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Ending Lucknow’s unholy hatred

KUNAAL SHARMA | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on July 13, 2015

Calm and serene: Lucknow wants to be just that   -  THE HINDU

The violence between Shias and Sunnis in the city has affected politics as well as business. But this can be sorted out

Violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in India has persisted for just over a century. Yet, the phenomenon has received far too little attention from political scientists, journalists and policymakers.

Continued neglect and delay in devising creative interventions aimed at reducing sectarian conflict could jeopardise the social cohesion of India, which will have more Muslims than any other country by the 2020s.

History is instructive: sectarian riots have disrupted economic life in Indian cities and strained limited law and order resources.

The road to understanding — and ultimately reducing — sectarian conflict begins in Lucknow, home to more Sunni-Shia violence than any other Indian city in the past century. Lucknow deserves special attention in the context of sectarian violence.

First, Sunni and Shia alike hold Lucknow in special regard among Indian cities for its historical, cultural and political significance to Muslim life. The Shia hold deep claims to Lucknow.

Shia kings (the shah nawabs) ruled the fabled kingdom of Awadh from 1722 to 1856. Many Indian Sunnis revere Lucknow as a leading source of Islamic legal interpretation and education.

Second, Lucknow has significant political implications. Muslims account for about 30 per cent of voters and their vote is vulnerable to polarisation; 60 per cent of Lucknavi Muslims are Sunni and 40 per cent are Shia.

Finally, sectarian violence in Lucknow is also notable because the stability of Lucknow is crucial for the stability of Uttar Pradesh, home to 180 million Indians and already set back by Hindu-Muslim violence.

Lucknow’s Sunni-Shia violence is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first riot took place in 1905. Violence there has tended to occur during Islamic holy days, particularly Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, when sectarian identities are particularly salient.

Causes of violence

Violence was triggered in the 1905 episode when a Sunni cleric instructed youth near a Shia procession to chant incendiary verses praising the first three caliphs ( madh-e sahaba). Some Shia replied with verses cursing the first three caliphs ( tavarra). In Lucknow, violence continues to be sparked by madh-e-sahaba or tavarra recitals.

Two approaches from social science offer insights on the onset and persistence of Lucknow’s sectarian violence. First, some political scientists argue that polities ruled by an ethnic minority group experience a heightened risk of inter-group violence because the ethnic majority believes its exclusion is unjustified by the numbers. Ethnic minority rule weakly correlates with civil war.

By this logic, Lucknow may have been at a higher risk of sectarian violence because the Sunni majority group was largely excluded from political and economic power under the two centuries of minority Shia rule. Income increases within a previously marginalised group can motivate riots.

This is instructive, as historians have documented a rise in average Sunni incomes and stagnation or decline in average Shia incomes after the British ousted Lucknow’s last Shia king in 1856.

Second, social scientists argue that ethnic violence can be caused by so-called “ethnic entrepreneurs” or elites who try to win support from co-ethnics by strategically exaggerating identity differences and reframing the outgroup as a threat.

Historical evidence suggests that religious entrepreneurs in Lucknow and its environs are responsible for violence. Following the birth of the Sunni Deobandi and Barelvi revivalist movements in the late nineteenth century, many Sunni clerics began to propagate conservative Islamic doctrine and spread theological refutations of Shia belief and mourning rituals.

Certain Shia clerics, too, sought to build influence by persuading followers that Shia religious values were under threat from Sunnis in India and beyond. Religious entrepreneurship continues to this day, with some Lucknavi maulanas and politicians exploiting fears and stereotypes.

The interventions

Major policy reforms, such as greater public investment in Lucknow’s Muslim communities, may reduce economic grievances that fuel sectarian conflict. Yet such reforms are unlikely in the short-term and may not change the values that sustain prejudice.

For those reasons, local NGOs and pro-tolerance Sunni and Shia clerics in Lucknow should take charge by starting programmes for their youth aimed at reducing prejudice. Interventions should be guided by psychological research. Although there is a dearth of experimental evidence on prejudice-reduction in violent conflict settings, three approaches from social psychology seem particularly promising.

One approach is to reduce prejudice by making individuals aware that their prejudice is inconsistent with their values. Based on cognitive dissonance theory and value self-confrontation approaches, the intervention may involve imams explaining to youth from their sect that their prejudice goes against their own religious values.

Experimental evidence from the US found that value self-confrontation can reduce racial, gender and environmental prejudice attitudes and behaviour for an extended period.

A second approach involves the extended contact hypothesis. Rather than Sunni and Shia youth directly engaging one another, this approach recommends separate groups for each sect.

Individuals learn positive information about the outgroup via ingroup members who have strong friendships with outgroup members. Positive impressions of particular outgroup members may generalise to less prejudice toward the entire outgroup.

A final intervention operates by inducing empathy for the outgroup. NGOs could run such an intervention by having participants from each sect engage in perspective-taking, a standard activity found to reduce prejudice and increase helping behaviour.

Taking the high road

Of these approaches, persuasion is the most logistically daunting in its demand for partnership by pro-tolerance clerics, but also the only approach that directly addresses possible theological drivers of violence.

Extended contact approaches are more logistically feasible, as they do not require the partnership of religious institutions, but do need pro-tolerance youth willing to promote their perspectives to ingroup members.

Perspective-taking, arguably the most feasible option, is also most dependent on active effort by participants and may do too little to help a participant overcome social pressure that supports prejudice.

Sunni and Shia imams who make concerted attempts to overcome sectarian divides will earn widespread respect from the city’s many Muslims who are disaffected by clerics motivated by political or financial gain.

Lucknow’s informal business and civic associations can be publicly supportive, explaining that lower sectarian conflict can economically benefit the city’s Muslims by attracting public and private investment. With sustained leadership, peace can be profitable for all.

(The writer is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at Columbia University. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania)

Published on July 13, 2015
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