The Age of Defeat


At what point in their history of more than a thousand years did Indian Muslims become a minority? The question is clearly rhetorical, because Indian Muslims have never been in a majority. The last British census taken in 1941 showed that Muslims constituted 24.3 per cent of the population. Five years later, in 1946, provoked by fears that they and their faith would be destroyed by majority-Hindu aggression after the British left, Indian Muslims voted overwhelmingly for the Muslim League, a party that promised a new Muslim nation on the map of the Indian subcontinent, to be called Pakistan. In August 1947, Pakistan, a concept that had not been considered a serious option even in 1940, became a fact.
Its geography was fantastic; its western and eastern halves were separated by more than a thousand miles of hostile India, and by sharp differences in ethnicity and culture, for the east was Bengali while the west was Punjabi, Paktoon, Baloch and Sindhi. Its professed ideology, Islam, was unprecedented as glue for nationalism, since no nation-state had yet been created on the basis of Islam. The great theologian-politician, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), President of the Indian National Congress between 1940 and 1946, repeatedly pointed this out to fellow Muslims, but to shrinking audiences. In a remarkably prescient interview, given to Shorish Kashmiri for the Lahore based Urdu magazine Chattan published in April 1946, Azad argued that the division of territory on the basis of religion “finds no sanction in Islam or the Quran . . . who among the scholars of Islam has divided the dominion of God on this basis? . . . Do they realize that if Islam had approved this principle then it would not have permitted its followers to go to non-Muslim lands and many ancestors of the supporters of Pakistan would not have even entered the fold of Islam?”

Islam was a value system for the transformation of the human soul, not an instrument of political power.

Nor would a common faith eliminate ethnic tensions. “The environment of Bengal is such that it disfavours leadership from outside and rises in revolt when it senses danger to its rights and interests . . .I feel that it will not be possible for East Pakistan to stay with West Pakistan for any considerable period of time. There is nothing common between the two regions except that they call themselves Muslims. But the fact of being Muslim has never created durable political unity anywhere in the world. The Arab world is before us; they subscribe to a common religion, a common civilization and culture, and speak a common language. In fact, they acknowledge even territorial unity. But there is no political unity among them”. Exactly twenty-five years after Azad made this prediction, in 1971, Pakistan broke into two, and Bengali-speaking East Pakistan reinvented itself as Bangladesh after a brutal civil strife and an India-Pakistan war.

The partitions of India divided Indian Muslims, who constituted one-third of the world’s Muslim population before 1947, into three nations by 1971. By the turn of the century, Pakistan had reduced non-Muslims to 2 per cent of its population. Ten percent of Bangladesh, a more secular formation, was Hindu. When the first census of the twenty-first century was taken in 2001, Muslims were 13.4 per cent of secular India.

Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, from the Khyber Pass to the borders of Burma, claim a unique history spanning more than a thousand years in which their political power has been remarkably disproportionate to their demographic limitations. Muslim dynasties were by far the most powerful element within the complex mosaic of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious feudal structure before the slow aggregation of British rule from the middle of the eighteenth century. An Arab invader, Muhammad bin Qasim, established the first Muslim dynasty in 712, in Sind (now in Pakistan), but it faltered and stagnated. Muslim rule in a substantive sense is more correctly dated in 1192, when Muhammad Ghori, at the head of a Turco-Afghan army, defeated the Rajput king Prithviraj at Tarain, about 150 km from Delhi, near Thaneswar, to establish a dominant centre of Muslim power in the heartland.

Ghori soon returned to Afghanistan, but his successors, Turco-Afghan generals, set up a Delhi Sultanate that became independent of Afghanistan in 1206. By this time, with astonishing rapidity, they held an empire that stretched from Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the east. Delhi, or its alter ego Agra, remained a Muslim capital for over six centuries. The Khiljis (1288-1320), Tughlaqs (1320-1413), Sayyids (1414-51), Lodi’s (1451-1526), Suris (1540-56) and Mughals (1526-40 and 1556-1857) won or lost power in wars that were as bitter as any other, but the fact that succession never went out of the Islamic fold created a comfort zone that seeped down to even those Muslims who had little to gain from that moveable feast called monarchy.

There were powerful Muslim domains even during British rule, the most important being the state of Hyderabad, founded by a Mughal governor who bore the title of Nizam ul Mulk and who broke away from an already brittle Delhi around 1725; the dynasty survived till 1948, with the seventh and last Nizam, Mir Osman, becoming famous as a miser with the most valuable diamond hoard in the world. He ate off a tin plate, smoked cigarette stubs left behind by guests, and was hugely reluctant to serve champagne to so eminent a visitor as the viceroy, Lord Wavell, but used the 280-carat Jacob diamond as a paperweight. There were only three million Muslims in a population of twenty-three million in his state, but did Muslims consider themselves a minority as long as their ruler was a Muslim? No.

