Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Muslim Indians have faced discrimination in many fields and have been unfairly stereotyped, especially after 9/11. They have also been ghettoized in various ways.

The Muslim Condition in India: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Accelerated economic growth, education, and a rapprochment with Pakistan are key elements in liberation.

By B G Verghese

Mujeeb Lecture, Jamia Millia Islamia, 7 November, 2007

I am greatly honoured to deliver the Mujeeb Lecture at this fine university, the Jamia Millia Islamia which Prof Mujeeb devotedly laboured to build. He was a man of many parts whose sterling contributions as scholar, administrator, historian, thinker and public servant continues to be remembered as we gather here today to celebrate his life and work.

I speak in a spirit of empathy and fellowship rather than with any deep knowledge. My words are not grounded in scholarship or original research and may be challenged and rejected. Nevertheless I venture somewhat brashly to tread this ground with all the certitude of ignorance in order to point to a different dimension to what has too often been a dismal and wounding discourse.

The Arabs were a great trading community and masterful navigators who rode the monsoon and knew India from time immemorial. They brought Islam to India in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, and the faith was well and widely established centuries before any Muslim conquest, including the ephemeral foray of the Mohammad bin Cassim in the 8th century and well before Mohammad Ghori’s Delhi Sultanate. Indeed, the first Muslim conquest south of the Narmada and Bengal was not before the 13th century. Apart from faith and culture, another immortal gift the Arabs gave us was the name India, a derivative from Al Hind and its European/French transmutation, Inde. The term Hindi or Hindu initially applied inclusively to all those living in Hindostan and not to any faith or language. That was to follow much later. 

I hesitate to speak of history in memory of a great historian whose “The Indian Muslims” is required reading and in the presence of the current Jamia Vice Chancellor, Prof Mushirul Hasan, another most erudite historian. But I am tempted to do so after recently coming across a remarkable and most unlikely historical panorama of Hindu-Muslim relations. This is to be found in “The Communal Problem”, being the Report of the Kanpur Riots Inquiry Committee set up at the Karachi session of the Congress in 1931 following the riots in Kanpur that occurred in March that year. The Inquiry Committee was chaired by Dr Bhagwan Das, and had  Sunderlal, Purushottam Das Tandon, Manzar Ali Sokhta, Abdul Latif Bijnori and Zafarul-Mulk as its members.

The Report carried three minutes of dissent on the suggested remedies and the analysis of attitudes towards the Kanpur riots. But on the history cited, there was virtual unanimity. I have unashamedly borrowed from this text.  

The Report establishes a relationship of communal amity, harmony and close interaction among the major communities of India over centuries with scarcely a trace of communal rioting until after 1857. We have over these past months been celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Great Uprising or First War of Independence. Much has been spoken and written about those times and all the evidence that I have seen would suggest very wide agreement that when the chips were down, the sepoys and citizens of Delhi and northern India, whether Hindu or Muslim, by and large turned to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, as their sovereign and rallying point. 

Over two millennia earlier, Buddhism and Jainism had swept India as a reformist tide, rejecting caste discrimination. The monastic asceticism of Hinayana Buddhism could not long sustain popular appeal but Buddhism saw a revival with the flowering of the Mahayana school of the more exuberant reincarnate Buddhas. But over time, this too was fraught with other influences and yielded before a Brahmanical renaissance. In effect, while Buddhism spread and flourished beyond the confines of India, it suffered erosion and persecution at home. Thousands of Buddhist temples and monasteries, of which Huien Tsang had written, disappeared over vast parts of the country where Buddhism had flourished. Left behind were remnants of great monuments and cultural treasures that bear testimony to the glories of a bygone age.  

The struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism also gave opportunity for the spread of Islam with its message of universal brotherhood. Subsequent conversions to Islam, and to Christianity as well, owed much to the reaction of lower order Hindus who wished to escape from caste oppression. Lower caste weaving communities in eastern India like Ansaris embraced Islam en masse. But such was the strong social underpinning of caste that it continued to prevail within the Islamic and Christian folds. In the result, demographically, over 90 per cent of Muslim Indians and even a larger proportion of Christian Indians are today of indigenous origin and by no means foreigners as labelled by Hindu right-wing zealots. 

There had been Indian empires at the time of Asoka and the Mauryas. The death of the emperor Harsha in 647 led once again to imperial disintegration and the rise of small states whose conquest and political consolidation under the Khiljis and later Delhi dynasties was to culminate in the Mughal empire. This saw the gradual transition from a civilisational “idea of India” to a more permanent definition of India as an expression of political geography and a territorial state.

The period saw kings and conquerors pillage, massacre and vandalise. But, as the Kanpur Report says, “Cruelty belonged to the age and not to individuals and religions”. That was the story worldwide, and within India too. If Mahmud of Ghazni ravaged temples and was an iconoclast, the Ghoris who followed destroyed and then fired the famed city of Ghazni, even digging up graves. Hindu and Muslim princes allied and fought together to defend and conquer. Chenghiz Khan laid waste Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Balkh and  Baghdad while Aurangzeb is credited with bestowing grants on more temples than he is said to have destroyed. Invaders might have been foreigners; but this was not necessarily true of their soldiers and generals. The British conquest of much of India was, after all, accomplished by its Bengal and Madras armies.

During the heyday of their conquests, Ghazni and Ghor were integrally part of Hindustan. Notes the Kanpur Report: “Strange though it may seem, the change of religion by the people of this region not only made them foreigners but made proper Hindustan also a foreign country. Yet the territories so ostracised were those which gave India her religion and her culture”.    

Sher Shah Suri’s Grand Trunk Road marked the length of empire, from Kabul through Peshawar and Delhi to Dhaka. The evolution of Pax Indica saw the forging of a cultural synthesis in architecture, music, food, dress, and social bonding through shared festivals and, above all, language, Dakkhani and Urdu. Many sages preached the gospel of universal brotherhood and taught that salvation could be found through different roads. There was a proud flowering of this syncretic culture in Kashmir based on its sufi-rishi tradition.  Even as late as 1700, India was, with China, one of the world’s two greatest globalised economies. It was this that brought the West to India, with commerce leading to conquest and empire.

1857 was a turning point. The end of the Mughal empire saw a sudden dip in fortunes and in the sense of self esteem among Muslim Indians. The court was abolished and the former nobility and officials, civil and military, and other retainers found old avenues of imperial service closed to them. There was a new jurisprudence and justice was no longer dispensed by the kazis. Persian yielded to Hindustani in 1837 and then to English. With Macaulay’s minute of 1835, the educational system and cultural discourse underwent dramatic change. That was the start of a new agenda of administration, politics and reform. The permanent settlement and accompanying changes in the revenue system undermined the traditional Muslim landed aristocracy. Overall, Muslim elites felt persecuted and discriminated against by the Raj and a wounded community withdrew into a shell while the Hindus and others quickly adapted themselves to the incoming dispensation and took advantage of the new opportunities in government and the professions.  

Scrutinising the Bengal civil list of 1871 in his book “The Indian Musalmans”, Sir William Hunter notes that from a monopoly of all important offices of state a hundred years earlier, Muslims now held only a seventh of the positions occupied by Hindus in all major Departments while the latter, in turn, filled almost half the positions held by Europeans. The resumption of Muslim lands earlier, often on the basis of what were considered to be unfair British legal and administrative interpretations, deprived Muslim foundations of revenues that had gone to support Islamic education. A whole way of life began to crumble.

