Re-thinking communalism

Re-thinking communalism
by Swadhin Sen

I dedicate this writing to my sister Sujata Sen, whose anguished memories of not having seen our father during the five years before his death, haunts her to this day, I know that this is a trivial  offering compared to her suffering.

Sincere discussions on the communal oppression and violence that exist in  Bangladesh, are very rare; much of the discussion is conducted from within established conventions, if I may add, overwhelmingly so. Hardly any  serious social scientific analysis of communalism exists. Short stories, novels or poetry depicting communal violence and oppression in post-independent Bangladesh are few and far between, they are rare enough to be counted off on one’s fingers. There are not many essays either. The silence about communalism in plays and cinemas is almost deafening.

Secular and progressive intellectuals, speaking either on his/her own behalf, or on behalf of the state, say, it is because the situation in Bangladesh is very different from the one existing in neigbouring India. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists  have co-existed in communal harmony since time immemorial;  their relations have been marked by cordiality and warmth. According to this perspective, whatever little violence and oppression has occurred, has happened either because of miscreants, or, at the instigation of one or two political parties.
While it is undoubtedly true that political instigation and pre-meditated acts have been at work,  my point is that reducing communal violence to being the work of some ‘miscreants’, or, being caused by particular ‘political parties’, is highly simplistic and problematic. Veena Das, who has conducted in-depth studies of the violence inflicted on Sikhs and the brutal attacks on Muslims in Gujrat, says something worth reflecting upon. She draws our attention to how communal violence is generally understood. The main problem, she says, lies in assuming that communal violence is separate to history and to the conditions under which we lead our social/everyday lives. Further, it is generally assumed that communal violence is an aberration from our normal human and social tendencies and practices. But in reality communal violence is enmeshed in our sociality, ie, in our social lives.1
The non-recognition that Das speaks of, is evident in the powerful discourses which we encounter in the public sphere and the media. As a matter of fact, at times this non-recognition lends itself to the argument that there are no minorities in Bangladesh. But we must remember that in an electoral democracy, one of the key identities borne by a citizen is that of being counted as a vote. In such a system, the determining factor is the number of votes. In other words, the issue of “majority” or “minority” is an essential feature of representative democracy. Given that Hindus-Buddhists-Christians-ethnic minorities are looked upon as being the Awami League’s vote bank, it should become obvious that calculating probable voting patterns at the regional and local level was very important in the 2001 elections, and also, in elections held later. After the 2001 elections, planned violence was carried out in areas where voters belonging to the minority community were a factor.
Are similar equations behind the eruption of violence in Ramu, Teknaf and Ukhia? Further, does international capital have anything to do with these attacks?
“It [the attacks in Ramu] is a conspiracy aimed at foiling the war crimes tribunal” or “it is a conspiracy to present Bangladesh as an extremist state” — these statements, oft-repeated in the public sphere, conceal the recurrence of dominant practices. Undoubtedly, the incumbent government cannot shirk its responsibility. But in the recent waves of propagation-talk shows-rallies we forget what is most important, namely, that the boundaries which separate the state, the social and the everyday, are continually broken down in incidents such as these; that, all forms of oppression complement each other in the sphere of everyday communal violence.
It is important to point out that there is no essential connection between communalism and religious belief. An atheist can become communal, while a believer too, can be non-communal. We learn of such truisms from everyday experiences, depicted in the short stories  of Krishan Chander, Saadat Hossain Manto, or in movies like Parzania. A person who loves Tagore songs, who reads Jibananda’s poetry and listens to Kirtan or Murshidi songs can also, suddenly become communal, although we are led to believe the opposite.
In a fascinating discussion on the contradiction between history and memory, Pierre Nora writes about how state, power and dominant ideas dissipate our memories; how “real memories” (our “sites of memory”) are different from history as “an object of study,” how “memory [which is] entwined in the intimacy of a collective heritage” has been substituted in contemporary times by the “ephemeral film of current events.”2 These ideas lead me to reflect on how, not only has the government not punished those who were guilty for taking part in the communal violence unleashed after  the 2001 elections, but how even secular, progressive history-writing has refused to recognise the multi-layered suffering faced by the victims. Given that we forget many things, given that we, at the same time, remember many things, that we beat our breasts to remember many things, it is urgent that we reflect  sociologically, on what is remembered and what is forgotten, on how processes of remembering and forgetting occur. This leads me to ask, how do we make sense of the 2012 communal violence? How will we remember it? It is important to point out that state has already embarked on the task of forgetting. And therefore, it is most important, nay urgent, that we re-think, that we counter-think, the issue of communalism.