Minority and majority are, therefore, more a measure of empowerment than a function of numbers. For Muslims under Shahanshahs, Nawabs and Nizams, power translated into positive discrimination in employment, within the bureaucracy, judiciary and military; and it ensured that their aman i awwal (liberty of religion) was beyond threat.

This changed in 1803, when victorious British troops marched into Delhi. The Mughal Emperor, blind and impotent Shah Alam II, became a British vassal, and centuries of Muslim confidence began to crumble into a melee of reactions ranging from anger, frustration, bombast, lament and self-pity to insurrection and intellectual enquiry

Indian Muslims entered into an age of insecurity for which they sought a range of answers. One question fluctuated at many levels: what would be the geography of what might be called Muslim space in the post Mughal dispensation? The concept did not begin as a hostile idea, but it certainly had the contours of protectionism, buoyed by an underlying, if unspoken, assumption that Muslims would not be able to hold their own. Political power had made their “minority” numbers irrelevant; without power, they would be squeezed into irrelevance or subjugation. They sought, therefore, reservations or positive discrimination of all kinds, in the polity, in preferential treatment for their language, in jobs, and eventually in geographical space. Pakistan emerged as the twentieth century’s answer to nineteenth century defeat. So far, it has merely replaced insecurity with uncertainty.

The last two Muslim empires, Mughal and Ottoman, succumbed to British power in the long nineteenth century, which came to an end in 1918 with the end of the First World War. In South Asia, Pakistan evolved as a kind of successor-state to the Mughal Empire, a comfort zone for Muslims. Turkey survived the collapse of the Ottomans by a remarkable renovation. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who saved his nation from British plans for dismemberment, abandoned Ottoman ideas and values, and turned Turkey into an independent, integrated, modern country. Britain and France picked up the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire and spun them off into either colonies or neo-colonies.

In 1918, a startling historical coincidence occurred. Every Muslim state in the world, whether in Asia or Africa, came under European rule. Muslim trauma was accentuated by the fact that for the first time since Prophet Muhammad marched into Mecca in 630, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were under the suzerainty of a Christian power. Jerusalem, the third holy city, had been lost before, during the Crusades, but never Mecca, where the Prophet was born, or Medina, where he established the first Muslim state.

Persian nationalists might argue that their country was technically independent, since their Shah was never actually removed by a European power, but the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 effectively ended Persian pretensions to sovereignty. The country was divided into Russian and British ‘zones of influence’ in which Russia took the north and Britain gained control of the south and the ports. Similarly, pedants might suggest that Muslim Central Asian khanates like Bukhara, Kokand and Azerbaijan became independent of Moscow in 1917 after the collapse of the Tsars during the First World War, but their pretensions were quickly snuffed out by Vladimir Lenin, who sent in tanks and bombers to reassert the boundaries of the Tsarist Empire. The great library of Bukhara was destroyed In the Bolshevik invasion. Lenin may have been blind to irony when, in November 1919, he described Afghanistan – in a letter to King Amanullah, after control of foreign affairs was restored in Kabul following the brief Third Afghan War in 1919 – as the only independent Muslim country in the world.

In 1919, more Muslims lived under British rule than in any other political space. The Ganga and the Nile were linked by Empire; experience in one area was absorbed into institutional memory, enabling London to formulate policy in another. As Britain organized and reorganized her Arab possessions after 1918, she applied lessons learnt, in war and peace, from the conquest and domination of India. Britain had realized – through the crises and conquests of the nineteenth century – that her interests did not always need the heavy hand of colonization. They might be equally well served by the lighter touch of neo-colonization. Neo colonization is the grant of independence on condition that you do not exercise it. (The British weekly newspaper, the Economist, provided, in its issue of 20 June 2009, an excellent working definition of neo-colonization in its obituary of Omar Bongo, president for forty-two years, of former French colony,  Gabon: “Their bargain (between Bongo and France) too was a neat one. He allowed the French to take his oil and wood; they subsidized and protected him. At various times through his long political career, when opposition elements got brash, or multi-party democracy, which he allowed after 1993, became too lively, the French military base in Libreville would turn out the paratroopers for him.”

