Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India

Saad Ahmad Kitaab Cafe

Author: Ashutosh Varshney
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Published: 2002
Pages: 382
Price: 450
Reviewed By: Saad Ahmad


Introduction to the Book:

Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life is an enquiry into the public sphere of Hindus and Muslims in India, therefore measures the level of religious zeal as civic engagement. He sees religious zeal as ethnic conflict, sensed and experienced maliciously, as Ashis Nandy says, rural-urban divide, among the communities in India’s daily life. The sense avails the primary recourse of civility as such. By doing this, Varshney also tries to spell out a religiously ideologised mobilisation to uproot politically and legally established narration of Indian secularism. It can be noticed in the context of mobilisation that centrality of Hindutva in official and the un-official narration of Indian politics is on the limelight. Though, his case studies emphasise on local civic networks in order to prevent ethnic violence. He is concerned about inhaling methodological shrewdness into the academic realm, particularly on Indian politics. Thus he successfully essayed to provide a re-look over the formulation between existing theoretical foundations of ethnic conflict and civic life, whether formal or informal, in the socio-political sensory of associational or everyday India.


The intellectual phase of the book:

Varshney, articulating the idea of civic engagement, sets out to explain the ethnic violence in India. For this purpose, he informs us that the prime intention is not but to “establish a link between the structure of the civil society on one hand and ethnic, communal violence on the other” (p. 3). According to him, “ethnicity is simply the larger set to which religion, race, language and sect belong” (p. 5) even used interchangeably. The book’s core idea is to maximise civic engagement to establish a connection with ethnic conflict. However, his prime argument revolves around to resolve “despite ethnic diversity, some places, regions, nations, towns or villages manage to remain peaceful whereas others experience enduring patterns of violence” (p.6). In this violence path, villages’ share in communal rioting is spectacularly low, while Hindu-Muslim violence is heavily witnessed in an urban setup. In this connection, Varshney discusses Indian civic engagement as featured by inter-communal linking. Here, he talks about two kinds of civic networks; associational and every day civic engagement. Associational includes a business association, professional organisations, reading clubs, film clubs, trade unions and cadre-based political parties. Simultaneously, everyday civic engagement is formed by routine life interactions as Hindu and Muslim families visit each other. According to Varshney, these forms of engagements promote peace and absence results in a space for communal violence. Further, the discourse of associational and quotidian civic engagement extended by Varshney is much shaped by the Habermasian way of thinking of the public sphere and civil society, where constituting elements of a public sphere requires no organisational setup. However, civil society might be an organisational basis for streaming the debates in the public sphere.

However, to Varshney, the capacity of associational civic engagement can run to a shockproof dimension in times of communal violence or riots. Thus his elixir to prevent the chances of violence, mostly ethnic, is to identify his proposed, above mentioned, mechanisms that connect civil society and ethnic conflict. It is the main reason why

