A subaltern view

Print edition : August 23, 2013

On June 30, 1964, President S. Radhakrishnan meeting with Muslim residents of the Kalabagan area of central Calcutta (now Kolkata), which is predominantly Muslim. The area was affected by Hindu-Muslim rioting in January of the same year. Pandey provides a caveat early on in his book when he says that it is not a “comprehensive history” of Hindu-Muslim relations in north India but is “...an attempt to examine what we accomplish when we apply the term ‘communalism’ to this history...”. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The book’s real achievement is the way in which it has “problematised” the idea of communalism and wrenched it from its easy conceptualisations.

RECOGNISING the enduring legacy of Gyanendra Pandey’s The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, Oxford University Press has brought out the title under its Oxford India Perennials series. This is the third edition of the book, which was first published in 1990. Accompanying the book in the impressive pantheon of Oxford India Perennials are such classics as The Remembered Village by M.N. Srinivas (first published in 1976), Tughlaq by Girish Karnad (1964) and Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars by Christopher A. Bayly (1983), among other books that have perpetual relevance.

Pandey is a founder member of the Subaltern Studies Collective, an informal group of historians and scholars that introduced a new paradigm into the historical thinking of South Asia when it burst on the intellectual scene in the 1980s. One of its main contentions was that hitherto history writing was dominated by “elite” histories, and a “history from below” for South Asia needed to be written. In this, they were clearly influenced by international trends in history writing led by English historians such as E.P. Thompson and Eric Stokes.

Ranajit Guha’s work Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, first published in 1983, was the pioneering work that set out the framework for the group. This work looked at peasant consciousness in rural India from the late 18th to the beginning of the 20th century. A manifesto of the group, again written by Guha, was also set out in the first volume of Subaltern Studies.

The loose collective of eight intellectuals associated with this scholarly approach would go on to gather tremendous steam and publish several edited volumes of their research over the subsequent years. At the same time, these scholars prolifically published individual monographs through the 1980s and 1990s. In their works, they emphasised the role of subalterns, or the mass of common people whom history writing had overlooked when constructing a historical narrative. While there were changes in the nuances of their approach over the next two decades, their core concern continued to be on the resuscitation of the subaltern from the rubbish bin of the historiography of South Asia.

Predictably, such a radical intellectual exercise that disagreed, in the most part, with existing historiography drew the ire of all varieties of historians—nationalists, Marxists and those whose historical world view slanted towards the colonialists. But the ideas articulated in the Subaltern Studies’ volumes steamrolled their way through university campuses and breached the hallowed portals of many academic bastions and now stand validated as a widely recognised school in Indian historiography.

Pandey’s work needs to be understood in the context of his association with the Subaltern Studies Collective as a founder member. His research on the construction of communalism stands out among other works on the same theme for its reconceptualising and reworking of the notion of communalism as he tries to wrench it out of its traditional and parochial “elite” understanding while also questioning the way in which the term has been used in colonialist and nationalist historiography.

He provides a caveat early on when he says that the book is not a “comprehensive history” of Hindu-Muslim relations in north India but is “...an attempt to examine what we accomplish when we apply the term ‘communalism’ to this history...”.

Pandey writes that for the colonialist, communalism emerged as a valid form of nationalism in the South Asian context. On the other hand, communalism represented the opposite of nationalism for Indian nationalists, and the concept itself was moulded in the 1920s and 1930s through the tumultuous decades of religious strife. The interesting point that Pandey makes here is that there is some overlap in the interpretations of communalism by both nationalists and communalists. According to him, both the colonialist and the nationalist positions derive from the same liberal ideology in which “rationalism and secularism operate as adjacent elements of thought”. At the same time, these interpretations, whether they are rooted in “essentialist” or “economistic” reasons, are elite understandings of communalism.

Pandey disagrees with the work of some prominent historians such as Bayly, whose work on the prehistory of communalism emphasised continuities in Indian history. He sees this as a reiteration of an older colonialist position. He also critiques the work of Francis Robinson, who has acquired a reputation as one of the foremost authorities on South Asian Islam. Robinson’s work on sectarian strife ( Separatism of Indian Muslims, 1974), according to Pandey, draws a sharp line between elite and mass mentalities and does not take into account an important part of the historical experience.