Each one of these events- the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of Arab neo-colonies, the reaction of Afghanistan to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 leading to the Third Afghan War-would play some part in the extraordinary drama of the Indian challenge to the British, and influence the domestic politics that gradually separated Indian Muslims from the unique and unifying national movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. The most creative phase of Gandhi’s career was not towards the end, but in the beginning between 1919 and 1922, when he used Hindu and Muslim sentiment to mould a non-violent revolution. It was popularly called Khilafat or Caliphate Movement. Indian Muslims who constituted one-third of the world’s Muslim population, mobilized under Gandhi to destroy the British Empire because the British had seized Mecca and Medina from the legitimate Caliph of Islam.

The Ottoman Sultan was also Caliph of the Muslim world, in his capacity as heir to a political tradition that began just after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632. The Caliph merged, in his person, temporal and spiritual responsibilities. He was Sultan of his realm, as well as a symbol of Islam in his capacity as custodian of the two holy mosques, Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. The bonds of Islam did not make the Arab an equal of the Turk in the Ottoman Empire, but religion and contiguity did create a harmony of cultural and economic interests that was less abrasive than European colonization, which was perceived as more foreign, intrusive and hostile.

The Ottomans became caliphs, much after they became sultans. Their origins lay in the rise of Osman I in 1300 in southern Turkey. They expanded into Europe, Serbia fell in 1389, Bulgaria in 1394.They crushed a pan-European force at the battle of Nicopolis in 1396, and in 1453 became masters of Eurasia when they conquered the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, till then considered impregnable. The Sultan became Caliph only in 1517, when Selim 1 defeated the Mamelukes in Cairo and extended his possessions to Mecca and Medina. Selim believed that it was his mission to conquer both east and west.

The Mughal collapse, between 1715 and 1725, was more sudden and spectacular. The causes were similar: in essence, an inability to modernize the economy or political or military institutions. There is no satisfactory explanation as to why the Ottomans did not increase the range and mobility of their field guns by adopting the latest advances in metallurgical technology; or why they did not increase the size of their ships to bigger European standards after the naval defeat at Lepanto. Both Mughals and Ottomans also failed to democratize the educational system with the help of new technologies like printing. There was nothing un-Islamic about printing. But the calligraphers in the bureaucracy who kept records, and the clergy in the seminary formed a powerful conservative coalition that resisted instruments of modernity.

Queen Elizabeth granted a royal charter to what came to be known as the East India Company on the last day of the sixteenth century. The first British ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, an Oxonian who had been knighted for exploring the Amazon, received an audience from Emperor Jahangir in Agra in 1615. Jahangir, used to pearls from the Portuguese, miffed at Sir Thomas’s pedestrian presents and asked, instead, for an English horse. The embarrassed, but patient, Englishman was finally granted a firman to trade in 1618. The East India Company was the only one of many British enterprises — among them Levant, Muscovy, Royal African, Massachusetts Bay and South Sea — engaged in international commerce; but it was by far the most successful. By 1750, its network extended from Basra to Sumatra.

The most important of its possessions was Calcutta, founded in 1690, on the Hooghly River in Bengal. Maya Jasanoff explains why: ‘From their capital at Murshidabad, the nawabs of Bengal presided over the richest province of the Mughal Empire. Cotton cloth, raw silk, saltpeter, sugar, indigo, and opium- the products of the region seemed inexhaustible, and all the European merchant companies set up factories to trade in them. Traveling downriver from Murshidabad was like travelling across a mixed-up map of Europe: there were the Portuguese at Hughli, the Dutch at Chinsura, the Danes at Serampore, the French at Chandernagore, and, of course, and the British at Calcutta. The nawabs of Bengal were among the richest Indian princes until ruined by conspiracy and defeat.

The British began their Bengal trade in 1633, from Balasore and Hooghly, a riverside settlement named after the river. In 1660, they established ‘factories’ at Kasimbazar and Patna. Since corruption and threats were endemic, they set up a fortification and began to raise local troops. In 1701, Emperor Aurangzeb sent a recently converted Hindu, Murshid Kuli Khan, as his financial representative to Bengal. In 1704, Kuli Khan established himself at Mokshabad, which he renamed Murshidabad in his own honor, and which he turned into the capital when he was appointed governor in 1713. His line was awarded the title of ‘Nawab’ in 1736. It would be a short line.

The penultimate Nawab, Alivardi Khan, was a perceptive man who was fully conscious of the growing strength of the Europeans, and the malpractices used to bolster that strength. He called the British ‘Hatmen’, literally, men who wore hats rather than turbans. He compared them to bees: Indian rulers could share the honey, but if you disturbed the hive they would sting you to death. He was apprehensive that after his death, ‘Hatmen’ would possess all the shores of India. His nominated heir Siraj ud Daulah (‘Lamp of the State’) clearly did not heed such advice. Siraj set out to disturb the hive. Angered by a suspected conspiracy between the English and his aunt Ghasita Begum, who had her own candidate for his job, he attacked the British settlement in Calcutta in 1756.

