Understanding Communalism: The Past is No Guide to the Present

By Anjum Altaf

The present in South Asia is messy, gruesome and unpleasant; no wonder we keep referring back to the past to make sense of it. Most of the time, however, we end up distorting the past to craft seamless narratives that accord with our current sensibilities. I will argue in this essay that there is no such continuity to be crafted and enter a plea for the past to be left alone.

My point of departure is a recent op-ed by Justice Markandey Katju that begins,

Though many Hindus and Muslims in India are today infected by the virus of communalism, the fact is that before 1857 there was no communal feeling at all in most Indians. There were, no doubt, some differences between Hindus and Muslims, but there was no animosity… How is it that around 150 years later, suspicion, if not animosity, has developed between the two major religious communities on our subcontinent?

For Justice Katju, the turning point was 1857:

In 1857, the First Indian War of Independence broke out, in which Hindus and Muslims jointly fought against the British. After suppressing the revolt, the British decided that the only way to control India was to divide and rule.

He goes on to cite convincing evidence for a conscious British strategy, and ends with a plea for secularism:

Secularism does not mean that one cannot practise one’s religion. Secularism means that religion is a private affair unconnected with the state, which will have no religion. In my opinion, secularism is the only policy which can hold our country together and take it to the path of prosperity.

I don’t have much issue with the veracity of the claim about British strategy; it made political sense and there is enough documentation in support, some of it cited by Justice Katju. If I were to argue in this framework, I would push back on two aspects of the thesis: First, if there were no communal feelings before 1857, why was it so easy to generate them afterwards? Second, why is it so difficult to practice secularism in India today given that it was sanctified by the founding fathers?

However, I do not wish to argue in this framework at all; the first question is, in fact, a deadly trap into which a number of those who have commented on Justice Katju’s op-ed have fallen. Many of them have dismissed his claim of the absence, before 1857, of communal animosity, lining up the cruelties of Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan and their ilk to prove that the most vicious kind of communalism existed ever since the arrival of the Muslims in India (some of them suggesting that it was that unfortunate arrival that brought “social animosity” to a peaceful land where such a thing had been hitherto unknown). Justice Katju himself cannot help but concede a little on this point when he says that “No doubt, Muslims who invaded India broke a lot of temples.” But he dismisses that by pointing to the good behavior of subsequent rulers, which he attributes to royal self-interest: “But their descendants, who became local Muslim rulers, almost all fostered communal harmony. This they did in their own interest, because the vast majority of their subjects were Hindus. They knew that if they broke Hindu temples, there would be turbulence and riots, which no ruler wants.”

The claim I wish to advance for consideration is that both these readings of the past, by the commentators and by Justice Katju, are wrong.

1857 does mark a turning point but not simply because the British decided to adopt a policy of divide-and-rule after that year. Much more significantly, 1857 marked a huge break – between the end of empire and the beginning of the nation-state. The two are completely different structures, different worlds with different world-views and different rules of socio-political interaction. To look at the interactions of one through the lens of the other is a major conceptual error.

Just think of this: Notions like majority and minority, electorates (joint or separate), representation, legislatures, states and provinces, borders and passports nation itself did not exist in South Asia before 1857. The first census was not even held until 1871 and it was only then that the new world began to take shape. The ‘subject’ began the transformation to ‘citizen’; there emerged a calculus to determine who would govern; religion, caste and nationality became part of that calculus and hence contentious elements in the identity of the proto-citizen.

This conception led to the birth pangs that are a part of our history, the evolution of the communalism as we know it today, and the final delivery in 1947 of a two-headed offspring at odds with itself.

Other parts of the world as well – other colonies and Europe itself – went through the transition from empire to nation-state, but anyone who has studied their histories will be aware of all their different trajectories. To mention just a few of the critical differences in the European case: the wars of religion were over before the transitions; the ideas of the Enlightenment (equality, liberty, fraternity) were the common currency of the times; subjects were the active agents of change; social equality preceded the emergence of electoral politics as the basis for governance; the journey to universal suffrage stretched over a century and a half. These were organic transitions, not one shoe-horned from above on a population that had little sense of what was being done to it and why.

Let me now step back and look at the two worlds separately to substantiate the point I wish to make – that the huge discontinuity in the Indian trajectory makes any projection of the present into the past a grossly misleading venture.

Empires were marked by invasions – they were a completely normal and acceptable part of that world. Alexander invaded India over 300 years before the birth of Christ. Genghis Khan (no, he wasn’t a Muslim, please) invaded almost all of Eurasia. Invaders fought, burnt, pillaged, looted, took away whatever they could. None of them invaded with the objective of imposing their religions on those living in the lands they had invaded.

In this framework, there also came to India around a thousand years ago a set of invaders who happened to be Muslims. Their being Muslims had nothing to do with their decision to invade.  They were not representatives of Islam nor had been designated as such by anyone. Their invasions were nothing like the First Crusade, which was launched roughly around the same time by a Pope in Europe with the explicit purpose of regaining Christian holy lands in the Middle East from Muslim rule.

Like all invaders before them, the invaders who came from Kabul also burnt, looted and pillaged when they needed to. They broke temples because that is where wealth was stored (as it still is today, in many cases) and because temples symbolized the power of local rulers.  But this is where the study of history becomes important: It is not as if the destruction of temples began with these invasions. The empires of Chandragupta and Ashoka were marked by similar expansions over contiguous territories and similar destructions, some of much greater magnitude.

So temples were indeed looted, but not to establish the supremacy of one religion over another. The looting of temples, much as we shudder at the thought given our current sensibilities, was a part of the world of empires and invasions. If we wish to read humiliation and a lack of machismo into those incidents, the problem is with us and our projection of the present into a past that conformed to different rules. Such destructions cannot, should not, be looked at in the same context as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas or the Babri Masjid or the Twin Towers (temples of the capitalist world), which we have much more justification to condemn.

