The Elephant In The Room

A complete intellectual history of modern South Asia is yet to be written, one that accords a rightful place to Muslim traditions of inquiry into self and sovereignty in the making of India—and Pakistan
The Elephant In The Room
Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India
By Ananya Vajpeyi
Harvard University Press 2012 Rs 995; 342 Pages

Muslim leaders and intellectuals in India during the relevant period, between the 1880s and Independence/Partition, arguably also faced more or less the same questions as their caste Hindu or other compatriots. But in many ways their predicament was peculiar. Islam’s careers on the Indian subcontinent in the millennium leading up to British rule had left behind at least two traces that modern Muslims could both claim for themselves and hope to construe as a legacy for all Indians—one, a political tradition represented by the relatively recent memory of the Mughal Empire, and two, a religious tradition (or a collage of smaller traditions) of Indic and Indo-Persian Sufism, which in practice often attracted adherents from Muslim and non- Muslim communities. But while both the Mughal and the Sufi inheritances were potentially inclusive, in reality their power had long been attenuated by the colonial state and its forms of domination. Simultaneously, Indian Muslims also found themselves having to refashion their relationship to larger communities of Islam outside India, from Iran to Turkey to West Asia to Arabia to Egypt, regions that themselves were undergoing the great transformations necessitated by modernity. The poet Iqbal (1877-1938) and the theologian- politician Azad (1888-1958) were peers in every way of the five figures I write about here.

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The men who assumed the political and cultural leadership of India’s Muslims in the very phase under discussion— principally Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Ali Brothers, Dr. Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, and perhaps a few others— also searched for an authentic selfhood. But whether that self could only be appropriate for Muslims or would work for India as a whole must remain a question for another book. In markedly different ways, these thinkers— admittedly some more intellectual than others— all confronted the fact of decisive and irreversible Muslim defeat at the hands of the British in 1857. They grappled with the twin tendencies in the Zeitgeist, toward religious reform on the one hand and a renewed fundamentalism on the other. They tried to think about their community in the old frames of faith, custom, practice, region, and ethnicity that they could foresee would not necessarily make a successful transition into the new order of secular nation- states and modern legal juridical regimes. As the national movement reached its crescendo, and communal violence increased all across the subcontinent, Muslims had to choose between the dark unknown of the two- nation theory and the even more depressing prospect of being rendered a perpetual minority in post- Partition India. Could all of India’s Muslims, diverse and scattered, be pulled into a single unified shape? Where did they stand relative to other segments of the ummah (community of the faithful) in different parts of the world, especially in the homelands of Islam further west in Asia? Indian Muslims had long coexisted with Hindus, but could they share political power with them in the emergent postcolonial dispensation? Wherein lay the wellsprings of a hyphenated “Indian- Muslim” identity— in the “India” part of that ligature, or in the “Islam” part of it?

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For some years in the late teens and early 1920s, it seemed as though the logic of Khilafat— a struggle that appeared to be about restoring the religious authority of an Islamic caliphate but in reality was the last gasp of the Ottoman Empire— would give Indian Muslims a raison d’être, a sense of political direction, and internal cohesion as a community. The Indian National Congress under Gandhi’s (then) new leadership encouraged this campaign and threw its weight behind the Pan- Islamic ideology of the Khilafatists. But when Turkey itself, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, rejected and finally destroyed the stranglehold of the Ottoman dynasts and made a resolute turn toward secular modernity and Europe an nationalism, Muslims in India needed to pause. It became increasingly obvious that their future had to be worked out in an Indian context, with regard to players and elements within the subcontinent: secular and sympathetic Congress leaders like Gandhi and Nehru, antithetical Hindu communal forces, the lingering- departing British, and Islamic theology and traditions of innovation and reflection within it, as well as a broad, diffuse historical narrative that encapsulated Islam’s trajectories in India over the course of a thousand years. India offered a rich repository of resources for self- examination and self- renewal, as well as the ever- present threat of fragmentation, dissolution, and assimilation that had obstructed Islam from becoming the sole, dominant idiom of religious life in the subcontinent from the very beginning and throughout medieval and early modern history. In the early twentieth century, anti- imperialist movements in India (as elsewhere) were often imbued with religious sentiment, which was not necessarily a problem when religious and national communities coincided; however, for Indian Muslims, the enormously challenging task was to triangulate their feelings of domestic patriotism (as Indians) with transnational jihad (the struggle for righteousness decreed by Islam) on the one hand, and Hindu-led but on the surface non- sectarian, anodyne anticolonial nationalism on the other.

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Muslims in South Asia had over the centuries written their learned texts and popular poetry in Bangla and Braj, Punjabi and Saraiki, Sindhi and Gujarati, Kashmiri and Malayalam, Dakhni and Urdu, Farsi and Hindavi. By contrast, Arabic and Turkish, although they were supposed to signify origin, apotheosis, and authenticity in Muslim identity discourse, remained essentially foreign languages. In other words, the Muslim quest for a self had to turn inward, into the soul, and into India. In their distinct ways, Iqbal, Azad, and Jinnah all pursued these options, though none of them succeeded perhaps, in settling once for all the conundrum of whether there could really ever be a selfhood for Muslims that might weld the pious individual, the community of believers, the pluralistic nation, and ultimately all of humanity into one integrated structure with spiritual depth and politi cal resilience. Or else the failure might equally be attributed to India’s non- Muslim thinkers. There is no point in apportioning blame, but by the end of the nineteenth century, colonial prejudices combined with Hindu fears and Muslim defeat resulted in a thoroughly communal view of Indian history, which over time became so naturalized that by the mid-1940s even a mind like Nehru’s, as can be seen at work in his classic The Discovery of India (1946), could not but read the present (with Partition looming) back into the past (as a long saga of conflicts that constantly had to be dealt with through India’s particular genius for reconciling differences).

