Roundtable Sessions : Religious and Communal Violence
Each of the three conference days will start with a plenary Roundtable session. Each roundtable session will be initiated by one paper presentation, which will circumscribe the questions for the debate. This will be followed by a focussed response by a specialist and a round table discussion among the invited participants.
In contemporary India, communal conflict remains a major threat to social peace. From Partition onwards, violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims have disrupted different parts of the country, with the Gujarat riots as a recent sad climax. While much research has gone into finding out the empirical details of these conflicts and the ways they are organized, we still lack understanding of the general structure of ‘religious’ or ‘communal’ violence in India.
A first difficulty is that we do not know how religious violence is different from ethnic, socio-economic or political violence. Many commentators have suggested that the Hindu-Muslim violence has little to do with religion, but that religion is used to conceal the real reasons behind the conflicts – namely, the self-interest of group leaders or the pursuit of political and socio-economic interests. The ease with which such statements are made is proportional to the absence of clarity as to when a conflict is religious. It is not as though these commentators possess criteria to distinguish religious conflict from that which is not.
Conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Europe, Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, Hindus and Muslims in India, and Tamils and Sinhalas in Sri Lanka are all supposed to be instances of religious violence. Yet the only justification for this classification is the belief that different religious communities are involved. Even if we accept this belief, this is inadequate: when two groups clash violently, the fact that these groups happen to belong to different ‘religions’ does not suffice to show that this is a case of religious violence. So which are the properties that transform an act of violence into religious violence?
It is often suggested that the perpetrators’ motives are essential to finding out whether some act of violence amounts to religious violence. Religious motives then make for religious violence. This conceals several difficulties. First, the problem merely shifts to finding out what makes a motive religious. Second, as onlookers or commentators, we rely on statements made by the perpetrators to reveal their motives. But can violent acts become religious violence simply because of such statements? If someone shoots and bombs people while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ or ‘Jai Sri Ram’ instead of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ or ‘your money or your life’, do these slogans transform the nature of the act? Third, how do we know that these slogans reveal the real motives behind violent acts? More often than not, we see that people conceal or lie about their real motives. In this case, we assume that the statements made by the perpetrators somehow reveal their true motives.
Another property attributed to religious violence is its relation to religious truth claims. The wars of religion that raged across early modern Europe are prototypical examples of what we would call ‘religious conflicts’. Characteristic of these was the fact that they concerned truth claims made for conflicting religious doctrines: Protestants and Catholics both believed only they represented the one true religion and that therefore the others had to be eradicated. However, the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India do not share this characteristic. Hindus do not attack Muslims because they think the latter are followers of false or heretical religion and should now accept some set of doctrines as true religion or some Hindu deity as the true God. Instead, there appears to be a different problem: Hindus have great difficulty in accommodating the kind of truth claims made by Islam and Christianity. There is a sense that these truth claims make Islam and Christianity alien to Indian culture. This is similar to the reaction of the ancient Roman pagans to early Christianity. Thus, rather than assuming that all these conflicts are instances of religious violence, it is more interesting to raise the following question: how are conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (and others) in India structurally different from the religious conflicts between Christian confessions in Europe or between Christians and Muslims elsewhere?
Apart from ‘religious violence’, the notion of ‘communalism’ is also used to make sense of the Hindu-Muslim riots. According to this notion, the main cause behind communal conflicts in India is the use of religion for secular political ends. It is said that group leaders link the religious identity of a group to a set of secular interests that should be protected and pursued by this group. Since these secular interests stand in conflict with those of other communities, the consequence is communal conflict. Often it is added that religion itself is not responsible for this violence, but rather its misuse by power-hungry leaders. The harm of communalism lies in the mixing of politics and religion, which causes conflict.
Again, there are several problems here. The religious-secular distinction upon which this explanation draws is flawed. We do not know how to distinguish between religious interests and goals, on one hand, and secular political interests and goals, on the other hand. Perhaps we could give examples like ‘salvation’ as a religious interest (or goal) and ‘material welfare’ as a secular political one, but then we can also argue that some religions take the material flourishing of their followers as their interest and goal. In the absence of general criteria, the disapproval of communalism as ‘religious politics’ has no theoretical grounds. Second, the supposed causal link between the use of religion for secular political goals and the occurrence of inter-community violence is equally unclear. When Gandhi called on ahimsa to organize non-violent struggle against the British colonial powers, this could well be described as the use of religion for political ends. There are other similar examples. Yet one can only wonder as to why these should cause inter-community violence.
What then is the rationale behind this explanation of ‘communal violence’? The claim that religion does not cause violence, but that the true cause is the human abuse of religion for worldly or secular ends is an old Christian commonplace, which became popular in post-Reformation Europe to make sense of the wars of religion. The belief was that true religion is the revelation of the biblical God and reflects His will for humanity. Therefore, it can only bring about harmony and order. However, human beings – sinful as they are and misguided by the devil – corrupt this pure religion by adding their own fabrications and trying to use religion for their own worldly ends. This human corruption of religion (for which clerics and politicians were generally held responsible) then causes violence and conflict. Does the ‘communalism’ account merely reproduce this theological commonplace as an explanation for ‘religious violence’ in India? Or does it do something more?
Describing the conflicts in India as religious or communal violence does not help us to understand their nature. In fact, it has us miss some of their most striking properties. One of these is the role of the secular nation-state in creating and enhancing communal conflict in India. Naturally, conflicts between different groups and traditions have always existed, but it appears they began to take the systematic form they have today once the state approached different groups as religious groups. That is, the conceptual apparatus of the secular nation-state conceives of different groups in Indian society as distinct religious communities standing in a relation of antagonism. How does the secular nation-state contribute to shaping ‘religious’ conflict in India? Another aspect is the peculiar role played by the past in Hindu-Muslim conflict. Today’s Muslims are blamed by Hindus for the destruction of temples and forceful conversions that happened more than five centuries ago. At the same time, it is as though the deep impact of Mughal rule on Indian culture can be undone by destroying mosques, rebuilding temples, and ‘reconverting’ people. This is to make the past part of the present in order to deny one’s past. How should we account for this peculiar attitude towards the past and its role in the conflicts in contemporary India?
The three roundtable sessions will address problems concerning religious and communal violence in India. Three speakers will be invited to present a paper that examines some of these problems.