Was There an Islamic "Genocide" of Hindus?
Dr. Koenraad Elst
"The Partition Holocaust": the term is frequently used in Hindu pamphlets
concerning Islam and the birth of its modern political embodiment in the
Subcontinent, the state of Pakistan. Is such language warranted, or is it a
To give an idea of the context of this question, we must note that the term
"genocide" is used very loosely these days. One of the charges by a Spanish
judge against Chilean ex-dictator Pinochet, so as to get him extradited from
Great Britain in autumn 1998, was "genocide". This was his way of making
Pinochet internationally accountable for having killed a few Spanish
citizens: alleging a crime serious enough to overrule normal constraints
based on diplomatic immunity and national sovereignty. Yet, whatever
Pinochet's crimes, it is simply ridiculous to charge that he ever intended
to exterminate the Spanish nation. In the current competition for victim
status, all kinds of interest groups are blatantly overbidding in order to
get their piece of the entitlement to attention and solidarity.
The Nazi Holocaust killed the majority of European Jewry (an estimated 5.1
million according to Raul Hilberg, 5.27 million according to the
Munich-based Institut für Zeitgeschichte) and about 30% of the Jewish people
worldwide. How many victim groups can say as much? The Partition pogroms
killed hardly 0.3% of the Hindus, and though it annihilated the Hindu
presence in all the provinces of Pakistan except for parts of Sindh and East
Bengal, it did so mostly by putting the Hindus to flight (at least seven
million) rather than by killing them (probably half a million). Likewise,
the ethnic cleansing of a quarter million Hindus from Kashmir in 1990
followed the strategy of "killing one to expel a hundred", which is not the
same thing as killing them all; in practice, about 1,500 were killed.
Partition featured some local massacres of genocidal type, with the Sikhs as
the most wanted victims, but in relative as well as absolute figures, this
does not match the Holocaust.
Among genocides, the Holocaust was a very special case (e.g. the attempt to
carry it out in secrecy is unique), and it serves no good purpose to blur
that specificity by extending the term to all genocides in general. The term
"Holocaust", though first used in a genocidal sense to describe the Armenian
genocide of 1915, is now in effect synonymous with the specifically Jewish
experience at the hands of the Nazis in 1941-45. But does even the more
general term "genocide" apply to what Hinduism suffered at the hands of
"Genocide" means the intentional attempt to destroy an ethnic community, or
by extension any community constituted by bonds of kinship, of common
religion or ideology, of common socio-economic position, or of common race.
The pure form is the complete extermination of every man, woman and child of
the group. Examples include the complete extermination of the native
Tasmanians and many Amerindian nations from Patagonia to Canada by European
settlers in the 16th-19th century. The most notorious attempt was the Nazi
"final solution of the Jewish question" in 1941-45. In April-May 1994, Hutu
militias in Rwanda went about slaughtering the Tutsi minority, killing ca.
800,000, in anticipation of the conquest of their country by a Uganda-based
Tutsi army. Though improvised and executed with primitive weapons, the
Rwandan genocide made more victims per day than the Holocaust.
Hindus suffered such attempted extermination in East Bengal in 1971, when
the Pakistani Army killed 1 to 3 million people, with Hindus as their most
wanted target. This fact is strictly ignored in most writing about
Hindu-Muslim relations, in spite (or rather because) of its serious
implication that even the lowest estimate of the Hindu death toll in 1971
makes Hindus by far the most numerous victims of Hindu-Muslim violence in
the post-colonial period. It is significant that no serious count or
religion-wise breakdown of the death toll has been attempted: the Indian,
Pakistani and Bangladeshi ruling classes all agree that this would feed
Hindu grievances against Muslims.
Nandan Vyas ("Hindu Genocide in East Pakistan", Young India, January 1995)
has argued convincingly that the number of Hindu victims in the 1971
genocide was approximately 2.4 million, or about 80%. In comparing the
population figures for 1961 and 1971, and taking the observed natural growth
rhythm into account, Vyas finds that the Hindu population has remained
stable at 9.5 million when it should have increased to nearly 13 million
(13.23 million if the same growth rhythm were assumed for Hindus as for
Muslims). Of the missing 3.5 million people (if not more), 1.1 million can
be explained: it is the number of Hindu refugees settled in India prior to
the genocide. The Hindu refugees at the time of the genocide, about 8
million, all went back after the ordeal, partly because the Indian
government forced them to it, partly because the new state of Bangladesh was
conceived as a secular state; the trickle of Hindu refugees into India only
resumed in 1974, when the first steps towards islamization of the polity
were taken. This leaves 2.4 million missing Hindus to be explained. Taking
into account a number of Hindu children born to refugees in India rather
than in Bangladesh, and a possible settlement of 1971 refugees in India, it
is fair to estimate the disappeared Hindus at about 2 million.
