Colonialism and its role in Hindu-Muslim identity formation in India

Article by Feeza Vasudeva.


The article highlights the ways in which Hindu and Muslim communal conflicts are a result of colonial governmental policies and practices. To do so, the article presents some of the practices that have helped in cementing the identity differences, thereby driving communalism in India. The focus here is on practices such as knowledge formation vis-à-vis reshaping and re-interpreting India history in order to fuel the communal rival. This re-interpretation has resulted in reducing the historiography of India into three distinct ages where the medieval ages or dark ages correspond to Muslim domination and the age of British rule has been interpreted as the modern age. Similarly, the article also seeks to highlight how the identity formation took place through the domain of law, where inter-community identity differences were suppressed and inter-community differences were leveraged. Understanding identity formation through colonial policies and practices becomes essential because they have a direct bearing on Hindu-Muslim communal tension that is visible in Indian society today.

Keywords: colonialism, communalism, Hindu-Muslim conflict, knowledge formation
Header image “Peinture murale (Palais du Fort Meherangarh, Jodhpur)” by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


India is characterized by the diversity of religions and all of them have not always existed in unity. There have been competing claims and ideologies that have led to large scale violence. Many of these religious identities have been shaped by colonial experience that lasted for more than two centuries. But for the purpose of this article, our focus is on the Hindu-Muslim conflict.  The focus on the Hindu-Muslims conflict does not necessitate that religious violence and colonial legacy have not affected the other parts of the country. However, all other conflicts have stayed region specific. The Hindu-Sikh conflict has been largely confined to Northern India. The violence against and by Kashmiri Muslims does not spill over to the Indian Muslims in other parts. Similarly, caste or Jati violence has not had the power to spillover and affect the entire nation. When Kashmiri Pandits or Brahmins were persecuted or when the Brahmins were kicked out of the Southern state of Tamil Nadu, the rest of India continued with its daily life. However, the Hindu-Muslim cleavage is the conflict that has the potential to rip India apart. This is partly because India is home to the third largest Muslim population in the world and also the fact that the Muslim population is spread throughout the country and not restricted to specific places.


Colonialism and Communalism

If we focus on pre-colonial period historiography of religious and communal conflict in India, we get diverse accounts. Histories debate whether prior to colonial knowledge formation, there even existed “anything that could be called Hindu or Muslim communal identities, and, a fortiori, on whether or not Hindu-Muslim conflict was endemic” (Brass 2011, 25). For some like Gyanendra Pandey, communalism is understood as “organized political movements based on the proclaimed interests of a religious community, usually in response to…another religious community” (Pandey 2006, 6). However, despite obvious religious characteristics, the term is never applied to feudal Europe or even pre-capitalist societies. Thus, the communal dimension reflects a form of colonial knowledge which shapes “the analysis of social and political conflict in the ‘backward’ parts of the colonial and post-colonial world, and then read back by some analysts as a quality that must have existed in these societies long before the colonial intervention” (Pandey 2006, 7). It becomes a way of inscribing what colonists have understood to be a rudimentary tenant of Indian society – religious bigotry – while simultaneously depriving them of history and agency.

However, there are others like Christopher Bayly (1985) who follow the continuity theory. According to the continuity theory, there existed religious strife between Hindus and Muslims prior to colonial rule. Moreover, not only was their religious strife but it was an endemic feature of pre-modern Indian society. Paul Brass argues against this idea, according to whom the divide is purely a ‘modern construction’. He says,

The consolidation of the heterogeneous Hindu and Muslim groupings on the subcontinent and the politicization of the differences between them are overwhelmingly a modern phenomenon deeply connected with the striving for control over the modern state apparatus, involving a claim to rightful inheritance on the part of Hindu and to self-determination on the part of Muslim (Brass 2011, 25).

The consolidation of Hindu-Muslim identities as well consciousness and conflicts, thus have an imprint of colonial modernity in which, either by politics of divide and rule or through categorization, classification and numbering have shaped and affected the Indian social domain ever since. This has also been shaped by the reading of Indian history as undertaken by the colonial powers. The reading of Indian history has been illustrated in a periodization that has occurred in terms of European experience. The tripartite division of history has been reduced to the period of the classical age or ancient history followed by the medieval period that has been shaped by the rule of Muslims. This was the dark age of Indian civilization according to the standard textbook that I read while I was growing up. The dark age of history is followed by modern history. Thus, according to Pandey, this linear history as ‘inscribed’ by the colonial role uses religious categories that differentiate between three periods of history – the Hindu classical age or age of glory/the Muslim dark age/the British renaissance (Pandey 2006, 23-34). This also hollows out history from the point of view of the political experience of the people.

The specific reading and representation of Indian history are significant because it gained prominence not only in Indian nationalism but also in postcolonial militant Hindu nationalism.  Regarding the postcolonial situation, Hansen writes, “It often has been assumed that the ‘foreignness’ of Muslim rulers was a liability, and that legitimacy only could be established during periods of ‘indigenized’ or ‘tolerant’ rule…this perspective…… originates in efforts to portray British rule as saving India from the despotism of a corrupt and decadent Muslim elite” (Hansen 2005, 173).

