What is ‘communal’? The problem of false equivalence: Sheba Tejani

Guest post by SHEBA TEJANI

Although the BJP has attempted to build a campaign around the issue of “vikas” during this election, the hate filled fumes of “communalism” keep slipping through the cracks. Last week, we heard Ramdas Kadam say that Modi would find a permanent solution for recalcitrant Muslims and ship them off to Pakistan, which he would also incidentally destroy in six months. Giriraj Singh wanted to send everyone who opposed Modi to Pakistan. A video clip showed Praveen Togadia inviting his audience in Bhavnagar to evict Muslims and forcibly occupy their homes, openly encouraging criminal activity. FIRs have been filed against Kadam and Togadia after the Election Commission took note of their speeches while Singh has been barred from campaigning.

But then some would say other candidates and parties are no better and make similarly incendiary remarks: Shazia Ilmi, AAP’s candidate from Ghaziabad recently urged a group of Muslims to be more “communal” and less “secular” in deciding whom to vote for. She urged them to defend their own interests and to vote for one of “their own”, including Arvind Kejriwal in that category.

Ilmi’s remarks were seen as an affront to secular values and were widely reported in the media as such. In a brief TV interview with NDTV, anchor Vishnu Som grilled Ilmi by repeatedly asking if she had really asked Muslims to be communal?[1] Ilmi tries in various ways to dodge the charge by saying that she meant Muslims should vote with their own interests in mind, that they had been “taken for a huge ride” by the Congress, that she was not inciting violence and finally that she was being sarcastic and using the words communal and secular in an ironic way. At one point, she contests what the word communal means but none of this holds water with the anchor who looks almost offended and incredulous and keeps repeating the same question.

In fact, Ilmi was caught in a trap that is very much the making of the peculiar way the word “communal”, and its derivative “communalism”, are used in the country. In India, to be communal is to nurture prejudice against members of another religious community and the word is mostly used in the context of Hindu-Muslim relations. To be communal is to be a religious bigot. Of course, this is not the sense in which communal is used in other parts of the world where it refers, more prosaically, to some activity or object of a community, e.g., communal living, communal property, etc. This was also how the term communal was primarily used in colonial accounts of India. The present usage of the word emerged quite late in the Indian context, around the 1920s and 1930s, in reports and papers of Indian nationalists who drew on the previous colonial use of the word, which contained shades of its present meaning, and transformed it.[2]

Pandey (2006) notes that Indian nationalists adopted the term—which he calls “a form of colonialist knowledge”—quite uncritically and did much to propagate it (p. 6). Colonial accounts, he writes, have constructed the native as fundamentally irrational and animated by primitive instincts, such as religious bigotry, as opposed to the colonizer who is at once rational, secular and capable of “reason”. The former is a passive object of history, frozen in time, while the latter its active agent.[3] The “communal” nature of Indian society in such accounts is then a forgone conclusion. Although the nationalists’ view of the problem of communalism was considerably different—they saw it as the result of recent history, politics and economic inequality that had to be overcome to complete the task of nation building—nationalist discourse was not entirely free of the colonial allusion either, Pandey argues. Which might partly explain why the term was adopted without much resistance.

Nevertheless, over time the meaning of the term shifted completely and in 1928, the Nehru Report clearly stated, “The communal problem of India is primarily the Hindu-Muslim problem” and subsequent histories and documents began freely using the term communal in this sense.[4] In its present usage, communalism’s opposite is secularism, which implies the absence of religious prejudice and bigotry or something like respect for all religions. The concept of secularism as enshrined in the Constitution is similar and implies the state’s equal distance from all religions but again it differs from that in the West where it means the separation of church and state, though this need not detain us here any longer.

Now the problem is that the everyday interpretation of the word communal has made it impossible to talk about group interests, particularly with respect to religious groups, without inviting the charge of being “communal.” When Shazia Ilmi asks Muslims to vote with the community’s interests in mind, she is making an entirely legitimate appeal to voters in a representative democracy in which many different groups compete for their collective interests, make claims and petition the state for their fulfilment. That is the business of politics. Of course one might have an issue with identity-based politics but that is a different critique and the point is that these groups might be based on a variety of collectivities from ideology and class to occupation and sexuality. But such is the conflation of a religious group’s interests with “communalism” that when the Congress announced it would create a 4.5 per cent quota for backward Muslims in the OBC category, the BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad called it, “the most corrupt example of communalism”.[5] Actions taken or even proposed in the collective interest of a particular group are instantly delegitimized by colouring them with the same brush as religious bigotry.

