Communal Violence and the Secular Alternative

It is on the issue of the religious Other that we arrive at the primary, contextual backdrop in which Engineer writes: namely, that of communal rioting between Hindus and Muslims in contemporary India. The central argument that he puts forth concerning communal violence is that, contrary to the dominant discourse in Indian society, not only is religion not the principal cause behind such conflict, but it can act as a rich resource for peace-building between the two com- munities.117 Instead, Engineer posits, elite politics is the main culprit behind communal violence:

Communalism is not, as is often thought by some, a product of religion, but, rather, of the politics of the elite of a religious community. In other words religion per se does not give birth to communalism; a religious community does ... It is competitive politics between the elites of two or more communities, which give rise to communalism.[1]

The key argument here is that politicians play a vital role in stirring up discord between Hindus and Muslims to safeguard their own interests, to consolidate control over their respective communities. This thesis certainly holds true in the Hindu context, in which Hindu nationalist groups have consistently used the Dalits (literally, the Crushed People, denoting the so-called Untouchables), in addition to other disenfranchised Hindus of lower caste standing, to attack Muslims, especially during the Gujarat riots in 2002.[2] Playing the identity card so as to exploit the historic exclusion of lower caste Hindus from mainstream Indian society, these nationalist groups have called on poor Hindus to attack the Muslim Other in order to prove their Hinduness.[3]

Engineer’s elite politics argument is unsound, however, when it comes to the Muslim community. Indeed, the quoted passage above gives the impression that Hindus and Muslims, in terms of socioeconomic standing and political power, are roughly on a par with one another. Though there is undoubtedly a wide discrepancy in material standing amongst Hindus, Indian Muslims—as Engineer himself notes—are almost as economically impoverished as Dalits.[4] For instance, a survey conducted on childhood education (6-14 years) revealed that in the 1992-3 school year upper caste Hindus had an enrolment rate of 80.7 per cent for boys and 64.1 per cent for girls; lower caste Hindus an enrolment rate of 66.5 per cent and 44.9 per cent; and Muslims 66.5 per cent and 52.9 per cent.[5] Furthermore, while the state has sought to rectify the plight of the Hindu poor, it has continued to turn a blind eye to their Muslim counterparts:

The Government of India has put in place several policies to reverse the disadvantages suffered by two major groups—Dalits and adivasis [literally, the indigenous people]. These include scholarships and grants, reserved quota for admission to coveted educational programmes, and reserved quota for employment in government and public sectors. Many of these policies have been in place since independence in 1947, but have been implemented far more vigorously since 1990. Since the state plays an important role in Indian educational system and government employment forms about two-thirds of the jobs in the formal sector, one expects these policies to have a significant impact. There have been no such explicit policies and programmes favouring the largest minority religious group, Muslims, who too like Dalits and adivasis have been victims of social exclusion and marginalization from the mainstream Indian society.[6]

Communal violence in India, then, is not about two, roughly equal parties battling it out with each other, but rather of a far more powerful and established community besieging a vulnerable religious minority. To be sure, Engineer has been outspoken in condemning Hindu violence against Muslims in Gujarat, showing how this alleged riot was, in fact, a premeditated and meticulously executed massacre of Muslims.[7] Yet he is not so swift to point fingers at the Hindu community when it comes to other cases of communal rioting, resorting instead to a more generalized and less controversial language of criticizing politicians and elite politics, despite the fact that his own writings acknowledge the deep complicity of the Hindu- dominated Indian state, and of the police force in particular, during acts of communal violence against Muslims.[8]

Engineer calls for secularism as a lasting solution to communal discord. In 1993, he, along with a number of Hindu and Muslim academics and activists, established the ‘Center for the Study of Society and Secularism’—a research organization committed to countering communal violence in India. The Center publishes two journals that clearly underscore its ideological commitments, titled Secular Perspective and the Indian Journal of Secularism, and through which Engineer disseminates his writings. Given the centrality of religion and spirituality in South Asian life, it is important to point out here that secularism as a discourse has a distinct meaning in the Indian context. As Engineer notes, secularism does not refer to an atheistic rejection of religion, but rather to a political philosophy conceived during India’s independence to ensure that the country’s multiple faith traditions would be treated with equality and respect.[9] Secular nationalism in India, then, was envisaged as a crucial counterweight to communal politics, for while the latter divided the nation, the former united it.[10] Because of its emphasis on inclusion, the call for a thoroughly secular state has long been a mutual rallying point for Indian progressives, including Leftists, feminists, and secular nationalist reformists.[11] Indeed, Indian Muslims like Engineer are not the only religious minorities to have picked up the banner of secularism. The Christian theologian and social activist M.M. Thomas (d. 1996) is a compelling case in point. Deeply influenced by the horrific communal violence that erupted during Partition between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, Thomas became a staunch supporter of secularism, calling on fellow Christians and church leaders to partake in the creation of a socialist and democratic India, in which all religious communities would be welcomed and protected.[12] But the problem with Indian secularism, bemoans Engineer, is that it looks far better on paper than in practice. For while the Indian constitution upholds the principle of secularism, securing the rights of religious minor- ities,[13] successive governments—the majority of which, interestingly enough, have been led by the so-called secular Congress Party—have appeased the interests of Hindu lobbyists rather than abiding by constitutional dictates.131

