Religion, politics and nationalism in pre-independent India/South Asia and the formation of India and Pakistan

The close interrelation between religion and politics in South Asia is not a phenomenon of the last 20 years. In South Asia, the natures of the Indian independence movement and of the colonial administration play vital roles. The following article demonstrates how these links between religion and politics were established in the period until independence in 1947.

The colonial administration

By the mid-19th century, modern modes of communication were introduced in South Asia, profoundly influencing the fields of economics, culture and politics. Against the background of colonial rule – the British Raj in the Indian sub-continent – new kinds of relationships between politics and religion gradually began to emerge.

Queen Victoria’s proclamation of British rule in India, in 1858, was the first important political event marking the beginning of this process. In the aftermath of the Indian army mutiny a year earlier, Queen Victoria’s proclamation was geared to prevent more ‘religiously’ motivated clashes. The proclamation guaranteed religious neutrality to all British subjects and, in doing so, restricted the state’s activities with respect to India’s religions; up to that point, the state had always been legitimised by religion. Paradoxically, this policy resulted in new forms of vigorous religious politics and public discourses concerned with religion and its role in society. Under the prevailing social conditions, political forces increasingly expressed their demands in religious and cultural terms. A political consciousness about ‘belief’ and ‘the religious group’ emerged. In this context, belief turned into a political category with ‘emancipatory functions’ (Dalmia 1997: 436), and also religious festivals became seen as a ‘sphere of autonomy in an increasingly repressive colonial state’ (Maclean 2003: 875).

In addition, from 1881 onwards census reports ‘profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion’, and ‘penetrated deep into the popular imagination, forming a powerful emblem for the anti-colonial nationalisms being born’ (Anderson 1991: 163ff, 175). As a result, despite ‘controversial disputes’,[i] the census supported the establishment of religious terms such as ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Muslim minority’ (Hutton 1933: 379). These terms gained currency, were transposed onto the political scene and eventually became involved in the electoral process.

The Indian independence movement/ Indian National Congress

Political leaders and parties began to shape to a greater or lesser extent their concepts and ideas along religious lines. The policies of the Indian National Congress (INC) reflected this development after the changes in 1919. Under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi (the Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’, 1869–1948), the INC turned into a mass-based movement which advocated non-violent means of protest and civil disobedience to end colonial rule. And although the INC ‘in principle [included] all ethnic and religious groups in its definition of the nation, and [respected] their beliefs and cultures’,[ii] it expressed the cultural-religious ideas of the majority, the imagined community of Hindus (Varshney 1993: 230). In this context, the unity of the national movement and the notion of national solidarity were articulated through Indian history and tradition. Unity, consensus and ‘tolerance’ (Gould 2004: 5) were seen as an ‘immanent quality of the cultural heritage of India’ (Rothermund 1979: 194). However, these qualities were expressed in cultural terms and, by and large, attributed to the Hindus. Key concepts related to the notion of state and to the principles of the political system, such as democracy, fundamental rights and freedom, were explained in terms of the Hindu’s heritage and their religion, Hinduism.

Leaders of the INC have, at various points, both used and argued with Hindu ideas and concepts. For Gandhi, politics were religiously inspired. He introduced satyagraha (insistence on truth) as a spiritual concept into the political debate and favoured ‘appreciating and conserving [religion]’ (Gandhi 1997: 44). He spoke in religious idioms and referred to religious traditions, ideas and symbols, such as the protection of the cow, the attainment of Ram Raja (rule of God), ‘Mother India’, the ethics of the Bhagavadgita, and the integration of the ‘untouchables’ into the Hindu religious system. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), India’s first prime minister after independence, differed with Gandhi on some of these issues. However, he too acknowledged the significance of religion in India’s national tradition which, according to him, led to the ‘old Vedantic conception that everything, whether sentient or insentient, finds a place in the organic whole’ (Nehru 1958a: 16). Nehru, therefore, considered that ‘it was thus easier for the Hindus to appear as full-blooded nationalists than for the Muslims’ (Nehru 1982: 720). For him, the negative side of religion – ‘that narrowing religious outlook’ – appeared to apply only when religions advocated violence (Nehru 1999: 519).

Thus the importance of religion in daily political life was reinforced by the colonial state as well as by nationalist leaders. Census officials recognised India as the ‘most religious country’ and Gandhi considered India to be the ideal exemplification of the way of life he advocated (Hutton 1933: 379).[iii] From the turn of the 20th century onwards, this national imagining of India set in motion a whole series of mutually re-enforcing events. The several constitutional reforms resulted in the so-called Communal Award of 1932, and a political separation between the religious communities, with the establishment of ‘General’ (Hindu) and Muslim constituencies. In 1940, this political development climaxed with demands for the establishment of another state on the South Asian sub-continent, namely Pakistan.

