Understanding India’s Hindu-Muslim Divide

The question that still haunts rational minds is whether Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory — one that Islam and Hinduism constitute two incompatible cultural, social, political and religious systems — was right or wrong.

A journey back in time exploring the motives both of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and the Indian National Congress (INC) party’s decisions around the time of Partition has become a cliché. However, the Indian subcontinent is still looking for answers to the questions that arose seven decades ago, following Pakistan’s and India’s independence, on August 14 and 15, 1947, respectively. The ghost of Jinnah still seems to be haunting the subcontinent’s political and academic universe.

The question that still haunts rational minds is whether Jinnah’s two-nation theory — one that Islam and Hinduism constitute two incompatible cultural, social, political and religious systems — was right or wrong. The INC, India’s main political party leading the independence movement, rejected Jinnah’s two-nation idea because it went against its belief in secularism. The Hindu nationalist groups rejected Jinnah’s theory because it went against their idea of an undivided India, or Akhand Bharat — the ancient vision of the cultural unity of India from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Myanmar borders.

However, the deadly communal riots across India and Pakistan in the last 70 years may not be the most appropriate yardstick to categorically measure Jinnah’s hypothesis, at least in highly moralistic terms, but are indeed compelling enough to find a sense of pragmatism and wisdom in what Jinnah propounded.

Historic Divide

Understanding Jinnah’s thought requires a journey back into the history of the Hindu-Muslim divide on the Indian subcontinent. As early as 1025 AD, while destroying and plundering the holy Indian shrine of Somnath, Afghan invader Mahmud Ghaznavi had clear religious objectives of spreading Islam and punishing Hindu idolaters; 50,000 Hindus were massacred in the raid. Later, several Muslim invaders took the title of butshikan (iconoclast) and Ghazi (religious warrior) after destroying Hindu temples. Sympathetic left-wing historians like Romila Thapar argue that the sultans killed an equal number of Muslim heretics and that their motivations were economic, not religious.

Such intellectual attempts hardly make a difference, as in the popular Hindu imagination Muslim invaders remain uncivilized murderers and plunderers. It can be best summarized in the words of the eminent politician and scholar of India, K.M. Munshi: “For a thousand years Mahmud’s destruction of the shrine [in Somnath] has been burnt into the collective sub-conscious of the (Hindu) race as an unforgettable national disaster.”

Jizya (a religious tax levied on non-Muslims) continued to be collected on Hindus until Mughal Emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605 and was known for his secular views, banned it. It was again resumed by Aurangzeb, the last Mughal ruler notorious for his religious bigotry, in 1704 to garner the support of Muslim clergy. Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, the “Mujaddid” (redeemer), advocated strict sharia law and harsh treatment of Hindus during the reign of Jehangir (1605-27).

Historians Konrad Elst and K.S. Lal have given vivid accounts of the mass conversions and genocide of Hindu population during Islamic rule in India. Lal, in his book, Growth of Muslim Population in India, writes that the Hindu population declined by 80 million between 1000 AD and 1525 AD. Sultan Balban is said to have killed 100,000 Hindus in the Mewat region of India. Elst, in his article “Was there an Islamic genocide of Hindus?” quotes Ferishta, a 17th-century Muslim historian of India, saying that the Bahmani sultans alone killed more than 100,000 Hindus between 1347 and 1528 — and that was a second-grade provincial dynasty.

The temples continued to be destroyed as late as in the reign of Aurangzeb. The revolts of Hindu communities such as Marathas, Rajputs, Jats, Satnamis and Sikhs against Aurangzeb’s religious bigotry had a strong flavor of the Hindu resistance against Muslim rulers that had been going on since 712 AD — the year when Arabs captured Sindh. Even the peaceful Bhakti movement, with its egalitarian sentiment, was aimed to prevent conversions of Hindu lower castes to Islam.

The eminent journalist and expert on the history of communal politics in South Asia, M.J. Akbar, opines that the so-called Muslim reformers like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan were addressing the native Hindus as apes as late as the 1870s. In modern India, he was the first to propound the theory of Hindus and Muslims constituting two different and incompatible cultural systems. Even before Khan, Shah Waliullah, an 18th-century Muslim thinker, was preaching to Muslims to maintain distance from Hindus, never making a secret of his aim to restore Muslim power.

Later, the All-India Muslim League — founded in 1906 by landed Muslim aristocracy to secure their communal and political interests — had demanded separate electorates for Muslims in 1909 and 1919. Even during the Mahatma Gandhi-led Khilafat non-cooperation movement of 1919 there were brutal communal riots in Kerala, where Moplah Muslims massacred hundreds of Hindus. B.R. Ambedkar, the famous Dalit leader, had bitterly criticized Gandhi for turning a blind eye to Moplah atrocities against Hindus. The Jinnah brothers, who had supported Gandhi’s Khilafat movement against the British, turned to communal politics in the 1920s. Thus, Jinnah became the last phase in this story of Hindu-Muslim animosity that began in 712, which Jinnah hailed the year as the genesis of Pakistan movement.

Foolhardy Idealism or Extreme Arrogance?

Given the historical background of the Hindu-Muslim divide, the Indian National Congress’ rejection of Jinnah’s two-nation theory can be seen as either foolhardy idealism or an extreme form of arrogance that didn’t accept Jinnah as a genuine voice of Muslim sentiment.

The Partition riots of 1947 claimed more than a million lives and saw savage sexual violence, during which 75,000 women were raped. Post-independence India also witnessed bloody communal violence — the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, the 1969 and 2001 Gujarat riots, the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam, the Hindu killings in Kashmir in 1990 — all of which claimed lives of thousands of innocent Hindus and Muslims. In 2017 alone, India witnessed 811 communal incidents in which 111 people died and 2,384 were injured.

