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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?

The crude catapult atop Rajdhani Public School | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
A crude catapult atop Rajdhani Public School | Photo: Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.