Making India Hindu

edited by David Ludden

This online version of Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, published in India as Making India Hindu, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996) is a pre-publication manuscript that includes essays which were not published but does not include footnotes, bibliography, tables, glossary, and index.)


Introduction: Ayodhya: A Window on the World       

1. Richard H. Davis: The Iconography of Ram's Chariot      

2. Amrita Basu: Mass Movement or Elite Conspiracy? The Puzzle of Hindu Nationalism

3. Zoya Hasan: Changing Majority: Crisis of Regime and Communal Mobilization in Uttar Pradesh      

4. Victoria L. Farmer: Mass Media: Images, Mobilization, and Communalism

5. Lise McKean: The Transnational Context of Communalism: The 1993 Chicago Parliament of The World's Religions and Hindu Nationalism

6. Peter Manuel: Music, the Media, and Communal Relations in North India: Past and Present

7. William R. Pinch: Soldier Monks and Militant Sadhus     

8. Tanika Sarkar: Imagining Hindurashtra: The Hindu and The Muslim in Bankim Chandra's Writings 

9.Sanjay Joshi:  Oppressive Present and Empowering Past: Hindu Assertiveness and the Middle Class in Colonial Lucknow

10. Mushirul Hasan: The Myth of Unity: Colonial and Nationalist Narratives

11. Sandria B. Freitag: Contesting in Public: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Communalism

12. Richard Fox: Communalism and Modernity

13. Peter van der Veer: Writing Violence

14. Sumit Sarkar: Indian Nationalism and the Politics of Hindutva 



            In 1993, it became obvious that scholars and teachers do not have the books readily at hand with which to address adequately the intellectual challenges posed by the recent history of communalism in India. Scholars write on communalism from different perspectives. Historians consider communalism in British India. Political scientists analyze independent India. Anthropologists document religion and politics. Indologists and scholars of religion discuss the traditions and texts that inform religious identities. Journalists and critics write volumes about current events. But sophisticated yet concise, accessible, and broadly interpretive books about communalism to enrich the understanding of current events in India among readers outside India are missing.

            When the South Asia faculty and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania resolved to address this need, we received generous help in planning from three experts in the field: Amrita Basu (Political Science, Amherst College), Sandria Freitag (History, American Historical Association), and Peter van der Veer (Anthropology, University of Amsterdam). We then acquired funds from the Ford Foundation's International Predissertation Fellowship Program for an interdisciplinary social science seminar on "The Problematics of Identities and States." We devoted the 1993-4 South Asia Regional Studies Seminar, funded by our Title VI grant from the Department of Education, to the theme, "Exploring Communalism in South Asia." We designed Penn's South Asia Seminar program for 1993-4 academic year around the project of producing a reasonably priced, accessible book representing diverse disciplinary perspectives on communalism, written for a broadly defined audience of readers in the U.S. and worldwide. This volume is the result.

            During the 1993-4 academic year, we discussed twenty-nine papers, which covered a much broader range of issues that could be coherently addressed in one volume. As we boiled down the subject matter of the seminar in discussions, issues surrounding Hindu nationalism emerged as most critical. This volume seeks (1) to represent the current state of research on Hindu majoritarianism in anthropology, history, political science, and religious studies; (2) to combine methods, theories, and data from these disciplines to form an interdisciplinary framework for analysis and interpretation; (3) to stimulate new research and collaboration among disciplines; (4) to provide a multivocal, informative, and coherent book for college and university teaching and for the concerned public, which presents top quality scholarship to readers with minimal background knowledge about India; and (5) to formulate a responsible intellectual intervention by a substantial group of scholars from India, Europe, and the U.S. into the understanding of communalism by people who influence public policy and debate.

            The seminars that produced this volume allowed for wide-ranging discussions, during five hours of meetings each Wednesday for the whole school year, among a group of about fifty faculty and graduate students; during a two-day workshop in February, 1994, attended by six seminar authors and fifteen local faculty and students, to discuss the format of the volume; and during intense communication among contributors at each stage of the volume's evolution. To keep the cost of the volume low and its coherence high, we reduced the number of chapters to fourteen. Fortunately, many seminar papers not included here will be available to readers elsewhere (see the Bibliography); and many ideas from seminar papers and discussions have been included in the introduction and chapters in this volume. The seminar papers not included here are as follows:

Romila Thapar, "Communalism and the Interpretation of Early Indian History."

