Constitutional Governance: Minorities and Communal Violence in India

This research probes the constitutional governance in the case of minorities and communal violence. The National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 recognizes six religious communities, namely; Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Jains as minority communities all over India. Communal violence is a form of violence inflicted upon groups of different communities which happen to share the same religion, theology or ethnic emergence. The purpose of this research is to prove that secularization is a process which the Indian state needs to accept widely as well as put an end on the growing intolerance on the ground of religion and polarisation on the basis of majority and minority communalism. Also, freedom of speech and the right to practice one’s religion is a fundamental right provided by the Constitution to every citizen but at the same time, sectarianism and religious obscurantism need to be avoided. The beset of communal violence can cease when there is an alliance amongst the victims who have been subject to violence by members of a certain group acting in consensus with their respective group or bracket. This study also aims at providing the causes, consequences, and methods to minimize and/or terminate the act of communal violence.



India is the second most populated country in the world and needless to say is the epitome of a perfect example of unity in diversity. India is a nation with wide racial, linguistic, religious and caste diversity. It has never been a land of solitary religion or culture. The number of invasions and British colonialism have also accorded to the expansion of its already rich, diverse and melange society. Due to the presence of multiple communities of people following and/or practicing divergent religious faiths, customs or theologies, the communities are divided on the basis of the same which tend to give a rise to a set of majority and minority communities which tend to directly end up giving rise to the act of communal violence or communal riots. The society is unable to combat bigotry in a civilized manner.

Generally, it is assumed that the act of communalism and the process of secularism are the two opposite sides of a coin but little do they realize both these concepts go hand in hand and are hugely dependant on each other.

Communal violence is a form of violence which is wreaked upon an individual or a group of individuals belonging to the same community which have the same religious beliefs or ethnic emergence. It has become a definite feature of communalism in India in which violent parties feel solidarity for their respective groups. An event is identified as a communal riot if (a) there is violence, and (b) two or more communally identified groups confront each other or members of the other group at some point during the violence. Post-independence there in an increasing trend in communal frenzy and violence. The cause of this is entirely rooted in the human society and thus this act can only be put to an end with the willingness of the society of the nation as a whole. The cause for the start of the act of a communal riot may seem trivial or peripheral but little does one realize that there are various undisclosed reasons such as of political parties whose main aim generally tends to be a majority party in the nation and have access to resources and power. There have been many incidents of riots recorded prior to the British rule, during the Raj of the British and even after that which continues till date.

Secularism is a principle in which there is a separation of government bodies and institutions from religious institutions and any decision that the state takes shall not be affected or made in favor or against any majority or minority community in India. It means that all the people following different religions are treated indifferently with no preconceived opinion or preconception. A manifestation of secularism is the view that public activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be uninfluenced by religious beliefs or practices.



Causes Communal Violence in India

There are several contrasting grounds due to which Communal conflicts rise and they happen to take many different forms. In order to understand the different dynamics of communal conflict, it is useful to scrutinize and understand their causes and the matters. over which the conflict arises primarily. Different conflict issues may necessitate different types of interventions and conflict resolution strategies. Prior to indulging in the reason as to why communal riots take place, the term ‘minority’ needs to be defined. The Constitution of India doesn’t define the word ‘minority’ but The Union Government set up the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) under the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 which stated Six religious communities, namely, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Jains as minority communities in India. The NCM adheres to the United Nations Declaration of 18 December 1992 which states that “States shall protect the existence of the National or Ethnic, Cultural, Religious and Linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.”


Stated below are some causes due to which communal violence arises:


  • Minorities tend to feel neglected:

The minority community is the foundation of the pluralistic character of India and the backbone of the phrase ‘unity in diversity’. At times the minorities feel that they’re unable to affiliate or intermix in the national mainstream. They feel alienated and estranged and tend to form stronger bonds with their respective community and in case a finger is pointed at them, they automatically get defensive in the name of ‘brotherhood’ and start to fight blindly in the name of their respective group or association. Heterogeneity of our society should not be the cause of our weakness but instead the strength of our nation.


