Hindu-Muslim conflict in India

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


September 8, 2022

M Ali Siddiqi describes a never-ending rivalry

The recent spike in conflict between Muslims and Hindus in India has gained international attention compelling many human rights groups to call for censuring the BJP government for exacerbating the communal tensions between the two communities. India is a vast country that is beset by ethnic, linguistic and religious rivalries but the Hindu-Muslim conflict has proved to be deadliest of its nature and has become an international cause of concern. The composition of the Indian state comprises of much noted 2,000-odd castes, eight major religions, 15-odd languages spoken in various dialects in 22 states and nine union territories along with a substantial number of tribes and sects. The very nature of the Indian state is prone to consistent break-out of internecine conflicts that cannot be ignored anymore due to their severity affecting lives of millions of people.

Since quite some time three ethnic or religious conflicts have stood out of which two occurred in the states of Assam and Punjab but another, more widely known Hindu-Muslim conflict, continues to persist. The Assam problem is primarily ethnic, the Punjab problem is based on both religious and regional conflicts while the Hindu-Muslim problem is predominantly religious. The Hindu-Muslim conflict carries in its wake deep-rooted sentiment of hatred that the majority Hindu community is bent upon pursuing on the expense of persecuting the Muslims to the degree that they face existential threat and have become extremely fearful about their future. This has turned out to be a serious issue for the second largest community of India that finds it very difficult to live normal lives.

It is widely acknowledged that of all the religious and ethnic issues in contemporary India, history has cast its deepest shadow on Hindu-Muslim relations. The deep problems between Hindu and Muslim communities emerged right after the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 with the inception of new Muslim state Pakistan where a large number of Muslims living in India migrated. The result was that the whole process of ghastly communal violence though almost as many Muslims as there were in the new constituted Pakistan, for various reasons, stayed in India. Over the course of time, it was witnessed that the partition failed to solve the knotty Hindu-Muslim problem but instead complicated the matters.

The negative effect of partition was cast on Muslims of India who became the butt of Hindu hatred and their situation badly deteriorated. They were blamed for the division of the country, their leadership had left and their power was further weakened by the removal of all Muslim-majority areas except Kashmir. Most of all, the conflict between India and Pakistan kept the roots of the communal tension perpetually alive and pushed Muslims into the unfortunate situation of defending their loyalty to India. Even 36 years after independence, the problem has not been overcome; Hindi-Muslim riots have in fact increased in the last few years. Though many blame the Muslims for strict adherence to their specific religio-cultural legacy and steadfastly refusing to assimilate with other communities yet the Muslims emphasise that it is essentially the Hindu community that shuns any assimilation under its rigid caste system.

The problems also exist within the Muslim community that still considers itself as part of the wider Muslim ummah, an approach that is an anathema to the majority Hindu community. Muslims are in a majority in one state and constitute 13.5 to 24 per cent population in five states. Many cultural differences exist among them as only 45 per cent speak Urdu and there are caste and sect divisions. It is estimated that as many as 73 per cent live in villages; only 27 per cent are resident of urban areas. This is particularly important because after 1947 the Hindu-Muslim riots occurred for the most part, in urban centers. Most of these towns are modernizing, middle-size towns such as Aligarh, Moradabad, Meerut, Ranchi, Baroda, Hyderabad and Trivandrum. The communal fury, whenever it has erupted, has remained confined to the older parts of the cities where Muslims live and villages have remained largely undisturbed. It is also known that acute communal consciousness occurs largely in the middle class; its most fertile bases lie in the lower middle classes of growing middle size towns of sizeable Muslim populations.

It has become very obvious that discrimination exists at other levels in other parts of the country. The major contentious points include decline in the status of Urdu in north India, widespread use of Hindu mythologies and symbols in school textbooks and continuing controversy over the foremost educational institution of Muslims, the Aligarh University, that have done much to provoke Muslim fears. Evidence that the police and administrative machinery in recent riots have sided with violent Hindus has further deepened widespread feelings of discrimination. It is also acknowledged that the character of electoral politics have made matters worse and it this context it is noted that even the Congress Party, professedly secular, has, since independence, developed on dualistic character trying to curry favour with the majority community at the expense of Muslims.

The seeds of communalism were evidently sown by the founding leadership of independent India and its most vocal proponent was Sardar Vallabhhai Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, and was more pronounced at the provincial level. Gradually, the secular strains of Congress rule was take over by the new generation of leaders, whose power and mobilization is based less on secularism or socio-economic programmes and more on exploiting caste and religious divisions at the local levels. Directly contrary to the secular policies, the new leadership, particularly BJP led by an arch-communalist Narendra Modi, has clearly followed the divisive potential and their political ascendancy is proof enough of deep divide between the communities. This ultra-rightist mode of realpolitik has been adopted by all state and local leadership that finds it as a suitable method of gaining political advantage. The most glaring proof of the extremely high recent incidence of Hindu-Muslim riots has a good deal to do with this new phenomenon.

The problem is exacerbated due to the presence of intense mutual distrust and this difficulty is certainly going to generate controversy and defeats the very purpose. Keeping in view the gradually exacerbating situation many observers suggest further decentralisation of power to states and consider it to be of considerable help. A conscious attempt is urgently needed to be made to improve the educational attainment and economic level of the Muslims whose socio-economic backwardness is palpably felt and is responsible for their unfair treatment. Though the Indian ruling class emphasises that special educational privileges are constitutionally sanctioned but they ought to be worked on with the intention to bring them at par with the Hindu community.

The most important factor is that the BJP government should go an extra mile to allay the apprehensions of the Muslim community by better representing Muslims in the police and paramilitary forces. It should also stop pursuing policies aimed at persecuting Muslims and treating them as third-rate citizens. It should radically alter its image of being the religious saviours of Hindus and shun the narrow path of exploiting the sentiments of Hindu community to obtain electoral advantages. A huge effort of political and social reconstruction is required aimed at ensuring that the Muslims are equal in status to any other community in the country and that the religious rights of the Muslims are to be protected without any constraints. TW


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