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ETHNIC CONFLICT AND CIVIC LIFE: Hindus and Muslims in India by Ashutosh Varshney. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.

Ashutosh Varshney is one of the leading political scientists in the United States and is presently a professor at the University of Michigan after having studied at MIT and taught at Harvard. His tenure at MIT grounded him in solid empiricism, in detailed field work, in rigourous methodology and in quantitative analysis – all rare in the social sciences in general barring economics. He is the author of many well-known works in diverse areas like food policy, nationalism and industrial growth. For the past decade he has been researching communal riots and violence in India.

When he started this endeavour, even he would not have imagined that his work would culminate in a book that would not only have deep scholarship but also real-world significance. Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India was released by Yale University Press just two weeks before the Godhra carnage and the subsequent Narendra Modi-sponsored genocide in Gujarat.

The book has therefore received more than its fair share of attention and Varshney himself has been interviewed by newspapers and magazines, thereby bringing this book to a wider audience. This is the second time in recent months that the prestigious but relatively low-key Yale University Press has hit the headlines: a few years back, it published Ahmed Rashid’s authoritative book on the Taliban. At that time, this book did not make waves. But after 11 September, it became a bestseller and deservedly so. Varshney’s book too should see a similar trend.

Communal violence has been studied extensively. Various theories have been expounded as to why Hindu-Muslim riots take place. One school believes that economic factors play a key role, while another holds political parties and religious fundamentalists responsible for fomenting discord. Others believe that the Hindu-Muslim relationship is inherently prone to periodic outbursts of violence and killings. Varshney’s contribution is to juxtapose the question – what causes communal riots – with the question – what accounts for communal peace – in different urban settings.

To understand the presence of communal violence, Varshney believes it is important to understand its absence simultaneously. Thus, he takes three pairs of cities: Calicut and Aligarh, Lucknow and Hyderabad and Surat and Ahmedabad. Calicut, Lucknow and Surat have been traditionally riot-free cities, while Aligarh, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad have been very riot-prone. The research then is a detailed investigation into why the three cities have been relatively peaceful and why the other three have been rocked every once in a while by riots. The importance of the research design lies in studying the cities not individually but in pairs. It is this that gives Varshney’s work a distinctive flavour.

His main conclusion is simply stated. Cities are peaceful where there are civic institutions, alliances and networks that foster communal peace. Cities are peaceful when there is associational, as opposed to merely everyday engagement between communities. Cities see violence where such institutions, alliances and networks are either absent or have atrophied as in Ahmedabad. On Ahmedabad, particularly since it is very much in the news these days, Varshney points out that the decline of integrative institutions like the Textile Labour Association and the ascendancy of a political role over its civic role in the Congress Party is what has made Ahmedabad a hotspot for sectarian strife.

Of course, this is much too simplistic an explanation for the recent pogroms in the Hindutva laboratory. Varshney has not, for example, dealt with the consequences of the way in which the VHP has spread itself in the state leading to rural riots for the first time, something that Varshney’s basic theory denies since he starts from the presumption that riots are an urban phenomena. Just as Varshney has not dealt with the VHP in connection with Ahmedabad, he does not include, in any meaningful way, the nefarious role of the MIM in polarising Hyderabad or of a land mafia that has made Aligarh a tinderbox. Indeed, if riots are seen as predominantly an urban happening, then they cannot be studied without reference to the nature and pattern of urban growth in its various manifestations.

No doubt, as Varshney says, civic engagement is crucial but to give associations a larger-than-life role as he does is to overlook the larger economic and political context in which these networks flourish (or perish). Varshney deals with this fleetingly when he talks about Bihar, a state that saw the horrendous Bhagalpur riots in 1989 but that has been peaceful since then entirely because of Laloo Prasad Yadav’s political stance. Lower caste parties or subaltern secularists are clearly transforming social life and in Bihar this has resulted in over a decade of communal peace. Whether the BSP will play a similar role in UP remains to be seen.

