Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 4

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


In the previous three parts (here, here and here) we examined the long journey of Indian Muslims from the inception of a great common Indo-Persian culture in the 13th century to its political isolation especially by the end of 1930’s. By the time British rulers were fully engaged in World War 2, Muslims, with an acute sense of their separate identity that developed particularly in the backdrop of political events during 1920’s and 1930’s, were about to embark on a collision course with rest of the Indian people. Let’s discuss the key drivers of this great sea change in Indian politics as the British prepared to leave an independent India in the hands of indigenous people.

As noted by South Asian in a separate post on this Weblog, the British Orientalist and social scientist Professor Ralph Russell raised a very pertinent question in his article ‘Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia’ published in 1980’s as to why the Muslim elite of India at this critical juncture and later in the newly independent Pakistan chose a different and narrow strand of Islam instead of the more tolerant version that was indeed more popular at the grassroots level among the masses? This question that has triggered the present discussion is an important one that must be clearly understood in its correct perspective and its most probable and rational answers must be identified.

The last great opportunity of taking measures for restoring confidence between Muslims and Hindus in India was sadly lost at the end of 1930’s when the crucial understanding that was reached between Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah on building a working relationship between the two key forces was suddenly broken after the rout of Muslim League in the elections of 1937 and the balance of power was tilted heavily against Muslim League. It was after about 10 years that Muslims were again coming round to discuss joining the main stream under Jinnah’s far more unified and undisputed leadership of Muslim League. On a similar effort in 1928, the Muslim League had split into two factions when a more secular Jinnah had agreed to concede separate electorates to the Motilal Nehru Committee while Sir Mohammad Shafi and Allama Iqbal led the dissenting faction from the Punjab. Yet, again the opportunity was lost. Intoxicated by its own spectacular success in the elections and corresponding dismal performance of the Muslim League, the Congress sought to pull the rug from under the League’s feet by launching a Direct Mass Contact campaign to win over Muslims and completely displace the Muslim League. This campaign was organized by Nehru under a known Muslim Marxist, Kanwar Mohammad Ashraf.

The Muslim League retaliated with vengeance by injecting a heavy dose of Islamic frenzy in its politics. We have seen how at this time Islamic religious element was introduced in Indian politics in a big way by the Muslim League and in this effort its natural allies were mainly the Ulema of various strands of Deobandi school of thought who were well trained in political and organizational skills. This is the time when influential writings of scholars like Abul A’ala Maududi played a critical role. A long series of powerful articles written by Maulana Maududi during 1937-39 appeared in his journal Tarjumanul Quran, mercilessly castigating the Direct Mass Contact Movement and effectively reasoning for true Islamic models. These articles, later published as a collection in two volumes under the title Musalman aur Maujuda Siaasi Kash Makash (The Muslims & the Current Political Struggle), greatly agitated the minds of educated Muslims in India and attempted to provide an Islamic ideological foundation for the new proposed state.

In order to attract mass support among the Muslim population, the controversial and doctrinarian issues were avoided as much as possible and public exhortations at the ground level remained confined to the rhetoric of ‘Islam in danger’ and other vague slogans. To keep it vague actually suited all stakeholders; everybody had its own hopes and dreams for moulding the future state in its own image. A scholar like Abul A’ala Maududi, perhaps more honest with his faith, did not initially agree to lend support to Muslim League’s Pakistan Movement in the absence of a clear cut commitment from its leaders to establish an Islamic theocratic state in the future Pakistan as defined by traditional Muslim clerics. He, however, later agreed to join the Committee formed by the UP Muslim League to formulate the foundations for the future constitutional framework of Pakistan.

Aided also by the push from an equally narrow approach taken by some key Congress leaders, the Islamists soon succeeded in pulling over the Indian Muslims to an emotionally charged political environment where followers of different strands of Islam joined hands. The belligerent feelings were so heightened that, barring a few but hugely isolated exceptions (like Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madani and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad), most of the former nationalist Muslim leaders (prominent among those were Maulana Shoukat Ali and Maulana Abdul Bari Farangi Mahal) even had to recant and repent over their earlier support of Hindu-Muslim unity. While most of the grassroots mobilization work for Pakistan was actually done by local peers, shaikhs, and ulemas (mostly the followers of non-puritan strands of Islam), the constitutional inputs at the top were provided almost exclusively by Deobandi Ulema like Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani and others in the drafting of the well known ‘Objectives Resolution’ and exerting pressures for its adoption by Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly in 1949 and making it a preamble of the future constitution of Pakistan. The political and intellectual work, if any, by the proponents of a truly tolerant and humane Islam to counter this onslaught proved too weak to make a visible impact.

