Communalism: Definitions, Types & Characteristics

Communalism is a political philosophy which advocates followers of a particular religion to have political allegiance to their own religious community. As a matter of fact, a person’s mere affiliation to the social, cultural and service aspects of a religious community would not amount to communalism. Communalism preaches the followers of a particular religion to have hatred against the followers of other religious communities. It assumes that the followers of a particular religion will have common interests that differ from other religions. In essence, communalism is opposed to secularism and even humanism.

However, in the western world communalism is defined differently. According to socialist Murray Bookchin, communalism is “a theory or system of government in which independent communities participate in a federation.” Simply put, in the western world, communalism proposes to abolish market and money and places land and enterprise in the custody of a community. But, in the context of Indian sub-continent, the term communalism is associated with tensions between various religious communities.

Communalism is an ideology which is considered unique not only to south Asia but is also found in other continents such as Africa, America, Europe, Australia, and other parts of Asia. In fact, development of communalism is believed to have its roots in the ethnic and cultural diversity of Africa. Communalism is often regarded as a modern phenomenon which is the result of the modernization and nation building process. But the concept has become a socio-economic and political issue in south Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc.

One of the primary manifestations of communalism is communal riots. In India, multiple religions and faiths are practised which often leads to violence and hatred among different religious communities. Often, these persons who spread religious violence do not consider religion as a moral order.

Various Definitions of Communalism

Bipan Chandra

According to Bipan Chandra, communalism is “the belief that because a group of people following a particular religion, they have common social, political and economic interests”. He further adds that religious distinction is the fundamental distinction that overrides all other distinctions.

In Indian context, he cites that Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs have dissimilar social, economic, cultural and political interests as they are different religious entities. Hence, if one communal group seeks to better its social, political and economic interests then it will be a loss for the other groups. According to him, the Indian people can act socially and cannot act in any other manner except as members of such homogeneous communities whose interests and outlook remains the same.

Bipan Chandra has outlined three elements of communalism:

  • Communalism is strong among those people who have common secular interests.
  • Secular interests of different religions are divergent from that of the others.
  • Interests of different communities are different and hostile to others.
Harbans Mukhia

According to historian Harbans Mukhia, “communalism is the phenomenon of religious differences between groups, often leading to tension and even rioting between them.”  He elaborates that people of different religious communities becomes hostile when they have to live together and share common economic, political and other scarce resources.

D.E. Smith

Communalism as the function of religious communities in a way, generally considered detrimental to the interests of other groups or of the nation as a whole.

Gopal Krishan

According to Gopal Krishnan, communalism is destructive Indian expression of religion in politics, which emphasizes religious identity of social groups and requires political society to be organized, as a confederation of religious communities.

Ram Ahuja

Communalism is a belief that is characterised by strong antagonism practiced by the members of one community against the people of other community. In some instances, this rivalry goes to the extent of harming and insulting members of a particular community and in extreme cases dishonouring women and even killing persons. While communalism is an ideology, ‘communal violence is a demonstration of this ideology‘. Communal persons are those who practice politics through religion. These people tend to use God and religion as instruments to gain political support. This is similar to the older society where the King and church head used the name of religion to live luxuriously. This trend is witnessed now in present society also.

Zenab Banu

Communalism is an ideology in which a minority receives unequal treatment from the majority, on the basis of religion, culture and ethnic characteristics.” Communalism is a very complex phenomenon inevitable in plural societies.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Communalism is an ideology that has emphasized the social, political and economic unit of each religion and has emphasized even the antagonism between different communal groups.

Prabha Dixit

According to Prabha Dixit, communalism is a political doctrine that makes use of religious and cultural differences to garner political gains.

T.K. Oomen:

T.K. Oomen, a famous sociologist, has suggested that there are six dimension of communalism. These are:

 Assimilationist (or) Communist Communalism

Under this type of communalism, small religious groups are assimilated into big religions group. For instance, scheduled tribes, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists are Hindus and they should be covered by Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. In addition, all of them should be covered with the same personal law. Hence, a Sikh, Buddhist, Jain does not identify himself/ herself too much different from a Hindu and Hindu religious beliefs and sentiments.

Welfarist Communalism

In this type of communalism, emphasis is placed on the welfare for the particular community. Providing education, scholarship, financial assistance in higher studies, matrimonial assistance, skill development, residential accommodation are examples of the services provided under this type of communalism. These welfarist organizations are involved in different kind of charitable and other social upliftment activities related to their particular community alone.

Retreatist Communalism

In this type of communalism, small religious community keeps itself aloof from politically related activities. They keep themselves away from politics, for example, people belonging to Bahai religious community keep themselves away from any political activity.

 Retaliatory Communalism

In this type of communalism, people belonging to one religious community attempts to harm, hurt and injure the members of other religious communities. In India, this type of communalism can be witnessed where the ‘fight between different groups either religious or caste is omnipresent. A very good example of this case is the Godhra Riots and its aftermath

Separatist Communalism

In this type of communalism, one religious community decides to maintain its cultural specificity and demands a separate territorial state within the country, for example, the demand for Gorkhaland by Gorkhas, Bodoland by Bodos, Vidharbha in Maharashtra, separatist tendencies in Mizoram.

Secessionist Communalism

In this type of communalism, a religious community demands for a separate political identity and insists to have a separate state.  For example, the demand for Khalistan, the demand for an independent Kashmir by militant groups in Kashmir falls under this category. A very recent example is the demand for ‘Nagalim’ from the erstwhile parts of Nagaland and Myanmar.

Of all the above types of communalism, the last three categories create problems by perpetuating communal riots, terrorism and insurgency.

Main Characteristics of Communalism

The main characteristics of communalism are as follows:

The following can be stated as the main features of communalism:

  • It is an ideological concept,
  • Based on orthodox principles,
  • Based on intolerance,
  • Propagation of intense dislike towards other religions,
  • Considering owns own religion to be superior,
  • Working towards the elimination of other religions and their values,
  • Making use of extremist tactics including use of violence against people belonging to other religions and faith,
  • Believes that followers of same religion have common political, economic and social interests, which are different from beliefs of other communities.
  • Believes that followers of other religions to be completely incompatible, antagonist and hostile.
  • Believes that specific interests of a particular community can be promoted by only maintaining a separate identity so that their interests are served better.
  • Tends to believe that communal interests are superior to the national interests.
  • Treats citizens of a nation not as citizens but as members of particular religious community.
  • In its extreme form, it demands separate nation for a particular community. It resorts to violence, fraud, and even gets assistance from foreign powers to achieve their political goals.
  • It leads to abuse of power.
  • It is used by the elites as a tool for exploiting the communal identities of the poorer sections of people belonging to their own religion.
  • It is engineered by opportunistic political and economic interest of groups within political parties.

Lastly, it shakes the foundation stones of democracy, secularism and national integration.