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A Polyphony of Voices

Tania Mehta

Edited by Asgar Ali Engineer
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 467, Rs. 425.00


A serious enquiry into the psychology of communal violence, this anthology brings together essays, editorials, surveys, articles, opinions, documents and reports. The book transcends its stated goal of providing the future generations  with a great deal of information and its usefulness to policy makers to question the contentious issues of  ‘secularism’, ‘nation’, ‘identity,’ and ‘community’ through a polyphony of voices.       Asgar Ali, a seasoned thinker, a social activist and a political psychologist explores issues that he has been raising in his books like Rethinking Issues in Islam [1998]and The Origin and the Development of Islam [1987] and offers insights into the complex process of formation of religious identities. He has argued how religious identities are not ‘primordial attachments,’ inculcated by tradition but products of changing identities spread by institutionalized devotionalism and shaped overtime by piligrimage, migration and more recently by print and visual media.        Riots are not new to India and take place with frightening regularity. What triggered the violence in Gujarat is a complex question. The narratives of horror, the images of bestiality, the told and untold tales of suffering and humiliation that occurred in Gandhi’s own land is ironical and painful. The real issue, as always is not so much about belief and faith but about sharing power. The author very relevantly points out how religion does not give birth to communalism, a religious community does. He probes into the mechanism of intolerance and goes on to state that there is no single identifiable cause that can explain all. Tracing the genesis of communalism from the fifties when the Jan Sangh came into existence (with RSS as an integral part of the group) spreading a communal ideology, he examines how Indira Gandhi used a  clever political strategy to gain the support of the poor and the minorities under the cover of socialism and secularism. Listing the  post-Partition riots in Ahmedabad (1969) Bhiwandi riots organized by the Shiv Sena (1970), a series of riots in Aligarh, Varanasi and Jamshedpur, Asgar Ali shows how the Jan Sangh and the Janta Party reforged itself as the BJP,declared itself as secular but was never able to shed its communal character. The Right started questioning the Nehruvian concept of secularism and attacked it as pseudosecularism, alleging that the Congress was appeasing and pampering the Muslims under this cover. He rightly asserts that all secular measures  acquired strong communal tones.        Another insightful analysis is the ...

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