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Sacred cows and thumping drums: claiming territory as ‘zones of tradition’ in British India

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Theories that explain the origins of communal violence in South Asia often point to the discursive creation of the perception of distinct and adversarial Hindu and Muslim identity categories at the beginning of the twentieth century. This paper argues that these theories overemphasize imagined social differences without adequately considering how these boundaries were territorialized in everyday life through performative place-making practices. In order to fill this gap, ‘zones of tradition’, areas where religious or cultural practices are reified into official tradition, are suggested as one way of conceptualizing how group-making discourses are linked to places. As examples, the cow protection movement that campaigned to institute local bans on the slaughter of cattle and conflicts over Hindu processions playing music as they passed in front of mosques are considered. As these practices were contested, it is argued that zones of tradition were established across British India symbolically and tangibly dividing the territory before it was officially partitioned.

Keywords: South Asia; boundaries; communalism; discourses; identities; territoriality

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA, Email:

Publication date: March 1, 2007


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