Part-3: Identity of the ‘Ordinary Indian’

Concluding part of a three-part series

Indian Muslims
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This brings under focus the question of Hindus and Muslims having been categories originally imported from the discourse of the colonial power vis-a-vis the other countries and cultures, and becoming part of colonial discourse by default. In order to understand and then control Indian society it lumped together diverse communities practising Islam in the country as Moslems or Muslims and the rest of Indians as Hindus. The very word Hindu might well have been adopted from Arabic references to India, as in Al Beruni’s AL HIND, a rich source of information to the Muslim world interested in India. It is somewhat ironic that the rhetoric of Hindutva had to lean on foreign and Western sources to construct itself. 

However, once it set in as part of the colonial language in understanding and engaging with subject peoples of a vast sub-continental country there was no holding back and over a couple of centuries an enormous store of information and knowledge piled up labelling two communities conceived as straddling across numerous tracts and peoples. For entirely political reasons the ‘Hindus’, beginning with the colonial middle-class of Bengal were first fit into this mould and they were malleable owing to utter dependence on colonial economy and colonial modern education. 

To cut a long and chequered history short the first awakening of modern India under such circumstances led to the development of modern societies and cultures tied to colonial economy and cognitive grids. Bankim Chandra, the first ever modern novelist in India and himself a powerful intellect came round to imagining a Hindu India linked to the glories of a ‘Hindu’ past and through his novel ‘Anandamath’ spread the notion of a Hindu nation that did not accommodate the considerable Muslim population in India! In fact, he was driven to identify Muslims either as an encumbrance or a downright hindrance. Through many vicissitudes through which national leaders realised that the matter was not so easy an uneasy alliance with the rising Muslim political leadership was attempted. Gandhijee brought the national movement for self-determination out of middle-class cloisters by mobilising the farmers and urban workers in colonial metropolises. 

But the question of a national identity remained problematic thanks to colonial manipulation of the upper crust of the ‘Muslim’ subjects. 

I have dealt with the broad contours of that mammoth colonial project elsewhere. Suffice it to say that like the Hindu elite in the early stages of national awakening the Muslim leadership was composed mainly of Muslim zemindars, traders and professionals with a sprinkling of clerics exposed to modern education. Though population-wise they were a small fraction of the total Muslim population they wielded enormous authority and influence through the colonial grant of limited self-government based on very restricted franchise. Initially Jinnah was for a gradual progress towards political autonomy for Indians and had no problem with a working partnership with a similarly composed and oriented Hindu leadership. But Gandhijee’s advent turned the tables on such a vision and the masses appeared to be moving towards a place on the glittering high table to his discomfort. He retired from active politics and for more than a decade was out of the scene until the dynamics of mass movements and logic of events appeared to be taking the country inexorably towards freedom. He then returned to befriend the Orthodox clergy with whom he had a rather cool relationship earlier and cobbled up an alliance to stake an uncompromising claim to share in power in the emerging political set-up on the eve of independence. 

It so happens that the national politics of India has since independence been dominated by Hindus not by design but by sheer chance or historical exigency, and most of the leaders were not particularly keen to flaunt their Hindu identity and their point of view was broadly though perhaps not radically secular. It is also clear, the Muslims for about three decades were seldom subject to stress about their security and rights as citizens, though as the Sachar Commission report revealed they remained woefully backward and deficient in several indices of development. Though some held high posts in government and the judiciary, population-wise their inclusion in government service, administration, the police etc was also far from satisfactory. 

The Muslim masses were often aroused by sectarian religious passions that were often incomprehensible to members of other faiths. In plain language they remained largely untouched by modern ideas thanks to poverty of the great majority of them and consequent hold of obsolete ideas and customs upon them. Even before partition the Muslim elite had not cared to spread modern ideas among the masses owing to their urge to mobilise the masses on the basis of religion. Thanks to this social and cultural environment even some who were exposed to modern knowledge through education were eventually pushed back into the embrace of tradition. 

In this context one has to take seriously the disclosure by Prince Regent Salman of Saudi Arabia, at a time when he was already practically in overall charge of the royal administration, about  the 700 billion dollars spent over decades since 1970s to spread orthodox Islamic ideas in Asian countries with sizable Muslim population to counter the influence of the Soviet Union and progressive leftist ideas at the advice of and under active supervision  of the CIA. This massive campaign involved despatch of lavish funds to Islamic seminaries and religious institutions as ‘jakat’. Thus, exposure to modern ideas was pretty effectively restricted and in course of time it itself became a serious problem for patrons of this project.

