The greater the patterns of inter-communal civic engagement in a city, the lower the likelihood of violent conflict and riots — this is the thesis of Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India by Ashutosh Varshney.

The promotion of Hindu-Muslim civic engagement is now an urgent priority.

DESPITE having earned a Ph. D in international politics 24 years ago, I have always squirmed a little at the expression “political science”. For all its fountains of theory and the associated outpourings of academic jargon, I always suspected that political studies were not and could not be a science, because the best political analyses, in my view, were those that drew from the art of understanding human behaviour. A journalist’s eye, even a novelist’s heart, I felt, were preferable in this field to a scientist’s microscope and petri-dish.

Ashutosh Varshney has proved me wrong. This 45-year-old Indian scholar from Allahabad, currently associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan (by way of Masachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and Notre Dame) has just published a book, Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, that has been 10 years in the making and that seems likely to prove seminal in its impact on the field. And it is indeed a work of science, based on comprehensive and wide-ranging field research, overflowing with charts and graphs and tables, testing a hypothesis assuredly as any lab scientist in a white coat, and coming up with answers (and further questions) that should offer further possibilities to a whole generation of political scientists to follow.

The thesis is deceptively simple: that the greater the patterns of inter-communal civic engagement in a city, the lower the likelihood of violent conflict and communal riots. To prove this, Varshney examines three pairs of Indian cities — Aligarh and Calicut (Kozhikode); Hyderabad and Lucknow; Ahmedabad and Surat. In each pair, the demographics of the two cities are similar, with broadly comparable percentages of Muslims, but one of the pair is riot-prone and the other not.

Varshney asks, why not? What is there about Calicut that makes it a less likely site of Hindu-Muslim violence than Aligarh? He delves into history, studies the social and cultural factors, analyses the politics of each place — but concludes that the real difference is that in Calicut but not in Aligarh, Hindus and Muslims engage with each other in strong associational forms of civic life, from political parties and non-religious movements for social justice or land reform, to trade unions and business groups. In Calicut, caste was a more important divider than religion, whereas in Aligarh much of Muslim civic life took place within the Muslim community. Varshney extends the analysis, with obvious variations for local colour, to the other pairs of cities, and arrives at the same conclusion.

Varshney’s central insight is invaluable, and its buttressing with an impressive array of facts and figures from over seven years of research means that it is solidly grounded. Varshney has no illusions about how riots are instigated and manipulated: whatever the proximate trigger for violence, there is always a politician with an axe to grind, pulling the strings, inflaming passions, exploiting the victims for purely political ends. But his point remains that the chances for success of such politicians (he calls the breed “riot-entrepreneurs”) would be remarkably lower if there is vigorous and communally-integrated civic life, not just through everyday casual contact but through formal associations that consolidate the mutual engagement of the two communities. The Hindus of Varanasi would not attack the Muslim artisans who make the masks and effigies for the annual Ram Lila, even if an irresponsible and bigoted politician egged them on to do so.

Since the tragic events in Gujarat are so much on our minds these days, the chapters on Ahmedabad and Surat are particularly fascinating. Varshney describes two cities, which were largely peaceful communally but which succumbed later — since 1969, Ahmedabad is one of the most riot-prone cities in the nation, and Surat’s shantytowns suffered terribly after 1992. He asks why the civic structures of peace broke down in these cities. His answer is troubling. From the 1920s onward, Gandhian nationalism had created a strong level of civic associational activity across communal lines, with the cadre-based Congress creating labour unions and mass-rooted social organisations that welded the society together before Partition. Gujarat’s business associations were also inter-communal.

But the weakening of the Congress party as a civic institution following its rise to power, the enfeeblement of the trade unions and the emergence of new, less communally integrated or

Source: The Hindu