By Patton Burchett 

A response to the events “Religion, Conflict, and Accommodation in India,” November 4-5, and “Sacred Sites: Post-Gujarat Hindu-Muslim Violence Reconciliation,” November 9, 2011. 

In 2002, in the state of Gujarat in India, 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burned to death in a railway coach. Though the reasons for the attack were and have remained unclear, Narendra Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the event was a preplanned violent act of terrorism by Muslims—an accusation that provoked violent anti-Muslim riots, which, in many ways, bore the markings of a state-orchestrated pogrom against Muslims. Ultimately, the violence resulted in the death of 2,000 people, mostly Muslim, and the displacement of 125,000 refugees from the state.

At the November 9 talk at Columbia, Shabnam Hashmi, a grassroots activist and founder of Anhad, an organization dedicated to democracy and religious harmony in India, recounted an example of the horrors perpetrated during the Gujarat riots. Hindus, she said, grabbed a Muslim woman, gang-raped and sodomized her, then cut off her breasts, and burned her alive. Later, at a mortuary, a gang of Hindu nationalist thugs stole the body, along with the coroner’s post-mortem report, and fled so that no official account of the incident remains.

Due to anecdotes like this one, along with other mounting evidence, suspicions have been raised that the Gujarat violence was tied to an electoral strategy of the BJP, which has a reputation for inciting communal tensions and violence in order to polarize voters, increase turnout, and ultimately win more seats.  Indeed, in the 2002 elections, the BJP won all of the seats in the three areas of Gujarat most affected by the pogroms.

At the talk, Columbia professor Elazar Barkan made the provocative claim that such conflict is not the result of genuine religious differences; rather it is choreographed by political actors for political motives. This is political violence under a religious guise, he asserted. If we look closely, he said, religion rarely exerts power over politics; instead we often see the ways in which politics manipulates religion.

I agree there is no such thing as purely religious violence, for the identities and conflicts involved are always inherently political in their nature and construction.  Complicating such assertions, of course, is the issue of where we draw the line between the religious and political and to what degree they can even be considered separate spheres.  The question I want to linger on here, however, is a slightly different one: If religious conflict is, as Barkan suggests, driven primarily by the political, what does this mean for religious accommodation?  When it comes to the peaceful co-existence and productive interaction of religious communities, what role do politics play?

At the November 4 workshop at Columbia, Harvard professor Charles Hallisey provided an interesting case study of such questions in his analysis of a fifth-century Buddhist text, The Mahavamsa, which chronicles the history of Sri Lanka. It tells the story of Elara, a Tamil Hindu king, who ruled a predominantly Buddhist population in Sri Lanka for 44 years, “with even justice toward friend and foe.” The text is impressive in acknowledging that because of inequalities inherent to it, state power is violent. That violence, though, must be used on behalf of those who cannot protect themselves. The ideal offered in The Mahavamsa is one that goes beyond tolerance: when it comes to the religious life, it is not sufficient to allow people to worship how they want; they must be supported to do so. And when harm is done to a community, it must be redressed—and not by mere punishment, but by an active, productive creation of good. (This last point, Christopher Jafferlot emphasized at the November 9 talk, is an area in which today’s Indian state has failed miserably in Gujarat, having not yet taken appropriate measures for justice and reconciliation.)

In these matters of religious accommodation, the state has a special role in securing conditions in which all religious proclivities can be practiced comfortably and avenues are available for genuine redress and repair (essential components for real accommodation).  Already in fifth-century South Asia, before the language of identities, rights, and secularism, we have all of these “progressive” ideas for bringing about religious accommodation. If the Gujarat incident, in 2002, offers us an instance of choreographed religious violence, then King Elara in fifth-century Sri Lanka gives us a model for orchestrated religious accommodation. These two cases suggest that both religious conflict and religious accommodation are intimately tied to the political.

South Asia has always been one of the most culturally and religiously diverse areas on the planet.  Both its ancient and modern historical experiences—some triumphant, some tragic—offer some valuable insights about the nature of religious violence and the possibilities for religious accommodation. Looking to King Elara’s tactics is not misguided nostalgia for some illusory religious utopia in the past.  However differently they may have been conceived, community identities, differences, and conflicts did exist in 5th century Sri Lanka; the point is that King Elara handled them remarkably well.

Such lessons could be instructive to the United States, which faces the challenges posed by the intersecting perspectives and motivations of religious pluralism, fundamentalism, and secular politics. A few weeks ago, for example, David Williams, a Republican campaigning for the governorship of Kentucky, publicly criticized incumbent Governor Steve Beshear for taking part in a Hindu “ground blessing” ceremony for a new India-based employer in Elizabethtown, KY. “If I’m a Christian,” he said, “I don’t participate in Jewish prayers. I’m glad they do that. . . . I don’t participate in Muslim prayers. I don’t do that. To get down and get involved and participate in prayers to these polytheistic situations, where you have these Hindu gods that they are praying to, doesn’t appear to me to be in line with what a governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ought to be doing.”  Far from choreographing accommodation, comments like these might lead one to believe that Williams has taken lessons from Narendra Modi in the art of inciting religious conflict.

Both Williams and Modi would do well to note the example of King Elara.  In a context in which the political and the religious are inextricably intertwined, and the state sits in a situation of asymmetrical power with its subjects, state leaders have an obligation that goes beyond tolerance.  They have a responsibility to actively orchestrate religious accommodation.  Just as with religious violence, religious accommodation does not occur spontaneously; it must be choreographed.

Patton Burchett is a doctoral candidate in religion at Columbia University and a program coordinator for IRCPL.