Technically, the last opportunity for both Muslims and Hindus of India to remain together in one constitutional framework (although, this time around it was even more fragile and fleeting in a greatly changed environment) was lost in 1946 when the Cabinet Mission Plan (a quite realistic arrangement under the given circumstances, provided there was a desire for keeping India together) was allowed to be torn apart by Nehru’s hostile press statement, shortly after the plan was agreed by all the parties including Congress and the Muslim League. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Jinnah immediately cried foul, and, retracting on his earlier agreement, announced the infamous ‘Direct Action’ policy. Thereafter, we never looked back travelling on the road to separation and mutual hostility.

Apparently, no matter how we may think today and notwithstanding the political rhetoric of the key players, a united India with a progressive and tolerant society for all people was not in the interests of any of the three interlocutors in Indian politics – the British, the Congress leaders, and the Muslim League leaders. At best, each one of them was only conditionally interested in a united India, provided it was available to them exclusively at their own terms of undivided political control. Otherwise, they were inclined to push others to have the country divided and none was prepared to take the blame publicly. So the country was jointly pushed towards a partition by all parties, constantly blaming each other, and India was eventually divided between the two, with the third, withdrawing from the front stage but still, together with USA, a new power rising on the horizon, seeking to indirectly influence the other two from afar. (This viewpoint may warrant a separate discussion.)

While examining the social and political chain of events and evaluating their impact on the historical development, we must keep two things in mind:

1.   Social and historical events must be judged on the basis of their actual outcome and not on the basis of the stated intentions of the key players. As it is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

2.   The stakeholders and the key players in any major historic event take actions dictated by their own interests and not on the basis of how we are to judge later as to what was right or what was wrong from our perspective.

While evaluating the historical roles played by key political forces in the independence movement of India culminating in the partition of India into two parts in 1947 – British, the Indian National Congress, and the Muslim League – we typically judge them on their face value, i.e., on the basis of their stated objectives or, at best, on our assessment of their intentions. We, usually, do not look at the actual outcomes of different actions taken by various stakeholders in light of critical scrutiny whether the stated objectives or the outcomes were in line with their objective interests or not.

There was a strong case for reasoning among many Hindu leaders that it was best for Hindus’ communal interests that a major part of Muslims, particularly in the borderlands (Punjab and NWFP in the west, and Bengal in the east) were separated from India rather than kept together. Har Dyal, a former revolutionary ideologue of the Ghadar Party organizing anti-British violent revolutionary activities during early 20th century turned aggressive Hindu nationalist, had commented as early as 1925, ‘twenty percent Islam [Muslims were then 20% of the Indian population] cannot be digested by any country. Any country that has swallowed this stone of twenty percent Islam has always been troubled with stomach-aches’. This stone, this particular line of reasoning argued, was to be pulverized or expurgated. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar submitted his seminal report entitled ‘Pakistan, or the Partition of India’ in December 1940 as the Chairman of the Committee formed by the Executive Council of the Independent Labour Party to study the issue of Pakistan and to formulate a comprehensive response to it after the Muslim League adopted the famous ‘Pakistan Resolution’ at Lahore in March 1940. Extensively using statistics relating to respective Hindu and Muslim population, revenue income, and current expenditure of various districts of India, and the profile of Indian army units, Ambedkar brilliantly argued with cold logic (from a purely Hindu perspective) that a Hindu India would rather gain, instead of losing anything, in terms of net revenue income, and at the same time getting rid of a potentially dangerous and disproportionately large Punjabi Muslim army and a permanently hazardous counter balancing Muslim voting power in a united India. Asking a question, ‘Which is then better for the Hindus: Should these Musalmans be without and against or should they be within and against?’(Italics by Ambedkar) he said, ‘it is better that they should be without and against rather than within and against… That is the only way of getting rid of the Muslim preponderance in the Indian army’. He further argued that, ‘the moment has come when the high caste Hindus of Bengal and the Punjab should be told that if they propose to resist Pakistan, because it cuts off a field for gainful employment, they are committing the greatest blunder’. In the Ambedkar report even the need for massive shift of population as a logical consequence of the partition was also discussed. It said, ‘But in the N.W.F.P. and Sind, owing to the scattered state of the Hindu population, alteration of boundaries cannot suffice for creating a homogenous State. There is only one remedy and that is to shift the population…That the transfer of minorities is the only lasting remedy for communal peace is beyond doubt.’

