Islamic identity in secular India

Democratic polity in a multi-religious, multi-caste and multi-cultural country is based, more often than not, on identities. It is of course very complex issue which needs discussion and proper analysis. In any polity based on votes identity plays an important role. Identity can be divided into pri-mordial and acquired. Acquired identity is always post-natal and does not generate powerful emotions as primordial one does. One chooses acquired identity but not identity by birth.

Indiahas been a multi-religious and multi-cultural since its known history. It was never mono-religious or mono-cultural. Then number of invasions and incursions from Aryans to Moghuls added to religious, cultural and linguistic pluralism. British colonialism also contributed to its cultural, if not religious, multiplicity. Thus with every invasion and incursion India became more and more complex and rich.

It is not that foreign incursions had impact over existing Indian civilization. Indian civilization also impacted on people who came from outside and their identities, customs and traditions also underwent a great change. Today we speak of Indian Christianity and Indian Islam but these terms are also inadequate to describe entire complexity of Indian Christianity or Indian Islam.

Here in this paper we are mainly concerned with Islamic identity and polity in modern secular India, its role, its scope and its problems. It would of course necessitate some brief discussion on historical dimension as well including the colonial period. However, it is contemporary period which we will focus on.

Islam entered India through south as well as north India. In south India it entered through trade channels as Arabs were trading with Kerala (Malabar area) since pre-Islamic days. The trading of course continued in post-Islamic period and many of them married local women who converted to Islam and thus Islam began to spread peacefully in Kerala and Kerala has the oldest mosque believed to be constructed by Malik Dinar, one of the Prophet’s companions.

However, in the north Islam entered India through invasion of Muhammad bin Qasim, a young general of Umayyad period who reportedly came to punish Raja Dahir of Sindh who had refused to surrender bandits who had looted some Arab trade ships. Raja Dahir was defeated and Qasim left legacy of Islam in Sindh. Sindh, like Kerala in South, was the first Islamic centre in the north which evolved rich composite civilization.

North subsequently saw several invasions by Turks and Central Asian invaders as well as from Afghanistan and each Muslim invader came with different cultural traditions. Ghauris, Ghaznavis, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Lodhis and so on belonged to different cultural and linguistic groups and fought each other to seize power.

Also, it is interesting to note that as a result of various linguistic groups Turkic, Arabic, Persian along with some North Indian languages like Maithili, Khadi boli, Sanskrit (though not spoken by common people and mainly confined to Hindu religious scholars), Purbi, Punjabi coming together, mainly in military camps, a new language later known as Urdu, came into existence and this new language slowly acquired a new identity and within a few hundred years became main language of cultural expression by the ruling elite.

Urdu, as we will see, has become part of Muslim identity in the north and became an issue in communal politics. Also, in North India a new civilization, composite in nature, came into existence generally known as Ganga-Jamni Tehzib (i.e., the culture prevailing in between two great rivers Ganga and Jamuna). This composite culture produced great musicians, painters, calligraphers, architects, poets. One can see its impact even today to some extent. However, communal politics of the colonial era focused more on Hindu and Islamic identities. Religion began to take precedence over culture and competitive politics began to erode composite nature of elite identity.

The British culture also created great impact and the urban elite during colonial times took to English ways along with the language. British rule also brought new concepts, modernity and new technology. But British colonial rule proved to be much more problematic for Indian people. Muslim dynasties had assimilated Indian social and political institutions and created strong bond with Hindu ruling elite and hence they were hardly considered as ‘alien’. They became part of Indian culture and society.

It was not so with the British rulers. They considered themselves more civilized and maintained their distance from the natives and natives also not only considered the British as foreigners but also took British rule as slavery. And the whole political struggle against the British was thought to be struggle against slavery. This was a big difference between the Muslim rule and British rule.

However, the British rule also resulted in a divide between Hindus and Muslims and communal elements in both the communities began to assert their separate identities and Hindu communalists extended the concept of slavery to Muslim rule as well and stretched it over ‘thousand years’.

