Electoral Alliances and Majority versus Minority Communalism

The discourse and politics of equidistance from majority communalism and minority communalism is flawed because it equates two unequal concepts. The Indian nationalist perspective on this equidistant stance focuses more on attacking minority communalism because it is perceived as a potential secessionist threat to India’s territorial integrity, while majority communalism—although it could develop into fascism—does not threaten India’s territorial integrity. The secular fundamentalist perspective, through its theoretical rejection of religious groups, ends up, in practice, reinforcing the existing power of the majority communal group. The perspective of institutionalised Hindu communalism rejects the equivalence approach on the grounds that majoritarian communalism pervades multiple institutions in India and increases the vulnerability of India’s religious minorities. It can only be defeated from an egalitarian perspective by recognising the social, cultural and political power of religion.

The recent spat between Congress leader Anand Sharma and West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is not merely a conflict within the Congress party but is also symptomatic of a deeper fault-line in political and academic discourse on “communalism” in India. The argument concerns the alliance formed between the West Bengal Congress and the Left, which in turn has formed an alliance with the Indian Secular Front (ISF) led by Muslim leader Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui, to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in this month’s assembly elections. Sharma attacked the alliance by characterising ISF as a communal party, and by arguing that the Congress cannot be selective in its choice of alliances with communal parties, while Chowdhury defended the alliance as part of an effort to achieve the larger objective of defeating the majoritarian Hindu communalism of BJP (Manoj 2021).

In addition, Chowdhury has further questioned the consistency of Sharma’s anti-communalism by pointing out that Sharma never criticised the alliance made by the Congress with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Arguments similar to Sharma’s position have been aired in the context of electoral alliances in Kerala where the attempt by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) to forge alliances with minority religious parties to defeat the BJP have been singled out for criticising the LDF as being soft on minority communalism (Ramachandran 2021).

The wider significance of Anand Sharma’s position needs to be understood in the context of one school of thought in the Indian discourse on communalism that not only lays special emphasis on providing evidence of “minority communalism,” but even equates minority communalism with majority communalism. A similar debate took place in 2018 in Indian Express after Harsh Mander’s brilliant article described the dire situation facing the minority Muslim community in India after the virulent upsurge of majority Hindu communalism symbolised by the rise of the BJP (Mander 2018a). In a critical response to Mander, Ramachandra Guha referred to the school of thought that equates majority and minority communalism. Guha (2018a) cited the words of Hamid Dalwai, a Muslim moderniser, “If Hindu communalism is responsible for Muslim communalism, by the same logic it would follow that Muslim communalism is equally responsible for Hindu communalism” in order to demonstrate the position of equating majority and minority communalism.

Inequality in Power Relations 

The central flaw in the argument made by Dalwai and, to a lesser extent, by Guha2 is that it does not acknowledge the huge inequality in the structure of power relations between the majority Hindu community in India and the minority religious communities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains).3 By equating two unequal parties, the discourse of equating majority and minority communalism further reinforces the power of majority communalism and thereby deepens the inequality of the power relations. 

There are two distinct arguments that equate majority and minority communalism, and both are flawed. One school of thought derives its inspiration from the ideology of Indian nationalism. Devotees of the creation of a unified Indian national identity view communal/sectarian nationalism within both majority and minority groups as dangerous. However, in this narrative, only minority communalism is considered as having the potential to affect the territorial integrity of the nation. Majority communalism is perceived as dangerous simply because it might increase the alienation of the minorities and drive them to seek to secede. The criticism of majority communalism is therefore merely derivative, based on the implications of majority communalism for encouraging minority communalism. Since it believes that majority communalism by its very nature does not endanger India’s territorial integrity, majority communalism is not the focus of its attack—although it recognises the possibility of the development of authoritarianism or fascism. This argument, therefore, focuses solely on criticising minority communalism.

