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Are communal riots a new thing in India? Yes, and it started with the British

Delhi riots have brought back the 200-year old debate – did Hindus and Muslims live peacefully in India before British or was there always communal violence?

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Are communal riots a recent phenomenon in India, incited by the British divide-and-rule policy since the late 18th century? Or have communal hostilities been part of India’s history since the 12th century, when Muhammad of Ghor took on Prithviraj Chauhan in the battle of Tarain? This is a 200-year old debate, which has taken on new life after the recent Delhi riots.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. Many liberal, secular and Leftist Indians insist that India had had a syncretic culture before the British Raj. The Hindu Right retorts, by virtue of its favourite ‘two-nations theory’ that communalism has always characterised Indian history – India being a Hindu nation and Muslims being either foreigners or converted Hindus led astray from their original destiny.

What we see as communalism today is indisputably a recent phenomenon. To say this does not require us to say that there were no conflicts in India’s past. Just as there are innumerable instances in Indian history of Hindu and Muslim rulers patronising each other’s religious traditions and of ordinary people assuming Hindu-Muslim mixed identities, there are also many records of religious disputes, between Hindus and Buddhists, Shias and Sunnis, Mughals and Satnamis, Brahmans and Nathpanthis and so on. There are also occasional instances of banning of cow killing, including interestingly by Muslim rulers, from Akbar down to Farrukhsiyar, destruction of mosques and temples and local quarrels over right to street processions during Holi or Muharram. But these disputes did not constitute ‘communalism’.

When the British came to India, the Mughals were still ruling. And the British unsurprisingly disguised their conquests as a war for the liberation of Hindus from Muslim despotism and the setting up of, ironically, the rule of law. The rest is a well-known story, with medieval India being painted by both the British and Indian nationalists, as a dark age, notwithstanding Hindustani music or Mughal cuisine or Brajbhasha poetry or Urdu ghazal or indeed the elegant salwar kameez, none of which would have been imaginable without Persian and Arabic influence.

Also read: Why Delhi riots are different — what ThePrint’s 13 reporters, photojournalists saw on ground

Riots in India in 17th and 18th centuries

Despite being a major centre of purist revivalism of Shah Waliullah and Shah Abdul Aziz and home to wealthy, pious and vegetarian Hindu and Jain traders, with a Jain temple right next to the Red Fort, Delhi was relatively free of Hindu-Muslim tension throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

There certainly were scattered instances of religious strife, but neither all Muslims nor all Hindus were involved in them as well defined or clearly bounded totalities. Nor were these conflicts purely religious. The Satnami war against Aurangzeb at the borders of Delhi, despite being glossed today as a conflict between a fanatic Muslim emperor and pious, hardworking Hindu peasants, had equally to do with caste protest against aristocratic landlords and peasant protest against state taxation. This in addition to the fact that the Satnamis themselves practised mixed Hindu and Muslim rituals of devotion.

There were several religious conflicts in the 1720s in the city. But those were mostly led by newly demilitarised mercenaries like Afghans and Abyssinians and new arrivals seeking to replace the established Irani and Turani nobility. The Rohilla Afghan rulers of the 18th-century states northeast of Delhi, even though they had a military alliance with Kutheir Rajputs, became orthodox Sunni activists and were often blamed for causing disturbances. In the Delhi riot of 1729, the kazi, who was aligned with the older Shia nobility, were attacked by Punjabi Muslim shoe-sellers, protected by the Rohilla Afghans. Again, in the anti-British riot of 1816 in Bareilly, Hindu urban and commercial men joined the revolt of Maulvi Mahomed Ewaz, a strict Naqushbandi Sunni with connections to Delhi, pledging to fight for both endangered religions.

Clearly, these conflicts are better understood as sectarian rather than communal, because they were partial, local, issue-centric and as often intra-religious as inter-religious, very different from how communalism appears today.

Also read: Kejriwal is wrong. Delhi to Gujarat, outsiders blamed in riots, but most victims know attackers

Religion as a divide in modern India

So, what has changed now?  One, colonialism brought to India the ‘clash of civilisations’ discourse, way before Samuel Huntington wrote his book. Europe’s was a Christian history, engaged in demonising Islam from the time of the Crusades to the 18th century and after, when European states faced the mighty and majestic Ottoman Empire literally knocking at their doors. The British, when they came to India, carried that bias and weaponised it for political purposes, as did many orthodox Hindu nationalists right from the late 19th century.