While India-watchers wax indignant about communal riots in India killing up
to 20,000 people since 1948, allegedly in a proportion of three Muslims to
one Hindu, the best-kept secret of the post-Independence Hindu-Muslim
conflict is that in the subcontinent as a whole, the overwhelming majority
of the victims have been Hindus. Even apart from the 1971 genocide,
"ordinary" pogroms in East Pakistan in 1950 alone killed more Hindus than
the total number of riot victims in India since 1948.
A second, less extreme type of genocide consists in killing a sufficient
number who form the backbone of the group's collective identity, and
assimilating the leaderless masses into the dominant community. This has
been the Chinese policy in Tibet, killing over a million Tibetans while
assimilating the survivors into Chinese culture by flooding their country
with Chinese settlers. It was also Stalin's policy in eastern Poland and the
Baltic states after they fell into his hands under the 1939 Hitler-Stalin
Pact, exemplified by the massacre of thousands of Polish army officers in
Katyn. Stalin's policies combining murder of the elites, deportation of
entire ethnic groups and ruthless oppression of the survivors was prefigured
in antiquity by the Assyrians, whose deportation of the ten northern (now
"lost") tribes of Israel is attested in the Bible.
During the Islamic conquests in India, it was a typical policy to single out
the Brahmins for slaughter, after the Hindu warrior class had been bled on
the battlefield. Even the Portuguese in Malabar and Goa followed this policy
in the 16th century, as can be deduced from Hindu-Portuguese treaty clauses
prohibiting the Portuguese from killing Brahmins.
In antiquity, such partial genocide typically targeted the men for slaughter
and the women and children for slavery or concubinage. Thus, in 416 BCE, the
Athenians were angered at the Melians' reluctance to join the war against
Sparta, and to set an example for other client states, Athens had Melos
repopulated with Athenian colonists after killing its men and enslaving its
women. Another example would be the slaughter of the Jews of Medina by
Mohammed in 626 CE: after expelling two Jewish tribes, the third one, the
Banu Quraiza, were exterminated: all the ca. 700 men were beheaded, while
the women and children were sold into slavery, with the Prophet keeping the
most beautiful woman as his concubine (she refused to marry him).
Hindus too experienced this treatment at the hands of Islamic conquerors,
e.g. when Mohammed bin Qasim conquered the lower Indus basin in 712 CE.
Thus, in Multan, according to the Chach-Nama, "six thousand warriors were
put to death, and all their relations and dependents were taken as slaves".
This is why Rajput women committed mass suicide to save their honour in the
face of the imminent entry of victorious Muslim armies, e.g. 8,000 women
immolated themselves during Akbar's capture of Chittorgarh in 1568 (where
this most enlightened ruler also killed 30,000 non-combatants). During the
Partition pogroms and the East Bengali genocide, mass rape of Hindu women
after the slaughter of their fathers and husbands was a frequent event.
At this point, however, we should not overlook a puzzling episode in Hindu
legend which describes a similar behaviour by a Hindu conqueror: Parashurama,
deified as the 6th incarnation of Vishnu, killed all the adult male
Kshatriyas for several generations, until only women were left, and then had
Brahmins father a new generation upon them. Just a story, or reference to a
Genocide in the Bible
For full-blooded genocide, however, the book to consult is the Bible, which
describes cases of both partial and complete genocide. The first modest
attempt was the killing by Jacob's sons of all the males in the Canaanite
tribe of Shekhem, the fiancé of their own sister Dina. The motive was pride
of pedigree: having immigrated from the civilizational centre of Ur in
Mesopotamia, Abraham's tribe refused all intermarriage with the native
people of Canaan (thus, Rebecca favoured Jacob over Esau because Jacob
married his nieces while Esau married local women).
