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Nigel Harris

Thinking it over...

Divide and rule

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 78, July/August 1985, pp. 12–13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I WAS ill – trapped in bed, the fan clanking overhead and, outside in humid Madras, the temperature at over 100°. Each morning, the newspapers flunked on the bed, flashing their headlines: ‘Tamils kill 150 in reprisal for army killing 75’; ‘Over 100 slaughtered by upper caste militants in Ahmedabad’; ‘50 or more killed in Gujerat police rampage’; ‘41 murdered in Sikh bombing wave in Delhi’; ‘Shiva Sena win Bombay: expel all immigrants since 1970’.

It was dispiriting.

The latest round in the endless and unscrupulous struggle of one or other fragment of India’s lower middle class to do down the rest is a kind of revolt of the privileged. Some of it echoes distantly the shouts of the brigade of bloodies in the Tory and Republican parties.

It is not restricted to India. The northern Tamils of Sri Lanka (not to be confused with the poor Tamil labourers of the tea plantations) are much over-represented in the business and professional classes of the country, and traditionally have dominated higher education.

In Gujerat, the rebellion is of the upper castes against the lower. And the Sikhs of the Punjab are likewise among the better off. It is what in the United States was called a white backlash.

Take some of the best known cases:

The Sikhs

The income per head of the Punjab, the main concentration of Sikhs, is Rs 2,768 per year. This is very far from being princely, but is fully 76 percent above the all-India level. The Green Revolution of the late sixties and a high emigration rate (producing a high inflow of remittances to the province) have transformed the area and made possible an unusual prosperity.

With under 2 percent of India’s population, the Sikhs produce a disproportionate share of agricultural output (at high guaranteed prices); they are 8 percent of central government employees, 6 percent of the top civil service cadre, 5 percent of the Indian Police Service, and 7.5 percent of the army; the President of India, the Chief of the Air Force, the Governor of the Reserve Bank (India’s central bank) and a clutch of generals are all Sikhs; furthermore, Sikhs constitute a major part of India’s business class. The majority of Sikhs, like the majority of Indians, are poor, but it is stretching matters to propose that the Sikhs as a community are an oppressed national minority.

Yet that is exactly what the Sikh militants say, demanding the right of national self-determination and the creation of an independent ‘Khalistan’. In north India, Hinduism is the great surrounding sea of the little Sikh island, and it constantly threatens to engulf the minority, pulling into the Punjab non-Sikh farm labour to work on Sikh farms. Despite the creation of the Punjab as a Sikh state (56 percent Sikh in 1966 when the new state was formed), the Sikh proportion peaked at 61 percent in 1971; by 1981 it was down to 52 percent and still falling.

Not that these issues concerned all Sikhs. Urban Sikhs – artisans, small business, shopkeepers (the Sikh castes of the Khatris, the Auroras and Ramgarhias) – remained indifferent to the demands of the Sikh ultras. The Sikh untouchables, the Mazhabis, were positively hostile. Between them, these two must contribute the 10 percent of the state’s vote that goes to one or other Communist Party.

It was the peasant caste, the Jhats, that provided the main support for the Sikh communal party, the Akali, as well as popular support for the political priests that lead the national movement. Nonetheless, throughout, the Akali captured only a minority of the Sikh vote, despite their claim to speak for all Sikhs. The ruling Congress (I) always won a substantial vote.

It was the late Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi, who started the current phase by patronising the priest, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, as a means to split the Akali to the gain of Congress (I). Split them he did and in all directions, but by creating a new monster to defeat Congress (I) on the demand for an independent Khalistan to be achieved by terrorism.

Terror – invoking reprisals throughout India – was to force home the Sikh diaspora and establish the domination of the Sikh priesthood in a politically independent Khalistan. After all, Khomeini did no less in Iran. And in 1947 Jinnah, Bombay Muslim businessman and Uttar Pradesh Muslim landlords did the same thing to establish an independent Pakistan.

The rest is known. The Akalis became irrelevant in the duel between the Amritsar Golden Temple and Delhi. Bhindranwale’s martyrdom produced the murder of Mrs Gandhi produced the Hindu slaughter of Delhi Sikhs (with the police leading, encouraging or tolerating the assault on rich Sikhs) produced the wave of Sikh bombings produced... Of the first three arrests for the bombings, the first died ‘in police custody’; the other two were battered to a pulp when produced before, the magistrate.

The political leadership on both sides could hardly be more rotten. Congress (I) is soaked in communalism. With a sly nod and a wink, the Sikhs as a whole can be identified as violent and traitorous, so any assault upon any of them is tolerable. The government has continually mixed violent repression with weak concessions. The Akali, like a flock of sheep, ran in all directions as soon as the priest with a gun appeared. Most of the leadership are now madly flirting with the call for Khalistan just to save their necks.

But the majority of Sikhs and Hindus have not moved. The Sikhs at large have not retreated to the Punjab. Also Delhi would rafter kill all Sikhs than concede independence to the Punjab, a precedent that threatens the whole of India, especially for a province on the border with Pakistan.


