Communalism back in the news, given the riots in western Uttar Pradesh over the past year and more recently in Trilokpuri in Delhi.   It may be useful to remember that we have been here before. Those who have bought into the Gujarat model, peddled so successfully in May Lok Sabha elections, may be surprised to note that not too long ago, Gujarat was a hotbed of the sort of communal violence that UP witnessed last year. Successive governments came to power in Gujarat, particularly from the mid-1980s to late 1990s, promising a “riot-free administration”.

Communalism can be defined as the exclusive identification with one’s community, especially one that produces an antagonism towards another group. In the Indian context, a number of scholars have noted that competition for political and economic resources contributes to this religious animosity and violence. An incident that results in tensions, say a dispute over land, need not be communal even if it involves different religious groups. However, if religious identity dominates, that incident should be considered communal.

Gujarat reveals certain patterns that may be recognisable in UP and Delhi, and could hold lessons for us all.

Communalism is political

Mass communal riots, as also low-intensity communal incidents, intensify in periods of political change. The Gujarat riots of 2002 occurred under the watch of a newly appointed chief minister when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fortunes were flagging. The ruling party had won 192 out of 717 seats in the district panchayat elections of 2000, compared to the Congress’ 513.

Similarly, in 1985, the Congress won 149 out of 182 legislative assembly seats, and 55.6% of the vote. No party has achieved this vote share in Gujarat since. Under Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki, the Congress had been able to forge a Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim electoral coalition, buoyed further by the announcement of 28% reservations for OBCs in government jobs and education.

The government, and KHAM coalition members, especially Dalits, OBCs and Muslims, faced the ire of caste Hindu sabhas, and affiliates of opposition parties in riots that lasted several months. Two hundred and twenty people were killed, and the police classified 662 incidents as casteist and 743 incidents as communal in Ahmedabad city alone. The 1985 anti-government, casteist and communal agitation ended with the resignation of the chief minister.

Caste antagonism today can turn communal tomorrow

The 1985 agitation straddled the assembly elections. Prior to the elections, casteist attitudes were dominant. These are visible in the following excerpt, produced by an association of upper caste government employees who had gone on strike to protest reservations:

Completely boycott Harijan[s] and Adivasi[s]…
Do not eat or drink with them;
Do not have any economic transactions with them, do not let your children play with theirs
                                                                — Pamphlet, reproduced in the Justice Dave Commission of Inquiry, Annexure VII: 21

The post-election period on the other hand typically sought to unite Hindus, including Dalits, in a coalition to counter KHAM. A pamphlet from the period is illustrative:

Awake! Hindus / Wage a Holy War
Awake, all Hindus. Start an economic and social boycott of the fanatical Muslims . . .
To quench their greed for destruction, this treacherous community has killed two of our Harijan brothers in Gomtipur, and another of our Harijan youth in Mirzapur.
Come Hindus, Harijans, Sikhs, Marathis, Punjabis, forget all your status and income differences, and unite. Let us unitedly face the attacks of these back-stabbing fanatics. Come let us pledge that “all Hindus are as one”
                                                               — Pamphlet, reproduced in Justice Dave Commission of Inquiry 1990, Annexure VII: 23

While student organisations dominated the events of the 1985 pre-election, opposition parties such as the BJP and Janata Dal played a more active role post-election. Soon after the declaration of results, various anti-reservation committees formally stated that they had nothing against the lower castes. It was only following these announcements that the nature of violence in cities such as Ahmedabad and Baroda turned largely communal, as was established in the Justice Dave Commission of Inquiry of 1990.

