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A serious look at communal intolerance in India

Why do communal riots keep occurring in India? Are they spontaneous? Or do they expose a deeper malaise in society? To what extent are the authorities culpable for the mindless violence? Is the state even-handed vis-à-vis Hindus and Muslims? Which community suffers more in riots? How badly have secular values been eroded because of communalism? Have they sowed the seeds of terrorism in India? Is there a link between religious nationalism and Hindutva? Is Muslim-Hindu violence a clash of civilisations?

Retired IAS officer Prateep K Lahiri, who has had a distinguished career spanning 36 long years, plunged into the minefield of Hindu-Muslim tensions and has come out with a scholarly book. That he had to personally deal with communal riots in the early years of his service helped him gain the perspective that many lack.

But this is not a memoir; nor is it academic. It is a serious and eminently successful attempt to unravel the complexities of a problem the British Raj sowed with a view to dividing the freedom movement and which has become the biggest black spot on constitutionally secular India.

Although some 10,000 lives have been lost and 30,000 injured in Hindu-Muslim clashes in India since 1951, communal violence is not as widespread in the country as is generally believed. "Most of rural India remains unaffected to this day by the malaise." Even in urban India, this is not a universal phenomenon. The riot prone cities and towns are only 28, accounting for the bulk of the unrest. Even the anti-Muslim bias of police personnel is confined mainly to northern and western India.

Secular to the core, Lahiri rips apart Hindutva propaganda about Muslims. He brandishes statistics to show that it is Muslims who suffer the worst in riots, at the hands of both police and Hindu mobs. He also points out that traditionally orthodox Muslims in India are seriously attempting to distance themselves from jehadi elements.

He urges readers to distinguish between syncretic and exclusivist Islam. Similarly, he draws a line between the capacious view of Hindu religion and its narrow and sectarian variety.

Lahiri answers, convincingly, every question he poses. Like most scholars, he believes that the Ayodhya movement that pushed the Bharatiya Janata Party to the centre-stage of Indian politics damaged the Hindu-Muslim fabric like nothing else before. It gave birth to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and hostility between the two communities that will take a long time to heal.

His prophecy is frightening: "Till a societal consensus emerges, re-establishment of harmonious relations between Hindus and Muslims will remain a distant dream."

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