By Pritam Singh


This paper has three main objectives. The first objective is to draw attention to the anomalous and negative connotations of the word ‘communal’, as it is used in the progressive (academic and activist) discourse around communalism and secularism in India. The second objective is to introduce a new concept – ‘institutional communalism’– as a theoretical tool to map the true scale of religious sectarianism/communalism in the subcontinent, and to argue that the fight against institutional communalism involves not only ideological/pedagogical struggle but also practical measures to record, monitor and eradicate it. The third objective is to challenge the pervasive practice of equating ‘majority communalism’ with ‘minority communalism’.

Progressive discourse around ‘the critique of communalism’ in India has focussed primarily on instances of inter-religious violence and the activities of political and social organisations that are characterised as ‘communal’, that is to say ‘engaged in articulating the demands or viewpoints of one or other religious community’. The fundamental weakness of this discourse is that it neglects the deeper and less visible political, socio-economic and cultural structures that give birth to sectarianism/communalism and to sectarian/communal organisations. Furthermore, such a discourse has an inbuilt bias in that it equates what are normally referred to in the literature as majority and minority communalisms. This paper is an attempt to develop a critique of this discourse by delving deeper into the institutional structures of communalism in India. I have chosen to name this deeper structure of communalism as institutional communalism, drawing on the experiences of anti-racist activism and theories of institutional racism in the UK.

Communalism versus religious sectarianism: A brief interrogation of two terms.

It is a strange linguistic anomaly that in the discourse on sectarianism/communalism in India, the word ‘communal’ has generally come to acquire a pejorative meaning, suggesting divisiveness and conflict. In the rest of the world, especially beyond South Asia, this word tends to relate to social unity and cohesion, and to socially progressive and collective modes of thinking and activities: communal agriculture, communal ownership of land, communal irrigation, communal kitchen, communal leisure, communal singing and communal dancing etc.1 In all these examples, the word ‘communal’ suggests public sharing in contrast with private and individualistic pursuits – a positive connotation that implies cooperation and mutual tolerance.

In India, however, the word ‘communal’ has come to acquire an inverted and largely negative connotation – that of socially divisive and politically regressive activities. This linguistic anomaly is a legacy of India’s anti-colonial struggle for national independence. During India’s movement for independence, many of the legislative, judicial and administrative policies and instruments that the British rulers adopted in response to demands generally from non-Hindu religious communities for protecting the interests of these communities came to be called ‘communal’. The meaning of the word ‘communal’ in that context was understood by the British, the minorities in question, and democratic-minded people in India as something that implied defending the democratic rights of the vulnerable or potentially vulnerable minorities with religious identities. However, the leadership of the Indian National Congress (henceforth the Congress) that hegemonised India’s movement for national independence viewed any move aimed at safeguarding these vulnerable minorities with suspicion. The Congress view was that any government move or demand by a religious minority to safeguard minority interests was aimed at weakening the movement for independence by creating divisions in that movement.

Caste and religious collectivities

During the movement for national independence, similar conflict arose over protective measures for oppressed and vulnerable castes in the Hindu society. While Ambedkar and others advocated measures to protect dalits, the mainstream leadership (including Gandhi) viewed those measures as moves to divide Hindus and the national movement (Ambedkar 2006/1943, Ambedkar 2008/1945). In order to differentiate the collectivity associated with caste from the collectivity associated with religion, the measures aimed at safeguarding the collective interests of vulnerable religious minorities came to be referred to as ‘communal’. In essence, both the attempts to protect the interests of lower castes and the measures to protect the interests of religious minorities were communal i.e. they were aimed at protecting the interests of a section of society (dalits/religious minorities) in a collective manner. However, what may have been mere terminological convenience (a simple differentiation between the nomenclatures for two collective endeavours, by naming the religiously collective endeavours as communal) has resulted over a period of time in creating a substantive difference in meaning and connotation. The Congress viewed the religious collectivity as more dangerous than the caste collectivity, because the latter, while it might create conflicts within Hindu society, did not have the potential of creating a geographical partition of the country such as that which resulted in the creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan. As a thought experiment, we can imagine that, had the country not been partitioned, subsequent conflicts over protective measures for caste collectivity would have acquired in the national/Hindu imagination more pejorative connotations than those over religious collectivity.2 The word ‘casteist’ would perhaps have become more damning than the word ‘communal’. The violence of Partition has resulted in the perception of communalism as a more dangerous threat than casteism in the Indian national imagination.