Dharma Kumar, "The Communalism Project." ("Left Secularists and Communalism," Economic and Political Weekly, 29, 28, July, 1994, 1803-9)

Atul Kohli, "The Crisis of the Indian State: The Political Context of the 'New' Communalism."

Burton Stein, "Community Formation in Long Perspective."

Dorothy Stein, "Demographic Competition and Population Politics."

David Washbrook, "Caste, Community, and Communalism in South Indian History."

Dennis McGilvray, " Fieldwork under Military Occupation: Tamils and Muslims in Eastern Sri    Lanka, 1993."

Rosane Rocher, "Inclusion, Segregation, and the Dharmic Management of Diversity."

Andrew Lightman, " Left- and Right-Hand Caste Disputes in Madras in the Early Colonial Period."

Valerie Stoker, "The Philosophy of Madhva."

David Lelyveld, "The Colonial Construction of Muslim Identity."

Ayesha Jalal, "Exploding Communalism: The Politics of Muslim Identity"

Sumathy Ramaswamy, "We Are Not Hindu: We are Tamil."

Ruchira Gupta, "The Story of the RSS."

Srirupa Roy, "The Politics of Hindutva and the BJP."

            To make the volume more diverse and accessible, we have kept the essays short and annotations minimal. Endnotes are numbered consecutively throughout the volume. All references in the text are to items in the Bibliography at the end of the volume. The Bibliography has been compiled to represent the sources that have been used by authors in the volume and also the growing number of resources that are available for research and teaching on communalism. People, organizations, events, and acronyms in the text can be identified in the List of Names, Abbreviations, and Chronology. Non-English terms in this volume are rendered in italics (without diacritics) at their first appearance in the text; they can be found with full diacritics and definitions in the Glossary.

            Sarah Diamond was my right and left arm in getting this project off the ground. Adam Zeff helped me carry the seminars through and added his own research to my work on the Introduction. Supti Bhattacharya, Anajali Arondeka, Karen Vorkapich, and Lavinia Braxton help on many things as the project has unfolded. Richard Cohen provided constant support and assistance. All the authors and seminar speakers have been generous, insightful, and cooperative; and the graduate students have provided critical energies from start to finish. Thanks to one and all. Two people deserve special thanks. For years, Sandria Freitag has educated me on communalism; and since 1989, Victoria L. Farmer has tutored me on contemporary India. Without their mentoring, I could never have tackled this project.

David Ludden





David Ludden   Ayodhya: A Window on the World   

            Holy men declared Monday, December 6, 1992, auspicious, and more than 300,000 people gathered that day in Ayodhya, a pilgrimage town north of Varanasi (Benaras). Most wore the saffron color of Hindu nationalism. At mid-day, a vanguard among them broke down police barricades around a mosque called the Babri Masjid, built in 1528 by the first Mughal emperor of India, Babar. Cheering men swarmed the domes of the old mosque and in five hours they hammered and axed it to the ground. Video cameras hummed. Eye-witnesses took notes for news reports around the world. Hindu leaders, who had mobilized for this event since 1984, watched with satisfaction. For they and their followers believe that god Rama was born here and that Babar had destroyed Rama's temple (mandir) to build his mosque (masjid). The construction of the new Rama temple was begun that evening on the rubble of the Babri Masjid. Government officials looked on ineffectually. Violence triggered by the demolition killed 1,700 people and injured 5,500 over the next four months.