The man generally credited with turning a trading company into a political behemoth, Robert Clive, was in Madras at the time. He was nineteen when he reached India in 1744, on a starting salary of five pounds a year (plus three pounds for candles and servants; accommodation was free). Robert Harvey notes that Clive’s pay was performance-related, his ‘job was tedious to the extreme . . . lodgings were plagued with mosquitoes, giant ants and constant coatings of dust from periodic storms . . .’ he had three servants but he could only afford them with financial help from his father. Clive took up chewing paan and smoking the hookah, but his preferred pleasure remained wine. There is a disputed story that he tried to commit suicide, and when he failed after two attempts, began to believe that he had been reserved by destiny for higher tasks. What is beyond doubt is that even in Madras he realized that the British could win India if they but showed the imagination to do so.

Clive had acquired a well-earned reputation for military skill when in June 1756, the Calcutta garrison was outnumbered and overwhelmed. That night, one of the hottest of the year, 146 prisoners, including a woman and twelve wounded officers were stuffed into a cell, 18 feet long and 14 feet wide, called the ‘Black Hole’, with only two air vents. Only twenty three survived. Outrage, not to mention the lucrative trade of Bengal, demanded revenge, and a more pliable ruler. In December 1756, Clive left Madras for Calcutta with a fleet of six ships. On 23 June 1757, exploiting ambitions within the Nawab’s family, and displaying brilliant battlefield strategy and courage, Clive ended Muslim rule in Bengal near a village called Plassey. Clive had eight guns, 800 Europeans and 2100 sepoys against an Army of 50,000 backed by heavy artillery. Siraj ud Daulah escaped on a fast camel when only some 500 of his troops had died. As Clive wrote in a brief note to the Committee of Fort William after the battle: “Our loss is trifling, not above twenty Europeans killed and wounded.”

The British built their Indian Empire in small, careful steps, choosing one adversary at a time, and using exceptional diplomatic skills to sabotage enemy alliance to the extent they could. They were brilliant at provoking dissent through the effective expedience of promising power to the rebel. The sequence of military victories encouraged hope in potential rebels and kept potentates off-balance; reputation became a pre-eminent British asset. The British advance was helped by the implosion of the Mughal Empire, and the rise of regional princes who paid nominal homage to the emperor in Delhi. Individually, they could not withstand the discipline, will and competence of British officers, soldiers and the ‘native army’ they raised, trained and turned into a splendid fighting force.

The vulnerability of Indian Muslim communities increased in direct proportion to the gradual erosion of their empire between 1757 and 1857. As they struggled to find new equations with fellow Indians and the foreign British, they were squeezed from both sides: Hindus, who had the advantage of numbers, and the British, who had the advantage of power. An assertive Hindu elite claimed preference under British rule after centuries of a sense of feeling denied. The British were also wary of any revival by those they had displaced, the Muslim nobility; unsurprisingly, it was marginalized.

Since the capital of the British Raj was in Bengal, a dominion that included much of eastern India, the politics of Hindu-Muslim relations in this province was always a major factor in the formulation of British policy. The British created a new set of landed and commercial elites in Bengal. In stages, the traditional Muslim establishment of the Gangetic belt between Calcutta and Delhi was either whittled down, as in the case of old landed nobility, or eliminated, as happened to the military aristocracy. Muslims retreated into a sullen despondency. But one group, the ulema, or the clergy, surprised the British with its determination, ideology and persistence, shocked them with a newly acquired military skill.

The ulema have always had a special place in Muslim societies, not merely as leaders of prayer but as judicial and educational bureaucracy. Ulema is the plural of alim, meaning a wise man. Alim is a derivative of ilm, or knowledge. There are three degrees of knowledge: ain al-yaqin, certainty derived from sight; ilm al-yaqin, certainty from inference or reasoning; and haqq al-yaqin, the absolute truth, which is the eternal truth contained in the Quran. As scholars, the ulema extended their expertise to the arts and sciences, and their seminaries became schools that stored and disseminated knowledge to Muslims.