Are civic networks a historical legacy or can they be built? Varshney draws attention to three examples where civic engagement has been deliberately fostered. Two of these are through NGOs – Disha in Saharanpur and the famous SEWA in Ahmedabad and a third is through a sensitive police officer in the textile town of Bhiwandi. Bhiwandi is an example of a town that has passed from violence to peace unlike Surat that has moved from peace to violence. Whether Bhiwandi is replicable or not, Varshney leaves to ‘future research’.

Varshney places great faith in intercommunal engagement and rightly so. But he discounts the importance of intracommunal and intraethnic associations saying that they were not found useful for purposes of ethnic or communal peace. This is too sweeping a generalisation since our own experience shows that while interethnic associations can nurture peace, intraethnic associations can certainly vitiate the atmosphere and create conditions conducive to communal riots.

Varshney’s book deservedly carries encomiums from such luminaries like Samuel Huntington, David Laiten, Susanne Rudolph and Alfred Stephan. It is a work of formidable scholarship that is only to be expected from someone trained at MIT and Harvard. It is innovative and enhances our understanding of Hindu-Muslim strife in recent decades. Why aren’t such books coming out of our intellectual establishment that are enjoying huge subsidies and are wallowing in the ‘leisure of the theory class’.

Jairam Ramesh


RSS’S TRYST WITH POLITICS: From Hedgewar to Sudarshan by Pralay Kanungo. Manohar, Delhi, 2002.

IF one wants to understand why two years ago in Orissa, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two little sons were burnt alive while fast asleep in their jeep, why Gujarat is presently witnessing a well-planned, state-promoted campaign of rape, looting, arson and genocide against the Muslims, and what lies in store for even those Hindus who do not subscribe to the RSS goal of turning India into a Hindu nation, this is a must read. Even a casual reading of this well-researched book is enough to convince one that the gruesome happenings in Gujarat are no aberration. They flow from the logic of ‘cultural nationalism’ that constitutes the core of RSS ideology.

Over the past more than a decade, the success achieved by RSS’s political wing, the BJP, in grabbing political space and thereafter political power at the Centre and a few states has compelled serious scholars and researchers to take note of the phenomenon and, as a result, a number of excellent books have appeared on the subject – quite a few of them written by foreigners. While most of them add to our understanding of the way the concept of nationalism as defined or understood by leaders of the national movement, most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, underwent a metamorphosis at the hands of the Hindu communalists, they offer – as is also required from the reader – a high degree of theoretical sophistication. This can, and at times does, lead to jarring academic jargon and obfuscation of the post-modernist variety in the name of theory. Kanungo’s book is unblemished on this count. It offers good empirical research and a straight, clear-cut thematic narrative of how the RSS and its ideological concerns took shape over the past 75 years and how it spread its tentacles in every domain of the country’s social and political life.

While it is true that quite a lot of ground had already been covered by scholars such as Curran, Goyal, Anderson and Damle, Hansen, and Jaffrelot, Kanungo focuses his critical attention on the political nature of the RSS, especially in view of the fact that the organisation has always maintained that it is a social and cultural organisation with no politics to play. He has been successful in showing that right from its inception, the RSS was soaked in hatred for all those who came to India from outside – ‘Parsis and Jews who came as guests and Muslims and Christians who came as invaders.’

While its founder K.B. Hedgewar talked only of the ‘Yavana snakes’ (Muslims), his successor M.S. Golwalkar added to the list: communists, Christians and Muslims. The present RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan now talks of an ‘epic war’ between the Hindus and the ‘anti-Hindus’, thereby meaning that even those Hindus who do not see eye to eye with the proponents of Hindutva will be punished along with the Muslims and the Christians in order to impose Hindu hegemony and unquestioned supremacy. In short, it is the RSS who arrogates to itself the sole right to define who is a Hindu. In its definition of ‘we’ and the ‘other’, the ‘other’ includes all those who are not with it.

It explains how and why Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who as prime minister took an oath to adhere by the Constitution, could so easily declare in Goa that ‘we have allowed the Muslims to say their prayers and follow their religion,’ completely forgetting that the Constitution was not made by the Hindus alone. There were a number of Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly who took part in the debates and it was the Indian people as a whole who gave themselves a Constitution that allowed freedom of religion to all Indian citizens. He also talked of Muslims creating trouble wherever they lived, thus repeating the Muslim stereotype that he learnt in the RSS shakha.