Since anybody can remember, the Patels have run Gujerat. In 1980, for the first time, Congress (I) put up a candidate for state Chief Minister, Solanki, who was not from this or any other upper caste. His main voting support came from a new coalition of four castes, KHAM – Kshatriyas, Harijans (Untouchables), Adivasis (tribal peoples) and Muslims.

When Solanki won, his reward was in conformity with national policy – amid riots he reserved 21 percent of places in engineering and medical colleges for ‘Scheduled Castes and Tribes’ (the Untouchables) and 10 percent for ‘Backward Castes’.

With new elections in February, Solanki tried to anchor his electoral base by announcing that the backward castes would now have an increase in their reservations of 18 percent. Thus 49 percent of all places would now be reserved (the 30 percent of Gujerat’s population that consist of upper castes would still have access to 61 percent of the places).

The riots, this time by the upper castes, swept/the state with violence on the demand for an end to all reservations. The struggle produced a collapse on all fronts – murderous assaults on the lower castes, Hindu attacks on Muslims, and a general strike of all state employees (against reservations). The violence seemed endless, with possibly two or three hundred dead at the end of it. Solanki climbed down and withdrew the February increase in reservations.

The army moved in when the police collapsed into an attack on everyone. One policeman was killed in the riots, so the following day the police set out to punish the population. Officially, 41 people were killed and an unknown number injured. The police held up the fire brigades at gunpoint while they set light to some 800 houses and 100 vehicles. Two thousand bicycles were destroyed. Newspaper offices were a prime target for gutting because of their criticisms of the police.

The Ahmedabad City Police Commissioner was understanding: ‘My boys have been on their toes for the last couple of months, and this could be a natural reaction to their frustration.’ This was surreal since hardly a day passes in India without a report of police atrocities – 19 injured in Tamilnadu; 22 wounded in Delhi; 5 prisoners with tied hands shot dead in Andhra; 15 tribals murdered in Bihar; and any number of rapes and assaults.

It was the British who started reservations – of seats in provincial assemblies, supposedly to ‘protect minorities’, but an amazingly efficient method of setting one community against another. By these means, Muslim and Hindu were manipulated to keep the jewel in the crown for a long time – before the whole show collapsed in partition. Delhi’s need to divide and rule is no less than London’s used to be. What is depressing is that so many Indians allow themselves to be so manipulated. In the increasingly bloody battles of the Indian lower middle class, the poor are always losers; and the state gains.


The Shiva Sena has been an active political movement for 20-odd years. Bombay is in the state of Maharashtra where the majority of people are Marathas, and the cry of the Shiva Sena and its dictatorial leader, Bal Thackery, is: ‘Bombay for the Marathas’. Effectively, this is an anti-southerner slogan, since the majority of the poor inmigrants to the city are Tamil (and Thackery is not too worried about the rich Gujeratis).

The Shiva Sena won 70 of the 170 seats on Bombay corporation (on a 40 percent poll), and this gave it control. Thackery promptly demanded the expulsion of all inmigrants to the city that had arrived since 1974 (‘or 1970’, he threw in for good measure), and the introduction of a South African-style pass system for all new entrants.

You might have thought someone would have pointed out that Bombay’s population is not growing fast, that inmigration is a very small and declining element in that increase, and that, in any case, if the city water supply is bad that is because a corrupt and incompetent city administration has failed to invest enough in water, not because there are too many people.

But the Chief Minister of Maharashtra said Thackery’s idea was interesting but he needed a formal application to act. Certainly, he went on, something needed to be done to stop Bombay ‘collapsing’, and mentioned China’s migration controls with approval.

Last year’s appalling savageries against Muslims in Bhiwandi, a suburb of Bombay, will be matched sooner or later by assaults on the Tamils. Meanwhile, posters appeared in the southern city of Coimbatore promising that if one Tamil in Bombay were hurt, ‘all north Indians’ in Coimbatore would get it. Here we go again. Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make Shiva Sena.

A civil war implies only two or three sides. But there are hundreds of sides in India – a thousand dragons, as the Chinese call it. The issues are open running sores, without any hope of healing. Punjab, Gujerat, Bombay are currently in the news. But Assam is still not settled. The Sri Lanka issue threatens to spill over into Indian Tamiland. Bihar continues as the epitome of violence and corruption. There will probably be Hindu-Muslim riots in Hyderabad shortly. And on and on. No sooner is one leak staunched than many more are sprung. The gangsters, the politicians and the police, the trinity governing India, work within riots to ensure survival and prosperity. Only the army grows. In the 23 years prior to 1974, the military were called to settle civil disputes 476 times; in the last ten years, 376 times.

Daily life in India is a nightmare. The ruling class, to keep power, manipulates all the evils – communalism, caste-ism, racialism. And its lower minions play back the same prejudices in exaggerated form, just as the petty bourgeois Nazis played back as serious intent the idle anti-Semitic snobberies of Europe’s establishment. Meanwhile, the world market slowly begins to assume the direction of the domestic economy as the state liberalises. This will almost certainly speed the pace of accumulation, and release precisely those furies which, without an alternative politics, fuel the endless bloodletting. The class struggle is still a very soft background theme in the cacophony.

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