India is rich in religious plurality, home to approximately one billion Hindus, 200 million Muslims, 30 million Christians, nine million Buddhists, and five million Jains. Yet, communalism remains a prevalent issue in India. Communalism is the notion of being attached to one’s own community rather than to society at large. In the context of religion, this means one’s strong allegiance to their religious community. While communalism provides individuals with a sense of belonging and encourages them to uplift their own communities both economically and socially, the ideology primarily stifles tolerance of other religious groups by promoting groups to prioritise their interests over those of other groups, enhancing social division and hostility.
Communalism has diverse historical causes. A significant reason is the period of British rule in India. Here, the British government utilised communalism – namely the tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities – to ‘divide and rule’. Essentially, the British government promoted disunity to debilitate the national movement, making the country easier to rule. We see this in, for instance, the UK Parliament’s introduction of separate electorates (elections held separately for each community so that that particular community can vote to choose their representative) for Muslims in the Indian Councils act 1909. A more persisting theme has been incorporating Hindu beliefs into nationalist concepts and thought. For example, in India’s First War of Independence in 1857, Bal Gangadhar Tilak (a leader of the Great Rebellion) believed that the unity of Indians could be shown to and strengthened against the East India Company by having a common idol worshipped by ‘everyone’. Since Lord Ganesh was worshipped by diverse members of society – of low and upper castes – Tilak essentially made the Hindu celebration, Ganesh Chaturthi, into a national festival. The ruling political party in India since 2014, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party itself, pushes forward Hindu nationalist sentiments. It has received significant backlash for promoting communalism, mainly due to marginalising Muslims on distinct occasions. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 sparked immense controversy given that it grants citizenship to illegal migrants coming from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan of all religions but Islam.
Given the longstanding history of political discourse and encouragement of communalism, it is unclear whether different religions in India can work together. It would be exceptional to say that uprooting the various socially embedded forms of communalism is an easy task. Of course, separating religion from politics and banning communal political parties is ideal. Yet, given that religion and politics have been intertwined for so long in India, this seems radical at present. It is, therefore, inevitably a long-term goal. More tangible solutions could involve positive action. For example, the government could declare widely-celebrated festivals of different religions as national festivals. This would be symbolically recognised and celebrate India’s religious plurality and subsequently influence greater tolerance between communities. Further, education could be secularised, with national curricula incorporating textbooks that teach secular values, filtering out or reducing material that skews historical events via religious bias. Take organisations like ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy). the death of Hindu pilgrims by the burning of a train triggered violence against Muslims since Muslim individuals were convicted of the arson (known as the 2002 Gujurat riots). ANHAD promotes secularism in various ways, such as welfare programmes and campaigning. Enabling greater public participation through measures like peace committees with representatives of different religious backgrounds would also enhance procedural legitimacy – a step towards detaching the government from religious holds – and allow for transparency in decision-making.
Overall, religious diversity and plurality allow for a culturally enriched nation. Communalism in its extreme form is a difficult obstacle to overcome. However, providing different communities with safe spaces and opportunities to collaborate will enable progress towards achieving unity.
Article by Shwetha Sivaraman