            Supporters justify the action at Ayodhya as the liberation of a Hindu sacred space to unify the Indian nation. Critics call it violence against Muslims and Indian civil society. In this volume, we explore the mobilizations, genealogies, and interpretations that locate this one very emotional and symbolic day in the struggles that are underway to redefine India politically in the age after the Cold War. Ayodhya is a window on a world of conflict inside nationalism, which came into being in the 1980s, and also onto the global staging of national politics and cultures in the late twentieth century. Ayodhya symbolizes Hindu-Muslim conflict in South Asia and conjures the nightmare of nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Like other communal conflicts, communalism in India is also international (Midalarsky 1992). Not only in India, but also in France, (the former) Yugoslavia, Turkey, Germany, the U.S., Sri Lanka, Russia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Iran -- anywhere that minorities face hostile majoritarianism -- minority conditions worsened in the 1980s (Gurr 1993). Since the late 1970s, nationalist movements based on the assertion that only one majority ethnic or religious group defines a nation have emerged with new cultural force and creativity -- with new rituals and spectacles, including televised violence -- to revalorize old emotions and symbolic resources. As we will see, the men who destroyed Babar's mosque marched to a cultural movement whose ideas, images, media, organizations, and resources are transnational in form, scope, and influence. Ayodhya is a refraction of "ethnic cleansing" in Serbia, the "moral majority" in the U.S., and other movements that define nations by ethnicity and religion.


            In the early 1990s, when religious upheaval threaten India's stable, modern, secular, and multi-cultural democracy, economic crisis also upended India's treasury (Gordon and Oldenburg 1992); observers who assessed the condition of the country had to keep in mind that many states have crumbled since Iran's 1978 Islamic Revolution. In 1992, two large, multi-ethic states much like India -- the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia -- were in pieces. Many analysts concluded that Ayodhya reflected a wider alienation of cultures from states that was tearing the loyalties of peoples away from governments in many parts of the world.

            Loyalties more powerful than old-style nationalism seem to be breaking states apart in the last quarter of the century. In this context, scholarly interest in nationalism has increased along with skepticism about modern institutions (Anderson 1981; Chatterjee 1986, 1993; Connor 1994). Scholars discuss the invented, imagined nature of nationalism as popular movements deconstruct world politics. In the 1980s in the U.S., politicians called for government to "get off our backs," as governments collapsed elsewhere under the force of popular assertions of their illegitimacy. These new popular movements (including ones that failed, as in China) pitted "the people" against "the government" in new ways. Nationalism and national cultures were being redefined from many directions.

            The process continues, and religion plays an important part, as represented, for instance, by its prominence in the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development. In the U.S., India, Algeria, Poland, Iran, Israel, and elsewhere, religion entered politics with new force in the 1980s; and in the U.S., it also permeated thinking about world politics, as militant Muslims appeared to pose a serious threat to the U.S. abroad. Apprehensions about Islam deepened during the Iran hostage crisis and Persian Gulf War, and in 1992, American journalists in India immediately interpreted events at Ayodhya as Hindu rage against Islam. They were quickly joined by a prominent political scientist (Huntington 1993) and by scholars of religion (Juergensmeyer 1993) who consider Hindu nationalism to be a response in kind to Islamic nationalism. In this perspective, Hinduism and Islam together form a single image of religious militancy, as they entangle one another, fighting like two armies at war, or boxers in a ring. Newsweek (December 21, 1992, p.446) even used a phrase from media coverage of militant Islam to headline its story on Ayodhya: "Holy War in India."  

            Huntington formulated these ideas into a new framework for analyzing global politics as "a clash of civilizations." In his post-Cold War world order, Islam is a world civilization that has expanded its power historically east and west, like an empire, so that today, nationalist Hindus fight Muslims on the east, while Jews and Christians fight Muslims in the west (Huntington 1993, 33-4ff). Communalism in India is thus symptomatic of the new world order emerging from the Cold War. Journalists Steve Coll and Edward Gargan effectively explain how India entered this new world order. They report that the centralized Indian state, built on socialist lines by Jawaharlal Nehru, went bankrupt in the 1980s, releasing the powers of the free market and religious nationalism -- both suppressed by "Nehruvian socialism." Indian business and the BJP thus represent populist forces, which together confront the weakening socialist state in India, in a conflict like that in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (Coll 1994; see especially New York Times July 24, 1992, December 11, 1992, September 17, 1993).

