British Rule and Hindu-Muslim Riots in India: A Reassessment

By: Ajay Verghese

August 23, 2018

Religious and Communal Tensions in Indian Politics

India and Pakistan are countries that were born through violence. The partition of the Indian subcontinent witnessed hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims killed during riots, ethnic cleansings, and cross-border migrations. Since the 1980s, with the spectacular rise of Hindu nationalism, riots have again become a recurring feature of Indian politics. All of this prompts the question: what is the original cause of Hindu-Muslim violence?

For many scholars, the simple answer lies in the negative legacies of British colonialism. It was the British that “constructed” modern Hindu and Muslim identities through mechanisms like the first scientific census of 1871. And it was the British that used a “divide-and-rule” policy to drive apart religious communities, thereby promoting violence between them. In this post, however, I will argue that this seemingly straightforward argument connecting British rule and modern communal riots is problematic for three reasons. 

First, what do we know about Hindu-Muslim conflict before the British? While many scholars in the humanities have looked into precolonial religious identity and conflict, most social scientists are content to focus solely on “modern” India. But India’s history did not start with the British. Consider, for instance, the argument that Hindu and Muslim identities were constructed by British administrators. The work of scholars of Indian religions like David Lorenzen and Andrew Nicholson shows that there was a clear sense of difference between Hindu and Muslim communities long before British rule. Similarly, Hindu-Muslim riots in India date back to hundreds of years before any British official set foot on the subcontinent. In the fourteenth century, the famed Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta wrote about the state of Hindu-Muslim relations in the south Indian town of Mangalore: 

“…war frequently breaks out between them (the Muslims) and the (Hindu) inhabitants of the town; but the Sultan (the Hindu King) keeps them at peace because he needs the merchants.” 

There are many riot-prone cities in India today—Mumbai, Ahmedabad—where Battuta’s description still seems relevant.

Second, another vexing problem lies is determining whether or not colonialism simply coexisted with the true factors that created violence. For instance, the increase in Hindu-Muslim violence in the nineteenth century that was blamed on British rule coincided with the rise of revivalist Hindu and Islamic religious movements, as well as increasing urbanization. As Sandria Freitag has shown, new public spaces became intersecting sites for rival religious processions, which then became a major source of communal rioting. 

Third, while many scholars have argued that the British increased communal conflict, the question is: compared to what? One way to isolate the effects of colonialism on Indian religious violence is to take advantage of a unique feature of British rule on the subcontinent: colonial administrators only governed three-fourths of the population of India. The other one-fourth (in 1901, more than 60 million people) lived in territories called “princely states” that remained under the control of largely autonomous native kings. With the princely states, history has furnished us with something like a “control group” to consider what India might have looked like in the absence of British colonialism. In my book, I used comparisons of neighboring British provinces and princely states (Jaipur and Ajmer in Rajasthan, and Malabar and Travancore in Kerala) and find that in modern India, former princely states actually have more religious riots than former provinces. 

None of these points, it has to be noted, absolves the British for religious conflict in India. There were many policies—like the introduction of separate Hindu and Muslim electorates—that undoubtedly promoted Hindu-Muslim violence. But in order to understand the origins of India’s communal problem, we need a deeper historical perspective, one that does not start with European influence. As Cynthia Mahmood has written, what we need is a “paradigm according full weight to the long-term dialectic of communalism that is, unhappily, showing no signs of abating.”

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