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Apr 14, 2023

The Deadly Religious Procession

When governments do not want, communal riots do not happen. This is the ugly reality of our democracy; human lives are dispensable in the relentless search for power and more power.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The advent of a religious festival fills me, and no doubt countless others, with dread. People will be harmed; people will die. This numbing, overpowering fear is not unfounded. Public celebrations of religious festivals that culminate in the procession, slide into eruptions of communal violence in a shockingly short period of time. It is almost as if the murderous targeting of another religious community, and human sacrifice, forms the concluding part to rituals. Processions that wend their way through roads and markets, work places and residential neighbourhoods do not take the shortest route to their destination. Even if organisers of the procession have been expressly told not to enter ‘sensitive areas’ by the police, the procession announces its entry into these very spaces aggressively; chanting provocative slogans, mouthing abuse, screaming, jostling and hollering.

Fairly quickly we see the flareup: mobs bay for blood, deadly weapons are brandished and used, and people crazed with blood-lust brutalise bodies and minds. In most cases the police stand around doing nothing. When violence peters out the procession leaves. Battered bodies and destroyed homes, demolished carts that provided their owners with a pittance, and simmering embers of what were once sweat-shops, are the legacy of the procession. We have seen this happening year after year in our cities.

The religious procession is not new to India. Historians tell us that till the end of the 19th century in Bombay Presidency, Muslims and Hindus lived in a degree of amity and often participated in the religious procession taken out by the other community. One of the major communal riots in India occurred in Bombay in 1893 in the aftermath of the 1892 reforms introduced by the colonial government. Reportedly more than a hundred people were killed.

The 1892 reforms vide the Indian Councils Act provided for nominated Indian representatives in legislative bodies. The inclusion of Indians did not involve direct elections. Nevertheless, the Act set off a storm of competitive mobilisation between Hindus and Muslims. It is one of the political ironies of modern representative democracy, that the institutionalisation of the market and of the electoral system catalyses intense rivalries between individuals and communities. People jostle for place in the competitive domain of the economy and the polity. In India the communal riot was an outcome of the competition to be represented in legislative assemblies.

Also read: The Wrath Yatras of Ram Navami

The riot, writes Ram Gopal the biographer of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, upset the social equilibrium of Pune. Leaders of the Hindu community flocked to Tilak and requested him to intervene in order to foreclose the possibility of overrepresentation of the other community in legislative councils. Tilak proceeded to politically mobilise the Hindu community through the revival of festivals that had died out after the end of the Peshwa rule in Maharashtra.

Five Ganapati idols, writes Gopal, were set up in Pune, and funds were collected for the celebrations. The transformation of the festival from a personal to a collective celebration led to the consolidation of identities around religious symbols. Tilak wrote in the Kesari that the Ganapati festival was comparable to the Olympian and the Pythian festivals of the Greeks.

The consequences of the politicisation of religion could have been foretold. In 1894 the organisers of a procession meant to commemorate the Ganapati festival, defied the order of the magistrate that they should not pass by a mosque. The detour triggered off a communal riot. As public celebrations of religious festivals spread over the country, communal riots became an integral part of the rituals that concluded the festival. The politicisation of religion to consolidate political identities bore, as we know, a bitter harvest. We suffer the consequences till today. Just last week two people were killed across six states during Ram Navami celebrations and in some cases the procession.

The psychiatrist Sudhir Kakar in his The Colours of Violence suggests that among the various incidents that have precipitated communal violence, two occur with such regularity that they may fairly be called archetypes. One of these has to do with rumours over killing of cows; the other relates to disputes over religious procession.  In 1886, he tells us, riots occurred in various cities of Punjab. In Ambala the precipitating instance was the suggestion made by the Muslim community that the route of the procession should be changed. In Ludhiana the trigger was provided by a rumour that a cow had been sacrificed at a Muslims’ house. In the same year in Delhi two different religious processions of Hindus and Muslims clashed with each other because their routes had crossed.

Kakar is not in the business of building up statistics on processions and communal riots, and categorising them. His intent is different, he wants to find out why people act not as individuals who might possess a modicum of rationality in their lives, but as mindless parts of a mob. A procession, argues Kakar, is necessary for the creation of a physical group, or a group represented in the bodies rather than the minds of the members. This shift from the mind to the body is an indispensable precondition for the crowd to become an instrument of violence. The sensory experience of belonging to a kin group, which for many is a relatively abstract entity, touches a very different kind of a chord. The individual is wrapped up in the crowd, and continuously and sensuously pounded through all the avenues provided by his body. He loses his individuality.

French scholars working on mob violence during the French Revolution in 1789 have come to the same conclusion. Elias Canetti focusing on destructive collective behaviour during the Revolution in his Crowds and Power tells us that mob violence transgresses generally established and universally valid distances and boundaries. It destroys a hierarchy that is no longer recognised as binding. When mob violence thins out, these boundaries are restored.

Kakar similarly argues that the individual has no problem touching or being touched when he is part of a crowd. The religious procession produces the most physical of groups. Violence against the other community, is the logical inference of these arguments, reinforces this sense of being part of a group. It solidifies identification with one’s own community, and distance from the other community.

Also read: Defaming Hinduism Through Vandalism

There was a time when scholars and chroniclers of communal violence thought that riots constitute spasmodic and episodic events in the biography of societies. However, this breakdown in social codes was not permanent. The rules of civil engagement pause during the procession that leads to violence. They are restored when normalcy returns to the body politic. Riots have a short time span and when the psychic and physical high generated during the course of the violence ebbs, limits on human behaviour are re-established. Communal violence take place in a no-mans’ land where neither the past nor the future is of much import. It occurs in a time-warp that mindlessly and meaninglessly constitutes the present, a present that is caught up in a vicious but a terminable spiral of violence.

The problem is that if we think of communal violence in India in this manner, we type it as an abnormality or as a departure from the norm. Today we have to ask – does communal violence during religious events have nothing to do with history, or with the present, or with social and political representations that form the stuff of everyday life, or with struggles over who owns an intangible entity called the nation, or with the demonisation of minorities, or above all with the hateful, ugly speeches delivered by cynical politicians?

Politicians cast in this mould simply do not let a society forget. Milan Kundera had memorably written that the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. True, but when we are confronted by cynical and ugly politics, history is as much about memory as about forgetting. We must remember, but when the past becomes an impediment to the project of living together well in a democracy, it is best to learn lessons from these memories, lay them aside and move on. The ugly reality of our politics is that politicians in ignoble pursuit of power do not let societies move on. They deliberately provide the trigger that leads to lynching, crowd violence, and the murderous politics of the procession. They trigger the transition from a religious festival, to a rally, to a procession and then into the horrifying spectacle of violence.

This is borne out by a wealth of studies that establish that communal violence is not contingent or happenstance. It happens only when the government allows it to happen. When governments do not want, communal riots do not happen. This is the ugly reality of our democracy; human lives are dispensable in the relentless search for power and more power. The rest of us stand around wringing our hands with tears in our eyes. We have been reduced to an audience that has been silenced or that makes excuses. We should re-read Albert Camus who had famously said that ‘if you keep on excusing, eventually you give your blessing to the slave camp, to organised executioners, to the cynicism of great political monsters, you finally hand over your brothers’.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

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