western lifestyle with ‘traditional’ religion. Such groups become the role model for upwardly mobile middle-class Indians who, with economic improvement, are in any case able to maintain close contacts with segments of their families who have settled abroad.

The existence of the diaspora has implications for the growth of communalism in India and commitments are contracted. The obvious form this takes is comments from groups and organisations and even governments outside India. When Muslims outside India and governments of Islamic states condemn riots in India where Muslims are killed, this is objected to in India as outside interference.

As long as Indian society continues to define itself only in terms of religious communities, members of such communities living outside India will comment on the situation in India. And perhaps there will be more than comment.

For example, one of the ceremonies imitating the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a sammelan was held in London, and bricks intended for Ayodhya were worshipped by local citizens, both white and those of Indian origin. Such activities, particularly by the former, are seen not as interference but as welcome endorsement.

The Ram Janmabhoomi issue was something of a time bomb. Are there other similar time bombs still ticking which will explode in the years to come?

If the redressal of believed wrongs of the past become the right of religious communities, then temples located at the sites sacred to other religions will also have to be destroyed though, with the predominance of Hindu communalism, other religious communities might hesitate to make such a demand.

What, for instance, is to happen to the temple at the supposed Krishna Janmabhoomi, which is built at the site of Katra in Mathura and which, according to one authority, was the site of a Buddhist religious complex and could therefore be claimed by the Buddhists? There are a few other Hindu temples that were originally Buddhist chaityas. How far back in history will we have to go in order to satisfy the politics of religious communities?

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines