Social Scientist. v 24, no. 275-77 (April-June 1996) p. 130.

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Contours of Communalism: Religion, Caste and Identity in South-East Punjab

The Hindu dominated districts of colonial south-east Punjab: Ambala, Gurgaon, Hissar, Karnal and Rohtak became notorious for 'tense' and 'strained* relations between Hindus and Muslims during the thirties of the twentieth century. These frequently escalated into what came to be universally projected and commonly accepted as communal riots in official parlance. In their essence, the roots of such confrontations we^re closely linked to and determined by the socio-economic life of this region. On the one hand they relate to land rights and land relations and on the other to the dominance of factors such as caste and growing casteism in this region which was intimately linked to the sharpening sectarian/religious identities. The demands of rising social groups to appropriate crucial indices of status formation in theif drive towards upward mobility and enforce recognition on other social groups escalated situations of direct confrontation. These attempts posed a challenge to the traditional structure of authority and the dominance of certain castes and classes in rural society. Yet the symbols used for the articulation of these demands and the mobilization of wider support for their recognition were religious. They ranged from the construction of places of worship and the celebration of religious festivals and taking out religious processions to the widespread and sporadic cow-protection movement.

The present paper investigates the social identity and interests of different groups and seeks to understand how locally contentious issues between and within different castes and classes took over wider religious contours and identity. In the existing context this identity may have been a religious or a sectarian identity, though not necessarily a communal identity—something which was sought to be portrayed.1 In other words, the attempt here is to understand the emerging centrality of religion as a symbol in questions relating

Centre for Contemporary Studies, NMML, New Delhi.

Social Scientist, Vol. 24, Nos. 4-6, April-June 1996

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