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A brief history of intolerance in India – Part 1

Over the last few months, we have seen many media reports on the rising intolerance in the country. Most of these essentially conclude that “Culture of intolerance is rising in the country, and the current BJP Government not doing much to stop it.”

I wish to examine if this statement is valid or not looking from a rational point of view, which is to look at the evidence and make a reasonable argument without resorting to hysteria or far-fetched conclusions.

There are 3 key things to note here – Intolerance, its increase or decrease in the recent past, role of Government in supporting or discouraging such trend.

Here are the premises:

  1. Under the word ‘intolerance’, I am including two things – discrimination and persecution of social groups based on prejudice and hatred, and sectarian violence (crimes agianst humanity).
  2. I am starting with a position that there has been an environment of intolerance in the country atleast for the past 30 years. Evidence for this is from caste-based discrimination observed among general public, religious stereotypes and incidents of sectarian violence in the past.

From there, I wish to examine:

  1. Has India historically been a tolerant country?
  2. If yes, what are the cause of these in the last 30 years?
  3. If no, then
    1. Who were the targets of intolerance in the past and present?
    2. Has intolerance been increasing, or decreasing, or pretty much the same in the last 30-50 years?
    3. Who is mainly responsible for intolerance?
    4. What does the Constitution say on tolerance and plurality?
    5. How does the future look?

After that, I also want to examine if the criticism “Media is flaring up intolerance in the country” is valid or not. Let’s look at the issue of tolerance first.

 

Ancient and Medieval India

Persecution of Religious groups:

With whatever historical evidence we have, we can safely say that most of Ancient India’s empires didn’t sponsor religious persecution. Asoka is considered devoted to all religious sects (Ajivikas, Hinduism, Jainism). However, there are accounts of Pushyamitra Shunga (2nd century BCE), founder of Shunga empire persecuting Buddhists and destroying as many as 500 monasteries during his time, though later Shunga kings didn’t continue his legacy. Pala Empire (8th-12th century CE) was a Buddhist state and their kings maintained pluralism with Hinduism and Jainism along with Buddhism enjoying patronage during their time (Read about Somapura Mahavihara).

In southern India, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain were prominent religious groups with Christians (Saint Thomas) being a small population in Chera Kingdom. Major dynasties like Satavahanas, Chalukyas, Cholas, Pallavas, Pandyans and Rashtrakutas are considered tolerant of other faiths and many kings provided patronage on a large scale to them (Read about Amaravati art, Sanchi art, inscriptions at Shravanabelagola). However, during later Chola period (11th-13th century CE) there were episodes of persecution of Vaishnavas but historians consider them sporadic and not state-sponsored. Shaiva Kings of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire (14th-17th century AD) were also tolerant towards other sects and faiths like Islam, Jainism and Vaishnavism.

Medieval India has extensive historical records of Islamic caliphates and other plunderers from Iran and Afghanistan enslaving victims and destroying places of worship. Destruction of Somnath Temple by Mahmud of Ghazni and killing over 50000 people who tried to defend the temple is a popular story. Episodes of state-sponsored persecution continued into Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire. Babur held campaigns in north-western India against infidels (Hindu, Sikh) and apostates (non-Sunni Islam), and Sher Shah Suri conducted similar campaigns in the western and eastern provinces.

Akbar was probably the first king in India’s Islamic rule who made a serious effort to stop this trend. He managed to suppress the orthodox Islamic rebellion against his liberal attitude, allowed re-conversions of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists from Islam without invoking apostasy punishment (death penalty), and tried to maintain harmony. His son Jahangir continued Akbar’s legacy of religious tolerance. However Jahangir’s successor Shah Jahan didn’t maintain this legacy, and things went back to repressive days from Aurangazeb’s time.

Buddhists, Hindus and Islamic apostates (non-Sunni) are typical targets in the state-sponsored persecution and sectarian violence during this period of Islamic conquest in India.

 

Persecution of Social groups:

A special mention needs to be given to social stratification in ancient India. Birth status (jati) had been a common feature in the earliest urban societies across the world, and hence it can be said that a concept of jati has been in existence in Indian subcontinent since the earliest urban settlements (Indus valley, 20th century BCE). Ritual status (varna) is a concept from the Vedic corpus with great emphasis in post-Vedic literature like Dharamasutras and Manusmriti. We have textual evidence of its application atleast as back as Magadha kingdom (13th century BCE). Movement across jati and varna were flexible and diverse in ancient times, with Nanda Empire (5th century BCE) established by a Shudra dynasty and Gupta Empire (2nd-5th century CE) by a Vaishya dynasty. However, the increasing importance of jati status can also be observed from a notable example when Mayurasharma (4th century CE), founder of Kadamba dynasty changed his name to Mayuravarma, to emphasize a Kshatriya birth.

Another indicator of rise in prejudice and social persecution is the state patronage of Brahminism (Vedic religion) which has a notion of purity and pollution based on jati-varna status. Varna system qualified Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas as dvija (twice born) and giving them a higher ritual status compared to that of Shudras. This system also implicitly had a fifth category with people outside its scope (tribals and dalits) and untouchability was practised on them. We have evidence of state patronage to Brahminic religion with cow slaughter punished with death penalty in Gupta Empire (4th century CE).

It can be safely said that social stratification based on jati-varna has been prevalent since this period. Jatis have existed in India among Hindus and tribal people, and subsequently Christians and Muslims. Characteristics of such practice from history include endogamy, inheritance of occupation, segregation of residential areas, restriction on social intercourse, observation of purity and pollution, and so on. Because of this jati-varna practice and untouchability, a hierarchical system automatically got generated with the dvijas on top and Shudras at the bottom and untouchables and tribal people further down.

Untouchability is thought to have become a common practice by 4th century CE (A couple of characters from Sanskrit play Mrcchakatika composed around that time are untouchables), and there is ample evidence of its practice in medieval India. However, correlation between jati-varna and occupation hasn’t always been rigid and there is evidence from medieval period where people across jati-varnas going into various occupations becoming farmers, warriors, businessman and artisans. There is also evidence of untouchables owning land and cattle, and actively practising agriculture.

 

Observations:

One striking thing to note from whatever we can gather from history is that sectarian violence in ancient and medieval India was almost always state-sponsored. Incidents of violence increase or decrease as per the king’s whim and fancy. Social stratification with an active practice of untouchability has been in place since 4th century CE.

Religious sanctions like persecution of apostates in Islam, and jati-varna system in Hinduism helped in legitimizing and strengthening intolerance. The strong role of religion in promoting intolerance reflects in reform movements like Sufism (10th century CE) against communal conflict and giving greater importance to humanity, Lingayatism (12th century CE) against jati-varna system and Brahmanical Hinduism, and promoting direct access to God, Kabir (15th century CE) who wrote questioning the superiority of dvija varnas, and so on.

 

However, the nature of religious intolerance and jati-varna system in the society and response of states changed significantly after Mughal Empire and in British Colonial era, which we are going to see in the next part.

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Categories: History
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