Positing minority and majority communalism as equals in this nationalist framework amounts in reality to more hostility to minority communalism than to majority communalism. This perspective, therefore, eventually ends up endorsing the unequal power relations between the majority Hindu community and the various religious minorities in India. It fails to recognise, acknowledge and respect the attempts by members of minority communities to create solidarity as a way to reduce or negate the disadvantages suffered by the members of the minority community as a result of the aggressive and domineering solidarity of the members of the majority community. The defensive solidarity of the minority communities, as a form of social capital, arises out of the situational reaction of a class of people faced with common adversaries. To criticise the attempts at solidarity by the members of the minority community by describing them in the derisory terminology of “minority communalism” is to disadvantage them further compared to the privileged majority. It would be similar to condemning women’s attempts to create solidarity/self-supporting networks against male domination as reverse sexism or characterising minority ethnic groups’ solidarity movements (such as Black Lives Matter) against White racism as reverse racism.

The second school of thought that equates minority communalism and majority communalism comes from the secularist perspective. From the standpoint of secular fundamentalism, any kind of religious grouping is undesirable whether it belongs to a minority or a majority community. On the face of it, this position appears principled, but since it also ignores the structural power inequality between a majority religious community and a minority religious community, it amounts to accepting the existing structural inequality. To take the example of the struggle against racism in Western countries, no one would seriously believe that a principled anti-racist would reject the concept of racism and therefore fail to distinguish between majority and minority racial groups, considering them both equally repugnant. By refusing to recognise the institutional dominance of white ethnic groups, such an individual would in fact perpetuate their dominance.

It can be argued that minority communalism is not as meaningless or powerless as “reverse sexism” or “reverse racism.” Even if we accept this questionable premise, it is undeniable that minority communalism is hugely weak in comparison with the power of majority communalism. Therefore, even if minority communalism has its risks, any discourse that equates majority and minority communalism remains dangerously flawed because of its denial of the institutional power associated with majority communalism. The majority communalism acquires this power through its capture of various institutions but even more dangerously from its discourses and quotidian practices becoming normalised and hegemonic to such an extent that any deviation from that normal gets signalled and vilified as divisive minority communalism. Equating majority communalism and minority communalism, therefore, weakens theoretical tools and political strategies to combat majority communalism and the far-reaching implications of the rise of the tentacles of majority communalism.

Institutional Communalism

The framework of institutional communalism that I articulate in the discourse on communalism in India alerts us both to the advent of Hindu dominance into a wide set of institutions and to the depth of Hindu domination within these institutions.4 It sheds light on the huge inequality between the majority Hindu community and the religious minorities. The vulnerability of two of India’s recognised religious minorities—Christians and Sikhs—is highlighted by their empirical size; each community constitutes only about 2% of India’s population. Even the Muslim minority—the largest religious minority in India—constitutes only about 13% to 14% of India’s population. The overwhelming majority of Hindus in India reinforces the salience of the conceptual framework of institutional communalism and its use in understanding the structural inequality in power relations between the majority religious group and the minority religions. 

A consistent struggle against institutionalised Hindu communalism can only be waged from an egalitarian perspective and not from an Indian nationalist or secularist perspective. The Indian nationalist perspective eventually becomes biased against minority communalism in spite of its formal adherence to equidistance from both forms of communalism, while the secular perspective, though apparently principled, also ends up supporting the dominance of majority communalism through its refusal to acknowledge the inequality between different religious communities. The egalitarian perspective is also secular, but its strength lies in acknowledging unequal power relations between the majority community and the minority communities, based on different identity markers such as religion, race, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation. The framework of institutionalised racism has highlighted the structures of unequal power relations between the mainstream white majority and non-White ethnic minorities. This framework has also helped to shape policy tools to weaken, reduce and eradicate racism. Adopting the theoretical framework of institutional communalism in India has a similar result of weakening Hindu communalism and eventually all forms of religious sectarianism.

Conclusions

Defeating Hindu communal parties and organisations at the ballot box remains an important strategic task and should be seen as a part of eradicating institutional communalisms. The political significance of the electoral alliances being forged in West Bengal and Kerala against the BJP should be viewed from this strategic task. However, the larger challenge should not be forgotten that even if the BJP and its allies are defeated electorally but if institutional Hindu communalism remains pervasive in varying degrees in India’s judiciary, civil services, electoral and parliamentary institutions, security forces, prisons, academia, media, corporate business and even NGOs, it will continue as a social, cultural and politico-economic force to disadvantage the lives of minority communities in India.

 

The author is grateful for comments by Husain Dalwai and Sumedh Dalwai on an earlier draft of this article. The usual disclaimer applies.

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