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Digging up the roots of violence in the country

Janice Savina Rodrigues|NT NETWORK

US-based professor of political science Ajay Verghese was in Goa to talk about his research and book ‘The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India’ NT NETWORK caught up with the academician to find out if there is a link between the disturbances India faces now and the colonial rule of the past


Why are some places in India affected by religious violence while the others are not? Why does caste form the root cause of riots in some regions while the others are untouched? Did the British really create a divide, or where they just driving a wedge deeper in an already fissured India? These are the questions that Ajay Verghese has tried to find answers for and his research findings have been published in a book ‘The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Violence in India’ published by the Stanford University Press.

An assistant professor of Political Science at the University of California Riverside, Verghese holds a PhD from The George Washington University, and has been a post-doctoral fellow at the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. His research interests focusing on Indian politics, ethnicity, political violence, historical legacies and religion, propelled him to publish several articles in these areas. He is currently a Fulbright-Nehru scholar in India, and is working on a book on secularisation in the Hindu tradition.

Though his book focuses on the colonial origins of violence in present day India, Verghese strongly supports the idea that a divide existed much before the British or any other European colonial power set food on the sub-continent. In this interview with NT NETWORK, Verghese talks about his research and how political scientists need to look at Indian history before the colonial rule.

  1. We have been told through our history books that the British had a divide-and-rule policy that could have been carried down the ages and into modern day India. During your research what were the other reasons you have come across for the divide?

There is no doubt that at various points the British used a policy of divide-and-rule toward Hindus and Muslims, but the real question to me is whether they created the divide or exploited a pre-existing divide. For the most part, scholars in political science (my discipline) have been obsessed with the British, but haven’t really investigated what happened before colonialism. There is a lot of evidence that Hindus and Muslims were already divided to some extent, and perhaps all the British did was further exploit this division.


  1. Could you provide us with some instances of the pre-colonial incidents that indicate such a divide?

In terms of Hindu-Muslim conflict, it is clear that this did not begin with British rule. I think most historians would agree with that; they would only disagree with how exactly these pre-colonial conflicts should be categorised. You can look, for example, at the 17th century conflicts between Aurangzeb and Shivaji. Some scholars will say that this is not religious conflict, it’s only a ‘political’ conflict. That assumes that religion and politics are not (or should not be) related, which is a very western assumption. Clearly there was a religious motive (along with other motives) to Aurangzeb reinstituting the jizyah, or Shivaji and the Marathas and their re-conquest of many parts of the Mughal Empire. We should not sanitise these conflicts to remove the religious aspect.


  1. What could be the few causes or the root for the pre-colonial violence?

I think, and my research shows, that the 17th century battles between Aurangzeb-Shivaji were when Hindu-Muslim conflict became “modern.” This was when the conflict became, even on a small scale, framed as violence between two religious communities. And those areas where the battles took place – around Maharashtra and Gujarat – are some of the most riot-prone areas of India today. That’s not a coincidence. More broadly speaking, the root cause of these conflicts is probably the diversity of India itself. Few countries have the kind of diversity that India does, and this is a difficult problem to manage.


  1. In your book you have said that there is difference in the way violence manifests itself in different parts of India. What were these differences and what could be the possible reasons for this trend? Your research also points out that there are marked differences in the cast v/s religion factors played in the different areas of India, why was that so?

My research – based on archival fieldwork, interviews, and statistical analysis – finds that there is a clear pattern of ethnic conflict across India. In areas formerly ruled by the British, you see higher levels of conflict around caste and tribal identities; for example, the Naxalite movement in central-eastern India. In areas formerly ruled by princes, you see higher levels of religious conflict. I think this pattern originated in the colonial period, especially after 1857. The British saw India in terms of caste, and implemented policies that intensified caste and tribal conflict. The princes, by contrast, were mainly Hindu or Muslim kings; they saw India in terms of religion, and tended to implement policies that intensified religious conflict.


  1. What about the time before the British? Were there no instances of violence then?

Pre-colonial India has been written about extensively by historians and religious studies scholars, but political scientists need to catch up. My own view is that the Hindu-Muslim conflict is a pre-colonial phenomenon. The main problem is that we have such good records of the British period but comparatively less for the pre-British period. I’m working now on collecting data on pre-colonial conflict in India.


  1. What about the other colonial powers in India? Did you come across any significant impact of the other European rulers as far as divisive rule was concerned?

I haven’t done much research on other colonial powers in India. That would be an exciting area for exploration, and I hope other scholars will look into it. If you think about the Portuguese in Goa or the French in Mahé or Puducherry, they probably also had to think about using divide-and-rule at various points. European rulers could not come to India and govern the native population without trying to provoke infighting between indigenous groups.


  1. What are the different forms of violence you have studied while working on your book?

The main forms of violence that I study are caste, tribal, and religious conflict. There are plenty of scholars who look at religious violence – Hindu-Muslim riots, for example – but caste and tribal violence get less systematic attention. I hope my book and the work of other scholars can change that.


  1. Do you feel migration is a boon or bane when it comes to ethnic violence? We’ve seen the case of the Bengali Muslims in Assam, do you feel that this could also stem from a colonial past?

I tend to think that immigration is always a long-term good, but in the short term it can be very disruptive. India is one of the most diverse – if not the most diverse – countries on the planet, and it will always have a difficult time managing this diversity. In the short term, whenever there is major immigration or migration, there is always a chance of more ethnic violence, and so states have to be more vigilant at these times.


  1. What about the violence in terms of Christian and other minority groups? Do you feel that missionary aspects of the colonial powers left a bitter taste in the staunch Hindu or Muslim areas and thus it is manifested through the violence of recent times?

One of the areas I studied in my book was Travancore, a staunchly Hindu state where Christian missionaries were also very active. In Travancore, there was definitely a noteworthy amount of Hindu-Christian conflict, whether in the form of riots, or just protests and demonstrations. I think you still find those problems in southern Kerala today. On the other hand, the missionaries had a positive effect in a roundabout way: they were effective at educating untouchables, and the Travancore government was so terrified of mass conversions to Christianity that they began to improve their policies for dalits. For example, Travancore was the first polity in India to open up its temples to untouchables in 1936, and the missionaries definitely helped spur that change.


  1. The more recent incidents of sectarianism seen in beef bans, mob lynching and cow vigilante groups have rarely been seen with the same intensity in earlier times. What are your thoughts on this and the origins of such violent measures?

There does seem to be a disturbing amount of sectarian conflict occurring in India today. I think, sadly, it’s a very common thing happening around the world: populist leaders (not just Modi in India, but also leaders in other countries, such as Trump in the United States) promise amazing development gains, and when they fail to deliver, they resort to identity politics and scapegoating. That’s what I think is happening with Muslims and other minority groups in India today.


  1. India has had a history conflict but there was coexistence, tolerance as well and an assimilation of people from varied ethnicity, be it the Muslims or even the Portuguese and the British to a certain extent. When we study India (in political science) as a nation in today’s time, do we as a people focus more on the assimilation or that of conflict?

I would say that we definitely focus more on coexistence and tolerance, which makes sense. The vast majority of Hindus and Muslims in India live peacefully. No one can deny that. Ethnic violence is always rare. But I think we should never try to whitewash or explain away the violence that does occur between religious groups or caste groups. India should be proud of how it has managed its diversity, but there is no need to exaggerate the record.

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