Defusing Ethno-Religious War

April 12, 2002

Comment: #444

Attached References:

[1] Human Rights Watch, Prevent Further Communal Violence in India, March 13, 2002

Sometimes it seems as if one phenomenon of globalization is a post-Cold War world that is drifting aimlessly into chaos—the unending war in Chechnya, the killings in Nepal, kidnapping in the Philippines, an escalating narco-war in Columbia, Algeria's murderous civil war, the collapse of Argentina's financial system, mob-based coup in Venezuela, piracy in the South China Sea, Basque separatist bombings in Spain, blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, a smoking Whahabbi volcano in Saudi Arabia, even crises in Fiji—not to mention the KLA in Kosovo and Macedonia, Saddam, Sharon, and Arafat, and, oh by the way, Osama what's-his-name.

But nothing has been more surprising to me—or disconcerting—than the explosion last February of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, India, the home state of Mohandas Gandhi, which left more than 600 people killed. Reference 1 below is a Human Rights Watch Report that summarizes this incident and contains links to related background information.

Before the outbreak of this violence, India seemed to be a stable secular democracy, notwithstanding its never-ending war in Kashmir. And the violence in Gujarat seems to have subsided quickly. It has certainly disappeared from our political consciousness, which is now fixated on the Palestinian War. Yet the intensity of the sudden eruption leaves a lingering fear that murderous religious forces lie just beneath the surface of India's politics.

Is India, a nation with the world's third largest Islamic population, an anti-Islamic nuclear-armed time bomb sitting next to a nuclear-armed Islamic time bomb (Pakistan)?

The attached op-ed by my good friend Professor Harold Gould, an anthropologist with the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia, takes India to task by analyzing the causes of the violence in Gujarat from a ethno-religious perspective, as well as from the communal hatreds that emerge from a reciprocal sense of victimhood. He identifies a secular pathway towards political moderation.

Perhaps it is a way of thinking about wars of religion in general—especially those involving access to water in Palestine [see Comment #425].

INDIA'S WAKE-UP CALL: Communal hatred is the South Asian equivalent of racism in the West

By Harold A Gould
India Abroad, April 5, 2002
[reprinted with permission]

Commenting on the communal violence that spread across Gujarat following the Godhra outrage of February 27th, I stated on the Lehrer News Hour (February 28th) that this horror has occurred at the worst possible moment for India. Just when India had come so far in establishing its identity "both in the international community and in the United States as a secular, democratic, socially harmonious society … by contrast with a theocratic, authoritarian dysfunctional Pakistan," the unthinkable occurred.

Communal hatred and provocation are, after all, alive and well on both sides of the border! The malady transcends national boundaries; it afflicts Hindus and Muslims alike; it is a disease that indeed permeates all of South Asia. It is the South Asian equivalent of Western racism.

Godhra and its aftermath must be seen as India's wake-up call; that it has as much work to do as does Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, to put its ethno-religious house in order.

Unquestionably the root cause of the violent impulses that lurk beneath the surface of both Hindu and Muslim societies is not the tenets per se of either religion. Both can readily cite passages and principles that enjoin tolerance and love for fellow human beings regardless of faith.

Unfortunately, however, both religions, as indeed all religions, can cite passages and principles that enjoin the opposite as well. The difference lies in which set of tenets are invoked at any given time by priests and politicians for what idealistic or crass material purposes. It is, in short, a matter of the uses to which religion is put; whether their votaries want to incite fellow believers to encompass or exclude those of another faith or ethnicity in their version of the moral community.

The communal blight in South Asia is the byproduct of more than a century of the manipulation of religious sensibilities for the basest political purposes. Chickens have come home to roost with vengeance.

In both India and Pakistan the fundamental delusion that afflicts communally-oriented politicians is that you can uncork the bottle of religious hatred just a little bit and then put the cork back after it has served its political purposes. However, once you unleash the whirlwind, as has been proved time and time again, you cannot stop it until it relentlessly runs its calamitous course.

Israeli and Palestinian fanatics, as well as the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, harbor the same delusions. Neither Sharon, nor Arafat, nor Mullah Umar, nor Osama-bin-laden are any longer in control of the destructive forces they have unleashed.

Whatever may have been their political faults, and nowadays there is no paucity of critics willing to point them out, both Gandhi and Nehru understood that there is no such thing as modulated bigotry. That's why they spared no effort to achieve the secular democratic state where civility and consensus rule, where religion has no legitimate place in the political arena, and where fanatics are confined to the margins of society where they belong.

Their concerns are vividly embodied in the image painted by the Mahatma's grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, in a beautifully written article he recently published in The Hindu daily. Referring to a news photo depicting the post-Godhra rioting, he declares, "the extremists are chillingly symbolised" by the spectacle "of a Gujarati youth in a maroon T-shirt with a raised crowbar, screaming mouth, clenched fist and blazing eyes, his whole being declaring the intent to destroy." Harish Mander, a serving IAS officer who witnessed the Gujarat holocaust exclaimed: "Where … amidst this savagery, injustice, and human suffering is ‘civil society'?"

That is the question that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the National Democratic Alliance (the government in power in India) must boldly confront. In the immediate aftermath, it is true that India's secular institutions have survived the trauma of Godhra pretty much intact. To this extent the contrast with Pakistan holds, for now. Unlike Pakistan, the army remains in its cantonments. In the press, in Parliament and even in the NDA itself, there is spirited discussion and criticism of what went wrong and what must be done to reverse the tide of extremism.

One cannot avoid pointing out, however, that at the very time when India has been afflicted with saffronized fundamentalist rage, General Musharraf has publicly disavowed Islamic extremism and banned terrorist organizations. Can India and Pakistan be moving in opposite directions?

