You are on page 1of 13

The story of Hindu Muslim relations takes on different colours depending

upon the ideological lens through which it is viewed.

-For the leftists or the liberal historians, the story is about the precolonial
golden age of Hindu Muslim Amity. They talk about a composite cultural
tradition, especially in art, music and architecture. There is no conflict
between the two communities.

-From the perspective of a Conservative Hindu nationalist and a Muslim

fundamentalist, the rift between the two communities is a fundamental fact
of Indian history.

1. Historical Antecedents

There exist two contradictory perspectives on the basic conflict between the
religious traditions in India.

a) fundamental distinction exists between the religious traditions which are

indigenous to this country and can be regarded as offshoots of Hinduism, and
those that came from outside the country and succeeded in establishing
themselves on Indian soil.

There is a further distinction between these religious traditions of alien


i) those that succeeded in establishing a peaceful relationship with the

dominant Hindu tradition and their adherents are tolerated and accepted
without evidence of social conflict and opposition. For example-
Zoroastrianism and Judaism.

ii) those whose relationship with the dominant Hindu tradition was marked by
confrontation and whose adherents are tolerated but not accepted. For
example-Islam and Christianity.

b) But these classifications have no historical or sociological validation

whatsoever. Either we can accept the classifications uncritically or reject
them on a priori ideological or emotional grounds. Thus, there is a great deal
of truth to the suggestion often found that the choice is not really between
one construction of the basic conflict of we and they of one tradition and
another. It is between one ideological or emotional position and another.

Epigraphic evidence suggests that the construction of religious traditions in

terms of sharp divide of either mutual tolerance or confrontation cannot be
traced very far back into ancient and mediaeval history. The terms that this
kind of dichotomous classification assumes did not exist well until the late
mediaeval period. An analysis of Sanskrit sources fron 6th to 13 century,
shows that the sources did not use the terms which are used today as
generic terms to refer to Muslims though terms and concepts connected with
Islam were already known to the authors of those sources. Four categories of
names commonly used were

·0 ethnic names derived from tribal or community names

·1 names derived from the country of origin

·2 honorific names

·3 generic terms already used with reference to outsiders

There is also evidence in the Sanskrit literary sources that when words like
tajika,saka,yavana,mleccha, which later came to be interpreted as denoting a
hateful and externalised representation of Muslims, came to be used, they did
not carry the impression of the emergence of a single, common enemy.
Rather, they are represented as one among many claimants in a situation of
intense and constant competition.

Corresponding evidence from Arabic and Persian sources similarly attests to

the relative absence of an essentialised representation of Hindus as a
concrete religious group or community. The term Hindu which came to be
accepted later to what are described as Hinduism and Hindus, was a
geographical term used to denote people living on this side of the river Sindh
(Sindhu). It was applied to people as a whole rather than to refer to adherents
of any particular faith. Otherwise, the predominating tendency was to refer to
what subsequently came to be represented as Hindus and Muslims in terms
of their castes, ethnic or sectarian appellations. Accordingly, we came across
references to Brahmin, Rajputs, Syeds, Sheikhs, etc as caste or ethnic groups
rather than in terms of their religious affiliation as Hindus and Muslims.
Hindus and Muslims fought more wars among themselves than with one

By the 13th century the modes of representation on the Muslim side begin to
change just as they did on the Hindus side. The great diffuseness of
representations which characterised the early mediaeval period slowly begin
to collapse under the weight of the growing contest over power and
sovereignty. Clearly, these changes in representations and self-perceptions
took place as a result of the social upheaval precipitated by the shifts in
sovereignty and power relations.

2. Construction of Religious Traditions

Colonialism provided both the framework and techniques for the

consolidation of these representations and self-perceptions. How?