communication is promoted between members of different religious communities. Routine interaction is the floating idea which beautifully articulates even operates the probability of future conflicts between communities. It makes rumours filtered, proper communication between communities and administration through an informal organisation is maintained. However, civic engagement’s daily life gives a sense of self-automated civil society which works as an invisible neutraliser to prevent tensions. Nevertheless, Varshney argues that associational form of engagement can deal with ethnic tensions in a much-equipped manner. He reflects that “if vibrant organisations serving the economic, cultural and social needs of the two communities exist, the support for communal peace not only tends to be strong but it can also be more solidly expressed” (p. 10). These are two key ideas that work as an elixir to curb the polluted narratives of communal violence. Varshney’s articulation of two kinds of civic engagement is typified by two kinds of geographical locations; rural and urban. Each one, ontologically, is marked by its recognising agency; ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. Traditional, a neutrally centralised image of rural, lives and enjoys a known and interconnected life. Here everyone loves each other because everyone knows each other. If someone hates anyone, it means he has a reason or does not know him at all. The particular of this dimension is the sensory set up of a traditional style of living. In a radical sense, it advocates for the inaccessibility of modernity and simultaneously shows detest from its categorical narration of rationality. Though Indian rural allocation is fond of following irrationalities, in a non-traditional sense, discovering, self-reflexivity is much insightful and mature. If a state’s political portfolio would not have interfered in that process of rural self-reflexivity, it may present a model for the urban imagination of interactivity. Now the state’s interference in shaping rural imagination is highly a project of modernity as such. It makes its way through civilised punctuation of urban plan and adherent benefits to the typical rural mentality. Here, Varshney argues that associational civic networks in urban settings shield the exogenous communal shocks like partition and civil wars and constrains politicians’ behaviour, which flows along with the locally politicised fruits of modernity. In this situation, the absence of associational civic networks may lead to the elements of politicisation of urban imagination even sometimes leaves scope for the criminalisation of politics. Thus organised criminals can disturb the neighbourhood peace and their involvement in local politics makes rioting more possible. This is the situation in conflict-prone cities, according to Varshney’s case studies. He observes that “the share of villages in communal rioting turned out to be remarkably small. Between 1950 and 1995, rural India, where two-thirds of Indians still live, accounted for less than 4 percent of communal violence deaths. Hindu Muslim violence is primarily an urban phenomenon. Second, within urban India, too, Hindu Muslim Violence is highly locally concentrated” (p.6). For example, this can be observed only in Gujarat’s two cities Ahmedabad and Vadodara which account 80 per cent of total deaths in the state. Varshney’s analysis identifies cities as the prime location of violence. In this context, imagined applicability of ideological narration conjures the situation and provides contexts to make communal violence successful. Taking influence from this, violent mechanisms sneak into local institutional forms, performing to re-narrate history in the name of culture-specific context.

Apart from this, other scholars have debated theoretical bases of ethnic conflict in India. For example, Arend Lijphart promotes an institutional argument, where government institutions are artfully capable of establishing democracy and ethnic peace in divided societies. To him, consociationalism is an essential part of the Indian political set up. Another scholar, Steven Wilkinson, makes a point of electoral incentives more weighed. He argues that from 1947 to 1966, minorities went through an abnormal treatment by states which denied their cultural rights and excluded them from the government jobs and political power. Further to say, vying in Indian politics made minorities more important as a sizable vote bank. It enticed political powers as well. He assumes that state-level ethnic violence’s key determinant rests in the state’s incentive to prevent such violence. The discourse extended by Paul Brass reflects over the idea of ‘institutionalised riot system’ with the reference of Hindu Muslim violence in contemporary India. By this, he sees riot as complex, pre-planned productions. His postulation over the strategic stand of the state is more pertinent than others. Pre-planned production has three phases: (a) rehearsal; (b) enactment; and(c) interpretation phase. Each phase has its own paradigmatic context of communal violence. According to Brass, the paradigmatic context bears a kind of ‘functional utility’ which serves the interest of actors often adhered with states. Thus, states and politicians play a vital role in producing riots. However, Varshney’s interpretation explores a relatively new variable considered as civil society. He argues “civil society which by and large tends to be local or regional, is the missing variable in available theories to which students of ethnic conflict should pay increasing attention” (p. 52).

Further, if the community has enough interethnic links, it can prevent politicians from mobilising with ethnic lines. It also can produce a sense of ‘institutionalised peace system. Thus, Varshney follows neo-Tocquevillian school when he advocates the role of voluntary association in restraining ethnic violence.