Yet today, long after the passions of Independence are quieted, is it possible to conceive of a reconciled Indian self that admits both Hindus and Muslims, taking as its basis some third, non- sectarian foundation that has yet to be imagined? (A federalist solution, parenthetically, had it worked itself out, would nonetheless still have avoided the question of how to arrive at a transcendent Selfhood beyond Hindu and Muslim selves— perhaps one reason why such a road found no takers, whether among Jinnah’s followers or his opponents.) Can there be coexistence, unity, mutual tolerance between Hindus and Muslims, rather than the in e quality between a “majority” and a “minority” that seems to be the fate of these two entangled communities in South Asia? Can Islam ever be perceived as anything other than trauma and interruption, intrusion and invasion, the unwanted guest who must be absorbed and overcome— the Self’s inevitable Other? These unanswered questions continue to haunt us generations after the founders made India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and left us their deeply flawed legacies. Even India’s vaunted secularism, sadly, has turned out to give credence to the two- nation theory in surreptitious ways, victimizing minorities within independent India as though they deserved punishment for surviving the Partition and coming out on the other side as “Indians” rather than as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, or tribals.

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In the long run, a complete intellectual history of modern South Asia must take on the elephant in the room, which is the place of Muslim traditions of inquiry into self and sovereignty in the making of India— and Pakistan. Leaders like Sir Syed, Azad, and Jinnah, and poets like Ghalib, Hali, and Iqbal are perhaps as poorly understood in their capacity as founding fathers in Pakistan as they are in India— an omission that is equally inexcusable in the historiography of either nation. Nor do we have a strong sense of the role played by non- religious but nonetheless sectarian institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University (f. 1877), Jamia Millia Islamia (f. 1920), and the Muslim League (f. 1906) in making possible a modern Muslim identity or a modern identity for Indian Muslims (even acknowledging that those two categories are potentially distinct from one another would be a step in the right direction). It’s almost as though the Indians left these figures to the Pakistanis to memorialize, critique, or forget as they thought fit, because in India they came to be seen, retrospectively, and for the most part unreasonably, as preparing the ground for the creation of a separate Muslim homeland all along, while the Pakistanis did not really take them on wholeheartedly because they seemed to be too rooted and caught up in an Indian problematic (with the exception of Jinnah, and that too only after 1940).

Was there an “epistemological break” in Muslim knowledge traditions on the subcontinent any time in the window, say, between 1857 and 1947— something on the order of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909), that we could clearly identify as marking a before and an after in Muslim political thought? Faisal Devji has suggested certain parallelisms between on the one hand Gandhi and Jinnah (Gujarati lawyers from trading communities, and fathers of their respective nations, both), and on the other Nehru and Iqbal (Westernized Kashmiri aristocrats, and writers of key texts, both). Such preliminary intuitions need to be explored, debated, fleshed out, and if necessary discarded, before we can claim to have a proper history of the political foundations of the twin nations.

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Partha Chatterjee has discussed how modern thinkers do not posit two unequally long, yet symmetrical and parallel traditions, one Indic, one Indo- Islamic, that lead up to, respectively, India and Pakistan. I do not have the wherewithal, in this book, to try to understand ... what is made of an Indo-Muslim political tradition (if such a thing is ever constructed) in the founding of the nation of Pakistan. But certainly within modern India’s genealogy for itself, the Islamic heritage is not handled in any meaningful way: it is neither aggressively assimilated nor violently expunged; neither claimed nor refused for what ever its contribution to India’s political thought through the ages. Needless to say, this is both intellectually and ethically a highly dissatisfying state of affairs. It means that no one in India has come up with a reading of the past that properly accounts for all kinds of political phenomena springing from Islam that have affected, indeed shaped, the course of Indian history from the seventh-century Arab conquests of the Sindh to the defeat of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the so-called last Mughal, in the debacle of 1857. When it comes to India’s political tradition and its underlying puzzle of self, sovereignty, and their ligature, the rule of Muslim kings in the subcontinent for over a thousand years remains the blind spot.

Gandhi via his solidarity with the Khilafat Movement in the early 1920s and his complete opposition to Partition in the 1940s, Nehru through his special brand of secularism developed and strengthened over the full course of his political career in colonial and postcolonial India, Ambedkar through his larger engagement with the question of minority and minorities (again, like Nehru, a matter he dealt with both before and after Independence), and Tagore via the question of Bengali Muslim identity that came up early in the first iteration of Swadeshi politics at the turn of the twentieth century, all undertook serious engagements with Indo-Muslim culture and politics. But none of them had any systematic place for the Islamic past in their idea of an Indian political tradition and of the political foundations of the new republic. Indian secularism, in the aftermath of Partition, made the gesture of inclusion toward all that was Muslim and still remained in India. (At the time, the significant part of the subcontinent’s Muslim population, as well as a great deal of the territory that had ever been under Muslim rule, remained in India rather than going over to Pakistan. Muslim-ruled or Muslim- majority princely states like Junagadh, Hyderabad, and Kashmir were integrated into the Indian union using varying amounts of force and to varying degrees of “success.”) But as the history of independent India has shown, particularly since the early 1990s, this gesture was for the most part a hollow one. Had Gandhi lived and actually moved to Pakistan as he had proposed to do just prior to his assassination (by a Hindu fanatic) in January 1948, the idea of an Indian political tradition, particularly with respect to Indian Islam, might have been very different from what it became. We cannot know.

Reproduced by permission of the publisher from Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India by Ananya Vajpeyi, Harvard University Press 2012. Copyright (c) 2012 the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

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