·4 In its onward march to the different parts of the, colonialism

encountered most resolute resistance in the Muslim world. By contrast,
its advance in India was relatively smooth because in India colonial
expansion was welcomed by a large number of people as it least
opened up the promise of release from the prolonged Muslim

·5 Orientalist learning whose emergence largely coincided with colonial

expansion came in handy as a reservoir of resources that could be
employed for elaborating and reshaping representations.

·6 Because colonialism encountered stiff resistance in the Muslim world,

both Islam and Muslims came to be represented as resilient, intolerant
and aggressive. On the other hand, Hindus were represented as
accommodating, tolerant and non-violent.

·7 These representations in terms of Hindus and Muslims-both of whom

were deeply divided internally, characterised by serious conflicts of
social status, economic interests and sectarian and doctrinal division-
constituting solidary collectivities was aided by colonial perceptions of
Indian society.

·8 Theological knowledge was harnessed to show that such

representations are founded upon the religious fundamentals the two
traditions propagated:-

1. on the hindu side, accommodation and tolerance were considered


2. Firstly, there did not exist within Hinduism a well worked out theory or
practice. The culture of the low castes incorporated forms of worship in
practice different from that of the high castes, leading to a
fundamental dichotomy between notions of Sanskritic and popular

3. Second, this diffuseness was not a simple case of a classic duality

between a great tradition and a little tradition. This scheme is
complicated in the case of Hinduism by the lack of unity in the great
tradition-Sanskrit sources provide many models, some of them
involving fundamentally opposed ideals.

4. Third, the Hindu tradition lacks an orthodoxy although it sanctions a

rigourous orthopraxy which results from a lack of any book as a
common reference point. Hinduism is a conglomeration of sects.
Isolated from one another, these sects are also rivals to the extent that
they compete for the patronage of the powerful and for the
preeminence of their particular teachings. Thus, Hinduism is not a
religion but a juxtaposition of religions possessing no formal structure.

5. Finally, the development of a Hindu consciousness was inhibited not

only by the extreme social and religious differentiation but also by a
tendency to discount the importance of the other and therefore to
ignore the need for solidarity in the face of that other.

b. In case of Islam, apart from the fact that it had put up the staunchest
resistance and thus was intolerant and aggressively political, other
arguments put forward were:-

6. First, it was characterised by an excessive dogmatism of its doctrines

embodied in the Koran and the prophetic sayings which was capable of
fostering a high degree of militancy among its adherents. Being a
Muslim did not mean just profession of a faith but a compulsion for
frenzied participation in the actualisation of Allah's revealed words.

7. Second, compared to other religions, Islam fostered a sense of unity

among its believers across the world which made a clear distinction
between Muslims and others. For eg:- the islamic concept of the
'umma', the community of the faithful. There is an international
solidarity despite the fact that there is no clergy-in the sense of
hierarchy endowed with the sacramental powers of the Church.
However, a body of personnel especially trained in the duties of the
cult and the doctrine clearly does exist. There is thus a network
throughout the Muslim world, of learned men (ulama), of jurists
(fuqaha), of prayer leaders (imams).

8. Finally, Islam was not only projected as incapable of admitting the

separation between the state and the church, but was also seen to be
incompatible with modern ideas. It was seen as secularisation-
resistant. This rendered it difficult for Muslims to share political power
and inclined them towards separatism and religious nationalism. Islam
has been seen to be well suited to play the role of the bad guy for it is
large, frightening and anti-Western and thrives on poverty and anger.

According to Don Miller- by their education, legislation, administration,

judicial codes and procedures and even by that apparently simple operation
of objective classification, the census, the British unwittingly imposed
dualistic "either or"oppositions as the natural normative order of thought.
Therefore, Indians learnt that one is either this or that; that one cannot be
both or neither or indifferent.
3. Context and Identities

One could believe that the colonialists were responsible for driving a wedge
between Muslims and Hindus when in reality such a wedge among them had
not historically existed. And there is a long tradition in the Indian historical
writings that says so. They give examples of a variety of administrative and
legal measures-classification of people into communities in the census,
separate electorates based on religion and enactment of legislations which
sought to freeze cultures and communities as seamless, ahistorical essences.
These measures did contribute to the consolidation of the religious
communities, but it would be wrong to ignore the fact that the initiative for
these measures to be adopted or legislated came actually from the social
actors within the principal religious communities. Also there were factors such
as unfolding of a distinct historical trajectory of modernity and modern
political institutions, the discourse of Indological and Islamic orientalist
thought, and the construction and transformation of contesting religious
identities greatly facilitated by the on set of new means and modes of
communication in a particular social historical context.

