A Discussion From the Indian Parliament in 1970: Who Begins a Riot?

Led by Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, MPs exchange sharp words during a discussion on communal riots that were engulfing India five decades ago.

The following is an excerpt from Neeti Nair’s Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia. Republished with permission from Harvard University Press.

Two months after the debate on Indianization [in May 1970], Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were again exchanging sharp words during a discussion on communal riots then engulfing India. Vajpayee warned that angry, militant (ugra) Hindus were reacting to increasing Muslim communalism, while Indira Gandhi interrupted him to note that he was hurting the sentiments of all religious minorities. Some members asked that the offensive parts of his speech be expunged; he held his ground and so did the prime minister. She wanted the truth of the Jana Sangh to be exposed, not pushed “underground.”

The recent split in the Congress resulted in critiques of government policy being expressed fearlessly and confidently. Several speakers reflected on the ultimate sacrifice of the Mahatma, for the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity. Hadn’t they just celebrated Gandhi’s birth centenary? S.K. Patil of the Syndicate Congress recalled that Nehru had popularized the term “secularism.”

Why did he introduce that word, the word used centuries ago in the European countries in a different context? He brought it in just to teach us and tell us that in this country, if all the communities, be they Hindu or Muslim or any, learn to live together as brothers and do not bring their particular religion in the exercise of many things they do day in and day out, there is progress in this country; if they do not there is no progress in this country.

On the spirit of ugrata (anger) to which Vajpayee had referred, Patil advised against retaliation. He turned to the Gandhian Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s definition of secularism: sarva dharma samānatā, “same respect for every religion.” Patil understood secularism to mean equal respect. He spoke eloquently of having “as much respect for Islam as I have for my own religion. I will not practise Islam, I will never practise it, I am proud of my own religion. I shall grow in it, but surely I must understand the right of another man, a Muslim, to grow in his own religion and practise it in the manner he likes.” Patil wished to move away from the question of who threw the “first stone or first acid bomb or Molotov cocktail” and get to the root of the problem.

Neeti Nair
Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia
Harvard University Press (March 2023)

Sitaram Kesri of the Congress (R), Indira’s faction of the Congress, asked why Gandhi had been assassinated. He blamed the RSS for indoctrinating children through drills and communal interpretations of Mughal history. He suggested that a board of noncommunal writers be formed to stop the spread of communal writings and supported a ban on institutions that spread communalism. N.K.P. Salve, also of Indira’s Congress (R), warned state governments patronizing paramilitary organizations such as the RSS that they were nursing a “Frankenstein.” Mohamed Imam of the Swatantra party invoked Gandhi, noting that with every riot, “we are murdering Gandhiji and with every murder a number of Godses are coming up.” Imam complained that the recently amended criminal law providing stringent punishments for those who foment communal trouble was “safe in the statute-book but no action has been taken.”

S.A. Dange, chairman of the CPI, likened Vajpayee’s speech to a “manifesto calling for a civil war of the Hindus against the Muslims.” He did not want Vajpayee’s words expunged from the record. Dange was also against banning the RSS or the Jana Sangh, for that would only make them go underground. Instead, it was necessary to “isolate them by ideological, political, social and moral propaganda.” India needed to establish a “rule of law” in which democratic processes decide the “fate of things,” where strikes and elections have their place and parliamentary and nonparliamentary struggles defend the exploited class.

Indira Gandhi went to the heart of the problem. Who begins a riot, she asked? Was it the person who threw a stone or the “atmosphere that is spread by speeches of the type which we heard here today?” The prime minister condemned using this occasion as an opportunity to say things that not only would “hurt the feelings of minority communities but will egg on the majority community in other places to try and create some similar incidents.” She referred to Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts and other speeches that claimed Muslims needed to be Indianized and made no distinction between the Jana Sangh and the RSS. Yet her vague reply to the debate that included the usual stock responses – awaiting the report of yet another inquiry commission, providing relief to the victims, and working to improve the “atmosphere” – did not add up to the concrete plan of action that was demanded by several members.

Several members – including the Congress leaders M.A. Khan and Abdul Ghani Dar, and the socialists Nath Pai, J.B. Kripalani, and George Fernandes – were critical of the Congress party’s role in cultivating a Muslim vote bank on the grounds that they alone would protect Muslim personal laws, and state inaction and dereliction in the face of communal riots. They also provided their historical perspective on Hindu-Muslim relations before and after partition.

M.A. Khan, representing Kasganj in UP, observed that riots were preplanned and targeted Muslim middle-class neighborhoods that were part of the economic mainstream. Most of the property was destroyed during curfew; the police were in league with rioters. As for Vajpayee’s claim that Muslims start riots, Khan asked: “Had this country’s Muslims gone mad to say come kill us, dishonor our women, loot our homes?” He dismissed Vajpayee’s suggestion to invite Muslims such as Jeelany and Hamid Dalwai to the National Integration Council as an exercise in obfuscation and referred to them as “Muslims only in name.”

The socialist leader Nath Pai, representing Rajapur in Maharashtra, lamented the weakening authority of the center and the concomitant rise of general and “permissive” violence in the country. He traced the history of Hindu-Muslim relations, noting that only Mahatma Gandhi and Badshah Khan had opposed partition. Not once after independence were the suspicions, fears, and mutual hatred between Hindu and Muslim minds examined and removed. Tracing the activities of all the political parties at a public rally before the recent Bhiwandi riots in Maharashtra, Nath Pai did not think it worth reducing the communal problem to a quarrel between the prime minister and Vajpayee. He declared the government of India responsible for “seeing that the flag on which we have emblazoned secularism is respected, is upheld.”