Squash the vicious syndrome between communities

The invisiblisation of Muslims from public life must concern every Indian. So must the disturbing habit of some fellow citizens who do everything in their power to alienate them. What must Muslims feel when the most blatant acts of wrongdoing against them are publicly justified? And while a historical understanding of the current state of Hindu-Muslim relations is necessary, the continual rationalisation by reference to what happened in the past — say, in pre-Independence India — is quite another matter.

Ambedkar on Hindus and Muslims

Undeniably, relations between Hindu and Muslim elites had soured by the 1940s. Every major Indian thinker living in the first half of the 20th century wrote about it, but perhaps no one matches Ambedkar’s cold-blooded observations. In the 1940s, while Gandhi tirelessly advocated Hindu-Muslim unity, Ambedkar wrote: “It is no exaggeration to say that it is a record of 20 years of civil war between Hindus and Muslims. The acts of barbarism against women, committed without remorse, show the depth of antagonism between the two communities... The tempers on both sides are like tempers of two warring nations... What is astonishing is that these cold and deliberate acts of rank cruelty were not regarded atrocities to be condemned but treated as legitimate acts of warfare for which no apology was necessary.” Chillingly resonant with some brutal events in our own times, isn’t it?

Ambedkar alludes here to what I have called the majority-minority syndrome — a diseased network of relations so poisoned, and accompanied by an assortment of negative emotions (envy, malice, and hatred) so extreme, that it propels groups to vengeful savagery. This sends them on a downward spiral of deeper and deeper estrangement. In such syndromes, mutual animosity circulates freely, adding layer upon layer of grievance. Chronic mutual paranoia develops over time and inter-group relations are perverted. Ambedkar appears to have entered the mindset of extremists on both sides, those who act with the sole purpose of humiliating and hurting each other. Hostility to the other is their defining feature.

The growth of the syndrome prevented a reasonable and accommodating solution to problems between Hindus and Muslims. It also halted reform within communities. Ambedkar very quickly understood that any freedom-enhancing or equality-inducing changes are put on the back-burner when this syndrome grips a society. When groups regard each other as a menace, they expend all their energy preparing to meet “the menace”, he said. The exigency of a common front against the other generates “a conspiracy of silence over social evils”. Neither party attends to them “even though they are running sores requiring immediate attention... for the simple reason that they view every measure of social reform as a source of dissension, internal division that weakens the ranks when they ought to be closed to meet the menace.” This ensures social stagnation. A spirit of mindless conservatism begins to dominate the thoughts and actions of both sides.

Why the syndrome persists

Ambedkar had written these sentences a couple of years before Independence. Seventy years later, the context has changed radically. The majority of Hindus and Muslims, concerned more with their material well-being, do not wish to get sucked into this syndrome. Muslims, though still a large minority but far less powerful now, know the havoc the syndrome causes. Barring a small reckless section, they do not wish to be drawn into it. The withdrawal by either group should, in principle, derail the syndrome. But in India, it persists. Why? One, it has a psychological existence. Though it still festers in the psyche of a tiny section of both communities, it has grown exponentially in the last two decades in the minds of Hindu extremists. Second, it also has a social existence, relentlessly manufactured in Indian politics. Sadly, even the virtual presence of the syndrome appears to bring electoral advantage. Naive citizens fall for it and give strength to what is by now an illusory syndrome. But its social consequences are particularly horrendous for the Akhlaqs of our country.

Not long ago, in the opinion pages of The Indian Express , a controversy raged on the plight of Muslims in India. Some interesting explanations were offered but none was clear-sighted enough to grasp the simple point made by Ambedkar that besieged communities inevitably stagnate. Instead of attending to problems within their community, they spend their energy battling hostile aggressors. The prospect of inter-religious domination boosts intra-religious domination. And the heaviest price for the disappearance of internal reform, Ambedkar reminded us, is paid by the most vulnerable sections of that community — women, children, the aged, and the poor. Muslim orthodoxy thrives on Hindu extremism. The burqa cannot come off the body of Muslim women until hostility from Hindu extremists is off their back.

Extremism gnaws at basic decency. Every act of violence against the other sows the seed of a barbaric society that will spare no one. An uncivil society is the last thing we need or wish to bequeath to our children. Each time we allow something nasty to happen, we dig our own grave. Surely, it was this realisation that recently prompted academics and former government officials to write strong letters urging the Prime Minister to check extremism. And make no mistake: hostility to Muslims damages Hindus too. Hindu extremism stifles Hindu minds and strengthens conservatism within. In a very profound sense, the rape of the Muslim girl in Kathua is intimately connected to the rape of the Hindu woman in Unnao.