Unless we raise questions about the taken-for-granted understanding of communalism and communal violence, we will not be able to counter it. We will not be able to contest and resist it. We must have the courage to recognise that the mindless repetition of “humanist” and “liberal” narratives of encountering communalism is totally inadequate. That, predicating communalism merely on the colonial state and its manifestations of power, is imbricated in our nationalist yearnings and its self-satisfactory impulses. Although archaeological and historical evidence point towards the existence of conflicts between different religious groups, these have been concealed in our history-writing; they have been silenced in our project of consolidating an imagined national unity. The failure of the project has been revealed time and again: in Ramu, in Teknaf and Ukhia. Before that, in Pathorghata, in Chirirbondor. After the 2001 elections. Revealed previously, after the attack on Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists. Revealed even earlier, and prior to “even earlier.” It has been revealed many a times. Repeatedly.
It has been revealed as having occurred in the mundane, in the lives that we live everyday.
But to say this does not mean that colonial power and the modern nation-state have been insignificant in re-constructing communalism in its modern form. On the contrary, for they have played the most effective role in re-ordering, re-configuring and re-producing communalism of pre-colonial times. The liberal idea of the modern democratic state and nationalism are fertile breeding grounds for communalism, even though our established conventions of thinking deny that state, nationalism and communalism are inseparably connected. Or maybe, instead of viewing it as a denial, it would be more appropriate to say that when the issue of their interrelationship is brought up in public forums, an eerie silence falls.
Communalism in its contemporary form bears historical continuities to pre-colonial and colonial traditions. Becoming communal, or becoming a victim of violent or non-violent communalism is closely intertwined with becoming the citizen of a modern state. To re-think the issue of communalism means that we must engage with the history of conflicts tinged with communalism in South Asia. Recently, clashes between Boros and Bengali-speaking people (in BJP terminology, illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants), the repression of Rohingyas by Buddhists in Burma, reveal that communalism crosses over the boundaries of the nation-state, a fact that liberal historians and account-givers of nationalism (whose sense of pride borders on arrogance?) cannot deny.
We must acknowledge that communalism is not an essential characteristic of human beings. It is context-dependent which means that while a person may be communal in a particular context, the same person may not be similarly communal in a different one; linear assumptions do not hold either for a wealth of empirical material indicates that it is possible for a person who is non-communal in the morning to jump into a communal fray in the evening. A person who belongs to the majority community in Bangladesh and is non-communal, may well become rabidly communal after going to the USA or to India. Communalism is situational, it is formed through the grammar of power; it is formed through our fears and insecurities. Plainly said, communalism is inseparable from the modern lives that we lead; a reality that is denied in modernist thinking, which asserts that becoming modern means that one outgrows communalism. I disagree, for evidence indicates that modernity and communalism complement each other.
Language in everyday use and harmless jokes can become communal; for instance, by calling our Hindu friends “malaun” or “khocha”, Muslim friends “mocha” or “neyre”, and our pahari friends “bocha,” we  can be lending our voice to communalism. Although these adjectives are apparently innocent  and non-aggressive, they express communal ideas and tend to reinforce communalism. By demeaning the identities of other collectivities, such everyday practices construct otherness and inferiority. We have grown up hearing tales of “black ants” and “red ants” where Hindus have repeatedly represented themselves as being harmless black ants, casting Muslims as ferocious red ones; reverse characterisations have also been employed by Muslims. Communalism thus exists in our everyday lives. Opportunities and benefits, greed, fear, politics, possessing or not possessing power and the numerical calculus of representative democracy strengthens communalism. Communal divisions and hatred gather force in state and society; they are not constant, at times, they recede, on other occasions, they gush forth in the actions of the state, of organisations, and, in our daily lives.