It only requires a little bit of thought to reveal the absurdity of projecting the present into the past. If the actions of the past had been motivated by religion, why would not the vast majority of Hindus have risen up together to defeat the relatively small number of invaders? Why would Muslim invaders from Iran have weakened Muslim rulers of India? Why would Muslim rulers in the north of India have spent years in conflict with their co-religionists in the South? Why would contending rulers have entrusted their armies to generals of ‘enemy’ religions? Why would the ruling elites have been so cosmopolitan? Why would the poor have comprised people of all religions in proportion to their populations? Why just 150 years after 1857 would Muslims be amongst the poorest of the poor in India today?

To argue that there was a lack of communal animosity before 1857 except for the unfortunate destruction of some temples is incorrect and impossible, because the backward projection of a modern category into the world of empire is flawed. It leads to the grave error of imagining an idyllic past that never existed. All social systems are characterized by animosities – it is just the nature of the animosities that changes shapes and forms.

Hindu society itself is characterized by animosities of a peculiar nature in which differences of caste can lead to the infliction of the most brutal violence. But all societies adapt to their peculiarities – Hindu castes co-existed with one another most of the time and the rules of the system ensured social harmony till some unforeseen incident temporarily breached the order. In this world Muslims were integrated almost as another caste. There was no more animosity between Muslims and Hindus than there was between Muslims of different sects and Hindus of different castes. Muslims and Hindus did not drink water from the same vessel; nor did Brahmins and non-Brahmins. This was not communalism, nor was it animosity; it was the way of that world.

When the invaders who were Muslims stayed on and intermarried, they became as Indian as all other Indians of those times (compare the physical profiles of Babur and Jehangir to see the transformation of a Turk into an Indian), there being in the world of empire no need for passports or birth certificates as proof of citizenship. As Muslims, they negotiated their place in the social world of the empire much as anybody else. It was not considered odd to be the Muslim subject of a Hindu ruler or the Hindu subject of a Muslim one. Some Muslim rulers lost their marbles just as some Hindu ones did. That too was part of dynastic rule. Ironically, the world of empire in India was a much more secular (and decentralized) one than the world of the nation-state.

Today, because a system of governance based on a counting of hands is in place and an allocation of resources based on the accident of birth is in operation, both religion and caste have become instruments of politics and therefore much more rigid markers of identity than in the world of empire. And because South Asia, with no social or religious revolutions in its recent history, remains an exclusivist and hierarchical society, its order continues to converge to a patron-client system in which the politics of ideas is trumped by the politics of identity. 1947 was just the most visible outcome of these contradictions; their presence continues to leave its marks on our lives today in all the countries of the region.

In such a world, it is virtually impossible to be secular in the sense of the word employed by Justice Markandey Katju. Communalism is an integral part, indeed it arises out of, the model of governance we have inherited, a model that is not in consonance with the social reality on which it has been imposed. Communalism is an ugly offspring of the misbegotten nation-state in South Asia.


  • Vijay Vikram
    Posted at 00:56h, 15 October Reply


    An enlightening contribution.

    The positioning of 1857 as the turning point that marked the transition from empire to nation-state is one that is stimulating and instinctually plausible.

    “So temples were indeed looted, but not to establish the supremacy of one religion over another. The looting of temples, much as we shudder at the thought given our current sensibilities, was a part of the world of empires and invasions. If we wish to read humiliation and a lack of machismo into those incidents, the problem is with us and our projection of the present into a past that conformed to different rules.”

    I was also stimulated by the above contention, particularly the point about machismo, for as you know, the caricature of the weak Hindu male is one that has dogged us for generations and continues to inform the pathologies of the post-colony (one Pakistani soldier is equal to ten Indians etc – although Aakar Patel is trying to puncture the Punjabi Mussalman claim to machismo http://www.firstpost.com/blogs/perception-vs-reality-is-the-punjabi-muslim-really-martial-473743.html)

    I must say, I have some instinctual empathy with Hindu masculine self-loathing. There are no temples in Mecca and Medina but a mosque stands, or stood, in Ayodhya. Similarly, much of what we know today as South-East Asia once formed part of classical India’s civilisational near-abroad. Thailand’s monarch may still carry the ceremonial title of “Rama IX” and Sanskritic names are common. However, Sanskritic civilisation was gradually replaced by Islam starting from the 11th or the 12th Centuries.

    It may be possible to argue that the Hinduism’s easy retreat in the face of a semitic force in South-East Asia is evidence of its generally feminine nature. I assume Hinduism in what was called Suvarnabhumi did not constitute a hegemonistic political project and therefore its fall cannot constitute a political defeat. However, in an era where civilisational strength and political strength have come to overlap it is almost unavoidable to project our power-political conceptions “into a past that conformed to different rules”. Hindu modernisers with expansive conceptions gaze wistfully at lands that used to be in Hindu hands.

    In any case, a fascinating piece. You might enjoy reading Ashok Malik’s landmark op-ed on Dara Shikoh and the India that might have been (http://www.defence.pk/forums/current-events-social-issues/31550-month-we-lost-dara-shikoh.html).

