According to historian Romila Thapar communalism is the political exploitation of a religious ideology. It is a curse because communalism does not bring about any social or economic good to society, as goodness is not part of its program.

Thapar describes communalism fundamentally as a hunt for power garbed in religious moralising. Various aspects of communalism and other issues are dealt with in The Future in the Past, Thapar’s latest book, a collection of essays written over half a century on issues and ideas that have preoccupied the historian throughout her life.

First published in ‘Seminar’, a monthly magazine founded in 1959 by her brother Romesh Thapar and his wife Raj, some of the other concerns in The Future in the Past include the use and misuse of history, religious fundamentalism, the importance of museums, why dissent is important to democracy, the role of the public intellectual, and communal ideology.

Communalism is a phenomenon of recent times when citizens are identified by the religion they practise. Communalism is an intermeshing of ideology and power where groups aspiring to power use a particular religious ideology to subvert a social order and to replace it with an order that is based on sharp differentiation between those who accept the ideology and those who do not.

Despite its growing grip in the life of citizens and its destructive nature, any critique of communalism is often mistaken for a critique of religion. This is a problem.

At a time when the country is drenched in communal politics, the objection is not to the articulation of anybody’s religious sentiments, beliefs and practices but to the manipulation of such identities for the purpose of political mobilisation and where the manipulation requires violence, aggression and destruction to succeed.

Politics at the time of Independence was largely non-communal. Communal politics grew in the subsequent decades and has now crept into daily life, nourishing fear as if it were a monster.

Part of the problem has been the constant association of 1947 with communal politics, rather than with the far more important move towards becoming a healthy and happy nation. After Partition there was a popular belief that the division of the country would end all communal tension. This was an erroneous belief as Partition itself happened in the name of religion and as the world is aware religion alone has never been able to hold citizens together.

The solution to communal conflict does not lie in more religious based politics.

On the other hand, democracy is a game of numbers and its politics demands the mobilisation of voters on a larger scale than of one’s opponent.

But when politics mobilises support for itself by hook or by crook then it becomes dangerous, and a problem in society. Then it becomes necessary to critique all those players of politics who do not think twice about drawing on communalism to collect a crowd from religious communities.

What is most frightening for the future is the communal interpretation of the past that is used to whip up hysteria in mobilising loyalists in the present. It is often argued that the roots of communalism go back in history but history is only brought in as an attempt to provide justification from the past.

The ideal communal society is posited as having existed in the past. Equally important to the communal ideology is insistence that the total separation of communities also has its roots in the past.

Communal ideologies claim to base themselves on an appeal to tradition. But traditions are also invented and put together through a selection of items from the past and the selection is most deliberate. Religious communities propagating religious nationalism are just imagined communities and therefore it is even possible to change them.

The modus operandi of communal politics almost always is to instigate riots that are made an excuse to damage and to destroy the religious sites of those one is rioting against. This ensures a continuing hostility amongst citizens over sites that become the focus of dispute.

The disputed sites are mostly found in the centre of urban areas and therefore as property are extremely valuable and the acquisition of such sites becomes an economic asset as well. As cruel as communalism is, the power hungry do not think twice about spreading it.

A subtle manner is to gradually build up hostile feelings against each other amongst fellow citizens. The spread of this poison results in the expression of subconscious discrimination.

The media is not innocent about feeding communalism. The fashion for glitter and tinsel as news and the underlining of the need for media hype has resulted in an obsession with instant stories focusing on the view of anybody and anything as long as it can be presented as spectacular news.

Thoughtful commentaries are dismissed as too academic for the press and TV channels with a few exceptions and have been largely concerned only with projecting the lowest commonality both in politics and in culture.

The purpose of publishing this book is clear. The author feels that when the reasons for the rise of communalism are understood then it becomes easier perhaps to challenge it.

Then it becomes clear that it is not religious sentiment which is at stake but the exploitation of this sentiment at a moment in time when there is a closeness to political control by communal politics. This apprehension has to be reduced and the easy slipping into religious identities as social units has to be questioned.

The need within each community, be it the majority or minority, is to immediately marginalise the communal elements in its midst. This is imperative as an alternative to the play of communal politics.

The hope also is that alternative identities will emerge with the growing strength of lower caste and Dalit movements as also with the demands of the Adivasi and Scheduled Tribes for greater representation and statehood. There are already movements in this direction but which tend to be overshadowed by the ever-hovering clouds of communal violence.

The clouds will never clear for us if we continue to search for a future that does not reflect the way our collective past once was.

‘The Future in the Past’
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company