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Indian sectarianism: The cultural and the political

Article by Dr Ajay Gudavarthy

July 19, 2022

Indian sectarianism: The cultural and the political

There has been considerable debate on Indian secularism but very little on Indian sectarianism. India has remained a ‘divided society’ but without sustained sectarian violence. However, in the last eight years of the current rightwing Modi government there has been sporadic and episodic violence between Hindus and Muslims, but also between caste groups, that looks organised. The question that should interest us in the current context is the equation between politically motivated and engineered violence and its sanction in everyday social beliefs and cultural practices. Is it entrenched social prejudices that produce consent for organised violence or is it politically organised violence that is constructing social consent based on how violence manages to re-signify the meaning of cultural codes?


The case of Indian sectarianism is oscillating between historically entrenched cultural practices and politically produced violence. While there are clear moments of convergence between the two, there is also observable dissonance between them. The dissonance takes shape when either the cultural practices resist violence or when violence distorts, or fails, to re-signify the cultural practices to its own imperatives.


Indian sectarianism is further fluctuating between establishing a low-intensity but a durable regime of sectarian conflicts between caste, cultural and religious communities and converting the existing sectarian conflicts into mass hysteria. Some scholars have already made a prognosis that Indian nationalism has entered a ‘genocidal phase’.[1] It also becomes pertinent to ask if the current regime has gained a cultural hegemony around sectarian strife between Hindus and Muslims, then from where does the need for using organised force and violence emerge? If violence is to establish control, then to ‘rule by exception’ seems to be a compulsion of the modern sovereign forms of governance that borders on the pathological. At such a point, sectarian conflicts look to be more political and less to do with social and cultural aspects. When do they flip from the cultural to the political? Do underlying cultural codes and narratives lend silent support or is exception about declaring autonomy from gaining legitimacy in everyday cultural codes such as memory, symbolism, myths and mythology.


Pew Research Centre, in a recent survey on tolerance in India, arrived at some intriguing findings that can potentially unlock some of the dilemmas that this essay begins with. The report argued that Indians in general (both Hindus and Muslims) valued diversity as a principle but preferred what it referred to as ‘living together, separately’.[2] The overwhelming majority of a large sample believed that religious and caste communities should live separately in segregated colonies. This, they believe, is essential to preserve their distinct culture and it is not about discrimination. Is this then a re-signified form in which cultural discrimination tends to reproduce itself in modern societies that are globalised and getting rapidly urbanised? Or could one argue that in light of faceless globalisation it is legitimate and even understandable as to why communities wish to preserve themselves as endogamous groups and pine for familiar surroundings? Could groups exist separately without it necessarily being sectarian and discriminatory?


Consider two instances that could throw some light on the underlying complexity. Well-known journalist, P. Sainath who covered rural India for well over three decades did a story that he aptly titled ‘The Glass War’. He pointed out that wayside highway dhabas (shanty restaurants) in the erstwhile undivided state of Andhra Pradesh followed the practice of offering tea in separate glasses for caste Hindus and other ‘lower’ castes.[3] After the local Dalit movement became socially and politically organised, it led protests against the ‘two glass’ policy of the dhabas. In response, the dhaba owners simply switched to disposable (paper/plastic) glasses that made discrimination invisible or rather unnamable. Sectarian practices were pushed into an intangible realm of intention, symbolism and gestures. It is a case of modern sectarian exclusion, which is easy to feel and experience, but difficult to spell and articulate. Much of modern forms of sectarianism in India are pushed into the dark alleys of silence that seem to erupt into violence of various kinds but whose causation is not easy to locate or identify.


The second instance is that of a recent advertisement in news dailies that invited applicants to buy apartments meant exclusively for the Brahmins in the Southern city of Bangalore.[4] While there was some protest against this it was defended as a way of creating familiar living conditions. In fact, food habits and vegetarianism were offered as legitimate reasons for the segregation that are not necessarily discriminatory against meat eaters. In ancient India, Brahmins lived in exclusive agraharas at the heart of the village where non-Brahmins were not allowed to enter. Vegetarianism has become the new template that is at the heart of potential sectarian conflicts in India. Vegetarianism is also being pushed through new scientific evidence on the health benefits, for example in combatting the COVID pandemic. The phenomenon of mob lynching against Dalits and Muslims has overtly to do with consuming beef and covertly with pushing a dominant narrative for vegetarianism. As part of the current Government’s Swatch Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) public displays of meat are being prohibited in many places. In this case, sectarian conflicts are couched in deep-seated cultural practices, modern/rational justifications, and multiple significations of health, hygiene, and ecology.


