Religion and Identity Politics in India

Religion and Identity Politics in India

Religion serves as a complex mosaic of belief systems, cultural traditions, and ethical frameworks that intricately intertwined humanity with notions of spirituality and moral guidance. However, the classification of individuals based on their religious convictions has not only catalyzed profound conflicts on a global scale but has also engendered intricate challenges for the foundational principles of Indian democracy and secularism.

Despite the passage of over six decades since India’s hard-fought independence, the contentious discourse regarding the role of religion in the political sphere continues to linger, casting a formidable shadow over the nation’s socio-political fabric and engendering persistent debates and divisions.

Indian politics are deeply enmeshed within the intricate web of community structures forged along religious fault lines. This structural framework exerts a profound influence on the political landscape, shaping electoral strategies, policy agendas, and societal norms, often accentuating the primacy of sectarian interests over broader national welfare objectives.

The dynamic interplay between religion and politics, epitomized by the “salad bowl” ideology or “secular nationalism,” serves as a crucible wherein governance paradigms and societal values are forged, presenting a complex interplay of inclusivity and exclusivity within the Indian socio-political milieu.

Delving deeper into the demographic tapestry delineated along religious lines, Hindus constitute an overwhelming majority at 80%, followed by Muslims at 13%, Christians at 2.3%, Sikhs at 1.9%, and Buddhists at 1%. This intricate mosaic underscores the rich tapestry of religious pluralism that characterizes the Indian subcontinent.

The Indian National Congress (INC), in its nascent years, fervently championed the ideal of a secular India as a robust counter-narrative to Jinnah’s polarizing two-nation theory, envisioning a cohesive national identity that transcended religious fault lines and fostered inclusive citizenship.

Conversely, the ascendance of Hindu nationalist movements has precipitated fervent advocacy for the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, envisaging a socio-political landscape wherein Hinduism assumes a hegemonic position, potentially relegating religious minorities to the margins of societal discourse and political representation.

The constitutional edifice of India espouses a steadfast commitment to secularism, enshrining the principles of religious freedom and minority rights within its hallowed provisions, thereby fostering an institutional framework that safeguards the pluralistic ethos of the nation.

Intellectual luminaries such as Sunil Khilnani underscore the imperatives of preserving India’s secular ethos as a bulwark against communal polarization and democratic erosion, cautioning against the perils of succumbing to the siren call of religious majoritarianism, akin to the trajectory witnessed in neighboring Pakistan.

Scholarly discourses, as articulated by Rajeev Bhargava, advocate for the nuanced conceptualization of secularism, positing the notion of “Principled Distance” as a pragmatic approach to navigating the labyrinth of religious diversity within the democratic tapestry of India, thereby striking a delicate balance between state neutrality and proactive engagement with religious communities.

However, critiques from academic quarters, notably D.E. Smith, underscore the lacunae within India’s secular fabric, highlighting persistent challenges such as religious discrimination, communal violence, and the instrumentalization of religious identities for political gain.

Bhargava’s scholarly interventions further illuminate the intricacies of Indian secularism, lamenting the prevalent misunderstandings and oversimplifications that obfuscate the nuanced contours of this complex socio-political paradigm, thereby impeding genuine efforts at fostering communal harmony and societal cohesion.

Comparative analyses, as propounded by scholars like Marc Galenter, caution against facile juxtapositions of Indian secularism with Western paradigms, advocating for a contextualized understanding that acknowledges the unique historical, cultural, and socio-political underpinnings that shape India’s secular trajectory.

Drawing inspiration from indigenous philosophical traditions, intellectuals such as Ashish Nandi advocate for a reclamation of India’s rich legacy of pluralism and tolerance, positing these enduring values as guiding beacons for nurturing a more inclusive and egalitarian societal ethos.

Nonetheless, dissenting voices within academia, exemplified by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, challenge the efficacy of Bhargava’s “Principled Distance” framework, arguing that it may inadvertently perpetuate structural inequities and power differentials within the socio-political landscape.

Romila Thapar’s scholarly interventions call for a radical departure from conventional conceptions of secularism, advocating for a more assertive model that confronts entrenched inequalities and fosters a robust culture of social justice and equitable citizenship.

Meanwhile, scholars like Paul Brass underscore the persistent specter of communal violence that looms over the Indian socio-political landscape, highlighting the urgent imperative of fortifying institutional mechanisms to address inter-religious tensions and safeguard the rights and dignity of marginalized communities.

