Book Review: The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906, A Quest for Identity by Rafiuddin Ahmed

In these difficult days what does one do if not read? The only way to keep your mind off these extremely depressing times…

At the outset must confess, it is a fabulous book. It deals with the the development of Muslim communal consciousness in Bengal during the period 1870’s leading finally to the partition of Bengal. Drawing from hitherto unused primary sources, Ahmed tries to analyze the reason that contributed to the development of this communal consciousness amongst the Muslims of Bengal. This was not something natural he argues and states that ‘the objective differences between the two communities at the mass level were not by themselves strong enough to induce mutual conflict..it was only through skill manipulation of certain religious symbols and constant ideological propaganda that latent differences could be articulated and later used as a potent instrument in the conflict..’

The main reasons according to him were as follows;

1. Muslims in Bengal experienced a profound change in their religious ideology and social mores during the latter half of the 19th century which was induced by the religious reform movements of which the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya and Fairazi were the most prominent. These movements intended to purge the Muslim society of its age old un-Islamic beliefs and practices. Their principle ire was directed against the Pirs and the syncretic ‘Sufi’ Islam which was dominant in Bengal. These reformers joined forces with the itinerant religious preachers and village mullahs who commanded a great deal of influence on the Muslim peasantry. These preachers not only stressed on ridding Islam of all un-Islamic accretions from local beliefs and practices, but also prompted the masses to look beyond the borders of Bengal for their glorious Islamic past. Islamic identity as opposed to a Bengali identity was stressed upon, leading to the development of an exclusivist and separate Muslim identity. Open debates or Bahas in public gatherings were held as a means to establish proper definition of a Muslim, in which the local mullah was an active participant. All the so called Hindu accretions and practices, names, culture, even language was derisively rejected and Muslims were asked to desist from using them.

2. The Ashrafs who had been most hard hit by the establishment of the British rule enthusiastically joined and facilitated the ‘separatism’ bandwagon, when they realized that appeals to the majority Atraps/Ajlafs could be conveniently made on religion against the the Hindu Bhadralok, with whom they were locked in competition for jobs and political representation. The author argues that this was a tactical ploy to use the Muslim majority by the Ashrafs, who shared nothing in common with them, nor were even remotely concerned about their their socio economic upliftment. The book provides instances where the Ashrafs openly opposed teaching of these Atraps/Ajlafs beyond the primary schools, lest it destabilize society. They facilitated/established Anjumans who played an important role in carrying forward the agenda of Muslim separatism and exclusivity.

3. This ideological agenda was supplemented by the clash of economic interests between the predominantly Muslim peasantry and Hindu Bhadralok landlords and moneylenders, the grievances of the former soon acquiring a communal colour, such communal sentiments were further nurtured and promoted by the Ashrafs and the Anjumans.

4. The colonial government, on the demands of the Muslim notables, started a policy of preferential treatment for the Muslim community, both in education and for political representation. Instead of assuaging the Muslim insecurity, this in turn further heightened facilitating enhanced Muslim exclusivity. The author argues that the Ashrafs in Bengal suffered from a degree of xenophobia, even though they constituted a majority in the province. He states that these Ashrafs fundamentally derived their attitude from the UP Muslims, who by any standards were an extremely privileged minority, demanding ‘adequate’ representation for themselves in the services as well as in the elected bodies, in excess of their numerical proportion to protect their future in a Hindu majority province.

5. The rise of nationalism in Bengal, the leadership of which at times used symbols and slogans which could be construed as Hindu, like Kali Puja, use of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata, also became a source of Muslim alienation, not only from the national movement but also from the Hindus. One major cause of communal tension also leading to major riots, revolved around the issue of cow slaughter; the Muslims insisting on it while the Hindus opposing it. The hardliners of both the communities took an uncompromising stand on it, leading to massive and murderous communal riots in many places of Bengal.

A wonderful read.

