The Construction of Communalism in India

— Sara Abraham interviews Dipak Malik

IN THIS INTERVIEW, Against the Current spoke with veteran Communist (CPI) activist Dipak Malik, who teaches at Benares (Varanasi) Hindu University and is presently Director of the Gandhian Institute of Varanasi, about the anti-communal work in which he has been involved from his base in Varanasi, in the Hindu heartland of the country. Varanasi is also located in the state of Uttar Pradesh which, when governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), saw the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, making news around the world.

“Communalism” in India is a term that has now come to refer to the violent activities coordinated or supported by the fascist governing party, the BJP and its affiliate wings and groups, in its attempts to break the inter-religious peace of the Indian polity in order to create a “Hindu” vote bank.

A right-wing upper caste Hinduism is promoted by the BJP which is virulent, violent, masculinist, myopic, and based on mythology of the Indian past and future. In the past two decades the targets of the fascists have been Muslim figures, intellectuals, artists, mosques, as well as thousands of ordinary town-dwellers, with periodic attacks on Christians, in particular nuns, and Dalits [untouchables--ed.], as well as secular and intellectual opponents of communalism.

The success of the recruitment and vote consolidation strategies of the BJP has varied over time and over region, caste and language. There are a variety of explanations for its local success and failures: Penetration of media, economic linkages within towns between Muslims and Hindus, a history of prior communal unrest, alternative political traditions, etc. are some of the mediating factors.

At stake is not only the “unity” of people and the space for minorities to live and worship without fear, but the nature of politics waged, freedom for intellectual activity, independence of the judiciary and the media, as well as meaningful peace with Pakistan and Bangladesh, and self-determination for Kashmiris.

This interview was conducted June 20, 2003. --Sara Abraham for the editors of ATC

Against the Current: You have lived in Varanasi for the past fifty years. Tell us how the city has been affected by the communalist upsurge in North India.

Dipak Malik: I was born and brought up in Varanasi, where our family has lived for almost 200 years. There has been a big change in the communal scenario of Vanarasi. Varanasi was not previously a town of communal differentiation, or conflicts, for that matter.

There were two strong reasons for this. One was that the major trade in Varanasi is silk and saris. These are made by Muslim weavers and artisans, and traded by Hindu traders. So the city's economy required a social peace. That was the objective reality behind the long communal peace.

The second thing is that Varanasi is an equally big center in Uttar Pradesh, as Allahabad, of the freedom (Indian independence) movement. There was the Hindu Mahasabha there, but it was also a Congress Party base. After independence, it was a bastion of the left, and they had a big say in the city's life.

As a matter of fact the constituency which houses the temple of Lord Vishwanath, the sanctum sanctorum of Hinduism, is right in the middle of the left constituency.

The third thing that has affected Varanasi is the big cultural and Renaissance component. I differentiate between the two, as the first is broadly encompassing, while the second (i.e. Renaissance) was in the late 19th century. This affected the social life of the elite, who could not become communal.

This was basically a business elite, a little bureaucratic, Hindu upper caste, which went through its own experiences. A fairly big part of this elite was part of the Hindi-language movement during the colonial period, and it was anti-colonial.

One of the major figures of the late 19th century is Harishchandra. He is from the family of Jagat Seth who was persecuted by the East India Company. He started a newspaper, wrote plays--in one he ridiculed the regime as “a city of blindmen and a defunct king,” a satire on colonialism.

Many might say it was a satire of the Moghul period, but he was not anti-Muslim, compared to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (BCC) of Bengal, also a major Renaissance figure. It was perhaps a difference in their classes. Harishchandra was from the trader class, who cannot distinguish between consumers. BCC was in the bureaucratic class, he could afford to be communal.

Varanasi is also the birthplace of Saint Kabir, a working-class saint born in 1398. We had his 600th anniversary in 1998, continued it to 2000. Varanasi was Kabir's town; he had an influence over the people from the non-elite sections of the population or the lower-castes, small shops, artisans, craftsmen.

Apart from sari making this was a town of artisans--wooden toys, brasswork of different kinds, a great trading town. Most people in India know of it as a pilgrimage town, but more than that it was situated between Calcutta and the old Delhi. In the colonial period it was a major center, a vibrant town of early bankers, etc.

So whatever made a premodern town a big town, Varanasi had all those attributes<197>a production base, a trading sector, indigenous banking which was very much developed in Varanasi, and then over that it had a huge cultural renaissance component. In Hindi literature Kabir and the Bhakti period is emphasized, and then the Hindi renaissance.

Other important historical figures include Tulsidas, also a medieval saint-poet, who spent a major part of his life in Varanasi, and major portions of his Ram Charita Manas were written there.

