From The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India by Paul R. Brass:

Historical analysis of Hindu-Muslim communal conflict, its causes and preconditions, has been highly contentious in character. Contemporary historians of India do not even agree on whether or not there existed before the nineteenth century anything that could be called Hindu or Muslim communal identities, and, a fortiori, on whether or not Hindu-Muslim conflict was endemic. On one side are those who argue that Hindu-Muslim consciousness and conflict are largely modern constructions, in which the British colonial rulers played a major role, either through deliberate "divide and rule" policies or through the ways in which they categorized, classified, and counted the various peoples of India. Historians who accept this point of view also tend to see Hindu and/or Muslim communal consciousness or communalism as forms of ideology or discourse connected to class, group, and elite political interests. In this perspective, the creation or development of communal consciousness is an instrument of struggle, either against the British or between Hindus and Muslims for political advantage or supremacy. In the course of struggle, communal violence could be and often was the result of conflicts framed within a communal discourse.​

I do not understand the lines in bold. What are class and group political interests, and how are they different from each other? How was the creation of communal consciousness an instrument of struggle against the British?

  • 8
    class interests is dogwhistle for Marxism - all of history, and in fact all of reality, can be explained by examining people on a single variable - are they part of the proletariat, or are they part of the bourgeoisie? There is a simple rule that distinguishes between the two classes: the speaker is a proletariat, the listener is an aspiring proletariat, and everyone else in reality is counterrevolutionary. As with most single variable analysis of history, the fervor of the adherents is inversely proportional to the utility of the analytical framework.
    – MCW
    Mar 25, 2021 at 17:28
  • What is wrong with the information on Wikipedia:Elite Theory?
    – MCW
    Mar 25, 2021 at 17:34

2 Answers 2


Disclaimer: I do not claim to have any clue about India. I am answering this question because the question says "what do these lines mean", rather than "are these lines an accurate portrayal of what actually happened?".

The lines you are quoting are assuming that Hindus and Muslims are not "natural" enemies. History has examples of how groups that are enemies today might get along better tomorrow, and vice versa. You might take e.g. Protestants and Catholics in most of Europe in the 17th century vs today as an example for the first, and e.g. Poles and Jews in the 16th century vs. the 19th century as an example for the second (though I am just guessing a bit re. Poles and Jews).

Furthermore, the whole concept of Hindus and Muslims as a coherent group, as natural as it may seem, is not a given. Chinese would never sort themselves along lines such as Daoists vs. Buddhists*. The idea of an exclusively Catholic political party would be ridiculous in today's Germany, yet one such party played an important role in pre-Nazi Germany.

What is more, the emergence of such groups can be influenced by outside events. E.g. in the early 1920s, Austrians thought of themselves as part of a German nation and there actually was a strong movement to form a single state. Today this view is an absolute fringe position. There was not much of a shared identity between what later become East Germany in the 1930s, but today there is.

What these lines are saying is that

  1. (the emergence of) the belief that Muslims and Hindus are groups that are separate from each other, and rather incompatible, was influenced by class interests (in the European context one might think of how rural East Elbia was defined and kept alive by a certain social class), group interests (e.g. every time that protestants somewhere appealed to their protestant brothers) and interests of the political elites (in the European context, I believe Henry VIIIs role in establishing protestantism in England may be the most poignant among many examples)
  2. some people where actively working to create a stronger sense of identity and coherence among India's Muslims and India's Hindus, either in order to oppose the British or in order to support their respective religious group against the other group. Again for a Non-Indian example, you might think of the role catholicism and a catholic pope played in 1980s Poland. Or of the Jihads that regularly get declared against Western powers. An Indian example that came to my mind may be the role lard and tallow played in the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
  3. this led to conflicts increasingly being interpreted as Muslims vs. Hindus, and these conflicts tended to lead to communal violence. Analogies from other parts of the world might be how the Northern Ireland conflict is being interpreted as Protestant vs. Catholic, although everywhere else in Europe, Protestants and Catholics get along fine. Or how the Israel/Palestine conflict is interpreted as conflict between Jews and Muslims, even though there are Muslims living peacefully in Israel and Jews living peacefully in certain Muslim countries.