Book Review: Akbar by Shazi Zaman

काफ़ी समय लग गया ये किताब पढ़ने में। बहुत ही बेहतरीन किताब लिखी है शाजी जमाँ साहब ने। अब इस किताब को ऐतिहासिक दस्तावेज माना जाए कि उपन्यास, इस बेमानी बहस में मैं नही पड़ना चाहता क्योंकि शाजी साहब खुद लिखते हैं, ‘यह उपन्यास इतिहास से कितना दूर है या कितना पास, इसका कोई आसान जवाब नहीं है।……इतना ही कह सकता हूँ की इस उपन्यास की एक एक घटना, एक एक किरदार, एक एक संवाद इतिहास पर आधारित है।’ किताब में लेखक द्वारा किया गया रीसर्च पूरी तरह उभर कर आता है। जहां तक मेरी व्यक्तिगत राय है, मेरे हिसाब से इतिहास इसी तरह लिखी जानी चाहिए, ख़ास कर अगर आप ऐतिहासिक किरदारों को केंद्र में रख कर इतिहास लिख रहे हों। अकबर को जानना हो तो ये किताब पढ़िए। आज के इस दौर में जब लोग नाम से मज़हब और मज़हब से ज़िंदा लोगों तक के बारे में अपनी राय बना लेते हैं, तो अकबर जिसका नाम ख़ालिस मुसलमान था, जो बादशाह रहा हो, जिसका दादा बाबर रहा हो, जिसका एक परपोता औरेंगजेब रहा हो, उसके बारे में एक क़िस्म की राय बना लेना कोई मुश्किल और आश्चर्य की बात तो नहीं… ये किताब इरफ़ान हबीब टाइप लोगों की लिखी किताब नहीं है जो मूलतः पोलिटिकल इतिहास लिखते हैं…बरक्स उसके, ये अकबर के साम्राज्य में मुग़लिया सल्तनत के विस्तार को बहुत संक्षिप्त तरीक़े से बताती है, ये रु व रु कराती है आपको अकबर – इंसान से, कैसा था अकबर, उसके दोस्त और अज़ीज़ कौन थे, उसका दरबार कैसा था, उसके अंतर द्वन्दों को…

अकबर के कई पहलू थे; बादशाह के किरदार से उसे देखें और समझें, तो वो मध्य काल के किसी भी बादशाह की तरह ही था, बादशाहत का दम्भ था उसके, राज्य का विस्तार चाहता था, ग़ुरूर था, शराब नोशि करता था, हरम में कई बीवियाँ और बाँदियाँ थीं, गाली भी बहुत देता था, गाँडू और हरामज़ादा भी…लेकिन ये सब चीज़ें ही अकबर को डिफ़ाइन नहीं करतीं क्योंकि ये तो हर मध्यकालीन बादशाह और राजा महाराजा की फ़ितरत और रहन सहन का हिस्सा थीं। अगर हर चीज़ को कॉंटेक्स्ट में देखें तो फिर, जैसे आज के राजनीति के कुछ तक़ाज़े हैं और जैसे एक राजनीतिक दल साफ़ सुथरी राजनीति करने आयी पर फिर तक़ाज़ों से समझौता कर ही लिया…. अकबर का बाहरी व्यक्तित्व ही उसकी पहचान नहीं हैं। तो वो फिर क्या थीं खूबियाँ जिसने कई इतिहासकारों ने उसे ‘महान’ का दर्जा दे दिया। इन में सबसे अहम थी उसकी जिज्ञासा, सच जानने और समझने की उसकी चाहत। मध्ययुग में इस्लामिक धर्म गुरुओं के ख़िलाफ़ जाना, जिसके चलते उसे ‘काफिर’ बादशाह तक करार दे दिया गया, उसके द्वारा मक्का को भेजे गया तोहफ़े लौटा दिए गए, जहां उसके सल्तनत के शुरुआती दिनों में अब्दु नबी ने इस बात पर उसे छड़ी तक मार दी थी कि उसने भगवा फटका पहना था, बाद में उसी अब्दु नबी को गाली देते हुए क़ैद की सजा सुनाना…अपने सुलह कुल के फ़लसफ़े को आगे बढ़ाने के लिए उसने हर मज़हब को सही तरह से समझने की भरपूर कोशिश की, चाहे वो हिंदू हो, जैन हो, ईसाई हो…उन सब से प्रभावित होकर उसने ऐसे रीति रिवाज अपना लिए की कई उसे मुसलमान मानने को तय्यार नहीं रहे…वो सूरज का उपासक बन गया, पुनर्जनम में यक़ीन करने लगा, गौ हत्या पे पाबंदी लगा दी, प्याज़ लहसुन खाना छोड़ दिया, जैनियों के प्रभाव में, मछली आदि मारने ओर कुछ तालाबों पे रोक लगा दी ईसाई पादरियों को पुर्तगाल से बुलाया, और जब बेटे मुराद ने किताब माँगी जिसको पढ़ कर राज्य और खुद का ज्ञान हो तो उसने उसे महाभारत थमा दी। हिंदू तो मानने लगे की बादशाह पिछले जनम में ब्राह्मण मुकुंद थे…पादरी जब बहुत कोशिश के बाद बादशाह को ईसाई नहीं बना पाए तो और उनसे जाने की इजाज़त माँगी, ये कहते हुए की हमारा आपके पास आना व्यर्थ रहा तो बादशाह ने एक काबिल ए तारीफ़ बात कही, ‘अगर आप हमारे इलावा किसी भी बादशाह के समय आते और ये कहते की अल्लाह सच्चा ख़ुदा नहीं है, तो आपका सर मुल्ला कलम कर चुके होते। हमारे रियासत में हर इंसान को अपने मज़हब मानने और अपनी बात रखने की इजाज़त है।’

