Through the Eye of Partition: The Exploration of Communalism in India- II

15 05 2010

The communal Question

Before proceeding with the discussion any further, we need to address the basic issues related to communalism. So, what essentially can be considered as a communal question? Is it the same as communal politics? Will asserting a particular identity inevitably lead to communal politics? And finally is communal politics regressive in all contexts?

People belonging to a nation or even a region for that matter, will definitely have diverse features some of which become a part of their identities. Ethnicities, languages, dialects, religions, castes, political stands to cuisines are identities. But we do not see people fighting or turning towards violence over the issue of cuisines by itself even when it is a significant secular issue. The other identities have invariably been used in the political spheres independently. While taste of food is quite significant part of a person’s life, it is most often a virtual identity like caste or religion which is often more inflammable.

For example, the people belonging to Malabar in Kerala have a unique cuisine, distinguishable from South or Central Kerala. It is quite famous for non-vegetarian meals, where fish curry is almost indispensible. This choice of food is common to both Hindus and Muslims. A Muslim might have different prayer rituals or belief sets than a Hindu or a Christian, but these are seldom issues that have an immediate impact on day today life. Yet, a Malabari Hindu is nowadays finding more common interests with a Travancore Hindu or a U.P. Hindu who has a different cuisine, social outlook and even the language or dialect.

Let us take another case. I have stayed in college hostels for UG (at NIT Calicut) and PG (at ISI Kolkata) where people coming from different parts of the nation resided in the same building. In the common mess of UG fresher’s hostel, there were always little skirmishes over cuisines yet never to the extent of creating a divide between individual students. In PG, again the same issue was seen between Bengalies and non-Bengalies, although not to an extent of creating a vertical split into two groups. But in many a discussion related to religion or region the differences and lack of comfort surfaced which were distinctly cuisines related. Many Hindus tend to believe that a Muslim is by default not as kind hearted as a Hindu or Buddhist, Jain or Sikh, since he predominantly eat non-vegetarian food including beef. Orthodox Muslims on the other hand consider Pork eating habit among Christians (and some Hindus) as a symbol of being totally unclean. People coming from the cow belt, find Bengali and Keralite food habits (especially the dominance of fish and other non-vegetarian items) often very offensive.

A friend f mine was shell shocked when I told him that people of Kerala do not find eating beef offensive and despite born of Hindu parents, I eat beef and that it is openly served in most hotels in Kerala. When I tried to reason with him saying that Mutton and Chicken are fine while beef is offensive is an arbitrary classification and totally absurd, he wouldn’t agree. Now we see a complex situation here, the same people who have differences over cuisines as individuals are fine with the differences except may be at the dining table. But when this difference in food habits is superimposed with religion, caste or region, it becomes an impression and prejudice and often in charged atmospheres, a reason for communal riots. This strange phenomenon was quite visible during the days of Raj itself. Hindu organisations and traditionalist people opposed cow slaughtering vehemently when it were Muslims at the other end while they never raised any objection to Britons or other Europeans residing in India eating beef. In fact, in most localities where Hindus and Muslims lived together, very rarely was beef openly sold or cow slaughtered. But the issue was always taken beyond that point to call for ban on beef throughout the nation or provinces like Bengal, Bihar and U.P.

The above examples point to some interesting aspects of identity distinctions. People are more often members of many identity groups with no apparent conflict of interest. A person can be a Malayalee, married to a non-Malayalee, born of Hindu parents but atheist by conviction, Engineer by qualification, while a writer by choice, Indian by citizenship, yet internationalist by ideology, Born in middle class with friends from working class and upper class etc. And these identities can all exist in the same person. But when we evaluate another person, membership in a particular identity group becomes a matter of distinction and often prejudice. This is often interpolated to a conflict of interest and after a stage, develops into communal line of thought and action.

Inter-marriage is very rare among communities in India like Muslims, Hindus, Christians or Sikhs. This particular aspect itself create virtual social ghettos, yet the marriage and other civil engagements are not just compartmentalised based on religion, but also caste, sub-caste, ethnicity, region, language and economic status. Except among (mostly urban) secular minded, middle or upper classes, most personal civil engagements are community based. Keeping in mind this ground reality, we have to say that the majority of the population are very much identity conscious and in this context, communal.