The high status given to knowledge in Islam has been transferred to the keeper of knowledge, the cleric-teacher. Imam Abu Abdullah Muhammad Bukhari (810-70), who culled some 7,000 sayings and stories about Prophet Muhammad from a mass of about 600,000, reports the Prophet as saying that envy is permitted in only two cases: when a wealthy man disposes of his wealth correctly, and when a person of knowledge applies and teaches it. Another Hadith says that he who goes on a search for knowledge is treated as being on jihad. The first great seminaries were established within seven decades of the Prophet’ death.

The Indian clergy energized despondent Muslims across the subcontinent from Peshawar to Dhaka, and inspired, between 1825 and 1870, what is best described as a people’s war. By the time this insurrection was defeated, it had planted the seeds of a fierce anti-West, anti-colonial sentiment that prepared the community for the nationalist movement led by Gandhi. Gandhi recognized the importance of such allies, and wooed Muslims through the ulema.

There was more than one strand in the ideological heritage of nineteenth-century ulema, but the most influential voice belonged to the school of Shah Waliullah (1703-62), the per-eminent theological intellectual of Delhi. His son, Shah Abdul Aziz (1745-1824), issued the influential fatwa in 1803 that declared India a “house of war”’ and his disciple, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831), launched a jihad in 1825. Barelvi’s movement began in eastern India, but he made Balakot in the Malakand division of the North West Frontier his war headquarters: a town that was destined to become famous again as a haven of the Pakistan Taliban. Barelvi’s strength lay in the mobilization of subaltern forces. Donations came from the meanest Muslim homes, ferried by an invisible network of clerics: when peasants ate a meal in Bengal or Bihar, they would set aside a handful of uncooked rice as their contribution to the jihad. This long war confirmed in British minds the view that Muslims, when inspired by faith, fought for ideas beyond the conventional dynamic of territory and kingdom; and convinced them that Islam was a faith that inspired a permanent war.

Strength, guile, and the exploiting of competing egos had enabled the British to destroy Indian princes. A subaltern war needed other solutions. Their most successful tactic was the slow injection of inter-and intra-communal hostility into the popular discourse.

Lord Charles Canning, the last Governor-General and first viceroy of India (the transition from East India Company rule to the British Crown took place during his turbulent tenure, (1856-62) wrote candidly to Vernon Smith, president of the Board of Control, on 21 November 1857, at the height of the “mutiny”:  “As we must rule 150 million of people by a handful (of) Englishmen, let us do it in a manner best calculated to leave them divided (as in religion and national feeling they already are) and to inspire them with the greatest possible awe of our power and with the least possible suspicion of our motives.” The instructions to James Bruce, eight earl of Elgin, Canning’s successor, were specific: “We have maintained our power in India by playing off one party against the other, and we must continue to do so. Do all you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling?”

There were many options available: competition for jobs; the lure of advancement through preferences in language, education and economy. An unusual provocation for discord was history. Both Hindus and Muslims were tempted by an imagined past. Influential Hindus intellectuals explained centuries of Muslim rule as unrelieved tyranny that kept a civilized and non-violent people, the Hindus, subservient. Muslim zealots glorified the worst examples of aggression. Like the iconoclast and looter Mahmud of Ghazni, and encouraged Muslims to believe that they were superior to Hindus. The upper-caste Hindu resurgence of the nineteenth century was infected by an undercurrent of anti-Muslim bias, in which Muslims had to be punished for real or imagined sins from the past.

The British did not invent the fantasy; Muslims and Hindus were quite capable of deluding themselves. But history became a frontline weapon in the armory of colonial power, particularly when it could be fired with stealth. The potential of Hindu-Muslim strife was always present below, and occasionally above, the surface. Textbook history is rarely the memory of peace. Chronicles of conflict were mutilated by exaggeration and propaganda. Ordinary people, who had gained little from the rule of their elites, basked in the vicarious pleasures of ‘triumph’ or suffered in ‘humiliation’ of defeat.

While Muslim self-glorification easily encouraged excess, nineteenth-century Hindu intellectuals had a different dilemma: why were the most powerful Hindu princes unable to replace the feeblest Mughal ruler in Delhi? The alibis extended from a rapacious, barbaric, culture-insensitive Islamic temperament (an image easily extended to the rape of a beautiful wife and the rape of Mother India), to a betrayal. Muslim partisans were equally eager to claim superior genes, and taunt Hindus as cowards. As acrimony gravitated towards hatred, the British did not have much to do, except watch, and, when opportunity presented itself, nudge.

A strange alchemy of past superiority and future insecurity shaped the dream of a separate state in India.