वैसे तो बादशाहत की बड़ी ऐंठ थी अकबर में पर भगवान/ख़ुदा के बंदों की इज़्ज़त दिल से करता था वो। एक बार भेस बदल कर गोविंद स्वामी को सुनने चला गया, जब पकड़ा गया तो गोविंद स्वामी बिफर उठे, तुमने इस राग को तुच्छ कर दिया, अकबर बोला मैं बादशाह हूँ, गोविंद स्वामी बोल पड़े, तू बादशाह सही पर तेरे राग सुनने से राग तुच्छ हो गया। बादशाह उठ खड़ा हुआ ये बोलते हुए, जिसे तीनों लोग का वैभव फीका लगता है, वो मेरे हुक्म में क्या रहेंगे। ज्ञान की चाहत इस कदर थी की 24000 किताबें ज़मा की हुई थी अकबर ने (मुझे प्रेरणा मिल गयी, मेरे से 4 गुना ज़्यादा किताबें रखी हुई थी महाशय ने, कॉम्पटिशन स्टार्ट्स…😁) और कई बार उन किताबों को पढ़वाया और सुना। पड़ने लिखने में उसे दिक़्क़त होती थी।

अपने आख़री दिनों में बेहद अकेले रह गया अकबर…अंतिम दिनों में एक दोहा याद किया उसने, ‘पीथल सुं मजलिस गयी, तानसेन सुं राग,हंसिबो रमिबो बोलबो गयो बीरबल साथ’ (पृथ्वी राज राठौड़ के साथ मजलिस चली गयी, तानसेन के जाने के साथ राग, हंसी। बोली और रमना गयी बीरबल के साथ’) अब राष्ट्रवादी सब समझ लें कि ज़िंदगी के अंतिम दिनों में एक मुस्लिम बादशाह किसको याद कर रहा था। और सेक्युलर सब जो इस का ताना देते हैं आज की ……ओ तुम तो ये राग अलापते हो की मुसलमान तुम्हारे दोस्त हैं…(कोई उनसे पूछे की सच्ची दोस्ती से उम्दा और क्या होती है रिश्तों में?)

ये किताब पढ़िए, और हो सके तो इरफ़ान साहब को भी पढ़ाइए…उनको शायद समझ में आ जाए के इतिहास को ट्विस्ट देना ज़रूरी नहीं…और आपको पता चलेगा के अकबर इंसान था…अकबर हिंदुस्तान था…अकबर महान था!

Prof. DN Jha, Cow and a commonsense critique!

The passing away of Prof. D. N. Jha marks the end of an era in the Marxist historical school in India. He along with D.D. Koshambi, R.S.Sharma, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib were considered to be the ‘Big five’ of this school. As a historian, the two greatest controversies that he generated was his argument that (a) Babri Masjid was built on virgin land and not on a destroyed temple and (b) cow was not a sacred animal in India, and beef was consumed regularly in ancient India. This was elucidated in his book, ‘The myth of the holy cow’. In this article, I concentrate on the second argument, that of widespread prevalence of cow slaughter and beef consumption in ancient India, since on the first issue, archeological evidence unearthed under the Babri Masjid had proved that the Masjid was not constructed on a virgin land.

In an interview published in the Frontline magazine on 30th October 2015, titled ‘The cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period’, he stated, ‘In my book, ‘The myth of the holy cow’ I have tried to show that far from being the ‘baneful bequeathal’ of Islam, beef eating was common in the Vedic period’. To justify the argument, the book quotes verses from the Rig Veda, Taittiriya Brahmana, Gopatha Brahmana and Brihadaranya Upanishad. While reading the book (had done when it was published) the following points came to my mind;

First, arguing that cow slaughter and beef eating was ‘widely’ and ‘commonly’ practiced during Vedic times based on selective quoting of verses from texts, is hardly convincing for the same texts contain verses which forbid the killing not only of the cows, but all animals. Here are a few examples;

Manusmriti (5.51) states that ‘Those who permit the slaying of animals, those who bring animals for slaughter, those who slaughter, those who sell meat, those who purchase meat, those who prepare dish of it, those who serve meat and those who eat it are all murderers’.

Atharvaveda (10.1.29) states that ‘It is definitely a sin to kill innocents. Do not kill cows, horses and the people’.

Yajurveda (1.1) states that ‘Animals are not to be killed. Protect the animals’.

Seeing such verses, which clearly prohibits the killing of animals, including of cows, to argue that the practice of cow slaughter and beef eating was widespread in Vedic times appears slightly farfetched. Common sense should suggest that even if the practice existed, it was contested and not commonly practiced.