Full-scale genocide was ordered by God, and executed by his faithful, during
the conquest of Canaan by Moses and Joshua. In the defeated cities outside
the Promised Land, they had to kill all the men but keep the women as slaves
or concubines. Inside the Promised Land, by contrast, the conquerors were
ordered to kill every single man, woman and child. All the Canaanites and
Amalekites were killed. Here, the stated reason was that God wanted to
prevent the coexistence of His people with Pagans, which would result in
religious syncretism and the restoration of polytheism.
As we only have a literary record of this genocide, liberal theologians
uncomfortable with a genocidal God have argued that this Canaanite genocide
was only fiction. To be sure, genocide fiction exists, e.g. the Biblical
story that the Egyptians had all newborn male Israelites killed is
inconsistent with all other data in the Biblical narrative itself (as well
as unattested in the numerous and detailed Egyptian inscriptions), and
apparently only served to underpin the story of Moses' arrival in the
Pharaoh's court in a basket on the river, a story modelled on the
then-popular life story of Sargon of Akkad. Yet, the narrative of the
conquest of Canaan is full of military detail uncommon in fiction; unlike
other parts of the Bible, it is almost without any miracles, factual through
And even if we suppose that the story is fictional, what would it say about
the editors that they attributed genocidal intentions and injunctions to
their God? If He was non-genocidal and good in reality, why turn him into a
genocidal and prima facie evil Being? On balance, it is slightly more
comforting to accept that the Bible editors described a genocide because
they wanted to be truthful and relate real events. After all, the great and
outstanding thing about the Bible narrative is its realism, its refusal to
idealize its heroes. We get to see Jacob deceiving Isaac and Esau, then
Laban deceiving Jacob; David's heroism and ingenuity in battle, but also his
treachery in making Bathseba his own, and later his descent into senility;
Salomon's palace intrigues in the war of succession along with his pearls of
wisdom. Against that background, it would be inconsistent to censor the
Canaanite genocide as merely a fictional interpolation.
A third type of genocide consists in preventing procreation among a targeted
population. Till recently, it was US policy to promote sterilization among
Native American women, even applying it secretly during postnatal care or
other operations. The Tibetans too have been subjected to this treatment. In
the Muslim world, male slaves were often castrated, which partly explains
why Iraq has no Black population even though it once had hundreds of
thousands of Black slaves. The practice also existed in India on a smaller
scale, though the much-maligned Moghul emperor Aurangzeb tried to put an end
to it, mainly because eunuchs brought endless corruption in the court. The
hijra community is a left-over of this Islamic institution (in ancient
India, harems were tended by old men or naturally napunsak/impotent men,
tested by having to spend the night with a prostitute without showing signs
of virile excitement).
A fourth type of genocide is when mass killing takes place unintentionally,
as collateral damage of foolish policies, e.g. Chairman Mao's Great Leap
Forward inducing the greatest man-made mass starvation killing 20 million or
more, or the British war requisitions causing the Bengal famine of 1943
killing some 3 million; or as collateral damage of other forms of
oppression. Unlike the deliberate genocide of Native Americans in parts of
the USA or Argentina, the death of millions of Natives in Central America
after the first Spanish conquests was at least partly the unintended
side-effect of the hardships of forced labour and the contact with new
diseases brought by the Europeans. In contrast with Nazi and Soviet work
camps, where forced labour had the dual purpose of economic profit and a
slow but sure death of the inmates, there is no evidence that the Spanish
wanted their Native labourers to die. After all, their replacement with
African slaves required a large extra investment.