Two, rule by census came to be established. Given the British imagination of the world as a map of religions – Europe/Christianity, India/Hinduism, Middle East/Islam, Far East/Buddhism and so on – the census required populations to return themselves as either Hindu or Muslim. There was no longer any possibility of recording one’s sectarian identity, such as Shia or Ahmadiya or Lingayat or Vaishnava. Nor was it possible any more to retain mixed identities, and people like the Meos who engaged in both Hindu and Muslim practices were forced to choose between Hinduism and Islam once and for all.  Identities became harder, oppositional and permanently fixed.  No wonder that every time India holds a census, fundamentalists go on a rampage forcing people to record their religion right.

Three, since the 1870s, when local body elections started in India, the combination of census demography and political rule based on numbers changed the very meaning of community identity in India. Majoritarianism became possible in a way that could never have been imagined earlier, leading to quite the opposite of democracy. As we see today, number-based majoritarianism has pathological expressions such as Hindutva followers fighting ‘love jihad’ to prevent populations, mostly of women, from potentially going over to the other side and adding to the ‘enemy’ community’s demographic strength.

Four, the colonial state set up a regime of so-called personal laws in purely religious terms, without considering the fact that regional differences historically cut across community law in India, a development that continues to vitiate sentiments even today. It also undercut the position of earlier legal officials like kazismuftis, and sectarian matha chiefs, turning them into ‘religious’ professionals and/or replacing them with Brahmins and ulama.

And finally, and most importantly, modern politics reduced religions to nations and recast the question of religious identity as a question of national belonging. We see communal mobilisation take on the guise of nationalism right in front of our eyes.

Also read: How I unlearned my Islamophobia one step at a time

Interchanging nation and religion

It is obvious from both the past and present of religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism that the territorial map of where people are born and where they live never matches, and has never ever matched, the cartography of religions of the world. Religions in any case contain within them multiple national, linguistic and political cultures, this internal multiplicity being the very lifeblood of religious thought, as it evolves through internal criticism and conflict. Religion also evolves through ‘external’ influence, as is well proven by the history of mutual enrichment Bhakti and Sufi traditions in India.

The reduction of religion to nation and nation to religion has ended up impoverishing and bleeding out not just nations but also the very phenomenon of religion itself, narrowing it down to identity and nothing but. The Delhi riots proved just that.

The author is a historian and professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.

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  1. According to me there are a lots of people in this planet who are literally fools.
    This article is not for them. Who are literally fools or fucked by pseudo history.
    Violence is in Indian history
    First against lower castes by upper castes
    Against dravidiyans.
    Then now with minorities of Republic India.
    India needs dictatorship to know the value of democracy.
    Which is already in progress now see will they succeed or not.

  2. Sankar Hajra

    Riot is a curse for India. We should earnestly try to stop it.

    . However , the Marxist contention that the Hindu-Muslim riots in India have been nurtured by the British is totally false.

    Origin of riots in India lies in the Islamic History of India, not in the British History of India that could be realized from below:

    A. Alberuni’s India Vol. 1 : Dr. Edward C. Sachau ( Indus Library ) preface
    Alberuni writes that the image of Somanath was destroyed by the prince Mahmud of Gazni in 1024 C.E.

    “ He ordered the upper part to be broken and the remainder to be transported to his residence, Ghazni with all its coverings and trappings of gold, jewels, and embroidered garments. Part of it has been thrown into the hippodrome of the town, together with the Cakrasvamin, an idol of bronze, that had been brought from Taneshar. Another part of the idol from Somanath lies before the door of the mosque of Ghaznin, on which people rub their feet to clean them from dirt and wet”. [Alberuni’s India Vol. II : Dr. Edward C. Sachau ( Indus Library ) part II page 103]

    B. Cunnighham, the great archaeologist writes,
    “At Lahor and Thaneswar, at Mathura and Kanauj, at Banaras and Junapur, at Gaya and Bihar, the combined intolerance and the rapacity of the Mussalmans were directed against the principal temples , all of which were destroyed or desecrated and therefore, left to fall into ruins, and the idols were broken or carried away to Delhi to be trodden under the feet of the conquerors . Throughout the valley of the Ganges, from Thaneswar to Bihar , the most famous and therefore, the finest of the Hindu temples were ruthlessly overthrown, partly to persecute the idolaters, partly to furnish to the chief materials for mosques. Of the places which escaped or resisted the fierce onslaught of Muhammad bin Sam and Iltitmish , some fell before the ruthless hand of Ala-ud –din Khilji and the remainder were swept away by the vindictive bigotry of Sikandar Lodi.” [Alexander Cunningham in Archaeological Reports 1871-72, Vol.3, p.6.]