Second, in the same interview in Frontline he concedes that available evidence suggests, that from the post Mauryan period (now that is from 200 BCE by conservative estimates) onwards, the Brahmanical attitude towards cow killing began to change, and sacred texts started repeatedly stressing that cow killing was not permissible in the Kali age. These texts accorded the cow a special status and forbade its slaughter. So the learned Professor does concede that in India, for thousands of years, cow slaughter has faced a religious taboo amongst the Hindus. This fact however does not prevent him from twisting the issue and projecting it as a conspiracy that has recently been created by the Hindu right.

Societal norms are never static and keep changing with changing times. Let us take the taboo that Islam places on alcohol. A reading of the Holy Quran (I quote from The Holy Quran by M. Pickthall here) clearly reveals that alcohol ban was imposed gradually for the Muslims. The first reference to alcohol is found is Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah) verse 219 (2:219) which states, ‘They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say, in both is great sin, and (some) utility of men, but the sin of them is far greater than their usefulness.’ As we can see here, the Quran does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol in this verse. Hadith has it that one day one of the drunk led his companions in the Maghrib (sunset) prayers and mixed up the ayats in the recital. Thereafter, a stronger message was sent in Chapter 4 (Al-Ni’sa) verse 43 (4:43) which states, ‘O you who believe! Draw not near to prayer when you are drunk, till you know that which you utter, not when you are polluted..’ Alcohol was finally prohibited in Chapter 5 (Al-Ma’idah) verse 90-91 (5:90-91) which states, ‘O you who believe, strong drinks and games and chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it aside in order that you may succeed…’.

Now how logical and rational would it be to ignore this verse in Chapter 5 of the Quran, which declares alcohol as haram for the Muslims, and write a book titled ‘The myth of alcohol as haram in Islam’ by selectively quoting verse 2:219?

Third, the argument that the acts done today are justified, for they find mention in ancient texts is fraught with serious moral hazard. Texts like Vajasaneyi Samhita (Yajurved), Taittriya Brahmana, Kalika Purana etc mention Purush Medha (Human Sacrifice), (though I must add that the sacrifice of Purush here is symbolic (the sacrifice of human ego) than of his body), but can a literal interpretation of these references in these texts be used to justify say the recent killings by a mother of her two children in Andhra Pradesh, wherein she justified the killing saying the children would come alive in two days?  

Four, now to the role of the defenders of secularism and protector of Indian Muslims that these leftist historians, our learned Professor included, have self-appropriated for themselves. In doing so, (a) they illogically conflate and seek to establish a relationship between today’s Indian Muslims and the Muslim rulers of the medieval era, which has no rational basis, (b) try to sanitize history with a view to airbrush the religious atrocities carried out by some of these Muslim rulers. Their approach was to create a ‘selective amnesia’ about these events of the past, but what these professional historians of the leftist school fail to understand is that history is not only a subject matter of text books, but also has an oral tradition to it. This history based on an admixture of facts and folklore are passed from generation to generation. Seeking to justify cow slaughter and beef eating linking it to Vedic texts, with a view to somehow protect the Muslim rulers who indulged in these acts, was not only childish but extremely disingenuous. Not all Muslim rulers who ruled India disregarded the Hindu sentiments about cows. Many amongst then imposed restrictions, banned cow slaughter and gave up eating beef voluntarily. While we have references in Al Baruni’s work about Muhammad bin Qasim getting cows killed and defiling idols with cow meat during the conquest of Multan, historical evidence of an Ahmed Shah Durrani, getting the sacred pool of Golden Temple with the blood of cows, Aurengzeb defiling Chintamani Parasvnath Jain temple by getting cows killed inside it, on the other hand we also have references of the ‘Wasaya’ (Will) of Babur where he warns Humuyun against cow slaughter (some however argue that the will is forged). In the book Tezkerah-al-Vakiat written by Gouhar, a domestic help of Humuyun (translated by Major Charles Stewart of East India Company), Humuyun opposed cow slaughter, and when he was offered beef after driving out his rebellious brother Kamran from the city of Kabul, he refused to consume it. Akbar is said to have banned cow slaughter during his reign.

It is surprising that the learned leftist historians ignore these exceptions and tar all the Muslim monarchs as beef eaters (thereby needing to defend them doing so), it is rightist and nationalist historians like Dharampal (completely ignored by the leftist cabal) who in his work ‘The British origin of cow slaughter in India’ argues that by 1700s beef eating was an exception rather than rule amongst the Muslims in India. This was because most of the Indian converts to Islam still carried the Hindu tradition of treating beef as taboo. Cow slaughter and beef eating was actually promoted by the British as an important instrument of their policy of divide and rule. Much of the demand for beef in India was not from the Muslims but from the British. In her letter dated December 8, 1893, Queen Victoria wrote to the Indian Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne that, ‘Though the Muhammadan’s cow killing is made a pretext for the agitation, it is, in fact directed against us who kill far more cows for our army than the Muhammadans.’ The demand for a ban on cow slaughter was not only raised by the Hindus, but also by many in the Muslim community. In 1919, many nationalist Muslims like Maulana Md Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Shaukat Ali among many others, openly called for the Muyslims to give up beef eating. Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a leader of the Sufi Chistia Silsila wrote a book, ‘Tark-e-gaw-kashi’ (Refrain from cow slaughter) in 1921, calling upon his followers to give up cow slaughter.

