Communalism in Modern India: A Theoretical Examination (1986)

NB: This essay was written 26 years ago, in the aftermath of the 1984 carnage of Sikhs in New Delhi. It was my first attempt at arguing that communalism was India’s version of Nazism, and that it was a singular phenomenon with different religious (and mutually influential) expressions, rather than an arithmetical total of separately existing communalisms.

The essay was published in several places, including Social Science Probings and the newspaper Patriot. It last appeared in Mainstream (December 13, 1986); and was posted on SACW till 2009, when I withdrew it in order to correct some glaring typographical errors. Most of these have now been removed, although some errors and/or insufficient details may remain in the main text as well as in the footnotes. I will try and remove them over time. And there are flaws and gaps in the argument that have been pointed out to me, or that I have noticed myself.

I re-post the essay because despite the growth of historical knowledge and fresh theorizations of communalism, it marked (for me) a first attempt at understanding the single most intractable problem in South Asian political life. And as it happens, I stand by the main argument presented here, regarding the fascist nature of Indian communalism. Where the term NB appears in the footnotes, it signifies an addition to the original: Dilip


The oft-repeated statement that communalism, like nationalism, is a purely modern phenomenon becomes problematic upon reflection. Consider, for example, the anti-Semitic outlook, so crucial an ingredient of Nazism. A murderous hatred of Jews, based on horrifying stereotypes – ‘devil-worshippers’, ‘murderers of Christ’, etc – was part and parcel of orthodox Christianity for centuries, and remained as such despite all the schisms. Can one say, then, that Nazi anti-Semitism was a purely modern phenomenon which used atavistic prejudices for political purposes? (For that matter, can colonialism be comprehended as something totally disjunct from the imperial tradition dating back to Pax Romana?).

Nazism was modern in that it fulfilled certain functions for the capitalist state. But it would be wrong to view it in purely functional terms, because Nazism also ended up destroying the capitalist state, besides much else. Simultaneously, it distorted the sense of historical time and created a fantasy world for both rulers and the ruled, peopled by monsters, in which the most horrible events could take on the flavour of banal commonplaces. Fascism is neither wholly modern nor simply archaic – it represents a schizophrenic experience of historical time by people living in any present. To attempt to understand fascism and communalism, we must discard the sharp divisions of history into slabs of ancient, medieval and modern time, and try to comprehend the present as a continuum within which older forms of culture and modes of power fuse with novelty – whether institutional or technological.

Communalism in Modern India: A Theoretical Examination

(click the title for a link to the essay)

A German, who would embolden himself to assert, "two souls alas, dwell in my breast", would make a bad guess at the truth, or, more correctly, he would come far short of the truth about the number of souls': 
Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil

Defining communalism poses a complex problem for historians in contemporary India. On the one hand is the barrier posited by the communal tradition itself, which has endeavoured, with considerable success, to reduce the ‘nation’ to the ‘community’. The partition of India and the long history of Hindu Rashtravad (Hindu Nationalism) express the formidable successes of this tradition. On the other hand, there is a historical (not merely historiographical) confusion between ‘nation’ and ‘community’, which underlies the evolution of the modern nation-state and the subjective reactions to the Industrial Revolution. For instance, Bipan Chandra’s definition – “Simply put, communalism is the belief that because a group of people follow a particular religion, they have, as a result, common social, political and economic interests” [1] - could be rephrased to define the phenomenon of nationalism as well, leaving us none the wiser. Third, the object of our study distorts and challenges our chronological sensibility.

The substance of communal ideology is historical memory, manifested in myths, symbols and atavistic emotion. The function of communalism is mass mobilization for the authoritarian reconstruction of the state in crisis. This state is a precipitate of a medieval and a colonial past, but is also the organizer of capital accumulation in the context of a world economy. As ideology, communalism achieves the fusion of archaic and modern elements (mythologized memory and Rousseauesque notions of popular sovereignty). The state, too, expresses the fusion of the age-old specialization of power with the modern despotism of capital. A state riven by crises of legitimacy can quite easily and naturally turn to communal institutions and movements to secure an authoritarian popular base. When communalism achieves state-power, the distinction between community and nation seems to vanish, and the task of critical comprehension becomes even more difficult.

The problems do not end here. Communal ideologues possess the gift of speaking with several tongues in a reasonably straight face. Thus, in the Nehru Report negotiations in the late 1920’s, Muslim politicians from the Punjab could base their demand for communal reservations on the apparently democratic principle of proportional representation in the absence of adult suffrage. Hindu Sabha leaders could stress the secular demand for joint electorates while scarcely concealing their anxiety about the extension of the franchise to the less privileges classes, especially if these consisted of Muslims and ‘low’ castes. One type of communalist could be democratic but far from secular, another secular but hardly democratic. Another feature of the political landscape was the habit of belonging to several different organizations at once, some for speaking in a secular voice, and others for the communal one. Furthermore, since self-righteous innocence was (and still is) the emotional ground of every type of communalism, each saw itself as a mere ‘reaction’ to the ‘communalism’ of the other, and the air was often thick with ringing denunciations of communalism by communalists. Even among historians, therefore, this particular theme is steeped in sectarian emotion, and it is very difficult to bypass communal categories while studying it.

Compounding all this is a praxiological crisis. Communalism was never a stable, easily identifiable and tangible entity like, for example, the colonial state. It was, (and still is), a process, taking different forms in different geographical, cultural and chronological spaces; and, at all times, a political-cum-linguistic project, an endeavour. Strident calls for Hindu unity, Muslim unity or Panthic (Sikh) unity would scarcely have been necessary if the people known by such names had shown a spontaneous proclivity to be united along communal lines. Since the ‘biradari’ (caste) was a far more basic identity than the communal coalition, it appears that the call for communal unity was actually the pseudo-universalist attempt to create a communal interest; something which could tell us far more about the agency making it than about the ‘community’ whose ‘interest’ was sought to be represented. Communalism was a self-positing and self-fulfilling prophecy, which established the truth of its categories by a protracted onslaught on democratic values and institutions, and measured its success in a creeping accretion of state power, and hegemony over the ethical fabric of society. Since communal attitudes pervade various reaches of the administration in the successor states of British India, any type of critical reappraisal of the process leading up to August 1947 puts the historian, willy-nilly, into a political stance vis-à-vis communalist ideologies, and this, needless to say, carries its own ramifications.

Let us note, at first, a semantic problem associated with the use of the word ‘secular’. ..

Read the full essay on either of these links


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