Major General Sir William Henry Sleeman, soldier and administrator of the British Raj, is best known for his suppression in the 1830s of organized criminal gangs known as Thugs. He writes, in History of the Thugs or Phansigars of India that in an interaction between a Thug and a British superintendent, the latter was mystified by the apparently contradictory beliefs of a Thug who claimed at once to be Muslim and a devotee of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of fortune.
Clearly, accounts such as these bear out the theory that singular identities were foist upon the inhabitants of the Subcontinent by the colonial Raj, to divide, to manage and to rule. This had huge sociological consequences for the inhabitants of undivided India.
We could say that religious polarisation in the Subcontinent has been both a product of colonialism, and in its extreme form, a reaction to it.
If you look at the documentation from early colonial rule, you can see how religion, caste and law are much less codified and rigid than what they later became as a result of colonial modernity.
The British built their classification from concepts that already existed, they derived their legitimacy from pre-existing modes of authority in order to exploit economically and administer cheaply. Stringent binaries in caste, custom and religion, language and other spheres of civil societies deepened the division among peoples which not only helped in administration but also perfectly aligned with the ‘divide and rule’ policy, especially after the suppression of the Indian mutiny of 1857. Colonial modernity consciously elevated the status of scriptures to fix the codes and rules that govern people of different religions rather than incorporating the fluidity of their ancient belief systems.
The extremist ideologies which emerged as a counter to colonialism viewed religion as not just a moral order but also a social order. The alienation under colonial rule of complex and multiple identities, made the yearning for a sense of belonging and a singular sense of identity even stronger and resulted in the birth of extremist ideologies that did not exist before. “Hindutva”, published in 1923, is one such text that highlights how politics is a reflection of the historical and religious discourse in the Subcontinent. For Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the founder of Hindutva, it was not only the revival of religion but a civilisation and a “history in full”. Savarkar evokes the Vedic past and advocates a reclamation of the land for those who he believes deserve it. Hindutva can therefore be seen as an act of colonial struggle through which Savarkar not only reclaims and rewrites the glorious past but also creates hope for an exclusive India for the future. This controversial text formed the basis of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party in India, and explains the xenophobia and extremism prevalent in India today and before the Partition.
The same tools of analysis can be employed to understand Pan-Islamism and extremist Muslim ideologies. Extremist ideologies and nationalism derive their legitimacy from evoking a glorious historical past and present the possibility of a glorious future. Their role in communal divisions and consequent communal violence cannot be discounted. Pan-Islamic reformists – such as Shah Wali Ullah, Syed Ahmed Barelvi and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan – and poets such as Muhammad Iqbal contributed to the creation of the Two Nation Theory as a vision for the future. The Two Nation Theory was a successful initiative for the Partition movement but history has proved the inadequacy of the concept in application in pluralistic modern nation states, especially after the independence of Bangladesh. Socio-economic discrimination, till date, on the basis of class, language, ethnicity, and caste points to the conclusion that these ideologies were mere tools of high politics to sharpen the communal divide. Ethnic oppresion, poverty, economic deprivation, under-representation of ethnic groups, the revision of history, vandalisation of historical artifacts, and caste based discrimination on a daily basis negates the golden future promised by the ideologues of both India and Pakistan.
A look at the historical events preceding the Partition of the Subcontinent, shows that an increase in communal violence is directly proportional to the increase in advocacy of such ideologies by prominent leaders. Communal violence has a ‘functional utility’ guided by political motivations. The violent mobilisations such as those that happened after the defeat of the Muslim League in the 1937 elections, the 1942 Quit India Movement led by Congress, Great Calcutta Killings preceded by extremist statements by Liaquat Ali Khan, Direct Action Day on August 16 ordered by Mr. M. A. Jinnah or the few days preceding the actual Partition, prove this fact. At all these junctures, the role of high politics cannot be denied in the horrific ethnic cleansing and violence that took place and scarred the psyche of the Subcontinent for years to come.
An analysis of the history of the Subcontinent leads one to the inevitable conclusion that extremism is a result of high politics rather than communities of people finding it impossible to co-exist with one another as they had done for centuries.
Time has proved that extremist ideologies and religious nationalism have failed to live up to the promise of a future of peace and prosperity. Religious nationalism is socially divisive rather than cohesive. The state, its institutions and politicians should view their citizens on the basis of their human rights as opposed to through an obsolete lens of religion-based citizenship. This divisive ideology must, if we are to prosper and be peaceful, be thrown in the dustbin of history.