Unfortunately, instead of writing and recording history as had happened, the leftist historians tried being too smart by half, instrumentalised history so that ideals like secularism could be promoted. However, since this approach clearly militated against facts and (also) commonsense, it produced exactly the opposite results in the long run. Communal differences got aggravated, conversation between communities broke down, legalese triumphed over common sense.

I conclude by paying my respects to the departed Professor. As it is with all the big names of the leftist historiographic school, his scholarship can never be doubted, but their intellectual dishonesty and instrumentalization of history, did more harm than good. May Bhagwan grant sadgati to the departed soul. Om Shanti!  

Book Review: Kabze Jama by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

छोटी सी 140 पेज की किताब, ज़्यादातर उपन्यासकारों की इतनी छोटी से किताब आप ज़्यादा से ज़्यादा 5-6 घंटे में कर देंगे खत्म, लेकिन मुझे 2 दिन लगे इसे पढ़ने में। फारूकी साहब की किताब उस सिंगल् माल्ट व्हिस्की की तरह होती है जो जब आप मुँह में ले कर उसे घुमाते हैं, तो उसका ज़ायका और सुरूर धीरे धीरे आप पर खुलता जाता है..आप पढ़ते हैं और शब्द अनायास ही चित्र बन कर आपके आंखों के सामने दौड़ने लगता है!

किस्सागोई के अंदाज़ में लिखी गयी ये किताब सोलहवीं और अठारवीं सदी का सामाजिक और सांस्कृतिक चित्रण है (कुछ हद तक राजनैतिक भी). किताब का मुख्य पात्र इब्राहिम लोधी के काल का एक सिपाही है जो जब अपनी बेटी का निकाह कराने के लिए देहली से अपने गांव नंगल खुर्द के लिए निकलता है, तो रास्ते में ही लूट लिया जाता है। टूटा हुआ और परेशां जब वो देहली वापस लौटता है, तो उसका दोस्त उसे ये बताता है कि एक तवायफ अमीर जान गरीबों की मदद करती है और शायद तुम्हारी भी मदद करे..वो दोनों उसके पास पहुंचते हैं और वाकई वो उसको 350 तनखे कर्ज़ दे देती है। सिपाही अपने बेटी की शादी करवाता है और 3 साल अपनी कमाई जोड़ कर कर्ज़ की रकम मुकम्मल कर लेता है। कर्ज़ लौटने जब वो वापस अमीर जान की हवेली पहुंचता है, तो उसे पता चलता है कि अमीर जान का इंतेक़ाल हो चुका है। इस गरज़ से की जिसने उसकी मदद की उसके कब्र पे फातेहा ही पढ़ आये, वो जब उसके मज़ार पे पहुंचता है तो देखता है कि कब्र में एक दरवाज़ा है और अंदर से रौशनी आ रही है। अनायास ही वो कब्र के अंदर दाखिल हो जाता है….और अरेबियन नाईट सरीखे फिर खुलती है एक तिलिस्मी दुनिया…टाइम ट्रेवल….वो पहुंच जाता है 250 बरस आगे…सीधे मुग़ल बादशाह मुहम्मद शाह के ज़माने में! फिर पढ़ते जाइये और आखों के सामने देखिये उस समय की देहली….उसका समाज, रहन सहन, लिबास, उसके शुगल, बाज़ार और उसकी संस्कृति…!

ये किताब पढ़ के आपको साफ समझ में आ जायेगा कि क्यों फ़ारूक़ी साहब ये कभी मानने को तैयार नही हुए उन इतिहासकारों का कहना, की देहली अपनी ज़िंदगी में कभी भी पूरी तरह से उजड़ गयी थी!

बेहतरीन किताब!

Sir Syed – the man, his reforms and his legacy.

I was recently reading an article which described Sir Syed as a great social and religious reformer. He surely was a great religious reformer, but was he also a social reformer? I have my doubts for other than from his advocacy of widow remarriage, his voice on all the other social ills plaguing the then Muslim society is pretty muted. On religious matters of course his views are nothing short of revolutionary. He surely qualifies as the ‘reformation’ man for Islam. A thorough rationalist, his entire religious theology was premised on the basic postulate that there couldn’t be any contradiction between the Word of God (Quran) and the Work of God (Nature).  He argued that in case there was any contradiction between a scientific fact and a religious ruling/precept, the latter must be reinterpreted in accordance with the former. He challenged the Hadith as a rational basis of Islamic jurisprudence, criticized the practice of Taqlid (to follow), stressed on Tafsir (rational interpretation) and supported free exercise of ijtihad (independent reasoning). For him, no Jinns, Satan or Hoors existed, neither did heaven or hell. He argued that the miracles mentioned in the Quran were not to be understood literally but as idioms. For example, he argued that Isra and Miraj (Prophet’s accession to heaven and vision of God on the night of beatitude) were not a physical or spiritual experience but only a dream. The traditional Ulemas of course were not impressed and dismissed him and his theology as Nechari. He also earned a lot of fatwas in the bargain.