Assertion of an identity and viewing others through the monocle of some perceived identities, essentially form the basis of communalism. The fact while is that, people are members of various identity groups and putting them in a particular group is very often arbitrary and irrational. This irrationality is the beginning of communal thought. So at the basic level, communal question is not essentially a foreign export (as argued by some Nationalist and Marxist historians), although colonialists should have used this identity consciousness to their advantage and many a times catalysed it. Communal question always existed, but never surfaced until British arrived and mass politics took shape. Essentially what happened during the Raj was that it was largely raised by the middle classes and got extrapolated to the idea of conflict of interest. Growth and development of communal politics took place during the days of Raj and this is distinct from the passive communal thought which existed in India since perhaps the beginning of history.

Now let us focus on the question whether asserting a particular identity can inevitably lead to communal politics? Existence of communal thought is a harsh reality and most people around the globe are communal in varying degrees. Even in more open societies in Europe and North America, stereotyping of various identity groups is very much prevalent. Thus the issues with head veil in France (apart from security reasons) and minarets in Switzerland are glaring examples of communal thoughts put into action by the so-called enlightened Europeans; discrimination against non-Muslims in Arab nations form another example from communities who are economically well off. The call for banning beef is a direct communal message by Hindu organisations in India. A surprising aspect of such communal calls is that these individual communities consider themselves as fair, just and even secular many a times. A right wing Hindu believes that despite his argument to ban beef on religious ground, he has the right to consider himself secular and non communal. Many an Arabs (or even other Muslims in South Asia) believe that discriminating kaffirs, is a justified course of action and Christians right wingers in US consider it fully justified to amend constitution to include Judeo-Christian ideals and symbols. In all these examples, we find that identity assertion has lead to identity exclusiveness and resulted in communal thoughts and then naturally taking a political course.

In traditional societies, existence of water tight compartments often prevented communal thoughts from getting into a political scene. A problem within the Muslim community is dealt fully by the members and chiefs of that community. Communities acted as individuals who avoided war with each other for their own self interest. Individual freedom or choice was limited and people (with very few exceptions) were confined to the community of birth. This is essentially true in the case of India too. But that doesn’t justify traditional exclusive mentality for it has many other problems associated and is basically an anachronistic idea. In general, we can say that in today’s world if communal thought has risen, it is only a matter of time that it will lead to communal politics and course of action. In modern democracies, the only way to ensure that communal politics do not dominate public sphere is by building a stronger civil society which doesn’t view things through monocle of particular identities, even when identities do exist.

Next, given that communal politics is the direct consequence of identity exclusiveness and problem in identity perception, it is bound to exist in most societies. Let us check if it serves any other larger cause. Most communal minded people naively believe that standing united as a pressure group and bargaining based on a particular perceived identity can serve their long term interests. While prima facially it might appear to be a valid justification, especially since there are already other similar pressure groups, in reality it is a self defeating exercise in the long term. The first reason for this being a logical fallacy that, the identity which they are upholding for bargaining itself consists of many other sub or super identities. If Hindus are considered as an identity, there are Bengalies, Marathies, Gujarathies, U.P. wallahs, Orriyas, Tamilians, Telugus, Malayalees, Kannadigas, etc among them and these are as much strong as the Hindu identity. Within each of these identity groups there are various castes and sub-castes, there are pure vegetarians, non-vegetarians who doesn’t eat beef to beef eating Hindus; there are pro-reservationists and anti-reservationists, and there are extreme right wingers to extreme left wingers. Thus is it impossible for any organisation to claim that they represent the interests of Hindus in India. In fact, it is impossible to find a real common platform for all Hindus, other than a virtual perception of themselves to be Hindus. This is true for Muslims or Christians too. It might be possible for certain pocketed groups with very much similar beliefs to form political organisations and bargain for a short term. Thus we might find organisations like SIO, SSF, IUML, MIM, PDP etc. among Muslims, but none having a considerable influence up on all Muslims other than in pockets. The case of Hindus is also similar. RSS might have some influence in North India, but their influence is marginal to insignificant in states like West Bengal, Tamilnadu, Kerala, North-East and in major metros, where professionals dominate.