The Atlantic slave trade itself caused mass death among the transported
slaves, just as in the already long-standing Arab slave trade, but it is
obvious that purely for the sake of profit, the slave-traders preferred as
many slaves as possible to arrive at the slave markets alive. Likewise, the
Christian c.q. Islamic contempt for Pagans made them rather careless with
the lives of Native Americans, Africans or Hindus, so that millions of them
were killed, and yet this was not deliberate genocide. Of course they wanted
to annihilate Pagan religions like Hinduism, but in principle, the
missionary religions wished to convert the unbelievers, and preferred not to
kill them unless this was necessary for establishing the power of the True
That is why the mass killing of Hindus by Muslims rarely took place in
peacetime, but typically in the fervour immediately following military
victories, e.g. the fall of the metropolis of Vijayanagar in 1565 was
"celebrated" with a general massacre and arson. Once Muslim power was
established, Muslim rulers sought to exploit and humiliate rather than kill
the Hindus, and discourage rebellion by making some sort of compromise. Not
that peacetime was all that peaceful, for as Fernand Braudel wrote in A
History of Civilizations (Penguin 1988/1963, p.232-236), Islamic rule in
India as a "colonial experiment" was "extremely violent", and "the Muslims
could not rule the country except by systematic terror. Cruelty was the norm
-- burnings, summary executions, crucifixions or impalements, inventive
tortures. Hindu temples were destroyed to make way for mosques. On occasion
there were forced conversions. If ever there were an uprising, it was
instantly and savagely repressed: houses were burned, the countryside was
laid waste, men were slaughtered and women were taken as slaves."
Though all these small acts of terror added up to a death toll of genocidal
proportions, no organized genocide of the Holocaust type took place. One
constraint on Muslim zeal for Holy War was the endemic inter-Muslim warfare
and intrigue (no history of a royal house was bloodier than that of the
Delhi Sultanate 1206-1525), another the prevalence of the Hanifite school of
Islamic law in India. This is the only one among the four law schools in
Sunni Islam which allows Pagans to subsist as zimmis, dis-empowered
third-class citizens paying a special tax for the favour of being tolerated;
the other three schools of jurisprudence ruled that Pagans, as opposed to
Christians and Jews, had to be given a choice between Islam and death.
Staggering numbers also died as collateral damage of the deliberate
impoverishment by Sultans like Alauddin Khilji and Jahangir. As Braudel put
it: "The levies it had to pay were so crushing that one catastrophic harvest
was enough to unleash famines and epidemics capable of killing a million
people at a time. Appalling poverty was the constant counterpart of the
Genocide by any other name
In some cases, terminological purists object to mass murder being described
as "genocide", viz. when it targets groups defined by other criteria than
ethnicity. Stalin's "genocide" through organized famine in Ukraine killed
some 7 million people (lowest estimate is 4 million) in 1931-33, the
largest-ever deliberate mass murder in peacetime, but its victims were
targeted because of their economic and political positions, not because of
their nationhood. Though it makes no difference to the victims, this was not
strictly genocide or "nation murder", but "class murder". Likewise, the
killing of perhaps two million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge was not an
attempt to destroy the Cambodian nation; it was rather an attempt to
"purify" the nation of its bourgeois class.
The killing of large groups of ideological dissenters is a constant in the
history of the monotheistic faiths, of which Marxism has been termed a
modern offshoot, starting with the killing of some polytheistic priests by
Pharaoh Akhenaton and, shortly after, the treacherous killing of 3,000
worshippers of the Golden Calf by Moses (they had been encouraged to come
out in the open by Moses' brother Aaron, not unlike Chairman Mao's "hundred
flowers" campaign which encouraged dissenters to speak freely, all the
better to eliminate them later). Mass killing accompanied the
christianization of Saxony by Charlemagne (ca. 800 CE) and of East Prussia
by the Teutonic Knights (13th century). In 1209-29, French Catholics
massacred the heretical Cathars. Wars between Muslims and Christians, and
between Catholics and Protestants, killed millions both in deliberate
massacres and as collateral damage, e.g. seven million Germans in 1618-48.
Though the Turkish government which ordered the killing of a million
Armenians in 1915 was motivated by a mixture of purely military,
secular-nationalistic and Islamic considerations, the fervour with which the
local Turks and Kurds participated in the slaughter was clearly due to their
Islamic conditioning of hatred against non-Muslims.
This ideological killing could be distinguished from genocide in the strict
sense, because ethnicity was not the reason for the slaughter. While this
caution may complicate matters for the Ukrainians or Cambodians, it does not
apply to the case of Hinduism: like the Jews, the Hindus have historically
been both a religion and a nation (or at least, casteists might argue, a
conglomerate of nations). Attempts to kill all Hindus of a given region may
legitimately be termed genocide.