Courtesy of: Tinderbox by M.J. Akbar. Published by Harper Collins India in 2011


The Past and Future of Pakistan

Nations are not born across a breakfast table. Their period of gestation is surely one of the more fascinating chapters in the study of history. The indisputable stature of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a master of the endgame, has led to a notion that Pakistan emerged out of a resolution passed in March 1940 at the Muslim League session in Lahore. The reality is more complicated. Pakistan emerged out of a fear of the future and pride in the past, but this fear began as a mood of anguish set in among the Muslims elite during the long decline of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century. The embryo had a long and turbulent existence, particularly during the generations when it remained shapeless.

This book is a history of an idea as it weaved and bobbed its way through dramatic events with rare resilience, sometimes disappearing from sight, but always resurrected either by the will of proponents or the mistakes of opponents. It began hesitantly in the shadows of the age of decline, in the 1750s, when the collapse of e Mughal Empire and the consequent disintegration of what is called ‘Muslim rule’ in India could no longer be disguised by explanations, theories or hope of revival.

Pakistan is a successor state to the Mughal Empire, the culmination of a journey that began as a search for ‘Muslim space’ in a post-Muslim dispensation, nurtured by a dread that became a conviction that a demographic minority would not be able to protect either itself or its faith unless it established cultural and political distance from an overwhelming majority Hindu presence. Muslims, who had lived in India for five centuries with a superiority complex, suddenly lurched into the consuming doubt of an inferiority complex which became self-perpetuating with every challenge that came up during different phases of turbulent colonial rule.

The infirmities of this idea were never recognized because they could only become evident in practice. An existentialist question was completely ignored: was Islam so weak that it could not survive as a minority presence? There was nothing in its glittering past to suggest this, but those who raised the question like the brilliant scholar-politician Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, were dismissed, ironically, as traitors to Islam.

The first phase consists of the years between 1739 and 1757. In 1739, a Persian marauder-king, Nadir Shah, entered Delhi as Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah’s ‘guest’. Two days later, Nadir Shah, using an untenable excuse, ordered a massacre which did not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. An estimated 20,000 were killed, women raped and th capital plundered of private and public wealth. After fifty-days of terror, Nadir Shah departed with a hoard of invaluable jewels, gold and coins, including the Kohinoor diamond and Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne. The Mughal Empire, a superpower three decades before, never recovered from this humiliation; it had failed in its basic duty, the safety of its subjects

Shah Waliullah, the premier Sunni theologian and intellectual of his age, read many meanings in the catastrophe. The security that Muslims had taken for granted was over. The disintegrating empire was being replaced by powerful regional dynasties that were largely Hindu. The most important Muslim principality, Awadh, was in the control of Shias, a ‘deviant’ sect that could not be trusted with the preservation of Islam, and who was in his eyes even worse than the infidel.  Nadir Shah, who broke the bent back of Mughals, was a Shia.

Shah Waliullah proposed a theory of distance and the protection of ‘Islamic purity’ as his prescription for a community that was threatened by the cultural power and military might of the infidel. While he thanked God for keeping the blood in his own veins ‘pure’ and ‘Arab’, he recognized that the majority of Indian Muslims were converts from Hinduism, there was enormous cultural overlap in their habits and behavior. He feared a lapse into Hindu practices among Indian Muslims in the absence of the religious leadership that had been preserved by political power. Islam could survive in India, he argued, only if Muslims maintained physical, ideological and emotional distance from Hindus. He urged Muslims to live so far from Hindus that they would not be able to see the smoke from their kitchens.

Shah Waliullah’s seminary would play a vital part in the shaping of north Indian Muslim mind in the nineteenth century, when British rule moved from a southern enclave and eastern corner to dominate the whole of the subcontinent. British rule originates in a minor but epoch-changing battle in 1757, in a village called Plassey, which ended Mughal rule in the richest trading province of the country, Bengal. The students at Shah Waliullah’s seminary however, were not so easily defeated. One of them, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, inspired the long jihad which began in 1825 and continued long after his death in 1831, on the battlefield at Balakote (today, a principal centre of the Pakistan Taliban).

Mistrust of Hindus, fundamental to the theory of distance, became the catechism of Muslim politics when it sought to find its place in the emerging polity of British rule in the early twentieth century. The very first demand made by Muslim notables, when Indian legislation was proposed, was unique, that Muslims be elected by fellow Muslims only. This was the ‘separate electorates’ scheme which the British happily endorsed into law. A perceptive young man, who would later be honored as the father of Pakistan, recognized the implications immediately, even as he disassociated himself from the demand. Jinnah said, as early as in the first decade of the twentieth century that separate electorates would lead to the destruction of Indian unity; and so they did.

