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Communalism, in a wide sense, means a strong attachment to one’s own community. In popular opinion, it is understood as an unhealthy attachment to one’s own religion and being antagonistic to other religions. It is an ideology that seeks to justify the superiority of one's own religion by denigrating the religion or faith of others. In this way, it promotes intolerance and hatred of other religions and thus, divides the society.

The positive aspect of communalism stands for the love and devotion of an individual towards his own community and working towards its development. However, in a negative connotation, it is an ideology that emphasizes the distinct identity of a religious group in relation to other groups with a tendency to foster its own interests at the expense the others.

According to Prof. Bipin Chandra, 

“The concept of communalism is based on the belief that religious distinction is the most fundamental distinction and this distinction overrides all other distinctions. Since Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs are different religious entities, their social, economic, cultural, and political interests are also dissimilar and divergent. As such the loss of one religious group is the gain of another group and vice versa.  If a particular community seeks to better its social and economic situation, it is doing at the expense of the other”.

Now after knowing about what communism means, let's look at its journey and evolution with time. 

  • Evolution of communalism in India.

Several British scholars argue that Indians have always been communal. History records several episodes of clashes between Hindu and Muslim communities, most prominently in the wars between Shivaji and Aurangzeb. But we know that this argument has no vital base. In ancient Indian society, people of different faith coexisted peacefully. Buddha was perhaps the first Indian prophet who gave the concept of secularism.

Meanwhile, Kings like Ashoka popularized a policy of peace and religious tolerance. Medieval India witnessed the arrival of Islam in India marked by occasional occurrences of violence such as Mahmud Ghazni’s destruction of Hindu temples and Mahmud of Ghor’s attack on Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, but it was the aggression for territorial power than communalism. While religion was an important part of people’s lives but there was no communal ideology or communal politics.

Rulers like Akbar and Sher Shah Suri pursued the religious policy of toleration towards various cultures and traditions practiced across the country. However, some sectarian rulers like Aurangzeb were among the least tolerant towards other religious practices. According to famous Historian Romila Thapar, it has arisen as a result of British colonial impact and the response of Indian social strata.

  • Socio-religious reforms of the 18th century

While these reforms were focused on doing away with the evil practices and reforming one's own religion, but in some forms like revivalist movements, advocators tried to prove the superiority of one religion over another.

  • 1857 revolts

After this revolt, the British held the Muslim community responsible for this revolt and consequently hanged many Muslims under this charge. And henceforth they started marginalizing Muslims.

  • The 1870s

But this attitude of the British changed with the emerging nationalist movement. The British government grew apprehensive about the safety and stability of their empire in India. To check the growth of United national feelings in the country, they decided to follow the policy of 'divide and rules', in other words, to fuel communal and separatist tendencies in Indian society and politics.

In the rise of the separatist tendency along with the communal rise, sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan played an important role. Initially, he was in favor of unity among different communities but towards the end of his life, he became conservative and preached his complete obedience to the British. He preached that, since the Hindus dominate the Indian population, they would dominate and rule over Muslim ones British leave India.

Apart from this, the textbooks of history which were taught during that time were filled with communal elements. Muslims were taught in such a manner to depict that the medieval period had the rule of Islam all over India and they ruled it with grace. But many Hindus pointed out that, in ancient times, India was rich in culture and treasures as it was ruled by Hindu rulers, but the Islam rulers from outside deprived and looted India of its prosperity and wealth during medieval times.

Britishers were trying many other tricks other than this, like favoring Muslims in government posts, etc. This further deteriorated the situation.

  • Ways and means of nationalists

Indian nationalists like Bal Gangadhar tilak appealed to the masses to unite through festivals like the Ganpati festival and Shivaji Jayanti. But such practices showed the Hinduistic tinge in them which didn't relate to other communities. Similarly, during the partition of Bengal, the protests were shown in the form of Ganga bath and tying of rakhi as a symbol of solidarity which was mostly to Hindu people and found no or less acceptance among Muslims and other communities.

  • 1905- the partition of Bengal

It was aimed at weakening growing nationalism. It divided Bengal on religious grounds by stating the false reason of 'administrative efficiency'. This was the policy to appease Muslims in the favour of the British.

  • 1906- formation of Muslims league

Earlier, many political organizations were formed but those were not solely based on a particular religion, but the league was formed to look after the interest of a particular community. This group also got the British government's patronage towards it.

  • 1909- Morley-Minto reforms

This act provided a separate electorate for the Muslims, which meant that only Muslims can vote and only Muslims can stand from a particular constituency. This act officially seeded the roots of communal politics in India.

  • 1916- Savarkar formed the Hindu Mahasabha

Vinayak Savarkar & other members of Hindu Mahasabha

Another grouping formed based on religion, which further intensified this struggle for the superiority of religion.

  • 1923- popularization of Hindutva

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar popularised the concept of Hindutva through his pamphlet,' essentials of Hindutva which later get translated into a book called, 'Hindutva: who is a Hindu'.

  • 1925- formation of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

It was formed by K.B. Hegdewar. It was basically a reaction to Mohd. Iqbal's concept of ' Muslim ummah' and was propagating a militant form of Hindutva.

  • 1932- Ramsay Mcdonald Award (communal award)

This award established separate electorates for the depressed class, Muslims, Europeans, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo Indians. It was another manifestation of the British policy of divide and rule and aimed at dividing Hindus among themselves and protecting Indian National Congress as predominantly an upper caste party.