For its sheer magnitude in scope and death toll, coupled with its occasional
(though not continuous) intention to exterminate entire Hindu communities,
the Islamic campaign against Hinduism, which was never fully called off
since the first naval invasion in 636 CE, can without exaggeration be termed
genocide. To quote Will Durant's famous line: "The Islamic conquest of India
is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for
its evident moral is that civilization is a precious good, whose delicate
complex of order and freedom, culture and peace, can at any moment be
overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying within."
(Story of Civilization, vol.1, Our Oriental Heritage, New York 1972, p.459)
There is no official estimate of the total death toll of Hindus at the hands
of Islam. A first glance at important testimonies by Muslim chroniclers
suggests that, over 13 centuries and a territory as vast as the
Subcontinent, Muslim Holy Warriors easily killed more Hindus than the 6
million of the Holocaust. Ferishtha lists several occasions when the Bahmani
sultans in central India (1347-1528) killed a hundred thousand Hindus, which
they set as a minimum goal whenever they felt like "punishing" the Hindus;
and they were only a third-rank provincial dynasty. The biggest slaughters
took place during the raids of Mahmud Ghaznavi (ca. 1000 CE); during the
actual conquest of North India by Mohammed Ghori and his lieutenants (1192
ff.); and under the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526). The Moghuls (1526-1857),
even Babar and Aurangzeb, were fairly restrained tyrants by comparison.
Prof. K.S. Lal once estimated that the Indian population declined by 50
million under the Sultanate, but that would be hard to substantiate;
research into the magnitude of the damage Islam did to India is yet to start
in right earnest.
Note that attempts are made to deny this history. In Indian schoolbooks and
the media, an idyllic picture of Hindu-Muslim harmony in the pre-British
period is propagated in outright contradiction with the testimony of the
primary sources. Like Holocaust denial, this propaganda can be called
negationism. The really daring negationists don't just deny the crimes
against Hindus, they invert the picture and blame the Hindus themselves.
Thus, it is routinely alleged that Hindus persecuted and destroyed Buddhism;
in reality, Buddhist monasteries and universities flourished under Hindu
rule, but their thousands of monks were killed by Ghori and his lieutenants.
Apart from actual killing, millions of Hindus disappeared by way of
enslavement. After every conquest by a Muslim invader, slave markets in
Bagdad and Samarkand were flooded with Hindus. Slaves were likely to die of
hardship, e.g. the mountain range Hindu Koh, "Indian mountain", was renamed
Hindu Kush, "Hindu-killer", when one cold night in the reign of Timur Lenk
(1398-99), a hundred thousand Hindu slaves died there while on transport to
Central Asia. Though Timur conquered Delhi from another Muslim ruler, he
recorded in his journal that he made sure his pillaging soldiers spared the
Muslim quarter, while in the Hindu areas, they took "twenty slaves each".
Hindu slaves were converted to Islam, and when their descendants gained
their freedom, they swelled the numbers of the Muslim community. It is a
cruel twist of history that the Muslims who forced Partition on India were
partly the progeny of Hindus enslaved by Islam.
The Hindu notion of Karma has come under fire from Christian and secularist
polemicists as part of the current backlash against New Age thinking.
Allegedly, the doctrine of Karma implies that the victims of the Holocaust
and other massacres had deserved their fate. A naive understanding of Karma,
divorced from its Hindu context, could indeed lead to such ideas. Worse, it
could be said that the Jews as a nation had incurred genocidal karma by the
genocide which their ancestors committed on the Canaanites. Likewise, it
could be argued that the Native Americans had it coming: recent research (by
Walter Neves from Brazil as well as by US scientists) has shown that in ca.
8000 BC, the Mongoloid Native American populations replaced an earlier
American population closely resembling the Australian Aborigines -- the
first American genocide?
More generally, if Karma explains suffering and "apparent" injustice as a
profound form of justice, a way of reaping the karmic rewards of one's own
actions, are we not perversely justifying every injustice? These questions
should not be taken lightly. However, the Hindu understanding of
reincarnation militates against the doctrine of genocidal "group karma"
outlined above. An individual can incarnate in any community, even in other
species, and need not be reborn among his own progeny. If Canaanites killed
by the Israelites have indeed reincarnated, some may have been Nazi camp
guards and others Jewish Holocaust victims. There is no reason to assume
that the members of today's victim group are the reincarnated souls of the
bullies of yesteryear, returning to suffer their due punishment. That is the
difference between karma and genetics: karma is taken along by the
individual soul, not passed on in the family line.