Second important reason as to why communal politics is regressive is that, communal politics only leads to furthering the theory that there is a conflict in interest, while in most real cases the root cause has nothing to do with the communal question. It is most often the result of a wrongly identified reason. Thus it can only lead to more and more social fragmentation not only between the competing groups but also within the groups themselves. For example, If Muslims claim that they are socially backward because of Hindus, they are essentially attributing a real problem (social backwardness) to a fictitious reason for there is no uniform identity called a Hindu; there are lower castes and lower income groups among them, there are conservatives, liberals, progressives and even pro-OBC reservationists among them. The only section which might be left behind after leaving these people might be less than 10% of the population, which itself will be less than total number of Muslims in India. Now, this idea of social backwardness being due to one group can and will be further applied within the community which might lead to a conflict between liberals and orthodoxy, high income and low income, South Indian and North Indian, Bengali speakers, Malayalam speakers and Urdu speakers etc. Thus communal politics, in whatever guise or context, is essentially regressive and self defeating. It could sustain in power for sometime only inflicting a heavy toll. Even in the case of moderate communal politics, this case applies.

Now that we have discussed the identity issue and communalism in general, we can proceed to look at it from the perspective of Indian history. In doing so, I would like to quote the main arguments by various schools of historians. In the next section, I would like to start with the centre to left (Academic Marxist) view put forward by the likes of Bipan Chandra along with critically analysing the same.


  1. India’s Struggle for Independence; Bipan Chandra, Penguin books.
  2. The Argumentative Indian; Amartya Sen, Penguin books.
  3. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny; Amartya Sen, Norton.
  4. Themes in Indian History, Part III; NCERT Class 12 text book.

to be continued


Through the Eye of Partition: An Exploration of Communalism in India- I

4 05 2010



A Song and a Scare.

Chalachithra ganangal (the film songs programme in Malayalam) by Akashavani (Indian national radio) after 1:00 PM was quite a part of the life of every Keralite (a native of the southern state of Kerala in India) born before late 80’s. A few days back, all of a sudden, perhaps from an upsurge of nostalgia, I tried to simulate it by putting a long playlist of Malayalam songs in my laptop with the random pick option. I was expecting a nap with the songs playing in the background like a sweet lullaby, yet the very first song sank me into a deep and disturbing thought………

Jaanakee jaanee raamaa ……. (lyrics)

I was completely taken over by the voice of Yesudas to the edge of slipping into a relaxing nap when I tried to recollect the details of the song.

Movie     : Dhwani

Singer     : K. J. Yesudas

Lyrics     : Yousuf Ali Kechery

Music     : Naushad Ali

Yousuf Ali Kechery and Naushad (known after Mugal-e-Azam‘s music)! For the very first time in my life I was conscious that a beautiful Hindu devotional song in Sanskrit (about Ram from Ayodhya- did that ring any bells) was written and composed by two great artists who happened to be Muslims. The very next second, this very thought gave me a scare. Never in my life were I conscious about the fact that Yousuf Ali Kechery or the legend Naushad Ali were Muslims. That thought simply did not occur any time.

I was not concerned if I too were getting communalised. Having moved out from the shell of religious identity and even theism, there was no grain of doubt regarding that. But what arouse my concern was that this sycophantic communal hysteria and the rampant identity profiling happening around is having a subconscious effect. Yes, to that extend, the very fact that I find it relevant to think and appreciate that two Muslims composed one of the best ever Hindu devotional songs in Sanskrit that appeared in a Malayalam movie and was sung by a Christian, made me ashamed of self on the second thoughts.

What is happening to us? Why is the world shrinking to narrow identities which were just a matter of accident? What has led me to think – even for a split second- that it was wonderful symbol of harmony, while the greater and normal course should have been to appreciate the musical talents of those legendary individuals?

A Conflict of Identities

A year before or so, Shabana Azmi, the renowned Hindi film actress, had remarked in an interview that she was becoming more and more conscious of her Muslim identity in recent times. I had visited the comment section of the article (published online) and wasn’t surprised by the gush of hooligan comments accusing her for being ungrateful towards the generosity (!!) showered by the majority population (Hindus). It was a revealing example of supposedly well educated urban upper middle class of India sparing no opportunity to vent out their self-imagined frustrations.

