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




7 responses

17 05 2010

Good to see you back with your writing. May be a few years back, most of the issues raised in your series would have been of no interest to many including me or you. The issue of religious identity had induced nothing in us but boredom. But in recent times, I don’t know if it is that the group I interect with also has changed (No, it shouldn’t be, beacuase I feel this change has occured universally in india, even in the kerala belt). I think I once told you about how shocked I was when some of my old freinds changed their attitude towards “beef eating” after coming to Bangalore.
And the frequency I get these shocks is increasing every day. Someone even commented in the last section that your writing was “bold’!.
It’s high time to go deeper into the issue, covering the socio-economical, political and historical backgrouds and I hope you’ll be able to do it in this series. Lookikng forward to the next chapter which is promised to be history-centric. I hope you’ll discuss the evolution of communal politics in india in more detail in some other chapter.

17 05 2010


Thanks for dropping in.

You were absolutely right when you wrote that this was in deed a boring subject for us, till a few years before. We lived and interacted with people -whether friends or not-so-much-friends – with whom there was never an issue of identity conflict as caste, religion, ethnicity etc. Since a year or two, I have confronted many a situations, not necessarily being a victim, when the question of identity did arise. It might be because, we were out of the insular world in which we preffered to live, or happened to live by virtue of the intellectual atmosphere that prevailed in our campus. Also, I think we had a brief discussion about a related topic once in your flat too.

In fact, I have collected a long list of reading materials about the historical, socio-political and economical aspects of Communalism in India. Some of these books are seldom mentioned in the national discourse. I intend to write going into the depths of the topic, whether or not I am capable being not trained in sociology or other humanities subjects. Next blog (and may be, a few ones together) will be predominantly history based.


17 05 2010

Very thoughtful writing!

22 05 2010

Yes, we have several identities. As Hindu, Bengali, Middle class, music lovers, woman, cancer patient, daughter of a retired army officer etc…….., But which one Identity will be dominant depends upon the context and opposition. Like during the price hike you are Middle class, at the time of riot I am Hindu, during the discussion on best cuisine I am Bengali , Not only Bengali I am Bangal..
So, how and when we identify ourselves with whom is a interesting matter. During the Kargil war we all were Indians, because at that time the one identity was shared by all that is “Indian”. So some time conflict is required for Unity.
I assume, during the peace(when there is no large conflict of interest) we mostly prefer to practice the identity we achieved (like tastes ) but during the period of conflict the ascribed identity (identity by birth)becomes our dominant identity.

27 05 2010

I am halfway into “The Clash of civilizations” and according to Huntington, to define who we are, its also required to define who we are not. In that sense every person belonging to a community is communal. Nowadays I feel more stress is given on the ‘who we are not part’ which makes the travancore hindu find more in common with the UP Hindu.

29 05 2010

Sad, but true.

The “who we are not” kind of identification, is precisely what is creating more tensions in society. Thinking about it, I find that classification itself meaningless.

May be, the ‘US and Europe’-centric, social stratification of elsewhere societies itself is based on mythical foundations or a kind of (neo) colonial imaginations. It reminds me the John Mill’s “History of India”, which was endorsed by the Raj, and became the basis of textbooks in British India. This person shockingly, never visited India even once, while he wrote volumes on Indian History and made arbitrary classifications like Hindu rule period, Islamic rule period (and yet did not consider British as a Christian rule period!!).

Still, we have more proponents among us for this Samuel Huntington-ism than Americans themselves.

16 08 2010

Your article is very good. I also harboured this prejudice against beef: but, to my immense surprise, I found an instance in the Sanskrit play Uttar-Ram charita by Bhavbhuti, where he narrates the following story:

Sage Vashishtha has vome to King Janaka, and IN HIS HONOUR, A “VATS-TARI” i.e. a HEIFER IS SLAUGHTERED and one of the servants is lamenting about the lost heifer and berating the sage.

This shows that a venerable priest like Vasishtha also eats beef; surely the others must have followed suit. Most probably the ban on beef came after Buddhism.

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