  • Orthodox and Obscurantism:

The orthodox members of minorities feel that they have an unequivocal entity with their own religion, cultural patterns, theology, personal laws and thought. Many times the minority groups happen to share a common strong belief of conservatism and fundamentalism due to which they’re unable to appreciate the existence and practice of other religions and accept the ending of growing intolerance on the basis of religion. Due to the same reason, they’re unable to accept secularism as well.


  • Decisions are taken by leaders:

The concept of communalism has prospered and proliferated in India as the communist leaders of both the majoritarian and well as the majoritarian parties aim to flourish the best interests of their communities. They tend to oversee the harm it will cause to the society as a whole as they’re blindly doing what according to them will be the best for their community. A number of communal and sectarian political parties and organizations are present in India such as Muslim League, Jamaat-Islami, Hindu Mahasabha, Vishwa Hindu Parishad etc.


  • A legacy of the Past:

On the basis of the Two-nation theory by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who termed it as the awakening of Muslims for the creation of Pakistan and was the founding principle of the Pakistan Movement as well as the partition of India in 1947. The “Divide and Rule” policy of the British Government served their colonial interest as it was used as a strategy to destroy the harmony between various religions and use it for their benefits. The partition of India was the ultimate outcome of their politics. Though the above mentioned is a phenomenon of the past is continuing and expressing itself in various forms to date.


  • Communalization of Politics:

The scenario of politics is getting competitive day by day and to be the party in power, different political aren’t dither in playing the communal card and use communalism for their own and personal benefit irrespective of the fact as to how much chaos it shall cause. If required some parties even tend to amplify a communal tension already happening so as to take political advantage out of it.


read more Religious and Cultural Intolerance against minority: Muslim in Europe


How to put an end to Communal Violence?


  • Education:

The role of education is extremely essential in preventing communal feelings towards an individual or a society as a whole. Education based on new cultural ideologies can protect the young people against philoso­phies and ideologies of hate. History should be taught along scientific lines in educational institutions as it is a basic element in any ideological struggle against communalism. Educating people will help them to analyze and decide rationally which will lead to a decline in the growing acts of communal violence.


  • Role of Media

The role of media is immense during the course of communal vio­lence. The media can be significantly useful in preventing communal feelings or they can either pour oil over the troubled waters or extinguish the raging fire. Strict action can be taken against the press and writes who promote communalism.


  • Check on civil society:

This is extremely crucial as unless a check is kept on the civil society it leads to more communal riots and other forms of com­munal violence. People with communal ideas and ideologies pressurize the government to act in a manner which is always against the principle of secularism. The secular state, the secular party in power and the secular power elite many a time succumb to the pressures of these communal people. It is here that intellectuals, political parties, and voluntary organi­sations can be most effective.


  • New Strategies to deal with Communal Violence:

The state has to plan and use new strategies in dealing with com­munal violence. India’s experience in recent years confirms the utility of this step. Whenever strong and secular administrators have used or threat­ened the use of strong steps, riots either did not occur or were of short duration.

For example, strong police and army intervention prevented the repetition of riots in Calcutta in November 1984 and in Mumbai in Janu­ary 1994. When the anti-social elements and religious fanatics and people with vested interests realize that the government is impartial and the po­lice is serious in putting down communal violence with all the force at its command, they immediately cease spreading communal frenzy.


  • Setting up of spe­cial courts to try communal offenses and providing immediate relief and adequate financial assistance to victims of communal riots for their reha­bilitation.
  • Taking severe action against all those who incite communal tensions or take part in violence.


Cases of Communal Violence in India

There have been many cases of communal violence in the state of India ranging from Ancient India to Modern Day India.

Discussed below is the case of the Partition of British India in the Colonial Era and a few cases of communal violence in modern day India.

  • Partition of British India (1947):

Direct Action Day (16 August 1946), also known as the Great Calcutta Killings was a day of widespread riot and manslaughter between Hindus and Muslims in the city of Kolkata in British India. Approximately 3000 people were dead and 17000 injured.

