Communalism is a belief that because a group of people follow a particular religion, they also must have a common social, political and economic interest. It arises in a society when a particular religious group tries to promote its own interests at the expense of others. There are three stages (degrees), discernible in the development of communalism:

  • Mild: People following the same religion have similar interests
  • Moderate: Dissimilarity of interests between people of different religions
  • Extreme: Interests of people following different religions are antagonistic to each other, based on fear and hatred of other religions.

Factors for the Growth of Communalism in India

  • Historic: British Policy of “Divide and Rule”, revivalist movements etc.
  • Political: Divisive vote bank politics that makes use of religious and cultural differences for political gains.
  • Economic: Poverty, unemployment, and lopsided development aggravate a sense of relative deprivation.
  • Legal: Delayed justice due to poor law and order enforcement by authorities.
  • Social: Spread of fake news and hate messages on social media platforms.
  • Administrative: Srikrishna Commission on Mumbai riots (1992-93), held the failure of state administration as the primary reason behind the situation.

Evolution of Communalism in India


Phase one: After the revolt of 1857 British tried to divide Indians on religious lines to do so they promoted Muslims against the Indian national congress.

This can be seen in Opposition to INC by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan under the patronage of the British.

He decided to support British causes and opposed the functioning of the Indian National Congress and deemed it a pro-Hindu party, which was against Muslim interests.

Eventually, prominent Muslims like Aga Khan, Nawab Moshin-ul-Mulk etc. founded the All India Muslim League, to consolidate Muslim interests.

One of its major objectives was to keep the emerging intelligentsia among Muslims from joining the Congress.

Simultaneously, Hindu communalism was also being born. It manifested in Hindu leaders disseminating notions of tyrannical Muslim rule, espousing the language issue and giving it a communal twist.

They declared Urdu to be the language of the Muslims and Hindi of Hindus.

Further, anti-cow slaughter propagation was undertaken in the 1890s and it was primarily directed against Muslims. o Eventually organizations like the Punjab Hindu Sabha (1909), All India Hindu Mahasabha (1st session in 1915), etc. were founded.

Phase two

Post-1937, India witnessed extreme communalism based on the politics of fear, psychosis and irrationality. During this phase, the interests of Hindus and Muslims were deemed to be permanently in conflict. 

Communalism acquired a popular base among urban lower middle-class groups and mass movements around aggressive, extremist communal politics emerged.

Communalism also became the only political recourse of colonial authorities and their policy of divide and rule.

During the period, M.A. Jinnah declared that ‘Muslims should organize themselves, stand united and should press every reasonable point for the protection of their community.’

He eventually stated that Muslims would be suppressed under the Hindu-dominated Congress after the British left India and thus, the only recourse would be a separate state for Muslims i.e. creation of Pakistan.

Hindu communalism too did not lag behind. The Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), began propagating extreme communalism.

They demanded that the non-Hindu groups of India adopt the Hindu culture and language and hold the Hindu religion in reverence.

They too espoused that Hindus and Muslims are two separate social and political entities with opposing interests.

Reasons for the persistence of communalism in the post-independence period

  • Slow development of the economy
  • Improper cultural synthesis
  • Perceived or relative deprivation
  • Regional or social imbalance in development
  • Political mobilization in the age of democracy has led to the consolidation of communal sentiments.

Post-independence communal violence outbreaks include the following

  • Anti-Sikh riots (1984): Sikhs in large numbers were murdered by mobs post-assassination of the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi.
  • Issue of Kashmiri Hindu pundits (1989): Spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Kashmir valley led to mass killing and a large-scale exodus of Kashmiri pundits during 1989- 90. The region continues to be threatened by communal violence.
  • Babri Masjid incident (1992): On December 1992, a large crowd of Hindu kar sevaks demolished the 16th century Babri masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh claiming the site to be Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Ram). This led to months of inter-communal rioting between the Hindus and Muslims resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people.
  • Godhra Riots (2002): In February 2002, four coaches of the Sabarmati Express were set on fire. The passengers, predominantly Hindu pilgrims were returning from Ayodhya after a religious ceremony at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. Following the attacks, several Hindu groups declared state-wide bandh in Gujarat and started brutally attacking Muslim colonies. This went on for months post-Godhra incident, resulting in the death and displacement of thousands of Muslims.
  • Assam violence (2012): There were frequent clashes between the Bodos and Bengali speaking Muslims due to increased competition for livelihood, land and political power. In 2012, one such outbreak escalated into a riot in Kokhrajhar, when unidentified miscreants killed four Bodo youths at Joypur. This was followed by retaliatory attacks on local Muslims killing two and injuring several of them. Almost 80 people were killed, most of whom were Bengali Muslims and some Bodos. Approximately, 400,000 people were displaced to makeshift camps.
  • Muzzafarnagar Riots (2013): The clashes between the Hindu Jats and Muslim communities in Muzaffarnagar, UP resulted in at least 62 deaths, injured 93 people and left more than 50,000 displaced. The riot has been described as “the worst violence in Uttar Pradesh in recent history”, with the army being deployed in the state for the first time in the last 20 years.