The All-India Muslim League and the Pakistan resolution

The demand ‘to constitute Independent States . . . in the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority’ was first put on the agenda by the All-India Muslim League in 1940 (Pirzada 1970: 341). The party proper had been formed in 1906, in view of the increasing representation of Indians in the legislatures after the 1909 constitutional reforms. Like the Indian National Congress, the All-India Muslim League combined religious and secular demands. Its leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), maintained that ‘religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the Business of the State’ (Jinnah n.d.: 8–9). However, religion played a critical role for Pakistan when Jinnah came to emphasise the ‘practices compatible with Islamic ideals of social and economic life’ (ibid: 160). In this context, Pakistan’s guiding principle in the constitution passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1949[iv] laid down that:

[God Almighty] has delegated to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limit . . . [and that] the Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and the collective spheres in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunna. (Mahmood 1990: 46)

Thus we find that, in the period leading up to independence, notions of the nation and some concepts related to statehood were contested on religious grounds in South Asia: ‘In the narrowest sense of the word [they resulted] in communal politics’ (Nehru 1958b: 74). In time, religion came to play an increasingly important role in the public sphere and in politics, religious political discourse became more common, and religion became a decisive factor in the process of national awakening and imagination. This made Indian and Pakistani leaders equally responsible for dividing the Indian national political movement and, subsequently, for the partition of India into two states in 1947, the borders of these states being drawn along the imagined religious identities of those who lived there.

The formation of India and Pakistan, however, did not resolve the different approaches to national identity expressed by the INC and the Muslim League but rather transposed them, into internal contests over national identity on the one hand, and onto the level of inter-state rivalry on the other. South Asia thus remained a single political space, in the sense that internal and inter-state relations were very closely interrelated, and religion was a critical factor in politics at both levels.


Anderson, Benedict (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso.

Dalmia, Vasudha (1997) The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bharatendu Harischandra and Nineteenth-century Banaras. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hutton, J.H. (ed.) (1933) Census 1931, Volume I – INDIA, Part I – Report, Part II – Imperial Tables. Delhi: Manager of Publications.

Gandhi, Mahatma K. (1997) Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, ed. Anthony J. Parel. New Delhi: Foundation Books (Cambridge University Press).

Gould, William (2004) Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maclean, Kama (2003) ‘Making the colonial state work for you: the modern beginnings of the ancient Kumbh Mela in Allahabad’. Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 62, No. 3, pp. 873–905.

Jinnah, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali (n.d.) Speeches as Governor-General of Pakistan, 1947–1948. Islamabad: Directorate of Research, Reference & Publications, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of Pakistan.

Mahmood, Safdar (1990) Constitutional Foundations of Pakistan. Lahore: Jang.

Nehru, Jawaharlal (1958a) ‘The Basic Approach’. Mainstream, Vol. XXVII, No. 35, pp. 14–18.

_____ (1958b) Speeches, Vol. 1, September 1946–May 1949. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

_____ (1982) Glimpses of World History. Oxford and New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

_____ (12th edn. 1998) An Autobiography. New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and Oxford University Press.

_____ (19th edn. 1999) The Discovery of India. New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and Oxford University Press.

Rothermund, Dietmar (1979) ‘Traditionalism and national solidarity in India’. In Moore, R.J. (ed.) Tradition and Politics in South Asia. New Delhi: Vikas, pp. 191–7.

Pirzada, Syed Sharifuddin (ed.) (1970) Foundations of Pakistan: All-India Muslim League Documents: 1906–1947, Vol. II, 1924–47. Karachi and Dacca: National Publishing House.

Varshney, Ashutosh (1993) ‘Contested meanings: India’s national identity, Hindu nationalism, and the politics of anxiety’. Daedalus: ‘Reconstructing Nations and States’, Vol. 122, No. 3, pp. 227–61.

Zaidi, A.M. and Zaidi, S.G. (eds.) (1980) The Encyclopaedia of the Indian National Congress, Vol. 10, 1930–35. New Delhi: Chand.

[i] The term ‘Hinduism’ has always been controversial. Census officials stated that that the term was considered ‘admittedly not satisfactory since difficulty arises . . . particularly so in that of the term Hindu’ (Hutton 1933: 379).

[ii] See the INC’s Fundamental Rights and Economic Programme adopted at its 45th Session, Karachi, March 1931. In Zaidi et al 1980: 111–21. At the All-India Congress Committee in Bombay, 6–8 August 1931, this resolution was revised and ‘[made] fuller and more exhaustive’ (ibid 1980: 181–3).

[iii] ‘India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else’ (Nehru 1998: 374).

[iv] This guiding principle was called Objectives Resolution, and all subsequent constitutions were based on this. Thus Pakistan’s later constitutional development was basically a conflict about the actual Islamic character of the state, and the extent to which Islamic provisions were to be embodied into the law.


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