For the same reason that ‘communal’ became a derogatory word in Indian national imagination, it has a different connotation in Pakistan where the solidarity arising from religious collectivity is perceived as having contributed to the birth of the nation (Pakistan). However, even in Pakistan this somewhat positive connotation of the word ‘communal’ is seen in an instrumentalist fashion namely that communal/religious solidarity created a social/political force and movement that contributed to the creation of a new nation state. In India, the word ‘communal’ has a negative connotation since it is viewed as resulting in the breakup of ‘the unity of the Indian nation’ whereas in Pakistan it has somewhat positive connotation because it is viewed as having contributed to the birth of a nation (Sayeed 1963). In both cases, nationalism is the determining force.

Casting the net further than Pakistan, if we contrast the term ‘religious sectarianism’3 which is used widely in the rest of the world to describe conflicts where religion is seen to be the source of stoking confrontations, we can identify a further problem with the Indian use of the term ‘communalism’. Namely that while the former term qualifies and critiques the exclusionism of particular religious group formations, the negative connotations that have become attached to the term ‘communalism’ in India imply a suspicion of a) religious solidarity in general, and b) any group activity that emerges from religious origins. This suspicion is problematic and blinkered.

Many religious group activities which are genuinely communal in the sense of collective group activities are socially progressive, such as the practice of langar in the Sikh gurdwaras where any devotee can participate in the practice of communal food preparation activities and all devotees communally/collectively serve and partake of the food cooked in this manner. When the institution of langar was started by Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, in the 15th century and later popularised by Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh guru, it was socially revolutionary in that it hit directly against the casteist practices of superiority/inferiority and untouchability, specifically the prohibitions on inter-dining.4 Despite some distortions such as the reappearance of caste in Sikhism, the socially progressive aspect of Sikh langar has, by and large, continued since then. There are similar such socially progressive collective/communal activities and practices in other religious traditions too such as ‘shura’ (consultation) and ‘ijma’ (consensus) in Islam. India’s Radha Soami faith is particularly strong in encouraging collective/communal practices regarding agricultural and industrial work, marketing practices and cooking/serving of food.5

Having discussed the flaws in the predominant Indian usage of the term ‘communalism’, we introduce below the concept of institutional communalism and examine its application in the Indian context with the purpose of examining deeper structures of communalism in India beyond overt religious confrontations.

Defining Institutional Communalism

It may be useful for getting a sense of the term ‘institutional communalism’ to mention here that the inspiration for using this term came from the term ‘institutional racism’ used in Britain initially in the context of racism in the police force but eventually extended to identify racism in many other institutions. Judge William Macpherson who headed the inquiry into the death of a black teenager Stephen Lawrence used the term ‘institutional racism’ to characterise the systematic racism prevalent in London’s Metropolitan Police Force. Stephen Lawrence was an 18 year old black man from London, a student of architecture, who was murdered there in a racist attack while waiting for a bus on the evening of 22 April, 1993. After the initial investigation, five suspects, all white, were arrested but not convicted. It emerged during the course of this investigation that the murder was racially motivated and that the handling of the case by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service was influenced by considerations of race. The public outrage at the handling of this case by the police and the prosecution service, the media campaign on the case and the public campaign led by Lawrence’s parents forced the government to order a public enquiry in 1998 that was led by Sir William Macpherson. The inquiry report, published in 1999 that came to be known as Macpherson Report, concluded that the Metropolitan Police Force that had originally investigated the case was ‘institutionally racist’. The systematic/institutional racism was not about one or more individuals in the police force being racist; instead it was about the entire gamut of functioning of the police force in its dealing with minority ethnic groups. The general definition of institutional racism provided by Judge Macpherson was: “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin” (Macpherson 1999, Chapter 6).6 Extending the scope of his recommendations beyond police reforms, Macpherson called for institutional reforms also in the civil services, local governments, the National Health Service, schools, and the judicial system, to address issues of institutional racism. The term ‘institutional racism’ had been used before, most famously by Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther, in the 1960s/1970s in the US 7 but Macpherson report triggered a resurgence of interest in this term and in shifting the public attention from the physically-violent racist actions of individual racists to the direct/indirect complicity of the police and other institutions of the state in the day to day practices of these institutions. The focus on institutional racism triggered by the Report helped in extending the public debates on racism beyond the criticisms of political organisations which were considered racist such as the British National Party to the investigations into racism in the mode of functioning of a wide variety of institutions of British society and state.