To redress the balance, Warren Hastings had even earlier established a Mohammadan College in Calcutta. Some years later, in 1824, the East India Company converted Ghaziuddin Madrasa, established in Delhi during Aurangzeb’s time, into a “superior college” in order to provide Anglo-Oriental education and promote scientific knowledge. The institution was re-designated the Delhi College and a similar college was established in Agra. The medium of instruction was Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. The addition of English in 1828 caused consternation as this was seen as the route to conversion to Christianity. To allay these fears, the English section was separated and run as the Delhi Institute until 1844, even as Hindustani or Urdu became the primary language of instruction in the College and of elite discourse and cultural expression in North India and beyond through mushaira, literary gatherings and the rising Urdu press. Delhi College’s role in this efflorescence was central.  C.F. Andrews was later to describe this period as the Delhi renaissance. 

Sadly, the College was hard hit by the 1857 Uprising, losing many of its staff and much of the patronage it had enjoyed. Five years later it was “transferred” to Lahore for lack of funds. The abolition of Delhi College was met with protests and attempts were made to revive it under private auspices. This was finally accomplished through the founding of an Anglo-Arabic School in 1924 that was upgraded in 1945 and finally metamorphosed into today’s Zakir Husain College.

The closing years of the 19th century were also a period of Hindu nationalist resurgence with the foundation of the Arya Samaj and moves to prohibit cow slaughter. Traditional festivals were made occasions for social and even political mobilisation. The first meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1885 seemed ominous to some as introducing a trend that might result in majoritarian democracy that could be inimical to future Muslim prospects. It is in this environment of Muslim resentment, anxiety and withdrawal that Sir Syed Ahmed stepped in with another grand vision that lay at the heart of the founding in 1875 of what was to become a great seat of learning, Aligarh Muslim University.    

As already mentioned, post-1857 India saw divergences beginning to emerge among the two great communities, Hindu and Muslim. A Nagari-Urdu script controversy in the United Provinces was illustrative of rival pulls and pressures. Concerned over the rise of a new Indian nationalism and zealous of safeguarding its own long term political interests in the country, influential British civil and military officials advocated a policy of divide and rule. The partition of Bengal in 1905 polarised opinion while its annulment in 1912 saw the pendulum swing the other way. The All-India Muslim League was formed in 1906. The Congress demanded swaraj. Separate electorates came into being with the Minto-Morley reforms in 1909.

The seeds of the divide to follow had been sown. Efforts at unity continued. The 1916 Lucknow Pact between the Congress and Muslim League conceded communal representation through separate electorates. This did not prevent an outbreak of communal riots in 1917 in Arrah and again in 1918 in Kartarpur, in Saharanpur district, to be followed some years later by the Moplah rebellion, anti-British in inspiration but soon to assume a communal colour as well. The break up of the Ottoman Empire was inevitably to lead to the abolition of the Caliphate, which ended another Holy Empire like the Holy Roman Empire centuries earlier.

Gandhi mistakenly sought to stem the tide of history by vainly joining hands with the Ali Brothers to restore the Khilafat and even encouraging Muslim Indians to migrate to Afghanistan as a step in that direction. The fall of the Ottoman empire was a turning point that many were slow to understand. It saw the transition from  an idealized concept of a Darul Islam and a united ummah to the rise of Turkish, Arab and other territorial nationalisms, each rooted in it own history and culture and very possibly harbouring rival ambitions. In India, Maulana Azad graduated from the first school to the other. On the other hand, Maulana Maududi, founded the doctrinaire Jamaat-e-Islami on the basis of opposition to territorial nationalism which made him oppose Pakistan as being inimical to Darul Islam.

The pan-Islamic ideal survives in the form of various jihadi and fundamentalist movements that have not found fertile soil in India. Hence the term ‘Muslim Indian’ in preference to the misplaced term ‘Indian Muslim’ with its sub-conscious pan-Islamic connotations. This lingering pan-Islamic consciousness found recent expression in what was surely an innocent but curious reflex on the part of Pakistan’s cricket captain, Shoaib Malik in South Africa when he publicly apologised to world Islam for having lost the 20x20 cricket match to India in Durban !   

