Friday, May 24, 2024


Communalism is the belief in the primacy of one's own religion over others, often leading to conflict and even violence among religious groups. The political identity of communalism emphasizes the superiority of one religious group over the other.

The renowned historian Romila Thapar, in her book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, published in 2014, suggests that the ideology of communalism defines groups in terms of religion and that the identity that is formed becomes more significant than any other identity. Thapar further states that communalism is the political exploitation of religion - religion is used as a mechanism to control society. It takes the form of deliberately opposing secularism and rationality, wherein political parties draw on religious identities, using religion as a basis to spread hate and violence.

In their book, India’s Struggle for Independence, published in 2016, historians Bipin Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, and K. N. Panikkar describe three basic elements of the ideology of communalism. First, people who follow the same religion have common political, economic, social, and cultural interests. 

Second, in a multi-religious society, the political, economic, social, and cultural interests of people from one religion are different from that of another religion. Third, the interests of people from different religions are  mutually incompatible, antagonistic, and hostile. This is where communalism takes the form of fascism, as it is based on fear and hatred, and has the possibility of leading to violence.

Romila Thapar suggests that the ideology of communalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, specifically arising in 19th century India. Bipin Chandra also emphasizes that communalism is a political trend of modern times. Its roots lie within the social, economic, and political objectives that existed in modern Indian history. In the book India’s Struggle for Independence, Bipin Chandra and his co-authors suggest that communalism emerged as a result of colonialism, and it was a major shift in politics after the revolt of 1857, famously known as the first war of Indian independence.

Historians argue that the Britishers' divide-and-rule policy is responsible for the emergence of the political ideology of communalism. Communalism, propagated by the Britishers, was accepted by many Indian leaders as well as commoners, leading it to develop into a political ideology.

The Britishers propagated communalism strategically by associating it with the history of India, indicating that it has always been a part of the past. The beginning of this can be traced back to the book History of British India, published in 1817. The book was written by the philosopher, historian, economist, and political theorist, James Mill. He made significant contributions to empiricism and utilitarianism. Mill’s book laid the foundation for what Romila Thapar calls the communal interpretation of Indian history and provided a justification for the two-nation theory.

James Mill

Romila Thapar describes the impact that James Mill’s book had on Indian politics and society, in her paper Communalism and the Writing of Ancient Indian History, which was published in 1969 as a chapter in the book, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History, which has two other chapters - one by the historian Harbans Mukhia and the other by the historian Bipan Chandra.

In her paper, Thapar writes that James Mill gave a factually incorrect and very arbitrary periodization of Indian history. He was the first person to divide the history of India into three periods - Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization, and British civilization. This was the first recognized work on the History of India, and it had such a huge impact that later historians used similar divisions of Indian history. The periodization, which is now commonly used as ancient history, medieval history, and modern history - indicating that ancient history is about the Hindu civilization, medieval history is about the Muslim civilization, and modern history is about the coming of Britishers to India.

The periodization of Indian history by Mill has been found to be factually incorrect. The Hindu civilization is usually suggested to be from 1000 BCE to 1200 CE, because the ruling dynasties were from the Hindu religion. This ignores the fact that during this period there were other kingdoms like the Indo-Greeks, Shakas, Kushanas, and Mauryans, which did not follow the Hindu religion. 

More importantly, Thapar suggests that the pre-Islamic sources related to India have no mention of the term Hindu. It was first used by the Arabs and used more in a geographical sense rather than religion. In the period referred to as the Hindu civilization, the concept of Hindu did not even exist. There was no unified idea of the Hindu religion in those times. The unified idea of Hinduism, which is known today, came up much later in the post-Gupta period, post fifth century CE.

Further, the Muslim civilization as described by Mill, because it was dominated by Muslim rulers, is also found to be factually incorrect. The rulers from this period were never bracketed as Muslims. They were referred to as Arabs, Turks, or Persians, depending on the place of their origin. The single term Muslim was never used for them. In addition to that, these rulers arrived in India at different times and ruled in different periods and regions. Their kingdoms were largely in the northern parts of India. They ruled in the southern parts much later.

It is also incorrect to mention that this period was dominated by Muslim rulers. During this time, there were also strong Hindu kingdoms like the Vijayanagar Empire and many Rajput kingdoms. The date of the arrival of Muslim rulers has also been considered to be very arbitrary, with some referring it to be as 1000 CE and some referring it to be as 1200 CE.

The periodization of James Mill, therefore, has communal intentions. It is factually incorrect and was only meant to create a divide in terms of religion among Indians. Unfortunately, Mill’s periodization was carried forward by communal historians and was used by communal politicians for their agenda to spread hatred. It was challenged by historians much later.

Along with the inaccurate periodization, James Mill also heavily criticized the Hindu civilization, which is now referred to as a part of ancient history. He referred to the Hindu civilization as backward and irrational, among many other unjustifiable derogatory remarks. This led many politicians to an over-glorification of the Hindu civilization, a glorious civilization that somehow had declined over the years.

The decline was very conveniently blamed on the arrival of the Muslim rulers. The Muslim rulers being responsible for the decline of the glorious ancient culture became a justification for the two-nation theory. This idea has been continuously spread by communal politicians and historians and has become a common narrative among propagandists wanting to create division and hate.

The political ideology of communalism emerged as a result of the divide-and-rule policy of the Britishers. The origins of this ideology can be traced back to the publication of James Mill's book History of British India, which is a communal interpretation of Indian history, and became a justification for the two-nation theory. The after-effects of this communal interpretation of Indian history, leading to the emergence of the political ideology of communalism can be found even in the current scenario. The political ideology of communalism is being used rampantly in today's time.

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