The Origins of Hindu-Muslim Conflict in South Asia


It has lately become fashionable in some circles, particularly among individuals inundated in postcolonial thought, to blame the current conflict between India and Pakistan, and more generally, strife between Hindus and Muslims on the British, and the British Raj’s colonial policies. In the words of Shashi Tharoor, an Indian parliamentarian: “The colonial project of ‘divide et impera’ (divide and rule) fomented religious antagonisms to facilitate continued imperial rule and reached its tragic culmination in 1947.” Some academics go even further, arguing that the very religious identities of Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent were constructed by the British, and as such, the subsequent strife between these groups was a function of this policy.

In other words, most of South Asia’s contemporary geopolitical and ethno-religious problems, including the Kashmir conflict, the division of British India into India and Pakistan, and communal strife between Hindus and Muslims, are the result of Western influence. In this view, everyone in South Asia lived in relative harmony together before the 19th century. Often, British policies such as the 1909 decision to give Indian Muslims a separate electorate from Hindus in local elections, as well as the British role in India’s 1947 partition, are cited as proof of this policy to sow conflict between Indians. However, on the other hand, the work of historians like Ajay Verghese, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, have demonstrated that areas in India formerly governed by princely states have more communal riots than the provinces in India ruled directly by the Raj.

The idea of communal harmony and unity flies in the face of historical evidence and native literature, as well as South Asians’ own memories and interpretations of their own identities and histories. The British Raj was not some totalitarian regime that had the ability, even if it so desired, to create conflict and entire religious categories from nothing in South Asia. It was a highly complex entity that was the result of the interplay between British interests, local groups, and rulers (“princes”), and as the 19th century wore on, organized movements of the middle-class Indian professionals. As the blogger and geneticist Razib Khan, who focuses heavily on South Asia, noted, “The reason I have no patience for the constant indictments of the British is that South Asian elites had their own agency, and their own history, long before the British became the major power in the subcontinent, and retained that agency after.” (For a full treatment of Khan’s analysis of the thousand-year history of Hindu-Muslim relations in South Asia, see his post here.)

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India’s partition and the conflict over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority princely state ruled by a Hindu dynasty, were driven by local interests and philosophy, including the two-nation theory, which held that the Muslims of British India should be granted their own country, Pakistan. According to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan:

Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literary traditions. They neither intermarry nor eat together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions.

This view of Hindus and Muslims belonging to two different civilizations is problematic for many modern thinkers, who seek in the British Raj an explanation for the subcontinent’s divides. Was this divide — the different social customs and philosophies that Jinnah referred to — the result of a colonial plot? Or is there a deeper civilizational divide?

There is no doubt that often aspects of Hindu and Islamic, particularly Persian and Turkic, cultures influenced each other. As it is often pointed out, “at the village level… Hindus and Muslims shared a wide spectrum of customs and beliefs, at times even jointly worshiping the same saint or holy spot.”

Cynthia Talbot, a historian who focuses on pre-colonial India, argues that while “no one would deny that modernization has led to the sharper articulation of identities encompassing broad communities… modern identities do not spring fully fashioned out of nowhere. They commonly employ the myths and symbols of earlier forms of identity that may be less clearly formulated and more restricted in circulation but are nonetheless incipient cores of ethnicity.” In her book India Before Europe, she writes, “Although the religious beliefs and practices of India were never systematized by a central institution or spiritual authority, the circulation of Sanskrit and Brahmins throughout the subcontinent did produce some semblance of a unified religious culture at the elite level by 1000 CE.” Other scholars argue that the arrival and conquest of Muslim “others” caused the various related native traditions to reify as Hinduism, a process that began long before the British arrived. Thus, there was an indigenous self-awareness of a native tradition distinct from the newly introduced Islam, though the term Hinduism was not yet fully in place.

On the other hand, Islam, like Christianity, was more self-aware of its distinct and often exclusionary identity from its onset. Local spiritual practices notwithstanding, most Muslim elites in South Asia were strongly aware of their unique cultural identity — with significant influence from the Middle East — separate from the more subcontinent-centric Hindus, even if they were not particularly religious, and even if they got along well with Hindus. The process of modernization, regardless of British involvement, expanded literacy, urbanization, and led to the “movement of ideology from the elite to the masses,” as Khan argues. Moreover, “confessionalization in some sense is part of the process of modernity and development, along with the expansion of the literate class.”

Therefore, the division between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia is nobody’s fault or plot, really, but a natural consequence of the emergence of a mass political culture. The reason for this divide is because Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent naturally have utilized different points of reference when drawing upon history to articulate their sociopolitical goals and build their modern identities. Such thinking is not rare. In 18th and 19th century Europe, thinkers looked back to different periods of European history for inspiration. While the Enlightenment was more neoclassical in nature, and drew upon Europe’s Greco-Roman heritage, the subsequent Romantic movement idealized the medieval period, and as such, was very different in its philosophy. Unlike in Europe, in South Asia, the thinkers and elites who looked back to their region’s respective classical and medieval periods were not the same individuals, and often belonged to different religious groups.