India too was convulsed with religio-nationalist assertions in the 1920s. Efforts at shuddhi conversion were countered by Tablighi mullahs. In 1927 Savarkar first enunciated the two-nation theory in his “We or Our Nationhood Defined” in which he spoke of those whose putribhoomi and punyabhoomi was India as Indians and the rest, primarily Muslims and Christians, as “foreigners”, a distinction subsequently endorsed by the RSS, BJP and VHP in their espousal of  Hindutva.

Events had gradually begun spiralling towards Partition and assumed a certain inevitability with the League’s Pakistan Resolution in 1940. Jinnah’s commitment to the concept of Pakistan, a Muslim homeland was tactical. His inaugural address to the Pakistan constituent assembly in Karachi on August 13, 1947 gave utterance to that sentiment. Now that Pakistan has been achieved, he said, you are free to worship in your mosques, temples, gurdwaras and churches. Religion is your personal affair. You are all equal citizens of Pakistan. Unfortunately Jinnah did not live long enough to translate that secular wish into practice.

Even otherwise, the dice was loaded against him. Mountbatten’s extraordinary decision to withhold announcement of the Radcliffe Line until after Independence Day, despite the most urgent promptings by the Governors of Punjab and UP so as to ensure proper law and order bandobust, led to the most grievous  partition riots and a massive population exchange whose horrors have only recently been retold. This obliterated the hope and desire among many on both sides that the line that had been drawn dividing one people into two nations would be a passing phase and that though two sovereignties remained, people on the two sides would continue to live as brothers. Maybe this was a vain hope and the divide had grown too deep for instant repair.

One factor did certainly militate against the latter outcome. The battle for Pakistan had been fought in the Hindu-Sikh majority provinces that remained with India. It was the Muslim majority provinces where the League had little support and where communal relations were relatively good that became Pakistan. The bloodied and embittered Partition migrants or muhajirs it was that moved from India to (West) Pakistan and transplanted the “ideology of Pakistan” to this foreign soil and moulded its nationalism and governance. The Muslims who remained in India were left in the lurch by Muslim League On the other hand, in the absence of a positive defining ideology or soul, Pakistani nationalism came to be an imagined Hindu India’s implacable Islamic “other”. At its core, this is sadly what Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir and its jihadi struggle has been about. Hence the echoes of reconstituting an Eastern Caliphate, spurred by the rise of political Islam globally and its demonisation by the West, underpinned by a sense of despair and hopelessness on the one side and capricious theories of clashing civilizations on the other. And alas, as always, the demon Pakistan willed and nourished has all but devoured it. 

Tragically, Partition gave a fillip to Hindu revivalism, manifest today in the RSS-VHP bid militantly to saffronise India and make it what some critics have called a “Hindu Pakistan”. Rival fundamentalisms have fed on one another. Partition did, however, orphan Muslim Indians and put them under siege. They were left hugging the past and clinging to traditional symbols, Urdu and personal law among them.

The fate of Urdu was tragic and the matter could perhaps have been differently handled. Unfortunately, language policy in India has been muddled and no clear distinction has been sought to be drawn between language as commerce and governance and language as culture. Maybe all is not lost and Urdu will in future, hopefully, reclaim some of its lost glory that remains extant to some extent in Bollywoodian Hindustani.

Personal codes are constitutionally left to be reformed by the various communities themselves but none can claim a veto, as has been demanded and conceded hitherto, on the enactment of an optional civil code which is not merely permissible but enjoined by the Constitution. Equally, the State has the right to intervene to ensure that secular practices of religious communities conform to fundamental rights standards. Thus registration of births, deaths and marriages, for instance, cannot be barred by appeals to faith.