The discourse of civic engagement is produced with the reference of competing for national imaginations. In this context, since India’s independence, meta narration of Indian politics remained as a struggle for power. Thus, three kinds of narrations try to occupy the political, cultural and social spheres of thought. Each recognises their own logic to be relevant and associative. Firstly secularist narration of Indian politics enjoys the status of official ideology. This was by the insightful strategy of the political giant of Indian politics; Gandhi and Nehru, popularly approved by the constitution as the constitutional language of India. Secularist narration of Indian politics is not because India has been an object of modernity, but due to the structural need, India seeks. It is for the purpose to reunite a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic society existing in India. In this way, Indian secularism is not another name of irreligious rhetoric, as vaguely perceived by interpretations elsewhere. However, it is a kind of equidistance to make the system of law for all, equally. Here Varshney discusses that “this narrative emphasises that one’s religious faith would not determine citizenship in the country and the rights that go with it; birth in India, or naturalisation and acceptance of Indian culture, is the sole criterion. In electoral politics, the Congress Party has been the prime representative of this narrative” (p.56). The second narration of Indian politics is motivated by Hindu Nationalism. Its prime focus is the centrality of Hinduism in the political and cultural narrative of Indian politics. Varshney observes “According to Hindu nationalists, and whether or not Hindus can enjoy legal primacy, they must have cultural and political primacy in shaping India’s destiny. This narrative aims not only to emphasise the centrality of Hinduism to India but, when used in politics, to build Hindu unity” (p. 57). Nandy and other scholars like Peter Van Der Veer say that Hinduism is going through the phase of ‘semitcization’ or ‘Islamicisation of Hinduism’, making it intolerant as Islam (Peter Van Der Veer and others). Intellectuals (also in India) who subscribe the idea that monotheistic stand as intolerant and polytheistic as tolerant, either informed by orientalists’ readings on Islam or unclassified postures started by rational West and imitated by irrational rest or being rational rest. Though the context of Hindutva as an ideology makes Hinduism as ‘political Hinduism’, to Varshney, “the aim of Hindu nationalists is neither to “semitize” Hinduism nor to en-force religious uniformity and orthodoxy. Instead, it creates a political unity among the Hindus, divided otherwise by the various castes, languages, and doctrinal diversities. One of the most critical BJP leaders since the 1980s, L. K. Advani readily admits that he is not very religious. Nor did the BJP as a party in the 1980s and 1990s consist primarily of religious men. The major tract of Hindu nationalism clearly states, as Advani argued, that “Indian nationalism is rooted in a Hindu ethos” in which “ethos” is viewed as a cultural term” (p. 71). subaltern subjectivities mobilise the third narrative of Indian politics. The caste narrative of unity mainly features this. According to Varshney “the caste narrative speaks of the deeply hierarchical and unjust nature of Hindu social order, an order in which the “upper” castes, always a minority, have traditionally enjoyed ritualistic privileges and superior social rank, and the “lower “castes, always a majority, have suffered the disadvantages of a less dignified, even “unclean,” status (p. 57).

Another dimension of Varshney’s analysis of civic life, subscribing to the political ideas of national struggle comes with variations concerning his case studies. In this context, Gandhi’s nation-building project created a whole range of associations and organisations in India. Before this, especially pre 1920 civic life was shaped by quotidian engagement. In post-1920 context, Varshney credits Gandhi, for establishing associations and formal civic networks and discusses it as “by creating cadre-based political parties, trade unions, new educational institutions, and new cultural and social organisations, the Gandhian shift in politics laid the foundations of India’s associational civic order” (p.115). For the civil disobedience campaign of 1920-22, Gandhi intended to mobilise ideas of non-violence and a joint Hindu Muslim mobilisation of the masses. It was for a calculated assumption to express sympathy for Muslims (by supporting the Khilafat movement) and to fight British (non-cooperation movement) simultaneously. This experiment of Gandhi, led “a religion-based mass mobilisation eventually would release uncontrolled passions. By early 1922, ferocious violence had erupted in several parts of India— against the British in some places and between Hindus and Muslims in others” (p.134). “The end of the Khilafat movement led to the worst period of communal rioting seen in India up to that time (p.135). This situation provided scope for the emergence of religious revival groups, like Arya Samaj and Tablighi Jamaat for reconversion. For instance, Varshney’s project focuses on Aligarh and Calicut, where he discusses that Aligarh was a military outpost manned by the service gentry, which served the Mughal Empire. By this, he thinks that “As the Mughal Empire declined and the British took over northern India in the nineteenth century, a significant diminution in the power of the Muslim gentry took place, a decline that was accompanied by a corresponding rise in the wealth and power of merchants, who were mostly from the trading Hindu castes” (p. 136). This is why Sir Sayed tried to be vocal to denounce the traditional method of education and emphasised to participate, with the help of the British, in the modern education system. However, the context of 1920s with the reference of Khilafat movement left scope for communal cleavages in Aligarh. This intensified the emotionally anchored images like ‘Muslim University’ and ‘Hindu-majority town’. A religious organisation such as Arya Samaj and Muslim league also played a significant role. Araya Samaaj tried to occupy the commercial class, therefore creating a middle class. Here, Varshney treats Aligarh Muslim University’s historical role as an intellectual reservoir for all Muslim-centric mobilisations. It is also narrated that AMU provided a hefty portion of the intellectual support for Pakistan’s creation. Varshney notices that a heavy role communally ghettoised the society which later resulted in a pre-partition riot in Aligarh. In the case of Calicut, injustice remained a master narrative of politics. Here upper vs lower caste construction of politics triumphed over Hindu vs Muslim construction. In Calicut, Hindu Muslim civic engagement was given a solid associational shape that attacked the upper caste’s narration. Thus an inter-communal civic life produced as a result of caste-based framework of mass politics. While in Aligarh, civic organisations took an intra-communal form. Thus bases of intra-communal politics intensified along with the line of mass mobilisation.


