Human rights organisations in India have consistently felt unable to respond to religious polarization and communal violence. While their efforts in combating the Hindu revivalist extremism did result in occasional ‘success stories’, more often they were too little to the enormity of the challenge. Sitharamam Kakarala, associated with the Pluralism Knowledge Programme, analyses the challenges to human rights activism in India and offers some ideas for new strategies.
India has struggled with violence between religious communities for decades. Many cases of ‘communalism’ concern Hindu-Muslim conflict which has a history of decades if not centuries. After the large scale violence that killed more than a thousand Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002, many more attacks happened on Muslims and Christians, especially in Karnataka and Orissa. While ‘communal conflicts’ usually said to involve two warring factions (sometimes in a mutually reinforcing cycle), independent reports have repeatedly pointed at one party. Hindu revivalist organisations and their supporters are being held responsible for a high level of intimidation, harassment and systematic violence against disenfranchised groups such as Muslim and Christian religious minorities.
One cannot explain these conflicts with one set of ‘root causes’. Economic disparities within and between communities play a role, as do historic tensions and localized intolerant practices. Very often existing tensions are being fed by electoral politics. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a political force to reckon with shows the success of Hindu right-wing politics in the mobilization of people on the grounds of communal polarization. Although the BJPs steady climb in popularity was stopped in some states at the latest elections in 2009 – and therefore the political space is a contested one – Hindu revivalism is increasingly dominating the social space. The ever rising number of associations around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ‘mother’ of the Hindu revivalist movement – is just one indicator of this phenomenon. The comparative inadequacy of the response by human rights organisations in effectively checking such mobilisation of people has led to and increasing frustration about ‘losing ground’ in the battle against fundamentalisms.