Unfortunately, the noble concept of Fraternity, enshrined in the Constitution, has been supplanted and held captive by a narrower concept of secularism defined to mean equal respect for all faiths. Regrettably this has all too often been practiced in a manner that pays equal respect to everybody’s communalism and fails to distinguish between religion and culture. Popular festivals have been converted into occasions for political mobilisation; religious land grab has been widely condoned; communication with deaf gods has been permitted at high decibel levels; and religious vigilantes have taken to moral policing, enforcing dress codes, censorship and social norms. All sides are guilty. It is tragic that so quintessentially Indian a man as M. F. Hussain, so greatly loved and respected, had to spend his 92nd birthday in exile abroad some months ago. Revivalism has led to the rewriting of history and we have from time to time been by told by zealots that fact must follow faith.

A hierarchical and stratified society such as ours justifies resort to affirmative action through reservation. But resistance to an appropriate exit policy has encouraged featherbedding and a race to the bottom, with everybody wanting to be proclaimed more or most backward in a society that otherwise aspires to greatness. The contradiction cannot be more glaring.

Muslim Indians have admittedly faced discrimination in many fields and have been unfairly stereotyped, especially after 9/11, around the world and even in India. They have also been ghettoized in various ways. They have a right to accelerated social and economic development as proposed by the Sachar Committee so that they catch up with the rest. Nevertheless, they too must strive to be competitive. Where they do so, they excel, as have Irfan Pathan or Zahir Khan, Sania Mirza or Sharukh Khan, let alone Abdul Kalam or Azim Premji. These are deservedly among the proudest icons of modern India.

Riots or, more accurartely, pogroms like those that happened in Mumbai in the 1990s and Gujarat in 2002 and beyond are shocking and the country has to find ways and means of ensuring that these disgraceful episodes and revenge killings become things of the past. Hopefully, public opinion has been sufficiently roused to curb any more pogroms.

Hindutva adherents are wrong in constantly crying foul over alleged “minority appeasement”. Vote bank politics, a manifestation of the hollowing out of the secular ideal, is practiced on all sides and is bad on every count. Minorities do have constitutional rights and guaranteed protections but flaunting them beyond a point is counter productive and must lead some to ask that if minorities have rights, then the majority too must have rights that must be as vigorously asserted. Despite our history of separate or communal electorates and reservation quotas based on numbers, the term “minority” represents more an attitude than a lesser numerical count. In any event, it does violence to language to describe 150 million Muslim Indians, a “minority”. The Canadians have a far better term for their indigenous people: the second majority. Attitudinally, some Sinhalas behave like a “minority” in Sri Lanka, just as the Hindutvadis do in India, some among the majority exhibiting an enormous inferiority complex.

Yet, India is changing. With growing empowerment and the upthrust from below, India’s latest and submerged diversities are surfacing and asserting their rights. They have all to be accommodated in an inclusive society. Education and employment are the key to progress and opportunity and group identities must yield to a common citizenship. The guarantee of a citizen’s fundamental rights by very definition guarantees his or her minority rights as well. Fraternity, the medium, is the message. Indians must increasingly see themselves as equal citizens rather than cling to caste, community, linguistic, ethnic or regional loyalties for personal or group preferment. These identities need not disappear but they cannot be the single, predominant drivers. Muslims must beware of being inveigled into exclusiveness. That would be the wrong way to go.

An accelerated rate of economic growth at nine per cent is opening new doors to opportunity for all. Those suitably qualified and outgoing will gain most even though the rising ride will lift all boats. Without inclusive growth and social justice to all and a narrowing of social disparities, this project will be retarded and could suffer distortion. This process will be smoothened and hastened by close monitoring by a revivified and reconstituted National Integration Council, that can adopt a non-political or electoral approach to social reform and equal opportunity, and by a changeover in Indian politics, as I expect is likely to happen. The BJP is losing ground and may see the wisdom of shedding its Hindu-right baggage with the realisation that if it is to stay the political race and aspire to national office, it needs to practice inclusive politics and build broad coalitions rather than merely seek a larger vote within a smaller Hindutva constituency. All of India too must understand that exclusive politics at home cannot be a recipe for national greatness.

The future is in our hands. Education is the key to a new social contract based on the promise of the Constitution that assures a new deal to dalits and tribals and other disadvantaged groups and regions as much as to the minorities. 

