Is there a clear line that separates Muslim and Hindu religious practice? When did Hindus and Muslims start thinking of themselves as separate, internally unified communities?

This week’s extracts are about :

  1. Religious practices during Muharram in Gugudu village in Andhra Pradesh
  2. The role of the Census in colonial India in fostering communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims

From The Festival of Pirs: Popular Islam and Shared Devotion in South India, Afsar Mohammed (2014):

“It’s a long journey. I know, but this is my only pilgrimage, and it will make the rest of my life meaningful and purposeful. While making this journey, I will remember the story of the martyrdom and remember the sacrifices made by the pīru swami (pīr-god), and each memory will enliven my life,” said Lakshmi, a sixty-five-year old pilgrim from a remote village in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She had traveled more than five hundred miles by train and then taken a special pilgrims’ bus to visit a local pīr (Sufi spiritual master and teacher) named Kullayappa in the small village of Gugudu in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. When Lakshmi arrived in Gugudu, she walked straight to the local shrine, known locally as the pīr-makānam , or “pīr-house.” The pīr-house is home to both the pīr Kullayappa, thought to have brought Islam to this village some eight centuries ago, and Hanuman, the monkey-god and most obedient devotee of the Hindu god Rama. Most devotees who visit the pīr-house, whether Hindu or Muslim, first perform the ritual of fātehā , or recitation of the first verse of the Quran, to the pīr, before breaking a dry coconut as an offering in front of Hanuman.

Kullai Swamy
The pīr-makānam, with Hanuman on the left.

These pīr-houses can be found being visited by both Muslims and non-Muslims in many public devotional spaces in Andhra Pradesh. People visit as a display of their devotion to the family of the Prophet and its followers, and they pay their respects to the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the well-being of their community.

Although Muharram is primarily an event on the Muslim calendar, its observance in many places in Andhra Pradesh, including in the village of Gugudu, combines aspects of many devotional traditions: local and localized manifestations of Islam, South Indian Hindu temple practices, devotion to Islamic holy persons, the idea of shared pilgrimage between Muslims and Hindus, and most interesting of all, a locally specific repertoire of blended Islamic and Hindu devotional practices.

Like Sattar Saheb and Lakshmi, many devotees and pilgrims distinguish local devotional practices as forms of “authentic” and “true devotion.” In this way they are extremely self-conscious about possessing distinctive local practices and a unique devotional path. As Sattar Saheb said on several occasions, “There is no Hindu or Muslim. All have one religion, which is called ‘Kullayappa devotion (bhakti).’ ”

From Census and the Construction of Communalism in India, by R. B. Bhagat (2001) :

There is a little historical evidence of sustained communal hatred operating at the popular level prior to colonial rule. Divide et impera [Divide and Rule] was the foundation of British rule suggested for adoption as early as 1821 and the application of this maxim was first tried out in the reorganisation of the Indian army after the great revolt of 1857. At this juncture of history, the census counts first tried out in 1872 aided in the articulation of the cleavages of majority and minority, a handmaiden in creating communal consciousness in the early 20th century.

While numerous communities existed in India, these communities in terms of castes, religions, and groups have existed as ‘fuzzy’ communities from time immemorial, but their congealing into distinct, discrete and mutually antagonistic communities was certainly aided to a great extent by the counting of heads.

A census is not a passive account of statistical tables, but also engages in reshaping the world through categories and their definitions.

Before head counts of people were announced, it was neither possible nor necessary for communities across the land to identify themselves with any degree of preciseness and to seek similarities or differences with others outside their immediate kin. There was, thus no general ‘Hindu’ community and people defined themselves with reference to their specific modes of worship as localised Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva) or Shakts (worshippers of the Mother Goddess) or Vaishnavas (worshippers of various incarnations – Ram, Krishna, etc, of Vishnu ) and so on. Indeed, in the pre-modern periods, it is doubtful if even the Muslim ‘ummah’ (global community) had any more than a symbolic meaning.

Lord Minto. The Morley-Minto Reforms extended communal electorates to local bodies.

In spite of several difficulties, census officials took great pains to classify the Indian population in terms of homogeneous and mutually exclusive religious communities.

In the Central Provinces and Berar, a quarter of the persons classed as Hindus denied the supremacy of the brahmans and the authority of the Vedas; more than half did not receive the mantras from a recognised Hindu guru, a quarter did not worship the great Hindu gods, and were not served by Brahman priests; a third were denied access to temple; a quarter caused pollution by touch, a seventh always buried their dead, while a half did not regard cremation as obligatory and two-fifths ate beef. These groups were called not genuine Hindus or partly assimilated Hindus.

The very concept of majority and minority in religious terms is an outcome of a modem consciousness of population numeracy, in particular of the census exercises that were taken in the 19th century. Numbers became a political tool as Hindus were told that they constituted a majority and an effort was made to persuade them to act as a uniform community regardless of sect, caste or class affiliation.

Both size of religious communities and their distribution was used to widen the rift between religious communities particularly between Hindus and Muslim. The new communal consciousness was further perpetuated through the political instrument of separate electorates wherein religious minorities were given separate seats in the legislative bodies according to their proportion of population in the provinces. As a result, communal antagonism in the country was sharpened.


Mohammad, Afsar. “Introduction.” The Festival of Pirs: Popular Islam and Shared Devotion in South India, Oxford University Press, 2014.

R. B. Bhagat. “Census and the Construction of Communalism in India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 46/47, 2001, pp. 4352–4356. JSTOR, JSTOR,