Political organisations with a communal agenda earn their stripes during tempestuous periods

From 1985, organisations that claimed to represent Hindus were the natural leaders of an emergent polarisation. From the mid-1980s, sentiments such as the following were expressed in a series of Hindu Youth Meetings across Gujarat:

The need of the hour is for Hindu society to rise above differences of language, caste and sect, and act collectively. Divisive elements and anti-nationals are destabilising India’s internal security. They are planning to attack India’s holy spots...You are not safe in your own homes...
In this situation, if we do not undertake to protect our society, who will! This is a challenge to our nationalist Hindu youth… Let us together expose the anti-national elements that have refused to join the national mainstream even 40 years after independence...
We must pledge our faith to the Hindu way of life, and begin to build a strong Hindu society...
                                                                      — VHP 1986

The religious spectacle as mobilisational strategy

In 1986-1989, there were over a thousand communal incidents across Gujarat. Many occurred in the wake of yatras organised to generate support for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

To illustrate, the Ram Janki Shobha Yatra passed through Virpur in Kheda district in 1987. It was expected to comprise 5,000 devotees.

On the day of the procession, the VHP claimed that a stone had been thrown towards its members from a mosque. The counter-allegation was that the processionists had raised obscene slogans about Muslims while passing their prayer site. The result of this exchange was a day and night of rioting, involving soda water bottles, acid bulbs, and other material meant specifically for arson. Thirteen people were killed, and several private vehicles, 61 shops, 66 roadside stalls and 50 houses were burnt down.

The VHP called for a bandh in the entire district of Kheda to protest against the insult to the procession in Virpur. Despite a curfew on the day of the bandh, further violence occurred in Kheda and adjoining districts for weeks.

Communalism can be a vehicle to power

The BJP came to power for the first time in Gujarat in 1990. It was junior partner in a coalition with Chimanbhai Patel’s Janata Dal. Newly appointed BJP ministers soon hit the headlines for using their official vehicles to usher the LK Advani-led Ram Rath Yatra in their constituencies. This official support to the Yatra prompted news reports to term it a “government-sponsored jamboree”. Before this event, serving Health Minister Nalin Bhatt of the BJP had been implicated in violence that had broken out during Ganesh Chaturti festivities in Baroda.

Incidents continued while in government

In 1998, the BJP assumed power in Delhi at the head of a coalition. In Gujarat, after several years of tumultuous politics and several experiments with coalitions, the party finally won a decisive victory in the assembly. It has held on to power ever since.

Hindutva groups launched a series of attacks on Muslims and Christians in various parts of Gujarat in 1998. Orchestrated by organisations like the VHP, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch, these were largely one-sided assaults on people, places of worship, burial grounds, schools, gatherings, marriage processions, households and businesses.

At a press conference in Ahmedabad in Augus, 1998, the chief of police of Gujarat, CP Singh, admitted that “activists of VHP and Bajrang Dal are taking the law into their own hands which is endangering peace in the state”.

Love jihad was used in Gujarat too

The attacks on so-called love jihad in UP recently have many precedents. In 1998, weddings between adult Hindu women and Muslim men in Randhikpur and Sanjeli villages in Panchmahal district became triggers for violence. VHP and Bajrang Dal activists painted inter-religious marriages as part of an international conspiracy to beguile Hindu girls and send them to Gulf countries as sex slaves.

Gujarati newspapers faithfully reported this propaganda, leading to tension and violence in surrounding areas too. In its current iteration, love jihad has returned to Gujarat. It was used by the VHP and its sister organisations as a tool for once again to keep Muslims out of garba grounds during Navratri to protect Hindu women.

To conclude, communalism is a vehicle for power and control in India. It is a training ground in organisational tactics and network building, a tool for creating fear and submission, and even extracting revenge for real or imagined transgressions. The mechanisms of communalising a situation may change over time. The photocopied pamphlets used to circulate rousing poetry and rumours in late 20th century Gujarat, have given way to mass SMSes and Whatsapp messages in UP today. However, the “institutionalised riot system” as the political scientist Paul Brass termed it, is very much in place.

The current debate over communalism is likely to feature in the theatres of upcoming elections such as Delhi, for some more weeks. But communalism as a political great game is insidious and pervasive. We are witnessing yet another chapter today.

The author is Associate Professor at the University of Oxford and author of Liberalisation, Hindu Nationalism and The State: A Biography of Gujarat.