No matter how much syncretism and fluidity there may have been, it would have been difficult for India’s two sets of elites — the Hindu brahmin-kshatriya combine on one hand, and the Perso-Turkic Muslims — to have agreed upon which aspects of India’s history to draw upon to build modern identities. It is true that Akbar and several other Mughal rulers patronized brahmins and sages, while Muslims served in elite roles in the armies of Hindu states like Vijayanagara, Mysore, and the Maratha Empire. But the ultimate cultural orientations of Hindu and Muslims states were different, and invariably Hindu and Muslim rulers in modern India would cleave toward their own sectarian preferences.

The case of the state of Mysore is instructive in this sense: while it was ruled by the Hindu Wodeyar dynasty, the court language and religion were Kannada and Hinduism, but when the state came under the rule of Muslims, Hyder Ali, and his son, Tipu Sultan, Persian language and literature and Islam were given courtly prominence. For this reason, the two-nation theory is not an idea that came out of nowhere. The Muslims of South Asia look to the glorious days of the Mughal Empire, and the flowery literature of Persian and Urdu, written in the Arabic script, for symbolism and inspiration, while Hindus look to the Mauryan and Gupta Empires, their ancient epics, and the Hindu golden age. When much of north India came under the rule of Muslim dynasties, naturally state funds and support went more toward mosques and centers of Islamic learning than to Hindu temples and philosophical institutions. This lack of state patronage is thought to have changed the nature of Hinduism by favoring the aspects of it that were more family and village oriented.

One solution would have been for the modern Indian state, unpartitioned, to have had two sets of symbols and mottoes, for Hindus and Muslims (though what of the Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and other religious groups?). But modern nation building is about articulating a unifying set of national principles, whether ethnic, cultural, or civic. It is the conditions of modernity and the nation-state that allow and spur India’s two largest groups, Hindus and Muslims, to articulate different visions of the future, which can be seen through the different articulations of identity and history in India and Pakistan, the latter of which is the state-level manifestation of the intellectual consciousness of South Asian Muslims, despite the existence of Bangladesh, and despite there being hundreds of millions of Muslims in India.

Even when India was founded as a secular country after independence, it still draw upon much of the symbolism of ancient, pre-Islamic India, from the wheel in the middle of its flag, a symbol taken from the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, to its national motto, taken from the Hindu Upanishads, and written out in the native Devanagari script, सत्यमेव जयते satyameva jayate (“truth alone triumphs”). It is not unnatural that India drew upon its ancient heritage and the Sanskrit language in the way many Western countries draw upon Latin and some Christian symbolism. But the Muslim elites of South Asia had something very different in mind. For example, Pakistan’s national motto features three words all derived from and written in the Arabic script,  ایمان، اتحاد، نظم iman, ittihad, nazm (“faith, unity, discipline”). Clearly these are two visions that would have been hard to reconcile in the context of the development of modern identities and nation-states.

As the author and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul wrote in India: A Million Mutinies Now, it was perhaps only a matter of time before modern India, with its Hindu majority, looked back to those ancient roots to rebrand itself for modernity:

What I hadn’t understood in 1962, or had taken too much for granted, was the extent to which the country had been remade; and even the extent to which India had been restored to itself, after its own equivalent of the Dark Ages – after the Muslim invasions and the detailed, repeated vandalizing of the North, the shifting empires, the wars, the 18th-century anarchy. The twentieth-century restoration of India to itself had taken time; it could even seem like a kind of luck. It had taken much to create a Bengali reformer like Ram Mohun Roy (born in 1772); it had taken much more to create Gandhi (born in 1869). The British peace after the 1857 Mutiny can be seen as a kind of luck. It was a time of intellectual recruitment. India was set on the way of a new kind of intellectual life; it was given new ideas about its history and civilization.

Of course none of this is to argue that Hindus and Muslims can not, and should not, get along well with each other and synthesize their cultures. They ought to, and moreover, South Asian states should continue to extend full political liberties to all people regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, or nation. But in the process of drawing upon ancient histories for creating modern national national identities, it was inevitable, perhaps, that there would be some tension between the two differing visions articulated by different elites and communities in the subcontinent, because they derive from two different social and religious ideologies, and have different visions of the modern state. Thus, Hindu-Muslim conflict in South Asia derives from no one particular factor, but is a function of the friction between different communities with different modernizing visions. Such a phenomenon is hardly unique to South Asia, and can be found throughout the world, wherever there are separate peoples and nations living together in close proximity.

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