    C. R. C. Majumdar, the famous historian opines ,

    Hindu orthodoxy, Hindu caste-ism “together with forcible conversion, and voluntary acceptance of Islam by temptation of material gain or benefit, rarely by conviction, resulted in the steady flow of the Hindus to the fold of Islam, which constitutes the most important change in the Hindu society during the middle age.” [R. C. Majumdar, History of Medieval Bengal (Calcutta: G. Bharadwaj & Co., 1973), 196–197]

    D. Similarly for Bengal as per the writings of Suniti Kumar Chatterji we know:

    “The conquest of Bengal by these ruthless foreigners was like a terrible hurricane which swept over the country, when a peace-loving people were subjected to all imaginable terrors and torments—wholesale massacres, pillages, abduction and enslavement of men and women, destruction of temples, palaces, images and libraries, and forcible conversion. The Muslim Turks, like the Spanish Catholic conquistadores in Mexico and Peru and elsewhere in America, sought to destroy the culture and religion of the land as the handiwork of Satan.”
    [Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Languages and Literatures of Modern India (Calcutta: Bengal Publishers, 1963), 160–61]

    E. Francois Gautier 2020 writes :

    “Another very important reason for the negative self-image that Indians have got of themselves, are the Muslim invasions. This is still today a very controversial subject, since Indian history books have chosen to keep quiet about this huge chunk of Indian history – nearly 10 centuries of horrors. At Independence, Nehru too, put it aside, perhaps because he thought that this was a topic which could divide India, as there was a strong Muslim minority which chose to stay and not emigrate to Pakistan.

    Yet, nothing has marked India’s psyche – or the Hindu silent majority, if you wish – as the Muslim invasions. And whatever happens in contemporary India, is a consequence of these invasions, whether it is the creation of Pakistan, whether it is Kashmir, whether it is Ayodhya, or Kargil.

    There is no point in passing a moral judgment on these invasions, as they are a thing of the past. Islam is one of the world’s youngest religions, whose dynamism is not in question; unfortunately it is a militant religion, as it believes that there is only one God and all the other Gods are false. And so as long as this concept is ingrained in the minds of Muslims, there will be a problem of tolerance, of tolerating other creeds. And this is what happened in India from the 7th century onwards : invaders, who believed in one God, came upon this country which had a million gods… And for them it was the symbol of all what they thought was wrong. So the genocide – and the word genocide has to be used – which was perpetrated was tremendous, because of the staunch resistance of the 4000 year old Hindu faith.

    Indeed, the Muslim policy vis a vis India seems to have been a conscious and systematic
    destruction of everything that was beautiful, holy, refined. Entire cities were burnt down and their populations massacred. Each successive campaign brought hundreds of thousands of victims and similar numbers were deported as slaves. Every new invader often made literally his hill of Hindu skulls. Thus the conquest of Afghanistan in the year 1000, was followed by the annihilation of the entire Hindu population there; indeed, the region is still called Hindu Kush, ‘Hindu slaughter’.

    The Bahmani sultans in central India, made it a rule to kill 100.000 Hindus a year. In 1399, Teimur killed 100.000 Hindus in a single day, and many more on other occasions. Historian Konraad Elst, in his book “Negationism in India”, quotes Professor K.S. Lal, who calculated that the Hindu population decreased by eighty million between the year 1000 and 1525, indeed, probably the biggest holocaust in the world’s history, far greater than the genocide of the Incas in South America by the Spanish and the Portuguese.”

    Regrettably, there was a conspiracy by the British, and later by India’s Marxist intelligentsia to negate this holocaust. Thus, Indian students since the early twenties, were taught that that there never was a Muslim genocide on the person of Hindus, but rather that the Moghols brought great refinement to Indian culture. In “Communalism and the writing of Indian history”, for instance, Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra, professors at the JNU in New Delhi, the Mecca of secularism and negationism in India, denied the Muslim genocide by replacing it instead with a conflict of classes : “Muslims brought the notion of egalitarianism in India”, they argue. The redoubtable Romila Thapar in her “Penguin History of India”, co-authored with Percival Spear, writes again : “Aurangzeb’s supposed intolerance, is little more than a hostile legend based on isolated acts such as the erection of a mosque on a temple site in Benares”.

