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India's majority-minority syndrome

About the author
Rajeev Bhargava, B.A.(Delhi), M.Phil, D.Phil (Oxford), is Senior Fellow and Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His publications include Secularism and its Critics ed. (OUP, New Delhi, 1998), What is Political Theory and Why do we need it? (OUP, Delhi, 2010) and The Promise of India's secular democracy (OUP, Delhi, 2010)
In recent months, the state of Gujarat in western India has witnessed horrendous massacres of Muslims by Hindu nationalist gangs. openDemocracy’s New Delhi editor sees the violence as the latest example of a wider phenomenon in India: an imprisoning syndrome of mistrust which has both Hindu majority and Muslim minority in its destructive grip.Many more people in India have died before in communal massacres, a greater number have been displaced, and perhaps a much larger amount of property has been reduced to cinder. But the recent, state-abetted pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat is unique because it has cemented new forms of estrangement between communities. Over 200 mosques and shrines have been destroyed, and thousands of Muslims have been driven from their homes. Never before have Muslims felt more vulnerable, alienated and besieged in post-independent India.

The singularity of Gujarat is unmistakable. Yet, it must be seen as part of a long chain of events unfolding in India for some two decades now, events which show that we are once again in the grip of the majority–minority syndrome. This deadly, self-mutilating syndrome first showed its fangs in the 1940s and led to the cataclysmic partition of India. One shudders to think what great calamity lies in store for the people of India now.

The term ‘syndrome’ points, at the very least, to the breakdown of basic trust and common understanding between the majority and the minority. But in fact it encompasses something even more dreadful: a diseased network of neurotic relations, so completely poisoned and accompanied by such a vertiginous assortment of negative emotions (envy, malice, jealousy, spite and hatred) that communities are bound to slide deeper down the path of still deeper hostility and frenzied mutual destruction.

Typically, when in the throes of the syndrome, animosity circulates freely, adding layer upon layer of mutual grievance between communities. Over time, chronic paranoia develops, inter-group relations are perverted and the majority and the minority begin to play antagonistic games, often fighting over nothing at all. Groups demand from one another what they cannot really get, conjure up imaginary grievances, insist precisely on what hurts the other most – at one time obsessively desiring the very thing that the other wants, at another time the exact opposite, always with the sole purpose of negating the claims of the other. It is an abiding feature of a syndrome that, rightly or wrongly, both sides feel persistently humiliated.

An emotional arms race

A syndrome is set in motion by a long chain of closely-nested, mutually-interlocking actions between small, impatient extremists belonging to both the majority and minority – but eventually, horrifically, it engulfs almost everyone. The primary responsibility for the syndrome may rest with a powerful minority, as when it tries to shape the structure exclusively or disproportionately. When it is not allowed to, it cannot really complain of injustice. Yet, unflinchingly and unmindful of others, it may persist with its own exaggerated demands and precipitate a majority–minority syndrome with disastrous consequences for everyone. Recall the actions of the Muslim league in the 1940s.

A third party may be culpable too, as was the British colonial state that used inter-community tensions to its own advantage and fuelled the syndrome in India throughout the first half of the 20th century. However, it usually develops when a minority confronts a majority unwilling to share power with it, when it tries merely to co-determine the social and political structure but is not permitted by the majority to do so.

In such instances, partly because the terms of engagement of the two groups are grossly unequal, a syndrome is accompanied by and results in persistent and very real discrimination, humiliation, marginalisation, exclusion or subordination of minorities. In extreme cases, it threatens the very survival of the minority community.

B.R. Ambedkar, the brilliant leader of India’s scheduled castes, drew attention to these vicious symptoms in a startlingly dispassionate analysis of Hindu–Muslim relations in pre-independent India. He found that both communities obsessively considered almost every issue with a view to how it affected them in their struggle against the other.

Hindus and Muslims, he noted, make preparations against each other without abatement, reminding one ‘of a race in armaments between two hostile nations. If the Hindus have the Banaras University, the Musalmans must have the Aligarh University. If the Hindus start the Shuddhi movement, the Muslims must launch the Tablig movement.’

For Ambedkar, the depth of antagonism between two communities was evident by the remorseless atrocities they committed against women: ‘What is astonishing is that these cold and deliberate acts of rank cruelty were not regarded as atrocities to be condemned but were treated as legitimate acts of warfare for which no apology was necessary.’