There are two ways of looking at the urge for the recognition of religious
identities in colonial India:-

·9 The positive side-efforts to assert identity can be regarded as

'liberation movements', as strategies for challenging oppression and
injustice. These groups were proclaiming that they were different,
rediscovering the roots of their culture, strengthening group solidarity
or aspiring to political self-determination-these were necessary and
legitimate attempts to escape from their state of subjugation and enjoy

·10 The negative side-involvement in militant action, deeply entrenched

attitudes and watertight cultural compartments, self absorption and
isolation, intolerance of others and ideas of ethnic cleansing and
xenophobia and violence.

Main feature of religious traditions and cultures has always been that they
have stood still and yet been responsive to change. A religious tradition and
culture is a living thing, a process involving communication and cross-
fertilisation. Therefore, a cultural or religious group is never a uniform entity
but breaks down instead into different cultural subunits that are themselves
undergoing change. Thus, although the fact is being different is at the heart
of every group's identity, on the other hand every group contains individuals
who share many points of resemblance with people in other groups. The
distinctions between one's own and others' identity often becomes a matter
of degree or place in the same continuum.

The above-mentioned point is most relevant in the present context where

rapid social and political changes are taking place owing to the process of
cultural communication and migration. At a time of such continual changes,
collective identities provide individuals with a means of simplifying reality.

·11 This simplification works first by transforming the whole set of

individuals into a uniform and distinct entity, so that the group can be
represented as an obvious empirical reality. The uniformity of the group
is ensured by the selection of a limited number of features both as
being typical of the individuals forming the group and as being more
important than other features in terms of the definition of their identity.
The distinction between the group in question and other groups is
established by simplifying the features selected. They do so to be able
to eliminate the effect of continuous variations as these would have
prevented drawing clear dividing lines between the groups. Those
militating for recognition simplify each criterion by eliminating the
variations they regard as secondary.

·12 Simplification also works by transforming traditions and communities

into essences-things that have remained uncanged through time.The
cultural group is seen as being outside of time, as change and the
effects of history are denied or underestimated. In other
instances,athough the changes brought about by history are
acknowledged, the deep-rooted identity of the group is still not
questioned. The group is seen as an edifice that has been collectively
shaped over the centuries. The group is seen as a living individual who
is born and develops. When people are forced to acknowledge the far-
reaching changes history has brought about and when they admit that
the identity of the group may not be what it was, then they start
looking back to some period in the past as having been the time when
the group possessed the now tarnished 'purity' or a now 'lost

Paradoxically, precisely because identity represents a simplifying fiction,

creating uniform groups, drawing borderlines and turning groups into
unchanging essences, that it is necessary and indeed essential to the agents
of change. Although it is a factor of division, it is also a factor of vision.
Identities help us to:-
·13 sense and grasps reality

·14 put names to ourselves and others, so we are able to form some idea
of who we are and what the people are

·15 asserting the place we occupy along with other people in the society.

Ethnicisation-a process of estrangement and distantiation between traditions,

cultures and communities which previously shared beliefs, values and
historical memories and a common past-has been a common experience of
societies that went through colonial domination. This process is a complex
social, cultural and psychological process involving a total transformation of
perceptions, stereotypes and interpretation of distant and immediate social
and political experience.

One way of understanding the readiness with which the colonial and
orientalist constructions of Hinduism and Islam came to enjoy widespread
acceptance is to see that those constructions could be harnessed for the
purpose of creating solidary political communities in a context where
contestations over power were becoming central.