  • Partition of India - the final blow

Division of our country on the religious line and riots, murder, rapes that it followed were horrendous and communalism was at its peak during this time.

Evolution of communal politics post- Independence.

  • Till the 1960s

Although there was the bitterness of partition, but there was no communal violence during this time. This was because of the following main reasons:

  1. post-death of Bapu, the Indian government had banned communal organizations.
  2. Pt. Nehru was the most popular leader at that time, and he emphasized secular agendas.
  3. With no Muslim league, there was a leadership vacuum to mobilize the Muslim community, on the other hand, RSS, VHP, etc were under strict government restrictions and watch.

  • A decade of the 1960s

Selig Harrison calls the 1960s a 'dangerous decade' because;

  1. Local riots were spreading up in Jabalpur, Ranchi, Aligarh, Ahmedabad, and Nagpur.
  2. Demand among States for the re-organization of States along the linguistic lines.
  3. Opposition to declare 'Hindi ' as the only official language.

  • Decades of the 1970s and 1980s

4th general election led to the breakdown of the Congress system and the formation of non- congress government in 8 states. This period also marked the advent of;
a) criminalization of politics.

b) Greater and continuous use of caste and religion in politics.

A decade of the 80s also saw the rise of communal politics in Punjab which led to large-scale communal violence which ended with operation blue and finally the assassination of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

  • The decade of 1990

This period witnessed the greater influence of identity politics around the country. Ramchandra Guha remarks, " This decade saw communal forces transformed from what was 'clash of ideologies' to ' clash of civilizations. Mandal(caste) and kamandal (religion) became focal points of Indian politics and it still continues to be.


Institutionalized Riot Systems (IRS) is a term invented by prof. Paul Brass in 2004 in his book The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India with regards to the Indian Politics. This term explains the dramatic production of riots, which prof. Paul Brass has divided into three phases:

  1. Preparation
  2. Activation
  3. Explanation


This phase is a continuous activity. The most important people in this phase are 'fire tenders', who keep Hindu-Muslim tensions alive through various inflammatory and inciting acts.

  • ACTIVATION (Precipitation Stage):

This phase is a phase of violence. In this phase, another group of people comes forward, who lead and address mobs of potential rioters and give a signal to indicate if and when violence should start. These leaders are called 'conversion specialists'. They usually lead the mob of criminals from a poor background, who were recruited and rewarded for practicing the violence.


In this phase explanations for the cause of violence are controlled. Politicians and vernacular media play a major role in this phase. Political Parties blame each other, and violence is presented as spontaneous, religious, mass-based, unpredictable, and impossible to prevent. Clear attempts are made to protect direct culprits and to diffuse blame widely. This contributes to the perpetuation of violent productions in the future, as well as the order that sustains them.

NOTE- Paul Brass opines that “if the administration in India wants, communal riots in India can not continue beyond 2-3 hours".

  • Communalism in the recent context

  1. In 2002, Gujarat witnessed communal riots when violence was triggered by the burning of a train in Godhra.
  2. In May 2006 riots broke out in Vadodara due to the municipal council's decision to remove the dargah (shrine) of Syed Chishti Rashiduddin, a medieval Sufi saint.
  3. In September 2013, Uttar Pradesh witnessed the worst violence in recent history with skirmishes between the Hindu and Muslim communities in Muzaffarnagar district.
  4. Since 2015, mob lynching is quite prevalent in India. It can be termed as manufactured communal violence as through the use of social media and rumors society is polarized along religious lines.
  5. The recent Palghar lynching and lynching of Tabriz Ansari is heartbreaking. Such incidences continue to happen in a smaller or bigger form.

  • Measures to Deal with Communalism: the way forward

  1. There is an urgent need to reform the present criminal justice system, speedy trials, and adequate compensation to the victims may act as a deterrent.

  2. Emphasis on value-oriented education with a focus on the values of peace, non-violence, compassion, secularism, and humanism as well as developing scientific temper (enshrined as a fundamental duty) and rationalism as core values in children both in schools and colleges/universities, can prove crucial in deterring communal feelings.

  3. Government can borrow models followed by countries like Malaysia that have developed early-warning indicators to avoid racial clashes. The Malaysian Ethnic Relations Monitoring System (known by its acronym Mesra) makes use of a quality of life index (included criteria such as housing, health, income, and education) and a perception index to assess people’s needs and feelings about race relations in their area. Also, the Hong Kong model of combating communalism by setting up a “Race Relation Unit” to promote racial harmony and facilitate the integration of ethnic minorities, can be adopted by India.

  4. Increase in the representation of minority community and weaker sections in all wings of law-enforcement, training of forces in human rights.

  5. Codified guidelines for the administration, specialized training for the police force to handle communal riots, and setting up special investigating and prosecuting agencies can help in damping major communal disgruntlement.

  6. Government can take the help of civil society and NGOs to run projects that Can help create communal awareness, build stronger community relationships, and nurturing values of communal unity in the next generation.

  7. Media can play an effective role by bringing positive discussions and debates on such issues. 

Communism is a serious issue in a country like India which accommodates almost all the religions of the world. We should individually try to make peace and harmony among each other and the government should also be proactive while dealing with such a sensitive issue that can break the very fiber of our country.

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  • The Oxford companion to politics in India by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
  • The oxford handbook of the Indian constitution by Sujit Chaudhary, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
  • A brief history of modern India - spectrum.
  • From Plassey to partition and after a history of modern India by Shekhar Bandyopadhyay.
  • History of Modern India by Bipin Chandra.