Kanungo tells us that the RSS from its earliest days has believed in the concept of ‘just violence’. It has firmly maintained that communal violence is always resorted to by the Muslims and the Hindus respond to it by taking recourse to ‘just violence’. From the beginning, the RSS trained its swayamsevaks (our PM being no exception) in martial arts so that they could protect the Hindus in the face of communal violence from the Muslims, and also retaliate. Hedgewar did not believe in Hindu-Muslim unity and considered all Muslims as ‘anti-national’. He taught the swayamsevaks how to wield the lathi, not against the British but against the Muslims.

No wonder that the RSS and its affiliates like the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the BJP have launched a campaign in Gujarat for an economic boycott of the Muslims so that whatever little business remained in their hands, even after the widespread riots, could be wiped out.

Conversions have also been a favourite theme of the RSS and this explains the brutal killing of Graham Staines and his sons and a spate of attacks on Christian educational institutions, churches, nuns and priests. Remember Vajpayee calling for a ‘national debate’ over the issue!

Kanungo makes a valid distinction between Islamic fundamentalists and the RSS zealots and says the RSS can hardly be called fundamentalist because, unlike Islamic fundamentalists, it does not want a theocratic state in India. It aims at Hinduising all spheres of national life without tinkering with the institutions of a modern state. It may have stopped repeating the Golwalkar prescription of snatching away all rights from the Muslims and the Christians if they fail to Hinduise themselves, but it has not moved away from this approach.

It is a little intriguing that after having laid bare the RSS ideology, politics, organisational techniques and nationwide networks, and after having described them at several places as ‘totalitarian’, Kanungo fights shy of calling the RSS ‘fascist’ towards the end of the book.

The book offers a valuable account of the way RSS and BJP have pursued their political goals, the kind of organisational problems they face due to unexpectedly fast growth, and the dangers posed by such a development to the Indian polity. It is a welcome addition to critical literature on the RSS.

Kuldeep Kumar


URBAN VIOLENCE IN INDIA: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’, and the Postcolonial City by Thomas Blom Hansen. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2001.

THE volume is relevant in the present context of the communal violence and role of the BJP governed state of Gujarat. Bombay, a symbol of modernity for many intellectuals, has been transformed into ‘Mumbai’. It is no mere translation of the English spelling of the vernacular pronunciation. The change signifies alteration of the culture and identity of the city involving a struggle for space. The issue primarily revolves around questions such as: which space, and whose space? What does the name fix and territorialize as its object? Which and whose history should it refer to and demarcate? The phenomenon has a long history, according to the author, rooted in the ‘nativist agenda’ developed over two centuries under different banners. Violent nationalism as constructed and practiced by the Shiv Sena during the last three decades has taken the agenda to its logical destination. One wonders if there is only one inevitable destination of the ‘nativist agenda’?

The major thrust of the volume is to analyze the agenda, growth, style and functioning of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Bal Thackeray formed the Sena in 1966 under the protective shadow of the Congress. The city’s middle class environment was conducive to its growth. Initially it launched a violent campaign against the non-Marathi population, particularly Gujarati entrepreneurs and South Indian white collar employees working in the private and public sectors. Slowly, it expanded its base among the working class.

Following the communal riots of Bhiwandi in 1970, the Sena joined hands with Hindu Mahasabha in forming a Hindu Maha Sangh and launched an anti-Muslim campaign. After a brief lull in its career, it intensified the campaign during the 1984 riots in which the Sena actively and systematically participated. It is now common knowledge and well documented by the Srikrishna Commission that the Sainiks were given free rein in the 1992-93 anti-Muslim carnage. Subscribing to the Hindu Rastra theory, Thackeray repeatedly pronounced, ‘We are Hindustanis and therefore Hindus.’ All Muslims were repeatedly branded as aggressors, traitors, Pakistanis, and so on. Historical facts were twisted to blame Muslim rulers for destroying Indian culture and civilization. All these poisoned the minds of Hindus. Such systematic propaganda added inflammatory fuel to fire, leading to riots.