Quite often there is not the one single reason for a violent conflict. This applies to economic or social (a.k.a. "class") differences, religious differences, and a number of other differences you might think of. On the other hand there are conflicts were religion clearly plays a major role (say, the Khajirite uprising in the 7th century). In any case it is usually a good idea to not accept some simple explanation at face value, be it religion, or nationality, class, or machinations of some political elite.

Finally, I think an early example of the view that religious differences might not really matter that much, even if they have grave and important consequences today, is Jonathan's Swift's text about eggs and endianness from 1726.

Since other users seem to care a lot about Marxism, it may be worth pointing out that one good example of "the creation or development of communal consciousness [as] an instrument of struggle" might be the Chinese cultural revolution. Where previously and afterwards students and teachers got along just like everywhere else in the world, i.e. not in perfect harmony, but not killing each other either, in 1966 Mao began emphasizing how China's youth is the vanguard of the revolution and how authority figures are always holding them back.

Thus we have a moment in which group interests (those of students not always in perfect harmony with their teachers)** came together with the interests of a certain part of the political elite (Mao and some allies) to form a group consciousness among much of China's youth (first sentence). The whole point of the exercise was of course a power struggle at the top of the CCP (second sentence). Consequently, a wide range of very normal teacher/student conflicts were reframed as "reactionary teacher vs. progressive student", and regularly taken as a reason to commit violence (third sentence).

On the other hand there of course can be conflicts along community lines without any influence from political elites or from any colonial politics. A typical example might be conflicts between settled and nomadic groups, whjch very easily arise from a direct competition for natural resources. You can find hints of this rather early in the bible (the murder of Abel) and lots and lots of examples from written history.

*though it should be noted that neither Daoism nor Buddhism have the "you shall have no other god beside me" that Abrahamitic religions such as Islam have. I.e. there are many people who may be both Buddhist and Daoist at the same time.

**high school students tend to think they have an interest in schools being closed (at least for a while), in a break from ordinary school routine, and in getting rid of teachers they do not like.

  • High school students tend to think they have an interest in schools being closed (at least for a while), in a break from ordinary school routine, and in getting rid of teachers they do not like. I believe the rest of your commrent is more or less a forum post.
    – Jan
    Mar 26, 2021 at 17:26
  • 1
    What I mean is that some alleged history and present of Islam around the world is.neither the topic of the question nor of this answer.
    – Jan
    Mar 26, 2021 at 17:35
  • Mao deliberately used the students to crush his foes and then he used factory workers to crush the students. The students lost by this. So did the workers. The truth is different 'classes' have the highest interest in cooperation, not in fighting. You question the status of 'Hindus and Muslims as separate groups'. But Islam has a very clear answer to this. Circumcision, namaz, zakat, sawm, hajj etc. are 'costly signals'. Then there is the farz-e-kifaya of jihad- i.e. collective duty of Holy War. The logical coherence and spiritual beauty of Islam inspires Political Islam.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Mar 26, 2021 at 17:36
  • This question asks- what did Paul Brass mean when he wrote this. Since my Dad knew Brass as part of his job as an Indian diplomat, and, by reason of my own domain expertise, I'm myself an authority on some Indian topics, I gave a simple 'emic' answer. Brass did good field work in the early Sixties. Indians liked him. We used him to articulate a particular 'caste=caste' ideology which, predictably, failed because we ignored the Spiritual and Moral nature of Religion. My novel 'Samlee's daughter' (readable on Google Books) shows why 'elites' harmed India with half-baked 'secularism'.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Mar 26, 2021 at 17:45
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    @user392289 It was a pleaure. Just keep in mind that just because some authors write this or just because some people would like it to be so does not yet make it true. The concepts from those lines are not -when knowing nothing about India - entirely implausible on their own. But that does not yet mean such arguments hold a lot of water when looking at the actual situation on the ground.
    – Jan
    Mar 27, 2021 at 9:19

If you believe that all history is about 'class conflict'- i.e. rich vs poor- and that 'Religion is the opium of the masses' (i.e. rich people use Religion to fool the poor) then you will also believe that Hindu and/or Muslim communal consciousness or communalism (are) forms of ideology or discourse connected to class, group, and elite political interests.

