In 1679, the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb reinstituted the hated jizyah (tax on non-Muslims) in his empire. Saqi Mustad Khan, employed in Aurangzeb’s court and author of an authoritative account of the emperor’s life, explained the decision as follows:

“As all the aims of the religious Emperor were directed to the spreading of the law of Islam and the overthrow of the practice of the infidels, he issued orders… [that in] agreement with the canonical traditions, jizyah should be collected from the infidels… of the capital and the provinces.”

In the Deccan, a local Hindu chieftain named Shivaji Bhonsle condemned this decision. Having rebelled against Mughal domination and founded the Maratha Empire in 1674, Bhonsle responded to Aurangzeb by writing:

“How can the royal spirit permit you to add the hardship of jaziya to this grievous state of things? The infamy will quickly spread from west to east and become recorded in books and history that the Emperor of Hindusthan, coveting the beggars’ bowls, takes jaziya from Brahmans and Jain monks, yogis, sannyasis, bairagis, paupers, mendicants, ruined wretches, and the famine-stricken…”

After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Marathas rapidly conquered Mughal territory across India, and often retaliated against local Muslim populations in the process.

As this example makes clear, conflict between Hindus and Muslims has a long lineage in India. And yet, you would hardly know this from reading standard historical accounts. Hindu and Muslim communities, we are told, did not exist in any consolidated sense prior to the 19th century. Before this period, there were only two “fuzzy” and amorphous groups, and even identifying terms like “Hindu” were not widely used. Likewise, conflict between ostensibly Hindu and Muslim kings was not about religion – it was only about land, gold, or politics.

The traditional story expounded by India’s leaders and public intellectuals is that religious tolerance stands at the core of Indian history. In his famous Chicago speech of 1893, Swami Vivekananda, who did much to popularise Hinduism in the west, proclaimed: “I am proud to belong to a religion that has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” Mahatma Gandhi placed the philosophy of sarva dharma sambhava, or equality between religions, at the centre of India’s religious culture. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, argued that the “whole history of India has been one of assimilation and synthesis.”

Enter the British?

This culture of tolerance is said to have ended with the rise of the British and their new policies. The first census of 1871 “constructed” modern Hindu and Muslim communities, turning fluid groups into rigid identities. The Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the creation of separate religious electorates in 1909 generated new animosity, leading to the bloody partition of the subcontinent into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. In this telling, Hindu-Muslim conflict is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In a new research project carried out jointly with Roberto Foa at the University of Melbourne, we critique this rather truncated and romanticised view of the origins of Hindu-Muslim conflict. Using a new historical dataset of religious violence, we argue that the construction of religious identities and the origins of religious conflict in India are not colonial but precolonial processes, dating especially to the 17th-century battles between Aurangzeb and Shivaji.

Our research can be summarised in two central arguments. First, consolidated Hindu and Muslim identities existed before the British. Take the term “Hindu,” often described as merely a geographical term for those born east of the Indus River. As David Lorenzen has argued, if this were true, why did Muslims born east of the Indus not call their children Hindus? Clearly the term had religious connotations from the very beginning. We think it is important not to paper over some of the clear differences between Hindus and Muslims in the past, especially the difference between monotheistic Islam and polytheistic Hinduism. Hindu kings abhorred cow slaughter. Muslim kings decried idolatry. The British did not construct Hindu and Muslim identities – these communities were consolidated before colonial rule.

Our second argument is that Hindu-Muslim conflict also existed before the British, and dates specifically to the late-17th century conflicts between the Mughals and the Marathas. We defend this thesis through an analysis of original data we have collected on historical Hindu-Muslim conflict, a new dataset that covers the period 1000-1850 AD. Our data show that religious conflict in India began to emerge as a significant problem after 1670 – that is, at a time when the British were a minor trading power on the subcontinent. We also find, as the maps below show, that the areas where Aurangzeb and Shivaji engaged in conflict in the 17th century – in western India, around present-day Maharashtra and Gujarat – are the most riot-prone districts of contemporary India.

Precolonial Hindu-Muslim conflict, 1000-1850 A.D. Based on data collected by Ajay Verghese and Roberto Foa. Darker shading indicates higher levels of violence
Postcolonial Hindu-Muslim riots, 1950-1995 A.D. Based on data collected by Ashutosh Varshney and Steven Wilkinson

Lessons for Today

If our revised history is correct, then this has important implications for understanding religious bloodshed in modern-day India. From 1950 to 1995, over 7,000 Indians, mostly Muslim, died in Hindu-Muslim rioting, with the 1980s especially witnessing an upsurge in Hindu nationalist politics that resulted in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and the Godhra pogrom of 2002. Since the 2014 electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India has witnessed more recent instances of sectarianism, such as beef bans, cow protection vigilante groups (gau rakshaks), and anti-Muslim mob lynchings. To many commentators, this violence represents an aberration from Indian history. In our view, these conflicts are only the most recent episodes in a long legacy of bloodshed.

In a broader comparative context, our work suggests that social scientists need to start engaging more seriously with non-western history. The precolonial period – itself a problematic term that sees colonialism as the focal point of history – has too often been glossed over by social scientists. How often, for example, do scholars ask whether colonial-era ethnic conflict already existed during the reign of precolonial polities such as Vijayanagara, Siam, or the Kingdom of Mutapa? At its height, the Mughal Empire was one of the largest imperial realms in the world, replete with a complex bureaucracy and a professional military. And yet many history books argue that India only became “modern” with the arrival of the British. As did Africa. And southeast Asia. In other words, modernity is taken to be synonymous with western influence.

This ethnocentric view of African and Asian history is in serious need of revision. The non-western world has its own complex histories that were certainly molded – but not created by – Europeans. And these histories should not be sanitised to present an idealised version of the past. Some ethnic conflicts are historically deep, and this fact must be recognised if we are to have any hope of stopping violence in the present.

Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests are focused on Indian Politics, Ethnicity, Political Violence, Historical Legacies, and Religion.

This article first appeared on IAPS Dialogue, the online magazine of the Institute of Asia and Pacific studies.