More recently I confronted the other side of the same issue when a colleague of mine, who happened to be a Muslim, was surprised when he saw that I was mailing to a close friend who had a distinguishable Muslim name. ‘Hey, so you have a Muslim friend too’ came as a shock to which I didn’t bother to answer and just smiled back. Both the confession of Mrs. Azmi and my colleague’s exclamation are current reality in stark terms.

Coming to think about it, our complex, intertwined identities, which have helped people to be more than the sum of the parts, and are getting more and more reduced and compartmentalised into a monoliths where choices are fast becoming binary. My colleague had multiple choices to look at the identity of my friend whom he didn’t even know; he could have been my classmate, belonging to my home town, a Keralite, an erstwhile colleague etc. While him being a Muslim by birth was the most interesting part that my colleague found. Also, this was not a singular incident and some Hindus (more often non-Keralites) too have wondered how it is possible to share and appreciate the cultural values of a Muslim (as if religion is the sole reason for all cultural diversities).

After the human tragedy of partition, the resolute intention of the Indian leaders (despite their own ideological differences and personal failures) was to lay the foundation of an all encompassing nationality where every other identity could still remain and flourish, but without being at war with each other. Have we failed them or were their intentions based on fundamentally flawed assumptions?

Presently in the wake of the so called war against terror, a much more terrifying paradigm shift is happening around us. On one side, being a Muslim is equated to a potential extremist or terrorist (at least in the subconscious level) by the right wing while on the other side being a religious Hindu, which is just one of the subsets of personal identity, is portrayed as the symbol of ‘Indianness’. Slowly, the definition of nationality is getting re-written along narrow communal lines without the knowledge of individual citizens. The blame does not squarely fall on one particular community- be it Hindu or Muslim- but on the very national discourse after independence and partition when we identified the communalist tendencies rightly but didn’t come up with a fool proof agenda to eradicate them. We forgot that chanting mantras of communal harmony (which although important) alone will not effect to wipe out or marginalise communalism. The issue has much more to do with our own perceived identities. And to understand this conflict of identities we need to have a fresh look at the pages of history- the history of communalism in India.

This series on the history and dynamics of communalism in India is in a way an attempt to contribute towards the question of ‘various identities vis-a-vis nationhood’. Rather than making sweeping generalisations on the question ‘who is to be blamed’, I would like to take the stand of a spectator. I would like to take this opportunity to review various perspectives about birth and growth of communal politics in undivided India- from right wing Hindu, through Colonial, Marxist, Centrist, Secularist views to right wing Muslim views from Pakistan.

To be continued

May be

3 05 2010

A poem written not so long ago; this is an attempt to fill the vacuum that engulfed this space over the last two last years. A fresh start!

 It is time to shred the words,

Spread out by moist tears, and blurred by time.

It is time to stop playing the scores composed.

Throw them away like the rustles of dried summer leaves.

Let the dreadful routines take up the stage,

And galleries nod in agreement.

Faded photos are no good

But as frames to be hung on the walls

For the maddening crowd to cherish a nostalgia.

Wait alone …….

Sit down near a beach with a pack of peanuts,

And wait for a wave that bring pearls

Stay for hours, days or years

Though tempting is the thought to dive in to the depths,

In search of the dreamy stones that kept life alive.

May be it is the long wait

With some shredded papers smeared with words ,

And incomplete scores never played out,

All sealed in the drudgery of routine life

That someday turns into shiny white pearls…

May be…..

Just may be …..














On Indian History

2 05 2010

I have got into the reading spree once again; this time with a purpose. Ever since I started reading Indian history, various puzzles have haunted me. In fact, the tailor suited version of history from text books and many ‘standard books’ could never give a satisfactory explanation to the dynamics behind many a crucial historical events. I have taken up a project to quench my own curiosity.

The reading list of quite hefty and I don’t want to arrive at a half baked opinion based on a few books written from a particular school of thought. But I am not in a position to refer any primary sources and so the best I could do is to make the reading list wide and inclusive. Since the subject itself is hotly contested by various ideological affiliations, the task of separating rice from chaff won’t be easy either.

Okay, let me break the suspense although it won’t sound very interesting to most people. So expect a series on “Through the Eye of Partition: The birth and the Social dynamics of Communalist Ideologies in India“.