The British followed a divide-and-rule policy, exploiting differences between communities to use them to their advantage. The Hindus were larger in number than the Muslims and other minorities in India. Due to the number of Hindus being more, Mohammad Ali Jinnah became increasingly concerned about minority position of Islam in an independent India. The idea of Partition was accepted initially but when the Britishers had left India the newly formed governments were ineffectual in handling migrations of such enormous and colossal numbers. Due to this reason, violence and manslaughter occurred on both sides of the border along communal lines. The number of deaths ranges approximately 500,000, with low estimates at 200,000 and high estimates at 1,000,000.


  • Gujarat Communal Riots (1969):

Religious violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims during September–October 1969, in Gujarat. It was the most deadly Hindu-Muslim violence since the 1947 partition of India. The rioting started after an attack on a Hindu temple in Ahmedabad but rapidly expanded to major cities and towns of Gujarat.  The violence included attacks on Muslim Chawls by their Dalit Hindu neighbors. The violence continued over a week, then the rioting restarted a month later. Roughly Some 660 people were killed in which 430 were Muslims and the remaining were Hindus. About 1074 people were injured and over 48,000 lost their property.

  • Sikh Communal Riots 1984

The 1984 Sikh Massacre was erupted on 1 November 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. In June 1984, under orders from Indira Gandhi, the Indian army attacked the Golden temple with tanks and armored vehicles and in this attack, thousands of Sikhs died. In retaliation for the storming of the Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984 by two Sikh bodyguards. The assassination provoked mass rioting against Sikh community. In the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi, government and police officials aided INC party worker gangs in “methodically and systematically” targeting Sikhs and Sikh homes. As a result of the pogroms 10,000–17,000 were burned alive or otherwise killed, Sikh people suffered massive property damage, and at least 50,000 Sikhs were displaced.


  • Anti-Hindu Violence in Kashmir

Between the years 1989 and 1990 approximately 300 Kashmiri Pundits were killed in the Kashmir region of the State of Jammu and Kashmir in various different incidents. In the upcoming days, masked men ran in the streets with AK 47 shooting so as to kill Hindus who had not left Kashmir. There were notices put up stating that they should leave within the next 24 hours or they will die. The number of Kashmiri Pundits residing in Kashmir has decreased by an enormous amount. Many Kashmiri Pundits have been killed by Islamist militants in incidents such as the Wandhama massacre and the 2000 Amaranth pilgrimage massacre as well and some observers have termed this as ‘ethnic cleansing’.

  • Anti-Muslim Violence (Ayodhya Dispute)

On 6 December 1992, members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal destroyed the 430-year-old Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. It was claimed by the Hindus that the mosque was built over the birthplace of the ancient deity Rama and a 2010 Allahabad court ruled that the site was indeed a Hindu monument before the mosque was built there, based on evidence submitted by the Archaeological Survey of India. Due to this humiliation of the Muslim community was caused which resulted in religious riots amongst the Hindu and Muslim communities causing a minimum of 1200 deaths.

Since then the Government of India has blocked off or heavily increased security at these disputed sites while encouraging attempts to resolve these disputes through court cases and negotiations.



Origin of the word ‘Secularism’

The root word of the word ‘Secularism’ is ‘Secular’ and it is derived from the Latin word ‘speculum which means “of a generation, belonging to an age” or denoted a period of about one hundred years. It guarantees all citizens the right to adhere to any religion as they wish to. G.H. Holyoake coined the term “secularism” in 1851. His important works include, ‘Principles of Secularism’ and ‘The Origin and Nature of Secularism’.

A secular state as defined scientifically means a state which recognizes every citizen as equal and does not recognize any social or religious stratification for any political benefit. But what is generally projected as secularism is tolerance of all religions with the special emphasis on the protection of minorities and preservation of communal harmony?

Secular traditions are very deep-rooted in the history of India.

Emperor Ashoka was the first great emperor to announce, as early as the third century B.C. that, the state would not prosecute any religious sect. In his 12th Rock Edit, Ashoka made an appeal not only for the toleration of all religious sects but also to develop a spirit of great respect toward them. He pleaded for restraint of criticism of other religious sects. He asked people to become perfect in the scriptures of other religions. The religious tolerance expressed by Ashoka more than 2,300 years ago has been one of the cherished Indian Social Value.