So how do we assess this great man? What was the impact of Sir Syed on the social and political lives of the Muslims of the subcontinent? I would argue that his philosophy of political quietude asking Muslims to stay away from the national movement and depend on the British for promoting Muslim (elite) interest rather than on the larger Muslim society (which included the Pasmanda Muslims) not only created fertile soil for the rise of religious separatism but also laid the foundation of a Muslim society which abhors reforms (till date). His belief that the foundations of an enlightened society could be laid only through modern education and religious reform ignored the reality that religion and education do not constitute the ‘whole’ of society and no society can progress without addressing issues like political participation, removal of social ills, inequality and discrimination. Further, the practical problem that any scholar who seeks to reform societies by reinterpreting religious texts faces is that others who do not agree with him, are bound to challenge him with their own interpretations. More often than not they sound convincing (too), for it is the nature of religious texts that more often than not, they contain mutually contradictory verses.  Religious reform movements that base themselves purely on reinterpretation of religious beliefs and practices while ignoring mass participation/support have limited shelf life with limited overall impact/following (for example the Brahmo Samaj).

While followers of Sir Syed may challenge my assertion, I believe that the fundamental audience of his religious reforms were not Muslim masses (may be the Ashrafs were) but the British colonialists. His writings like the Tehkik-e-Lafz-e-Nasara, The Mohamedan Commentary on the Holy Bible, Asbab Baghawat-e-Hind and Risalah Khair Khawahan Musalman were all directed at the British. The first two books were written with a view to promote the idea of similarity between the Semitic religions of Islam and Christianity, whereas the latter two books sought to project the loyalty of the Muslims to the British. The Khutbat-i-Ahmaddiya, which he wrote in response to William Muir’s (bakwas – interpretation mine) book on the life of the Prophet, as well as his reinterpretation of the Quran was done keeping the British audience in mind. Islam was sought to be projected as a religion that was compatible with modern sciences and thus did not qualify as a backward religion.

The primary focus of Sir Syed was not to address the concerns of Muslim society as a whole but only those of the Muslim elites. His focus thus remained on providing modern education to the Muslim upper castes, their representation in the Viceroy’s executive council and jobs in the government. While he was a votary of excellent inter-community relations with the Hindus at the social level (he was delighted that Muslims were not slaughtering cows during Bakr-Id), when it came to politics he was paranoid about any cooperation with the Hindus, lest Muslim interests (which he considered to be antagonistic to the Hindus) be compromised. He also feared that any political cooperation with the Hindus would jeopardize his argument of unflinching Muslim loyalty to the British.  This made him advocate with some ferocity that Muslims follow a policy of political indifference and not join the Congress – even though the Congress was hardly demanding anything radical those days.  

This political apathy proved detrimental to both India and Muslims in the long run. Political apathy as a policy became untenable when the British introduced limited representative institutions in India. The legitimacy that scholars like Sir Syed provided to the concept of Muslim and Hindu interests being antithetical to each other (Govt. jobs, members of viceroy’s council etc.) not only foreclosed any chance/experience of a common Hindu Muslim struggle, but also led to the rise of Muslim separatism. By constantly evoking unflinching loyalty to the British, he not only provided legitimacy to their rule (if only in the eyes of the Muslims) but also provided the British with the theoretical/ideological rationale for their policy of divide and rule. They could now argue that since a section of India (Muslims) considered them to be legitimate/just rulers of India, it was their responsibility to ensure that the interest of that community was protected.    

This policy of not joining the mainstream and political quietude also had an adverse impact on the Muslim society.  The Indian National Movement was as much a movement for political reforms as it was for social reforms. All communities and social groups who participated in the national movement also worked to eradicate the social ills plaguing their community (like abolition of untouchability amongst Hindus, the reforms in SGPC and formation of Singh Sabha for Sikhs). The national movement which sought to challenge the might of the British empire could not do without mass participation. To enthuse the masses, their pressing concerns like exploitation and social discrimination needed to be addressed and made a part of the nationalist discourse. The policy of political quietude ensured that Muslim politics, dependent on the British and the elites could do without addressing the concerns of the Muslim masses. Since then, (till date) Muslim politics has remained hostage to elite politics and revolves not around substantive but emotive issues.

This political indifference also changed the character of the Indian National Movement to fundamentally Hindu, when seen in the context of social reforms. Unsure about Muslim commitment to composite nationalism, Muslims were left to tackle their social reforms themselves – a hands offish approach that continued even after independence, much to the detriment of Muslim society.