In almost every state, communal riots are a regular occurrence. And, if there are no riots, social relations between Hindus and Muslims are fractious and tense. In several cities across India, Muslim areas are often referred to as mini-Pakistans. The situation in any two-tier town is so vulnerable that a minor incident of an affair between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, or a dispute over a religious procession, could spark a bloodbath. Muslims find it extremely difficult to rent houses and face discrimination in the job market; social interactions between the two communities have diminished, and bitterness increased. One also comes across an even more alarming development of a rapid increase in the Saudi-funded Wahhabi radicalization of Sunni Muslims.


India needs to harness the strengths of its traditional sycnretic culture, adopt a systematic approach to promote communal harmony and rein in extremist fringe groups from both the Hindu and Muslim communities.


In in a parallel development, Hindu nationalism and extremism is also on a sharp upward trajectory. Communal violence rose by 28% between 2014 and 2017, following the the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power. Killings over beef consumption have become common. Post-2014 India is no longer the non-aligned nation of Nehru’s socialism and secularism that often verges on the appeasement of Islamism. In today’s India, the famous spiritual leader Sri Sri fears a Syria-like civil war if the Hindu temple is not built in the Ayodhya district on the site where a mosque was constructed after demolishing a Hindu temple back in the 16th century.

Today’s India openly speaks of a Zionist-Hindu alliance against Islamic extremism. Gandhi and Nehru are no more the same respectable figures they were until five years ago. On social media platforms, one can witness the disgust and hatred against them. They are criticized as idealists and appeasers of Islamism for opposing Partition in the first place and for not implementing in its letter and spirit, meaning the complete transfer of Hindu and Muslim populations to India and Pakistan respectively. On the contrary, Gandhi’s murderer Nathuram Godse is a hero for a vast section of the Indian middle class. Historians who allegedly downplayed the atrocities of the Muslim rulers to create a narrative of Hindu-Muslim harmony are being criticized on academic platforms and in the media.

Expectedly, the relations between Hindus and other religious communities are generally cordial, barring few exceptions. Christianity, brought by the British in the 18th century, has integrated well into Indian society. However, the case with Islam is unique. Even after more than 1,000 years, recent trends indicate further radicalization and isolation of India’s Muslims. The Hindu-Muslim divide in India remains a potential source of communal violence or even a civil war. History of Hindu-Muslim relations is marred by bitter communal riots before and after India’s independence. As of late, growing radicalization among Muslims and Hindu nationalists alike is adding to the frictions.

Peaceful Coexistence

Jinnah’s critics argue that communal harmony and peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims is a norm, whereas the riots are aberrations. They emphasize the role of the British’s divide-and-rule policy, communal politics of the Muslim League and Hindu extremism for giving birth to Pakistan’s independence movement. However, such idealistic positions hardly make a dent in the reality of the perilous Hindu-Muslim divide. Further, there can be debate around the causes, nature and nuances of the Hindu-Muslim animosity, but not around the hard facts of a tense relationship between the two communities, frequently manifesting in communal violence.

If Congress had accepted the reality of Hindu-Muslim divide, many lives could have been saved in both pre- and post-independence India and Pakistan. In such a scenario, Jinnah would not have felt a threat to the idea of Pakistan and had not given a call to what became known as Direct Action Day, unleashing upon the city of Kolkata the most brutal and bloody riots in the history of India.

Further, the INC’s concept of an undivided India (encompassing today’s Pakistan, Bangladesh and India) would have been an administrative, political and a social catastrophe if it aimed to flourish as a modern nation state. The partition could have taken place, if not peacefully and amicably, than at least in a much less violent manner, managing the complete transfer of the population over a specified period mutually agreed upon by India and Pakistan if sufficient planning had been done in advance to execute it.

India’s rejection of two-nation theory was perceived by the nascent Islamic republic, which was comparatively a much smaller country, as an existential threat. This has had its impact on the global jihad movement. The drive to inject the extremist version of Islam in the functioning of the state and social existence was aimed at strengthening the idea of Pakistan and differentiating it from India. Islam was the only recourse. As a result, Pakistan witnessed an intense radicalization drive decimating the liberal Sufi strains of Islam. For over two decades now, the country has been a nursery of terrorism.

Today, Pakistan is home to several jihadi outfits like Lashkar-i-Taiba, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba advocating the killing of Shias, Ahmadiyas, Hindus and all other minorities of Pakistan. Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are finding safe havens and fertile recruiting grounds in Pakistan.

Had the INC acted a little more sensibly and accepted Jinnah’s two-nation theory, the trajectory of Pakistan’s development could have been different. At least, Pakistan could not have had the justification of a threat from India to Islamize its society and state institutions. India and Pakistan could have stayed if not necessarily friends, then at least good neighbors doing business, quite similar to the way India and Bangladesh coexist today. Many wars could have been averted, and billions could have been spent on development. Former prime minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee rightly said, in a different context, “Moments made mistakes but ages suffer.”

In India’s case, revisiting history to mull over the merits and pitfalls of the two-state solution as an answer to India’s Muslim question may be an exercise in futility now. Today, Muslims constitute the largest minority in India (14%), spread across the country. Given the backdrop of rising extremism and above-mentioned domestic factors, radicalization may intensify in the future. It can have a range of consequences such as communal riots and organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS finding a foothold in India.

India needs to harness the strengths of its traditional sycnretic culture, adopt a systematic approach to promote communal harmony and rein in extremist fringe groups from both the Hindu and Muslim communities.

*[An abridged version of this article was published by Haaretz.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Abhinav Pandya