Chapters of the Book:

The book is divided into four parts with two prefaces; one to the paperback edition and another to Indian edition.

The first part starts with a detailed introduction and presents ideas regarding the research’s theoretical and empirical soundness. It also explains the methodological relevance of the research is much a new case in context. The second chapter covers existing theories of ethnic violence; essentialism, instrumentalism, constructivism, and institutionalism. Varshney declares that none of these theories observed ethnic conflict and peace at the intra-ethnic level. These theories narrate violence at a global or national level; thus, there is no makeup to approach locally. Varshney goes to the local level by an inclusive observation into the local public sphere. By this, the theme of the book as civic engagement is covered.

Part two is focused on covering a national overview of electoral and ideological trends. It organises observation over Hindu Muslim violence. For example, Chapter four discusses detailed statistics, based primarily on the interpretive reading of the Times of India for forty-six years (1990-95). This chapter covers mainly three questions. How is India’s communal violence distributed across the nation? Do an aggregate data in and of themselves, support the nationwide explanation. Third, at what level, state, town or village, variance be studied, if to develop an explanation for communal violence.

Part three, from chapter 5 to chapter 11, presents materials on case studies. Here the case materials follow two steps methodological procedure; First deals with why one city has been peaceful and the other violent. Varshney takes “the method of process-tracing is applied to establish how, given similar stimuli or provocations, different kinds of civic networks— intercommunal versus intercommunal, associational versus quotidian—are linked to the divergent outcomes—peace and riots, respectively. Second, it must be asked whether the relationship observed is merely a correlation or whether civic integration is also causally connected to communal peace” (p. 113).

Chapter 12 of the Part fourth brings findings comparatively and theoretically. This chapter discusses the significance of interethnic civic engagement. In the process, it shows the relevance of more excellent value of associational engagement as well. Throughout this project, Varshney connects associational lives and communal peace and excludes intra-communal or intra-ethnic associations.



Many critiques and reflections have been produced over the debate extended by Varshney. In studying the dimensions of conflict and peace by holding an inquiry into Muslims and Hindus’ public sphere, Varshney cannot produce factors that helped construct an image of conflict-prone and peaceful cities; therefore, this book suffers from the inaccessibility of pieces of literature from Muslims’ perspective. Though, external politics and its instrumental use, to apply legitimacy, to produce images of conflict from the Indian cities also played a palpable role in constructing images of conflict. The ontological meanings of these images fed communal sensibility; in response, mobilisations remained more offensive and enlivened hatred against each other. Varshney’s work seeks to apply his assumption in the same way in every case study. For example, his idea of exploring associational civic engagement is projected as an elixir for violence or riot issues. He willy-nilly ignores the everyday engagement of nationalist Muslim public spheres which produced huge political vocabularies against British, simultaneously ousted politics of violence locally. For this purpose, religious engagement (tabligh, Dawa) devised dialogues, often polemically and harmoniously, based on civic sense to maintain the dimension of religious revival.

