India's history of hate needs retelling; secular paradigm has its own problems and requires revision

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Issue 12 of Firstpost print.

In contemporary India there are few problems as intractable as that of Hindu-Muslim conflict. From 1950 to 1995, over 7,000 Indians, overwhelmingly Muslim, died in communal rioting. The 1980s in particular witnessed an upsurge in Hindu nationalist politics that led to the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the Gujarat riots of 2002. Since the 2014 electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India has witnessed more instances of sectarianism including beef bans, cow-protection vigilantism, and anti-Muslim mob lynchings.

 Indias history of hate needs retelling; secular paradigm has its own problems and requires revision

Babri Masjid demolition. File photo

Much of this violence against Muslims has been waged as revenge for supposed historical wrongs meted out to the Hindu community. In the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindus suffered more than a thousand years of slavery during the medieval and then colonial era. Scholars either associated with or sympathetic to Hindutva have made a number of similar assertions: that in the past, millions of Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam or killed, and that Muslim invaders destroyed as many as 60,000 temples. Most of these statements are either exaggerated or blatantly false, but because the BJP government controls what narratives appear in textbooks, they have circulated them as fact.

Historians and social scientists have responded to these controversies by trying to set the record straight. In doing so, they generally espouse what might be called a ‘secular’ paradigm of Indian history: one that minimises the impact of religion and religious identity in the medieval era, underscores the depth of syncretic relations between groups, and assigns most violence to ‘political’ and not religious motivations.

There is much to be sympathetic of in the secular view, not least its underlying motivation to defuse sectarian grievances in contemporary India. But unfortunately, the secular paradigm has its own problems and is in serious need of revision. In particular, there are three issues that have been tendentious for scholars: the origins of Hindu and Muslim identities, the depth of Hindu-Muslim cultural encounters, and interpreting historical violence. What is needed now is a new secular paradigm.

Hindu-Muslim Identities

Scholars often respond to the claim that medieval India featured significant religious violence by arguing that Hindu and Muslim identities, at least in their modern form, did not exist in the past. How could the invaders of north India be categorised as Muslims when the most common terms used to describe them were ‘Turks’ or ‘Yavanas’ – the latter also used to describe the Greeks? And how could kings like Shivaji be called Hindu when this term only referred to geography – i.e., those born east of the Indus River? Scholars in the secular camp are much more likely to focus on the British colonial period in considering the origins of Hindu and Muslim identities. It was the British who instituted the first national census in 1871, forcing communities to identify as belonging to either one religion or the other, which colonial officials viewed as diametrically opposed groups.

By jumping so quickly to accentuate the colonial period, however, secularists make a bold but tenuous claim: they suggest that Hinduism and Islam, two august religious traditions, were largely constructed by Europeans. How is it that Judaism is taken to be 5,000 years old, and Christianity 2,000 years old, but Hindus and Muslims in India had little self-conception before the census of 1871? In seeking to solve one problem – the origins of religious communities in India – secularists inadvertently cause another one – an ethnocentric view of Indian history.

Sometimes it is suggested that only those sympathetic to Hindutva believe in the precolonial origins of Hindu and Muslim identities. But this is not true. Many academics, such as the religious studies scholars David Lorenzen and Andrew Nicholson, have written nuanced work about how Hindu and Muslim identities formed during the medieval period. Diana Eck has similarly highlighted how Hinduism – by all accounts, a diverse and decentralised religion – throughout history had a ‘sacred geography’ of rivers and holy sites that connected adherents across the subcontinent.

A new secular paradigm should not be afraid to admit that Hindu and Muslim identities have deep roots. This does not lead to a slippery slope that sees, for example, Hinduism’s origins in the Indus Valley Civilisation. Rather, it accepts that the process of religious identity construction occurred over a long period of time, and was more than an imposition by Western authorities.

Hindu-Muslim Cultural Encounters

While it seems like Hindus and Muslims are constantly at odds in modern India, secularists harken back to a more peaceful age. They emphasise that for most of Indian history, Hindus and Muslims were not at each other’s throats. They especially focus on the depth of cross-cultural interaction between religious communities in the past – for example, spotlighting Emperor Akbar’s patronage of Hindu arts, Dara Shikoh’s translation of the Upanishads, or the cosmopolitan culture of the supposedly Hindu empire of Vijayanagar.

