What is Communalism?

Lesson Transcript
Joe Ricker

Joe has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

Communalism is an ideology that advocates for a group's self-chosen separation from mainstream society. Learn the origins of this ideology in British India, the characteristics of the ideology, and study an example from India. Updated: 01/11/2022

An Ideology

Communalism, like most ideologies, is a school of thought shared by a specific group of people. Specifically, communalism is the shared belief within a particular culture that promotes religious and secular isolation from another group. In other words, communalism is a form of segregation, only it's a segregation that the group being segregated actually chooses. In theory, there are many different reasons a group could become communalist, but typically these groups resort to isolating themselves based on religion.

A communalist group believes that their loyalty should lie within the group that they're a part of above any other loyalty, like nationalism (or loyalty to a country), because their ideals and beliefs don't match those of other groups. Many communalist groups even believe that they're a nation of separate confederacies rather than part of the country in which their members actually reside.

Often, the trouble with communalism is that each group denies the fact that they have more commonalities with other groups than they have differences. This can result in groups becoming hostile to one another, which has given communalism negative connotations. But it's important to remember that it's not always the groups themselves that originally instituted the ideology of communalism. In India, for example, much of the communalism (and resulting inter-group conflict) between the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians was initially promoted by the British. Seems like a strange thing for a government to do, right? Let's explore why.

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  • 0:03 An Ideology
  • 1:34 Colonization &…
  • 3:44 Progression of Communalism
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Colonization & Government Control

Communalism didn't really become an ideology until the British colonization of India, making it a fairly modern concept. It got started after the British realized that when they promoted nationalism, minority groups might realize they had shared interests, become more dominant, and resist British control of India, which could have led to another revolt like the Revolt of 1857. So instead of promoting nationalism, the British encouraged groups to essentially isolate themselves from and reject other religious groups, especially the Muslims. Muslims were specifically targeted by the British because the concept of nationalism was slower to spread among them than it was with the Hindus, so they already identified as more of an outside group. By encouraging communalism, the British were able to exaggerate this sense of separation in order to maintain control. Essentially, this control was achieved by promoting fear.

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Additional Activities

Communalism – Writing Activity

Imagine you are a British colonial official in India in 1858. You've just experienced the Revolt of 1857, which witnessed collaboration between India's Hindu and Muslim populations. You fear that Britain may lose control over its profitable colony of India. You meet with a group of Muslim leaders to express your concerns. They are expressing a strong nationalist stance and demand the British leave their country. Write them a 2-3 paragraph letter explaining why they should fear other groups, especially the Hindu. Your letter should stress that since Hindus outnumbered Muslims, they should fear Hindu power, especially when it comes to their economic and religious interests.

Discussion Activity

With your classmates discuss the key concepts of communalism. While communalism can have negative consequences, does it possess any positive qualities? Why or why not? Beyond what you learned in this lesson about communalism in 19th century India, can you think of any instances of communalism in the present day? This could be religious or secular communalism. What consequences does that communalism have for the broader society? The goal of this discussion is to grapple with the characteristics of communalism, its manifestations in our society.

Additional Questions to Consider:

What is the definition of communalism?

  • Answer: Communalism is the shared belief within a particular culture that promotes religious and secular isolation from another group.

Why did the British promote communalism in India among different groups such as the Hindu, Muslim, Sikhs and Christian populations?

  • Answer: The British promoted communalism to keep minority groups from realizing they had shared interests, especially in resisting Britain's colonial rule. The British maintained control by promoting fear and distrust.

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