The Indo-Persian Synthesis

By Vijay Vikram

It’s been a while since I wrote on this blog. And a very good piece by a chap called Ahmed Kamran on The South Asian Idea has pushed me into rectifying that.

One of the themes that I love ruminating on is the synthesis of Indic and Persian cultures that emerged after India’s encounter with Islam. What is equally fascinating is how this culture has fractured and is in a state of war after the Partition of India – probably one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated of world-historical events. Intellectuals, both Subcontinental and Western tend to treat Partition as a localised event. A horrific event, worthy of intellectual analysis and monograph upon dry academic monograph but in essence, a tragedy restricted to and contained by the Indian Subcontinent. In actuality, the Partition of India is a world-historical event whose consequences shall be felt on the continuum of civilisations for generations. This could be read as hyperbole of course, but a very clear line can be drawn between what happened in Punjab in 1947 and what happened in New York in 2001.

Politics aside, the cultural consequences of Partition are very interesting. In the immediate post-colonial years, both India’s and Pakistan’s macaulite elites were united by the experience of subservience to a common master, being socialised by the same institutions and most importantly, living within the same political unit. I never cease to be struck by the fact that the Zia-Ul-Haq attended St. Stephen’s College and was on civil terms with Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw (although that changed after Zia purchased the Field Marshall’s motorbike in 1947 and forgot to pay after he migrated to Pakistan). What has happened over the past 60 years, is a gradual Arabisation of Pakistani public life and an accompanying Sanskritisation of the public conversation in India. In Pakistan, words with Arabic roots are seen to be more authentic whilst terms that have a clear Subcontinental or ‘Indian’ connotation are seen as inauthentic. Ahmed Kamran provides a clever illustration of this phenomenon in the title of his piece – “From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz”.

I rue this development because I hold the Indo-Persian synthesis to be the authentic culture of Hindustan. When I say Hindustan, I use it in its less expansive sense and restrict the meaning of the term to North India and Pakistani Punjab and Sindh. In fact, I should have been clear from the beginning. At various point in this short piece I’ve used the term India when I should really be saying North India.

Is it possible to resurrect this Hindustani culture? I don’t think so. That’s because culture is the servant of politics and is increasingly being made to conform to the diktats of hegemonic nationalist narratives. If I were to put my cultural hat on I would find this disgraceful. If I were to exchange that cultural hat for a political one, I might not find this state of affairs altogether unsurprising – inevitable even. That’s because the politics of the nation-state requires a unitary national community with a defined culture and history that aids the nationalist cause rather than undermines it. You can’t expect an Indian solider stationed on the Siachen glacier to have a nuanced understanding of the Subcontinental soul – he needs a clear narrative that defines friend and enemy – just like his Pakistani counterpart, regardless of the fact that both of them probably speak Punjabi.

This post appeared first on Centre Right India and is reproduced here on the request of the author.


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2 Responses to “The Indo-Persian Synthesis”

  1. SouthAsian Says:

    Vijay: I have one concern with this line of political thinking. Once we start down the road to having clear nationalist narratives about friends and enemies how do we keep it ordered to conform to national boundaries? Who are the friends and enemies of the Indian soldier in Kashmir or for the student of a Sunni seminary in Pakistan? Would it not be better to put one’s faith in Bulleh Shah and Bhagat Kabir and teach the soldiers to recognize that there is something of value in the Subcontinental soul? If Punjabi is the common language, it will be all the easier. Perhaps that would spark a tradition of conscientious objectors in the Subcontinent and people would stop being tools in the hands of those with hegemonic intentions.

    Do you think we could have soldiers like Yeats’ Irish airman?

    An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

    I know that I shall meet my fate
    Somewhere among the clouds above;
    Those that I fight I do not hate,
    Those that I guard I do not love;
    My country is Kiltartan Cross,
    My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
    No likely end could bring them loss
    Or leave them happier than before.
    Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
    Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
    A lonely impulse of delight
    Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
    I balanced all, brought all to mind,
    The years to come seemed waste of breath,
    A waste of breath the years behind
    In balance with this life, this death.

  2. Vijay Says:

    That’s a very interesting point South Asian. I think both you and I know that we’ve already reached the point of clear nationalist narratives in India and Pakistan. Religious nationalism is the only nationalism that has purchase in India & Pakistan. I do like nationalism, it can be a very constructive force – it creates and binds political communities. Indian and Pakistani nationalisms unfortunately are flawed and provincial. The kind of nationalism I would like to see realised on the Subcontinent is a ‘civilisational’ nationalism that encompasses the entire region. That is the holy grail.

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