A Case Study of Riots in India: Piercing the “Secular” Veil

A Case Study of Riots in India: Piercing the “Secular” Veil
Image courtesy: The Sunday Guardian

Prime Minister Modi’s four-day state visit to the United States in June this year was marked by a state dinner and an invitation to address the US Congress, the second such address during his prime ministership (1). Amidst the bonhomie of announcing a strategic Indo-Pacific-focused partnership and signing several memorandums of understanding, came a discordant note. In an interview with CNN, former US President Barack Obama claimed that India might start to pull apart on the issue of protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India. In response, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that she was shocked that Obama had made such remarks after having bombed, during his presidency, Muslim countries from Syria to Yemen (2).

Obama’s intemperate statement displayed a remarkable ignorance of history, particularly of the Partition of India in 1947. The forerunner to this was Muhammad Ali Jinnah led the Muslim League’s campaign for a separate homeland for Muslims. Some of the Islamist separatist slogans used by the League were “Islam is in Danger,” and “If you are a Muslim, vote for the League” (3). The vivisection of undivided India into two independent states was accompanied by forced migrations of fourteen to eighteen million people and horrific killings of one to two million (4). In 1949, then Home Minister Sardar Patel, exasperatedly declared in Parliament that a minority that could force the partition of the country was not a minority at all (5).

An honest well-researched inquiry into this testy majority-minority relationship would be illuminating. One of the few such books addressing this delicate subject is Islam and Religious Riots: A Case Study (2nd edition, 2012) by RNP Singh, a retired officer of the Indian Police Service. In the foreword to the book, KPS Gill, former Directorate General of Police of the State of Punjab wrote that Singh’s book injects a measure of realism in a discourse that has long been delusionary.


Islam and Religious Riots: A Case Study

Singh writes that while the British strategy of ‘Divide and Rule’ did attempt to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims, there were riots even before the British consolidation of power. One of the first communal riots took place in Ahmadabad in 1713. The several riots have since acquired an all-India character. Pre-independence riots could be segregated into two broad categories, until the 1930’s and then the riots between the 1930s and 1947. Till the 1930s, the riots were primarily aimed at conversions and trying to restore past glories of Islamic rule in India. Thereafter, the riots acquired a political focus, and these were intertwined with the Pakistan movement.

The post-1947 riots too could be broadly divided into two phases, until the end of the 1970s and thereafter. In the first phase, riots were primarily due to immediate causes such as arguments during religious processions, socio-political causes, business rivalries, etc. After 1980, foreign involvement started to play a significant role in engineering riots. Vote bank politics also caused immense damage, as exemplified by the since dropped Communal Violence Bill 2011 which stipulated that in a situation where there was (communal) violence, punishment would be applicable only against Hindus. Singh makes a plea to do away with such sinister appeasement, and for genuine all-round efforts to foster communal harmony.

While exploring intra-community relationships in societies, Singh cites the findings of a study conducted by Jonathan Fox, mentioned in his book Nationalism & Ethnic Politics (Volume 6, No. 2, Summer 2000, p1-24). According to this, Islamic minorities express the highest level of religious demands and are involved in conflicts with the highest level of religious legitimacy. Furthermore, Islamic majority-ruled states tend to be more autocratic and less democratic.

A survey of conflict zones globally reveals that many hot spots involving internal communal conflict within a national entity involve the local Muslim community as one of the parties, either as aggressor or victim. The community response to such conflicts is no longer confined within national boundaries. Such conflicts are many a time projected as an attack on what is euphemistically called the “Muslim World”. Singh then asks the question of whether Islamic institutions in India are being manipulated to serve some “hidden agenda” that may not always be in the interest of local communities.

The Islamic Madrasa established at Deoband in UP in 1866, assumed the name of Dar-ul-Uloom (abode of higher learning) in 1879. Some other prominent institutions are Nadwat-ul-Ulema Lucknow, Tabligi Jamaat, and Jama’at-e-Islami (JEI). These madrasas have all functioned more as movements, rather than institutions. While there may be some differences in detail, they broadly call for literal adherence to Islamic scriptures and restoration of the historical glory of Islamic rule in India. This keeps ordinary Muslims away from developing a modern and scientific outlook.

Singh refers to Zulfikar Khan’s article “Islam-Terrorism, Inc. Part II,” which draws attention to the key role played by Madrasas (Islamic schools) in the development of negative attitudes towards non-Muslims. Further, traditional Muslim societies have an uneasy relationship with secularism. Islam is a comprehensive system of worship (Ibadah) and legislation (Shariah). An acceptance of secularism means abandonment of Shariah, a denial of divine guidance. Many Muslim leaders insist on administration according to these “divine laws” and are against the framing of a Uniform Civil Code.

The Hindu philosophical view, that the Supreme Being dwells in the heart of all creatures, naturally leads to universal brotherhood. While deviations may creep in from time to time, the corrective process is also continuous. Israeli Ambassador Hymovitz had said that India was the only country in the world where there had been no discrimination against the Jews. The Islamic tenets of Dar-ul-Harb, Dar-ul-Islam, and Jehad reject the Hindu view of divinity being inherent in all and prevent a true Hindu-Muslim synthesis.  Singh contends that there are two conceivable solutions — formulation of a greater spiritual principle, and/or political patriotism. During the freedom struggle, the attempt at political patriotism was partially successful but religious mistrust prevailed eventually, and this culminated in a bloody partition.

Communalism in the Indian context has come to mean antagonistic feelings between communities, largely Hindu-Muslim. There have been very few instances of tensions between Hindus and non-Muslims. Acts of provocation, actual or perceived, catalyze group confrontation. Retaliatory attacks follow, and soon entire communities get sucked into a conflict. Police or military forces have to be deployed and often a curfew is imposed. Suffering, especially in the poorer localities, is immense. Peace is slowly restored, and life starts to return to normal. This is until the entire cycle repeats itself.