            In this reading of recent history, religious nationalisms express primordial loyalties that were set free (in a positive reading) or unleashed (in a negative reading) by crumbling state control over political systems in the 1980s. Religion seems to be a natural, populist political force, articulating people's cultural and national identity at a level of emotive meaning more basic and fundamental than other kinds of political affiliations. Religious identities naturally break into politics when constraints weaken. India is like Iran, Poland, and Russia. Evoking Yugoslavia, Edward Gargan reported that, "the hatreds of India" emerged in the 1980s from "Hindu memory scarred by centuries of sometimes despotic Islamic rule" (New York Times, December 11, 1992, A10). Though Muslim sultans have not ruled India for two centuries, Hindus still appear to hold a grudge, aggravated by the traumas of Partition in 1947 and by the continuous animosity of Pakistan. When Nehru's Congress Party declined -- with the assassination of his Prime Minister daughter, Indira Gandhi (1984) and her Prime Minister son, Rajiv Gandhi (1989) -- communal conflict erupted in electoral politics and in violent clashes that defied the Indian state and threatened to overwhelm it.


            This interpretation gains support from firmly established ideas about the religious foundation of civilizations, national identities, and cultures in Eurasia. When modern European research on India began, in the late eighteenth century, it focused primarily on classical languages and religion, and today the idea that religion defines India remains deeply rooted in modern scholarship. Histories of Indian civilization, art, society, politics, and culture routinely separate the "Hindu," "Muslim," "British," and "Independence" epochs. "India" and "Hindu" are often equated when defining "Indian culture," whose core characteristics are most often taken to be "Hindu." Anthropological research and museum exhibits often present "Hindu" ritual, texts, and art to depict "Indian culture." Islamic artifacts are equally often used to describe a Muslim culture that originated in the Middle East that expanded into India. Exhibitions in the British Museum and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art are organized on these lines, for example. Indian Islam is thus portrayed as being foreign and derivative, alien both to India and to the Islamic heartland. The authority of these ideas and cultural practices increased understandably in 1947, when Hinduism and Islam became majority religions on opposite sides of the borders separating hostile states in South Asia; and to the extent that Pakistan has been Islamicized, its heartland of cultural identity has been shifted away from South Asia toward the Middle East.

            From this perspective, the Babri Masjid seems to be a foreign transplant. But in fact, Babar built his empire primarily in what is now India, where Islam is just as important for cultural history as it is in Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a major religious tradition of the people, Islam is older in India than in Turkey. Indian Islam is older than American Christianity and European Protestantism. Indian Islam is no more derivative than Chinese, Tibetan, or Japanese Buddhism. In India's historical culture and civilization, Islam has very deep roots indeed, and the distinctiveness of Indian Islam represents the characteristic capacity of Islam everywhere to be adaptable to the environment -- a feature that is equally important in diverse and changing regions of its Middle East "heartland" (exemplified in the career of Pan-Islamism and the end of the Caliphate) as it is in India, Indonesia, and Senegal (Eaton 1993; Azmeh 1993). Yet the idea that Islam is foreign in India is axiomatic among the Hindu nationalist groups that destroyed the Babri Masjid; this idea is used to argue for second-class Muslim citizenship and even for the expulsion of Muslims from India.

            Thinking about communalism thus highlights the need to reconsider the basic terms that we use to talk about India, and to question common assumptions that have been built into modern knowledge. All of a sudden, in 1947, India came to denote a civilization and an independent national state, but the two meanings do not coincide. Indian history, culture, and civilization extend back to about 2,000 B.C.E. and they were never bounded by the lines on the map that separate states today. Geographically, Indian history and Indian civilization include the territory of Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Partition of India in 1947 can thus be taken to mean the division of Indian civilization into separate independent states, one of which is called "India." But actually, Partition divided a territory that was formed by British imperialism without any reference to Indian civilization at all. (British India also included Burma, now The Union of Myanmar; and Native States under British rule were not formed with any concern for their status in Indian civilization.) Ironically, therefore, the territory that we use to describe the landscape of Indian civilization was defined politically by the British Empire. India was never what it is today in a geographical, demographic, or cultural sense, before 1947.