Jinnah was an exceptional product of British India. He loved Shakespeare and fashionably tailored suits, called English his mother tongue, had an upper lip stiffer than an earl’s, and had to be dissuaded by his father when he wanted to join the stage in England after a law degree from Lincoln’s Inn. He desired freedom as passionately as anyone else, but unlike the father of India, Mahatma Gandhi, he would not break the law in the process, since he considered that incompatible with his professional ethics as a lawyer. Ironically, on the eve of a movement that changed the course of the freedom struggle but left a residual disappointment that alienated Muslims from Gandhi, Jinnah warned Gandhi about the dangers of mixing religion with politics, and indulging Muslim mullah firebrands.

Between 1919 and February 1922, Gandhi became the first non-Muslim to be given leadership of a jihad. Gandhi accepted the ‘dictatorship’ (a term that clearly had different connotations then), but on one condition: that this jihad against the British would be non-violent. Muslim leaders, including the most important ulema accepted, and absorbed Gandhi into what is known as the Khilafat movement, or the Caliphate movement, since it was launched in support of the Ottoman caliph of Islam and his suzerainty over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The caliph was the last symbol of Muslim power against the sweeping tide of British and European imperialism, which is where it intersected with Gandhi’s needs. He saw in this the opportunity to unite Hindus and Muslims against the British Raj, irrespective of their starting points. Having achieved Indian unity, Gandhi promised Swaraj within a year. Instead, by February 1922, he realized that he could not contain the violence that was bursting in corners across the country. Gandhi arbitrarily abandoned the movement, to the shock of his Muslim supporters. The bitterness of the failure was so deep that Muslims never really returned to Gandhi’s Congress. But this did not take them directly to the Muslim League either; suffice it to say that the search for ‘Muslim space’ did not catch fire until it was converted into a demand for ‘Islamic space’, and Gandhi was successfully converted by Muslim League leaders into an insidious Hindu ‘bania’ whose secularism was nothing but a hypocritical term for Hindu oppression and the consequent destruction of Islam in the subcontinent. Islam was in danger, and Pakistan was the fortress where it could be saved. With an advocate as powerful as Jinnah, enough Muslims were persuaded that the man who had spent his life caring about their welfare and eventually lost it in their cause was actually their sly enemy.

Jinnah’s forensic skills were at their finest in the court of public opinion, even when his sarcasm was devoid of finesse, as when he described Gandhi as ‘that Hindu revivalist.’ Jinnah, who drank alcohol, went to the races for pleasure, never fasted using Ramadan, and could not recite a single ayat of the Quran, created such a hypnotic spell upon some Muslims that they believed that he got up much before dawn for the Tahajjud namaaz, the optional sixth prayer which only the very pious offer.

Jinnah clearly believed that he could exploit a slogan he had once warned against, ‘Islam in danger,’ and then dispatch it to the rubbish bin reserved for the past when it had outlived its utility. In his first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Jinnah made a case for a secular Pakistan that would have been applauded in the Constituent Assembly of India. The kindest interpretation of Jinnah’s politics is that he wanted a secular state with a Muslim majority, just as Gandhi wanted a secular state with a Hindu majority. The difference was, however, crucial: Gandhi wanted an inclusive nation, Jinnah an exclusive state. When on 13 June 1947, Gandhi was asked whether those who called God Rama and Krishna instead of Allah would be turned out of Pakistan, he answered only for India: ‘ We shall worship God both as Krishna and Karim (one of the names of Allah) and show the world we refuse to go mad.’ Gandhi’s commitment to religion never meant commitment to a single religion.

Both Jinnah and Gandhi died in 1948, the first a victim of tuberculosis and the second to assassination. India had clarity about the secular ideology of the state, completed work on an independent Constitution by 1950, and held its first free, adult franchise elections in 1952. The debate in Pakistan about the role of Islam in its polity began while Jinnah was still alive. The father of Pakistan was challenged by the godfather of Pakistan, Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and accurately described as the architect of the Islamist movement in South Asia and the most powerful influence on its development worldwide. Islamist did not, and does not, have much popular support in Pakistan, as elections prove whenever they are held; but it’s impact on legislation and political life is far stronger than a thin support base would justify. Maududi’s disciple, General Zia uL Haq, who ruled Pakistan from 1976 with an autocratic fist for a decade, crippled liberals with a neat question: if Pakistan had not been created for Islam, what was it, just a second-rate India? Zia changed the motto of the Pakistan army to ‘Jihad fi sabil Allah’ (Jihad in the name of Allah) and worked to turn governance into ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (Rule of the Prophet) through a rigorous application of the Sharia law, as interpreted by the most medieval minds in the country. But the ‘Islamization’ of the Constitution preceded Zia and efforts to reverse his legacy have not succeeded, because a strain of theocracy runs through the DNA of the idea of Pakistan. The effort to covert Pakistan into a Taliban-style Islamic emirate will continue in one form or the other, at a slow or faster pace.