This elaborated exposition delves deep into the intricate tapestry of religion, politics, and secularism in the Indian context, illuminating the myriad complexities, debates, and challenges that animate this multifaceted terrain, thereby offering a nuanced understanding of the rich socio-political fabric of the world’s largest democracy.

Causes of Communalism in India:

According to the Essentialist perspective, as espoused by scholars like Louis Dumont, Hindus and Muslims are viewed as inherently antagonistic communities, destined to clash due to deep-seated religious and cultural differences. This viewpoint, often associated with Western scholars, perceives communal conflict as an inevitable consequence of the inherent divisions between religious communities. Jinnah’s two-nation theory, which formed the ideological basis for the partition of India, aligns closely with this essentialist approach, emphasizing irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims.

On the other hand, the Instrumentalist perspective, advocated by scholars such as Bipin Chandra, posits that communal violence is not a result of inherent religious animosities but rather a product of strategic actions by political elites. According to this view, elites exploit communal identities, such as caste and religion, to mobilize support for their own political agendas. However, the general populace is not inherently communal, and once the manipulative tactics of the elites subside, societal harmony can be restored.

In contrast, the Institutionalist perspective, exemplified by scholars like Asghar Ali Engineer, focuses on the role of state policies and public institutions in perpetuating communalism. 

According to this viewpoint, discriminatory state actions and policies create a sense of insecurity and resentment among certain communities, fostering a perception of unequal treatment and preferential treatment towards others. This institutionalized discrimination nurtures communal tensions and exacerbates inter-religious strife.

Each of these perspectives offers a distinct lens through which to understand the complex dynamics of communalism in India, highlighting the interplay between historical, socio-political, and institutional factors in shaping communal identities and conflicts within the nation.

Communal Politics and Election in India

In his 2004 book “The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India,” Paul Brass introduces his theory, which revolves around the concept of “Institutionalized Riot Systems” prevalent in India. He breaks down this concept into three distinct phases: preparation, activation, and explanation.

  1. Preparatory Stage: This initial phase involves meticulous planning and groundwork for the eruption of communal violence. Brass highlights the presence of proper rehearsals and the dissemination of communal sentiments through inflammatory speeches. 

Additionally, he underscores the involvement of entities such as fire tenders in this stage, suggesting a deliberate preparation for potential unrest.

  1. Precipitation Stage: This stage marks the escalation of tensions into major outbreaks of violence. Brass identifies the emergence of conversion specialists who play a role in aggravating communal discord, potentially exploiting the volatile situation for their own ends.
  2. Explanatory Stage: Following the eruption of violence, the explanatory stage involves the attribution of blame and the dissemination of narratives to justify the actions taken. Brass suggests that this phase often involves a complex interplay of political maneuvering and scapegoating to deflect responsibility.

Throughout his analysis, Brass contends that communal violence in India is not merely sporadic occurrences but rather part of a systemic pattern ingrained within the fabric of society. He argues that various stakeholders, including political parties, benefit from the perpetuation of communal tensions, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Brass further asserts that the political climate in India is characterized by a pervasive atmosphere of communalism, with political parties exploiting religious divisions for electoral gains. He warns that the period leading up to elections is particularly volatile, as heightened tensions are often manipulated for political advantage.

Overall, Brass’s theory sheds light on the structural underpinnings of communal violence in India, emphasizing the role of institutionalized mechanisms and political dynamics in perpetuating inter-religious strife.


In conclusion, the complex interplay between religion, politics, and secularism in India underscores the intricate tapestry of challenges and debates that shape the nation’s socio-political landscape. Despite over six decades of independence, the contentious discourse surrounding religion’s role in politics persists, casting a shadow over the nation’s democratic principles. Indian politics are deeply entwined with communal fault lines, influencing electoral strategies and societal norms. The demographic diversity of  India underscores the importance of religious pluralism and minority rights safeguarded by the constitutional framework. Intellectual discourse on secularism offers varied perspectives, from nuanced approaches like “Principled Distance” to critiques of institutional shortcomings. Comparative analyses and scholarly interventions shed light on communal dynamics, highlighting the role of elites, state policies, and institutional mechanisms in perpetuating communalism. 

Paul Brass’s theory of “Institutionalized Riot Systems” illuminates the systemic nature of communal violence, particularly during election periods. Ultimately, navigating these complexities requires a balanced approach that upholds democratic values, fosters social cohesion, and confronts entrenched inequalities, ensuring the realization of India’s pluralistic ethos and democratic aspirations.

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