            Thus the identification of India with Hindu and Hinduism is deeply problematic. In its demographic statistics, India today is a majority Hindu country, and so was British India, in 1946; but this does not mean that India (even as defined by state boundaries today) was ever populated predominately by people whose identity was formed by their collective identification with a religion called "Hinduism" or a "Hindu" religious persona. Like Muslim, Hindu conjures an identity that is defined in many ways, and defined differently even by the same individual according to context. It is not known how many people in India would have identified themselves as Hindus, if asked, simply, "What is your religion?," in 1800, 1900, 1947, or 1993. But the vast religious tradition that we refer to as "Hinduism" has no single, unanimously agreed upon core set of institutions -- like the Koran, umma (community of believers in Islam), Bible, Catholic Church, or Talmud -- around which a Hindu religious identity could have been traditionally organized. Central philosophical tenets -- dharma (religious duty), karma (fateful action), and samsara (the cycle of rebirth) -- rationalize a division of believers into four ranked varnas (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra), and also distinctions (not similarities) among countless castes (jatis) which form the primary basis of social identity. Each person's identity is located ritually by religious duties appropriate for one's specific social and ritual status (varnashramadharma). Religious practices revolve around many different deities (devas), sectarian traditions (sampradays), and teachers (gurus) that form centers of personal devotion and affective religious affiliation. Ideas that define Hinduism as a religion also discourage the formation of a collective Hindu religious identity among believers and practitioners.

            The term Hindu came to have wide cultural meaning -- and became a term that people use to identify themselves -- primarily because it has been used by government in census statistics and elections. Hindu is an official term for counting people, and this gives the statistical impression that India is a majority Hindu territory. Even so, in 1947, only 65% of the population of India was Hindu by official census definition. But Hindu and India have the same derivation: both terms come from the name of the Indus River. From the days of Alexander the Great, people east of the Indus were called "Hindus" and their territory became "India." Hindu did not begin as a religious term, but as a term that was used by outsiders to designate people who lived east of the Indus. Hindu India has not been defined internally, by religious traditions of collective Hindu identity, so much as externally, by practices of religious identification. Under British rule, Hindu became a category for people in India who were not Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists, or others. This division of the population by religious categories was used to create descriptions of India that we inherit.

            The practice of labelling things Indian with the term Hindu has caused endless confusion, obliterating lines between religious and census classifications. Webster's New World Dictionary (1984), for instance, describes Mohandas Gandhi as a "Hindu nationalist leader." True, Gandhi was a religious Hindu who was also an Indian nationalist leader, but he opposed Hindu nationalism; he was killed by a Hindu nationalist for "appeasing the Muslims." Webster's reinforces the very political identification of India with Hindu that Gandhi opposed. A pattern of phrasing has also become common recently in news reporting that further confuses Hindu and India. A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (August 6, 1994, p.A10), for instance, reports that, "Predominantly Hindu India has long blamed Islamic Pakistan for financing and training the terrorists who planted the 13 bombs that exploded across central Bombay on March 12, 1993, after Hindu-Muslim riots swept India." This is like saying, "The predominantly Christian U.S. blames Islamic Iraq for human rights violations": it is not exactly untrue, but it implies an explanation of the government's action that is misleading. This phrasing reinforces in the mind of the reader the idea that Hinduism constitutes India in a way that really is untrue, however: because the government of India is not Hindu, "predominantly"; it is less so, in fact, than the U.S. government is Christian, because most political parties in India explicitly oppose Hindu politics. The effect of this phrasing is to identify India, the Indian people, and the Indian government as being Hindu by definition. Making this identifications into a political reality is in fact the project of Hindu nationalism.


            Interpreting communalism in India as a struggle between Hinduism and Islam fits a pattern of ideas about India that has dominated U.S. media and public opinion since the 1950s (Isaacs 1959, 1972; Asia Society 1976; Cecil, Jani, and Takacs 1994). The interpretations of events at Ayodhya by Gargan, Coll, and Huntington are thus very accessible to their audience and easy for most readers to accept; but this very fact makes their arguments susceptible to a form of criticism inaugurated by Edward Said's book, Orientalism, in 1978. Many scholars have built upon Said's critique, imbuing the term orientalism today with the connotation of ideological stereotyping, like racism and sexism. For Said argued effectively that by rendering non-western societies in religious stereotypes, European empires rationalized their own world dominance, creating forms of knowledge about the world that continue even today to support western imperialism.    

