Class, Communalism, and Official Complicity: India after Indira

By Kesselman, Amrita; Kesselman, Mark | Monthly Review, January 1985 | Go to article overview

Class, Communalism, and Official Complicity: India after Indira


Kesselman, Amrita, Kesselman, Mark, Monthly Review


The reign of terror which engulfed the Sikh community throughout India following Indira Gandhi's assassination has at least temporarily subsided. The respite from daily reports of escalating violence enables us to reflect about the causes of the cataclysm. Many observers believe that the violence was inevitable: the government was paralyzed by the outpouring of rage against Sikhs once the identity of the assassins was publicly known. We would reverse the causal sequence: by their inaction and in some cases outright incitement, political authorities virtually sanctioned mob destruction. The government's abdication of responsibility becomes more comprehensible in light of the personalization of political power and the concomitant erosion of effective, autonomous political institution under Mrs. Gandhi.

Government inaction ignited a simmering hatred among many Hindus toward Sikhs. Although religious differences fueled conflict between the Hindu and Sikh communities, in this case as in many others, communalism had not simply a religious but also a material basis in the greater affluence of the Sikh than the Hindu community. The assassination both revealed and intensified preexisting tendencies: political authorities, unaccustomed to taking initiatives while Mrs. Gandhi was in power, were ill-equipped to act decisively in the crisis her death provoked. The assassination also facilitated the expression of class conflict, albeit in a communal form, which had hitherto been held in check. From Representative Democracy to Guided Democracy

When Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, she inherited a political system which conformed quite closely to the British model. It was characterized by centralized but accountable executive leadership, along with relatively autonomous, democratic, and effective political institutions. Under Mrs. Gandhi's aegis, the balance shifted: the executive increasingly usurped the powers of the legislature, judiciary, police, and civil service; the central government increasingly usurped powers of state governments; and Mrs. Gandhi, her family members, and close associates increasingly gained power at the expense of other political officials. Under his mother's patronage, Sanjay Gandhi further corrupted the political process by filling political posistions with personal cronies and stifling dissent with strong-arm tactics. When the opposition threatened her power, Mrs. gandhi dispensed with constitutional processes by declaring a national state of emergency (1975-77) and by frequently declaring President's Rule in several states (thereby replacing majority state government with central power).

It would be a mistake, however, to overemphasize Mrs. Gandhi's reliance on repressive means. Her success also rested on the weakness of opposition parties and her uncanny ability to transcend ideological, communal, and class lines. In the Punjab context her very ability to make herself appear the only moderate alternative to "irresponsible extremists" polarized Hindus amd Sikhs, with ultimately tragic consequences.

The tendencies described above were evident in the events leading up to Operation Bluestar, the Indian army's raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. In order to weaken the Akali Dal, the only serious opposition in the Punjab to the ruling Congress (I) Party, Mrs. Gandhi cynically promoted the Sikh separatist group led by Sant Bhindranwale. Only a tiny proportion of Sikhs supported this demonic leader--until Opearation Bluestar made him a martyr. According to one journalist, Mrs. Gandhi's "calculated strategy was to encourage the emergence of extremism among the Sikhs and Hindus" in the hope of recruiting the broad majority of both communities. Consistent with this strategy, she imprisoned the leaders of the Akali Dal rather than negotiating with them over their demands for greater economic and political resources for the Punjab. Rejecting advice to mend the growing rift she temporized for months, until Bhindranwale's power grew beyond manageable bounds. …

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