Things believed to be real can have real consequences. Nothing demonstrates this better than communal conflict in India. Once one is done accusing one or the other community of being communal, one begins to notice the sickening regularity with which politicians and their groupies eagerly push this line or that in order to further their short-term political objectives. Nurturing and milking social fissures is quite beneficial to some.
This is precisely what the British colonial rulers did when they crafted for Indians a new social reality by the turn of the 19th-20th century. Like hoodlums who run large-scale protection rackets, they positioned themselves as the only bulwark to protect one community from launching into a murderous assault on the other.
The British had insisted on identifying Indians as Hindus and Muslims ever since 1857, when the sepoys of the Bengal army tried to overthrow British rule from India after the European officers insisted on demeaning their religious beliefs. All other identifiers among Indians, like caste, region, culture, language and class—the kind of identifiers that were so common when talking of the people of Europe—were ignored in preference to religion. Even the tremendous diversity within the broad categories Hindus and Muslims were ignored.
The fuzziness of religious beliefs and boundaries, the tremendous overlap in beliefs and religious practices of Indians were underplayed. So much so that for the census enumeration of 1911, the census commissioner specifically instructed the staff to ignore such indistinctness and put all Indians only in specific religious categories like Hindus and Muslims. Let there be no doubt, the British were carving out a new social reality for Indians: one in which Hindus and Muslims were considered to be mortal enemies, one for which the people of Bengal and Punjab would pay an inordinately high price in the riots that accompanied independence in 1947.
The British insisted, with no evidence, that Hindus and Muslims could not get along with each other. This was neither here nor there since making fun of each other’s belief systems, and insisting that one’s own belief was superior, has been part of complex human societies for ever since we have recorded history. True, once in a while people have behaved particularly badly with each other using religious differences as an excuse. But that’s just how life is.
Religious distinctions have always existed between people. To take a random example, poet Vidyapati, writing a poetical work in the 15th century set in the Uttar Pradesh region, could say that “the Hindus and Turks lived together, each ridiculing the other’s religion. The chant from the Vedas mingled with the call of the muezzin. Meat shops sold two varieties of animal flesh slaughtered differently according to Hindu and Muslim customs. There were different wards in the town for Hindus and Muslims…”. But religious beliefs rarely affected secular decisions. In the same poem, Vidyapati also tells us that Kirtisimha, the raja of Mithila, saw no problem in approaching Sultan Ibrahim Shah, the ruler of Jaunpur, for help in recovering his lost kingdom. Nor did the Sultan see an issue in extending that help.
To take another example, Aurangzeb was behaving particularly badly towards Hindus in order to please the kathmullas of his court. In 1669, the Qazi of Surat forced a Hindu merchant to convert, in order to please the Mughal emperor. “Look here,” the Qazi reminded this Hindu merchant, “some years ago you shared a watermelon with me, hence now you are a Muslim.” All the merchants of Surat shut shop and departed the city at the Qazi’s perfidy.
The Mughal governor of the city, representing the authority of the state of which Aurangzeb was the emperor, was extremely displeased with the Qazi. For him, as a representative of the state, raising taxes was far more important than converting people. And here was Surat town bereft of its wealth creators. After tempers had cooled a little, the governor duly sent embassies assuring the Hindu merchants that such conversions would not happen, begging them to come back. The merchants on their part showed some grace and agreed to return, but only on assurance that the meddlesome Qazi would be asked to remain within his limits. The British who had already set up a factory in Surat at this time watched the entire drama with some wonderment.
What was new now in colonial times was that the British insisted that Hindus and Muslims were intrinsically incompatible people who could never exist together peacefully but for the mediation provided by the colonial government.
Over the years, each religious group was also given social attributes much in line with the racist attributes with which the British were familiar in Europe and America. Thus meat-eating Muslims were declared to be brave and warlike, as were Sikhs. Hindus got classified as vegetarian, weak, pusillanimous, money-grubbing people. Such attributes became so deeply accepted by Indian society that we even have the teenager Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi eating meat surreptitiously with a Muslim friend in the hope of becoming fearless and strong. Even while leading India-wide political movements many years later, Gandhi would continue to talk of the weak and perpetually scared Hindu in contrast to the manly and brave Muslim.
British hegemony over the Indian mind was such that many an English-educated Indian accepted Hindu-Muslim animosity as the basic truth of life in the country. The Indian National Congress, in its very first session at Bombay in December 1885, announced that it would work towards greater amity between Hindus and Muslims though the country had no history of communal conflict, barring stray minor incidents. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the English-speaking representative of the modern scientifically minded Muslim, on his side wrote a longish essay warning Muslims to keep away from the Congress lest they be overwhelmed by the Hindus.
In 1905, as the people of India got together to protest against the partition of Bengal, the Nawab of Dhaka brought together a handful of graduates from the Mahomedan Anglo Oriental College at Shimla to announce the formation of the Muslim League. That was to safeguard the interests of Indian Muslims as also to demand that the government create a university specifically for Muslims. The time was opportune since John Morley, the then Secretary of State for India, a well-known liberal, had frequently opined about the dangers of the majority in India and the need for providing separate electorates to Muslims in order to safeguard Muslim interests. A university based on religion, however, was as yet anathema to the liberal and modernising British. They rejected this idea on the ground that they ran a secular government which did not allow the creation of denominational universities.
A decade later, the demand for Swaraj began to get mass support through popular participation in the Non-Cooperation movement that Gandhi had started. Hindus and Muslims joined the movement without bothering about their religion. Even the students and faculty of the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College went on a strike in support of Non-Cooperation, and started a nationalist college—the Jamia Millia. To this, the government, at its own initiative, decided to create the Aligarh Muslim University out of the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College even though there was no demand for it at the moment. The Muslim League, already hostile to the Non-Cooperation movement and Gandhi, chose to stand out in support of the government and against the idea of Swaraj.
In modern India, imagined communities are part of our mental fabric. Today, if the Indian state chooses to take sides in cases like Kathua, it will be asserting that beliefs matter far more than reality or justice. Colonisation of the mind is far more difficult to fight than any physical dominion.
(The writer is professor of history, Panjab University.)