    Of course, our tragedies are compounded by the imposition of alien governing philosophies as our elites celebrate their imperfect embrace. One knows not what will emerge from this churning.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:28h, 15 October Reply

      Vijay: I appreciate your critical reading. I don’t believe, and I read you to be in agreement, that one can reduce historical changes to the level of the individual. So this bit about the feminine nature of a religion does not convince me and I am quite in sympathy with Aakar Patel who has a very effective way of deflating all such claims. After all, the British took over India quite easily. Could this be attributed to the feminine nature of Indians – Muslim, Hindu or Sikh? Nor do I believe that one can talk of the South Asia of those times in terms of collective religious sensibilities. So in my view it is an error to center an argument around ‘Hinduism’s easy retreat in the face of a semitic force in South-East Asia’.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 01:33h, 15 October Reply

    “At this Court Amír Jahán Sháh and Amír Sulaimán Sháh, and other amírs of experience, brought to my notice that, from the time of entering Hindustán up to the present time, we had taken more than 100,000 infidels and prisoners, and that they were all in my camp. On the previous day, when the enemy’s forces made the attack upon us, the prisoners made signs of rejoicing, uttered imprecations against us, and were ready, as soon as they heard of the enemy’s success, to form themselves into a body, break their bonds, plunder our tents, and then to go and join the enemy, and so increase his numbers and strength. I asked their advice about the prisoners, and they said that on the great day of battle these 100,000 prisoners could not be left with the baggage, and that it would be entirely opposed to the rules of war to set these idolaters and foes of Islám at liberty. In fact, no other course remained but that of making them all food for the sword. When I heard these words I found them in accordance with the rules of war, and I directly gave my command for the Tawáchís to proclaim throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners was to put them to death, and whoever neglected to do so should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the gházís of Islám, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. 100,000 infidels, impious idolaters, were on that day slain. Mauláná Násiru-d dín ‘Umar, a counsellor and man of learning, who, in all his life, had never killed a sparrow, now, in execution of my order, slew with his sword fifteen idolatrous Hindus, who were his captives.”

    – Timur describing his destruction of Delhi

    “The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times. The Gyanvapi Mosque, which is adjacent to the temple, is the original site of the temple. The current structure was built by the Maratha monarch, Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1780.” – The Kashi Vishwanath temple in Mathura which was destroyed by Aurangzeb, and rebuilt by Maratha ruler Ahilyabai Holkar, leaving the mosque Aurangzeb built intact

  • Vikram
    Posted at 01:41h, 15 October Reply

    Can you give me an example of a single Hindu ruler who invaded another country, another city, slaughtered the ‘infidels’ there and ordered the rape of women there ? I am not saying that all Hindu rulers were saints, and they certainly merit a lot of criticism for not doing anything about caste, but the worst Muslim rulers were far, far more cruel to Hindus than than the worst Hindu rulers were to other religions.

    It is interesting that your write up makes absolutely no mention of the Marathas. It would be good if you read up on why the Marathas had to take up arms against the Mughal Empire, and how the smashed the coercive power of Muslims in India. Is it a coincidence that the boundaries of Pakistan and India closely resemble that of the Maratha Empire and that of the areas in north-west South Asia that remained under Muslim rule ?


    Note that even though Oudh and the Nizams in the south were still under Muslim rule, the Marathas constantly engaged them and the Muslim power there was probably not very firm.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:39h, 15 October Reply

      Vikram: There is one big point I wanted to make: that 1857 marked a major discontinuity in India – from empire to a proto-nation-state and that today’s communalism (however we understand this ambiguous term) is a fall-out of the nation-state being grafted on a social body that was not conducive to the change. One consequence of this discontinuity is that there is no seamless narrative of communalism in India. Therefore, I made the claim that it is problematic to argue either that the past was idyllic or that it constituted a war of religions. This is not to argue that much violence did not take place or that it was evenly distributed.

    • Kabir Altaf
      Posted at 03:56h, 15 October Reply

      Hi Vikram,

      I am currently auditing a course at LUMS called “Fundamentals of South Asian History”. The two main textbooks we are using are by mainstream (not “Pakistani Nationalist” or “Indian Nationalist” historians): Jalal’s “Modern South Asia” and Metcalf’s “A Concise History of India”. Both Jalal and Metcalf constantly make the argument that looking at the past through a communal “Hindu-Muslim” lens is analytically flawed and the reason why we look at it this way has to do with colonial historiography. Even the colonial periodization of India’s history “Hindu India”, “Muslim India” and “British India” is flawed and should be replaced with “Ancient India”, “Early Modern India” and “Colonial India” — this is pretty much the consensus within the academy these days, unless you want to go start reading “Indian Nationalist” historians who have their own obvious biases (as do Pak Nationalist “historians”).

      Jalal in fact made the argument way back in 1995 that “communalism” whether we are discussing Hindu majoritarianism or Muslim minoritarianism is an analytically bad category and should just be thrown out entirely. I quote from her paper: “This paper is an attempt to spot the blots in the historiographical discourse on Muslim communalism…. By contrasting the ‘inevitability’ of a Muslim identity, variously defined with the ‘impossibility’ of a supra-regional and specifically Muslim politics in the subcontinental context, the paper aims at demonstrating the largely arbitrary, derogatory and exclusionary nature of the term ‘communal’ as it has been applied to individuals and political groupings claiming to represent the interests of Indian Muslims” (Jalal, “Exploding Communalism: The Politics of Muslim Identity in South Asia”) A PDF of this article can easily be found online.

      You fall into an error when you talk about Awadh and Hyderabad being under “Muslim” rule — there was no one generic Muslim rule– there was the Mughal Empire and it was breaking up in various places, whether Mughal subedars decided to claim independence and rule in their own names as in Awadh or Hyderabad Deccan, or whether other forces were able to take some authority from the Mughals, such as the Marathas or the Sikhs.

      Coming to the issue of the Maratha revolt, we discussed this in class (there was a student presentation on it) and it is clear that this revolt against the Mughals (not against “Muslim rulers” in general) can be looked at in many ways. One of the most popular theories is to look at it as you have done as a “Hindu” attempt to reclaim India from the “Muslim invaders” — Again this is a colonial construction and contemporary records don’t bear out this interpretation. Why could you not see the Maratha revolt as a Nationalist revolt claiming space and territory for the Maratha Nation against the declining Mughal Empire? Why bring the “Hindu vs. Muslim” angle into it?

      Note that Shivaji’s father worked in the service of the rulers of Bijapur (another “Muslim” state — not part of Mughal “Hindustan”). He was also granted a rank and land by the Mughals themselves (before defecting to Bijapur and joining Adil Shah). Shivaji himself inherited the Poona jagir from his father. It can be argued that the Maratha leadership gained their power in large part from the Mughals, and then rebelled against them.

