Book Review- Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus & Muslims in India

ISSSP Reflections No. 12, April 4, 2014

Author: Mr. S Gopal


Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India by Ashutosh Varshney

 Yale University Press, 2003

Book CoverEthnic Conflict and Civic Life – Hindus and Muslims in India is an extremely well researched book on communal conflicts in India. It is a must read for all police officers who may have to deal with communal conflicts at some point of time in their career. It is also a useful read for academicians specialising in societal conflicts including terrorism in India. The book makes some interesting  analysis on communal strife or the absence of it in 3 pairs of cities – Aligarh and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Calicut in Kerala, Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh and Ahmedabad  and Surat in Gujarat. In spite of having a similar mix of Hindu and Muslim population, one in each pair enjoyed communal peace while the other was racked by communal strife.

Varshney focuses on this issue during the British rule. He notes that the myth of primordial antagonism between Hindus and Muslims was spread by the British in their pursuit of the ‘Divide and Rule Policy’ even when it was evident that the two communities had peacefully coexisted for long. He highlights that the pre-existing local networks of civic engagement between the two communities has been the single most important and proximate cause for peace.

Hindu-Muslim Violence: An Urban Phenomenon

By providing persuasive statistics, the author finds the answer to peaceful cities in the existence of strong civic institutions- trade unions, professional associations that go beyond communal divide. He points out that the decline of civic institutions had a huge impact on communal strife in Ahmedabad. He deftly points out that ethnic violence on the whole, tends to be highly localised and is not spread across the length and breadth of the country. More importantly, he refers to the statistical fact that till date, almost 96 % of all deaths in communal riots in India took place in cities.

Undoubtedly, the associational form of interaction between the two communities are far more important, in order to withstand national level exogenous shocks caused by the 1947 partition of India or the Babri Masjid demolition. To illustrate, in Surat, the preexisting social networks accounted for variance in violence in the city despite the old city witnessing some degree of violence in the form of arson and looting but no serious injuries or deaths. In contrast, the shanty towns where migrant workers lived after long hours of work did not have any social network comprising both communities and consequently rioting became rampant leading to loss of life and numerous injuries.

The following 8 cities which have been riot prone, recorded the highest number of deaths.

Figures of Death (1950-95)


Number of Deaths











Vadodara (Baroda)






The statistics recorded in the book showcase some very interesting observations, such as the follows:

1. Gujarat is the worst state for Hindu Muslim relations.

2. Three towns Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Godhra are the most vulnerable towns in Gujarat. These towns were the worst affected in March and April 2002. These cities have long standing Hindu-Muslim linkages of business, politics or profession and these quotidian linkages insulated themselves from the riots. The book emphasises on the role of the civil society has in forming these linkages. In order to contain the virus of communal riots, Hindus and Muslims have to be integrated in civic organisations including political parties. An integrated organisational and civic life makes the state behave much better than intellectual and political exhortations. The state otherwise tends to act in a politically strategic way and not in a legally prudent manner.

The author makes an interesting observation that the share of villages in communal rioting is quite small. Between 1950 and 1995, rural India where 2/3rd of India lives, accounted for less than 4 % of deaths in communal violence. Thus, Hindu-Muslim violence is essentially an urban phenomenon. Even among the cities, only 8 cities- Ahmedabad, Bombay, Aligarh, Hyderabad, Meerut, Baroda, Calcutta and Delhi account for a very large proportion of communal violence in the country. Two cities, Ahmedabad and Vadodara account for nearly 80% of the total deaths in the state. 80% of all deaths in Andhra Pradesh occurred in Hyderabad. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that India’s Hindu-Muslim violence is city specific.

Rise of Hindu Nationalism

Another important point worth noting is the steady rise of Hindu Nationalism, especially after the year 1989. At no point before 1989 did Hindu nationalists receive 1/10th of the national voting share. While in 1952, the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) share of national votes had been 3.1% with only 3 seats in the Lok Sabha. However, the figures in 1999 rose to 23.8 % of the voting share and 182 seats in Lok Sabha.

Four specific political factors were responsible for the rise of BJP and Hindu Nationalism in the 1980s, specifically, the rise of separatist movements in the 1980s, institutional decay of the Congress party, an absence of other centrist alternatives and lastly, opportunistic twisting of secular principles in Indian politics. Post-independence, 1980s saw mainstream Indian politics profoundly influenced by secessionary politics. Punjab and Kashmir witnessed the eruption of insurgencies in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Advent of BJP to power in 1998 showed that Hindu Nationalism which had been steadily rising in the consciousness of many Indians had finally managed to hold its own ground against secularism as an ideology. However, in 1998 and 1999 BJP had to team up with other parties, many of which were based on support among under privileged castes and identified themselves with caste injustice. Owing to BJP’s need to ally with these parties in order retain power; Hindu nationalism had to compromise their ideology on issues such as the building of temple in Ayodhya, a common civil code, no special status for J&K, elimination of minority commission etc.

The biggest obstacle to BJP’s rise to preeminence in the Indian polity is the rising influence of other backward classes (OBC) which adds to about 52% of India. BJP has now moved to an ideologically centre right position which in many ways focuses on encouraging development for maintaining the integrity of India as a nation.