The development of the syndrome stalled a reasonable and accommodating solution to the Muslim question in India. It also debilitated social reforms. Ambedkar grasped this point too. When groups regard each other as a ‘menace’, he argues, all energy is directed at meeting this menace. The exigencies of a common front of the majority against a powerful minority, and the minority against the majority, generate a ‘conspiracy of silence over social evils’. Neither attend to them ‘even though they are running sores and requiring immediate attention, for the simple reason that they view every measure of social reform as bound to create dissension and division and thereby weaken the ranks when they ought to be closed to meet the menace of the other community.’ This ensures social stagnation and a pervasive spirit of conservatism dominates the thoughts and actions of both.

Ambedkar must predominantly have had the persistence of caste inequalities in mind, but he also cited the case of community laws that violated individual rights of women but were passed with the sole motive of preserving the existing numerical balance between the two communities. Such reasoning, which turned a social issue requiring urgent reform into a contentious matter between warring communities, epitomises a majority–minority syndrome.

Scratching the itch of chauvinism

The philosopher David Hume claimed that enmity between hostile groups can endure even though the original cause of animosity has disappeared, and even when it is against their current interests. Resentments, hatreds and grudges are sometimes bequeathed from generation to generation.

In India, Hindu extremists and Muslim orthodoxy (and, by default, a large number of ordinary Hindus and Muslims) appear to have inherited features of the majority–minority syndrome, with particularly disastrous consequences for the minority. The original situation of conflict may have disappeared but extremists from the majority Hindu community and, foolishly, sections of Muslim orthodoxy talk and behave in a manner that resuscitates the syndrome.

Remember Shahbano, the elderly Muslim woman who filed a petition seeking maintenance from her divorced husband, who obtained a favourable judgement from all Indian courts, but who earned the wrath of Muslim orthodoxy? A slight error on the part of the Supreme Court – the judge took it upon himself to interpret the Qu’ran – gave Muslim orthodoxy the alibi to press panic buttons about Hindu majoritarianism, to paint alarmist scenarios of great danger to Islam and to manufacture an unending list of imaginary grievances. Internal debate was stifled, the government of the day succumbed to pressure and passed a new law favouring the status quo on Muslim personal law. Poor Shahbano was forced to retract.

The slogan of ‘Islam in danger’ soon turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Hindu chauvinists, forever waiting in the wings to exploit some weakness within the Muslim community, first began a harangue on the need for Muslims to shed backwardness, then charged successive Congress governments with the appeasement of Muslims and eventually began to consolidate a fiercely anti-Muslim, political Hindu identity.

Old Hindu grievances, mostly imaginary, were re-invented: the destruction of Hindu temples by Muslim invaders, the temerity of those who caused partition to even ask for minority rights, the disloyalty induced by pan-Islamism, the alleged Muslim propensity to flout family planning norms with the sole purpose of increasing their numerical strength, and the alleged role that polygamy and therefore Muslim personal law plays in their devious design to out-populate Hindus.

A time for imagination

The majority–minority syndrome divides the nation, breeds hierarchy, mindlessly detracts from welfare and development and, by inhibiting reforms, restricts freedom, stultifies communities and emboldens a morally obnoxious conservatism. It has the potential of turning the country into an economic wasteland. In a much altered context in which Muslims are no longer a powerful minority, it is disastrous for Indian Muslims and, as evident in Gujarat, sometimes threatens their very survival. But it can do no good to the Hindus. It corrupts the spirit of their religion and corrodes its social structure.

The durability of the Indian nation-state depends on the dissolution of the majority–minority syndrome. Alas, here as in many other places things move in circles. The syndrome can be cured only when large sections of Hindus begin to really value the idea of equal citizenship, to uncouple equality from sameness; and when Muslim leaders and their blind followers, having fatefully embraced conservative communitarianism, adopt a less instrumentalist attitude to liberal and democratic institutions. None of this is possible, however, unless the syndrome is treated and cast off.

How do we break this cycle? Political imagination is scarce in these difficult times but it needs no great political acumen to grasp that, for a start, those currently exacerbating the syndrome must immediately be stopped in their tracks, isolated and shunned. Unless this is done, India, its communities and its people, are unlikely to survive, let alone prosper.


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