      Our history is complicated and looking at everything pre the colonial era as “Hindus vs. Muslims” is a severe distortion (as most in the academy now agree).

      • Vikram
        Posted at 17:58h, 15 October Reply

        Kabir, of course history should not be reduced to a viewing of events through a Hindu-Muslim prism, however since we dont have the luxury of a detailed time-series of historical evolution (as we do for biological evolution), we have to look back at events through various lens and understand what it means through each point of view. There is no ‘true’ answer in sociological sciences.

        I sympathize with your efforts at presenting a more harmonious and benign view of the consequences of Islamic rule in India. I sympathize similarly with those genuinely ‘well meaning’ upper caste Hindus who try to argue that that the caste system was really not meant to be oppressive but was ‘distorted over time’. But facts speak against both these views.

        The current day states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were among the leading centres of Hinduism and Buddhism in India. Yet, not a single Hindu temple built before the 1700s (when Muslim power weakened and the Marathas rose) stands. So I ask you, what happened to all those temples ? What happened to all the pilgrimage centres that were destroyed because Muslim rulers either stopped supporting them or destroyed them ?

        Why did the Mughal rulers build so many splendid mosques but not a single great temple ?

        This is not to say that all Muslim rulers were cruel to Hindus, just like all upper caste Hindus do not oppress Dalits. But the structural basis of Islamic power in India relied on a marginalization of Hindus in India. Yes, the odd Hindu was given a good position here and there, but this was essential to maintain the empire, not a consequence of the philosophy the ruling Muslim elites followed.

        About the Marathas, Shivaji himself repeatedly said that he was fighting for ‘Hindu swaraj’, and this along with Maratha self-determination was his reason for fighting the Mughals. If the Marathas did not have a goal of Hindu revival, why do you think Ahilyabai built the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Mathura again ? (note that she did not destroy the Gyanvapi mosque that Aurangzeb built after destroying the ancient temple at that site)

        To understand the psychology of the Muslim elite in North India, it would be useful if you read about the Third Battle of Panipat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Panipat_(1761)

        Here are two sets of Muslim rulers in North India (the Rohillas and Shuja-ud-Daula) preferred to join Abdali’s ‘army of Islam’ even though the Marathas had helped them just a few years ago ! Is it any surprise that at the time of partition, Dr. Ambedkar doubted if Indian Muslims would fight alongside Hindus to defend India if a foreign Muslim power invaded ?

        I sense a deep discomfort among elite Muslims and some intellectuals that the Hindus of India have evolved a common consciousness, know who they are and are prepared to defend India from further aggression. This attitude among intellectuals is very disappointing, but the reality of Hindu consciousness must be accepted. No doubt this consciousness can (and has) threaten minorities in India, but the real safeguard against any negative exploitation of Hindu unity in India is the Constitution of India and the memory of the freedom struggle, not false histories that deny India’s Hindus their sense of who they are.

        • Kabir Altaf
          Posted at 03:57h, 16 October Reply


          Both of us are laymen when it comes to South Asian History. We cannot educate ourselves via Wikipedia. I have referred to two books written by well-renowned historians. Jalal and Metcalf have no interest in shilling for Muslims or for Pakistan. Jalal, in fact, has consistently been one of the harshest critics of the “Two Nation Theory”.

          Jalal et al have argued that looking at “Hindu” and “Muslim” identities as if they have always been fixed and opposed is an error that modern Indians and Pakistanis fall into because of colonial historiography. This is how the British interpreted Indian history and one can argue that they created this interpretation to suit their own “divide and rule” tactics.

          • Vikram
            Posted at 01:10h, 18 October

            Kabir, wikipedia is certainly not reliable, but it definitely leads one to some good sources. If there is interest, I can try to find some good references for the Third Battle of Panipat, write a post on it and we can continue our discussion there.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 11:58h, 16 October Reply

    Vikram: In my view, you misinterpret the objective of this discussion when you see it as “efforts at presenting a more harmonious and benign view of the consequences of Islamic rule in India.” This immediately leads to a scoreboard type approach where one counts atrocities committed and ends up with a tally – Muslims X; Hindus Y. Because X is much larger than Y it supposedly proves some general point about the rationale for communalism today.

    The point the article is trying to argue is that this involves a conceptual error. These categories – ‘Muslims’ and ‘Hindus’ – did not exist in this way in those times. If you read the introduction to the first census in India in 1871, you might be astounded to note the comments of the Census Commissioner: no one answered to the category of ‘Hindu’ when asked their religion and so Hinduism was defined as a default category – anyone who could not be classified into any other religion was listed as a Hindu [the story of the census is described in In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik (2007)].

    Similarly, when you read of life in places away from high politics, you will find that those we label ‘Muslims’ are even today still referred to as ‘Turks’. Look at this article in the Economist about a village in East UP: “The Muslims, or Turks, as they are known locally, in many ways mirror their Hindu neighbours.”

    The world of empire in South Asia was not a world of monolithic religious identities the way it is evolving now. It was a world of fractured castes and ethnicities. That was why conquests were so easy, political quarrels were so much more numerous, alliances across identities were so common, and, ironically, why living together was often easier than it is now.

    In this context your statement that “the structural basis of Islamic power in India relied on a marginalization of Hindus in India” becomes problematic because these categories did not exist at that time. Similarly, when you write “Can you give me an example of a single Hindu ruler who invaded another country,” the same category error reappears – there were no countries in those times, just neighboring territories, and all empires – Muslim, Christian, Jain, Hindu, Sikh – moved across neighboring territories often exacting tribute in various forms.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 02:01h, 18 October Reply

    SA, I do not disagree with the premise of this article, yes the decisions of the British Raj, the actions of the Congress and the Muslim League, all played a part in the ‘communalism’ we see in South Asia today.

    My point is that the atrocities of previous rulers have played a more important role, and I dont understand how the British not having a category for Hindus has anything to do with this.