These riots further exacerbated the feelings of marginalization and isolation among Muslims. The author observes that Muslims of Mumbai remain torn between a strategy of ‘community purification’, advocated by religious organizations, and another strategy of ‘plebian assertion’ promoted by small entrepreneurs.

The Sena’s organizational structure is highly centralized and authoritarian. In the early tenure of the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government between 1995 and 1999, Thackeray often ‘demonstrated his determination to act as a law unto himself outside the government structure’ (201), demonstrating his disrespect for the principle of rule of law and the judicial system. Also, during the last three decades the Sena has made violence an integral part of its politics and public culture. It speaks of physical violence as a way to purify society and to restore masculinity. It has propagated, practiced and legitimized violence as a political instrument to grab power and eliminate dissent.

The Sena has expanded the scope of ‘political society’ in Maharashtra by defying every rule and convention of democracy. It has tried to use state power and public resources to further the interests of its leadership and to deflect the legal process in order to ensure de facto impunity for its activists. As a result, ‘the emergence and rule of the Shiv Sena has undoubtedly weakened the reach, efficacy and authority of the government bureaucracy’ and has allowed the police force to ‘become an independent political factor in its own right.’ The Shiv Sena has tried hard to transform the very notions of politics, public behaviour, civility and legality. In the process, the aura of the state as a site of neutrality and rule of law has been eroded.

The Sena does not stand for an egalitarian social order but it catches the imagination of the poor, mainly because of its populist programme of bestowing self-respect on ordinary people, regardless of their caste. In flamboyant style it deals with everyday problems ‘rapidly, visibly, and, though rarely aimed at transforming institutions or practices, with some immediate effect’ (116).The Sena, Hansen observes, ‘engages a widespread quest for social mobility among ordinary people – a quest compounded by the slow structural forces of democratic revolution’ (111). But its concern for the have-nots is more instrumental than genuine.

The Sena-BJP government had a dismal record in carrying out pro-poor programmes. In fact, the government decided to deport beggars of Mumbai to their native places. The government expressed its wish for ‘ousting and expunging of all signs of the poor and the plebian from Bombay and other cities, whether Muslims or those living in the zopadpattis, namely all who were seen as encroaching on the comfort and physical security of the middle class’ (211).

A minor point regarding the use of categories by social scientists needs to be made in the present climate of communal politics. One has to be very careful in using, by implication legitimizing the social categories used by politicians. Hansen writes about the business community as Parsi, Marwari, Gujarati and Muslim (38) as if Muslims and Parsis have no regional identity. Needless to mention that the Khojas and Bohras are Gujaratis as well as Muslims, so is the case with Hindu Banias and Bhatias.

Hansen rightly maintains that the ostensibly clear distinction often drawn between ‘secular forces’ and ‘communal forces’ is spurious. He argues that Hindu nationalism and the politics of xenophobia have roots in India’s unique experience of modernity and democracy. Even the various movements around the ‘paradigm of rights’ vis-a-vis the government and authorities led by non-Brahman ideological groups, trade unions, communists and Dalits had essentially addressed the issues of entitlement, of claiming services, care and protection rather than seek change in socio-economic conditions.

He asserts, ‘These were not notions of civic rights as defined in early modern Europe’ (71). Though this is an oversimplification of the complexities of movements, the argument has some truth too. But, these are abstract notions. The challenge is to translate them in an economically backward and highly iniquitous social milieu marked by a colonial heritage.

The success of the Shiv Sena, according to the author, is due to its ability to embrace modern city life and technological progress, providing young men especially with an ideal of an assertive, often violent, mode of being modern. It is also due to the decline of an older political culture that espoused paternalist social and cultural incorporation of the large majority of the population into a highly unequal system of political clientelism. Though true, such an analysis provides but a partial explanation. One needs to interrogate the nature of the economy which has contributed to rising unemployment and casualization of labour. Similarly, the nature of modernity too requires probing.

Ghanshyam Shah


THE MULTICULTURAL PATH: Issues of Diversity and Discrimination in Democracy by Gurpreet Mahajan. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2002.

HUMAN life has always been multicultural. Most pre-industrial societies were characterised by a complicated division of labour and great cultural diversity. Minute, subtle, socially significant differences existed in what people ate, spoke, wore and worshiped, how they lived, with whom they ate, spoke to and married, how they sang, danced and expressed themselves. Why then has political theory never made much of this fact? Why, till recently, has it remained content with merely a passing reference to culture and never made it a central concern?