            Modern European empires expanded into India and the Muslim world simultaneously, in the late eighteenth century: British rule was formalized in India in the 1790s, and Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 (Adas 1993). At the same time, European scholars, painters, novelists, museum curators, journalists, designers, policy makers, and politicians began systematically to create compelling images of Hindus and Muslims for western audiences. Alien, exotic, sensual, despotic, traditional, prone to violence, backward, immoral, threatening, and irrational in their fervent religiosity: such imagery formed an evocative repertoire of representations depicting the non-European others that opposed the west. Producers of culture in Europe created images of Europe as being the essence of modernity and progress as they propagated stereotypes of tradition and backwardness elsewhere.

            In Said's critical perspective, the otherness of the orient for Europe became the founding principle and empirical substance of orientalism -- the compilation of images that constructed Asiatic cultures in the western mind. In this context, Indian civilization was defined by the texts that orientalists used to compile the laws and legacy of Hinduism. In the same vein, Muslim cultures were defined essentially by Islamic texts. Equating non-European cultures with non-European religions thus became fixed cognitive routines in scholarship and colonial policy. This enabled Europeans to justify imperial expansion in both religious and secular terms: for Christians, European imperialism saved souls, and for modernists, it brought progress into a world of backwardness and tradition (Breckenridge and van der Veer 1994; Adas 1990).         Taking Said's point of view, we can look at media coverage in new light. Images of fanatical Muslims (in Lebanon and Iran), Muslim terrorists (Libya, Palestine), and Muslim tyrants (Libya, Iraq, Iran) are common in the west. In the same vein, the word "frenzied" (usually in the phrase "frenzied mob") appeared in almost all U.S. newspaper accounts of the events at Ayodhya. "Hindu fanatics" and "Hindu zealots" appear almost as often (Zeff 1994). Such habits of phrasing are not ephemeral or unique to the U.S. press. They represent cultural patterns that are deeply ingrained. Western accounts of India have long stressed the exotic features that make India foreign to modern, western, readers: mysticism, yoga, ritual, caste, untouchables, cremated widows (sati), female seclusion (purdah), "holy war" (jihad), and for that matter, communalism. The cultural connotations of these patterns of usage indicate the ideological legacy of orientalism, which created the religious stereotypes of Muslims, Hindus, and all "others" that even today rationalize western power in the world.

            European imperialism thus invented the religious traditionalism that formed its ideological other in the orient, and this made imperialism appear ideologically as the equivalent of modernization and progress. As a result, we can see in the history books that Europeans brought modernity to an East that was steeped in tradition. As a popular textbook says,

India, like ancient Egypt, was a land saturated with religion; its people were obsessed with the destiny and status of man in the hereafter. Nearly every aspect of life, every thought and action, was conditioned by faith and dogma, whether in business, in politics, or in social behavior. (Wallbank 1965, p.25)

It is not uncommon to read that people in the non-Western world are still living in the past, even the Middle Ages. Thus the master narrative of Modern History as written by the West for itself and for its worldwide power finds the progressive West -- with its secularism, science, rationality, economic development, and just institutions of law and politics -- facing the mystical, irrational, stagnant, passive, chaotic, mysterious East, which always seems always to resist and fail in the process of modernization.

            So journalistic and social science renditions of communal conflict in India in terms of primordial religion draw from an old storehouse of imagery that identifies the religions we see in the headlines with those that define Indian civilization and (deeper in the realm of hidden implication) implies that the conflict at Ayodhya dramatizes the very religious traditionalism and irrationality that describe and explain India's poverty and backwardness. Ironically, however, European imperialism actually used its own political power to fashion the orient in the image of orientalism; so that chains of historical causation connect orientalism and communalism. Orientalism rationalized the institutionalization of oppositions and separations between Hindu and Muslim, and these were built into colonial administration and law. Colonial officials wrote separate Hindu and Muslim law codes, which remain (with modification) in effect today (Baird 1993); and in 1986, a Supreme Court case concerning the rights of a Muslim widow, Shah Bano, became a major event in the escalation of communalism, because Hindu nationalists argued vehemently that the maintenance of a separate Muslim law violated principles of Indian unity and social justice. Similarly, colonial officials made it a policy to consult Hindu and Muslim leaders separately (Freitag 1989); a tradition that hardened in the form of separate Hindu and Muslim electorates, established in 1911 and in force until 1947. The inability of the Indian National Congress to win designated "Muslim seats," especially in "Muslim majority provinces," laid the electoral basis of the Partition of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947 (Brown 1985; Jalal 1981, 1985).

