Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022

Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf (1903-1962): The Gandhi-ite Communist

Despite continuing to be a constitutionally secular country, majoritarianism is a hegemonic force now, even while its demography comprises a huge chunk of Muslim communities.

KM Ashraf (in glasses) with Nehru and others.
KM Ashraf (in glasses) with Nehru and others. Facebook/India History

India’s largest province, Uttar Pradesh is going for elections. It considers itself to be the heartland. It sends largest number of legislators. Despite continuing to be a constitutionally secular country, majoritarianism is a hegemonic force now, even while its demography comprises a huge chunk of Muslim communities. Historically, a segment of UP Muslims was in positions of strength and power, economically, more specifically in landholding, as well as politically. It has got some of the most influential theological seminaries and has been the centre of many reformist, revivalist, intellectual movements. This is also a province that is the site of some of the biggest issues of Hindu-Muslim contentions, viz., Ayodhya, Kashi, Mathura. In a late-colonial era, this was one of the nerve-centres of Muslim separatism, even though, it was not going to be a part of the Muslim homeland that a segment was asking for and eventually got it with the backing of colonial power.  Such contentions continue to rankle and impact contemporary social relations and politics, so far as Hindu-Muslim engagement is concerned.

In such a challenging scenario it is increasingly becoming the lesser-known fact that there were leaders, intellectuals, intellectual-activists, groups, forces coming out of some of the abovementioned institutions who stood out to build a nation that could be modern, plural and prosperous in economic as well as intellectual terms. While the Deoband seminary produced anti-separatist and fiercely pluralist theologians like Husain Ahmad Madni (1879-1957) and Hifzur Rahman Seohaarvi (1901-1962), the AMU threw up progressives like Tufail Ahmad Manglori (1868-1946) and Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf (1903-1962). 

This column concerns itself to the intellectual and political profile of a revolutionary-Leftist historian Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf, who was a close companion of Jawaharlal Nehru as well as Subhash Bose. Though, he fell out of both by the early 1940s owing to many tactical and ideological disagreements. From 1936 to 1948 he was with Congress and CPI. He taught history in Srinagar and in the Kirori Mal College of Delhi (1956-60), before leaving to Germany in 1960, where he passed away in 1962 while serving as Visiting Professor in Berlin. 

The reason for this choice to remember KM Ashraf is: he was the one who belonged to those scholars who diagnosed and articulated Muslim engagement with politics in meaningful and creative ways during the late colonial as well as post-independence period. His unambiguous attacks on competitive communalism, on Iqbal and Maududi, and on self-introspective reflections, need to be referred back, now.  

In face of hegemonic majoritarianism and palpably unprecedented marginalization of the Muslim communities, it would be quite instructive to look into Ashraf’s English and Urdu language writings. He was the one who, as a research student of Indian history in the early 1930s, chose to explore “people’s history” of pre-Mughal India. His doctorate from the University of London is a popular textbook for postgraduate students. His education (doctorate and Law) in London was sponsored by the Alwar State. His doctoral thesis, supervised by Wolseley Haig (1865-1938), turned into an exceedingly popular book, Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan, 1200-1550 AD. This was first published by the Asiatic Society in 1935; revised edition in 1959 and its Urdu renderings also ran into more than one edition. It is worthwhile to recall that the French historians such as Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) and Albert Mathiez (1874-1932) were experimenting with “people’s history” in the 1930s; A L Morton’s 1938 book, A People’s History of England was an extremely well-received tome, then.

KM Ashraf’s book became an instant success and popular in the postgraduate courses of many universities in India and abroad. It ran into many editions since then. After independence, it was again published in 1959. Its Urdu renderings also ran into more than one edition. It paid attention to the Sultans as private and public persons, but paid greater attention to the rural and urban lives, trade and commerce, standard of living, social and domestic lives of the people, their recreations and amusements and brought it up to India on the eve of Akbar.

Born in a family of Rajput Muslims of Aligarh, his political journey against British colonialism began very early on, through an organization called Hizbullah. He was initiated into this through, an Aligarh graduate Istafa Karim of Moradabad, where KM Ashraf was then located for early education. His itinerary was Begum Hasrat Mohani’s ‘Swadeshi Store’ at Aligarh’s Russelganj. The revolutionary poet, Hasrat was by then serving imprisonment due to anti-imperialist writings in his Urdu periodical, Urdu-e-Mualla. Follower of Tilak, Hasrat was the maulana who loved Lord Krishna. 

