Bigotry passed on through generations creates an atmosphere in which communal violence is morally justified and perpetuated.

The regularity of communal tensions and clashes in India is unfortunately accepted as part of the country's fabric. Communal frenzy, as seen in Gujarat, Delhi, Mumbai, Kandhamal and post-Babri Masjid, was considered a problem of law and order. Terrorist attacks on the public, by those belonging to different religions, also keep apprehension alive. Yet solutions to problems that beget such acts do not seem to be India's top priority. The proposed Communal Violence Bill has divided political parties, with undercurrents that are strongly coloured by religion. Religious bigotry divides people, leading to misunderstanding, intolerance, fear, hatred, social ostracism, violence and loss of livelihood and life. Yet post-mortem on major upheavals fails to focus on societal factors, which are responsible for widespread endemic tensions within communities.

Ancient and medieval India: India was always feudal, with its diverse and warring provinces and kingdoms. Its ancient civilisations, vast land mass, diverse geography, varied regional narratives, different provincial histories, distinct languages, assorted traditions and dissimilar cultures meant that its heterogeneity was always a source of tension among its numerous social groups and regions. In addition, repeated military invasions and cultural exchanges resulted in significant numbers converting to and following different religions, practising distinct traditions and appearing as discrete cultures. India as a unified nation and single national entity is a relatively recent concept.

Horrific recent heritage: While ethnic and religious tensions exist in many societies, the Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, based on religion, was a watershed. It resulted in the largest movement of people in recorded history. Half-a-million people were killed and many millions rendered homeless. There was a complete breakdown of law and order; many died in riots and massacres or just from the hardships of their flights to safety.

There have been many attempts to disentangle complex narratives of the past. Some observations suggest plausible threads, which might at least partially explain some of the current communal tensions. Stories and narratives of India's Partition clearly document that there were millions of victims and innumerable perpetrators of violence and arson on both sides. Historical accounts have recorded that ordinary people, divided by religion and driven by a need for revenge, resorted to rape, arson, looting, violence and murder against former friends, neighbours and fellow citizens. Stories of the Partition recall and record victimhood on a massive scale, on both sides of the divide. They also suggest an amazing level of amnesia among the perpetrators of the violence, of their roles in the events. Narratives of the perpetrators are rarely told, leaving each side to recall only its victimhood.

Propagated memories: The generation, which lived through and survived the Partition, often wore its victimhood on its sleeve. It could not forget the terror of the period. The recall of the horrors also resulted in an unrequited need for retribution against the perpetrators. Feelings of helplessness and lack of closure of people's experiences were passed on to their children. It was now up to subsequent generations to avenge their humiliation. Each side communicated its victimhood and branded the other the aggressor, thus propagating prejudice from one generation to the next, forgetting that both sides of the religious and national divides were victims and perpetrators in equal measure.

Perpetuating prejudice: The transmitted social tensions of the past perpetuate the cycle of prejudice. Religious chauvinism is communicated across generations. Such attitudes exacerbate social tensions between communities. Religious differences, commonly used to defend culture and tradition, are employed to exaggerate minor variations and divide a people; social constructs, articulated centuries ago, are the grounds for today's schisms. Discrimination in employment, housing and business perpetuate communal resentment.

The diversity within India, the injustices of the past and superficial differences among its people provide a fertile ground for breeding misunderstanding and hatred of the “other.” The choice of the “other” to project disaffection depends on the prejudices transmitted and the stereotypes perpetuated. While illiteracy, superstition and schooling sans an education are mainly responsible for bigotry, politics also plays a role. Leaders of diverse persuasions highlight the differences and magnify insecurities for political gain. No political formation is exempt from such manoeuvring; all exploit insecurity among their followers and within their constituencies.

Beliefs distorted in this manner are cold sanctuaries. They strongly bias and distort the perception of neutral events and perpetuate stereotypes; they become self-fulfilling prophecies, confirming one's personal prejudices. Modern technology and mass media are used to amplify such discontent and rekindle old fires. While bloodbaths and communal riots in independent India are intermittent and less intense than the violence associated with the Partition, they suffice to keep its memories and discord alive.

Rationalising crimes: Research into the holocaust suggests that the perpetrators of horrific crimes were not insane, psychopathic or coerced. Their reasoning included judgmental (e.g. victims were inferior beings) and utilitarian arguments (e.g. in the interest of national security, sacrifice of a few in the larger interest, settling of historical scores). We hear similar defence of orchestrated communal violence and pogroms. The fact that people, who usually practise ahimsa in their daily lives, seem to provide implicit support for the occasional communal riot and sporadic mass murders suggests that transferred prejudices and unacknowledged hatred have blinded their conscience. Their absolute moral certainty becomes an alibi for political violence. Their biases convince them of the validity of their reasoning and lead to the rationalisation of the most horrific crimes. Comparable reasoning is evident among those who mount terrorist attacks.

Similarly, discrimination and violence resulting from caste, linguistic and regional chauvinism are etched on collective memory. Amnesia, which selectively highlights a community's victimhood while conveniently repressing its aggression against others, works likewise, thus keeping discontent and divisions alive. All groups have bigots and fanatics who propagate their prejudices; these include many families who transmit much of their chauvinism.

Moving forward

The country needs to learn from its history. India needs a new narrative, which honestly confronts its past and its politics. We should emerge from the narrow bigoted traditions of previous generations. We need to break the chains that imprisoned those who suffered during the Partition. We should not accept divisive politics and politicians. We need to reconcile modern India with its unsettling contradictions and its divided past.

There is no point in continuing in the same vein, citing history for reasons and reasons for history, thus arguing in circles. Can we see the issues from what philosopher Hume called a “common point of view,” from some universal principle of humanity? We, as individuals and society, need to identify prejudice and bigotry transmitted through generations; we need to recognise caricatures and negative stereotypes of others passed on by our familial narratives and our factional histories. We need to re-evaluate all our firmly held beliefs and generalisations. Diligent assessments usually suggest that they are cognitive illusions.

India's diversity is a great inheritance and immense burden. A multi-religious society is as much an aspiration as a heritage. India's larger struggle is to choose the broad option of a multireligious and multicultural society over the narrow option of restricting our identities based on religion, language, caste and region.

When will we break the endless cycle of violence and counter-violence? Can we change the politics of retribution and revenge? Religious freedom, guaranteed in modern societies, is said to have two components: freedom of religion and freedom from religion. More of one usually means less of the other. India seems to have chosen the former, often resulting in a chaotic public domain in which religious ideas are allowed to jostle with one another. We need to choose freedom from exclusivist ideas over the freedom to hold them, in order to make for a less virulent civic space. We should not trade our humanity and friendships for religious bigotry.

Religions are best regarded not for their power of reason, but as a test of human tolerance of diversity. There is need to underscore the complexity of the human situation and our limitations in understanding, which unite us, rather than focus on rigid doctrines and exclusivist agendas that divide us. We need to break with history and all historical insecurities and enmities. We need to judge our humanity by those we exclude rather than by those we include. People who say “later” to religious and communal harmony actually mean “never.” The time for healing is now.

(Professor K.S. Jacob is on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore. He would like to acknowledge the work of Dr. Alok Sarin, Fellow, The Nehru Library, New Delhi, who presented his research on India's Partition at the conference of the Indian Psychiatric Society, Jaipur, 2010.)

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