    What are the facts, according to Muslim records ? Aurangzeb (1658-1707) did not just build an isolated mosque on a destroyed temple, he ordered all temples destroyed and mosques to be built on their site. Among them the Kashi Vishvanath, one of the most sacred places Hindu worship, Krishna’s birth temple in Mathura, the rebuilt Somnath temple on the coast of Gujurat, the Vishnu temple replaced with the Alamgir mosque now overlooking Benares and the Treta-ka-Thakur temple in Ayodhya. The number of temples destroyed by Aurangzeb is counted in 5, if not 6 figures, according to his own official court chronicles: “Aurangzeb ordered all provincial governors to destroy all schools and temples of the Pagans and to make a complete end to all pagan teachings and practices”…

    “Hasan Ali Khan came and said that 172 temples in the area had been destroyed”… “His majesty went to Chittor and 63 temples were destroyed”… “Abu Tarab, appointed to destroy the idol-temples of Amber, reported that 66 temples had been razed to the ground”. Aurangzeb did not stop at destroying temples, their users were also wiped-out; even his own brother, Dara Shikoh, was executed for taking an interest in Hindu religion and the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded because he objected to Aurangzeb’s forced conversions.

    This genocide is still a reality which should not be wished away. Because what the Muslims invasions have done to India is to instil terror in the Hindu collective psyche, which still lingers many centuries later and triggers unconscious reactions. The paranoia displayed today by Indians, their indiscipline, their lack of charity for their own brethren , the abject disregard of their environment, are a direct consequence of these invasions. What India has to do today, is to look squarely at the facts pertaining to these invasions and come to term with them, without any spirit of vengeance, so as to regain a little bit of self-pride. It would also help the Muslim community of India to acknowledge these horrors, which paradoxically, were committed against them, as they are the Hindus who were then converted by force, their women raped, their children taken into slavery – even though today they have made theirs the religion which their ancestors once hate.”

  3. You need to study history before writing articles, as otherwise these are merely the ill-informed opinions of a ideologically prejudiced mind. The British took over India from the Marathas, and not from the mughals. The Marathas were the pre-eminent power in India, having defeated the mughals many decades earlier.
    Moving on – if the absence of Hindu – Muslim riots is an indicator of religious freedom and harmony, then the Chinese Muslims must enjoy an exemplary degree of freedom, with brother relations between them and the han Chinese.

  4. I wish to remind the Author that when Lord Clive rode on his horse into the town of Murshidabad after defeating Siraj-ud-Daulah at the Battle of Plassey, people came out on the streets and showered rose petals on him. This is recorded history, written by British historians of the time. Hope this tells the Author how the Indic population viewed the likes of Siraj-ud-Daulah and his compatriots. The fact that there were no Hindu-Muslim strife then is primarily because the Muslims were the rulers and you do not riot against your rulers. Once those rulers went and the British came to implement the Rule of Law, as the Author says, the Indic people regained their will and might to fight the injustice meted out to them by the virulent amongst the Muslims. There was still a lot of amity amongst the Indic people and the moderates amongst the Muslims and that is seen in many narratives of those times. But to put a blanket statement that there were no riots back then indicated complete harmony between the two communities is at best a blatant lie.

  5. The british were right. After 500 years of slavery (ghulami) when the hindu marathas came to power, these muslims actually invited ahmed shah abdali to save islam. After the third battle of panipat, the next big battle for muslims was 1857. against british. Yes the british did save us from muslim slavery. Or the mugal empire would still be alive and we would still be kowtowing to some zille illahi. jahapanah etc

  6. “When the British came to India, the Mughals were still ruling.” – clearly shows your level of knowledge of Indian history. I didn’t feel the need to read any further.

  7. Just want to ask the author that if communalism was not an issue in India before the arrival of British, why did Gilani Brothers betray their King (of Vijaynagar Empire who trusted them to an important battlefield position) to join the combined armies of Deccan Sultanate at the Battle of Talikota. Just like that or because the Gilanis were Muslims and Hindus of Vijayanagar empire were Kafirs.
    Shekhar Gupta can’t alone pull ThePrint. He needs to hire better second line journalists and analysts.