Recent events of Communalism

  • Cow vigilantism
  • Ramanavami Processions in Bihar and Bengal
  • Ghar Vapsi programmes
  • Public oaths to buycott a group
  • Love jihad
  • Delhi riots 2020
  • Karnataka hijab issue

Impact of Communalism on Indian Society

  • It disrupts the social fabric and threatens the unity and diversity of our nation.
  • Causes economic loss due to damage to life and property during communal riots.
  • Created barriers to development due to loss of mutual trust and social capital.
  • It hurts the country’s image as reflected in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s designation of India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’.

Thus, the need of the hour exists to undertake immediate measures in terms of reforming the criminal justice system, ensuring adequate representation of minorities and promoting value education.

Governments Initiatives for Communal Harmony

The Government has taken initiatives to promote communal harmony. These include

  • National Integration Council, comprising prominent members of various sections of society, besides several union ministers and chief ministers of states, has been meeting regularly, to discuss and sort out the issues of discord.
  • National Foundation for Communal Harmony promotes communal harmony, strengthens national integration and fosters the spirit of unity in diversity through collaborative social action, and awareness programs, reaches out to the victims of violence, especially children, and encourages interfaith dialogue for India’s Shared Security, Peace & Prosperity.
  • Guidelines for maintenance of communal harmony: According to it if due vigilance is maintained, careful planning done and preparatory measures put in place, many possible incidents of communal violence can be pre-empted and prevented; and, wherever, despite this, communal violence does occur, it can be contained effectively, and much human suffering avoided, if it is tackled with promptness, grit and determination.
  • Legislations
    • The Religious Institutions (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1988 to maintain the sanctity of religious places and to prevent their misuse for political, criminal, subversive or communal purposes.
    • Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991 to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th of August 1947.


  • Promote the free exchange of views and opinions between the two communities. Such inter-group communication is key for preventing communal violence.
  • Community policing should be encouraged, making the community the first line of defence.
  • District Peace Committees/Integration Councils to identify local problems with the potential to degenerate into communal conflicts and suggest means to deal with them at the earliest.
  • Sensitisation of police and administrative machinery to deal with such situations in a sensitive manner. The guilty should be brought to the law.
  • Strengthening existing provisions of the Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code to:
  • Enhanced punishments for communal offences.
  • Setting up of special courts for expeditious trial of cases related to communal violence.
  • Giving powers of remand to Executive Magistrates in cases of communal offences.
  • Prescription of norms for relief and rehabilitation.

Difference between Fundamentalism and Communalism

Fundamentalism is a type of conservative religious movement, characterized by strict conformity to the sacred texts. While communalism is a religious political movement that attempts to incite strife between people that identify with different communities.

It is revivalist in nature. E.g., Islamic StateIt aims to mobilize people on religious identities to capture political power. Muslim League during India’s Independence struggle.
It may/may not focus on the revival of the original text.  It is used to fulfil social, economic and political aspirations of a community or social groups. E.g., Formation of Hindu Mahasabha.
It aims to dispense with “impurities” in the practice of religion which have developed in due course of time. E.g., Arya SamajE.g., Communal tendencies witnessed in the Muzaffarpur riot.
E.g., Current ruling dispensation in Iran.E.g., the Current ruling dispensation in Iran.

Thus, when fundamentalism becomes narrow and intolerant, communal violence may be a possible outcome.

Survey on Religious Attitudes in India

Pew Research Centre, a non-profit organisation based in Washington DC, conducted a survey on religious attitudes in India.

Key findings of the survey:

Religious freedom: People in all six major religious groups overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths, and most say that people of other faiths also are very free to practice their own religion.

Religious tolerance: Most people believe that respecting all religions is not only an important part of their religion but also very important to be a true Indian.

Religious segregation: Indians’ commitment to tolerance is accompanied by a strong preference for keeping religious communities segregated. Most of them said they do not have much in common with members of other religious groups, and the majority of people in the six major groups say their close friends come mainly or entirely from their own religious community.

National Identity: Nearly two-thirds of Hindus (64%) say it is very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian. Among Hindus who say it is very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian, 80% also say it is very important to speak Hindi to be truly Indian.

Dietary laws are central to Indians’ religious identity: The majority of Hindus and Muslims say that following customary dietary laws (Hindus can’t eat beef and muslins can’t pork) are central to their religious identity.

Religion-based national identity and customary dietary laws are less prevalent in South India,

Possible Consequences of these religious attitudes

Communalism: These attitudes will lead to a belief that People belonging to different religions would have different social, political and economic interests.

Ethno-Nationalism: Linking religion with national identity results in ethnocentric nationalism. Indian nationalism is not based on common religion, language or ethnicity. This kind of ethnic nationalism may lead to the development of tendencies like Anti-globalisation, Xenophobia and discrimination of Minority religions etc.

Infringement of Individual rights: Individuals’ choices of food and marriage (Interfaith) will be infringed upon.

Fundamentalism: These attitudes may result in Fundamentalism or religious revivalism. Fundamentalists believe that all other aspects of life- social, political, cultural and economic should be governed by religious doctrines. It is against reason, rationality, humanism and secularism.

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