·16 Social comparison usually takes place between groups and

communities of equal status.

·17 Once Muslim rule had collapsed and British rule had been firmly
established in India, elite sections among Hindus and Muslims
considered each other as the reference group, and not the British who
were regarded as a distal superior group with a positive social identity
and therefore not comparable.

·18 As successive Hindu leaders rose to power by exploiting emotions

relating to the form that nationalist sentiments should take and then
proceeded to glorify Hinduism,elite Muslims, in turn began to fear that
their identity and cultural existence were threatened. This challenge
had to be met through generalising perceived fears of domination or
confrontation between elite Hindus and Muslims and projecting them
onto their religious traditions and their adherents who were otherwise
divided and fragmented.

·19 Power hungry leaders on both sides drew upon the colonial
constructions of religious traditions to change perceptions, stereotypes
and consolidate communal identities to turn the reservoir of potentially
explosive energy to their advantage and exploit it for their purpose by
appealing to such mystical concepts as patriotism, religion and
religious identity.

The principal confrontation throughout the national struggle remained

between the Hindus and the Muslims and this resulted in a communal
demand for the separate homeland and a chauvinist Hindu insistence upon
an undivided India their Hinduism, subsequently Hindutva, must provide the
basis for citizenship and national integration, ignoring the fact that many
Muslims wanted a united India and many Hindus were in support of
secularism. What followed partition, only served to reinforce historical
memories and antagonisms. Each incidence of Hindu Muslim riots does the
same today.

If partition was to serve as a resolution of the conflict between the two

communities, it failed miserably. Instead, it made matters more complicated.
Many Indians singled out the case of Hindu Muslim confrontation as a special
case of conflict because it drew upon a long-standing tradition of historical
animosity and the opposed nature of the Hindu and Islamic religious
traditions. Lack of discord and dissension between Hindus and Christians was
used by them to reiterate the uniqueness of the Hindu Muslim
divide.According to Kakar:-

"in spite of the fact that the British Raj was economically exploitative,
funnelling wealth out of the country, whereas during the Muslim rule wealth
stayed within, the latter evokes hostility not due to the former. Political
subjugation and economic exploitation played less of a role in determining
the Hindu reaction because the hindu collective identity was crystallised
around shared religious symbols rather than based on political or economic
structures. Muslims were perceived to be outragers of Hindu religious
sentiments and mockers of their faith whereas the British(read Christians)
were indifferent. Granted that the British too ate beef but that they were too
few and carried out their private lives hold up in bungalows and barracks
which were shielded from public scrutiny by high walls and thick hedges. In
contrast, the Muslim lived cheek by jowl with the Hindu. The proximity
created potential for the emergence of new cultural and social forms but also
occasioned simmering resentment and fiction".

4.Secularism and Religious Conflicts

Secularism was adopted after independence as a policy frame for future India
in order to tide over the deep religious and communitarian animosities and to
create a common civic space for everyone to coexist as equal citizens of a
modern nationstate.

Secularism as a concept and as a political philosophy had its origin in the

historical transformation of European society in the aftermath of the rise of
capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. This transformation resulted in the
emergence of new social classes which saw the political order founded on the
domination of the Church in social affairs as inimical to their future growth.
Through his edict demarcating the appropriate domains of the state and
church, Henry VIII created a basis for the newly emerging social classes to
take the rein of their life into their own hands and toork out a new social ethic
that at one end related to the affairs of this world and at the other end
enabled the state to act as the guardian of public morals without direct and
active interference from the state. This new philosophy and outlook was later
called secularism.

Such a development had no parallels in India. Historically, while the

supremacy of the Church over the state did not actually exist, the state was
at all times theocratic in character as its avowed objective was to uphold
religion and be guided by its principles in statecraft. Every king from early
ancient to the mediaeval times was in the sense a ruler of a theocratic state.
Many kings like Chandragupta Maurya, Asoka and Akbar were tolerant and
accommodative but they were not secular.