The point here, however, is not that such sentiments and arguments existed. The extreme views were always there, and likely to remain for long on both sides of the divide. To be fair, these examples of ultra-Hindu sentiments can be solidly matched with similar examples of equal, if not more, venomous sentiments on the Muslim side as well. The real point here is to underline that the actual outcomes of key political decisions at critical junctures seem to be dictated by factors and reasoning entirely different from those that were publicly stated in the party manifestos, and expressed from the political stages and the pulpits. These outcomes have been influenced by the people espousing extreme and intolerant views about each other.

Similarly, as long as the Muslim rights movement had remained confined to the narrow band of issues relating to local government/municipal matters, quotas in jobs and seats for minorities and asking for more concessions, the movement never picked up momentum in the Muslim majority areas of Punjab and NWFP. In Muslim Bengal, it was more of an economic issue couched in religious terms than a communal issue as most of the Bengali Muslim peasants were exceptionally poor. But as soon as the character of Muslim movement was transformed and morphed into a movement for a separate exclusive homeland for Muslims of India, it took Punjab’s Muslim landlords and newly enriched Muslim traders of Bombay, Calcutta, and Gujarat in its grip as a great ‘exclusive’ opportunity. In a short time, the political mood greatly changed and the centre of gravity and the theater of action for the new ‘Pakistan Movement’ swiftly shifted from minority Muslim areas to the majority Muslim areas of Punjab and Bengal. Dr. Ambedkar succinctly commented on this situation, ‘The Muslim League started to help minority Muslims and has ended by espousing the cause of majority Muslims… Unfortunately, Musalmans do not realize what disservice Mr. Jinnah has done to them by this policy’.

The tragedy was not for the Muslims and the people of Pakistan alone. The Muslims’ struggle for their rights was not alone hijacked by narrow-minded and bigoted Muslim leaders. The great struggle for freedom of other people of India –the Hindus and the Sikhs– was also hijacked by intolerant Hindus dreaming of reviving an exclusive Hindu kingdom at the cost of plunder, rape, murder, and uprooting of millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims of India. On a personal note, during my only visit to India in 1981, as a young man I was curious to see the places where my parents once lived in Agra. On a cold winter evening, quietly observing from a narrow lane the house in Sabun Katra where my mother once lived in her teens, I was noticed by the residents of the house and they cordially invited me inside. I found that a goodhearted Punjabi Hindu refugee family was living in a portion of a now divided house. I was offered a warm welcome and a cup of hurriedly prepared tea. Hearing of my coming from Pakistan, the grandmother came out and with her son, daughter-in-law and the grand children sitting around me in the courtyard, speaking in chaste Punjabi with starry eyes, she inquired of me whether the Chaachi Mohalla in Rawalpindi where she lived before partition and the nearby Committee Chowk were still the same as existed in her fond memories. Slowly savoring the tea and talking to that simple lively Hindu family, I acutely felt the irony of the situation and that the searing pain of division was reciprocal on both sides of the border. It was only a sheer coincidence that my parents after arriving as refugees and later getting married in Pakistan first lived in an evacuee house in the same Chaachi Mohalla of Rawalpindi.

Now that India and Pakistan have embarked on two separate paths of their own development, the people of India need to worry about their own demons dancing on the streets and their own Achilles’ heels as much as the people of Pakistan need to fight with their demons of bigotry and virulent ignorance ruthlessly ruling in the name of their version of Islam.

The so-called battle between two broad strands of Islam, one a bigoted, fundamentalist and ‘exclusive’ version, what we can call today’s Saudi or Salafi version of Islam, and the other a tolerant, spiritual and ‘inclusive’ Sufi version of Islam, was an old battle and one not peculiar to India and Pakistan. Most of the Muslims living in areas forming today’s Pakistan and the Muslim minority pockets in the rest of India have a long tradition of believing and living their daily lives in the tolerant Sufi tradition of Islam. It is evident in popular folk poetry and music and in the presence of innumerable shrines and Dragahs in almost every village and town in Pakistan, not only in Sindh and Punjab but, contrary to general belief, also in almost all of Pukhtoon lands. The same is true for the pockets of Muslim areas of population in India. These Muslims, led by their local religious leaders and custodians of innumerable shrines and Mazars in their villages, joined the Pakistan movement of the Muslim League with their own vague and undefined images of a future Pakistan. Half of them didn’t even know that the future Pakistan would not be founded in the areas where their ancestors had been buried for many generations.

