STATES WITHOUT COMMUNITIES; COMMUNITIES AS COMMUNALISM

By the later nineteenth century, after the great Mutiny of 1857, British policy was set to undermine the territorial basis of communities. This was accom- plished partly by converting erstwhile locality chieftains into dependent land- lords, breaking any that resisted the change; partly by atomizing previous territorial unities; partly by legal changes to individuate what had previously been group entitlements; and partly by favouring some groups and individuals over others. The scribal castes, especially the brahmans, flourished; Muslims, long held to be responsible for the Mutiny, suffered; most landlords benefited, while most tenants and landless labourers lost out.

Nevertheless, the idea of community as a local manifestation of some gen- eralized morality continued, and in time new ways were devised for advancing the interests of certain groups through communalism. Community historically and at present is something into which Indians consider  themselves  to  be born, socialized and ultimately bound to perpetuate. They are born in par- ticular places with languages, social and caste groupings, political and cultural attachments. Territoriality and temporality, or history, have been and remain  the critical dimensions of community. ‘Communalism’ is the means of mobi- lization, the symbols that stir people into action, often mass and violent action. There are well known examples of this, beginning with the formation of caste associations in response to the caste categories used in censuses by the British. The goals of these associations were to contest the rankings presumed by the colonizers and to challenge the denigration of lower-ranking castes by higher castes. Later in the nineteenth century, the ‘cow protection’ and ‘script reform’ movements – the latter being the demand for the replacement of Urdu, written in Persian script, by Hindi written in Devanagari – proved to be  effective means of mobilizing Hindus against Muslims, often to protest against one or another local irritant or to achieve some local advantage.

To these revival and reform movements were added the politically focusing incentive of separate electorates. The Morley–Minto council reform of 1909 altered the way in which the seats that were opened to local electorates in the 1860s were now to be filled; Muslims were granted the power to elect their co-religionists to a set number of seats. This modest concession to popular political participation was seen by officials as promising simply to divide

Hindus from Muslims, but the inevitable concomitant of mass elections of the sort that India has known since independence is the minting of evocative, mobilizing symbols and slogans, which have served to emphasize social divi- sions of many sorts. Social revivalism and separate electorates acted together to redefine community once again through a process in which ethnic, linguis- tic and religious elements were taken to be constitutive of bounded, legal/ administrative categories. This redefinition in the early twentieth century was to mark and mar Indian political life and to create the conditions – though not the necessity – for partition, a tragedy for Indian nationalism, but not the only one.

Nationalism intensified communalist activities in a number of ways. First came the manipulative reaction of the British to demands from educated Indians for participation in administrative roles and consultation in policy determination, as well as for government support of the Indian economy. The communal electorates of 1909 represented a shift in imperial policy from hostility to support for Muslims; henceforward, they, along with landlords, were to constitute a bulwark against Indian middle-class professional critics of the Raj.

But nationalists contributed yet more to communalist forms of organization and agitation. In 1925, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded as a cultural organization to make Hindu-ness (‘Hindutva’) the ideological core of Indian political life and nationalist strivings, and it succeeded over the decades in winning the support of many within the Congress movement, including some of its leaders. In addition to the appeal to primordial religious sentiment, the religious component in nationalist politics reflected the weak and confused alternative ideological bases of Indian nationalism. Other organ- izations sprang from the RSS, among them the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party. All were dedicated to the defeat of the secular programme of the National Congress.

During M. K. Gandhi’s stewardship over the Congress, a mass movement was created to carry the freedom struggle forward after the First World War. At its Nagpur session of 1920, a new type of ideological saliency emerged, which would establish the basis for other kinds of communalist foci to trouble Indian politics into an indefinite future. The reforms of the Indian National Congress constitution urged by Gandhi at the Nagpur Congress made lin- guistic regions, rather than the British provinces, the basis for Congress organization and mobilization. Making language the foundation for political action and constitutional viability opened the Congress, as intended by Gandhi, to participation and even eventual leadership by those who had been excluded by elite dominance up to that time. Not only was there a class shift from higher professional, western-educated, urban men to lower-middle-class members of the humbler professions, such as teachers, but it also opened the possibility for peasant and other lower-middle-caste groups to advance their prospects against those with better educations and professional credentials, who had long ruled the party. At the same time, the popular religiosity of the respectable castes, the urban and rural lower-middle class, gained a new prominence, which was the most general public discourse of the twentieth

century. Finally, the decision to eschew class demands within Congress pro- grammes, upon which Gandhi had insisted, meant that other forms of mobi-  lization took precedence – most persistently and dangerously, religious – while the demands for justice of India’s poor were consistently denied. Gandhi wanted only a unified mass movement capable of freeing India from British rule, one without internal divisions and one that he could charismatically control.

The failure to free Indians from bigotry, poverty and oppression, after all the high hopes, ideals and claims, can make a half century of freedom from foreign rule appear ignoble. Community rhetoric, whether in linguistic or subnationalist, caste or Hindu-ness terms, has only increasingly served the classes that were formed by capitalism under colonial subjugation.The reasons for the failure to destroy communalism can be found in the use that was made of the ‘community’ idea by the colonial regime and its nationalist opponents alike. ‘Community’ was divested of its historic political, social, economic and cultural attributes in the course of the twentieth century; it remains a decor- ticated monstrosity, a husk of meaning, open to manipulation by conflicting groups and classes, most especially the godmen/politicians of the Indian petty bourgeoisie. The Indian nationalist movement chose not to contest class oppression; hence the ideal of ‘community’, recast as ‘communalism’, has become merely a rhetorical shell, though a flourishing one.

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