It was precisely because secularism had no roots in Indian social history that
a basis had to be found for it when nationalist sentiment started emerging in
the country. This basis was discovered in the tradition of tolerance and
accommodation which had always been a feature of Indian social life. It could
also be claimed to have a contingent linkage with secularism as it evolved in
Europe. One contingent feature of European social order after secularism
became established was tolerance. It is this feature of secularism that could
be linked to the Indian historical experience to claim that secularism had its
roots in Indian social history and culture. Otherwise, any claim that
secularism was rooted in India could not be sustained.

Articulation of the 'omposite culture' theory of nationalism by the leaders of

the Indian National Congress represented an attempt to reinforce and
reiterate the long tradition of tolerance and accommodation followed by
rulers whose credentials were otherwise essentially religious and theocratic:-

·20 this was contested by two competing political tendencies represented

on the Hindu side by the Hindu Mahasabha and on the Muslim side by
the Muslim league.

·21 That this ideological strand ultimately survived( greatly injured by

partition) cannot be taken to mean that secularism had found a place
in the Indian political and social life. It survived because it had the
backing of the long historical experience of the Indian people. It did not
mean that there after the state would function according to the
principles which had been established in the process of social
transformation in Europe.

After India achieved independence, Indian leaders bega proclaiming that the
edifice of the Indian state would be raised on the principle of secularism. This
could have meant two things:-

·22 it could have meant that the state would start restructuring indian
society in a manner that the secular principle established in the
European context would be translated into Indian social life.

·23 It could have meant that the state would be run along the principle of
tolerance which long political experience had established to be a good
principle of governance.

Which of the two paths would India choose during the process of
development was never clarified. Why?

·24 Sharp differences of perspectives among Indian leaders. Gandhi

supported the second path and equated secular orientations in the
Constitution to 'sarva dharma sambhav'-equal treatment for all
religions. Nehru was more idealist and wanted the choice of secularism
as an ideology of the Constitution to act as a lever upon the state to
promote the kind of social transformation in India that Europe had
undergone. Later he abandoned this policy as he realised that this was
not possible and equated secularism in India to equal distance from all
religions. This is the sense in which secularism continues to be
interpreted in India and it has invited criticism from corners as
divergent as traditionalists and fundamentalists on one hand and
secular liberals on the other.

·25 Taking the first path would have been strategically wrong or would
have been rejected right at the start.

Critics of the secular credo in India have generally focused on precisely

the ground that was either left open or imperfectly defined by the
architects of new India:-

·26 on the traditionalist and religious fundamental side, the critics have
claimed that the secular idea as enshrined in the Constitution
undermines religion or negates its positive role in ordering life.

·27 On the secular liberal side, the critics have been inclined to fault
secularism for its foreignness to the distinctively indigenous genius
which rejects the dichotomy of the religious and the secular or
encompasses both within a common framework for life.

Both sets of criticisms are off the mark in that they take the European
conception of secularism and foist it on the Indian soil merely in order
to attack it. The criticism would have been justified if political
leadership had explicitly outlined that it was the European conception
of secularism that they were adopting. Under the circumstances, the
mounting criticism of secularism on the grounds of its foreignness to
the Indian genius or its negation of the positive dimensions of religion
amount to shadow boxing, where what is attacked does not even exist.

It would appear that leaving secularism largely undefined was not a

bad strategic choice. One positive feature that flowed out of this was
that it allowed secularism to be accepted widely among the different
social and religious communities in India. Readiness for acceptance of
secularism varied across communities:-

·28 relative readiness among a large body of Hindus

·29 Muslims and a few other groups were initially quite sceptical.
Later they rejected it claiming that it carried the potential to
deny them basis for the preservation of their cultural
distinctiveness and religious integrity. Finally, they recognised
the positive role of secularism and accepted it with a view to
using it to their advantage wherever possible. Muslims are
enthusiastic and demanding that the state and others act in a
secular fashion but are reluctant to insist that secularism be
adhered to when members of the own community act in ways
that seem to undermine secularism. There is no clear
recognition among Muslims that the claims of the secular state
and society impose limits and they cannot simply take it as
given but have a responsibility to play a role to strengthen it.

