February 21, 2020
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From Amir Khusrau To Filthy Abuse

India these days is ­being ­identified with ­Hinduism. Our history tells us why patriots must stand against this.

From Amir Khusrau To Filthy Abuse
Illustration by Sajith Kumar
From Amir Khusrau To Filthy Abuse

English dictionaries are practically unanimous in defining patriotism as “love of, or zealous devotion to one’s own country” (so in the venerable OED). Inherent in this definition is the presence of other countries in comparison to which one places one’s own country on a higher pedestal. The OED quotes Horatio Smith (1836) to the effect that patriotism is “too often the hatred of other countries disguised as the love of one’s own”! One need not go so far, but, certainly, the placing of one’s country in one’s estimation above other countries is a common, if not essential, element of patriotism.

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Patriotism thus requires not only the recognition of one’s own country, but also some degree of knowledge of, or concern with, other countries. First, of course, there has to be the consciousness of belonging to a country. Even in the Buddha’s time (c. 500 BC), there was no name or recognition of India as a country. The Sixteen Kingdoms (solah mahajanapada), which constituted the known or familiar group of kingdoms, all lay in North India. Ashoka’s use of ‘Jambudvipa’ for a larger region in the third century BC and the Kalinga ruler Kharavela’s reference to ‘Bharata’ in the first century BC are the first indications of the consciousness of a geographically definable territory, in which similar cultural conditions and social organisation (above all, the caste system) prevailed. But recognition of such a country, and even contempt for those who lived outside it—the Mlechchhas—did not imply any love or deep consciousness of belonging to India, a fact the Chinese traveller Yuan Chwang noted in the seventh century. No attempt at comparison of India with other countries has been traced simply because of an apparent lack of interest in lands outside India. Thus there is no ancient Indian text describing either Greece or China or any other country. It is, therefore, not surprising that the rich Sanskrit literature of ancient India should lack any text or poem setting India as an object of love and admiration or as different from, or superior to, other countries.

The first truly patriotic text came from the pen of the poet Amir Khusrau of Delhi in Persian. He knew all about Arab-Iranian and Turkic cultures and something about the Greek as well and so could with some substance make claims of India’s superiority over them. He does so at great length, in his Nuh Sipihr composed in 1318. He begins by justifying the writing of his ode to ‘Hind’ beca­use it was his “country of birth, his place of abode, his native land”. When he speaks of India, he has definitely in mind what we now deem to be the territory of India, as shown by his list of India’s spoken languages ranging from Kashmiri to Tamil (Ma’bari), and from Bengali to Sindhi.

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Akbar the Great (above) ruled his empire in the Indian subcontinent from 1556 to 1605

Amir Khusrau extols the superiority of the climate of India over that of Iran and Central Asia in that it has no harsh winters so that a poor peasant here can spend the night in the open with one old sheet of cloth; and flowers bloom in all seasons. Then he proceeds to claim superiority of ancient Indian (‘Hindu’) sciences, logic, astronomy and philosophy, over those of other countries. The Hindus had discovered Divine Unity and so were superior to Christians who believed in Trinity. India’s classical music too is the object of special praise. He cites three great contributions of India to the world, viz. firstly numerals with positional values (hindsa) including zero; secondly, the Panchatantra animal stories, which spreading from India were rendered in various foreign tongues; and, finally, the game of chess. The historical accuracy of these claims does Amir Khusrau great credit. Fina­lly, there is a paean of praise for Sanskrit, the language of the learned, originating with the four Vedas. After an aside on India’s birds and animals, he ends by praising the spirit and love of Hindu women who burnt themselves to death on the pyres of their husbands.

Remarkable as it seems to us today, Amir Khusrau’s patriotism was yet passive, amounting to a sincere, but largely uncritical admiration of the country and its culture. Two hundred and fifty years later under the great Akbar (reigned 1556-1605), conqueror and empire-builder, there took place what can only be called a Renaissance, based on a proclamation of the supremacy of Reason, a flowering of art, and a policy of tolerance, under the principle of Sulh-i-Kul, ‘Absolute Peace’, unique for its time in the world. An appeal to Indian patriotism was an inalienable part of this court-directed movement. Akbar’s minister Abu’l Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari contains in its last portion, after a description of Mughal administration and of the provinces of the Empire, a very detailed ‘Account of Hindustan’, covering Indian culture, sciences, religion and society. Here he decla­res his patriotic bias by showering fulsome praise on the good qualities of the Indian people. What marked Akbar’s reign was not, however, only such display of simple patriotism, but in addition a constructive effort not only to explore but also to reform. There was a major effort to translate Sanskrit texts into Persian, so as to gain access to Brahminical philosophy and scientific knowledge. The critical element is evidenced in Akbar’s attitude to sati. He saw the sati not as a woman’s great act of sacrifice out of love, as Amir Khusrau did, but as the husband’s selfish imposition on his wife; and so he forbade it. He also thought ill of child-marriage, which too he attempted to outlaw. He was equally not satisfied with the dau­ghter’s share in inheritance allowed to her in Muslim law.