Perceptions about communalism differ between North and South India. Northern states, especially Bihar and UP are worst affected by communalism. The West Indian state of Gujarat has the highest per capita communalism-related deaths. With the exception of Hyderabad city, South India does not have such high number of communal riots or even deaths per capita.

Aligarh and Calicut

Aligarh Muslim University was the intellectual centre of movement that led to the partition in 1947 and the birth of Pakistan. Even after 1947, it continued to be the centre of higher education for Muslims in northern India. Calicut is the center for culture and education for Kerala Muslims. It is the headquarters of several leading Muslim institutions and organisations. The Muslim League, the Muslim educational society, the Muslim service society and Farook College, the first Muslim college in Kerala was first founded in Calicut. The Calicut University was especially set up to make higher education accessible to Muslims of the area. Starting in the 1970s, both cities witnessed the rise of a Muslim middle class.

A deep inter-communal civic engagement characterises the life in Calicut. Neighbourhoods are remarkably integrated and so is the city’s business and professional life. In Aligarh, Hindu-Muslim civic engagement is minimal. Calicut has not had a single communal riot in a century, although it came close to breaking communal harmony during the so-called Malabar rebellion in 1921. A thick civic engagement between Hindus and Muslims is evident in Calicut. The BJP is a marginal political entity in Calicut. Historically, caste injustice within Hindu society rather than communal antagonism marks the politics in Kerala.

In contrast, Aligarh witnessed furious communal trouble with horrendous violence after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In Calicut, peace committees with politicians of all parties helped in diffusing tension during difficult years between 1989 and 1992. Aligarh had intra-communal rather than inter communal peace committees. Communalism in Kerala implies high regard for one’s community and not hatred for another community.

Unfortunately, however, a radical Islamic group did indeed emerge in Kerala. The Islamic Seva Sangh (ISS) was started by a fire brand purist who confronted the government and the Hindu community. Even after so many years of its formation, its focus on Ayodhya and other issues, ISS and its political arm People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has minimal presence and influence.

Statistically, nearly 83% of Hindus and Muslims often eat together in social settings as compared to 54% in Aligarh. About 90% of Hindus and Muslims in Kerala report that their children play together while in Aligarh only 42 % report so.  While 84 % Hindus and Muslims visit each other in Calicut, only 60 % do so in Aligarh and that not occasionally. In Calicut, there are plenty of associations of all kinds ranging from business, labor, professional, social, theatre, film, sports, art and reading. Citizens of Calicut are fond of joining clubs and associations. Thus, non-denominational associations are far more than denominational.

In Aligarh, with segregated educational system at 56.4% literacy rate, the rate was far below the national urban average of 70%. By and large, Muslims continued to be fruit sellers, sweepers, small mechanics, butchers, washer men, weavers and factory workers in unorganised sectors. After 1970, a middle class did develop with migration opportunities to Gulf with Muslims owning small lock factories.

Hyderabad and Lucknow

In Lucknow, the intra group divide promotes the inter-group peace. The Shia-Sunni conflict led to a closer relationship between Muslims and Hindus. Hyderabad, where communal peace was broken in 1938 turned out to be one of the most riot prone cities in India. In Lucknow, periodic Shia-Sunni animosities overpowered the city’s Hindu-Muslim differences. In Hyderabad, more than the Shia-Sunni differences, a Hindu Muslim divide has been politically active since 1930s – a divide that exists primarily at the mass level. The city’s social and educational elite interacted across the Hindu Muslim divide but the teeming thousands of the old city have deep Hindu Muslim divisions.

Lucknow witnessed only one Hindu-Muslim riot in the 20th century, which took place in 1924. Interestingly, the 1947 partition and Babri Masjid riots did not occur in Lucknow even though Ayodhya was only 80 miles away. It is important to note that communal peace was based on Hindu-Muslim integration and Hindu-Muslim economic links at the mass level. During the transformative political events of 1930s and 40s, a Shia-Sunni cleavage preceded the rise of national movement in Lucknow. Pre-British Lucknow was ruled by Shia princes (1737-1856) who struck alliances with Hindu community, not with the Sunnis. In Hyderabad, as mass politics emerged in the 1930s, it was super imposed by Hindu-Muslim differences and not Shia-Sunni differences. The seventh Nizam, a Sunni refused to accede to a popular rule in Hyderabad where Hindus constituted majority of subjects but power structure was dominated by Muslims.

The Muslims of Hyderabad supported a Muslim party called the Majlis-e-Ittehad Muslimeen (MIM) or simply Majlis. It is cadre- based and its activities are confined to Hyderabad. Though it fought elections at the municipal, assembly and parliamentary level, it has done best at the local governmental level. Since the 1970s, it has been winning roughly half the assembly seats and since the 1980s, one of the two parliamentary seats for the city. Consequently, Hyderabad was a city of exception in the south where Hindu Nationalists found a foot hold. Contrastingly, other places in southern India saw the formation of parties that fought against caste injustice and organisations based on caste injustice dominated politics.