Pandey shows how the colonialist construction of Indian history incorporated religious bigotry and conflict as a distinctive feature of Indian society. This was an essentialist understanding of Indian history as religious conflict was accepted as a valid part of Indian society. Pandey’s close examination of the various colonial accounts of the Banaras riots of 1809 demonstrates this essentialist reading of an event. The reductionist tendencies of the colonialist discourse made it appear as if the disturbances were part of a continuum of Indian society and, thus, provided justification for colonial rule. He establishes how the British created a “master narrative” of communalism to understand sectarian strife.

By looking closely at how the bigotry of the julaha was established as a caste marker, Pandey also shows how colonial sociology created caste stereotypes. The julalahs were Muslim weavers and emerged as a somewhat consolidated bloc through a dialectic between the community members and the colonial state. Their reputation as religious bigots in the eyes of the British was established over the 19th century as the perception was that they were involved in sectarian strife. Pandey questions this notion by looking at the evidence and finds that the julahas were very poor, and riots were always more ferocious in the lower urban pockets of north India. The julahas were also the most affected by the advance of capitalism in pre-industrial societies and came into conflict with the predominantly Hindu moneylenders.

In the next section, to find “the real alternative to colonialist historiography”, Pandey closely examines a text written by a member of the “little community” of Mubarakpur. The title of this text is “Waqeat-o-Hadesat: Qasba Mubarakpur” and it comes from a personal collection. This text as a source becomes important for Pandey’s enunciation of communalism as the motivation for writing it was not for pure knowledge unlike in the case of the colonialist ethnographer and administrator.

Pandey goes on to argue that even though the text was written by a local man, the author is rooted in his elite class (Muslim zamindar), and in a sense, just as the colonial regime appropriated the entire political life of the subject peoples, the “local elite would appropriate the whole life and history of the local community”.

Pandey then turns to the question of the formation of the Hindu community, which he says has not been as adequately researched as the formation of the Muslim community. He does this by examining the action that was taken to protect the cow as a symbol of the Hindu religion in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. He concludes that while it cannot be said that the notion of a “Hindu” community or a “Muslim” community had no meaning for the vast majority consolidations were more local and happened on the basis of caste and kinship groups. According to Pandey, colonialism was responsible for the creation of an all-India Hindu community.

In another interesting chapter, the author discusses the contradictions of the nationalist thought as there was tension between the post-Enlightenment ideas of a “nation” and the pre-colonial “community” that had prevailed in India. Before the 1920s, the Indian nation was constructed as a “collection of communities”, but as the notion of a nation began to alter to mean a “collection of individuals”, the concept of communalism also began to be articulated in nationalist thought. Nationalism and communalism were simultaneously articulated in the imagination of the Indian nationalist.

It was also during this time that the communitarian mobilisations that were accepted earlier by nationalists came to be regarded as a distorted and distorting tendency. For the nationalists, this distortion stretched to the point where the politics of religion began to be seen as not real politics at all. In this nationalist version of the Indian nation, history was used to emphasise the essential unity of all Indians before the British disturbed the peace. Pandey says that this oversimplified reading suffered because it ignored “any sense of the common people as historical agents”.

In the new afterword that accompanies this edition, Pandey discusses the problems in writing a history of religious violence when the term “communalism” does not apply as readily as it once did. A significant point he makes here is that the nature of the state has changed from colonial India as there is clear evidence of the power of the centralised state, and the state appears far less neutral as it has been reinvented in a chauvinist Hindu image. He calls this “statist chauvinism”.

Pandey’s close reading of the available sources is a useful lesson in research methodology as he sifts through his records closely to reinterpret them. He extends the scope of his research by privileging certain historical sources such as poetry, oral histories and memoirs from personal collections in Hindi and Urdu.

The book’s real achievement is the way in which it has “problematised” the idea of communalism and wrenched it from its easy conceptualisations. Its main concern is also to incorporate non-elite discourses in the larger enunciation of the idea of communalism. Well written and cogently argued, the book is indispensable to students of modern South Asian history. It will also appeal to the lay reader who is interested in the history of communalism in India and to anyone interested in understanding the research methods of scholars associated with the Subaltern Studies Collective.

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