Varshney’s other statement regarding the public spheres is dictated by three competing imaginations which in various paradigmatic contexts refashion Indian politics. Hence, he argues that “Two of the three master narratives of Indian politics—secular nationalism and religious nationalism—speak explicitly about the nation; the third, focusing on caste, does it indirectly in that it aims at re-arranging the priorities in politics without explicitly articulating a view of the nation (p.55). Secular nationalism primarily is a modernist ideology, so, despite a clear distinctiveness of Indian secularism, it behaves like un-Indian in case of civic sense. The second narrative occupying the spheres of politics is led by Hindu nationalism. According to Varshney “Hindu nationalism can be viewed as the mirror image of Muslim nationalism. According to the Hindu nationalist narrative, Hinduism is not only the religion of India’s majority community but also what gives India its distinctive national identity; other religions must assimilate to the Hindu centre” (p. 56). This portion deals with Hindutva as an ideology which focuses on a radical transformation of the country into a chauvinistically Hindu centred country. Fulfilling the need, an intellectual module of Hindutva ideology also advocated escalating Hinduism from religion to culture. Thus, Hindutva would be a project considered by a state to revive the cultural memory of nationalism. By doing this, the state’s constitutionally secular role will not be harmed, while the Hindutva ideology’s religious centrality would be projected into the public. The third narrative of Indian politics is discussed as it emphasises on subaltern unity. The caste narrative speaks of the profoundly hierarchical and unjust nature of Hindu social order, an order in which the “upper” castes, always a minority, have traditionally enjoyed ritualistic privileges and superior social rank, and the “lower” castes, always a majority, have suffered the disadvantages of a less dignified” (p.57).

Methodologically furnished observations of Varshney somehow presents the vulnerable status of Muslim in India. This is noticed that there is no room for Muslim narrative in post-independent Indian politics. Muslims occupy a minority status in India. They constitute a huge population which reaches almost 13% on the Indian demographic graph. Historically, Muslims also own institutions of education and ideas. However, the marginalisation, later categorisation of Muslims to assimilate into the third narrative of national politics is nonetheless a state-centric politics. Here Varshney, though counted role of Muslim politics in pre-independent India, completely deprives Muslims’ role in the nation-building process of post-independent India.

Some scholars say that Varshney ignores the phases of the communalization of the Indian society in the result of fundamentalist way of approaching civility. In this case, indoctrination is organised by the fundamentalist approach, most remarkably in school books and syllabi. In a book section, Maharashtra mentioned “problems of the country” bears a

subheading as a minority; Muslims, Christians and Parsis, referred to as foreigners. Sangh Parivar produces this kind of narration.

Varshney’s attempt is much focused on to simplify communal conflict as Hindu-Muslim conflict. Unlike this, a state-initiated political process to stigmatise Muslim argumentative, in most cases gullible, youths as a terrorist, to make Muslims psychologically suppressed and promotes winds of fear among them, is a recent part of the so-called civic engagement. It is pigheadedly hard and vocally easy to identify the nature of civic engagement of this kind. Is that a paradigm shift in restating the bargain for conflict or an advanced stage of Brass’s conclusion? Brass’s idea is also applicable in the case of Gujarat where Hindus boycotted Muslims economically and subjectively?



At the end of this book, the reader will coordinate things in the present scenario and will be able to analyse the politics of ethnic violence and civic engagement of the Hindus and Muslims in India. Though in this Book, Muslims’ disengagement from civic life is interpreted as based on reverse kind of rational functionality, influenced by national politics. Readers will also observe the state’s role in operating Muslim political consciousness.



Research Assistant, Centre for West Asian Studies,

Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi







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