The Hindu and the Muslim in India: A Communal Conflict?

A conflict can be called 'communal' if the opponent's national identity is not questioned. But the Hindutva project questions the very political and moral legitimacy of Muslims.

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To call the rising Hindu-Muslim conflict in India “communal” misses a vital point. A conflict is communal when the opponent’s national identity is not questioned, e.g. the conflict among Indian castes is properly communal. Upper-caste Hindus accept backward-caste Hindus as legitimate members of the nation.

By contrast, the mobilisation against Muslims in India reasserts national identity. It defines the opponent as foreign and, in the case of Hindutva, a separate ‘race’ blamed for the decline of the once powerful descendants of the Aryas – the Hindus. For this reason, some scholars have termed Hindu-Muslim conflict as an ‘ethnic’ conflict distinct from communal conflict, and others more explicitly call it a racial conflict finding hardly any, if at all, connection with religious differences.

The Christian, like the Muslim, is also an alien race in Hindutva discourses, though the Hindu-Christian conflict remains lower in significance and scale given the limited political salience of a relatively small Christian population. 

Admiration and contempt: two sides of the same coin

It may seem ironic that Hindu nationalists perceive Muslims as simultaneously worthy of emulation and exclusion. Positive stereotypes about Muslims, such as the fertility of the women and the attractiveness and courage of the men (the trope at the centre of the ‘love jihad’ bogey), are entwined with negative stereotypes of the barbaric, violent, non-vegetarian Muslim. But this paradox of admiration and contempt is quite typical of popular perceptions of racial superiority. Up until the early 20th century, the American South was riddled with pernicious narratives of animal-like black men – alluring bodies with violent dispositions – raping innocent white women. Indeed, in Hindu nationalist rhetoric, the Hindu-Muslim divide is unlike any other: it is a racial divide. In Swami Vivekananda’s words, the junction of “the Vedanta brain and Islam body” was a good strategy for the revival of the Hindu ‘race’.

But isn’t racism about blacks and whites? 

It is a scientific fact that race as an objective characteristic does not exist. It is a fluid and ambiguous idea constructed to serve social hierarchies. But the social construction of race does not efface racial belief: the popular understanding of race and the prejudice associated with it.

The fact that there are no Aryan or Semitic races did not stop the deployment of racial beliefs in Nazi Germany. Racial prejudice is also not solely about optics, i.e. observable characteristics such as skin colour. Groups with the same skin colour can be – and have been – racialised or treated as inferior, e.g. (white) Jews during the Third Reich or (black) Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda.

The genocide memorial in Kigali. Photo: Trocaire/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Racial prejudice is fundamentally a matter of relationship between groups and not about innate disposition of the members of the group. Once members of a group characterise themselves (and, consequently, others) as belonging to the dominant race, it leads to a self-assured feeling of being naturally superior or better.

This understanding can change from place to place and time to time. In pre-colonial India, the perceived enemy was the Turk, the Greek, the Persian – simply a ‘foreigner’ with no religious identity.

It was with the ideological and structural impact of colonial rule that several Hindu activists, such as M.S. Golwalkar and Dayananda Saraswati were spurred on to revive the original Hindu race, its destruction blamed on an alien race of Muslim invaders. The RSS’s recent imploration to Hindu followers to consider Muslims as part of their own ancestry, albeit the more violent descendants of this ancestry, points to Hindutva wordplay with race that keeps oscillating over time between the ideological and the constitutional.

Why should we care?

So what difference does it make whether to call the conflict communal or ethnic (or racial)? The difference lies in the implications of prejudice. Indian democracy has long remained a clever juggling act – pogroms against minority groups (Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians), camouflaged as spontaneous ‘riots’, are regularly deployed by self-professed secular and Hindu nationalist parties to consolidate the majority Hindu vote and, consequently, sustain the veneer of a fully functional democracy.

However, as opposed to the more recent Hindu-Sikh conflict that began in the late 19th century, the longstanding racialisation of the Hindu-Muslim divide by Hindutva proponents destroys both the political and moral legitimacy of the Muslim. Without political legitimacy you cease to remain a rightful citizen; without moral legitimacy, you cease to remain human. Racialised dehumanisation has historically often been a precursor to morally righteous war and genocide, e.g. the Nazi dehumanisation of the Jews, terming them ‘vermin’, and of the Rwandan state terming Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ and, now, Muslims as ‘termites’ or biological danger that deserves exclusion and, at its worst, elimination.

Conflict vs violence

A silver lining to the murky business of racialised polarisation is that propaganda does not automatically translate into actual physical violence. This is because human beings, in general, are reluctant to commit acts of violence – committing an act of violence is different from joining a crowd of attackers because there is both a physical and, importantly, a moral cost to inflicting physical harm on another human being. In other words, there is a distinction between conflict and violence. 

However, when a group is historically resented and the state actively gives it a racial spin, violence against members of the group becomes easier: violence is now perceived to be morally righteous and retributive for it is being inflicted on an alien entity. At its extreme, this is comparable with the German brand of ‘eliminationist’ antisemitism, which justified horrific crimes against Jews as ‘necessary’. Before the rise of Hindutva in India, the historic resentment against Muslims did not manifest in as many instances of violence as seen today because non-Hindutva parties did not actively ignite existing racialised or ethnic polarisation. 

Pride in democracy, liberal Hinduism, and constitutional law have resisted the exclusion of the ‘foreigner’ Muslim (and Christian) fairly well thus far – one hopes it is allowed to stay that way.

Raheel Dhattiwala is an independent sociologist, formerly a research fellow and tutor at Oxford University. She is the author of Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here