Colonial Legacy and Majoritarianism in South Asia

Refugees during partition of India
Refugees at Balloki, Kasur during partition of India. Image credit: Photo Division, Government of India / Public domain

Recent years have marked a dark spot for religious minorities in the country with several events including the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the Babri Masjid verdict diminishing the position of Muslims in the country. While the matters have aggrandised in present times, we need to take a look at the country’s colonial history to understand the roots of this crisis.

Majoritarian trends across India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been heavily influenced by colonial history which eventually lead to the Partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines. Several accounts attribute the very concept of the terms demarcating majorities and minorities to state policies under the British Raj that were aimed at hampering national integration and any possible threats from a nation-wide independence struggle.

Colonial Legacy and the Formation of Communal Identities

Several academics believe that the identification of strict differences within the larger Indian body and communal discourse that was divisive in nature is a colonial legacy in India. It is believed that the British imposed their ‘orientalist’ academic knowledge and came to the conclusion that religion was the fundamental division in demography in Indian society. While there is a school of thought that believes that Hindus and Muslims are irreconcilably disparate based on cultural and social notions; “They can never constitute a common nationality as their ‘religious philosophies, social customs, and literature’ are vastly different” (Shaffridun Pirzada), history also reminds us of sustained periods of harmony and cooperation between the two communities- including instances like the Khilafat Movement during the independence struggle.

This communal divide during colonial times was achieved through several institutional mechanisms. The British began a system of classifying Indians along communal lines — this became especially apparent during their first scientific census procedure in 1871 where people were enumerated along religious lines. This was one of the earliest instances where people were compelled to choose a single, well-defined communal identity in the subcontinent. Further, the British also introduced a series of differentiated laws and electorates for Hindus and Muslims respectively that also contributed towards consolidating the notion of communal identities amongst the Indian people. For instance, the codification of a separate Hindu Law to regulate social life in India began as early as the 18th century under the colonial rulers.

The British are also credited with the creation of separate electorates for Muslims in 1909 which potentially laid the groundwork of electoral politics being based on communally divisive lines. This system evententually became so deeply entrenched that any proposition that sought to dismantle separate electorates was rejected by the Muslim elites. This politicisation of religious identities eventually resulted in the creation of separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Anglo-Indians in 1935.

This polarisation ultimately fed into the two-nation theory propagated by Muslim elites which believed that the Indian subcontinent was populated with two nations — one constituting the Muslims and the other constituting the Hindus. This subsequently led to the formation of Pakistan after a bloody partition process in 1947. Partition in this framework visibly appears as at least partly resulting from the communal seed that was planted in pre-independence India during the British Raj.

The partition has visibly weakened the position of minority

The founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah wished to build a country based on the principle of “one nation, one culture, one language”. In this sense, one of the key factors for the demand of a separate Muslim state came from the supposed need to homogenise and unite the Muslim community. However, such visions of the Muslim state have proven to be problematic and forged the basis of majoritarian trends in South Asia. The first problem arises from the fact that the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent were never a homogeneous population — they differed on the basis of language, culture as well as ideas of state formation.

Jinnah’s project of unifying the country along religious and linguistic lines proved to be disastrous in hindsight as we saw it lead to the subsequent partition between East Bengal and West Bengal and culminated in the formation of Bangladesh. The inaccurate belief that the Muslims are a unified group and hence need a nation-state of their own caused Pakistan to be apathetic towards cultural differences as they attempted to homogenise the entire cultural framework.  East Pakistan’s integral need to protect and promulgate their Bengali language and literature was ignored in Pakistan and this apathy eventually led to the suppression of Bengali culture which resulted in the formation of Bangladesh as a means of escaping majoritarianism at the hands of Urdu speaking West Pakistan.

Further, an argument can be made that the Partition of India along religious lines worsened the situation of minorities in the newly created state. The Muslims that decided to stay back in India for reasons such as “loyalty to India” were left even more insecure in the country as their numbers had been substantially reduced in light of the transfer of 46 million Muslims from India to Pakistan. In the absence of a strong Muslim community which would have acted as a balancing factor in India by demanding electoral representation and voicing their demands effectively, the position of Indian Muslims has deteriorated by a huge margin. For instance, the government removed Muslim reserved constituency right after Pakistan and this has severely diminished Muslim representation in the parliament.

Moreover, after the partition, the Muslims found themselves in a country whose Hindu population had massacred thousands of Muslims during the transition period — this could have left the Indian Muslims feeling alienated and insecure in a country that they called their home. Such alienation could have had detrimental effects on the Muslim community’s relation with the Indian government — this is evidenced in the current state of Muslims in India. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Misra Commission Report of 2007 highlight the prevalence of discrimination towards Muslims and socio-economic marginalisation compared to other religious groups. Religious minorities in present day Pakistan and Bangladesh find themselves in vulnerable positions too with instances of temple destruction and using communal slurs against the group being commonplace.

As we move into the 74th year of independence, it is integral that we acknowledge how the past colonial legacy and the bloody history of the partition have potentially had devastating effects on the well-being of minorities in the region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Vartika Neeraj is a student of political science at Ashoka University, India. Her interests lie in South Asian politics and minority rights.