Archive for August, 2009

Pre-History of Religious Conflict in India

According to the scholars of secular nationalist historiography, the British colonial rule, especially its ‘divide and rule’ policy, was responsible for Hindu-Muslim conflict and the breakdown of communal harmony in India. For example, Das (1990:22) has argued that communalism was first conceptualized by the British to secure allies. They raised Muslim communalism as a counter-weight to the emerging Indian nationalism. Hasan (1980: 1395) has noted that the roots communalism in India lies in ‘the Morley-Minto Reform [of 1909] which, by creating communal electorates, exacerbated Hindu-Muslim divisions and fostered the spirit of political exclusivism’.

Although such explanations are true, they provide only a partial understanding and ignore ‘the longue duree’ of the construction of communal identities in India (van der Veer 1994:30). Scholars like Christopher Bayly (1985), Peter van der Veer (1994) and others have stretched the discussion to pre-colonial period and have argued that religious and communal conflict had a pre-history in India even before the consolidation of the British rule. According to them ‘community-based state policies’, as followed by Aurangzeb (1618-1707) and Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) on the Muslim side and Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688-1743) on the Hindu side, were responsible for communal conflict during the pre-colonial period (Bayly 1985:184-186; van der Veer 1994:32). 

Such preferential exclusivist community-based policies were, however, continued by the British (e.g. through separate electorates for religious minorities), which resulted in large-scale ethno-religious violence in colonial India and ultimately culminated in its territorial division into the Islamic state of Pakistan and the Hindu dominated but secular India. Language, religion and ethnicity have, since then, been issues that keep challenging the democratic character of a pluralistic India.

Bayly on Prehistory of Communalism