The interaction between the politically organised sectarian violence and culturally embedded sectarian tensions are complexly overlaid. Organised political violence is seeking to ground itself in received and historically practiced cultural motifs. Sectarian violence is seeking cultural justification through creating popular narratives, while cultural discrimination is seeking modern and rational justifications. Further, it needs to be noted that Indian sectarianism of religious discrimination and strife is closely linked to other forms of communitarian practices of caste and gender in particular but also language and ethnicity. Religious violence cannot be understood in self-referential terms. Additionally, it is insufficient to make sense of religion, caste and gender vis-s-vis each other. It is equally important to note what is happening internally to each of these identities. For instance, the category of Dalit is undergoing a change and is becoming sub-divided. It is barely a stable category that is able to hold the various sub-groups within. The mutual and common identification created around the practice of untouchability is giving way to internal diversification. This is creating both mobility and strife. It is creating socio-psychological dynamics that are being tied up in the context of religious sectarianism and also in efforts to create a monolithic order. The fear of losing existing social privileges, even if one is located way below in the pecking order seem to be the over-arching anxiety that is referred to in the author’s previous writings on ‘secular sectarianism’.[5]


The ethic of ‘fear of fall’ has been the generic sentiment of neoliberal reforms that spread across the social domain in India replacing the normative imagination in the popular politics of shared ethos. The story of Indian sectarianism is incomplete without understanding how cultural practices and political strategies of polarisation found resonance in the economic model of development. The ‘Nehruvian consensus’ for accommodation and shared ethos found in the discourses of secularism, centrism and socialism were replaced by individual responsibility and ‘Social Darwinism’ and ‘Animal Spirits’ of the market ideals of inclusive social development with exclusive growth-centric narratives. Social democratic parties, such as the Congress, that introduced the neoliberal economic reforms in the 1990s however continued with the ideals of secularism in the social domain. This strategy to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds was rejected and lost the popular mandate.


What replaced it was a ‘predatory state’ that fine-tuned social ethics to market dynamics. It transformed dormant social prejudices and everyday religious practices of the dominant community into militant self-assertion. It constructed the narratives of ‘historical injury’ and ‘appeasement’ of religious minorities. It transformed the spiritual and otherworldly pursuits of religion into an instrumentalised identity. Discourses of individual self-realisation intrinsic to religion and faith got hooked to the ‘possessive individualism’ of the market. Postcolonial arguments of an Eastern ‘way of life’ where ideals of the sacred as against the profane being central to community, ideals of ‘moral economy’ as against bare interests did not seem to resist their appropriation into an aggressive sectarian logic of the right. In fact, the rhetoric of ‘nationalism’, ‘decolonisation’ and ‘civilisation’ were deployed to counter the critique of growing ‘sectarianisation’. In a recent document on ‘India as a democracy’, prepared by the Policy Planning and Research Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after the downgrade of Indian democracy by the global watchdog institutions, it reasserted the ‘Indian way’ on democracy.[6] The document invokes the idea of distinct ‘civilisational ethos’, and argues India is a deeply pluralistic society intuitively an international society. It claimed that the term ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ – the world as a family – is deeply entrenched in Indian thinking. Describing Indian democracy as a ‘human institution’, the MEA attempts to place its practice in the ‘civilisational context’ tracing it to ‘panchayats in Ramayana’ and ‘Shanti Parva in Mahabharata’.[7]


Indian sectarianism in its current form is riding on a high dose of symbolism, moral rhetoric and a deep cultural ‘sub-conscious’. Discourses of secularism and constitutionalism have either been appropriated or rendered ineffective. While those struggling to mobilise against the current aggressive sectarianism are not finding a foothold in everyday ethics and emotions, those mobilising sectarianism are struggling to manufacture hysteria. Whether older ideals of secularism and centrism are having an afterlife in this new uneasy equilibrium is something to wait and watch for.


Ajay Gudavarthy is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His forthcoming book is titled Politics, Ethics and Emotions in `New India` (Routledge, London, 2022).


[1] Arjun Appadurai, Modi’s India Has Now Entered Genocidalism, the Most Advanced State of Nationalism, The Wire, January 2022,

[2] Neha Sahgal, Jonathan Evans, Ariana Monique Salazar, Kelsey Jo Starr and Maolo Corichi, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, Pew Research Center, June 2021,; Ajay Gudavarthy, Understanding the Role of Religion in Indian Public Life, The Leaflet, July 2021,

[3] Shyama Venkateswar, Dalits in India 2000, Asia Society,; Also, refer, Palagummi Sainath, The borderline of caste, The Hindu, April 1999, and Palagummi Sainath, The Hindu, November 1998.

[4] Shankara Agraharam, The Vedic Village,; N. Bhanutej, Housing apartheid in Indian city, Al Jazeera, February 2014,

[5] Professor Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, Subaltern and its Fragments: Aporias of Identity of Politics, Review of Dr Ajay Gudavarthy’s book Secular Sectarianism, Live Encounters, March 2020,

[6] Ministry of External Affairs, India: A Dynamic Democracy

[7] Anisha Dutta, New India leaders less from English-speaking world, so judged harshly: MEA paper, The Indian Express, February 2022,

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