Review of A History of State and Religion in India by Ian Copland, Ian Mabbett, Asim Roy, Kate Brittlebank, and Adam Bowles Routledge

A History of State and Religion in India. Ian Copland, Ian Mabbett, Asim Roy, Kate Brittlebank, and Adam Bowles. New York: Routledge, 2012. ISBN: 9780415580663

This essay is a part of our new series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal 

As the authors acknowledge at the outset, this book is unusual in the field of South Asian Studies by virtue of its format. Five historians have collaborated in its making, yet the final product is not an edited collection of articles dealing with the enormity of what might be covered under the rubric of “state and religion in India.” Instead, the authors present a single, coherent narrative that takes the longue duree to lay out interconnections between governance and religion in India (14). This book will be useful to graduate students for its comprehensive coverage of historiographical debates on religion and its role in both identity and state formations. It lays out most lucidly the different approaches taken by scholars on these issues and the strength of this work lies in the collaborative effort it makes to cover the key debates in each period and reach a consensus in identifying the terms of the debates. The context for this work is the “crisis of secularism” that academics and activists in India often associate with a “crisis of the state” – examples of the anti-Sikh riots, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Godhra serve as the most prominent illustrations of this link. Copland et al. speak to this concern in their work by arguing against the idea of a “failure of the state,” putting the state at the core of their analysis of religion and, concomitantly, of communalism.

In their treatment of state formations in early India, the authors provisionally accept that “there is a core Indian religious tradition that took shape in ancient times, embodied in an orthodoxy that can be called Hinduism and a way of life informed by Sanskritic civilisation” in the first millennium BCE (16). This gradually crystalizing “Hindu orthodoxy” develops in the context of the tribal polities of the Vedic age, characterized by political instability and endemic warfare, highlighting the importance of religion and its ability to forge trust between small kinship groups and larger communities (30-31). Copland et al. conceive of religion as an entity that “served to define and dramatise trust by identifying those to whom one could reliably give it” (31). Such links between religion and governance are further drawn for the heterodox teachings of Buddhism, as well as the rise of personal devotion in the first millennium CE, to develop the idea of politically unstable kingdoms and empires, which, however, contained the power of the religious elite and allowed for a “cultural pluralism” to proliferate.

The authors posit the evolution of “religious corporate identities” in what they call the “middle period” of Indian history, when Islam is added to the mix. It is worth mentioning here that this book is largely limited to a discussion of polities in North India; the only sustained discussion of regions south of the Vindhyas is one chapter on the Marathas in the Deccan. The difference between the north and the south of the subcontinent when it comes to the advent of Islam is mentioned only to be dismissed in the chapters that deal with the Delhi Sultanate and onwards to the Mughals – a distinction that might have been explored productively to complicate the one-to-one interlinking of “mosque and throne.” The narrative that is constructed, then, is often unremittingly centered on political pragmatism. Another instance of the same is in the hypothesis that the “religious corporate identities” of Hindus are formed in reaction to Maratha ascendancy and expansion – ostensibly in defense of religion but actually for the purpose of providing “government agencies, groups and individuals an opportunity in their turn to make ambitious social and status claims within contested political and social arenas” (161).

The break marked in the book is with British rule, when those earlier “somewhat blurred and in flux” religious corporate identities finally took shape and hardened, spurred by colonial policies that, in many cases, sanctioned communal violence. Modernity is unambiguously introduced by the colonial state, whether it is ideas of the nation and popular sovereignty or the “looking outward” of Western-educated Indian elites from their “traditional boundaries of sect and neighbourhood, to larger kinds of affinities such as ‘communities’ composed of ‘Hindus’, or ‘Muslims’ or ‘Sikhs’” (262). Copland et al. make a distinction between outcomes and intent of colonial officials in highlighting the “rule of law” put in place by the British to contain religious violence. They write, “Still, the real damage [resulting in communal violence] was done not by laziness, or malfeasance, but by errors of judgment to which all bureaucrats, even hard-working ones, are occasionally prone” (213). The failure of colonial officials in suppressing communal violence is explained variously by a “failure of administrative nerve,” “risk-aversion,” and eventually, the actions of “the Raj in retreat” (218-219) The contingency they emphasize in the analysis of the colonial state is an important corrective to histories that stress the dominance and oppression of colonial rule, without taking into account the everyday experience of rule and the everyday negotiation of and resistance to it. However, the focus on contingency becomes deeply troubling in this book in terms of its larger argument for the more effective management of communal violence through the actions of a more authoritative state. The implications of such an argument are dire in relation to the colonial state and its history of violence, whether it was racially motivated or with respect to the suppression of revolts against colonial rule, when specific communities were targeted for special punishment.

The independent Indian state sees much continuation with the colonial in their strategies for dealing with communal violence in this book – and again, the authors offer a similar solution to the management of communal violence. Taking the example of a city near Mumbai that has seen repeated instances of communal violence, Copland et al. write, “[T]he failure of the Indian state at Bhiwandi was one of will, not capacity. There is abundant evidence that the modern state has more than sufficient capacity to rein in fractious religious crowds” (267). The checks to communal violence are two, they conclude; one is inbuilt to the democratic system – coalition politics, which must placate minorities – and the other is a matter of political will on the part of the state. In this formulation, the events at Godhra in 2001 become a “local aberration” (250) – a conclusion that is highly problematic in light of the Indian state’s inaction in holding individuals responsible for the perpetration of violence there, and more generally, the poor record of the state in its treatment of religious and other minorities.


Reviewed by Tapsi Mathur, University of Michigan
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]