The Mughal emperor the great Akbar also to a great extent promoted the policy of toleration of different religions. His propagation of Din-e-Illahi(Divine faith) and Sulh-e-kul (Peace with all) were highly inspired by the spirit of secularism.

The principal advocates of secular ideology in modern India were Mahatma Gandhiji and Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhiji’s secularism was based on a commitment to the brotherhood of religious communities based on their respect for and the pursuit of truth. Whereas, Pundit J. L. Nehru’s secularism was based on a commitment to scientific humanism tinged with a progressive view of historical change. Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru has been a leading champion of the concept of the secular state. The creation of India as a secular state has been accepted as one of his greatest achievements.


Secularism in the Constitution of India

Constitution of India has adopted a system of political philosophy that all forms of religious faith and worship are of equal status and has accepted the view that public education and other matters of public policy should be conducted without the introduction of religious sentiments and there shouldn’t be any sectarianism.

With the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India enacted in 1976,

The Preamble to the Constitution asserted that India is a secular nation. A reason as to why India became a secular nation is so as to combat communalism. Mentioned below are the provisions providing for secularism in the Constitution:

(i) Article 14 prohibits the state from denying to person equality before the law or equal protection of the law.

(ii) Article 15(1) declares that the state4 shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them.

Further section (2)says that ‘No citizen shall, on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to—

(a) Access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and a place of public entertainment; or

(b) The use of wells, tanks, bathing Ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of state funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.

(iii) Article 16 relates to the equality of opportunity to all citizens of the state in the matter of employment or appointment to any office under the state and among factors religion cannot be ground for ineligibility or discrimination.

(iv) Article 17 declares abolition of untouchability and the practice in any form is forbidden.

(v) Article 25 says that ‘subject to public order, morality, and health and to the other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of contentious and right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion.

(vi)Article 26 provides every religion a right

(a) To establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes,

(b) To manage its own affairs in matters of religion,

(c) To own and acquire movable and immovable property, and

(d) To administer such property in accordance with the law.


(vii) Article 27 prohibits the levying of a tax, the proceeds of which are meant specifically for payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.

(viii) Article 28 provides that no religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution, wholly maintained out of the state of the fund.

(ix) 29(i) gives the citizens, the right to conserve their distinct language, script or culture.

Article 29(2) says, “No citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the state or receiving aid out of state funds on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them.

(x) As per Article 30(1), all minorities whether based on religion or language have been given right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

(xi) Further Article 30(30-A) provides that in case of compulsory acquisition of an educational institution established and administered by a minority, the state shall no ensure that the amount fixed by or determined under the law would not restrict or abrogate the right guaranteed.

Article 30(2) declares that the state shall not, in granting aid to educational institutions, discriminate against any educational institutions on the ground that it is under the management of a minority, whether based on religion or language.

Thus, the Constitution makers provided for a secular state while specially mentioning the

right of minorities. During the Partition of India the overwhelming majority of India’s population was Hindu, yet, despite the partition which was based on religion, they did not declare India a Hindu state because they wanted all the religions in India to develop, thrive and flourish. The leaders knew that that though the majoritarian community is the Hindu community the other minority communities still exist and they shouldn’t feel neglected or alienated in any way.


The secular outlook of the Constitution was strengthened by its implementation. We have

three Presidents who were Muslim, i.e., Dr. Zakir Hussain, Fakhuruddin Ali Ahmed and Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Besides Muslims have also occupied senior positions including the Vice Presidency, Chief Justice of India, Chief Minister, Governor, Air Force Chief Etc. One of the Presidents of India, Giani Zail Singh was a Sikh. Similarly, Parsis and Christians have also occupied senior military and civilian posts. Apart from political and administrative offices, different communities have their respective representatives in art, science, theatre, films and different sports. Thus one can confidentially assert that in the development of any personality in India, religion has not been an inhibiting factor and opportunities are available for all.


read more Challenges of Ethnic Diversity in India


Challenges to Indian Secularism

Indian is known for its cultural heterogeneity with respect to language and religion. Hindus constitute the majority, while the Muslims constitute the largest minority. The animosity between the Hindus and Muslims was largely the creation of the British rulers and so in order to keep themselves in power, they adopted a policy of ‘divide and rule’ and tried to promote feelings of hostility among the members of these two communities. After a long history of independence, at present too, the lack of proper adjustment between them has often resulted in violent outbursts and communal riots, which unfortunately becomes a serious challenge to the secular identity of our country.