The brief answer to this question is fairly straightforward. Political theory, as the name itself suggests, must focus on the political and culture became politically salient only about two centuries ago. Till then, the organising principle of a political community was relatively independent of culture. For instance, differences between the language of the ruler and ruled had little impact on the political life of the community. As Gellner reminds us, rulers of dynastic states or Empires were interested in the tribute and labour potential of their subjects, not in their culture. It is only with the advent of modern social and economic organisation that culture has gained in political importance and western political theory, reflecting first on nationalism and then on multiculturalism has belatedly recognised this in the past two decades.

Gurpreet Mahajan’s book is a notable addition to the growing literature on culture-related political problems of sub-national minorities. For Mahajan, multiculturalism is a coherent political theory that responds to the practical problems generated by the discriminatory policies of the nation state and to the ideological deficiencies of liberal democratic theory. The leitmotif of multiculturalism is: different but equal, a theme difficult to accommodate by the abstract universalism and individualism of liberal democratic theories. Therefore, multiculturalism introduces a distinct conception of democracy and citizenship. It incorporates a theory of minority rights within a broader conception of democracy in which diverse cultural groups are represented as equals in the public domain. For Mahajan then, the core agenda of multi-culturalism is informed by two concerns: One, to minimise cultural discrimination of minorities in the public domain (the egalitarian motive) and second, to promote cultural diversity (the motive to mark oneself as different from others).

Mahajan endorses this agenda only partially, finding it problematic because the pursuit of cultural diversity, she asserts, frequently becomes an end in itself. When this happens, attention shifts to the preservation of cultures rather than to the elimination of discrimination. A focus on the preservation of cultures is almost invariably accompanied by the belief that people, who share an identity, cherish and protect the same values. In short, that they are a homogenous people with a single common good. This undermines heterogeneity within cultures and becomes a source of the infringement of individual rights within particular cultural communities.

If diversity is prone to communitarian appropriations, theories of multiculturalism must break away from a core commitment to diversity and aim only to minimise cultural discrimination. They should question the ‘stipulated relationship between eliminating discrimination and promoting diversity.’ This does not mean that the pursuit of diversity should be altogether abandoned but that the principle of non-discrimination must be given priority over the unconditional pursuit of cultural diversity.

This principle, she claims, is best embodied in a system of special rights to non-conformist membership which are designed to give individuals the choice of carrying on with the given way of life, if they so desire. Such rights, she claims, do not make a fetish of preserving an entire culture as it exists at any given moment. They effectively prevent the aggregate power of the community to prevail over the liberty of individuals and are sensitive to non-statist sites of cultural discrimination.

This is an eminently reasonable stand to take on all the vexed issues raised within the framework of multiculturalism. An egalitarian liberal-democrat sensitive to issues of cultural homogenisation and assimilation would find it difficult to disagree with her broad claims and general position and its importance in the current context of India can hardly be overemphasised. Mahajan’s book must be commended for the quality of its prose: the writing is clear, free from pretentious academic claptrap and her claims are always supported by well-chosen examples. This book, excellently produced by Sage Publications – I could not detect a single editorial or proof error – will be extremely useful to anyone willing to grapple with the issues raised by theories of multiculturalism.

No book can wholly satisfy its readers, however. Nor must it be expected to. Here are my own quibbles with the author. First, Mahajan never fully distinguishes the practice of multiculturalism from its theories. While it is no doubt true that multicultural practice has frequently been conservative, insensitive to individual rights and has allowed oppression within minority cultures, it is equally true that most contemporary theories of multiculturalism tackle these problems head on. That they are not always successful in finding a judicious solution to them shows more about the intractable nature of these problems and less that these theories themselves are myopic or one-sided.

But Mahajan tends to paint the entire western discourse of multiculturalism with the same thick, somewhat angular brush. She claims, for example, that western theories on multiculturalism invariably privilege the promotion of cultural diversity, even if such diversity results in an endorsement of oppressive communities and that their analysis of minority discrimination tends to overwhelmingly collapse the state with the majority community. Reading this, I can’t but help detecting the construction of a straw man here. More rather than less hermeneutic charity towards existing multicultural theories would have considerably strengthened her book.