In conclusion it can be said that while his religious ideas were revolutionary, his neglect of social reforms (some might argue very deliberate) and dependence on the British and the Muslim elites, who were more interested in preserving their privileges, rather than securing socio-economic rights for ordinary Muslims led to the condition of the Muslim society remaining hostage to its elites. His ferocious opposition to securing political rights for India within a composite national movement laid the foundation of Muslim separatism, represented by the Aligarh movement.

PS: One important influence over Sir Syed was Adam Smith’s theory of demand and supply, whose works he discovered during his trip to London. In his writings at many places, we find reference to this theory. For example, when he pleads for the adoption of modern education, he argues that during the Mughal period there was demand for traditional religious education but with the advent of the British, who was going to demand such an education? I was intrigued that the genius that Sir Syed was, did he not understand what facilitated the ‘demand’ for religion? Isn’t it the solace that religion with its belief in the supernatural provides, more so when the times are tough? If religion was all about science will it be a source of such a solace, will it be demanded by the masses then?

(The views expressed as personal)

Is India democratic only because of Nehru?

Chacha Nehru is in news again. The critics of the present NDA government have been vociferous in their condemnation that this government not only refuses to acknowledge the contribution that Nehru made to this country but also wants to undermine his legacy. According to them the biggest Nehruvian legacy has been the survival of India as a democracy. Critics of Nehru, on the other hand, argue that Nehru’s contribution to democracy in this country has been overemphasised. Speaking recently in parliament, the Prime Minister stated, ‘Loktantra Congress ya Nehru ji ki den nahi hai, Loktantra hamari ragon mein hai, hamari parampara mein hai.’ (Democracy is not a gift (to this country) by Nehru or the Congress. Democracy is in our blood, our traditions). So where does the truth lie? I would argue that while Nehru significantly contributed to strengthening Indian democracy and that that his tendencies were basically democratic, yet attributing the survival of democracy in this country only to his legacy would qualify as hyperbole. Lest we forget, Nehru also betrayed significant anti-democratic or authoritarian tendencies. Here are a few examples:

First, let us have a look as to how he forced his way to become the PM of the country, post-Independence. Nehru was not the unanimous choice for the job of the President of the Congress in 1946. The President of the Congress who was to be elected by the Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) would have subsequently become PM of India after independence. 12 of the 15 PCCs wanted Patel as President while 3 PCCs abstained from naming anyone. It was only at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi that Patel backed out from the race, paving the way for Nehru to become President of the Congress and subsequently the PM of India. Not only had Nehru made it clear to the Mahatma that he coveted the post but had also made it clear that he would not serve as deputy to anyone. In his book “Nehru: A political biography”, Michael Brecher wrote, ‘If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first Premier of India, in 1946-47’.  Is it democratic to get popular opinion overturned by bringing Mahatma’s moral pressure to bear on one’s opponents?

Second, while there is no denying the fact that Nehru attended Parliament regularly and took active part in parliamentary debates, he also used constitutional provisions to, at times, bypass parliament. One such provision was ruling through Ordinances. Article 123 of the constitution allows the executive to issue ordinances when either house of parliament is not in session but it should be resorted to only when circumstances dictate that immediate action is warranted. Promulgation of ordinance as a matter of routine to avoid seeking timely parliamentary approval is neither good governance nor a very democratic practice. Lately, President Pranab Mukherji had voiced his concern about the repeated promulgation of the Land Acquisition Ordinance by the present Government. Shubhankar Dam in his book ‘Presidential Legislation in India: The Law and Practice of Ordinances’ writes that the practice of promulgating Ordinances had become so commonplace under Nehru that the first speaker of India G.V. Mavalankar had written to Nehru warning that ‘the house carries a sense of being ignored and the Central Secretariat, perhaps, gets into the habit of slackness,’ neither of which ‘was conducive to the development of the best parliamentary traditions.’ Nehru, however dismissed his warning. Three ordinances were issued by his government on the very first day of the promulgation of the Constitution i.e. 26 January 1950. During his tenure (till 1964), Nehru government issued 102 ordinances, thus setting the tone for and providing justifications for future governments. Dam’s research shows that during the period 1952 to 2009, different governments brought 177 ordinances either 15 days before the commencement of a legislative session or within 15 days of the end of the legislative session. Not a very great democratic legacy to leave behind!