More fundamentally, we should outgrow this childish (and in this case,
downright embarrassing) view of karma as a matter of reward and punishment.
Does the killer of a million people return a million times as a murder
victim to suffer the full measure of his deserved punishment? Rather, karma
is a law of conservation: you are reborn with the basic pattern of desires
and conditionings which characterized you when you died last time around.
The concrete experiences and actions which shaped that pattern, however, are
history: they only survive insofar as they have shaped your psychic karma
pattern, not as a precise account of merits and demerits to be paid off by
corresponding amounts of suffering and pleasure.
One lesson to be learned from genocide history pertains to Karma, the law of
cause and effect, in a more down-to-earth sense: suffering genocide is the
karmic reward of weakness. That is one conclusion which the Jews have drawn
from their genocide experience: they created a modern and militarily strong
state. Even more importantly, they helped foster an awareness of the history
of their persecution among their former persecutors, the Christians, which
makes it unlikely that Christians will target them again. In this respect,
the Hindus have so far failed completely. With numerous Holocaust memorials
already functioning, one more memorial is being built in Berlin by the heirs
of the perpetrators of the Holocaust; but there is not even one memorial to
the Hindu genocide, because even the victim community doesn't bother, let
alone the perpetrators.
This different treatment of the past has implications for the future. Thus,
Israel's nuclear programme is accepted as a matter of course, justified by
the country's genuine security concerns; but when India, which has equally
legitimate security concerns, conducted nuclear tests, it provoked American
sanctions. If the world ignores Hindu security concerns, one of the reasons
is that Hindus have never bothered to tell the world how many Hindus have
been killed already.
What should Hindus say to Muslims when they consider the record of Islam in
Hindu lands? It is first of all very important not to allot guilt wrongly.
Notions of collective or hereditary guilt should be avoided. Today's Muslims
cannot help it that other Muslims did certain things in 712 or 1565 or 1971.
One thing they can do, however, is to critically reread their scripture to
discern the doctrinal factors of Muslim violence against Hindus and
Hinduism. Of course, even without scriptural injunction, people get violent
and wage wars; if Mahmud Ghaznavi hadn't come, some of the people he killed
would have died in other, non-religious conflicts. But the basic Quranic
doctrine of hatred against the unbelievers has also encouraged many
good-natured and pious people to take up the sword against Hindus and other
Pagans, not because they couldn't control their aggressive instincts, but
because they had been told that killing unbelievers was a meritorious act.
Good people have perpetrated evil because religious authorities had depicted
it as good.
This is material for a no-nonsense dialogue between Hindus and Muslims. But
before Hindus address Muslims about this, it is imperative that they inform
themselves about this painful history. Apart from unreflected grievances,
Hindus have so far not developed a serious critique of Islam's doctrine and
historical record. Often practising very sentimental, un-philosophical
varieties of their own religion, most Hindus have very sketchy and distorted
images of rival religions. Thus, they say that Mohammed was an Avatar of
Vishnu, and then think that they have cleverly solved the Hindu-Muslim
conflict by flattering the Prophet (in fact, it is an insult to basic Muslim
beliefs, which reject divine incarnation, apart from indirectly associating
the Prophet with Vishnu's incarnation as a pig). Instead of the silly sop
stories which pass as conducive to secularism, Hindus should acquaint
themselves with real history and real religious doctrines.
Another thing which we should not forget is that Islam is ultimately rooted
in human nature. We need not believe the Muslim claim that the Quran is of
divine origin; but then it is not of diabolical origin either, it is a human
document. The Quran is in all respects the product of a 7th-century Arab
businessman vaguely acquainted with Judeo-Christian notions of monotheism
and prophetism, and the good and evil elements in it are very human. Even
its negative elements appealed to human instincts, e.g. when Mohammed
promised a share in the booty of the caravans he robbed, numerous Arab
Pagans took the bait and joined him. The undesirable elements in Islamic
doctrine stem from human nature, and can in essence be found elsewhere as
well. Keeping that in mind, it should be possible to make a fair evaluation
of Islam's career in India on the basis of factual history.