  8. It is a silly argument to blame foreigners British or others. Hindus has made huge mistake in not fighting and removing all foreigners from the land. Today’s Hindus are paying the price for the mistakes of the past. Today Hindus should not make the same mistake. Need to solve the problem for once and go on the next one.

  9. Firstly Author is wrong
    Brits didn’t brought narrative here, the fact is When British came to India then Hindus were fighting against Foreign Muslim invaders. It was natural for them to say the same thing. The reality should be accepted India is for people with Indic names and culture not for one with Arabic.

  10. Jo lap dog fuddu say fuddu bantha hain, wo toe fuddu square hain. Ab be samaj nahi ata kaisa 200 sal Kursi pe kaisa Bhaita. 35000 angrez versus 300000000 Desi. Sheesh.

  11. Muslims were the masters before the British came to India. And you don’t riot with your master. So there were no riots. Lets not color things to our convenience.

    • Very true. There are no Hindu Muslim riots in Pakistan or Bangladesh. Absence of riots doesn’t mean they lived peacefully. By that yardstick Uighur Muslims must be living in peace because there are hardly any Han Chinese-Muslim riots.

    • Neither anybody was master before brits, technically if some things are not recorded, that doesn’t mean it was not happening. I think riots were happening. I agree in M controlled H were not able to retaliate then, but this doesn’t mean it will not happen today also.

    • before britsh came there was MARATHA Empire almost ruling all over the India, mughal rule was only limited to red fort.
      Hindu marathas were masters of INdia, It took 45 years for british to expand beyond bengal. know your fact rights.

  12. This is a narrative which suits the liberal left and so called secularists. No country and its people liked to be ruled by others be it coreligionist or another. More and more so called liberal/ secular historians forget that India did have a civilization before the advent of Mughals or other Mid-eastern marauders. The syncretism what is being touted as essense of India, did not go beyond the north, part west to east India. To sign paeans of it by the so called secularists is gross oversimplification. The people of small kingdoms didn’t have much of the choice, in front of a large adversary. I have some historians saying that food we enjoy now or the clothes, the music and architecture is all comes external influence.
    Did the people really have a choice, but to change. When Indians go to any foreign country, we tend to carry our spices , clothes, ornaments along with it. The outsiders who came to rule us had there own taste of clothes, food and architecture. If the rulers wanted some things which matched their own taste, they would ask the natives to get or make for them. Why are we romanticizing it. Just as the NRI kids adopting certain features of the land they live, compared to their parents, some Indian sub continent features must have got accommodated in few generations.
    Every time the syncretic culture is touted , most historians forget the south of vindyas. I remember, even as south indian born in Mumbai, initially our requirement of potatoes, tur dal and vegetables typical of north were very minimal. during my visit to my native place, I almost nver ate them. It was not available .
    First of all I feel the forced imposition of the idea of syncretism to the whole of India, is the greatest disservice the author and their ilk do on whole of India. It is not and nor was culture, but it did happen slowly in some parts of north india and may be gangetic plains .
    Most authors forget that the Hindu or ancient Indian culture is restricted to just the sub continent, the north as you say as culture which is mix of ancient indian and mid eastern influence.
    It would be illogical to accept that the syncretism talked by such authors were ever by choice. Even now the example of north east india is in front of us, they are resisting the immigrants from same religion or another religion. They just want to save their culture, which unfortunately the people of medieval India and especially in north, didnt have a say in it. The way most authors write it is we were a democratic society and not autocractic society where the common folk didnt have much say as the descendants of outsiders moulded India, into a different one that it was before they came. Even now we can see in pockets where outside influence was minimal or was in late 17-18th centuries, the culture , food, architecture and clothes are very apart the gangetic plains narrative , which is forced upon the whole of India as an ideal one.

    • Very well written rebuke. Balanced and informative. Demolished the myth and romanticism the left feels talking about Mughal / Muslim rule conveniently glossing over communal excesses, Jaziya tax and destruction of Hindu way of life, it’s temples and when threatened by indigenous uprising seeking help from coreligionists outside like Abdali .

    • The fact is we have nothing to do with Arabic religion and Middle East based culture, our names are different and culture are different. We have Indic names and they have arabic names. This is a fact a clash of civilization which started in 1200s, India is country of Vikram, Rajvir, Ajay etc not of Amjad, asif, mohd etc. Our names are different, we have indic name they have arabic name.

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