Uniform civil code is the suggestion to replace the personal laws based on the religious and custom dictates of each major religious community in India with a common set of laws governing every citizen in an equivalent manner. It primarily caters to those otherwise secular personal aspects of modern social life, which still are conditioned to regressive religious laws of the bygone era, eg: marriage, divorce, inheritance.

It is an important issue regarding secularism in India and it became one of the most controversial topics in contemporary politics during the Shah Bano case.

Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum (1985 SCR (3) 844), commonly referred to as the Shah Bano case was a milestone in the Muslim women’s search for justice and the beginning of the political battle over the personal law. Shah Bano, a 62-year-old Muslim mother of five from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, was divorced by her husband in 1978. Shah Bano went to court asking maintenance from her husband who had divorced her. The court ruled in her favor. Shah Bano was entitled to maintenance from her ex-husband under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (with an upper limit of Rs. 500 a month) like any other Indian woman. The judgment was not the first granting a divorced Muslim woman maintenance under Section 125. But a voluble orthodoxy deemed the verdict an attack on Islam. The Islamic Clergy and the Muslim Personal Law Board of India argued against the ruling.

The Congress Government, panicky in an election year, caved in under the pressure of the orthodoxy. It enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. The most controversial provision of the Act was that it gave a Muslim woman the right to maintenance for the period of iddat (about three months) after the divorce, and shifted the onus of maintaining her to her relatives or the Wakf Board. The Act was seen as discriminatory as it denied divorced Muslim women the right to basic maintenance which women of other faiths had recourse to under the secular law.

Indian Muslims consider the new 1986 law, which exempts them from maintenance payment to ex-wife because of their religion, as it respects Muslim men’s religious rights and recognizes that they are culturally different from Indian men and women of other religions. Muslim opponents argue that any attempt to introduce Uniform Civil Code would reflect majoritarian Hindu sensibilities and ideals.

An important challenge for secularism is the scope and limits of freedom of expression when confronted with religious ideas, groups, and sensibilities. There is a growing awareness of the difficulty in reaching a satisfactory solution in national laws, especially in those cases in which the conflict becomes international or global. Different affairs concerning cartoons, sacred books burning, transgressive art, etc. lead to the provisional conclusion that State laws are hardly the last word in resolving these sensitive issues.

In recent years, we have faced something which seems to be an unending problem, namely religious clothing or religious attire. In some cases, States require from its citizens a religiously neutral identity in certain public spaces and in certain official facilities. In doing so, the secular state intends to preserve its neutral and secular culture to afford freedom to all and to avoid an unduly religious influence. However, this requirement from the State compels citizens to shed their own religious and cultural identity.



After a long history of communal incidents in India which do happen till date, Secularism seems as the only possible option that would be able to provide harmonious and peaceful survival for the different religions and castes of Indian society. A point to note is that we need proper educational plans so as to slightly redesign our existing curriculum in the schools and colleges. The textbooks presenting distorted historical facts have to be changed and secular ideas will have to be inculcated in the innocent minds of the young generation. Political parties have always had a hand in instigating and exploiting communal violence so as to meet their electoral interests. Though communal riots are condemned in various quarters, there is still complete inaction both from the administration and the ruling governments in many states. The relationship between secularism and religious politics can be a positive and reinforcing one; the solution or a part or cause of the problem.

At last, since India has been declared a secular state by its written constitution, therefore it is the responsibility of every Indian to stand by, believe in and implement this declaration.


Smriti Bhatt
Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, 
Delhi, India

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