Why some neighbours hate and others do not

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life
February 28, 2003

Hindu-Muslim violence has been a recurrent feature of pre and post-independence India, and has given rise to a large body of literature on the causes and ways of managing and minimising it. Since much of this literature is structured by widely shared but dubious liberal and Marxist assumptions, it has often asked wrong questions and muddied the subject.

Ashutosh Varshney's book breaks with the traditional discourse, and is distinguished not only by its analytical and empirical rigour but also its refreshingly original approach.

As Varshney rightly observes, Hindu-Muslim violence is primarily an urban phenomenon. Two-thirds of Indians live in rural areas, and yet they were responsible for only 4 per cent of the deaths in communal violence between 1950 and 1995. Even in urban India eight cities, which represent a mere 18 per cent of the urban population, accounted for half the total number of deaths during this period. In the state of Gujarat, the scene of horrendous communal violence a year ago, the two cities of Ahmedabad and Vadodara accounted for nearly 80 per cent of the deaths in communal violence during the past four decades. The rest of the cities, some just as large and urbanised, remained relatively peaceful. Rather than trace the causes of Hindu-Muslim violence in the abstract, Varshney rightly asks the more meaningful and manageable question as to why it occurs only in some cities in some parts of India.

He selects and pairs six cities, three of them prone to communal violence and three wholly or substantially free from it. All have large and broadly equal percentages of Muslims. Two, Aligarh and Calicut, are selected on that basis alone. The next pair, Hyderabad and Lucknow, is selected because both have a previous history of Muslim rule and are culturally similar. The last two, Ahmedabad and Surat, belong to the same state and share a common language, history and form of government, differing only in the fact that communal violence is endemic in one and absent in the other.

Varshney carefully analyses the history, social and cultural life, and patterns of intercommunal relations in the six cities, and concludes that the absence of local networks of civic engagement between the two communities constitutes the single most important cause of violence. He distinguishes between formal and associational networks, such as the trade unions, sports clubs, business and professional associations and political parties, and informal ties as expressed in the day-to-day encounters between the members of the two communities. When both sets of ties obtain, violence is minimal or altogether absent. When neither exists, it is at its worst. Of the two, Varshney thinks that the presence of associational or organised ties is more important. Such intercommunal associations play several constructive roles. They foster better understanding between the two communities, build up common interests, insulate them against malicious propaganda, nip rumours in the bud, help set up joint peace committees in times of crisis, and so on. In these and other ways they either prevent violence or manage and contain it. When Hindus and Muslims lead ghettoised lives and have no mediating and moderating agencies, their ordinary tensions easily get out of control and lead to vicious forms of violence.

Varshney uses this explanatory framework to show why communal violence occurred in the three selected cities but not in the others. He reinforces his argument by taking the case of Bhiwandi, a town just outside Bombay notorious for communal riots in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1988, the newly appointed police commissioner set about fostering civic ties between the two communities. He set up joint neighbourhood committees, 70 in all, made up of locally respected men and women drawn from both communities. Not surprisingly Bhiwandi has not only known no violence since 1988, but remained totally peaceful when the rest of Bombay witnessed massive riots in 1992-93. Varshney suggests that his explanation is also corroborated by the experiences of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Northern Ireland since 1969, in both of which communal violence exploded in areas lacking strong intercommunal ties.

This book is carefully argued and researched, and represents a major contribution to the subject. However, some doubts remain about the validity of its general thesis. Although civic networks are important, they do not operate in a vacuum. They exist in a larger political context, and cannot long remain immune to the impact of wider forces. They are also embedded in a structure of economic relations that limit their emergence and impact.

Again, a maliciously determined state government can fatally damage good communal relations and generate a climate of hostility which no civic ties can withstand, as recently happened in Gujarat. It is also wrong to homogenise Hindus and Muslims and to ignore their history, self-understanding and religious and cultural insecurities, all of which mediate their mutual relations and express themselves differently in different contexts. Bhiwandi avoided violence in the 1990s although it lacked the kinds of long-established civic ties that Varshney has in mind.

The role of the newly found neighbourhood committees was inevitably limited. We need to look at other local and historical factors to explain the absence of violence.

Bhikhu Parekh is centennial professor, London School of Economics.

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India

Author - Ashutosh Varshney
ISBN - 0 300 08530 3 and 10013 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00 and £14.50
Pages - 382

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