During the heady days of Pakistan Movement, the new version of Islam was presented in direct and deliberate contrast to the centuries-old Persian cultural heritage and sought to reconnect directly with the Spartan culture evolved in Arabia during the early days of Islam. The only difference was that this apparently impressive, no-frills Islam was couched in highly intolerant ideas to the complete exclusion of a plurality of ideas. With the objective of galvanizing common people for the struggle against a compact of ‘non-Muslim majority’ and ‘non-Muslim rulers’ in mind, the need was clearly for an aggressive and militant Islam and not an ‘inclusive and tolerant’ Islam more geared to preach peace and harmony than an exclusivist struggle. The choice was dictated by the hard interests of the key forces at work, not by any academic discussion of a logical choice for greater harmony or for the people’s interest at large.

The gradual isolation of Indian Muslims from the other people of India was complete by 1947 when Pakistan was created as one of its consequences. The journey was not to come to an end here. This cultural and social drift had put the Muslims of Pakistan on a new path which was to take them in coming years to newer dimensions of isolation within and without on the international plane. Soon, emboldened by the full capitulation of Jinnah’s successors to the protagonists of a narrow Islam and to gain more political influence, the Ulema whipped up a non-tolerant anti-Ahmadi movement in Pakistan in 1953. Fresh from the intoxicating taste of grabbing property of a fleeing Hindu minority, this movement also had an undercurrent of victimizing a religious minority (now within the broader ambit of Islam) for economic gain as well as the political leverage over larger matters of state.

After achieving his objective of founding of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah attempted to revive his original secular orientation in his oft-quoted speech of 11 August 1947 before the Constituent Assembly in Karachi where he famously said ‘You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State’. Quoting the historical references of bitter wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Great Britain in the past and the current equal rights of all citizens living in harmony, he went on to say, ‘Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in the course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state’. (It could, however, be well argued that should this were to happen than why the hell was the fuss for Pakistan in the first place?) This attempt to steer Pakistan back towards a secular goal proved totally ineffective and just couldn’t turn the tide. Ironically, even in Jinnah’s lifetime (as is done even today), both any reference to and the text of this speech were effectively censored from all official media and government publications. The genie had come out of the bottle and it was difficult to put it back. With Jinnah’s early death in September 1948, the chances to roll back the aggressive non-tolerant Islam became even more bleak.

After crossing over the political bridge coming from a rich Indo-Persian culture to a new Pakistan founded on the vague ideas of a state modeled on the template of early Islam in Arabia, subtle and initially imperceptible changes started coming in the perspective and idiom of Pakistani Muslims. The cultural imperatives of living in the midst of a non-Muslim majority or only marginally lesser minority were no more there. Secondly, an assertion of a separate identity was a diplomatic need. The polite cultural expressions of typically minority Muslim areas like A’daab were conveniently abandoned in daily conduct of life. Due to continued distortions in our children’s education and official history text books (unfortunately, equally pernicious bias and historical distortion was introduced in the history books across the border), over a period of time, the dress, music, and other cultural mannerism started changing as well, under the false but officially promoted impression that anything common with Indian society has to be, by definition, un-Islamic and un-patriotic.

Under the initial influence of American aid, the Pakistani state did make an effort to push back these intolerant Islamic groups getting out of hand especially during violent anti-Ahmedi campaigns of 1953. The army intervened to control this menace and imposed Martial Law in certain parts of the country. Chief Justice Munir’s Commission boldly attempted to expose the inner contradictions of the Muslim Ulemas clamoring for an enlarged Islamic system of governance. Maulana Maududi was even sentenced to death by the military court on the charges of inciting sedition and sectarian riots. (The death sentence, however, was never executed and was commuted to life imprisonment and he was later released.) After a countrywide full scale Martial Law imposed in 1958, the military regime banned the Jamaat-i-Islami of Maulana Maududi. During this period, the proponents of aggressive Islam remained on the sidelines, barely surviving for striking a comeback at an opportune time. However, nothing substantial was done by the otherwise liberal and Western-oriented rulers to lay the foundation for a progressive and secular Muslim country.

The journey that we were pushed to set forth on during the Pakistan Movement has not come to an end. Today, we are hurtling with even greater speed on the path of isolation and sharply narrowing perspectives. Now, in the upcoming and concluding part five of this series, we will examine the factors that speeded up this process and the new dimensions it acquired after independence from British rule and the founding of a separate state comprising of the majority Muslim areas of India.

To be continued in Part 5


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