The narrative of colonial rule is also tied up with changing historical perceptions and how regional antagonisms came to be applied to the county as a whole, transcending the boundaries of space and time.  Let me cite one example here – In 1809, Hindu-Muslim riots occurred in the Holy city of Banaras wherein 28 people died and 70 were wounded. However, in the District  Gazette in 1907, this number was inflated to hundreds. In addition, the site of the riot was changed from the outer city to the center of the city. The reason for the conflict was changed from sacrilege of an idol to a mosque that was built in 17th C by Aurangzeb – a Muslim Mughal ruler. The rebuilding of the narrative of the Banaras riots is just an example of the construction of a master narrative on which all the peculiarities and evaluations of communal violence could be inscribed. This narrative was beyond temporality and spatial division. Within this division, “any riot can stand in for another, and all that can be usefully compared is the magnitude of violence—thus a description of the ‘first’ outbreak indicates the character of all subsequent strife, such that Mubarakpur in 1813 = Shahabad in 1917 = Bombay in 1893” (Pandey 2006, 63). Moreover, this space was made of places and communities that were prone to “dacoity and rioting,” “fires of religious animosity,” and “indiscriminate affrays”.


Identity Formation vis-à-vis law

The illusion of identity was further established through the means of the law, as well as the establishment of pan-India legal institutions and the creation of an Indian legal subject. This can be asserted from the fact that when the British first came to India, they only had minimal knowledge of the legal environment within India but they left with a substantial corpus of legal works which had to help them structure and govern the Indian subject. Law was one of their primary medium to produce and re-produce fixed and essentialist categories.

Pre-colonial India was characterized by multiplicities of identities based on castes, tribes, religions, family groupings. This heterogeneity of population was familiar within the notion of authority but not legality as characterized by European tradition. On their arrival and many years, the British did allow communities to follow indigenous law but it was slowly but surely given a fixed character. In this regard, Michael R. Anderson writes,

Indigenous norms comprised ‘the laws of the Koran with respect to Muhammadans’, and the laws of the Brahmanic ’ Shasters’ with respect to Hindus. Although the courts followed British models of procedure and adjudication, the plan provided for maulavis and pandits to advise the courts on matters of Islamic and Hindu law, respectively. By the early nineteenth century, the system of courts had been expanded, a new legal profession had been established, and a growing body of statute and court practice extended the influence of the colonial state (Anderson 1996, 5).

By the 19th century, the practice of British with regards to indigenous law changed and they aimed to codify and create a law of the land. This process was tied with the British attempt to monopolize violence as well as its representation in Indian society, whereby the British sovereignty over violence was sought to be made indivisible. The Company-State was portrayed as both universal as well as neutral, thereby seemingly trying to construct in India history a ‘universal legal subject’ (Hansen 2005). Not only that, Anderson writes but, “‘The rule of law’ was a common piece of the ideological baggage that linked law to public sentiments as well as a political order. Law was more than an arm of sovereignty: it was employed as a proto-sociology that could guide policy” (Anderson 1996,10).

It was vis-à-vis rule of law, that various categories such as Muslims took on an essentialist character and fixity, something that was not common before. Each individual made was made to connect with state-enforced religious grouping. The identities that were ambiguous or localized were able to gain limited recognition and thus were forced to present themselves as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’. Diversity of varied social group was made to be condensed in these two categories. Anderson further writes,

The presumption that a single set of legal rules could apply to all persons professing adherence to Islam violated both Islamic theory and South Asian practice. Hastings had subsumed all indigenous legal arrangements under two categories: Hindu (earlier, Gentoo), and Muslim (Muhammadan)32. From the outset, this binary categorization was inadequate to contain the diversity of legal life on the subcontinent. Not only did it fail to acknowledge the distinction between Shi’i and Sunni, and the differences among the schools within each; it also failed to address adequately the practices and beliefs of the many groups that adopted an eclectic approach to Islam and various forms of Hinduism.  (Anderson 1996, 11).



The aim of the article was to highlight that essentialist identities such as that of Hindu and Muslim are not always fixed in character. Rather, they have been shaped through the historical processes including different practices and policies followed during the long history of British rule in India. These practices have led to the consolidation of Hindu-Muslim identities as well as consciousness and conflicts. Thus, what we see is an imprint of colonial modernity in which, either by politics of divide and rule or through categorization, classification, and institutionalization that have shaped and affected the Indian social domain ever since. Moreover, these identities have carried violence with them that has spilled over the contemporary Indian society in such a way that following Arjun Appadurai (2006), we can say that violence not only became a product of “antagonistic identities,” violence was one of the ways in which illusion of fixed identity was established.  Eventually, it is this idea of fixed and antagonistic identities that have shaped not the colonial but contemporary modern politics as well.




Anderson, Michael R., and France) Femmes sous lois musulmanes (Grabels. Islamic law and the colonial encounter in British India. Femmes sous lois musulmanes, 1996

Appadurai, Arjun. Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Duke University Press, 2006

Bayly, Christopher A. “The Pre-history of ‘; Communalism’? Religious Conflict in India, 1700–1860.” Modern Asian Studies19.2 (1985): 177-203.

Brass, Paul R. The production of Hindu-Muslim violence in contemporary India. University of Washington Press, 2011

Hansen, Thomas Blom. “Sovereigns beyond the state: on legality and authority in urban India.” Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, migrants, and states in the postcolonial world (2005): 169-191

Pandey, Gyanendra. The construction of communalism in colonial North India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006