Communalism, as a state, often varies; the variation may be situationally-induced, or, it might depend on relationships. It is not improbable that a person who shares a cigarette with a friend belonging to another religion in the morning, can relate a communal joke about his friend’s religion at midday, and take part in burning his friend’s place of worship in the evening. The state, the socially powerful, social organisations and political parties capitalise on articulations of communal hatred, both those simmering at the surface level and ones more latent; they exploit these to further their own ends.
I would like to mention something else here, which I have observed. People who belong to the majority community in our country, just like everywhere else, are ignorant and dismissive of the lives and religious practices of people belonging to the minority communities. With all due respect toward Muslims who attend the pujas of Hindus out of feelings of cordiality, it is worth noting that a general ignorance exists about these rituals and ceremonies. Secular and progressive people, inclined to think that they are knowledgeable about these matters, are wont to view these practices as exotic, thereby constructing Hindus as their “others.” Since the relation  between the majority and the minority community is asymmetrical, since the majority view is upheld by relations of domination, these relations inevitably play a central role in constructing “otherness.” Members of the dominant community form notions about the relationship between the everyday, lived life of “minority” peoples and the everyday rituals and practices enacted by them, these cohere to form a perspective, and, regardless of whether the person is secular or not, these [notions and perspective], in combination, deepen the communal divide. It is not a matter of individual or collective choice, rather, it is by virtue of being a member of the majority group that one is obliged to live within a specific power structure, under certain conditions, it is these that determine the ways of seeing.
A review of the history of the construction of religious identities in South Asia reveals that religious practices are inextricably woven into notions of self, both collective and individual. Both kinds of nationalism — that which is apparently excessively religious, and that which is secular and progressive — have created conditions which are closely enmeshed with communalism. A sidur teep placed on a Hindu woman’s forehead, or shidur which traces the parting of her hair, or shakha bangles on her hand, are often greeted with communal and sexual harassment in the streets of Dhaka.
Liberalism and non-communalism, it needs to be stressed, has its limits. A father or brother, who is involved in non-communal and progressive politics, who is also a cultural activist, may strongly oppose his daughter or sister’s emotional involvement with a Hindu boy or a Muslim girl; if the relationship leads to marriage, the majority community, almost unvaryingly, is likely to insist that the religious identity of the spouse belonging to the minority community, be subjected to conversion. The couple’s social marginalisation is accompanied by tussles between their respective families over the Hindu-ness or Muslim-ness of their child(ren); tussles, which are aimed at securing the victory of the majority community.
In contemporary Bangladesh, the marketing of patriotism by corporate capitalism and the corporate-owned media has succeeded in concealing, and also, in censoring communal divides and communal differences. The totalising narrative of mutual goodwill and a denial of differences, in reality, works toward strengthening the identities of “us” and “them.”
But how are these differences — which at times are implicit, on other occasions, stark — transformed, how do they emerge as expressions of violence-repression-rape? Amartya Sen writes of not being able to forget the pain and fear which he felt when, only 11-years old, he witnessed Kader Mia’s killing during the riots in pre-partition Dhaka. He searches for answers in his book on identity and violence.3 How can people who have lived in the same village or neighbourhood, who had lived in intimate circles of neighbourliness and friendship, suddenly get up and slit another’s throat? How can they suddenly commit an act of rape? How can it happen, how does it happen?
I don’t think there is any simple answer. I think the reasons are varied, multi-layered; I don’t think these occurrences can be attributed to any essential, unchanging or singular reason. I don’t think simplistic renderings of psychology or politics can offer us much in the way of explanation. For Sen, the reason lies in a collective  consciousness which brings people close to each other, these can become limiting when questions of existence and survival are at stake; these limits create divisions in the collective consciousness, marking out those who are “us” from those who are “them.” On such occasions, the identities of Muslim and Hindu override  the identities of friend, neighbor, chacha, khala, bubu, bhaiya, dada, didi, nana, nanu, dadi, dadu [paternal uncle, maternal aunt, elder sister (Muslim), brother (Muslim), elder brother (Hindu), elder sister (Hindu), maternal grandmother, maternal grandfather, paternal grandmother, paternal grandfather].  Uncontrollable urges to kill are unleashed. “They” are killing us, hence, we must kill “them.” But Amartya Sen’s explanation does not help us to fully comprehend the communal violence, repression and sufferings which occur in Bangladesh.