    If ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ did not exist as categories in those times, whose temples was Aurangzeb demolishing ? And whom were the Rohillas and Shuja-ud-Daula not supporting ?

    • Kabir Altaf
      Posted at 08:08h, 18 October Reply


      Since you are interested in the issue of temple destruction, may I recommend to you an article by Richard Eaton entitled “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States” in Richard Eaton, Essays on Islam and Indian History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 94-132.

      Eaton is Professor of History at The University of Arizona and as it says on his faculty webpage:

      “My research interests focus on the social and cultural history of premodern India (1000-1800), and especially on the range of historical interactions between Iran and India, and on Islam in South Asia. I have published monographs on the social roles of Sufis (Muslim mystics) in premodern Bijapur, on the growth of Islam in Bengal, and on the social history of the Deccan from 1300 to 1761. I am currently co-authoring a monograph to be titled Power, Memory, and Architecture: Contested Sites in the 16th century Deccan.”

      I’m sure you can find this book in your University library and then you can examine Eaton’s argument for yourself, without taking my word for it.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:49h, 19 October Reply

      Vikram: The hardest part for individuals living in any particular time is to imagine how the world was organized in a different period and how the minds of individuals and groups saw that world and interacted with it. For example, it is hard for us to imagine how people related to the world when they believed that the sun revolved around the earth. We can only do so when we read the accounts of social life that were written in those times.

      Regarding the census, it is not the case that there was a reality just like today’s that existed but the British could not find a category for it. Rather, it was quite the opposite. The reality that existed was one of fractured identities which the British forced into a monolithic category because that was their way of seeing the world from their template of monotheistic religions. Their worldview distorted the existing reality into categories they could understand.

      Aurangzeb was demolishing temples but it was not a war of Islam against Hinduism. There were fractured identities on both sides and it was quite normal for the Raja of one kingdom to enlist the help of Afghans to topple the Raja of a neighboring kingdom. Similarly, Iranis could strike a deal with Marhattas to neutralize the power of Afghans. If we read contemporaneous accounts of history, the only plausible framework in which alliances shifted rapidly across allegiances and ethnicities is one in which identities were fractured, not monolithic, and in which political interests were of much greater importance than religious sentiments. Today, this is very difficult for us to comprehend.

      If we use today’s framework, we can only explain what happened by talking in terms of a few Hindus who sold out or were retained to deceive the masses, or were traitors to their religion. In my opinion, it would be a travesty to put individuals of the stature of Raja Todar Mal, Raja Man Singh and Birbal in any of these categories. Nor would we able to explain the infighting amongst the various fiefdoms with Muslim and Sikh rulers.

      • Vikram
        Posted at 16:05h, 19 October Reply

        SA, I would highly recommend that this blog cover the book ‘India: A sacred geography’, my point of view might be understood if one understands how a shared consciousness was created by common but adaptable myths, pilgrimage and a common system of understanding the world (both in physical and moral terms).

        I did not claim that Muslim rulers, in general, saw their political conflicts as Islam vs Hinduism. I dont think most Indians (apart from extreme right wingers) think that way either. But we do understand that in times of conflict, many Muslim rulers had did not think much of attacking Hindu heritage to intimidate their Hindu opponents and the general population. And this was a factor in the Maratha rebellion and numerous other rebellions. And it is a factor in the Hindu-Muslim antagonisms since then. It wont be in the future as the Indian and state identities tide over these differences.

        I understand that you have a different point of view, but I remain unconvinced. We have been through this before, and will keep going around circles. Best we move on to other topics, where we can learn more from each other.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 07:08h, 18 October Reply

    I think everybody is right in some degrees. Before British census, Hindus were a loose category socially but strongly bonded religiously. Socially castes played important role so much so that the interaction between castes was minimal making castes akin to separate sects while in events like ‘Kumbh Mela’ entire population became a monolithic mass.

    The invaders did not see the Hindus as an overwhelming monolithic adversary in normal times. In fact they felt secure when they saw deeply fractured societies around them and they themselves as one group among many and also the most powerful. I believe this was the reason they did not feel the political need to convert the Hindus as they did in other countries where they encountered an overwhelming monolithic adversary. But on occasions of mega religious events they must have felt insecure therefore periodic annihilation of the Hindus to reassure they are in control.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:04h, 19 October Reply

      Anil: I feel you were moving in the right direction till you adopted the same framework that Justice Markandey Katju did, i.e., one based on self-interest using today’s sensibilities. Thus your conclusion is that the invaders, themselves a monolithic group, were quite delighted to see their adversary as fractured but were fearful of them somehow coming together and therefore resorted to strategic periodic annihilation to prevent that outcome. This is a legitimate speculation but it is still a speculation. Could it not have been an equally good strategy to join in the mega religious events themselves? What really happened can only be determined by a reading of contemporaneous accounts. And what historical accounts are you referring to when you mention the conversions in “other countries where they encountered an overwhelming monolithic adversary”? This too is speculative and needs to be substantiated by historical evidence.

      • Anil Kala
        Posted at 15:35h, 19 October Reply

        Anjum: I am not a researcher therefore speculate. Now you tell me why India remains a Hindu majority country while most other ruled by Muslims are Muslim majority country. One advantage of not being a specialist is that I have an open mind therefore I am amenable to change my view when I hear a good argument.

        • Kabir Altaf
          Posted at 08:16h, 20 October Reply

          Anil, India remains a Hindu majority country because the Mughals realized that their non-Muslim subjects were the majority of the population of the empire (not citizens because that is a term associated with democratic nation-states). The Mughals knew that if they were going to rule and expand their empire, they had to do this in alliance with their Hindu subjects. This is why Akbar married a Rajput princess. Akbar also patronized the Chisti Sufi order because they were more “liberal” than the Naqshbandi Sufis (which Babar had patronized). Akbar used to have Hindu religious leaders come to his court and debate with the Muslim ulema–the ulema didn’t like this because they thought Akbar was questioning their power–they even attempted to revolt against him. Akbar’s basic philosophy was “peace for all” and this was largely followed by his successors.