The first patriotic text was in Persian, Amir Khusrau’s Nuh Sipihr

Patriotism now also assumed a political form, once the Mughal Empire was identified with India, as the Ain-i Akbari in fact does. In his account of the Provinces of the Empire, Abu’l Fazl remarks that Kabul and Qandahar are “the twin gates of Hindustan”, so that by Akbar’s possession of the two places “Hindustan obtains safety from the alien (inva­der)”. The Mughal Empire was thus projected as the protector of India.

What Akbar built continued to prosper, by and large, in the seventeenth century, and by 1700 the Mughal Empire reached its maximum extent, practically covering the whole of ­India, except Kerala. By Indians as well as outsiders its identification with India was regarded as normal. When it declined thereafter with the Emperor becoming a nominal figurehead after 1750s, a diploma from him still continued to be considered a certificate of legitimacy by most regional rulers. As the British conquest procee­ded apace after Plassey (1757), one would have thought that resistance to it would be justified at the altar of love for the country’s independence; but, surprisingly, this proved to be so rare a sentiment as to be almost non-existent. It came to the fore only in 1857, when the Bengal Army sepoys revolted and proclaimed the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II as their nominal sovereign. To the appeal against the English being the enemy of the faith of both Hindus and Muslims was added the cry of freeing India from the foreigner. Such sentiments are found in Dehli Urdu Akhbar, a weekly paper from Delhi published under the rebel regime. Even if the rebellion was largely confined to the Hindustani-­speaking region, the presence of a patriotic sentiment for the overthrow of the English over the whole country was undoubtedly present in most rebel ranks. But there was little echo to that patriotic cry in regions outside the rebel zone.


Lord Canning awarding Indian princes for opposing the 1857 rebellion

Photograph by Alamy

Not only was the popular spirit of patriotism thus limited to a region in 1857, but here too it took the form of a defence of the old order, including the caste system and its rigorous customs, against a largely imaginary Christian offensive. This was a self-defeating position for patriotism, for as Ram Mohan Roy had pointed out in 1828, it was “the distinction of castes, int­roducing innumerable divisions and subdivisions” among the people that explained the lack of development of “patriotic feeling” in India.

For true patriotism now to arise it had to be accompanied by the new social and cultural values that had been generated in the West. The French Revolution of 1789 with its slogan of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” gave a new set of social ethics to the world, alongside the proclaimed principle of “independence of nations”. The spread of these ideas was not barred by frontiers, and, as we know, Ram Mohan Roy, the great soc­ial reformer, was himself an admirer of the French Revolution. His contemporary, the Anglo-Indian poet Henry Derozio (d.1831) was, perhaps, the first to proclaim in India the message of national patriotism: “My Country! In the days of glory past / A beauteous halo arched they brow.”

Dadabhai Naoroji; arrested Ghadar Party members

Here the visible change from the earlier pre-modern patriotism of Amir Khusrau and Abu’l Fazl is that the country is no longer seen as simply a tract of land: it is seen as a person—a woman, indeed, the mother. This transformation, the personification of the patriot’s object of loyalty, was a purely European phenomenon. Dictionaries tell us that the word “fatherland” for one’s country is traceable back in Old English to the twelfth century and “motherland”, in the same sense, to 1711. Britannia is always portrayed as a woman. The country as “mother” in Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s Vande Mataram, and the current “Bharat Mata” in Hindi are thus phrases of impeccable Western ancestry and not products of any ancient cultural tradition of India.

No text in ancient India’s Sanskrit literature ­sets ­India as superior to other countries.

Since this notion of the motherland came to us from the West along with the concept of nation, it is best to distinguish it from earlier patriotism by calling it “national patriotism”. India was now seen increasingly as a political entity that deserved to be its own mistress, not the slave of another country. Dadabhai Naoroji, R.C. Dutt and other ‘economic nationalists’ were able to show how India was governed really for the benefit of Britain, which extracted a heavy tribute and seized its markets. It was this perception that in course of time made freedom from Britain the ­primary aim of the National Movement. For such a task to be undertaken, ­patriotism needed to be espoused by all secti­ons of the population, and for this it was necessary to envision what India would be like when it was free. Divergences existed on this matter: Would India be an agrarian society, as Gandhiji proposed in his Hind Swaraj (1909), or a normal capitalist country, like Japan, as most early nationalists thought or a socialist ­society, as ­Jawaharlal Nehru and the Left ­envisioned in 1920s and 1930s? On these matters no unanimity could be gained. But the vision of a democra­tic welfare state could still unite all; and this was offered by the Congress in 1931 in its Fundamental Rights ­resolution, known more popularly as the ­Karachi Resolution. This resolution even today, 87 years after its passage, has relevance to the extent that some of the dreams of national patriotism are still to be fulfilled.