KM Ashraf was part of Gandhiji’s Satyagraha during the Non-Cooperation Movement while pursuing graduation in Aligarh, and thus also a part of the foundation of the Jamia Millia Islamiya, they were taught both Quran and Gita, besides other disciplines. He thus grew up with eclectic worldviews. He wrote about his life journey in Urdu.

One of the finest of his expositions are there in his presidential address to the Medieval India Section of the Indian History Congress (1960), and in his Urdu book, Hindustani Muslim Siyasat Par Ek Nazar (1963), published posthumously by Sajjad Zaheer (1899-1973). In 2001, it was rendered into English by his son Jaweed Ashraf. These writings continue to carry immense relevance in our times.  

In the presidential address (1960) he dilated upon the colonially induced communalization of history books in the late 19th century, particularly in what he called ‘politically advanced provinces of India’. In this regard, he appreciated the historical writings of Sir Syed and Zakaullah. He then becomes self-critical and self introspective, by adding that his successors 
‘diverted the course of narrative and objective history into one of apologetics for the defence of the old Muslim empires, and in course of time identified themselves with the communal and separatist trend of Muslim politics in India It was Professor M. Habib [1895-1971] who disabused our minds of much of this Muslim chauvinism by writing his history… and by courageously fighting the growing trend of Muslim separatism even during the worst days of aggressive communal politics’. 

Ashraf warned the gathering of historians that the trend was acquiring ‘a religious-revivalist camouflage; it now parades & pseudo-scientific phraseology of the Spengler type and the young Aligarh historian has to be on his guard against such distractions’. Based in Berlin then, Ashraf cautioned India’s historians that the European and US scholars were taking a renewed interest in writing History textbooks for the newly independent countries, duly emphasising our ‘spiritual heritage’ but ‘adding nothing appreciable’, which he said was a ‘challenge and responsibility’ for the Indian historians to see through the intent of the ex-colonisers. 

He questioned the colonial periodization of Indian history and referred to the post-Gupta phase of ‘tribal feudalism’ as the beginning of the medieval period when Rajput clans assisted by Brahman priesthood gave way to ‘military-patriarchal feudalism of the Turks and Mughals’, who brought about a ‘new form of pseudo-contractual relationship with the peasantry’ through the practice of Qubuliyat and Patta. Social parasitism of the later Mughals got defeated with young European capitalism. 

He then reflected upon why the peasantry felt incapable of rising in organised resistance against the medieval rulers. KM Ashraf credits the Bhakti-Sufi movements to have inspired the spirit of rebellion among the peasantry, manifesting more clearly from the late 17th century onwards when such movements challenged the empires but got reduced into backward regional empires, finally succumbing to the European powers.

In the 1920s, he was among the AMU students agitating against the British which also culminated in the foundation of the Jamia Millia Islamia (later shifted to Delhi); in 1937 Ashraf was entrusted by Nehru to head the Mass Contact Campaign. Ashraf had a belief that ‘any honest and consistent anti-imperialist struggle led by the Congress would wean away from the Muslim masses from the growing influence of Jinnah and the revived Muslim League’. This was something that alarmed the Muslim League immensely.  

KM Ashraf presided over the All India Students’ Federation (AISF) in Calcutta on January 1, 1939. He asked the young Indians gathered there ‘to look to the future with confidence’ and made it clear that ‘our national struggle is a part of the world struggle for a better order of society’. He declared that independent India’s foreign policy would be a ‘concrete example of international solidarity of weak and exploited humanity against imperialism and fascism’.  He was candid in admitting before the gathering of the youth that Pan-Islamism, Khilafat Movement and Hindu revivalism may have helped mobilise people for national struggle but the retrogressive implications of such phenomena should not be lost on anybody. He insisted that the future of India’s struggle against colonialism and communalism lies in the hands of the solidarity of the peasants, workers and youth, rather than in creating any federation of religious identities. He then subjected the Bengal ministry of the Muslim League to severe criticism and elaborated upon the ‘disruptive role of communalism’, as even the ministry had encouraged communal divide even among the workers of Jute mills. He concluded with a remark that the AISF and other youth movements must go beyond the confines of urban spaces and must spread towards rural areas.

