Religious Diversity and the Colonial State: Hindu-Muslim Relations under British Rule

  • Kenneth McPherson (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


The Nationalist movement was the crucible in which relations between Hindus and Muslims in British India took shape. It defined the period in which the concept of a monolithic "Muslim community" solidified and in which "Hindu" and "Muslim" interests were supposedly set in contrary positions. Any attempt to comment on the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in modern India has to take into account the history of communal relations in this period as the nationalist agitation against the British gathered force. Recently Ashutosh Varshney published a work on Hindus and Muslims in India, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, that offered new insights into the nature of communal relations in modern India (Varshney 2002). Varshney analysed Hindu-Muslim riots since 1947 and proposed a series of arguments to explain the reasons behind communal conflict in modern India. I do not intend to review his work, rather I want to test his hypothesis that strong civic linkages between Hindus and Muslims are the main barriers to communal conflict and provide the best processes for the mediation of such conflict when it occurs. Varshney examined a number of Indian cities for the period 1947-1990 and combined research on communal conflict during that period with forays into the histories of the various communities concerned to substantiate his claims. Varshney's conclusions are compelling, but he does concentrate on the present and recent past, at the expense of a more in-depth analysis of the history of the communities - especially the Muslim communities - he dealt with. By discounting history to the extent that he does he has missed arguments that would help substantiate his account of the present and explain more fully the root causes of communal discord rather than simply correlating current trends. For example, Varshney argues that "vigorous associational life" is a much more effective constraint on "the polarising strategies of political elites" and discounts the impact of "everyday forms of engagement" on lessening communal conflict (Varshney 2002: 4). There are two obvious problems with these assertions. One is that it is debateable if elites always have a free hand in shaping communal relations, viz. the ability of Jinnah to undermine regional governments in the Punjab and Bengal where there had been impressive attempts to construct inter-communal accords and political parties. Another problem with this assertion is that "everyday forms of engagement" in an historical context occur in different social and cultural environments and consequently vary enormously in strength and ability to bolster communal accord. In this paper I will take some of the themes raised by Varshney and apply them to the two Muslim communities with which I am familiar, and with whom Varshney does not deal. In the process I hope that I can use the discipline of history as a more efficient tool than Varshney does to explain the nature of communal relations and to emphasise that historical variations in Hindu-Muslim relations (particularly in the area of everyday engagement and civic interaction) provide clues to present variations in relations between the two communities.


India, Political Science, History, Hindu-Muslim Relations, Colonial State