Third, the undemocratic practice of misusing Article 356 by the Central Government to destabilize governments not to their liking started during Nehru’s term. In his tenure as PM, Nehru used Article 356 eight times to dismiss elected state governments. Nehru dismissed the Gopi Chanda Bhargav government in Punjab even though he enjoyed the majority in the house. In 1954, he dismissed the Andhra Pradesh Government on the specious plea that the AP government was about to be taken over by the Communists. Similarly, in 1959, the first elected non-congress government in Kerala was dismissed by the Centre even though it enjoyed the majority in the legislature. The Governors had become instruments in the hands of the Centre with Granville Austin writing that the Congress had “blended its interests with questionable national needs to take over a state government”. This abominable tradition was carried on by the future governments with his daughter Mrs Gandhi, imposing President’s rule 50 times, Rajiv Gandhi imposing it 6 times, PV Narsimha Rao 11 times and Dr. Manmohan Singh 12 times.

Fourth, nothing surprises me more than the ambivalence that Pandit ji displayed in controlling corruption in public life. It is indeed a paradox that while he was a person of absolutely unimpeachable personal integrity, he condoned and tolerated financial impropriety amongst his colleagues. V.K Krishna Menon, then the High Commission of UK was indicted in the Jeep scam of 1948 but ended up becoming Defence Minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Similarly, TTK Krishnamachary was indicted in the LIC Mundra scam (exposed by his son in law Firoze Gandhi) by the Chagla Commission of Inquiry, but Nehru took him back in his cabinet as Finance Minister in 1963. Despite serious charges of corruption against him, Nehru always had high praise for Pratap Sing Kairon, the Chief Minister of Punjab, whom he considered to be ‘a man of the people, simple in his life’. Incidentally, this simple man was indicted by the Das Commission of Inquiry for corruption in 1964, thereby forcing Lal Bahadur Shashtri to seek his resignation.

Fifth, one cannot but feel bemused when the critics of the present government lament the supposed curtailment of free speech by this government. It would be worthwhile to remind them that the first amendment which curtailed the right of free speech, as enshrined in the Constitution was brought in 1951 by the Nehru government. Interestingly, Nehru was even opposed to incorporating the term ‘reasonable’ before restrictions for he thought the word reasonable was ambiguous and gave the courts too much leeway in deciding the cases as per their interpretation. The Press (Objectionable Matter) Act, placing restrictions on what could be published was also promulgated by his government in 1951. In his interview with Michael Brecher, Nehru justified the promulgation of this Act stating that the press here was doing terrible things, was no good and so had to be restrained.

The left liberals of this country who never tire of calling this government a fascist incarnate and go the ridiculous extent of calling the PM a Hitler need to be reminded of the democratic tolerance of their liberal hero, Pandit Nehru.  When India joined the Commonwealth post-independence, Majrooh Sultanpuri, the leftist poet composed and read out the following poem in a worker’s rally;

Aman kaa jhandaa is dharti pe
kisney kahaa lahraane na paae
ye bhii koii Hitler kaa hai chelaa,
maar le saathii, jaane na paae!
Commonwealth ka daas hai Nehru
maar le saathii jaane na paae!’

 

अमन का झंडा इस धरती पे

किसने कहा लहराने पाए

ये भी है हिटलर का कोई चेला

मार ले साथी जाने पाए !

कामनवेल्थ का दास है नेहरू

मार ले साथी जाने पाए।

The democrat that was Nehru was so agitated by these lines that a warrant of arrest was issued against Sultanpuri and he was put behind bars in Arthur Road Jail for two years. Similarly, the Times of India was forced to discontinue the column that civil servant A.D Gorwala wrote under the pseudonym ‘Vivek’ as Nehru found those pieces too critical of him. So much for the present government and the PM being a fascist!

In the final analysis, while uninterrupted Nehruvian leadership of 17 years’ post-independence did allow democracy to take roots, institutions to entrench and their capabilities to enhance, equal credit is also due to all the other players in the democratic game as well as the capable personnel who manned many important institutions of the state. If Nehru played by the rules of the book, so did the opposition who never questioned their democratic defeat at the hands of the ruling Congress party. Thankfully, we did not have an opposition like in Pakistan where the losing party never accepted/accepts the democratic verdict. India was indeed lucky to have as its founding fathers, both in the government and the opposition, leaders who were seeped in the tradition of constitutionalism and rule of law (most of them lawyers), be it rightists or leftists. Thankfully this great tradition continues till date.

Let us not forget that democracy cannot be a gift to a country by any one person how so ever great he or she might be. It needs constant nurturing and reaffirmation to its core values. If Nehruvian tradition was all that the country needed to continue as a democracy for ever, how come Emergency happened in 1975? How was it that all democratic rights were curtailed and all institutions muzzled? God alone knows what would have been the future of democracy in this country had Mrs. Gandhi not been misled by the false reports of her impending victory and called for elections in 1977? If the Nehruvian democratic tradition was so strong then what was the need for the further checks and balances on the authoritarian power of the executive by the 44th amendment?

So while we must respect and celebrate Nehru, let us not delude ourselves that democracy was only his ‘gift’ to this country and continues to survive only because we were fortunate to have him as our leader in the early years of our Republic.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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