MIM and Hindu Nationalists polarised the Hindu-Muslim community in Hyderabad and neither Congress nor the left parties have been able to counter it. The MIM was born in 1926 and sought to unite the various Islamic sects for the preservation of Islam. It pledged loyalty to the Nizam and state laws. The initial years were fired by the religious objectives of education and conversion (Tabligh). While court inspired life-styles marked the lives of Hindus and Muslims at upper echelons of the society, the MIM and Arya Samaj primarily targeted the middle and poorer classes. The base of the society was penetrated by organisations on both sides, aiming to increase religious consciousness, a campaign that not only sought to enhance piety but also aimed at conversions.

After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire (1526-1707), Lucknow was ruled by a succession of Muslim princes the Nawabs, roughly from 1739 to 1857. When direct British rule began in 1856 in Lucknow, mass politics was either undertaken by Congress party which tried to unite Hindus and Muslims or sectarian politics of Shias and Sunnis leading to riots. Since 1948, Hindu Muslim relations have gone through three phases: Uneasy communal calm (1948-57), re-emergence of communal violence (from 1957 to mid 1970s) and institutionalised communal polarisation and unrelenting communal carnage (since 1978.)

Ahmedabad and Surat (Local Variations)

The pattern of communal relations has dramatically changed in Ahmedabad over time. Between 1920 and 1969, the city was communally peaceful but since 1969 communal riots in Ahmedabad, it has become prone to communal tensions and riots. The communal peace of Surat was also broken after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. The 1969 communal riots was India’s single worst Hindu-Muslim riot between 1950 and 1995. Surat however remained calm at that time though rest of the state burned. A second wave of rioting took place in Gujarat in 1985-86, combining for the first time inter-communal with intra-communal caste riots. The former followed the latter. Surat which had never seen communal riots broke this reputation in 1992-1993.

Between 1920 and 1947, there were many provocations and occasions for big riots in the two cities, but the large array of civic associations, consisting of political, business and social organisations either successfully preempted communal rioting or controlled its spread. This vibrant and integrated structure has become fragile of late. Earlier communal amity was the work of Congress under Mahatma Gandhi who brought all communities together and also created a vast array of social and educational agencies on a voluntary basis. Business association guilds (Mahajans) formed another strong pillar. The guilds were inter-communal in nature as it attracted multiple communities. However in a number of professions which were traditional, the guilds were intra-caste or intra-communal. Muslims for example were mostly weavers while the “ex-untouchables” were largely spinners, and the Jains and Hindus were traders and manufacturers.

Between the 16th and 18th century, Ahmedabad was the administrative headquarters of Mughal rule in Gujarat but Surat was the business capital. Muslims of Surat are local converts and immigrant Muslims, claiming West Asian lineage and were part of the Mughal ruling class in pre-British India. Local converts were poor artisans and servicemen but also traders, large and small. The Bohra community who were Shias vigorously interacted with Hindus and consciously distanced themselves from Sunni Muslims. The Shia Sunni divisions brought the Bohras closer to Hindus.

In Ahmedabad, known as the Manchester of India because of its preponderant textile mills; none of the 26 mills were owned by a Muslim. In Surat, all the three mills were owned by Muslims. The leading association of Ahmedabad, the Ahmedabad Mill Owners Association (AMA) experienced thus little Hindu Muslim engagement. In Surat, owing to the historical presence of Muslim trading communities, business links between Hindus and Muslims were much more direct. A large number of Muslims were involved in the production process of winding and embroidery in the silk embroidery industry. Hindus and Muslims were thus interlocked in an economy of trust.

In Ahmedabad, most Muslim workers were weavers. Hindus and Muslims thus interacted closely in weaver’s union which had both Muslim and Hindu workers, which in turn were associated with other craft unions under the umbrella of Textile Labour Union (TLA) which had a significant bearing on the inter-communal relations and peace.

With the decline of AMA in Ahmedabad, a number of small business associations emerged but they did not integrate the Hindus and Muslims in large numbers. In contrast, the business associations of Surat continue to be highly inter-communal as well as vibrant. The shanty towns did not have the immune system provided by the inter-communal civic engagement. When the riots occurred, it came to the slums, consumed lives and destroyed livelihood. With the decline of Congress as an organisation and the loss of Gandhian values, communalism grew and the political parties exploiting this rise. The Game changer in communal peace in Ahmedabad was the 1969 riots which were ignited by a skirmish when Sadhus were returning with their cows from Jagannath temple which is located near a tomb of a Pir where Urs was going on. A few cows and Muslims were hurt. By Sep 23rd when the rioting ceased, nearly 600 people had been killed in 4 days of violence.

India suffers from both foreign inspired and now local groups terrorism. Mere treatment of the issue as a law and order problem would be inadequate without going into root cause of such terrorism, probably engendered by anger and frustration among a section in the minority community. It is in this context that this book is worth reading. Varshney’s analysis on what holds the key to peace is very revealing. It is time that India focuses on communal integration through associations and networks that may act as agents of peace, especially at a period when inclusive growth is the need of the hour.

About the Author

Mr. S Gopal retired as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India

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