How do we understand the concept of Communal Violence?

[Originally published at on Feb 2007]

We all agree that events like the Gujarat riots are tragic and terrible. But what is the role of intellectuals in avoiding similar tragedies in the future?

Why can’t religion be political? 

Obviously, the duty of the intellectual is to try and help us understand the nature of the events and the violence involved. In India and abroad, the concepts of ‘communalism’ and ‘communal violence’ are often used to analyse these riots. These tell us that the main cause behind the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India is the use of religion for political ends. It is often added that religion itself is not responsible for the riots, but rather its misuse by power-hungry clerics and politicians. The harm of communalism lies in its mixing of political aims and religious identities, which is taken to cause violence. Let us have a closer look at this concept of communal violence.

A first problem is that no theoretical framework is available which allows one to distinguish religion from other human phenomena. This point should not be confused with a demand for clear definitions. One may define the word ‘water’ in any way one chooses; such linguistic reform will not affect our understanding of the world much. The structure of the fluid water remains H2O and chemists are able to distinguish and separate it from other substances because of its composition. On the contrary, no one is able to show what differentiates the religious (as a phenomenon or domain of life) from the political. If that is the case, there is no way to understand the statements about the mixing of politics and religion. Since no tools are available to distinguish secular from religious interests or political from religious aims, the ‘communalism’ analysis becomes trivial: different communities come into conflict in the struggle for political power, because they believe they have divergent interests.

Does political religion spark communal violence? 

A second problem is that the supposed causal link between the use of religion to attain political goals and the occurrence of inter-community violence is absolutely unclear. Imagine a Buddhist leader invoking the ‘religious’ sentiments of her community in this way: she tells them Buddhist selflessness should defeat the egocentric materialism of other communities, so that society will not degenerate into cut-throat capitalism. It could be argued this is to make use of religion to obtain political power over society. One could equally propose the leader in question is spreading an ideology which makes her community believe that its secular interests are opposed to those of other religious communities. But it is both unclear why this should lead to violence between communities and what is immoral about the acts of this leader. If the example is too unreal, one can give similar descriptions of Gandhi’s satyagraha or Ashoka’s rule. These situations fit perfectly in the conception of communalism of the Indian intellectuals. Yet one can only wonder as to why they should generate inter-community riots. Such examples could be multiplied without end. They show it is not in the least clear what is immoral about the use of religion for political ends and how this ‘communalism’ is linked to violent events like the Gujarat riots.

Given these problems in making sense of the concept of communal violence, how to account for the widespread belief that the mixing of politics and religion is wrong and generates violence? After all, many of the analysts who invoke ‘communalism’ as an explanation are not cretins. We should explain how they have come to this belief and why they continue to hold it, in spite of its lack of clarity.

The Christian cliché and corrupt religion 

I would like to submit the following hypothesis for discussion: the claim that the use of religion for political ends is evil and provokes violence is an old cliché from Christianity. Within its theological framework, it makes perfect sense to accuse human beings of corrupting religion by abusing it for the satisfaction of their worldly desires. This corrupted religion then gives rise to conflicts, riots and violence. Such a story was embedded in the European common sense by the sixteenth century. It became especially popular in post-Reformation Britain to make sense of the Wars of Religion. The belief was that there was a pure primitive Christianity untainted by human hands, which is revealed by the biblical God as the one true religion. Reflecting this God’s will for humanity, the true religion can bring only peace, harmony and happiness. However, human beings – sinful as they are and misguided by the devil – corrupt this pure religion and try to use it for their own worldly and political ends. Needless to say, evil priests and crooked politicians are the prime suspects.

Since the British believed that the traditions they encountered in India were instances of false religion, it was obvious to them they would find the same kind of demonic violence here. Hence, they saw all kinds of conflicts in India as the violence that inevitably results from the corruption of religion for worldly ends. In their eyes, traditional leaders became priests of the devil. Stereotypes emerged about cunning Brahmins and deceitful mullahs. Whenever violent riots occurred, the reason was obvious: such priests and politicians had deceived innocent believers into slaughtering each other in the name of religion.

In the process of colonial education, Indian intellectuals adopted this theological story from their colonial masters as an account about the ‘communal violence’ inherent in Indian society. Tragically, this Christian experience of India was mistaken for a valid description of its society. The tragedy continues today. The colonial consciousness of Indian intellectuals prevents them from seeing that they reproduce a silly theological story about the corrupting influence of humanity on religion as though it were scientific truth. If we really want to understand the Gujarat riots and similar horrific events, we first need to get rid of such common-sense clichés from the West.

  • Does any emic Indian genuinely believe that- ‘ the use of religion for political ends is evil and provokes violence is an old cliché from Christianity?’

    I’m a Tamil Hindu- our literature shows religion being instrumentalized for violent political ends long before Christianity was known to us.

    I’ve translated some sermons by Gujerati and Hindi speaking Jain shravaks- they show that Ashoka himself indulged in this and quote traditional sources re. political instrumentalization of internecine sectarian violence.

    In Urdu and Persian, the case is more dramatic yet with Shia-Sunni violence being linked to the rise and fall of the Sayyad bros. and inter Sunni Madhvi & Muhammadiya violence being linked to the vagaries of dynastic politics.
    What you describe and attribute to Christendom seems more explicit in Vernacular Indian tradition- the hypocritical mullah or pundit, the cruel tyrant seeking to kill off his brother by accusing him of being heterodox- this story is as old as the hills and deeply embedded in our culture. It is less of a feature in the West because they had primogeniture and monogamy so no Aurangazeb could usurp the throne from a Dara Shikoh on a religious pretext.

    It may be that some English speaking intellectuals have, in recent years, started to espouse a Eurocentric theory but my guess is that they are only doing so as part of a Preference falsification based Credentialist Availability Cascade which cashes out as ‘all is fault of British divide & rule ‘ or else (Modi quoting Savarkar’s study of the Mutiny) ‘Hindus & Muslims were united till Indian National Congress came along and divided them.’

    If it is really true that ‘In the process of colonial education, Indian intellectuals adopted this theological story from their colonial masters as an account about the ‘communal violence’ inherent in Indian society’ then the question arises as to why these indian ‘intellectuals’ didn’t simply convert to Christianity? What perversity or congenital defect in the Indian psyche caused them to adopt one theological story of no great utility or obvious truth value while continuing to reject other theological stories promising far greater theological rewards?