As the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges, the noun “communalism” has a different meaning in South Asia than in the English speaking West, where it invokes something “shared by the whole community”, or “owned in common”. The South Asian meaning heads in the opposite direction, referring not to sharing and solidarity within a community but to separation and hostility across communities defined by religion. For Indians living in the Modi era, the word offers an unsettling insight that is also a challenge. When its two meanings are taken together, “communalism” becomes a hinge word. It yokes together the contradictory senses of a “we” feeling brought about by solidarities, and a “they” feeling inciting animosities. In our time, such a juxtaposition provokes the uncomfortable question: are our most effective forms of community built on shared hatreds rather than shared ideals?

The line of ‘restraint’

This question forced itself on me last week when I visited Atali with two of my colleagues. About 50 kilometres from Delhi, Atali is a village in the Ballabhgarh tehsil of Faridabad district in Haryana. According to the 2011 Census, it has about 1,200 households and a population of a little less than 7,000 people. It is also the latest addition to the national list of communal hotspots since the evening of May 25, when a Hindu mob attacked Muslim residents who were praying at the makeshift mosque that has been the subject of dispute for several years. In a nearly three hour session of orchestrated violence, men and women were beaten, children terrorised, houses burnt and broken, property destroyed and livestock stolen. The local police stayed away during this time, returning only to escort the victims to the Ballabhgarh police station and the injured to hospital. The entire Muslim population of the village numbering about 400 people fled, and about 150 people including women and children were camping in the Ballabhgarh thana for a week. Although at least three persons were seriously injured, suffering severe burns, axe wounds and broken bones, no one was killed; and despite being beaten and manhandled, none of the women were raped.

This fact — that much worse could have happened but didn’t — proved to be a recurrent motif, like the chorus line of a song, or the sam beat on which percussion and solo meet. It was there in our brief conversations with the Jats of Atali, and it appeared frequently in the media accounts of the riot and its aftermath. When voiced by the aggressors or on their behalf, it became a claim to virtuous restraint on the part of a “majority” fully capable of doing far greater harm. Oddly enough, the same theme was also echoed by the victims, though from a different angle. Everyone we spoke to in the Muslim neighbourhood was convinced that only the merciful intervention of an all-powerful ooparwala [Almighty] had saved them from certain death.

Target of ire

Weighed down by the voyeurs’ guilt of safe outsiders, we walked around soot-blackened homes littered with the heartbreaking debris of devastated domesticity. The visible evidence supported the attackers’ claim of restraint, but only in the sense that the primary targets were the signs of upward mobility rather than lives and limbs. The homes and property of the two most prosperous Muslim families received maximum attention. About a dozen parked vehicles including cars, motorcycles and scooters, and a tractor and tempo were completely destroyed and had already been towed away. Valuable buffaloes and goats were stolen. Air conditioners, refrigerators, coolers, washing machines and gas stoves were smashed. Fancy furniture and show cases were burnt or broken. Tiled walls and floors were stripped, the tiles reduced to rubble, and the exposed brick surfaces left to look like poor people’s homes should. Compared to these primary targets, the other debris was just collateral damage: Burnt ceiling fans with drooping, fire-melted blades hanging from sooty roofs like macabre three-petalled flowers; a child’s school bag lying in a corner with charred books and notebooks showing through its open flaps; or cooking vessels in various stages of damage flung around on kitchen floors…

The calibration of cruelty makes Atali different. If we add the active efforts of its Jat elders to persuade their Muslim neighbours to return to the village, Atali becomes almost unique in the recent history of communal violence. And yet, there is so much else that follows a well worn script. A riot was pre-announced after a recent court order vacated the stay on the construction of the mosque. A public campaign was mounted in a dozen surrounding villages to recruit the required mob. A local woman played a prominent role in exhorting the menfolk and gathered a trolley load of women rioters. The pretexts leading up to the actual attack are also very familiar — alleged harassment of women and dispute over the location of the mosque. This is in the face of the proven facts that the site has been used for prayers by Muslims for the past several decades if not more; and that the land on which it stands has long been recognised as Wakf land in the official revenue records. Multiple court cases intended to block construction of the mosque have all failed, and the latest judgment strongly rebukes the mala fide suits. But opposition remains adamant and has even gained in strength. As a Jat leader told the media, court judgments mean nothing to them — they will never allow a mosque to be built in their village.