While the main battle will be fought at home, the Muslim condition in India can expect to see dramatic improvement if there is a rapprochement with Pakistan. Pakistan has begun to discover that it has been playing the wrong hand and stands on the brink of becoming a failed state. It is a fractured, feudal society, adrift without a proper constitution or institutional strength, living in a world of self-delusion, overlorded by a self-seeking and adventurous military and running what is perhaps the world’s last colony in its part of J&K. This may be a harsh indictment but it is probably nearer the truth than any other description.  

India is not in the business of regime change and it is for Pakistan to choose its leaders and form of government. However, cosying up to the military on the ground that any alternative to Musharraf could be worse is surely impeding the rising demand within the broad masses of Pakistan for a true democracy in which the Army cannot operate the levers of power and justify its extraordinary salience on the basis of saving the country from India’s alleged eternally evil designs.    

Proxy war, cross-border terrorism, nuclear brinkmanship and proliferation and  Talibanisation in various flavours have not worked for Pakistan, despite many powerful nations turning a blind eye to such dangerous capers. None of this will succeed. Fortunately the Indo-Pakistan peace process has been on track despite slippages. There is both an internal agenda in J&K to bring reconciliation and peace at home and an external agenda to normalize relations with Pakistan. The domestic agenda must include graduated suspension of operations leading to an amnesty, internal reconciliation including measures that permit the Pandits to return in safety and honour, greater autonomy, both Centre-State and in terms of regional devolution, and economic development.

Externally, the Prime Minister has laid out a road map with which General Musharraf has been in broad agreement. This entails making J&K’s boundaries irrelevant, making possible freer movement, commerce and exchange across the LOC, and the establishment of mechanisms of joint management of these arrangements. This could include demilitarisation, conversion of the Siachen-K2 triangle into a Peace Park and jointly exploiting the full potential of the Indus basin, currently sub-optimally shared under the Indus Waters Treaty.

A settlement in J&K could be nearer than we think. This should move concurrently with an overall improvement in Indo-Pakistan relations, leading on to regional cooperation, transit to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and the unfolding vision of SAPTA and a South Asian Community. An Indo-Pakistan settlement would have an immediate and beneficial impact on South Asian relations, and Indo-Bangladesh relations in particular. These tendencies and goals could be furthered by joint diplomatic initiatives to broker settlements or at least intervene more purposefully in Afghanistan, West Asia and Central Asia, all of which are in turmoil. Millions of South Asians work and live in that region. This is our geo-strategic neighbourhood, to which we are bonded by ties of culture and kinship that have been allowed to weaken. 

This same wider neighbourhood is also currently regarded as the crucible of Islamic anger, desperation and violence, the hub of political Islam and a focal point of terror. It is noteworthy that South Asia demographically accounts for about 40 per cent of world Islam and represents a considerable slice of its intellectual, cultural, technological, economic and military power. It has the weight and mandate to make a difference and would have the moral authority to boot were it to be able to fashion a South Asian concord. This should not mean working in isolation of the West, Russia and China but in concert with them.

Not only would this be a major contribution to global peace and progress but would enormously empower India and South Asia. It would lay the ghosts of Partition to rest and restore the original hope of 1947 that India and Pakistan were only separating as states to unite across their borders as friends and partners. This can happen. Were it to happen, the Muslim Indian would have a pivotal emotional and cultural role to play in that situation.

Where does one begin? Nowhere better than with the youth. I suggest that in homage to one of its most illustrious sons, Prof Mujeeb, this dynamic University, Jamia Millia Islamia, take the lead in getting together a group of distinguished and independent scholars from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to write a South Asia Primer. This could dispel the prejudice sown by distorted histories and teach us to take pride in our common history and culture that contributed so much to the world in times past and can do so even more in the future. 

So none need despair for the Muslim condition in India. Together, we shall overcome to emerge from a departing darkness into a new dawn. 

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