Employing the concept of institutional communalism in India, in the manner in which institutional racism has been used in the UK, can offer us a new perspective on communalism/religious sectarianism that extends beyond the political activities of ‘extremist’ political, social and cultural organisations. One major weakness of the anti-communalism discourse in India has been the excessive focus on political activities of such organisations that are considered communal e.g. the organisations associated with what is called the Sangh Parivar, the group of organisations that are considered advocates of Hindu majoritarian dominance in India. The same method is employed to examine political organisations that are considered advocates of any minority religious community such as Muslims, Sikhs and to a lesser extent Christians.

There can be different degrees of institutional communalism as there can be different degrees of institutional racism. It can vary from very subtle to very violent. The apartheid regime in South Africa and the institution of slavery in the US may be considered examples of institutional racism in its most violent form. A range of activities and practices take place in white-dominated societies that are far apart from the violent form of institutional racism in the apartheid era in South Africa but these activities and practices still negatively impact upon the lives of minority ethnic groups in different way and degrees.

One very useful characteristic of the experience of struggles against institutional racism in the UK, from the viewpoint of initiating a politics opposed to institutional communalism, is that the critique of institutional racism targets the racism practised by the dominant white race and considers the idea of ‘minority racism’ as of significantly less importance. Minority racism is considered less important because racism is seen not merely as ‘false consciousness’ or an individual mind-set, but as a power relationship and, in the matrix of power in western societies, non-white minority ethnic groups are placed in a hugely subordinate situation. Given the hugely disadvantaged location of the non-white minority ethnic groups, even if some members of these groups individually harbour any negative stereotypes about the dominant white race, it is virtually of no consequence from the viewpoint of social, economic, cultural and political dynamics in white dominated societies. We will examine below the implications of this aspect of the political theorising and practice of institutional racism for our understanding of institutional communalism in India.

Evidence of Institutional Communalism in India

In the same manner that institutional racism represents the dominant power status of the white ethnic group in Western societies, institutional communalism in India represents the dominant power status of India’s majority religious community i.e. Hindus. The overwhelming numerical majority of Hindus in India 8 (80.5 % according to the 2011 census)9 , accords them a privileged location in the political, social, cultural and eventually economic networks while, at the same time, disadvantaging the religious minorities (Muslims 13.4%, Christians 2.3% and Sikhs 1.9%) in these networks. 10 Hierarchical relations constituted through class, race, gender, religion, ethnicity and nationality operate through diverse ways and impact upon the precise location of individuals and groups in society and economy. Bourdieu’s social capital theory11 can provide us with a framework here, with which to encapsulate the privileged location of upper caste Hindus in India. Bourdieu defines social capital as

‘… the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’ (Bourdieu 1986:248; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:119) – ‘which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital, a “credential” which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word. These relationships may exist only in the practical state, in material and/or symbolic exchanges which help to maintain them’ (Bourdieu 1986: 248-249).

A majority has an inherent advantage by virtue of being a majority, unless these advantages are counteracted and contained by other social forces. In other words, to use Bourdieu’s social capital theory, a majority has accumulated social and cultural capital, and hence economic and political capital, by the simple fact of being socially and culturally positioned as a majority. Institutional communalism is, therefore, the exercise of accumulated power – the power of its social/cultural/political/economic capital – by the majority.

We can also draw from the work of psychologists researching on biases and prejudices, in order to understand the institutional bias that favours the Hindu majority in India. These psychologists show that in making judgements, the key players involved in decision-making processes do not pay attention to all the details and relevant facts that are brought to their attention and instead often look for information that is familiar, or that supports their favoured and pre-formed perspective and/or interest (Hambrick 2007, Kahneman 1973, Pirson and Turnbull 2011). This filtering process guided by psychological mechanisms such as biases, plays a very critical role when a balanced judgement is to be formed after looking at evidence that may have contradictory aspects. In such situations of some degree of uncertainty, the bias leads to giving more weight to the opinions of those who are similar to the one making the decision and thus resulting in distortions of rational judgement (Pirson and Turnbull 2011, Tversky and Kahneman 1974, Kahneman 2011). This discriminatory behaviour pervades in all decision making processes that are related to racism, communalism, casteism, sexism and ageism. Through my work with the equal opportunity initiatives in my university for many years 12, I learnt about a well observed global phenomenon that in the selection and recruitment process, the members of selection committees sometimes consciously but most often unconsciously tend to favour individuals who are like them thus building an inherent bias in the selection process. In a white/male dominated society where white/males tend to dominate selection committees, discrimination against women and minority ethnic groups gets built into the system. To recognise this in-built bias is the first step to deal with it with the purpose of weakening, neutralising or eradicating it. Equal opportunity legislation and training, despite many shortcomings especially in training, become the instruments of weakening it. The journey towards neutralising and eradicating the bias is a long and arduous one.