The Election Commission even applies this interpretation of what it is to be communal in its model code of conduct where it says, “There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes”.[6]Perhaps deleting the word “feelings” and replacing it with prejudice or hatred might have been more appropriate. But it seems that the EC’s problem is not just poor drafting; it displays an inability to grasp the different (and legitimate) ways in which group identities and interests can be and are mobilized in an election. With regard to the Ilmi case, Election Commissioner H.S. Brahma was quoted as saying, “I have seen the video clip. Ilmi is a well-educated lady….I did not expect her to make such remarks. We have called for the tapes and will examine their authenticity before deciding on further course of action.” [7]

Still, it can be asked whether Ilmi was right and if Muslim voters are really not “communal” in their vote. Incidentally, the factors guiding Muslim voters are almost identical to those guiding Hindu voters as research by CSDS and Lokniti has shown: for instance in the 2004 general election, Muslims chose candidates based largely on political party (44%) followed by candidate (32%) and only then by community (8.5%).[8] This is almost identical to the selection criteria of Hindu voters. In terms of political parties, at the national level Muslims tend to vote largely for the Congress, followed by the Samajwadi Party, the left parties and then the BJP, though at the state level things can look very different as ground level concerns, the configuration of regional parties and the availability of political alternatives determine which party and candidate the vote goes to.[9] Besides, there is considerable heterogeneity among Muslims themselves based on sect, region and socio-economic background and this no doubt influences how they vote. Contrary to popular representations of Muslims as narrow and sectarian voters, their voting profile suggests they are guided by concerns quite similar to their fellow citizens. This might even be considered surprising by some given that Muslims have a relatively lower socio-economic status, face discrimination based on religion and are often subject to outbreaks of sectarian violence.

In conclusion, there is an even more serious problem with the current usage of the word communal. It serves to obfuscate acts and words that really do promote sectarian hatred and provoke violence and other criminal acts. By not naming them clearly as such, and by creating a false equivalence with legitimate political activity and labelling them both “communal”, we end up diminishing the gravity of hate speech and bigotry of all kinds and create a moral ambiguity where none should exist. Indeed it is paradoxical that sectarian prejudice and violence have themselves reified Muslim identities in India over time but that political organization by Muslims is at once deemed “communal”.


[1] “Muslims are too secular,” says AAP’s Shazia Ilmi in video,” NDTV, April 22, 2014. Available at http://www.ndtv.com/elections/article/election-2014/muslims-are-too-secular-says-aap-s-shazia-ilmi-in-video-512250

[2]G. Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2006.

[3]Pandey 2006.

[4]Pandey 2006, p. 9

[5] “BJP hits out at Congress for sneaking in quota through sub-manifesto, The Times of India, April 26, 2014.

[6] “Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates”, Election Commssion of India, http://eci.nic.in/eci_main/MCC-ENGLISH_28022014.pdf.

[7]“Election Commission calls for Shazia Ilmi tapes,” The Times of India, April 24, 2014 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/lok-sabha-elections-2014/news/Election-Commission-calls-for-Shazia-Ilmi-tapes/articleshow/34126404.cms

[8] [8] H. Ahmad, “A diversified Muslim identity,” The Hindu, March 31, 2014.

[9] Ahmad 2014.


Sheba Tejani is currently Visiting Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

4 thoughts on “What is ‘communal’? The problem of false equivalence: Sheba Tejani”

  1. Ramdas Kadam you mean.. oh no, now the modi social network will jump on that typo and say that you always get it all wrong. :) There is a way out yet. Just smile and say that it was Ramdev Baba and Ramdas Kadam who issued a joint statement :)) Fight fire with fire. If you repeat it enough times and then make it sound like an elision of Ramdev and Ramdas, it will be alright. Our great republic will swallow it whole. Trust me.


  2. Less to this than meets the eye.
    Ilmi wasn’t being communal but urging strategic voting on the basis of a material commonality of interests.
    Togadia, on the other hand is simply a criminal and should be prosecuted as such.
    Everybody knows this.
    So what is the point being made by our erudite author?
    Can it really be the notion that no Muslim organisation, in India, can be ‘communal’?
    Why not?
    Non-sectarian forces- like the Qaumi Ekta Sangh- are being challenged in Varanasi itself by Sectarian ‘Communitarians’. No doubt the great secular hero of that party, Ansari Sahib, is not Sectarian. But, why should Bahrelvis continue to tolerate Govt. favouritism towards Deobandis? What about Qadianis? Their money power is well known. What about Modi’s paymasters- the Bohras against whom Asghar Ali Engineer raised his voice in vain?
    Ansari Sahib was put in jail only for killing some Hindu politicians and for being a gangster.
    How is this ‘Secularism’?
    Do you want to defeat Narendra Modi or are you his apologist?


  3. My favorite dictionary is the American Heritage Dictionary because it focuses on usage. They use the guidance of the usage panel, which they set up while the dictionary is being edited. As a result, it is the most useful dictionary I have come across. That said, the dictionary clearly refers to American usage. I think it’s time for an Indian Heritage dictionary of the English language.
    Incidentally this reminded me of Nehru saying that the communalism of the minority will always be recognized for what it is whereas the communalism of the majority can be disguised as nationalism.
    I’m guessing that different people read different things in Shazia Ilmi’s comments. I for one chuckled – because I though she was being sarcastic.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s