          This is why most good historians will tell you that communalism didn’t become a significant issue until the British came and started rewriting Indian history according to their own interpretations of it.

          • Anil Kala
            Posted at 03:39h, 21 October

            Kabir: You think before Mughals, Muslims invaders were incapable of converting Hindus in their area of influence? Or what would have happened if Hindus were a monolithic society?

          • Kabir Altaf
            Posted at 05:02h, 21 October

            Anil, Hindus were always the numerical majority compared to the Muslim “invaders” (I don’t like that word, but since people use it, let’s use it for convenience). If the Mughal Empire wasn’t strong enough to forcibly convert people, the Delhi Sultanate certainly wasn’t strong enough to do so. The Mughals realized that they needed to cultivate loyalty to the empire and that forcible conversions weren’t really a good way to do that.

            Those Hindus that did convert to Islam were mostly converted by Sufis. Most who converted were “shudras” and they were attracted to Islam because (in theory) there are no castes and all Muslims are equal before God. For the same reason, later on many members of the lower-castes converted to Christianity, because once you accept Christ as your savior, your caste ceases to matter.

        • Anjum Altaf
          Posted at 06:54h, 21 October Reply

          Anil: It is good to speculate – anybody who doesn’t is intellectually dead. But a speculation is only the beginning. In the natural sciences, a speculation is tested by reference to empirical evidence; in the social sciences by reference to contemporaneous accounts, archaeological findings, linguistic linkages, etc. Sometimes, speculations are challenged by being turned on their heads. For instance, in the case of your question, one could well ask, as MN Roy does, “how comparatively small bands or predatory invaders from distant lands could make themselves the rulers of a vast country for such a long time, and their alien faith found millions [about one-third of the population] of converts.”

          One could also ask, for example, how Christianity, which emerged in a small enclave of the Roman Empire, could find so many converts all across the world, or Hinduism find its way in South East Asia or Buddhism in East Asia. The conversions of majorities does not always equate to the use of force.

          Religions are social movements – there are times in their life cycles when a particular religion is the most progressive amongst the ones that co-exist; at others it loses its dynamism and becomes regressive. Historical accounts of Islam (see the brief overview by MN Roy (at least Chapter 7) who cites eminent historians like Gibbons, Draper, Elliot, Havell, etc.) suggest that when Islam spread out of Arabia it was welcomed by populations oppressed under a decaying Christian order. By the time Muslim invaders came to India, Islam was well past its progressive phase and its leadership had been “wrested from the learned and cultured Arabs” by rough Central Asian soldiers. Even so, India of the 11th and 12th centuries was wracked by ideological chaos of its own because of the Brahminical reaction against the Buddhist revolution – in this environment, the conversion of the most severely persecuted to a new faith would not have been a surprise.

          I disagree with the explanation put forward by Kabir which falls into the same trap that Justice Markandey Katju did – that monolithic groups engage in a kind of strategic calculus – do we have the power to convert these people? If yes, we will do so; If not, we will try and get along with them. Conversions at the mass level almost always occur when those who convert do so willingly because they believe it adds something to their lives they were lacking previously.

          I wonder if you will consider this a good enough argument worth pursuing.

          • Anil Kala
            Posted at 10:00h, 21 October

            Anjum: A few things don’t quite gel. You say ‘ by the time time Islam came to India it was well past its progressive phase..’ but Islam reached South East Asia much later than it arrived in India yet it was able to convert entire area, why?

            The second is human nature. We have a tendency to deviate into a group or form a group.This I believe is survival related ‘there is safety in numbers’. My speculation about India remaining Hindu majority is based on this. To an outsider India appeared a country of small isolated groups going about their business in a stable equilibrium. If the outsider tries to temper with the existing system i.e attack any one group they set in motion a process of realignment or polarization of groups. I think for this purpose the invaders didn’t think it wise to temper with the equilibrium. On the other hand if the outsiders saw there is one monolithic group then it becomes a matter of survival to demolish that group. It will be either us or them in that case.

          • Anjum Altaf
            Posted at 13:02h, 21 October

            Anil: The problem I see with your argument is the presumption that it was a conscious objective of the new arrivals to convert entire areas and that they strategically evaluated whether they should attempt to do so or not. I am not convinced of this presumption. Even otherwise, it can only be sustained if the new arrivals were primarily driven by a religious motivation as, for example, the Christians were in the First Crusade. This kind of motivation cannot be sustained by evidence in South and Southeast Asia. In South Asia, the arrivals were soldiers and in Southeast Asia they were traders. What happens in receiving territories is much more a function of social, economic and political conditions in the territories themselves. As I mentioned before, the 11th and 12th centuries in India can hardly be classified as an equilibrium and many groups converted on their own volition. I don’t know enough about the conditions in Southeast Asia but am fairly sure that a number of very influential rulers converted for some reason and their subjects followed suit. In India, the conversions were bottom up; In Southeast Asia, they seem to have been top down. This does not change the fact that when Islam came to North India with the soldiers ((not the South where it came first via traders) it was past its peak as a dynamic force – this is a simple matter of looking up the chronology.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 12:47h, 22 October Reply

    Anjum: I think you have made a good argument. The example of Kerala having a large chunk of Muslim population is clearly a result of traders influencing local population, therefore persuasion and appeal of attractive features does help in large scale conversion. I also believe monetary inducement does not make much impact when it comes to changing religion as Christians have failed miserably. The top down conversion theory also makes sense as it happened in India during the spread of Buddhism. This however does not negate that coercion can also cause large scale conversion. I am still foxed why Hindus did not convert to Islam in mega numbers. I don’t believe it has anything to do with features of Hindu religion after all Buddhism succeeded in converting them it is another story that they reverted back to Hinduism.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:05h, 27 November Reply

      Anil: I am glad you have mentioned the rise and decline of Buddhism. Part of our problem in discussing current events is that we know so little of the history of the region. There are many who imagine the uninterrupted existence of a peaceful Hindu era before Muslim invaders brought destruction in the 10th Century – hence the huge resentment.