            A "fact" established by orientalism -- that India was defined by its opposing religions -- thus began its career as an idea, a theory, and became a modern institutional reality. This is the central argument in The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (1990), where Gyanendra Pandey argues that the assumption of Hindu-Muslim antagonism became a guiding principle in colonial sociology and administrative practice. The modern colonial state produced mountains of authoritative data -- in ethnography, census statistics, law, and history -- which appear to be the epitome of scientific objectivity. Upon this foundation, an edifice of inference and conjecture were built. The result is a massive colonial archive that documents the primordial qualities of religion in India, and of Hindu-Muslim conflict in particular. When writing about riots, for instance, colonial officers -- usually police and local administrators, in the first instance -- wrote what seem to be "eye-witness accounts" and were intended to appear as such. But many of these authors were absent from the event and far from experts on local affairs. They often gave reports an air of expertise by using the phrase "communal riot." Because Hindu-Muslim conflict was assumed to be brewing all the time in India, the label could easily be made to stick, and it was very handy in describing conflicts for which local officials sought to deflect responsibility. "Communal conflict" became a catch-all phrase for violent unrest; reports used it often, perhaps indiscriminately. Conflicts can be shown to have been about many other things other than antagonism between communities: sometimes riots were anti-government or anti-police uprisings; sometimes they were the product of state and especially police violence. One thing is certain: the political utility of the phrase for officials -- further enhanced by the inherent explanation it implies for the origin of social conflict in religion -- undermines the statistical reliability of data produced by its utilization: for the colonial period, it is often impossible to know what the category "communal riot" refers to in reality. These are also cautionary insights today for anyone considering communalism from afar and who thus depends on layers of intermediation for data about local events in India or elsewhere.

            Most scholars of India today argue that communal conflict never was caused by Hinduism and Islam; many agree with Said and Pandey that as a historical phenomenon, communalism is a product of orientalism and the colonial state. They argue that we should not imagine communalism as erupting from the "hatreds of India," as though from the unconscious of a civilization. Instead, we should explore how the state has been implicated in communalism since colonial times. From this point of view, explanations of communalism that deflect attention away from the state toward religion are suspicious precisely because they are so persuasive. Such explanations became popular and convincing because of their incessant repetition: they have been repeated so often because they helped to sustain empire, because they still effectively exonerate the modern state and modern forms of power from responsibility for communalism, and because they make the institutions and personalities of the modern state into the arbiters in social conflicts in the world of social life under their jurisdiction. (G.Prakash 1990; Freitag below)


            This volume describes a framework for studying communalism that combines the perspectives of several social sciences to focus simultaneously on culture, society, and politics. We begin by recognizing that communalism resists any definition, and that it can be defined differently for different purposes. For social science inquiry, however, it can be defined usefully as a particular formation of purposeful human activity: communalism is collective antagonism organized around religious, linguistic, and/or ethnic identities.

            Ideas unite the organization, antagonism, collectivities, and identities that comprise communalism. These ideas do not form a closed system; they are dispersed throughout the heritage of modernity. In India, communalism is based on the fundamental idea that Hindus and Muslims constitute totally separate communities in essential opposition to one another. This idea precedes, facilitates, justifies, and provides an explanation for communalism. It has been used to construct every Hindu and Muslim as a member of one community, and every communal leader as a community spokesmen. It represents each collective identity as a community alive through all time; it enables past memories and emotions to fill the present and each Hindu and Muslim to become a sentient vehicle of communal experience. This basic communal idea creates religious community in the image of a family, a nation.