 What happened then to the liberal Muslim opinion? Here I am making a rough evaluation of trends and deliberately ignoring nuances obligatory for academic rigour but tending to blur outlines of the argument. Most liberal Muslims except those in the progressive left camp left for Pakistan or stayed on to join the Congress to serve as junior partners. Sadat Hussain Manto’s cruel dilemma is no secret. But this outcome itself was a by-product of British colonial project that chose to divide the country in order to maintain the interest of imperialism in the subcontinent. This had also been the consistent view of Maulana Azad in his memoirs. 

The instrument of this policy had been the Muslim League. It has often been held guilty of Muslim separatism leading eventually to partition of the country. However, a careful study of the political trends in the first half of the twentieth century suggests the Muslim League only served as a tool in the working of a grand imperial design. 

As I have said elsewhere, since the Great Rebellion of 1857 and the still burning embers of resistance to British rule among Indian Muslims, the British rulers were compelled to apply their minds to winning them over. Since at that time among educated Hindus unrest at denial of political rights had begun to simmer, the British rulers conceived a plan to co-opt the elite of both major religious groups in the execution of their imperial design under a facade of self-government. The so-called constitutional experiments in native self-government of 1909,1919 and 1935 had actually been mere subterfuges to maintain colonial exploitation and domination. I feel tempted to use the phrase ‘myth of consent’ to characterise the ruse but for the fact that Pratap Bhanu Mehta used it in a quite different sense. 

The constitutional facade designed by the British colonial rulers already had been partly supported by educated Hindus, but the roof sagged as some posts were not yet put in place. There was an urgent need to bring a section of Muslims on board as partners in this thin mimicry of self-government.

But the old Muslim elite of zemindars, traders and remnants of old gentry were not equipped to engage in a simulacrum of modern constitutional government. The yawning gap was filled by an earnest and committed advocate of the interest of the Muslim gentry. Syed Ahmed Khan had a presentiment that British rule in India was here to stay and in the worst days of 1857 rebellion, sided with the British. He tried to promote the modern sciences and education among the Muslim gentry as well as a liberal version of Islam in tune with British interests and modern culture. 

There are some landmark events that merit attention. The Muslim League was founded in 1906 at the British Governor-general’s initiative and at his official residence with some Muslim notables like Nawab of Dacca Salimullah at a time when anti-British feelings were running high in Bengal. Syed Ahmed Khan’s dream-project the Mohammedan Anglo-oriental College was founded in 1875 in Aligarh with the Viceroy himself laying the foundation stone to train upper class Muslim youths for government service, the bar and the professions. Alongside that the British rulers created a lasting political divide between Hindus and Muslims by instituting ‘communal electorate’ for the benefit of the Muslim upper classes. There was also a semblance of franchise though drastically limited by property qualifications. 

This constitutional arrangement craftily put in place to foment Hindu-Muslim political rivalry also served to give a facade of legitimacy to near-total British control of the colonial economy and administration. And there was the overarching myth of self-government to cover up this despotism.

By the 1940s the rivalry became a bitter feud. As franchise expanded under pressure of rising aspirations and demands of the people the patrician Muslims were forced to come to an agreement with Muslim plebs led by orthodox clerics in order to keep their grip on levers of power. Educated Indians got accustomed to thinking of themselves as belonging to two rival camps with conflicting interests. Partition and its painful aftermath reinforced the narrative which for decades later passed as common sense. The discreet encroachment of secular space by saffron forces had been pointed out earlier on. 

Today it continues to prop up a consciousness of identity and fosters a deep-rooted notion of the ‘ordinary Indian’ in India as a being shaped by his religious culture. While the Hindu feels assured by it the Muslim is driven to a sense of homelessness. I have not seen Rishi Kapur’s film MULK, but find the title deeply evocative of this anxiety. Opposed to it there is the widespread saffron triumphalism. 

It has been a product of imperial design covering a century, and it behoves us to make the required endeavour to slough off this constricting membrane. India is still busy discovering herself and the familiar dogmatic short-cuts will only increase the costs and the pain. 

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

Other pieces by Dr. Hiren Gohain:

Identity of the ‘Ordinary Indian’

Part-2: Identity of the ‘Ordinary Indian’




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