Second, the distinction that she draws between pluralism and multiculturalism is arbitrary and unconvincing. For her, multiculturalism is distinguished from pluralism by its emphasis on equality and its commitment to diversity. What is the basis of this claim? Why cannot pluralism emphasise equality and diversity too? She offers two reasons. One, that something in the very concept of plural makes it inhospitable to diversity and equality. Plurality, she says, ‘suggests the presence of "many" but it does not stipulate anything about the nature of many.’ The many it denotes could be manifold representations of ‘one’ or be separate and unequal entities.

But so does multeity which is derived from the Latin multus, meaning many. It too does not suggest anything about the nature of many and is entirely consistent with the absence of equality and diversity. If diversity and equality can become constitutive components of multiculturalism, why cannot they similarly be integral parts of cultural pluralism?

Perhaps then something in the current history of the concept and theories of pluralism gives a clue to its resistance to equality and diversity. This does not seem to be the case. Berlin’s theory is pluralist with a fierce commitment to diversity. A recent book on Charles Taylor is called Philosophy in the age of Pluralism. Taylor, a well-known champion of multi-culturalism, is committed to both equality and deep diversity. Indeed the commonest contemporary use of pluralist is to describe views that recognise many sets of equally correct beliefs or evaluative standards. A cultural pluralist then is committed to the endorsement of many cultures because to some extent each embodies some correct belief or evaluative standard. Mahajan’s explanation does not forestall the doubt that we are here in the midst of terminological bickering rather than profound conceptual insight.

Third, I remain unmoved by her somewhat wafer-thin conception of democracy. She says (p. 196) that ‘the idea that no one should be discriminated against on account of his or her social identity is the distinguishing mark of democracy – one that sets it apart from all other forms of political organisation.’ This is unconvincing. Consider a regime in which a tyrant is equally brutal with all his subjects, irrespective of their ascriptive features. He does not discriminate between them and ill-treats them identically.

Or consider a benign dictator who treats all his subjects equally, thereby making non-discrimination the central policy of governance. It appears that non-discrimination can also be a central feature of tyrannies and benign dictatorships. If so, it is not a feature that sets democracies apart from other forms of political organisation. Anyone committed to democratic multiculturalism but excessively reliant on the principle of non-discrimination must pause here and wonder if her own proposed variant of multiculturalism is sufficiently democratic.

I must end by pointing out a fundamental ambiguity in her work that I was unable to dispel despite several readings. On page 153, she appears to endorse only those rights that shelter all communities from being victimised and transformed into vulnerable minorities rather than special rights for identified and fixed minorities. But for most part, she makes a case for special rights. Is she for or against special rights? Are these rights granted to individuals or to groups? I cannot give a firm answer.

My general impression is that she advocates that every individual be given the right to be a member of the community of his or her choice as well as the right to dissent from the dominant interpretations of its core beliefs and practices, the right to non-conformist membership. But if every individual has this right, then what is so special about it? Is this right not at the heart of every liberal-democratic theory of universal citizenship? Why then make so much fuss about multiculturalism?

Again, communities may be sheltered from the process of minoritisation, something negative and to be eschewed, by four possible constitutional measures: a scheme of a) individual rights b) general community rights c) special rights to fixed minorities and finally d) special rights to minorities, without clearly specifying and therefore fixing which groups are subsumed by the term ‘minority’. Mahajan rejects c) and appears sometimes to vacillate between a) and b) and at other times to endorse both but she fails to properly consider option d). This is puzzling because precisely this option is instantiated by Article 30 in the Indian Constitution. The term ‘minority’ is deliberately not defined in the Constitution to avoid reference to clearly identified and fixed minorities, showing thereby that it is sensitive to the process by which various communities might get ‘minoritised’. Conceived appropriately, special rights for communities may after all be required by principles of justice and equality.

The growth of political theory in India has been frustrating and slow. Such books are bound to quicken the pace and their contribution should be gratefully acknowledged.

Rajeev Bhargava