'Only Hindu-Muslim Unity can save India.' This oft repeated phrase is often associated with 'secular' or 'leftist' Indian politicians. However, what is not generally well known is that Jamaluddin Afghani, a figure much maligned because of his association with Pan-Islamism, also ascribed to this view. Many scholars, intellectuals and activists have often associated Afghani with the beginning of Islamism as a political movement. Operating in the tumultuous second half of the 19th century, Afghani was actually a Persian who had decided to make anti-imperialism his life's cause. He viewed the umma or Muslim community as an entity, which if united politically, could defeat avaricious western colonial governments. He travelled widely in the Muslim world and Europe and also visited India a number of times.
Just before travelling to India Afghani wrote a letter to the Ottoman Sultan asking for patronage for his various endeavours. Interestingly in the letter he makes an exception for India wherein he proposed that he would breathe a new spirit of love of nationality [r?h-i jad?d-i hubb-i mill?yyat] into the slumbering Indian Muslims. Importantly, milliyat here referred to the then relatively new concept of nationality and not to the Muslim millat. Afghani envisaged 'a linguistic and territorial nationalism' in India based on Hindu-Muslim unity. In making this exceptional case for India as opposed to Persia, Afghanistan or the Arab countries, Afghani argued that a cultural affinity to Muslims across the world would not detract from their sharing in a common nationality with the Hindus of India.
Afghani also saw linguistic unity as more important than religious ties in forming a common bond between Hindus and Muslims in India. He wrote about this in an article called The Philosophy of National Unity and the Truth about Unity of Language. It is worth remembering that at the time of his, writing Urdu was not associated just with Muslims. While in India between 1879-1882, Afghani often wrote and lectured about the greatness of Indian civilisation and while citing the Shastras and Vedas acknowledged the immense contribution that this 'cradle of humanity' had made.
Today, it is important to remember the rich and diverse history of India. It is noteworthy that even an ardent pan-Islamist like Afghani saw that India's true potential lay in the unity of her people. Unfortunately a situation has been arising where, far from Hindu-Muslim unity, forces are at work that seek to create an unbridgeable gulf between the two communities. Therefore, it is crucial to safeguard our unique historical legacy and see ourselves as the flag bearers and protectors of our country and constitution, even as institutions and individuals seek to undermine their very foundations.
We need to be aware that in a democratic country such as ours, it is not the duty of a minority to simply safeguard its own rights or those of other minorities but to act as custodians of the idea of India as envisaged by the constitution. After all, the country's well-being is fundamentally linked to the well-being of each of her citizens. For this to be possible and for there to be Hindu-Muslim unity, it is also important for the Muslims to be unified amongst themselves. The first condition for this is that Muslims should be clear about what is in the interest of the country and the community. Apart from this the other point on which there should be absolute clarity is that Muslims need to be clear about the issues that are either of little relevance or indeed are designed to sow discord and divisions. A recent example of this was the unfortunate instance of the fatwa released by a relatively unknown academy in Mumbai.
The fatwa, which practically speaking merely amounts to an opinion, alleged blasphemy on the part of some Iranian filmmakers who had made a film about the Prophet's childhood. All the precautions were taken to not show his face just as they were also taken during the making of the famous film, 'The Message.' It turned out that the person responsible for the fatwa had not even seen the film. According to the very theological and jurisprudential reasons that the cleric had taken recourse to, he himself had failed to live up to the rigorous standard of evidence required before pronouncing an opinion, let alone a verdict. Furthermore the only result of targeting A R Rahman for his association with the film is that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad generously offered him the opportunity of returning to home to his 'real' faith.
Some newspapers and writers have tried to make the issue of the film sectarian. On the one hand, the film's director is Iranian and therefore in some people's minds the film is inevitably a Shi'i portrayal. On the other hand, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Aal al-Sheikh, condemned the film as blasphemous and thus the issue became a Shi'a-Sunni problem. The truth is that nations — whether Iran or Saudi Arabia — always act in their own interests despite the more universal ideals that they might profess. It is important for Indian Muslims to realise that only they themselves can truly understand the problems that confront them and that caution is needed so that people's emotions are not manipulated by various vested interests. If a man like Jamaluddin Afghani could advocate the benefits of Hindu-Muslim political unity more than a century ago then surely these benefits should be even more obvious now.
Today deep and troubling changes are afoot in India. If you pick up a newspaper you will read about how the Minister of Culture wants to purge India of foreign influences or how he thinks that President Abdul Kalam was a good Indian "despite being a Muslim". On the TV you might hear people speaking of 1200 years of slavery ending while others try and distort history in order to paint Muslims as outsiders. Elsewhere you might hear about how Mahesh Rangarajan was coerced into offering his resignation from the directorship of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library whereas in other institutions openly sectarian and unqualified people are being given high office. If we do not wake up to the fact that our future and indeed the country's future lies in our hands, then we inevitably will become victims of our own prejudices, doomed to fight amongst ourselves over illusions and specters.
This article was originally published in the author's Urdu column, Sadaa-e Dil, in the Inquilab Newspaper.
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