·30 Even so, secularism is seen today by most Muslims as positive

feature of Indian life in marked contrast to the large number of
Hindus who are inclined to reject secularism on the ground that
it does injustice to Hindu historical heritage and turns epistemic
error into political blunder.

But the ambiguity over the precise meaning of secularism is soon

turning into a disadvantage as it is fast being turned into a cover to
dislodge secularism from its place. Fundamentalists are trying to play
upon this ambiguity to enlarge spaces for the operation and suggesting
their own ideologically surcharged points. Under such circumstances
the need to define secularism and give it a positive meaning has
become important.

What meaning is finally given to secularism in India holds the key to its
future viability as a nation. Therefore let us outline the direction along
which the search for meaning might proceed.

·31 There is a contradiction in India so far as the relevance of

religion in the life of the individual is concerned

9. on the one hand, there are vast rural masses and urban poor as
well as middle classes who go through the rituals of performing
their daily prayers and invoking divine intervention whenever
they are hit by crises. Large crowds found at religious gatherings
are clear evidence that religion still enjoys a tight hold over
people. At the same time however, the number of those who
indulge in daily prayers and invoke divine intervention is also
slowly shrinking. Further, religious rituals are being transformed
into acts that make at best an instrumental use of religion for
this worldly purposes.

10. However, while religion at the individual- personal level is slowly

losing ground, it is increasingly being transformed into a
collective asset. People see religion as a source of their self-
definitions in a world where their identity both as individuals and
as groups are constantly being threatened by developments at
national as well as global levels. Therefore, they are more than
ever inclined to come out in the demonstration of a sense of
solidarity. They say that secularism must ensure this possibility
and are dismayed that secularism has done quite the opposite.
One consequence of this collective identity has been that
religious controversies over matters that would otherwise seem
not to enjoy a great deal of public significance end up being
made into great arenas of popular polemics. Under such
conditions, investing secularism with the meaning that rejects
religion or collective identity is likely to arouse deep seated
antipathies upon which the traditionalists and fundamentalists
would like to capitalise to creative a reservoir of resistance
against secularism itself. Perhaps, the better strategy would be
to give religion its due place and allow people time to choose to
be moved by religion both at the individual and collective levels
until larger processes of social transformation are able to lead to
the emergence of new forms of communitarian self definitions.
But this is not immediately foreseeable. But even if people
remain attached to their communitarian orientations, the cause
of secularism would not be greatly hurt as all that they would
demand is that we and the state learns to take such a
communitarian ethos and self definitions into account while
designing and implementing public policies.

·32While people are unwilling to concede their religious faith and

communitarian self identifications to the state, they also expect
that what religion they belong to and what communitarian self
identification they choose to project should not exercise a
determining influence over their life chances, that is, they should
enjoy equal access to assets in society, economy and polity. They
are contending that the present dispensation of secularism has
acted to the detriment of some groups and advantage of others and
that this is tantamount to a negation of the secular credo as
espoused under the Constitution.


This offers us a frameworktowards a redefinition of secularism in

the direction that would meet with the aspirations of the large
masses of people and would be acceptable to them in the long run.
Therefore, it is imperative that in the debate over secularism we
bypass the contentious issue of separation of religion and state
which we have basically carried so far in our eagerness to translate
the European type secularism into our vastly different social context
and start imputing an economic content to secularism. Unless
secularism becomes an ideology and a public policy capable of
ensuring equal opportunities and access to social and economic
assets without religious faith working as a negative factor for every
person, we are likely to face more communalism and
fundamentalism and lesser secularism.