This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Contemporary South Asia; see entry in my publication list. The book itself is here


Interrogating communalism: violence, citizenship and minorities in South India by Salah Punathil, London, Routledge, 2019, xiv + 161 pp., 92 GBP (hardback), ISBN 978-1-138-50568-1

In 2009, unrest broke out between Marakayyar Muslims and Mukkuvar Christians in Beemapalli, southern Kerala, culminating in intense police violence. Local media, activists and the state through its apparatus of ‘inquiry commissions’ quickly determined this to be a typical incident of ‘communal riots’, and went on to write their recommendations, few of which have been implemented to date. In ‘interrogating communalism’, Salah Punathil unpacks this speedy categorization to reveal the history and spatiality of violence in coastal Kerala. He challenges preconceived notions on ‘communalism’ that resonate across India, partly by choosing a case study where ‘communal violence’ did not play out between Hindus or Muslims (or, in the form of pogroms, against the latter). Based on ethnographic as well as archival sources from Beemapalli as well as his main fieldsite Vizhinjam, he moves beyond a common dichotomy between ‘exceptional’ versus ‘everyday’ forms of communal violence to look at more structural forms of aggression and discrimination.

After a concise introduction of his main argument and how it reorients the literature on ‘communalism’ in the subcontinent, Punathil moves from the historical to the ethnographic in four main chapters. He writes on academic and state-inscribed historiography of violence between ‘communities’ in Kerala, on the shifting political economy of fishing communities, the impact of money from Gulf migration as well as Christian sources, and the gradual process of residential and occupational segregation that took place along the coast. While most of these chapters remain anchored in Vizhinjam, he then adds a final empirical chapter from Beemapalli – using the former as a backdrop to explain and contextualize the latter. He concludes with wider implications of his analysis for the study of Muslim India and the spatiality of violence.

Throughout his book, Punathil traces in depth how groups are reified and how spatial segregation and physical violence gets enacted not through the mobilization of religious idioms, but through structural processes in the political economy and practices of bureaucratic inscription. With this focus his book stands out from previous writing on communalism for two reasons. One, it pays much more attention to intra- rather than inter-communal constellations, taking the intersection of community with class and descent but also space and place much more seriously. Second, Punathil spends quite some time to unpack the economic agency of religious institutions such as parish councils or shrine committees – institutions that are otherwise largely studied from the perspective of religious ideas or more straightforward (party-)political roles. If I would critique his approach at all, I’d push him even further: rather than calling the processes that he studies ‘internal’ to communities – a perspective that still privileges one main social identity over other – it might be worthwhile to fully go down the intersectional route and study actors, institutions and groups in their own right, rooted in their respective spatial locations as sites for an intersection of identities and structural functions. Because in the end, his book leaves us with a central if uncomfortable question: when is it justified to speak of issues affecting Muslims as a ‘Muslim issue’, of conflict between communities as a ‘communal conflict’? Punathil indeed interrogates a lot of pre-assumptions, and his book is well worth a read for anybody working on ‘group conflict’ in India.