Having said this, one cannot ignore the fact that the limited scope and duration of the inter-communal violence is a tribute to the viability of the Indian Constitution, which has been in place for more than fifty years. The secular institutions it spawned are still functioning in this crisis. But everyone knows that the running sore of ethno-religious enmity lurks just beneath the surface and threatens to erupt once again the moment a spark is provided. Continued attempts by the Sangh Parivar (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and affiliate organizations) to "denominationalize" India at the expense of the country's ethnic minorities could supply such a spark. So could a resurgence of Muslim fundamentalist counter-provocation, especially if enough is not done to mobilize the country's civil resources' in pursuit of inter-religious/inter-ethnic reconciliation.

Apart from legal and "law-and-order" measures, both the Hindu and Muslim communities must explore the deepest roots of their antipathies towards one another. Certainly rededication to the letter and spirit of secularism is desperately needed, as opposed to merely paying lip-service to these vital attributes of a genuinely democratic polity, as Vajpayee, L. K. Advani (India's Home Minister) and counterpart Muslim leaders have recently been accused of doing.

However, the larger question for the BJP and its parivar (family) is why the party and its entourage of supporting cultural organizations, which represent the majority community, pursue what Pratap Bhanu Mehta poignantly calls a "narrative of victimhood." (The Hindu, March 23rd.) It is this, says Paul Brass, that drives BJP leaders to show such "partiality to their own community and their disregard for the feelings of other communities." (Theft of an Idol, Princeton University Press).

Was it not, after all, the fear of demographic inundation catalyzed by Hindu militancy that drove Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Ali Jinnah in their turn to demand "separate constituencies" and finally a "separate state" for Muslims? Was it not Gandhi, after all, who grasped the implications of this victim's mentality and ultimately sacrificed his life trying to convince his fellow Hindus that their great religio-cultural tradition was morally and intellectually secure enough to safely share a secular social environment?

The tactical adjustments needed to keep the violence down and keep basic institutions intact are easily implementable as long as there is sufficient cognizance of the terrible alternatives, which Godhra amply demonstrated. They appear to be underway. The real challenge to the majority and minority communities lies within themselves. It lies in finding the wisdom and self-assurance to understand that great traditions do not require chauvinism and violence to validate themselves.

Vajpayee, Advani and other responsible, reflective leaders of the Sangh parivar and the Islamic community are the ones who must lead this collective introspection.

Success in this quest will alone enable India to sustain and amplify the contrast it so avidly desires to draw between itself and its neighbor to the west.

End of Gould's Op-Ed

On the other hand, like the wars of religion that ended with the Peace of Westphalia, exhaustion may be the only answer to a conflict of irrational passions.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Prevent Further Communal Violence in India
Human Rights Watch

(New York, March 13, 2002) - Human Rights Watch today called on the government of India to take all necessary and appropriate measures to prevent communal violence that may arise from a March 15 ceremony at a contested religious site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

It also urged India to bring to justice those responsible for the recent communal violence in Gujarat state, including police officers that failed to intervene to uphold the law.

Since February 27, more than 600 people have been killed in Gujarat, most of them Muslims. The violence began after a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra, apparently angered by the hooliganism of Hindu activists, torched a train on which the latter were riding; more than sixty passengers were killed.

The activists were returning from Ayodhya where a campaign led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to construct a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu militants in 1992 continues to raise the spectre of further violence. Riots in the city of Bombay in 1992 and 1993 following the destruction of the mosque claimed hundreds of lives.

"Those responsible for torching the train as well as those responsible for revenge attacks on Muslim communities must be brought to justice," said Smita Narula, senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "A criminal investigation should also be launched into possible complicity of officials in Gujarat in the killings, and for the delay in taking action to prevent Hindu retaliation."

Human Rights Watch praised Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well as the National Human Rights Commission for their quick condemnation of the killings, and called on the central and state governments to ensure that impunity for campaigns against minorities - past and present - is ended.

"The atrocities in Gujarat are a replay of events in Bombay in 1992 and 1993," Narula said. "Had the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission been implemented, we might have been able to avoid the carnage of the last two weeks."

The Srikrishna Commission, under the direction of former Supreme Court Justice B.N. Srikrishna, issued a report in 1998 on the Bombay riots, much of it aimed at improving the behavior of police in handling communal riots.

Human Rights Watch also expressed serious concern about the condition of makeshift camps in Ahmedabad, the state capital of Gujarat, where an estimated 35,000 people remain after fleeing the savage clashes. According to the findings of the Citizens' Initiative for Justice and Peace, a human rights coalition, local authorities are preventing riot victims from leaving the camps. The camps are desperately lacking the most basic necessities, including food and medical supplies. Sanitation in the camps is extremely poor.

Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to provide needed supplies, to improve basic conditions at the camps, and to take all necessary measures to ensure that local and international relief agencies are able to assist the riot victims.

Human Rights Watch noted that potential for further outbreaks of communal violence in Gujarat and elsewhere remains high, given the stated plans of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to hold a puja (a Hindu ceremony) in Ayodhya on March 15. The Supreme Court will make a final decision on whether the ceremony will be held in a less controversial site on Wednesday, March 13. The issue of whether or not a Hindu temple will be built on the site of the destroyed mosque remains bitterly contested.

For more information on communal violence in India, please see:

India's Minorities Are Targets of Government-Abetted Violence (HRW Commentary, March 20, 2000) at

India: Communal Violence and the Denial of Justice (HRW Report, April 1996) at 

Global Caste Discrimination (HRW Press Release, August 29, 2001) at 

Global and Strategic Issues