Key historical developments are vital to help explain the character of contemporary India. Extreme examples of religious conflict, such as the shocking violence in Gujarat in 2002, have to be understood in the context of history. Interpretations of Indian history have been hugely controversial. In the nineteenth century James Mill divided Indian history into successive periods of Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and British civilization. This simplified division exaggerates the importance of religion as the organizing principle of politics. It also implies that Hinduism and Islam in India were coherent and separate traditions. In fact these faiths have co-existed and intermingled, and contain many different traditions. In reality, although there were several periods of Indian history where conflict between religions occurred, for much of the time members of different religions co-existed peacefully, and the conflicts that did occur were often contingent ‘result(ing) from chance political events or the clashing of festivals’ (Bayly, 1985: 203). Hinduism includes so many different traditions, deities and scriptures that some scholars prefer to talk of the Hindu religions (Thapar, 1985).
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