In India with nearly 81% share of the population being Hindu and most institutions of power being dominated by upper caste Hindus, there is an inbuilt bias towards privileging of Hindus but almost non-existent institutional mechanisms to counteract this inbuilt bias. Apart from the affirmative action in the form of reservations for Schedule Castes and Tribes that has been a positive force in neutralising upper caste dominance, there is nothing in India on the pattern of equal opportunity legislation, monitoring and accountability that tracks systematic bias and discrimination against religious minorities in India. The National Minorities Commission constituted as late as in October 1993- more than 43 years after the formation of the Indian republic in 1950- remains a mere paper tiger without the power and institutional infrastructure to track systematic inbuilt bias against religious minorities, leave aside neutralising this bias.

Institutional communalism in India, that is to say Hindu majoritarian bias, pervades the Indian constitution, bureaucracy, security forces, parliamentary institutions, judiciary, prisons, academic institutions, health services, media, and the cultural and art organisations. The exact nature and extent of institutional communalism in these institutions is uneven, and deserves further detailed investigation. There is, however, a reasonable amount of evidence and research already in circulation, which indicates the pervasiveness of Hindu–communalist bias in a range of institutions in India – I outline these below.


I have previously challenged the existing consensus or near consensus among Indian academics and opinion makers about the secularism of India’s constitution and, through a scrutiny of various clauses in the constitution, have demonstrated the existence of strong Hindu bias in that claimed secularism (Singh 2005). My conclusion was that India’s constitution “has several elements of Hindu bias in it. The symbolic insertion of ‘Bharat’ in the opening article naming the country; the provision for strong centralisation supportive of Hindu nationalism; the active intervention of the state to consolidate Hindu identity through reform of the Hindu religion; the definition of ‘Hindu’ supportive of Hindu assimilative agenda towards Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs; cow protection; pre-eminent status for Hindi in the Devanagari script and special importance for Sanskrit are all features of the constitution which make its secularism seriously Hindu-tainted” (Singh 2005: 921). Bajpai (2002, 2009/10, 2011) points to the weakness of minority rights in the Indian constitution and Chiriyankandath (2000) demonstrates the compromised nature of Indian secularism due to the impact of religion, particularly Hindu religion, in the making of the constitution.


Crossman and Kapur (2001) have examined several judgements and judicial interventions of India’s Supreme Court in cases which required consideration of religious issues and have demonstrated (especially in Chapter 2 of the book ‘The Supreme Court Hindutva judgements’) the prevalence of Hindu bias in the working of this highest judicial institution of India. Similarly Sen (2010) examines a range of cases that had a religious component in them and demonstrates that the Supreme Court’s responses to them have contributed to ‘homogenisation of religion’ and nation which is favourable to the Hindu world view and insensitive to pluralism and religious minorities. Vrinda Grover (2004, 2006) demonstrates systematic Hindu bias in the working of the police and judiciary in the way evidence regarding the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 in Delhi was collected (or not collected) and interpreted. Congress, the ruling party at the time of the anti-Sikh carnage, is widely believed to have protected the guilty perpetrators of the massacre. The significance of Grover’s work is that it highlights how the majoritarian Hindu bias in the institutions of the police, investigation agencies and judiciary is not limited to periods of Congress party rule at the Centre but transcends specific political party control of state power at any point of time. It is due to this institutional communalism, embedded in the agencies of the state, that even during the regime of the non-Congress parties controlling the power at the Centre, the victims of the Delhi massacre could not get justice (Kaur 2004, Mitta and Phoolka 2007). The resurgence of the recent Sikh resentment against the acquittal of Sajjan Kumar, a prime suspect in the organisation of anti-Sikh violence in Delhi in 1984, by a Delhi court has been primarily ignited by the fact that the judge in this case did not respect and accept the eye witness accounts of women whose family members had been killed during the violence and who had testified in the court that they had seen Sajjan Kumar leading the mobs that killed their family members (The Hindu 2013). 13