Post-1947, some thought that Partition of India into India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan had solved the problem of communalism. This was not to be the case, unfortunately. Shortly after partition, the views of Qamaruddin Khan, spokesperson of Aligarh Muslim University, appeared in the Light of Lahore. He advised Muslims in India to lie low for some time for tactical reasons and thereafter demand the partition of Muslim-majority areas of India. This is what has seemed to happen. By 1960, several Muslim organizations were established in the country. They had three main claims, i.e., Muslims in India were a minority; Urdu was the language of Muslims; and their Islamic culture should get direct or indirect protection. The focus again was on communal issues, rather than national issues which impact all citizens — such as poverty or illiteracy.

Singh dedicates an entire chapter to cover the views of those scholars who ascribe non-religious causes to such riots. Some say that a strong and efficient police and administrative machinery could have prevented many incidents from happening or worsening. Another group says that the partisan attitude of the police contributes to minor skirmishes turning into major communal riots. Many police personnel do not rise above their religious identities. The sufferers due to such bias are largely Muslims. Some scholars believe that while communal division has always pervaded Indian society, communal antagonism is one of the by-products of colonial under-development of the Indian economy and the consequent economic stagnation. Communal violence is sometimes a substitute for class struggle due to a lack of class consciousness at the mass level. One section of scholars holds the view that communalism is essentially a political doctrine, wherein religious and cultural differences are used to attain political gains. Socio-economic factors too find their place in the analysis of some scholars, who contend that communal conflicts are primarily a means for communities to demand their share in economic, educational, and job opportunities. Lastly, of course, is the widely held view in many quarters that the root of Hindu-Muslim antagonism is the divide-and-rule policy followed by the British.

In the multitude of studies, the very realistic religious aspect is often ignored. Singh highlights that the chronological study of communal riots since the 1700s clearly indicates that the trigger force to the violence has invariably been religious. The reports of many commissions on riots devote considerable time to the immediate causes, which are sometimes very flimsy. The imbibing of communal ideology in day-to-day politics and conduct, due to which communities start to see themselves as distinct and hostile groups, wherein even a quarrel between two children leads to a communal response, is often ignored.

Foreign interference does not help either. The Minority Commission report for the period — January 1981 to March 1982 — observed that both foreign and internal elements had an interest in creating disorder and making the case that there was genocide and maltreatment of minorities in India. Several political parties too had an interest in showing that the government in power was unable to safeguard the interest of minorities.

Proselytization has been another major source of communal conflict. Conversion from free choice is very different from organized efforts at conversion as a religious duty. The Economist published a news item on August 8, 1981, referring to an article in the Arab Times of Kuwait, which mentioned a plan by the London-based Islamic Cultural Centre to convert 80 million of India’s 120 million Harijan Hindus with the help of Gulf money. Soon after, mass conversion of Harijans to Islam was reported from Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu. After wide publicity, the then Government of India received several appeals to stop such conversion drives.

Singh’s mention of Marxist historian Bipin Chandra helps one understand why the discussion about communalism is so contentious. Chandra is dismissive of the distinction between believers and non-believers in Islam and castigates “Hindu communalism” for the Hindu-Muslim divide, which he asserts relies on the myth that Indian society and culture had scaled great heights in the ancient period and fell into decay during the medieval period because of “Muslim” rule and domination. The militant nationalism of leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh prevented the development of a composite culture, he argues. Tilak’s propagation of Shivaji and Ganapati festivals had limited appeal for Muslims. Further, to declare Aurangzeb a “foreigner” and Shivaji as a “national hero” was to project into history, the communal outlook of 20th century India, he asserts. Bipin Chandra’s analyses were both bad history and a blow to national unity.

A treasure trove for researchers, Singh then documents in exhaustive detail the findings of some commissions of inquiry set up after major communal riots. The next chapter, which in many ways is the heart of the book, is a chronological overview of communal riots from 1713 right up to 2003.


KPS Gill’s foreword, which can also serve as an apt conclusion to the book, is a must-read. Gill highlights that while minorities in India have lived in comparative safety and honor, particularly when compared to minorities in other countries in the region, communal riots do continue to regrettably occur. The sentiments behind these riots now, on occasion, manifest as terrorist activities.

While all political parties pay obeisance to “secularism,” their actions particularly of those who campaign on this platform, do not meet genuine secular criteria. The “secular” discourse in India is focused on the politically correct narrative of the mantra that “all religions are the same” rather than a bona fide study of history and of ideologies that legitimize ill-will and violence, amongst and between communities. A constructive inter-community discussion where there is a willingness to acknowledge and make peace with a painful past is perhaps the only way to a more enduring communal harmony.

Gill hopes that Singh’s “Riots and Wrongs” shall serve as the impetus for a more fastidious and thorough approach to questions that are often avoided because they are disquieting. So do we.

  1. Council of Foreign Relations (June 26, 2023). “What did Prime Minster State Modi’s State Visit Achieve ?”
  2. The Guardian (June 26, 2023). “Obama remarks on India’s treatment of Muslims ‘hypocritical’ — Minister”’s,the%20US%20president%2C%20Joe%20Biden.
  3. Ayesha Jalal, ‘Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850’, cited in Gandhi, Rajmohan (2013). Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, p. 3294.
  4. Devasher, Tilak (2016). Pakistan: Courting the Abyss. Kindle Edition. LOC 616
  5. Constitution of India. “Constituent Assembly Debates, Volume 8, 26 May, 1949” (8.92.109),

Arun Goel

An MBA with a regular nine-to-five corporate job, Arun spends his free time reading up trying to comprehend the wonder that was and is Bharat