It is because communal riots have never occurred in Bangladesh. It is because one side of the conflict has always been the victim — the worst victim of violence, of everyday repression. Theories to do with grabbing land and homestead which belong to Hindus and Buddhists, or, asserting control over business or asserting a dominant collective identity, is undoubtedly accurate and truthful, but only upto a point. It fails to explain other aspects. Theories about the conditions of everyday oppression, about the Vested Property Act, about violence following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the conditions under which violence occurred post-2001 elections, the recent violence in Ramu, Teknaf and Ukhia — while these incidences undoubtedly share similarities, there are also differences, located at different levels, making communalism as practiced and experienced, a multi-layered phenomenon. These oft-cited theories do not take into account the present corporate culture of citizenship, which must necessarily be problematised in order to rethink communalism along new lines.
Countless Hindu women were subjected to mass rape in the aftermath of the 2001 elections; the primary agents of sexual oppression were men. Perverse religious interpretations are invoked when a woman’s body is sexually attacked (since women give birth to children, the act of rape is intended to pollute or convert the next  generation, the entire community, to the religion of those who commit rape), simultaneously, varied processes which are located at different layers of the body politic come into play — the local and national calculus of politics, attacking the whole family so that they are forced to leave the country, forcing them to surrender their property. The women of Iraq and Gujrat, Tutsi women, Hindu women, Chakma women, and Bengali women during 1971 — blur into each other. The chief victim of conflict and violence is women; it is she, and her bodily autonomy, which is the victim.
Memories of pain and suffering caused by rape are intense. They force us to think about the burden of memories of collective and individual suffering. Since contemporary history distorts or wipes away these memories, they become transformed into sources of repeated everyday lived suffering. Even though the primary responsibility for the sexual violence wreaked on Hindu women post-2001 elections, lie with the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, those belonging to the Awami League too, bear their share. Many among the perpetrators-rapists have now joined the ruling party of our vote-dependent democratic state. Even though Hindus as women (and their fathers, brothers, husbands), and Hindus as a minority community were punished because they had voted for the Awami League, the latter did not stand by them, who were victimised and made to suffer, neither then, nor later. Sushil shomaj (civil society) and human rights organisations had also been silent.
Have the recent incidents of communal violence at Ramu-Teknaf-Ukhia forced us to rethink the issue? There is no such indication. Instead, with the passing of each day it seems more likely that those who were the chief perpetrators will remain hidden.  Nothing indicates either, that we are ready to grapple with the need to recognize and acknowledge the sociality of communalism.
There are other victims of communalism: the heritage sites of collectivities. These are subjected to violent attacks when ethnic conflict and communal violence flares up in other countries as well. Since heritage sites are a part of everyday religious practices, they become vulnerable to attacks. But we must remember that since a heritage gives form to a collective’s notion of self, destroying it helps to dissipate the collective notion of self. We must remember that a project underlies these acts of destruction: to rupture memories, to make people history-less. We must also bear in mind that the majority community’s collective notion of self, ie, its power and authority, is created and re-created through every act of destruction of memories and heritage;  a process that has its ebbs and flows, at times, open, on other occasions, concealed.
We cannot challenge or resist oppression if we conceal our histories and traditions of oppression and violence. It is only by keeping our memories alive that can we gather the courage to fight that which appears to be uncontestable. And it is for this reason that becoming non-communal calls for cautious practice, for devotion, for everyday renunciation. To fight againstcommunalism we need to practice and worship it everyday, in the hope of re-creating and expanding our spaces of non-communalism. Peace to all. Amin.

Translated by Rahnuma Ahmed. Swadhin Sen is associate professor, Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University.

1.    Thomas Cushman, “A Conversation with Veena Das on Religion and Violence, Suffering and Language” Hedgehog Review, Volume 6, Number 1 (Spring 2004).
2.    Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire, Representations 26, Spring 1989.
3.    Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, transl., Bhaswati Ghosh, Porichiti O Hingsha, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 2010.

[The article was published in the New Age, 11 and 12 October 2012]

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