Another recent example of institutional communalism in India’s judicial decision making institutions came to prominence in the case of a Punjabi militant Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar who was arrested in a case of car bombing that had caused several deaths in 1993 and who was awarded a death sentence by the trial court in 2001 and endorsed by the Delhi High Court in 2002. The Supreme Court on March 26, 2002 dismissed by a split decision (2-1) Bhullar’s appeal against the death sentence. The presiding judge Justice MB Shah gave his decision in favour of acquitting Bhullar because of the central flaw in the lower courts’ decision in awarding death sentence purely on the basis of his confession in police custody which he had retracted when produced in court. However, his two other colleagues Justices Arijit Pasayat and B N Agrawal, overruled Shah by not only convicting Bhullar but also sentencing him to death. They cited extraordinary arguments for their decision that a “proof beyond reasonable doubt” should be “a guideline, not a fetish”, and that procedure is only “a handmaiden and not the mistress of law”. Reporting on the case, Mitta argued that “the majority verdict in the Bhullar case testifies to the damage done by terror ideology to judicial objectivity” (Mitta 2011).

The standard procedure, if there is a dissenting judgement in a decision on the death sentence, is normally to reduce the sentence to life imprisonment – but the dissenting judgement of Judge Shah was not shown to the President of India, who refused to commute Bhullar’s death sentence to life imprisonment (The Hindu 2013a). The culmination of the whole process leading to the very harsh decision on Bhullar revealed the accumulation of biases, prejudices and dislikes against the Sikh militant Bhullar in the whole machinery involved in the decision making concerning the first verdict of death sentence against him and then the rejection of his plea for commutation of this sentence to life imprisonment. 14

Another example of institutionalised Hindu bias in India’s judiciary was revealed by Justice S.S. Sodhi, a former Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court, in a public meeting in Chandigarh. Justice Sodhi revealed that “no Sikh Judge was trusted to deal with Sikh terrorist cases” (The Tribune 2013).
A more glaring case of majoritarian mind-set and institutional communalism became evident in the Supreme Court decision to award death sentence to Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant who was secretly hanged on February 9, 2013. The bench deciding his case said that the death sentence was necessary in order to satisfy ‘the national conscience’ which is a surrender of the legal reasoning to a structure of biases (Peer 2013).

Security services

Manisha Sethi (2013) demonstrates brilliantly the systematic bias in the working of intelligence agencies and police in their dealings with the minority Muslim population. Her quotes from two police officials are worth repeating here:

“In cases of terror attacks or communal riots, if the police goes after the perpetrators of the violence, and they happen to be mostly Muslim, you cannot, in the name of secularism, expect the police to act in proportion to their population.” (Prakash Singh, former DG, BSF)

“There is nothing like Saffron terrorism. It just doesn’t exist in the Hindu pantheon.” (MN Singh, former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai). 15

Since there is no evidence that there was any protest at these remarks or official contestation of them by anyone in the police force, these views can reasonably be taken as representing a wide consensus in the Indian police’s perceptions regarding Muslims and Hindus.

It is very difficult to get hard data on the representation of different religious communities in the inner core of the Indian state, namely the intelligence agencies. A human rights activist who shared with me some confidential information he was able to gather was of the view that there were many layers of secrecy associated with different intelligence agencies of the state and that it was an unwritten rule that more secret an agency was, the less likelihood of non-Hindus being given a job or role in it. Other information that has come to light seems to confirm this view. Subhash Gatade (2008) writing on the emergence of Hindu terror groups notes that one problem in investigating these groups is ‘the near absence of Muslims or Sikhs in the different intelligence wings of the government’. Datta (2006) in an article titled ‘Muslims and Sikhs Need Not Apply’ pointed out that barring IB (Intelligence Bureau), which has a handful of Muslim officers, none of the other wings of intelligence have a single Muslim officer in its ranks. According to him, ‘‘From 1969 till today—RAW’s [Research and Analysis Wing, perhaps the most secret agency] current staff strength is about 10,000-it has avoided recruiting any Muslim officer. Neither has the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), a crucial arm of external intelligence. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) with 12,000 personnel has been a little more open. It has a handful of Muslim officers, the senior-most is a Joint Director.’ In 2012, for the first time a Muslim officer Asif Ibrahim, a former history student of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, was made the Director of IB.
Forced by a petition to the Supreme Court, the Army has admitted that bodyguards to India’s President are recruited only from Hindus (Rajputs and Jats) and it seems since a considerable part of India’s Jat population that is in Punjab is Sikh by faith, the Jat category has been extended to included Sikh Jats also (The Tribune 2013a).