            This communal idea cannot be proved or disproved. It cannot be effectively subjected to truth-testing, because, like other ideas about collective identity in the modern world, it is deeply rooted in modern systems of belief and understanding. This rootedness indicates how communalism participates in modern history and culture at many levels; its meanings are diverse and many-layered. It is alive in everyday politics -- in the streets, courts, media, elections, religious and cultural institutions, schools, academic research, and intimate conversations -- anywhere that people can be influenced to form themselves and public opinion around oppositional ethnic or religious identities. Its most dramatic moments are massively organized public events -- riots, demonstrations, processions, media spectacles, and elections -- which in India engage society widely and directly, and which animate competitions for power in India's constitutional democracy. Communalism is also a form of back room scheming. Today, some parties in India have elaborate communal platforms, most prominently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), "The Indian People's Party," which seeks to form a Hindu government, symbolized by images of Lord Rama's righteous, peaceful kingdom. Many candidates in other parties also use communal strategies and tactics, however. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi made alliances and mobilized campaigns on communal lines, though their own philosophy was secular, though their Congress Party is officially secular, and though India's constitution defines India as a "secular republic."      

            Active people do not need to justify their activities in expansive detail or muse on them philosophically. They can concentrate on daily maneuvers and local affairs in the institutional settings that make their activity sensible. Social science, however, needs to consider the ideological construction of social action and the cultural construction of its institutional context in a single, coherent, analytical field. Personal identities and political ideologies depend alike on cultural conditions that are built into the institutions of everyday life. From this perspective, it is important to recognize that communalism arose inside the institutions of modernity; exploring the implications of this fact is a major preoccupation of this volume.

            Though people whom we can identify as Hindus and Muslims did use religious ideas and symbols to mobilize religious identities politically in pre-modern times, the activity of organizing Muslims and Hindus as antagonistic collective identities became widespread only in the 1890s, during the Cow Protection Movement, when Hindu groups attacked Muslims across northern India (Freitag, below). By this time, the Indian National Congress (established 1885) had launched an national movement that embraced all religious, ethnic, and linguistic identities in an over-arching Indian identity. Defined in opposition to "British" identity, this "Indian" identity did carry an ethnic flavor, but its precise cultural characteristics were unspecified. Congress sought to unite all Indians within one Indian national identity whatever their language, religion, or ethnicity. The Muslim League was organized in 1906, to mobilize Muslim identities for increasing collective Muslim representation in British India (Hardy 1972; Jalal 1985). This project involved a logical antagonism to the Congress program that was enacted at various points in the national movement but was also overcome at moments of reconciliation and unity. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was organized in 1925, to define a unified "Hindu" identity and to define India as a Hindu nation. This definition excluded all non-Hindus absolutely; so from the beginning, the RSS and allied organizations opposed efforts by Gandhi and Congress to unify Indians of all religions (T.Basu et al 1993).

            Modernity in India has thus entailed many efforts to organize collective identities. Most of these have been regional and minority movements for political representation in the modern state system. In 1947, Partition resulted from regional movements among Muslims in eastern Bengal and western Punjab. In 1956, India's constituent states were reorganized on linguistic lines to respect regional systems that had taken shape since the 1920s. Tamils, Sikhs, and other groups have gained regional power. All these movements mobilized social identities that actually overlap and mix in everyday life -- like most social identities -- to make them politically exclusive and competitive. At their boundaries, these movements often generate antagonism organized around religious, linguistic, and/or ethnic identities. Since 1984, terrible conflict has accompanied regional movements in Punjab and Kashmir, which bear comparison to Palestine, Ulster, and Jaffna.

            Regional conflicts that could be embraced by our definition of communalism are not the subject of this book, however, though they do play an important part in our discussion. Because Hindu nationalism defines the Indian nation as a whole, and it is logically antagonistic to all regional and minority movements. In its effort to unify India, its opposition to Islam is top priority. Why this is so preoccupies many essays in this volume. One reason for the persistence of Hindu nationalism as a force in Indian political life during this century is that its basic tenets have been deployed many times to explain why Hindu-Muslim antagonism and thus communalism is morally correct, inevitable, necessary, and progressive. These ideas circulate widely and freely in the public domain. They have acquired a common sense quality by their institutionalized repetition in textbooks, museum exhibitions, scholarship, and other modern media. Their discursive narration that makes India Hindu. They can be summarized as follows: