• Omer Haq

Rise of Communalism in India

India was not always a land of such constant communal clashes; the polarised hatred present in our world today finds its origins in our time under our British rulers. British communal policies, demands of minorities, and the reaction of the majority all give rise to communalism in India. Here we try to explore the origins of communal uprisings and the increase of differences in the country’s social fabric.



India was barely a communal space until the 1880s.

The Revolt of 1857 was an example of how Hindus and Muslims had fought against the English shoulder to shoulder, across the plains of North India. Even the Press until the 1860s emphasized the identity of Hindustanees against that of European or British. A good example here would be Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who was an outstanding champion for social and educational reforms, preached the unity of Hindus and Muslims, and carried out these reforms without a religious bias. Even the monetary support that was received for his University was from Hindus and Muslims alike. Much of its faculty and students were also Hindus Like Iqbal and many other early Muslim leaders, Syed preached the idea of one nation, like in 1884 where he retorts,


Do you not inhabit this land, are you not buried in it or cremated on it? Surely you live and die on the same land… Hindus Christians and Muslims who live in this land are one Qaum ( community ).

But ironically communalism started to gain hold from the counterposition Syed Ahmed Khan took against the National movement initiated by the National Congress. This was because Syed Ahmed was an Empire loyalist. He strongly believed that the Muslims’ social and economic conditions would only improve if their share in the administration increased. And this was only by proving their loyalty to the Empire. Another reason, pointed by scholars is that Ahmed Khan wanted the support of the big zamindars and Englishmen in establishing the Aligarh College for Muslims.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

But he was not alone in this opposition, along with him was also Shiva Prasad, Raja of Bhinga, and other jagirdars and bureaucratic elements. So now Syed Ahmed khan began gathering people from the ranks of jagirdars and other influential members among Muslims to unite them for the cause of the community: the Muslim Community.

He gradually began to lay out his communal ideas- a basic theme that ran through them which was: A. If India was to have a democratic representative government, then the interests of the Hindu majority would override the interests of the Muslims, who were a minority. He mentions that it is as if it were a game of Dice, where one man had four dice and the other had only one. B. Thus it was necessary for Muslims to remain loyal to the British, so that they could be retained, and would protect the interests of Muslims. C. Therefore opposing the ideas propagated by the INC, he accused Congress to be a body of caste Hindus, whose major interests were against the Muslim interests.

Ahmed Khan and his followers insisted that Muslims be given a safeguard in government jobs, legislative councils, and other institutions, where their role was not to be less than the Hindus.

Notable, however, is the fact that Ahmed Khan and his followers did not create a political organization to counter or back their demands- the reason being that the British did not like the politicization of Indians. Thus this group of Muslims proposed that Muslims should shun their politics and remain politically passive- asking them not to agitate against the government. The idea of remaining politically passive and loyal to the British remained among Muslims even after the death of Ahmed Khan. They openly sided with the government during the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. So much so that anyone who spoke against the Government or supported the Swadeshi movement was termed as traitors to Islam itself. However, this idea to keep Muslims politically passive did not work for long. Influenced by the nationalist winds on the country, young Muslims began to actively become a part of the Congress, the numbers grew even stronger after Taybaji’s presidency of the Congress in 1887. This nationalist trend among Muslims began to symbolize that the Congress was not a communal body for Hindus only. Muslims could no longer practice political passivism. Growing Muslim intelligentsia began joining the Congress and the British too found it hard to ignore their demands of constitutional concessions.

Most interesting perhaps was the turn in the trends of the communalist Muslims who felt that they had to enter the political arena. It was in 1907, that the All India Muslim League was formed by a group of big zamindars, ex-bureaucrats, and other upper-class Muslims. The AIML was a loyalist, communal and conservative political party.

The All India Muslim League in 1907

The Leauge supported the partition of Bengal and raised slogans of separate Muslim Political Interests, demanding separate electorates and safeguards for Muslims in government services ( reiterating the ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan). But most of the activity of the Muslim League was directed towards keeping the growing Muslim intelligentsia away from joining Congress and against the Hindus, not against the colonial regime. Simultaneously there was a rise in Hindu communalism. From the 1870s a growing section of Hindu zamindars, moneylenders, and the middle class began to arouse anti-Muslim sentiments. This was fueled by the colonizer’s interpretation of Indian history which the Hindus were fully accepting of.


These colonialist interpretations, like James Mill, talked of the “tyrannical Muslim rule in the medieval period and the liberating role of the British in saving the Hindus from British oppression.”

Languages became a target of communalist fervour, making Urdu the language of Muslims and Hindi the language of Hindus. Anti-cow slaughter propaganda was taken across the country against the Muslims in the 1890s, whereas the English were allowed to carry on cow slaughter in British cantonments on a large scale. This often took a communal tone resulting in riots. Similar to the Muslims the Hindu communalists too carried regular agitation for a “Hindu” share in the legislature and government services. When the Punjab Hindu Mahasabha was formed in 1909, it came with it the foundation of Hindu Communal ideology and politics, directing their anger towards congress. They accused the Congress of trying to unite the Hindus and Muslims as one nation and appeasing the Muslims.


Lal Chand one of the founders of the Mahasabha called Congress the ‘self-inflicted misfortune of the Hindus.’

Aiming to purge the Hindu society of the evil of Congress, they believed that they should work towards neutralizing the British Government in their fight against the Muslims. ‘A Hindu’, declared Lal Chand, ‘should not only believe but make it a part of and parcel of his organism, of his life and his conduct, that he is a Hindu first and an Indian after.’

The Hindu Mahasabha

The first session of All India Hindu Mahasabha was held in April 1915, but for quite a long time the Mahasabha remained a sickly child compared to the League. While the social, ideological backwards Muslims coupled with their weak middle class contributed to the strengthening of communal ideas, this was not the case when it came to the Hindus and Parsis.


Among them, the modern intelligentsia with emphasis on science, democracy, and nationalism gained intellectual, political, social, and economic influence over people, while it was the reactionary landlords and the religious class that continued to exercise a dominant influence on Muslims of India. Another reason for the weakness of the Hindu Communalist was the meagre support extended by the colonial government. - the Government heavily banked on Muslim communalism.

One key instrument that powered not only the colonial government but also the communalists was the introduction of the separate electorate on basis of religion.

Initially, it was Muslims followed by Sikhs and even more. Under this system. - Muslim voters were put in separate constituencies from which only Muslims could contest the election, not just that, but only Muslims were allowed to vote in these constituencies.

This made constituencies an arena for communal conflicts. Because of this system, as the voters and the candidate belonged to a particular religion, the candidates contesting made blatant communal apples from the voter, and they did not have to appeal to members of other religions. This gave rise to voters to express their social, political and economic problems in communal terms.

The young Muslims became disenchanted with the loyalist and anti-Hindu sentiments propagated by the upper-class leaders of Muslim Leauge. They were increasingly drawn towards modern and nationalist ideas. Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad was an example of such young minds. An orthodox scholar himself, Azad aligned himself with the Congress. He propagated his rational and nationalist ideas in his newspaper, Al Hilal.

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad

Even in the Muslim Leauge, the young nationalist Muslims overshadowed the loyalists of the Empire. They too, like the Congress adopted self-government as their goal and objectives. Unfortunately, these people held the idea of pan-Islamism over territorial nationalism with great emphasis on Muslim nationhood. But these ideas made anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism a trend among the urban Muslims, however, in the long run, it all clashed when all political questions were being looked at from a religious angle. While one wonders the origins and growth of communalism and communal organization- one often comes across the idea where the origins of one communalism are attributed to the existence of the other communalism, and that they arrived only as a reaction to the other communalism. The effort to assign the original blame to the other communalism is often seen as a justification for one’s communalism. The Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communalists all argued that their communism was just a reaction to the other’s communalism.

To decide the argument, is similar to answering the question: what came first, the chicken or the egg?


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