Communalism in India: Overview of Evolution

Not much communal feelings or events have been documented in ancient history of India. Though there were frequent fights between the sovereign kings and rulers, they accepted each others’ religion and culture. Further, since rise of Budhism and Jainism in ancient India was based on basic tenets of peace, kindness, non-violence there were no communal conflicts between these three religions.

The invasion of Muslims resulted in general massacre Hindus and Buddhists in early medieval India but at the same time, Sultanate era also saw rise of Bhakti and Sufi Movement which bounded several religions together. In Mughal period, secular practices were adopted mainly during Akbar’s regime yet, sectarianism and theocracy was common during entire Sultanate and Mughal era.

The communal / sectarian actions of Muslim rulers were largely driven by their personal greed for power and wealth. They indulged in imposing taxes on religious practises of other communities; demolishing and vandalizing temples, forcing people of other communities to get converted into their own religion, killing of Sikh gurus, etc. Such was the impact of these actions that a new religion Sikhism was born to struggle against tyranny of forced religion.

These actions were largely instrumental in deepening and establishing the feeling of communal differences amongst the minds of people in India. But the communal violence and differences were not common as largely majority of Indians lived in rural areas and were aloof from such influences and hence overall peoples of different faith coexisted peacefully. Also, in those days, the Hindus and Muslims had common economic and political interests.

Rise of Communalism in British Era

Communalism in modern India is a 20th century concept. genesis in the modern politics. In India, the communalism has its roots in 1905 when partition of Bengal on religious lines took place. Further, the British provided for separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus under Government of India Act, 1909. The key

Religious Revivalism in 1924

The Shuddhi and Sangathan movements among the Hindus and the Tabligh and Tanzim religious movement among the Muslims had invoked religious revivalism. These movements tried to glorify the past and tried to compare them with their present state in order to consolidate their own gains. All these paved ways for Hindu nationalism and Islamic nationalism. The British took advantage of this situation and began to lay the foundations for a two-nation theory. The British instead of trying to maintain communal harmony used the cultural and religious differences between the Hindus and Muslims to achieve political gains. The official patronage was very strong than the appeal of nascent nationalism.

Communal Violence (1923-30)

The period between 1923 and 1930 witnessed intense communal violence in India. The violence began with the Moplah Rebellion which intensified hatred among the Hindus and Muslims in the Malabar region. The period also witnessed more communal riots than any other period in history. Serious communal riots were recorded in Amritsar, Multan (Punjab), Meerut, Moradabad, Allahabad and Ajmer. The most serious riots happened at Saharanpur in connection with the Muharram festival.

Communal Award, 1932

Further, the Communal Award by the British in the third roundtable conference further fuelled the communal hatred among the religious communities. To fuel communalism and appease various communities, the British provided separate representation for Muslims, Sikhs, the Anglo-Indians, the Indian Christians, the Europeans, the Landlords, the depressed classes and the commerce and industry. The Award of the third roundtable conference had serious ramifications as it further aggravated the communal sentiments among different religious communities.

The Communal Award was vehemently opposed by Gandhiji. The award with the main aim to appease Muslim and other communities largely resulted in fragmenting the Indian society and disturbing the communal harmony. It can be said that the communal consciousness in India was a product of the transformation of Indian society under the impact of colonialism.


In the post-independence period, competition for jobs, land, economic benefits have become the primary cause for communal clashes. The communalization of Indian politics and the creation of communal ‘Vote Banks’ have an important bearing on communal conflicts in our society.

In Post-independence period, the frequency of communal violence has seen an increase from 1970s. The elites belonging to the religious communities are exploiting the religious sentiments of the communally divided society especially among the lower economic class.  In Indian context, the electoral process such as nominations of candidates, campaigning, etc., have resulted in accentuating communal sentiments in every state of India. In some cases, the ruling class relies on religion for mobilising people and thus changing the political status quo. In some peculiar cases, it is seen that the state itself has played a direct role in inducing communal riots. The communal riots of Gujarat, Delhi, Meerut, Bhagalpur, Surat are examples.

Three Stages in Indian Communalism

Some scholars have divided the rise of Indian communalism into three stages as follows:

First Stage

The first stage in Indian communalism was marked by the rise of nationalist Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc. Roots for the happenings for this stage of communalism lies in the religious revivalist movements that happened in the later part of 19th century. In that time period, India witnessed Hindu revivalist movement like Arya Samaj’s Shuddhi movement, cow protection riots (1892) etc.

Similarly, the Islam revivalist movements like Faraizi movement’s Haji Shariatullah which is aimed at bringing back the Bengali Muslims back on the true path of Islam, had bearing on communalism in the later part of 19th century. Also, people like Syed Ahmed Khan who despite having scientific and rational approach, aggravated the sentiments of Indian Muslims by projecting them as a separate community (qaum) having different interests when compared with other religious communities.

Second Stage-Liberal Communalism

In this stage of Indian communalism, the communal politics was liberal, democratic and humanist with nationalist values. This stage extended till 1937.  In this stage, people belonging to a particular group start believing that their social, economic, political and cultural interests are different from that of the other communities.

Third Stage –Extreme Communalism

The third stage of communalism had a fascist syndrome. This form of communalism was extreme and was primarily based on fear and hatred. In this stage, the communal elements made use of violence and demanded for separate nation. This stage is characterised by the belief of the people that their interests are not only different but are also contradictory with other communities. It was practised by Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha after 1937.

Communalism Today

Communalism is even today a bane for India. The communal outbursts occur whenever religious festivals of two communities coincide. For example, communal clashes have occurred whenever Eid and Holi, or Dusshra and Muharram have occurred in the same date. Similarly, communal outbursts have occurred whenever there are incidents where religious symbols and scriptures are dishonoured. An analysis of the communal riots has also shown that the change of government or political system does not have any major impact in changing the communal behaviour. Therefore, it can be concluded that communal behaviour has been a continuous phenomenon which is not restricted to certain time periods in modern times.

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