      All one needs to do is to read the history of the White Huns who came in the 5th and 6th Centuries – well before the birth of Islam – overthrew the Gupta Empire and captured a large part of its territory. Invasions were the norm, not the exception in the Age of Empire and there was unending violence and destruction for most of the period.

      A popular account can be found on Wikipedia:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hephthalite_Empire and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihirakula

      And since Wikipedia can be unreliable, here is a very recent PhD dissertation for those with scholarly interests:

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 11:03h, 01 November Reply

    Interesting experiment:

    “Take a bunch of students, Republicans and Democrats, and tell them a story like this: a political fund-raiser named Mike has a serious car accident after a drunken fund-raising event. A month later he makes an impassioned appeal against drunk driving on the radio. Now ask them this question: Hypocrite or changed man?

    It turned out that people (Democrats and Republicans both) were two and a half times as likely to think Mike was a hypocrite if they were told he belonged to the other party. This experiment only confirms a wide body of work in social psychology demonstrating that we’re biased against people we take to be members of a group that isn’t our own, more biased if we think of them as the opposition. That’s not something most of us needed a psychologist to tell us, of course. The news is not that we are biased, it’s how deeply biased we are.”

    “Still, once we admit that the way we interpret evidence about politics and policy is shaped by our inevitable biases, it is probably a useful exercise to try to push against those biases. We might try to identify uncomfortable truths in work by those we disagree with. We might search out error in books by those we suppose to be on our “side.””

    From: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/nov/08/were-still-puzzled/

  • Vikram
    Posted at 19:21h, 03 November Reply

    SA, the British rule (especially its early part) is seen as very unfair to Muslims by many sub-continental Muslims. The British indulged in the destruction and desecration of mosques because they thought Muslims were a threat to their power,

    “The British wanted Delhi to forget its Mughal past. The area around the Fort was completely cleared of gardens, pavilions and mosques (though temples were left intact). The British wanted a clear ground for security reasons. Mosques in particular were either destroyed, or put to other uses. For instance, the Zinatal-Masjid was converted into a bakery. No worship was allowed in the Jama Masjid for five years. One-third of the city was demolished, and its canals were filled up.”

    Page 6, Chapter 6 of the NCERT Class 8 history textbook, http://www.ncert.nic.in/ncerts/textbook/textbook.htm?hess1=0-6

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:29h, 04 November Reply

      Vikram: South Asian textbooks are not the works of any great scholars – they are mostly popular history.

      The British wanted the domination of India and that required the subjugation of all Indian forces whether they were represented outwardly by Mughal, Marhatta or Sikh regimes. As is well-known, Indian forces were never exclusivist; the ruling elites were always cosmopolitan – just look at the names on the Indian side in 1857. After 1857, divide-and-rule did become a central plank of British policy but the British were never trying to be ‘fair’ to anyone.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:28h, 12 December Reply

    More from Justice Katju. This will surely draw very sharp reactions:


    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:12h, 18 December Reply

      Gullibility isn’t idiocy. I am glad he didn’t say 99% are idiots because they believe in God. Besides why blame angrez for this gullibility? Remember how millions fed milk to stone Ganpati.

      I am beginning to believe this man isn’t such a hotshot intellectual, more like Anna Hazare, sincere but linear thinker.

      • SouthAsian
        Posted at 07:06h, 19 December Reply

        Anil: I agree with you that Justice Katju is wrong on all aspects of this argument. It does not help to label people as gullible or idiotic nor is it very useful to find an easy answer by blaming the British.

        The fact that we have to deal with is that there actually are some issues on which emotions can be quite easily aroused or inflamed. Religion is one of these. Now the historical question to be answered is why the number of incidents in which religious passions were aroused increased after some point during British rule? The answer is not complex; it was simply that in the kind of system that the British put in place (and which still remains) it became much more advantageous to use religious conflict as a means towards an end. Before that system, there much less to be gained by similar provocations.

        This is discussed in one of the very early posts on this blog: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2008/02/08/democracy-in-india-1/. It has the following observation from the Indian historian K.N. Pannikar: “the introduction of the principle of elected representation in public institutions actively promoted the rising of communalism in India.”

        The further question that remains to be answered is what will it take to get people to the point where they reject attempts to inflame religious tensions? That is the real challenge confronting citizens today.

      • SouthAsian
        Posted at 11:50h, 21 December Reply

        Anil: The linked article is worth reading. Not to decide right and wrong but to understand the intertwining of religion and politics. People who felt strongly about religion always existed but there seems a very clear divide in time before which religion and politics were distinct spheres – indeed politics as we know it now did not exist. After that point, religion became a part of the political calculus. How a particular stance would play out to various vote banks became important and religion became an instrument of politics. Note the progressive evolution after 1949.


  • Vikram
    Posted at 19:10h, 13 December Reply

    “Conversions at the mass level almost always occur when those who convert do so willingly because they believe it adds something to their lives they were lacking previously.”

    It would seem that it is the easiest for a mass population to add something to their life when they are moving from one pattern of life to another. A current day example of this would be the spread of English in South Asia, and indeed the entire developing world. In South Asia, entering the ranks of English speakers usually coincides with leaving the life of the village (or equivalently menial jobs in the city) to join the industrialized middle class, and the masses have absolutely no qualms about learning English. Even populations outside the formal British Indian Empire, like those in Nepal, place great emphasis on learning English.

    The adoption of Islam in East Bengal coincided strongly with the adoption of settled agricultural life for a population which was still nomadic at the time. Richard Eaton argues that this process of settlement was led by Muslim pirs and the religion showed great flexibility in incorporating local traditions in its fold, just like Hindu faiths had done with populations elsewhere in the subcontinent. It is possible that a similar process led to the conversion of the people in the fringe areas of Punjab.

