Communalism: A Justification for Colonial Rule

“Communalism” is an ideology that claims that the Indian past is to be understood in predominantly religious terms.  It was used by the British to understand and makes claims about the Indian society in the past and the present.  Communalism makes three general assumptions about Indian history and society.  First, the Indian past is defined by the presence of monolithic religious communities.  Second, religion is the primary element of an Indian’s identity.  Third, because the religious communities are monolithic and religious identity is primordial, adherents to the monolithic communities are always in conflict with each other.  Although communalism assumes that all South Asian religions are equally antagonistic, it emphasizes the conflict between Hindus and Muslims (South Asia’s largest religious communities).  Further, writes Gyanendra Pandey, “in a colonialist reading of history that had become dominant by the end of the nineteenth century, ‘communalism’ was seen as the special mark of the Indian section of the ‘Orient’” (Pandey 132).

In their naïve arrogance, the British assumed that, like Europeans, the peoples of South Asia could not accommodate religious difference in their communities.  If the European past was one of conflict between Protestants and Catholics, then, similarly, the Indian past must have been one of conflict between Hindus and Muslims.  However, in the eyes of the British, two things distinguished the European experience from the South Asian experience.  One, Europe overcame religious conflict (however weak the claim) because of the Enlightenment.  Two, religious identity in India was primordial, and thus, unable to be outgrown.  Therefore, claimed the British, a third party was the only one who could keep peace in India.  The British were all too happy to accept the task.

Pandey, in “The Colonial Construction of Communalism,” demonstrates how the colonial state created a communal riot narrative to justify its claim as a necessary third party.  As he writes early in the essay, “this historical reconstruction was characterized also by an emptying out of all history—in terms of the specific variations of time, place, class, issue—from the political experience of the people, and the identification of religion, or the religious community, as the moving force of all Indian politics.  The communal riot narrative served to substantiate this reading of history” (Pandey 132).  In other words, the colonial construction of communalism denies Indians agency because it posits religion—and nothing else— as the foundation of Indian politics.  In this view, since nothing else matters to Indians except their religious identity, all riots can only be seen as communal riots.  Further, if communal riots are instinctual, then they all must share the same characteristics.  Time and space are thus irrelevant to understanding a communal riot; any one riot, regardless of geographic or temporal location, can stand in for another.  As Pandey makes plain, for the colonial state, “the communal riot narrative…ranges freely through time and space” (Pandey 166).  That is, communal riots across space and time share the same characteristics because they are all the result of the Hindu and Muslim’s innate hatred for the other.

Clearly, the communal riot narrative made it easy for the colonial state to claim itself to be the transcendent third party.  Argues Pandey, “this tradition of strife becomes, indeed, the justification for colonial rule.  By the later nineteenth century, it is no longer the power of the English sword, nor simply the superiority of English science and commerce, but also the argument that the ‘natives’ are hopelessly divided, given to primitive passions and incapable of managing their own affairs, that legitimized British power” (Pandey 151-52).  So, on the one hand, the colonial riot narrative was a statement on the history of “instinctive violence” in India; on the other hand, it was a statement on the success of the colonial state (Pandey 168).  In this view, only the colonial state was in a position to break the cycle of endemic communal conflict.  Thus, communalism was a colonial construction.

Work Cited

Pandey, Gyanendra. “The Colonial construction of ‘Communalism’: British writings on Banaras in the Nineteenth Century.” In Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society, edited by Ranajit Guha, 132-168. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.


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