Western Nationalism In India

Embodying the patriot’s object of national loyalty in a mythic woman was a European phenomenon­—representations of (left to right) the French Republic and Britannia influenced the visualisation of Mother India

One factor, however, complicated the growth of national patriotism; namely the growing religious or communal division among the Indian people. In 1909, Mahatma Gandhi clearly stated in his Hind Swaraj: “In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms, nor has it been so in India”. To this position the Congress, as the principal party in the National Movement, adhered to its honour to the last, Jawaharlal Nehru being the major spokesman for the secular position. This too was the position of revolutionary martyrs like those of the Ghadar Party and Bhagat Singh and his comrades, as of the Communists and Socialists. One must also not forget here Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA who provided a model for secular, militant nationalism.

Those who differed from this model, and were proponents of the Two-Nat­ion theory such as Jinnah and the Muslim League from 1940 onwards, on the one hand, and V.D. Savarkar in his post-1922 phase, the Hindu Mahasa­bha and the RSS, on the other, had one thing in common, viz., abstention from the struggle against the British rulers. Their major object of opposition was the other community; the armed bands they enthused could only shine in the Post-Partition mutual massacres.

Both Jinnah and Savarkar ­went on to abstain from the struggle against British rule.

August 15, 1947, the day India obtained independence, closed one chapter in the history of patriotism, namely, the fight for freedom. But it immediately opened a new chapter, the defence of the secular democratic state (and from 26 January 1950, a republic) from its internal enemies. It is for us an eternal shame that soon after Independence “ethnic cleansing” on the basis of religious ­affiliation should have been carried out on both sides of the India-Pakistan border on such a horrid scale. To vary Samuel Johnson’s memorable words, patriotism here became the last refuge not only of the scoundrel but, also of the murderer. Mahatma Gandhi, India’s greatest defender of humanity, died from the bullet of such a patriot on January 30, 1948. And at the news of that murder not a few were jubilant and offered sweets to one another.

Yet the secular democratic state was built. On January 26, 1930, an oath had been taken all over India by men and women to join the struggle for independence. The same day in 1950 was chosen to proclaim the establishment of the republic under a Constitution based on democratic and secular principles. The dominant version of patriotism now implied a pledge that social justice would be secured to all. And much was in fact accomplished. The bulk of Indian women secured equal rights with men in inheritance and property by the Hindu Code, legislated in 1955-56. Land reforms of different degrees of radicality were carried out in different states. Laws to protect labour were put in place. The depressed (“untouchable”) castes obtained reservations in public employment and protection by law. A respectable industrial base was created with large investments in the public sector. All this would not have been possible without a rational spirit motivating our people amounting to a truly creative patriotism.

But under the shadow of it all, communalism grew. This was illustrated by the unending series of ‘riots’, in which Muslims, and in 1984 the Sikhs, were the major victims. Once socialism lost its lustre with the fall of the Soviet Union, there was larger room for irrational ideologies to occupy the vacated intellectual space. So now we are under a regime that appeals to the most narrow-minded patriotism one could imagine. India is being officia­lly identified only and without qualification with Hinduism—or rather with a particular version of Hinduism. The minorities and Dalits are to be put in their place. History is to be rewritten so as to narrate not what happened but what should have happened. One is irresistibly reminded of the Nazis and their success in converting people of one of the most culturally advanced countries of the world into believers in their racial myths. It is a sobering thought that if the Indian people are not warned and do not act in time we may go the same way as Germany did in 1930s.

Now is the time to stand up and ­uph­old the cause of true patriotism, that demands a commitment to the good of all, a readiness to seek and ­rectify defe­cts, and a dedication to India as a secular democratic state. If all those who believe in these principles act in unison, there is every reason to hope our cause will succeed.


Illustration by Sajith Kumar

Sufi poet and musician Amir ­Khusrau Dehlavi (1253-1325) created the Khaliq Bari, a vocabulary in verse comprising words from Arabic, Persian and Hindavi (also known as Hindustani, Dehlavi and Rekhta, the lingua franca of North India and ­Pakistan today). In 1300, when Khusrau’s mother and brother died, he wrote a verse with a line that translates as “wherever the dust of your (mother’s) feet is found is like a relic of paradise for me”.

Irfan Habib One of India’s top historians, he teaches at the Aligarh Muslim University

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