His sweeping accent on the secular is problematic, however, because of the normativity of Hinduism in contemporary India. Comprising the bulk of the population, the experiences of the Hindu community have effectively become institutionalized, constituting the default narrative of what it means to be Indian. As a result, religious minorities, and particularly Muslims, have become the Other of Indian nationalist modernity. The Bengali historian of Hindu-background, Dipesh Chakrabarty, recounts his experience growing up in the Indian schooling system:

I am also very sadly aware of the historical gap between Hindu and Muslim Bengalis ... this forgetting of the Muslim was deeply embedded in the education and upbringing I received in independent India. Indian Bengali anticolonial nationalism implicitly normalized the ‘Hindu.’ Like many others in my situation, I look forward to the day when the default position in narratives of Bengali modernity will not sound exclusively or even primarily Hindu.[14]

It is precisely because of the universalization of Hindu discourses, such as in the national educational curriculum, that Hinduness has taken on an aura of neutrality. The field of law is another case in point. That Hindu nationalists, when countering Muslim demands for their own civil law system, have called for the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code,[15] as opposed to an explicitly Hindu civil code, reflects the close nexus between Hinduness and codified, secular law. The problem with Engineer’s language of secularism, then, is that it fails to raise the following, critical question: secularism on whose terms? That is, who gets to define the secular?[16] Though religious minorities and political progressives have rallied around secularism, especially in the face of militant Hindu nationalism, it is the Hindu community that has nevertheless set the basis, the parameters of secular discourse in India. As Engineer himself notes, Hindus consistently portray themselves as being secular and liberal, while, conversely, presenting Muslims as being, at best, religiously conservative and, at worst, raging fundamentalists.[17] Indeed, this deeply reductive discourse of contrasting the secular, modern Hindu with the fanatical, medieval Muslim is so entrenched within Indian society that even expressly Hindu supremacist groups like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—a major political movement built on the ideology of Hindu nationalism (hindutva)—have claimed that Hindus, by their very nature, are secular and that it is due to Hindu efforts that India is a secular state.[18] At what point, therefore, does Engineer’s blanket espousal of secularism inadvertently play into this dichotomous discourse?

  • [1] Engineer, The Gujarat Carnage, 2.
  • [2] Asghar Ali Engineer, ‘Dalit-Muslim Dialogue’, Secular Perspective, 16 August2004, available at: accessed 12 August 2016.
  • [3] Ibid. 4 Ibid.
  • [4] 122 Sonia Bhalotra and Barnarda Zamora, ‘Social Divisions in Education in India’,
  • [5] in Handbook of Muslims in India: Empirical and Policy Perspectives, eds. RakeshBasant and Abusaleh Shariff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 191. Thisvolume is a landmark contribution to our knowledge of Muslim poverty, documenting how Muslims have fared in fields like the labour market, education and childhealthcare.
  • [6] Sonalde Desai and Veenu Kulkarni, ‘Unequal Playing Field: Socio-ReligiousInequalities in Educational Attainment', in Handbook of Muslims in India: Empiricaland Policy Perspectives, eds. Rakesh Basant and Abusaleh Shariff (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2010), 285.
  • [7] Engineer, The Gujarat Carnage, 21.
  • [8] Asghar Ali Engineer, ‘Secularism and its Problems in India’, Secular Perspective,1 December 2007, available at: accessed 12 August 2016.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Needham and Rajan, 13-14.
  • [11] Bastiaan Wielenga, ‘Liberation Theology in Asia’, in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 59.
  • [12] Ibid, 66. 5 Engineer, ‘How Secular is India Today?’
  • [13] 131 Engineer, ‘Secularism and its Problems in India’.
  • [14] Chakrabarty, 21. 2 Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam, 166.
  • [15] 134 The anthropologist Talal Asad has played a pioneering role in challenging theperceived neutrality, the ahistoricity of secularism, situating this discourse within awider web of power relations. See Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity,Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003) and David Scott and
  • [16] Charles Hirschkind eds., Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (Standford: Stanford University Press, 2006).
  • [17] Engineer, The Gujarat Carnage, 17. It is worthwhile noting that Hindu calls fora Uniform Civil Code have routinely been wrapped in a rhetoric of Muslim modernization: specifically, that the implementation of a universal legal system will enlightenthe backward Muslim community and liberate their passive, agentless women fromIslamic bondage, such as by abolishing polygamy. In doing so, it will facilitate theintegration of Muslims into the nation. See Flavia Agnes, ‘The Supreme Court, theMedia, and the Uniform Civil Code Debate in India’, in The Crisis of Secularism inIndia, eds. Anuradha D. Needham and Rajeswari S. Rajan (Durham, US: DukeUniversity Press, 2007), 297-8.
  • [18] Engineer, The Gujarat Carnage, 17. 3 Engineer Interview, 2010.
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