In 1941, he was imprisoned in the Deoli Detention Camp for two years, where he wrote a few books. 

In an interview with N. L. Gupta (on October 27, 1960), Ashraf referred to himself to have once been a “Gandhi-ite Communist”, though, he remained an un-alloyed CPI man, in ideological terms. It was in this very interview that he candidly confessed the folly of the CPI which was misled by the Muslim League slogan of self-determination which in his hindsight was actually Muslim communalism, and regretted having forgotten the whole history of British imperialism and communal politics. 

Razak Khan sums up KM Ashraf’s profile:

Ashraf was a staunch opponent of “Muslim separatism” and a firm believer in progressive international solidarity. Based on the Gangadhar Adhikari thesis, the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) decision on the “Muslim Question” was in favour of the creation of Pakistan. Despite his personal reservations, Ashraf moved to Pakistan due to party precepts. In Pakistan, he came under political suspicion and was arrested [and exiled to London, 1949-1954] on charges of being a Communist. He was neither welcomed in Pakistan nor accepted back in India. Neither here nor there, Ashraf became emblematic of the unresolved “Muslim Question” in post-partition South Asia: he became a stateless person and was in exile in England [1949-54] before he was rehabilitated in Kirori Mal College, Delhi, where he taught history from 1956–60. Constantly under suspicion and attack in India, he moved to Berlin on a visiting professorship. 

As said earlier, one of his most significant writings is the Urdu essays he wrote in the 1950s: on Muslim politics (later compiled as a booklet in 1963); and also a two-part essay (1955, 1950) on AMU’s political culture. These are quite instructive even for today.

In the Urdu booklet, he reflects on deep anti-democratic urges in the politics of the poet, Iqbal, and of Maududi (1903-1979), who founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941. Of course, Ashraf concludes it with his socialist preaching. He is categorical that democracy is about citizenship rights based on the principles of equality, regardless of his or her faith and creed; that it does not depend upon a divine text of eternal relevance. It is about men and women deciding themselves about their destiny, hence a dynamics for change. He considered Maududi to have been a tool of western imperialist power. In his view, both Iqbal and Maududi were admirers or apologists of Mussolini and Hitler. He pointed out some self-contradictory and reactionary contents from the passages of Maududi’s writings, viz., Rasael o Masael and Siyasi Kashmakash; Ashraf cites Maududi’s speech at Pathankot (May 10, 1947) to expose his opposition to secularism and democracy.  

He reserves many good words for Maulana Azad’s political views and notions of pluralistic co-existence. KM Ashraf had served as Secretary of both Nehru and Maulana Azad; but, given KM Ashraf’s Marxist commitments, he also points out limitations of Azad, albeit ambiguously and cryptically. He says that Azad’s religion-inspired political views can help break the castles of communalism but based on those notions one can’t build a healthier socio-political system.         

Having articulated limitations of the Muslim thinkers and reformists such as Sir Syed, Hali, Ghalib, etc., Ashraf has good words also for each of them. Hali’s critique of feudal order finds particular appreciation in the words of KM Ashraf. 

Nonetheless, this is apt to add here that the tone and tenor of Ashraf’s text are at times a little sarcastic and at times more rhetorical, less persuasive. This style gives an easy read, some worth cramming lines and passages, but overall, it loses the kind of appeal such subjects ought to have. Another conspicuous limitation of Ashraf’s writings is: there is no exclusive attention to the oppressive practices based on caste and gender.   

As against this, his two Urdu essays (1955, 1960) on historical-ideological and class-analysis of the political outlook of the AMU is more significantly insightful, persuasive and almost completely non-rhetorical. 

Notwithstanding these limitations, KM Ashraf’s historically grounded understanding of Muslim politics was of much use for Prof. Mushirul Haque (1933-1990) who sort of made academically explored elaborations upon Ashraf’s. This is best and most succinctly articulated in the lecture (hosted by the AMU Old Boys’ Association, Delhi 1988) of Prof. Mushirul Haque, on “Religion and Indian Muslim Politics: Past and Present”. Let it be recalled that the 1980s was a decade of extremely competitive communalization in India, even while an overtly majoritarian political formation was not in power. 

In short, a revisit to those writings may partly help us unravel some of the mysteries why there is an unprecedented and alarming rise of competitive bigotry, frenzied hatred and retrogression in our times.