As long as all accepted this arrangement, peace and perhaps even intercommunal harmony prevailed. Conflict, in these cases “religious” conflict, occurred when one or more groups sought to change the institutional arrangements (and by definition the power relations) between the communities. The later histories of both empires mentioned above—the Ottoman and Mughal—were shot through with religious conflicts and violence, as different religious communities sought to establish new patterns of intercommunal power relations. The key issue is that the cause of these efforts to reconfigure power relations between religious communities was inherently political, because the institutions that managed communal relations were by definition political. It is here that we find the intersection of religion, conflict and political violence.
In the contemporary world, religion is a driving force behind political conflict in the sense that religious communities are making formal and informal efforts to change political institutions to their liking. In religiously pluralistic states—including Syria, but also Pakistan, Nigeria, India and many, many others—these changes come at the expense of other religious communities and, in some cases, as a direct challenge to secular institutional configurations (as in Egypt). In all these cases, the important question from a public-policy standpoint is not why individuals are drawn to religious politics, but how religious communities express their communalism politically. When framed in this way, the central focus of liberal scholarship on political agency recedes. Instead, we are confronted with the reality that there is nothing abnormal about religious communities engaging in political collective action to rearrange institutions to their liking, and that these efforts cause conflict with other religious (and irreligious) groups with a stake in the preservation of the existing order.
In this sense, religious conflicts have a great deal in common with the “ideological” conflicts of the recent past (the French and Russian Revolutions being exhibits A and B). In both of these processes, it was not the existence of liberals or Marxists per se that generated the terrible violence resulting from their attempts at changing the existing social order. Instead, it was the logic of having to overcome the tremendous resistance of those with a stake in the status quo that led to violence. Religion, while differing from liberalism and Marxism in its fundamental principles, shares with these movements the fact of being a system of basic principles meant, by definition, to guide the construction of social and political institutions. Stated thusly, the political nature of religion becomes self-evident, but also less alien and surprising. Neither should the violence that it has the potential to generate.
ALL OF which brings us back to the puzzle offered at the beginning of this essay: namely, organized and routine violence in the name of cow protection in a country that is one of the largest exporters of beef. What are we to make of this seeming paradox? As I have argued previously in these pages (“The Myth of a Liberal India,” November/December 2015), neither the Indian state nor its society is liberal, in the sense of comprising individuals equal before the eyes of the law. Instead, it comprises different corporate groups in competition, much of it violent, over the basic institutional framework of the state and the society. These are not groups that are content to accept the basic equality (however defined) of others. The violence over cow protection targets two groups: Muslims and Dalits (the low-caste members of society formerly called untouchables). In other words, these are vigilantes of high-caste Hindus, whose explicit agenda is to reduce every other group (both in caste and religion) to mere appendages of a social order in which all of the benefits flow upward.
These cleavages are not “invented” identities—or at least, no less real than any other social identity. Violence in India over cow protection goes back centuries. There is nothing new about this. Indeed, one of the worst incidents of violence in British India between the Great Mutiny of 1857 and independence in 1947 occurred in 1893, in which countless people lost their lives in cow-protection riots in Bombay alone. The violence was a language with which to speak to the British colonial government about communal hierarchy, because the British colonial government had to listen to widespread communal violence. This was violence as a form of negotiation among four parties: the British, the Congress Party nationalist movement, Muslims and upper-caste (communal) Hindus. It occurred at a time when the British began to make substantive concessions to some degree of self-government. It really was religious violence—in the sense that religious communities were making claims to power and authority at the expense of other groups.
The basic political-cum-religious problem at stake in cow-protection vigilantism was succinctly put by the most important Muslim thinker in late-nineteenth-century British India, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (the founder of Aligarh Muslim University), in a famous speech delivered in 1888:
“Now, suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, taking with them all their cannons and their splendid weapons and all else, who then would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations—the Mohammedans and the Hindus—could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable. But until one nation has conquered the other and made it obedient, peace cannot reign in the land.”
It is worth emphasizing that Mahatma Gandhi fully concurred with Sir Syed that religion cannot be divorced from politics. In 1915, he would declare in a speech to students in Madras that “politics cannot be divorced from religion.” Indeed, Gandhi had this to say about cow protection in 1920: “Cow protection is the outward form of Hinduism. I refuse to call anyone a Hindu if he is not willing to lay down his life in this cause. It is dearer to me than my very life.” Throughout his life in Indian politics, Gandhi consistently and persistently upheld the legitimacy of the principle that cow protection was a fundamental religious obligation of Hindus, and he urged Muslims to refrain from killing cows voluntarily.
Gandhi and Khan might as well as have added the obvious in their speeches: that in India, religion is not about individual faith but about communal identity. There is no operative liberal individualistic definition of religion in India. Beef eating, therefore, has been a communal demarcation between groups in India for centuries. It was also, among other demarcations, a boundary marker between Christians and Hindus. But Hindus cow-protection vigilantes have only engaged in organized violence against Muslims and Dalits. This is not surprising. Christians are not, as a group, contenders for power in India. Dalits and Muslims are.
Hindu vigilantes are using violence over particular issues (cow protection in this instance) as a language of negotiation with the Indian state about how communal power relations are to be structured. These vigilantes have also used other issues to engage in violence against Muslims—most nefariously the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, in which not only the mosque itself was demolished by hand, but it triggered a wave of rioting throughout northern India in which several thousand people were killed. Here is an answer to how one of the world’s biggest exporters of beef can also have an organized movement of vigilantes engaged in violence over the slaughter of cattle: it is about communal hierarchy. But—and this is key—the theological underpinnings of this are entirely irrelevant.
Liberalism is grounded in a rejection of communalism and hierarchy, in favor of individualism and equality. But this ideological slant is rapidly becoming a luxury that the West can no longer indulge in. Eliminating religion as a political cleavage in Europe took two hundred years of terrible conflict and violence, and resulted in religiously homogenous societies across much of Europe. The reemergence of religious communalism in western Europe has come as a deep and disconcerting shock to societies long used to thinking of themselves as “postreligious.” If we like religious pluralism, then we will also have to get used to the idea of communal hierarchies.
The principal public-policy challenge of our time is devising responses to the assertion of communal rights (and power) in pluralistic societies that manage the inevitable conflict that pluralism, religious included, necessarily generates—without insisting that the liberal framing of the problem (individualism) be imposed on societies long organized along communal lines. But that is a subject for another day.
Vivek S. Sharma has taught politics at Yale, EHESS (Paris), the University of Copenhagen and the Claremont Colleges.