Analysing the media coverage of the Punjab crisis in the 1980s, I have documented extensively that Doordarshan (central government owned TV channel), All India Radio (AIR) and the mainstream English language media displayed deeply embedded institutional communalism in systematically pandering to Hindu biases, prejudices and sentiments in reporting and commenting on India army’s Operation Blue Star action at the Golden Temple-the holiest Sikh shrine- in June 1984 and the massacre of Sikhs in November 1984 after the assassination by Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi, the then Indian Prime Minister who had ordered the army action at the Golden Temple (Singh 1984, 1985, 1985a). Patwant Singh (1985) also demonstrates how in the media reportage of Punjab, the inherent bias due to the majoritarian Hindu control of the Indian media led to distorted reports and commentaries that perpetuated pre-existing prejudices against the Sikhs and led to distorted information being fed to the citizens of India. In more recent years, since the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, the Kargil war conflict with Pakistan and the global rhetoric on ‘war on terror’, the majoritarian bias in media and popular culture especially in Indian cinema is particularly directed against the Muslim minority (Kumar HM 2013)

What I have outlined thus far is merely the tip of the iceberg – a few examples to initiate a debate on embedded Hindu bias and institutional communalism in India. 16 A thorough and collective examination is required, not only of state institutions (civil services, security forces, judiciary and prisons) but also of non-state institutions (corporate world, NGOs) and the ideological apparatus (universities, research institutes and media establishments). A critique of organisations and institutions beyond those organisations that are popularly perceived to be overtly ‘communal’ (such as the Sangh Parivar), which is to say, a critique of the deeper structures of communalism at work within the Indian state, would give us a much more complex understanding of institutional communalism.

Criticism of equating ‘majority and minority communalism’

Theoretical and political work against institutional racism has highlighted one aspect that is crucial to the further work on institutional communalism namely that racism, if any, of minority ethnic individuals or groups against the dominant white racism is of very little significance and any energy devoted in the direction of exploring and critiquing minority racism (sometimes referred to by white racists as ‘reverse racism’) is a diversion from the central task of fighting racism. The central core of racism is not just about racially-charged beliefs and attitudes but also the power to put into practice those beliefs and attitudes in a way that it has differential impact on the lives of members of different races. Many institutions in the Western world have been characterised as racist because of the “culturally sanctioned beliefs, which, regardless of intentions involved, defend the advantages whites have because of the subordinated position of racial minorities” (Wellman 1993:X). Therefore, there is no substance in what is claimed as minority racism or reverse racism because even if some individuals or groups in minority-ethnic groups harbour prejudices against the dominant white race, they would not be able to cause any substantial disadvantage to the dominant group because they do not possess the power to oppress the dominant group. This does not mean that marginal cases of harassment of the individual members of dominant white race by some members of any minority racial group can not take place. However, what is crucial is that the minority racial groups do not have institutionalised power to systematise their harassment of the members of the dominant racial group.

Similarly one can say that in fighting sexism, any talk of gender biases by women against men which is sometimes referred to as reverse sexism is almost a meaningless exercise. This does not mean to say that there does not exist any stereotyping of members of the white ethnic community by some members of minority ethnic groups or that that there is no prejudice by some women against men. However, given the structures of power in race and gender relations, prejudice by minority ethnic individuals against whites and by women against men have virtually no role to play in shaping the political and social dynamics of everyday life. In fact, one can go further and say that if there were no racism (i.e. dominance by white ethnic groups), there would be no retaliatory, however fragmentary, racism by minority ethnic individuals and groups. Similarly, if there were no sexism in society, there would be no resentment among individual women against men as a gender group. If there are any racist attitudes and behaviour among minority ethnic groups or if there is any sexist stereotyping of men by any individual women, it is solely the offshoot of race and gender oppression in society.

