Communalism and Identity among South Asians in Diaspora

  • Crispin Bates (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


"Communalism" is a term used in India, but invented by colonial rulers in the nineteenth century, to refer to the use and manipulation of religious and/or ethnic differences for "political" ends antithetical to the national (or colonial) interest. It is related to, but very different from, the idea of "community". Arguably, the rise of "communalism" was partly a reaction to the undermining of older, more local communities by rapid economic and social change. During the period of colonial occupation alternative outlets for popular unease and discontent included the Indian nationalist movement, but the division of this movement into Muslim, Hindu, Brahmin, non-Brahmin and other fractions, encouraged by the colonial power for strategic reasons, became a hall-mark of Indian politics and social life in the late colonial period. The secularist consensus established in the early years after Independence for a while promised a new future for India. However, during the past decade, the decline of secularism, the decline of the Congress Party, and the emergence of fundamentalist parties and organisations has made communalism once more a prominent feature of Indian life. Communalism has also spread beyond the subcontinent, the political conflicts within India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka increasingly being found mirrored amongst the substantial communities of Indians and Pakistanis living abroad. For historians the question of how the twentieth century's conception of community and contemporary ideas of communalism came about is one of considerable controversy. However, among contemporary sociologists studying community or "race relations" (as they used to be termed) in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa, the U.K. or Indian Ocean States it is often assumed that the identities of migrant communities are largely brought with them, and that they are based upon primordial and age-old forms of identity and conflict to be found in the Indian subcontinent. To put it simply, the fact that communalism is endemic in the Indian subcontinent today, means that it is considered an "essential" feature of Indian society, and it's appearance elsewhere is therefore regarded as unproblematic. The international activities of militant political and religious organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or Jammia Islamia are likewise predicated upon this assumption, that the interests and identities of Hindus and Muslims everywhere are essentially the same. When looked at more closely however, and in comparative perspective, it soon becomes apparent that to "be a Hindu" in Leicester, in England, for example, is very different from "being a Hindu" in Durban South Africa, and that even within the subcontinent the identities of, for example, Muslims in Bombay, and those in Hyderabad, Lucknow or Bangladesh are very different from one another. This article questions some of the assumptions of fundamentalists and western sociologists. It attempts to explain the divergent historical circumstances that have led to the various outcomes in terms of community relations amongst migrant groups in Asia. The article also examines the origins and consequences of the widely varying identities that have emerged among migrant communities within South Asia, and amongst the many communities of South Asians scattered beyond the subcontinent in the former territories of Britain's colonial empire.


South Asia, Political Science, Diaspora, Identity, Communalism