During colonial period new political institutions came into existence and power through sword was replaced by franchise, however limited it was. Thus for voting, identities became very important and through clever maneuvering the British brought religious identities into play. Cultural identity and regional identities which were main identities, were replaced by religious identities which encouraged divisive politics.

Hindu and Muslim elite sought share in power through assertion of religious identities. Yet there was a section of political elite which was conscious of religious and cultural pluralism and was well conscious of the fact that India can stay together only if Hindus and Muslims unite to fight British colonialism. Also, India should emerge as a secular nation.

It is also important to note that religion was not the principal issue, principal issue was share in power. The educated elite was more interested in negotiating share in power than on any religious issue. Thus religious identities took stranger turn. The educated elite led by M.A.Jinnah went separatist way and religious elite among Muslims led by Ulama of Deoband, preferred to ally with the Congress and accepted secular nationalism.

The Ulama of Deoband opposed partition and stood by united nationalism. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, then chief of Jami’at-ul-Ulama-i-Hind, wrote a tract Muttahida Qaumiyyat aur Islam[1] i.e., the Composite Nationalism and Islam justifying composite nationalism in the light of Qur’an and hadith and opposing Muslim League’s separate nationalism. while the educated elite were aspiring for power and hence wanted their exclusive domain; the Ulama’s priority was an independent India where they could practice Islam without fear or hindrance.

Muslim Identity in Independent India

The Indian constitution is secular in character and guarantees complete freedom of religion and fundamental rights to all its citizens. It also guarantees special rights to religious as well as linguistic minorities including right to establish one’s own cultural institutions to protect and promote one’s religion and culture (see Article 30). Minorities in India do establish their own institutions.

However, in independent India history of Aligarh Muslim University, a premier minority institution, has been quite chequered and Muslims had to launch several agitations to retain its minority character. Urdu also came under severe strain and it lost its central status in north India that it had enjoyed in pre-independence period. It was slowly but completely replaced by Hindi written in Deonagri script.

Though Muslim personal law (Sharri’ah law) was not touched the right wing Hindu forces constantly pressed for uniform civil code thus posing a threat to Muslim religious identity. Islamic identity in post-independence India, secular Muslim intellectuals maintained, revolved around emotional issues. Also, after Maulana Azad and Zakir Husain there was no universally respected Muslim leader left and some Muslim leaders, in order to carve out their own niche often exploited these issues, strengthening in turn Hindu communal forces.

Even Nehru’s prestige could not prevent breaking out of communal violence after partition. These communal riots posed great threat to Muslim security. The first major communal riot took place in India in 1961 in Jabalpur in Central India[2]. It shook Jawaharlal Nehru as he never expected communal riots of such intensity in independent India. He was highly idealistic and thought that in secular India all will uphold secular values. However, it was far from so.

There were very complex reasons for that. The Congress had adopted secularism as its credo but had admitted, right from anti-colonial freedom struggle, all sorts of elements. Hardly a handful few had strong secular convictions. Even among its top leadership there were rightwing Hindu elements with anti-minority proclivities[3]. And there were many in the middle and lower rungs.

It is alleged that the then chief minister of M.P, Shri Katju, coldshouldred Nehru’s emissary Smt. Subadhra Joshi who was sent to establish peace in Jabalpur. Partition of India had created great bitterness among Hindus, particularly in the north and unfortunately they considered all Muslims responsible for it though it was not correct. Not only that they thought Muslims have no business living in India as they have created their own homeland. Jansangh, the Hindu communal party, constantly indulged in this propaganda.

Thirdly, text books were never reformed in independent India and continued to teach what Britishers had introduced to promote communal division. These text books still continue to be problematic and continue to communalise minds of young students who then look upon Muslims with suspicion and as demolishers of Hindu temples and Hindu-haters. Fourthly, with every election, and all elections are fought on identity politics, religious and caste identities become more and more central to power struggle.

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