But there are limitations to what all this tells us. Yes, it is true that most Hindus and Muslims lived together, traded, and governed in peace for much of the time. But this misses a fundamental point about the study of ethnic conflict: that even in the most ethnically-divided societies, moments of violence are intermittent and rare. Examples of intergroup cooperation from the past, therefore, do nothing to disprove the occurrence of sectarian bloodshed. If we were to delve into medieval European history, for example, we would find countless examples of interfaith cooperation between Christians and Jews, and that such encounters were the norm rather than the exception. But in spite of this fact, it is the exceptional moments – the pogroms, ghettos, and expulsions – that remain the most salient.

A second problem is that many of the syncretic encounters underscored by scholars occurred at very elite levels. While it may be fascinating to learn about the Hindu princes that married Muslim princesses, this tells us very little about everyday life, or the vast bulk of the population. The pluralistic court cultures may have been just that: elite interactions that did not filter down to the level of rural society, where most Hindus and Muslim practised endogamy, and retained a distinct set of cultures, norms, and habits.

A new secular paradigm would recognise why violence in the past, even if it was rare, should not be dismissed as anomalous, or – worse yet – sanitised. We can celebrate the depth of Hindu-Muslim cultural interactions without ignoring the long-lasting impact of violence that did occur.

Religious or Political Violence

Whenever the demolition of temples and mosques, or wars between ostensibly Hindu and Muslim polities, are mentioned, secular scholars usually argue that these conflicts were political and not religious. The destruction of a mosque may have been nothing more than a victory rite. Similarly, the demolition of a temple may have been to steal its golden idols. Moreover, Hindus served in Muslim armies and vice-versa, so how could these conflicts have been religious in nature?

This area is perhaps the part of the secularist paradigm that is most deeply in need of revision. First, how does one differentiate between a religious and a political act? This presupposes that there is some fine line between the two, and seems based on a Christian-inspired idea of separation between sacred and secular realms. But in both Hinduism and Islam, it is not always clear what is religious and what is political. Most kings in Hindu-majority polities referenced Hindu tenets or particular Hindu deities as a means of legitimation. Similarly, Islam combined together religion and politics from the start, as Muhammad was both a religious and political leader. And as for the claim that Hindus and Muslims serving their religious counterparts disproves a religious motivation, by this logic we would assume that Hindus and Muslims serving in the British Indian Army means that colonial rulers were benevolent and supported by the populace. This is clearly a problematic view of history.

The other problem with this view is how quickly secularists are willing to overlook the stated motivations of medieval rulers themselves. When a Muslim ruler like Mahmud of Ghazni, for instance, issues a proclamation that mentions destroying thousands of temples, secularists usually respond that this is mere hagiography and not historical fact. And they are right: the total number of temples destroyed by any of these rulers is likely much smaller than the number they profess. But secularists should ask themselves: why would a ruler emphasise the desecration of holy sites at all? Clearly the idea of idolatry had some kind of emotional resonance or ability to motivate behaviour, and we must, in these instances, take religion seriously as a cause of violence.

A new secular paradigm would find a way to think more deeply about the role religion played in medieval India, especially when it appears again and again as a source of motivation behind violent acts. Simply dismissing all violence as political does not take religion seriously as an identity, system of belief, and object of inquiry. Nor, from a true secularist perspective, is it necessary to minimise the role of religion and religious identity in fermenting intergroup tensions and hostility in the historical past. By contrast, such observations can only strengthen the need for new, secular forms of identification and loyalty in the present day.


Our point is not to bury the secular paradigm but to fix it. In order to offer a credible alternative to Hindutva history, new ways of thinking about the past are necessary, including according more weight to the importance of religion and religious identity. To do so is not to sanctify or legitimise acts of sectarian violence in the past – but rather, to see them in a context that can help us better understand sectarian violence today. That means understanding the precolonial origins of religious identities, the extent and importance of cross-cultural transmission, and, finally, the role religion plays in motivating violence. Only by recognising these factors can we offer not only a rejoinder to Hindutva history, but also come closer to understanding how to stop contemporary bloodshed.

(Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside, while Roberto Foa is author of a doctoral thesis at Harvard University on Indian precolonial regimes)

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2019 17:34:22 IST

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