In India, there has been one strain of thinking in the discourse on communalism that not only lays emphasis on providing evidence of what is called ‘minority communalism’, it even equates minority communalism with majority communalism, and, in fact, sometimes goes even further than that in articulating that majority Hindu communalism is a retaliatory response against minority communalism.17 The central flaw in this argument is that it does not begin by acknowledging that in the structure of power relations between the majority Hindu community in India and the minority religious communities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains), there is a huge inequality. By equating two unequals, the discourse of equating majority and minority communalism ends up by further reinforcing the power of majority communalism and thus sharpening unequal power relations.

There are two distinct strains of arguments that tend to equate majority and minority communalism and both are flawed. One strain of thought derives its inspiration from the ideology of Indian nationalism. Votaries of one unified Indian nationhood view both majority and minority nationalism as dangerous for the project of merging diversities of India into one nationhood (Chandra 1984). However in this narrative, since only the minority communalism is viewed as having the potential to cause division of the country, this is viewed as more dangerous for territorial integrity of the nation. This narrative does view majority communalism also as dangerous for the country precisely for the reason that it might increase the alienation of the minorities to the point that a minority might be pushed to seek secession. Its criticism of majority communalism is therefore merely derivative because of the implications of majority communalism for minority communalism. Since it considers that majority communalism by its very nature does not endanger country’s territorial integrity, majority communalism is not the focus of its attack. It might view majority communalism as dangerous from the angle of viewing the possibility of majority communalism growing into authoritarianism or even fascism but not from the viewpoint of the threat of majority communalism causing breakup of the country. Its focus of attack, therefore, remains on minority communalism. Posing minority and majority communalism as equals in this nationalist framework amounts in reality to be more anti minority communalism than anti majority communalism. This perspective, therefore, eventually ends up endorsing the unequal power relations between the majority Hindu community and the various religious minorities in India. It fails to recognise, acknowledge and respect that attempts by members of minority communities at solidarity are defensive mechanisms to reduce or negate the disadvantages the members of the minority community suffer as a result of the privileging solidarity of the members of the majority community which is aggressive and domineering. The defensive solidarity of the minority communities, as a form of social capital, arises ‘out of the situational reaction of a class of people faced with common adversaries’ (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993:1325). To criticise the attempts at solidarity by the members of the minority community by giving them derisory terminology of minority communalism is to make them more vulnerable to the disadvantages suffered as a consequence of the privileged positioning of the majority. It would be similar to condemning women forming solidarity/self-supporting networks as sexism by women.

The second strain of thought that equates minority communalism and majority communalism comes from the secularist perspective. From the standpoint of secular fundamentalism, any kind of religious grouping is undesirable irrespective of the fact whether it is from a minority or majority community. This strain of thought on the face of it sounds very principled but since it also ignores the structural power inequality between a majority religious community and a minority religious community, its exercise of equating minority and majority communalisms amounts to acceptance of the existing structural inequality. In the context of racism and struggle against it, no one would seriously think that a principled anti-racist in Western countries would be one who rejects the idea of racism and, therefore, does not recognise the existence of majority and minority racial groups and considers them both equally repugnant. Such an anti-racist by refusing to recognise the actual practice of institutional dominance of white ethnic groups would be, in fact, contributing to the perpetuation of the dominance of the white ethnic group.

It may be argued that minority communalism is not as meaningless or powerless as ‘reverse sexism’ or ‘reverse racism’. Even if it is accepted that minority communalism is not as weak as sexism by some women or racism by racial minorities, it is undeniable that minority communalism is hugely weak in comparison with the power of majority communalism. Therefore, even if it is recognised that minority communalism also poses dangers, the discourse that equates majority and minority communalism remains dangerously flawed because of the denial by this discourse of institutional power that is vested with majority communalism.

The framework of institutional communalism alerts us to both the spread of tentacles of Hindu dominance in a very wide set of institutions as well as the depth of Hindu domination in these institutions. It brings to light the huge inequality between the power of the majority Hindu community and the religious minorities. The vulnerability of two of India’s known religious minorities- Christians and Sikhs- is highlighted by the empirical reality of both these communities constituting merely about 2 percent each of India’s population. Even the Muslim minority which is the biggest religious minority in India constitutes only about 13-14% of India’s population. This overwhelming numerical superiority of Hindus in India adds to the salience of the conceptual framework of institutional communalism and its use in understanding the structural inequality in power relations between the majority religious group and the minority religious groupings.