Thus, if Hindus and Muslims in a particular town killed each other because a pig wandered into a mosque or a cow was killed near a Temple then the real cause of the violence was that

  1. Supposing Hindus were in the majority in the area then Dalits (low caste Hindus) had been paid by Hindu merchants to stage this provocation by letting a pig of theirs loose. The aim of the Hindu merchants was to harm Muslim competitiors or else
  2. Supposing Muslims were in the majority, then Muslim landlords wanted to provoke the Hindus so that they would get massacred. Their aim was to get out of repaying loans from Hindu bankers.

The details might vary, but the basic idea is that all problems are caused either by Hindu businessmen or else by Muslim 'feudal' landlords.

In this perspective, the creation or development of communal consciousness is an instrument of struggle, either against the British or between Hindus and Muslims for political advantage or supremacy.

In other words, either the 'neo-feudal' Muslim landlords are brainwashing poor Muslims so that they will fight against Hindus or else 'proto-capitalist' Hindus are brainwashing poor Hindus so that they will fight against Muslims. It is not the case that either Muslims or Hindus would organize on the basis of religion absent some Machiavellian trick played either by 'feudal' landlords or by 'capitalist' merchants.

The problem with this view is that there is evidence of Hindu and Muslim political organizations working against the British (e.g. Khilafat campaign). This is rationalized as the desire of Muslim 'feudal' landlords to throw off irksome British laws or else of 'capitalist' Hindus intent on monopolizing the Indian economy.

The later fight between Hindus and Sikhs vs. Muslims was seen as either

  1. reactionary Muslim feudal landlords resisting Democracy (if you were Hindu) or
  2. anti-Capitalist Muslims defeating the machinations of cunning Hindu Capitalists (if you were Muslim)

In the course of struggle, communal violence could be and often was the result of conflicts framed within a communal discourse. It is true that Hindus and Muslims killed each other without ever mentioning feudalism or Capitalism. But this was only because there was something called 'communal discourse' which was a system of thought, knowledge, or communication which constructed Indian experience of the world. Thus before the problem of feudalism (i.e the power of landlords) or Capitalism (i.e. the activities of merchants) can be tackled, Academics must first 'deconstruct' or 'subvert' 'communal discourse'. This will cause ordinary people to wake up from an evil enchantment. They will realize they aren't Hindu or Muslim or Punjabi or Sindhi. They are whatever it is these academics think they should be. Once this happens, everybody will start behaving very differently. Thus these historians, or sociologists or political scientists will have brought about a miraculous change in Society just by writing in this vacuous manner.

Great mischief has been done in India by giving credence to this shallow view. Vide http://socioproctology.blogspot.com/2012/08/paul-brass-on-partition-genocide.html

  • Thank you so much for your answer! But I still don't fully understand how the creation of communal consciousness was an instrument of struggle against the British. Could you please elaborate on that?
    – user392289
    Mar 26, 2021 at 5:31
  • 1
    In the 1890's the British Viceroy saw that the Indian National Congress was achieving 'mass contact' through the Hindu 'cow protection campaign'. Leftists say Hindus didn't really care about cows, this was a ploy to weaken the British. Later, after Turkey lost Libya etc, Muslims organized a mass campaign to support the Ottoman Caliph. Again, the Brits suspected this was just a ruse to weaken them. Later Khilafat leaders offered a 'cow protection' in return for Khilafat support deal to the Hindus and initially this was successful. Leftists see all this as 'false consciousness'.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Mar 26, 2021 at 8:34
  • 2
    From the Leftist p.o.v, Religious demands are always an excuse for an economic demand of a particular class of either 'feudals' or a 'bazari proto-capitalists'. Thus, the Iranian Revolution or the Mujahidin toppling of the Communist regime in Afghanistan wasn't because people reject the Left, it was because of 'communal consciousness' and 'Islamic discourse'.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Mar 26, 2021 at 8:38
  • 1
    @user392289 From the leftist perspective, humans could only associate among themselves based on their economic class. I.e. German worker has much more in common with Russian worker than with German capitalist. Every other association based on religion, race, nationality, language ... is "false". Of course, real life shatters all those leftists theories , and WW2 is a good example, but so is partition of India.
    – rs.29
    Mar 26, 2021 at 9:33

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