Normalising prejudice

This combination of the novel and the familiar in Atali invites us to ask if it represents a new refinement of the model of Hindutva that was inaugurated in the Gujarat riots of 2002. The famous “action-reaction” sequence of 2002 attempted to install a normalised anti-Muslim prejudice as the cornerstone of contemporary Hindutva. While Muslim-baiting is as old as Hindutva itself, the challenge was to normalise it, to legitimise it in the eyes of ordinary people to the point where it would become a self-evident truth. This is what the Gujarat model began to achieve by pulling off something unprecedented in independent India — a riot with mass killings and mass participation, but zero remorse. In a series of firsts, this historic pogrom saw the active involvement of women and the affluent middle classes; the breaching of the urban-rural divide; and the significant participation of Dalits and Adivasis. Above all, it was the first riot for which none of the major players has ever apologised. Prior to this, and regardless of the regime in power, communal riots were always explained away after the fact as exceptional moments of madness brought on by severe provocation and the instigation of a few “anti-social elements”.

Despite its significant ideological innovations, the Gujarat model proved to be a limited success. Its major achievement was in justifying an anti-Muslim pogrom and even claiming credit for it, thus making a radical break with the established tradition of dissembling followed by all political parties until then. And though it did not prove to be a liability for Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial bid, neither was it a clear asset like the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign which carried Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani to power. The carnage of 2002 also extracted a heavy price in terms of national and international damage control. In short, the Gujarat model was successful but not sustainable.

Sustainable Hindutva

Although it is important not to read too much into it too soon, we do need to examine the implications of a possible “Atali model” of sustainable Hindutva. Such a model would forego the politically expensive indulgence in extremes like the murder, rape or forcible eviction of Muslims. Instead, it would seek to cultivate a far more durable system of normalised oppression where Muslims are compelled to become permanent participants in their own subordination. The key element here would be the imposition of conditionalities limiting the extent and quality of their citizenship. Once the basic principle of subordinate citizenship is legitimised, all the old clichés extolling happy coexistence, syncretic culture, the inherent tolerance of Hinduism, etc., could be brazenly repeated — garv se.

Much of this is already happening. In Atali, the Jats recall an idyllic past where humble Muslims lived in harmony with their Hindu benefactors, even eating from the same thalis. They attribute the current friction to two Muslim families that have “become too rich”. They insist that “even now” the Muslims are welcome to stay, as long as they “adjust”, respect the wishes of the village, and let their mosque remain unbuilt… Though the obvious question about the violence is transparently evaded, it is followed by the counter-questions: Isn’t it true that no one was killed or raped? Didn’t our elders plead with them to return? These questions — and the “restrained riot” that makes them possible — hold the key to sustainability because they raise the benefits-to-costs ratio. Lukewarm media interest in a no-deaths incident rarely went beyond convenient Muslims-at-police-station visuals. The police were enabled to avoid the arrest of named rioters. The state will be compelled to offer compensation which can then be used as leverage to “settle” the matter. Time will work against the victims who must rebuild their lives and livelihoods before all else. Meanwhile, their attackers have humbled the “too rich” Muslims and terrorised the rest, rallied their own constituency, and are free to stage a repeat performance at will.

Though the “Atali model” seems both sustainable and successful, it is yet to face two major challenges — caste dynamics and electoral politics. Atali’s Muslims are low caste Fakirs and Telis; the village also has a large Dalit-Hindu population; and elections are around the corner… This space will be worth watching.

(Satish Deshpande teaches Sociology at Delhi University. The views expressed are personal. E-mail:[email protected])