A consistent struggle against institutionalised Hindu communalism can only be waged from an egalitarian perspective and not from an Indian nationalist and secularist perspective. The Indian nationalist perspective eventually ends up becoming biased against minority communalism in spite of its formal adherence to equi-distance from both forms of communalism while the secular perspective, though principled at a formal level, also ends up propping up the dominance of majority communalism through it refusal to acknowledge the inequality between communities organised through the social force of religion. The egalitarian perspective is also secular but its strength lies in acknowledging unequal power relations between the majority community and the minority communities. The theoretical perspective of equal opportunities, despite various flaws, has the strength of recognising the unequal power relations between communities/groups based on different identity markers- religion, race, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation. The framework of institutionalised racism has specially highlighted the structures of unequal power relations between the mainstream white majority and non-white ethnic minorities. This framework has also helped to shape up policy tools to weaken, reduce and eradicate racism. Adopting the theoretical framework of institutional communalism in India also has the similar promise in weakening Hindu communalism and eventually all forms of religious sectarianism.

One big difference between race and religion is, however, important to mention. Racial modes of thinking and practice have no positive social aspects to it while religious modes of thinking and living have many positive humanistic aspects to it. From the angle of unearthing and eradicating institutional communalism, it is only the sectarian dimension of religious modes of thinking and living that need to be subjected to critique and not the humanistic dimension of religion. We should attempt to retrieve the progressive connotations of the term ‘communal’, not only by focussing our critique on divisive religious sectarianism and majoritarianism, but also by engaging with the socially-progressive and collectively-oriented dimensions of religious thinking and practice.


The concept ‘institutional communalism’ that has been developed here is an attempt to extend the use of the concept ‘institutional racism’ used in Western societies to the Indian context. The meanings of the word ‘communal’ and ‘communalism’ as used in South Asia/India have been probed and the limitations of this terminology have been highlighted.
The lens of institutional communalism allows us to see beyond the surface level communal activities of political and social organisations to the deeper roots of communalism embedded in the working of diverse range of public, semi-public and private institutions in Indian society. In the same way as the tool of institutional racism highlights the racism of the majority white community because of the power the white mainstream community enjoys in Western societies, the tool of institutional communalism helps us to highlight the communalism of the majority Hindu religious community because of the power the Hindu religious community enjoys in India. The important implication that follows from this is that as in the case of anti-racist theorising and practice, the focus is on critiquing majority racism; the focus on anti-communalism theorising and practice has to be the critique of majority Hindu communalism in India. Racism as a social phenomenon exists, in its current form, because of the supremacist thinking, behaviour and practices in the dominant white community in the West. Similarly communalism in India exists, in its current form, because of the supremacist thinking, behaviour and practices in the dominant Hindu community in India.

The fight against institutional communalism in India alerts us to the bigger challenge than merely inflicting electoral defeats on the Hindu communal parties and organisations. Causing electoral defeats of Hindu communal parties and organisations remains an important anti-communalism strategic task and needs to be seen as a part of eradicating institutional communalisms. However, even if such parties are defeated electorally but institutional Hindu communalism remains pervasive in varying degrees in India’s constitution, judiciary, civil services, electoral and parliamentary institutions, security forces, prisons, academia, media, corporate business and even NGOs, it will continue as a social, cultural and politico-economic force to disadvantage the lives of minority communities in India. Thinking from the perspective of institutional communalism not only alerts the anti-communalism practioneers in India to the massive challenge they face but also to the need for devising practical devices to monitor communalism in the everyday working practices of a vast range of institutions in India. There is a lot to learn from the equal opportunity initiatives in many western countries in the way racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are monitored, recorded and evaluated, accountability is fixed, and progress is continuously measured. It is important to do the pedagogical and ideological work against communalism but it is even more important to use practical tools to confront and defeat institutional communalism because when power interests are involved as they are in institutional communalism, mere ideological preaching has very limited effect. Those who exercise power through institutional communalism need to be confronted and defeated by challenging these institutions themselves on a continuous basis.

(Acknowledgements: This is a revised/updated version of the article in a forthcoming book Communalism in Post-Colonial India: Changing Contours (Routledge) edited by Mujibur Rehman which has contributions, among others, by Martha Nussbaum; Ramin Jehanbegloo, Harsh Mander and Rowena Robinson. Thanks to the publisher and the editor for the permission to publish this article. I am thankful to James Chiriyankandath, Meena Dhanda, Rohini Hensman, Bhabani Nayak, Manisha Sethi and especially Tanya Singh for comments on earlier drafts of this article. The usual declaimer applies)

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