    This also explains why relatively few people converted in the upper Gangetic plains, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, where Muslim political power predominated from 1200 to 1700 or more, but still there were few conversions to Islam. These areas were already well past the nomad/semi-nomadic stage, firmly ensconced into the Hindu fold and there was no good reason for the masses to adopt a new religious tradition. The Muslim rulers here were generally uninterested in Islam as a political force, relied extensively on Hindus to administer their kingdoms, and thus showed no particular interest in converting their subjects.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:43h, 14 December Reply

      What benefit the nomadic folks of East Bengal derived from converting to Islam when they moved to settled agricultural life?

      • Vikram
        Posted at 18:58h, 15 December Reply

        The Muslim pirs led the change to settled agrarian life and combined the mythologies of the East Bengalis with Islam, bringing them into a broader community.

      • Anil Kala
        Posted at 14:44h, 16 December Reply

        Vikram, I don’t get this.

        Where is the link to transformation from nomadic to agricultural lives. I was hoping that Islamic practices suited to agricultural lives more than Hindu practices. If emotional appeal was the sole reason than transformation from nomadic to agricultural lives appears irrelevant.

        • Vikram
          Posted at 17:11h, 18 December Reply

          Anil, the settling of East Bengal was led predominantly by Muslim pirs, the Brahmins were not very interested in making inroads into the region, as they had established roots elsewhere in India. So there is no question of a competition between the two sets of practices in this case.

        • Anil Kala
          Posted at 10:21h, 19 December Reply

          Vikram, I am trying to understand this……

          Are you saying that Muslim Pirs helped Hindu nomads settle down to agrarian lives which was seen as better life than nomadic life therefore they converted. But the religion itself was not helpful in any way?

          This isn’t quite what the opening quote of your post says. This is what Christian missionaries did but failed. They helped educate and provided health care but couldn’t quite make much impact.

          • Vikram
            Posted at 13:44h, 20 December

            Anil, the nomads were not ‘Hindu’ in the modern sense of the word. They had no contact with Brahmins, and were not incorporated into the settled Hindu society.

            The conversion here is not from Hinduism to Islam, it is from the local religious beliefs and cults that were present in the subcontinent. In most places in India, these beliefs were gradually absorbed into the broader ‘Hindu’ stream. See for example, Manasa Devi, who was a initially a goddess worshipped by tribes in Western Bengal, but then absorbed into the Hindu pantheon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manasa#Origins

            Islam showed a similar flexibility in Eastern Bengal, Eaton calls it ‘creative assimilation’. By adopting this new hybrid religion, the nomads of East Bengal could retain their old faiths while simultaneously being able to access the much broader community of Islam.

          • Anjum Altaf
            Posted at 11:19h, 26 December

            Anil: The process of bringing forest land under cultivation was similar in most of the peripheral areas and was spurred by the development of a larger economy under colonization. Where the rulers were Muslims, there must have been some incentive to align with the ruling classes. This need not have been related to direct missionary activity, just the economic factor might have been enough. The Christians did not have the advantage of being local rulers so they had to resort to traditional missionary practices but without the advantage of providing economic gain their efforts yielded limited returns.

            This is just my speculation after reading the following from a recent article in EPW on the Hyderabad state under the Nizam:

            Creation of Market Economy

            “The deployment of colonial political rationality in the state created a new market economy which was based on the principle of laissez-faire. The new revenue and agricultural policy of the Nizam government had provided considerable cultivable land to many subaltern peasants. This was particularly the case in Telangana, which was covered with vast forests. The soil was rich and fertile and watered by huge irrigation tanks (6,783 tanks and 10,150 kuntas or ponds) in addition to natural rivers and streams. Nevertheless, not much of the land was under cultivation until the second half of the 19th century; this was partly because agriculture was not yet fully integrated within the wider colonial economy. With greater integration, which was made possible by the expansion of railway and road networks, the area of cultivated land increased greatly from 9,60,000 acres in 1875 to 2,91,00,000 acres in 1937. A lot of this new area was brought under cultivation in the last decades of the 19th century. The introduction of the ryotwari system also played an important role as it encouraged subaltern communities to clear vast waste and forest tracts and bring them under cultivation as owner-occupiers.

            “The land revenue assessment was more moderate in the state than in British India. Particularly those peasants who had brought the waste- and forest-land under cultivation were exempted from revenue assessment for 15 to 20 years. Taking advantage of the new system, nomadic communities such as the Lambadas, Gollas and Kurmas and many other service and depressed castes acquired fairly large tracts of forestland, especially in the Gulbarga, Aurangabad, Karimnagar, Adilabad, Warangal, Nalgonda and Mahbubnagar districts. The Karimnagar, Adilabad and Warangal forests became the main settlement sites for the wandering communities. To some extent, these forestlands served two of their greatest needs: grazing pastures and cultivable land.”

            Reference: http://www.epw.in/special-articles/between-tradition-and-modernity.html

        • Anil Kala
          Posted at 04:38h, 22 December Reply

          Vikram: It is difficult to understand the nomads were not Hindu in modern sense. Most of the people back then would qualify for that since Hindu identity did not exist except in big towns and villages nearby these cities. In the first census folks when asked what their religion was invariably said ‘Jat’, ‘Yadav’ ‘Kurmi’ etc therefore Angrez decided that anybody who was not Muslim or Christian was Hindu. Even if we consider tribal nature of those people then people of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh would also be not exactly Hindus in modern sense therefore this generalization doesn’t work as lot of Christian missionary work as well as their attempt to incorporate some of the local practices in Christianity for instance ‘aartii’ didn’t result in substantial conversion. But they succeeded in Mizoram and Nagaland.

          In any case we have known of men single handedly converting large population due only to their charisma. Then top down conversion too is indirectly a kind of coercion. I think we just cannot generalize one reasons for conversions; at some place something worked at others something else.

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