The third person to be remembered is Raidas (or Ravidas for the Punjabi dalit population), a little younger than Kabir, an untouchable, a cobbler, who stayed on the outskirts of the town. They did not have an entry into the city. Ravidas was also a major signature in the medieval world system. Apart from becoming the first saint poet from the community of Dalits he could spread his words widely and even a saint-poetess like Mirabai is supposed to be his disciple.

The pride and self-identity of Varanasi comes from these things. These are historical memories, as opposed to the distorted memories as portrayed by the BJP who try and portray the town as Brahminical culture, with a rejection of Shudra, and the town as predominantly conservative Hindu and nothing else.

We, in contrast, remember that Kabir coined a new vocabulary. He said that he believes neither in Hinduism or Islam. He totally got away, and spoke out very independently.

His alliance with the oppressed population was keen. All the poems are woven around the culture of workers. In the most challenging voice he said, “I am a Varanasi weaver and you are a Brahman but I am telling you these things.”

Muslims really did not adopt him though he is of Muslim origin, though there are many stories of his birth. But because he was challenging everything in Islam, he was not picked up. He said, “Is Allah deaf that you have to cry five times in namaaz?” and for Hindus he said, “If you think by worshipping this stone you will get to heaven then I am ready to worship a whole mountain.”

He called all the maulvis and pundits [Hindu authorities--ed.] “weight-carrying donkeys.” We naturally use this as a resource against communalism.

ATC: How do you use these legends in the fight against communalism?

D.M.: One of the central figures that is the biggest resource in our fight is Kabir. He got some kind of exposure in North India, quite late, in this century.

It was Dwivedi, a great critic and historian of Hindi literature, who picked him up, from Shantiniketan, in the 1950s. Kabir was exposed to the middle class therefore only in the 20th century, though he had his constituency in the working class.

Dwivedi was a traditional pundit to start with but got admission in Shantiniketan, and there did his Ph.D under Kshity Mohn Sen, who is either father or grandfather of Amartya Sen, who in turn had been asked by Rabindranath Tagore to work on Kabir.

He is really the first person who introduced Kabir to the English-speaking intelligentsia. He was not well known in Bengali but Rabindranath Tagore collected poems from Bauls and other local traditions. Tagore published 100 poems of Kabir, written in English. That was perhaps the first publication which gave him middle class exposure.

Kabir was of course already known to the subaltern people who just took him as a prophet and sang his poems as Nirgunya. In Hinduism you sing in praise of Ram or Krishna, but people also sing Nirgunya, which means “attributeless god,” an abstraction.

Dwivedi became a Professor in Benares Hindu University in the late 1940s and he introduced Kabir in a big way to Varanasi, though there are lot of Dalit writers who may have disagreements with him. The Hindi literature world is dominated by Marxists, many of Dwivedi's students, even now.

Even D.D. Kosambi moved from being a mathematician to a Marxist historian after he came to Benares, and was influenced. They all started with the CPI, then they left. Kabir became a wedge between those who were progressive and those who were communal. That is one of our resources. We use him from all vantage points.

I am a trustee of the Kabir monastery at the moment. Organizationally, they are with us in the anti-communal fight. This institution challenged the VHP [Hindu extremist movement--ed.] right from 1989 onwards when the VHP started working in North India and Varanasi also. I helped bring them into the fight.

Right from the late 1980s I felt that the institutionalized left parties were losing their luster and appeal--I could feel that their language of pure secularism is not able to draw any followers, you are rejected by everybody. You have no space to work.

From that point of view I thought that Kabir would be the best medium. There were people interested in Kabir who did not know how to apply him in politics or social movements, and I helped in this. We use the entire Kabir tradition in the anti-communal movement. We say to the BJP, “You are not Indian, you belong to no Indian tradition, you do not know any Kabir, you are aping Fascists of Hitler era in Germany, your tradition is alien.”

And we are making a coalition against communalism--with other critical monastic orders, for one. There were not many women in the beginning. But there are a lot of NGOs in my town, some concerned with women, and they are joining these movements.

The communal outfits are attacking all NGOs, so they are compelled to join the struggle. The last meeting before I left for Canada was a meeting called by a woman's organization against communalism, in connection with a flareup in Gorakhpur, a neighboring division.

Gorakhpur did not have any communal history. But now this is being led by a monk from a secular order, the Nath tradition. Like Kabir they rejected idol worship, they consider yoga the central practice. They built a different tradition, but it has been expropriated by the BJP.

My position is that if we do not take these monastic orders into our struggle, the BJP will take them. The Marxists have left a whole space free for the BJP, and I said, why should we. That was a big important point. Rootless secularism was a problem, many of the CPI leadership were scholars and historians--but nothing was translated into praxis.

ATC: 1989 saw the first modern communal riots in Varanasi; were these riots organized by the BJP in preparation for the upcoming elections?

D.M.: No, I say it was a pilot project for communalizing the city. There are three towns sought by the BJP--Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi (or Varanasi). These are major Hindu icons--Ayodhya, birthplace of Ram; Mathura of Krishna; and Kashi, the home of Shiva. They have found out there are masjids [Muslim mosques--ed.] which they now claim are the birthplaces of these gods.

The difference between Ayodha and Varanasi is that Ayodhya is just a small religious town, with priests, devotees and dharmsalas. It is linked up with the major town Faizabad, about five or six kilometers away. It sells sweets that you offer Ram, a lot of dharmsalas where you can stay as you come to worship, in every house there is a priest. It is not a city.

It was very easy to conduct something in Ayodhya, you could push 20-30,000 from outside and disturb the whole town. In fifteen to twenty minutes you can cover the whole town by walk, and then you reach the Sarayu river. (Kaifi Azmi, father of Shabhana Azmi, had a beautiful line after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the mosque destroyed in the 1992 rioting. He said that when Ram put his foot in the Sarayu stream he found blood coming out.)

It was very easy for the BJP activists to take it over. Compared to that Varanasi is a big town, with two million people, with a strong nationalist and left history, all the cultural aspects I mentioned. It is not easy for them to penetrate.

In 1989 they started a pilot project of communalism. Out of the blue the activists killed six Muslims who were coming out of a cinema hall, just like that. There was tremendous outburst in the Muslim community--exactly six Hindus were killed about half a kilometer away. Both sides mobilized.

By night there was a curfew and then it continued for months. The Member of Parliament for Varanasi was Vice President of the VHP, and he was also former Director of Police. He held meetings of the police officers of Varanasi and instructed them as to what to do. He utilized the state machinery for the troubles.

The Chief Minister has since apologized. But the MP conducted the whole communal riots from Police Headquarters. Whenever the rioting showed a sign of slowing down it was provoked again.

What took it to a climax was the class dimension. If ordinary pedestrians are killed it is just a riot; but an elite member was then murdered, a doctor who was son-in-law of the great Urdu poet Nazir Benarasi, a nationalist.

It was charged that he was harboring Hindu women. Now he had asked the Hindu women who were in his dispensary to stay in while there was a riot in the area as it was in a Muslim area. So he was killed. And they refused to return the dead body, which went against all the religious practices. They just agreed to let him be buried but straight from the morgue.

All these things mattered. It continued for about two or three months. This is the way they tried to create a communal identity in Varanasi, and they were successful for some time.

ATC: Did they try and drive Muslims away from the city?

D.M.: No, the idea was to maim them. By killing one or two Muslims you can organize the Hindus. They were voting heterogeneously, they were an indifferent mass. The communalists wanted to convert them into zealots, bigots, committed Hindutva fighters.

That was the specific methodology of how to do it. The major instrument was riot, with a grand narrative behind the riot. They calculate how to do it, what the consequences will be. It is the most organized fascist party ever.

ATC: Did Varanasi change fundamentally?

D.M.: There was a change--Hindu-Muslim distrust. It was very obvious, Hindus become Hindus, Muslims become Muslims. A whispering campaign begins which continues for years. There were subsequent riots. From 1991 till now there were minor incidents. The best known to you might be the attack on the film set of Dipa Mehta's film, “Earth.”

Our coalition includes Dalits, students, Muslim, and Christian organizations including the Catholic Church. There is now the possibility of building bridges with women's organizations, including the women's wing of the ML, the youngest communist party. There are a number of organizations loosely federated.

But there is also caste politics, which contends with the BJP politically. Mulayam Singh Yadav, of the Yadava caste, has mobilized his people in alliance with the Muslims, and have organized a counterpolitics.

BJP is very unpopular, not because people have become non-communal but because of its governance. I tell people who vote communalism that “those who have spent all their time with a dagger in their hand searching for Muslims, how can they govern? They did not learn anything, so if you vote communalism you will get this consequence.”

Yadav has at least taken a position against communalism. But the BSP party, which is the Dalit party and the present governing party in Uttar Pradesh, is now in alliance with the BJP, because there is a personal enmity between the BSP Chief Minister and Mulayam Singh Yadav. If these two parties had united there would be no question of the BJP coming to power in Uttar Pradesh. But the BJP built a wedge between them.

In conclusion, having been placed in Varanasi we can see the overall game more clearly than in a large cosmopolitan city where the game is not being played. Ayodhya does not offer the same lessons. From that point of view Varanasi becomes a kind of window for the rest of the country, how the dividing line is created.

ATC 106, September-October 2003