The challenge before South Asia is the same as anywhere in the post-colonial world: the evolution to a modern state. Economic growth is an aspect of modernity but far from the whole of it. In my view, a modern state has four fundamental commitments: democracy, secularism, gender equality and economic equity. Civil society knows in Pakistan the threat posed by Maududi Islamists and understands that it is an existential battle. As Sir Hilary Synnott, British High Commissioner in Pakistan between 2001 and 2003, and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Regional Coordinator for South Iraq in 2003 and 2004, points out, ‘Pakistan’s structural and historical weaknesses are such that nothing short of a transformation of the country’s body politic and institutions will be necessary. This change he points out sagely can only be brought about by Pakistanis.

Indians and Pakistanis are the same people; why then have the two nations travelled on such different trajectories? The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan weaker than the Pakistani. Islam, as Maulana Azad repeatedly pointed out, cannot be the basis of nationhood; perhaps it required a scholar of Islam to comprehend what an Anglophile like Jinnah could not. Islam did not save the Pakistan of 1947 from its own partition, and in 1971 the eastern wing separated to form Bangladesh. At the moment of writing, Pakistan displays the characteristics of a ‘jelly state’; neither will it achieve stability, nor disintegrate. Its large arsenal of nuclear weapons makes it a toxic jelly state in a region that seems condemned to sectarian, fratricidal and international wars. The thought is not comforting.

Pakistan can become a stable, modern nation, but only if the children of the father of Pakistan, Jinnah, can defeat the ideological heirs of the godfather, Maududi.


Courtesy of :Tinderbox by M.J. Akbar, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2011.

Gandhi’s Maulanas

Jihad is a dry wind blowing through the Muslim East, from Egypt to India, ‘whose parched grasses wait the spark.’–John Buchan

The first country to declare the First World War a ‘holy’ enterprise was Tsarist Russia, when it opened hostilities against the Ottoman Empire on 2 November 1914. On 16 November 1914, Sultan Mehmet V responded in kind. The Shaikh ul Islam, chief cleric of the state proclaimed a jihad from the public square of Constantinople: ‘Know that our state is today at war with the Governments of Russia, England and France and their allies, who are mortal enemies of Islam. The Commander of the Faithful, the Caliph of the Muslims, summons you to jihad!’

There is no historical evidence that the then British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, or his First Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had any desire to scorch-earth Islam out of existence. Indeed, during the previous ‘holy’ conflict, the Crimean War of 1854, Britain and France had spent blood and money to protect Ottoman Sunni Islam from Russian Orthodox Christianity. The geopolitics of the region changed, however, with the Anglo-Russian entente of 1907, and the two powers joined France in the great confrontation with a German-led alliance for the domination of Europe and its colonies.

The political response of Britain’s colonies in 1914 was split between an urge towards loyalty to Empire, and a desire to use this opportunity to further nationalist ambitions. Egyptian Arabs, who were nominally part of the Ottoman Empire but under de facto British rule, remained indifferent to the fate of either empire, Djemal Pasha’s Fourth Army was easily defeated by the British when it attempted to retake the Suez Canal in January 1915; the local Arabs were in no hurry to rush to the help of fellow-Muslims in the jihad. The war began badly for the Turks. In December 1914, the Russians had destroyed Enver Pasha’s Third Army in the Caucasus. Amid a great deal of gloating in London, Churchill formulated plans for the coup de grace, a naval attack through the Dardanelles that would capture Constantinople, put the Ottomans out of the war, and enable Britain and France to split their Arab territories.

The British could not afford similar equanimity about India, whose Muslims had shown a propensity for jihad through the nineteenth century and displayed active sympathy for the Caliph in the turbulent prelude to the First World War. Jihad was a familiar word in Britain, and crept into popular literature, thanks to generation of officers and soldiers who had fought in the north-west of India and Afghanistan.

Barelvi’s 1825 jihad had mutated by the turn of the century, into a pan-Islamic sentiment that sought both to lend as well as borrow support for a common front against a seemingly unstoppable European occupation of Islamic territory. The ulema propelled by events – the Turko-Russian war of 1877, the Greece-Turkey conflict of 1897, the Italian invasion of Tripoli in 1911, and the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, gradually turned the idea of transnational Muslim solidarity into mainstream conviction.

London was particularly concerned about the impact of jihad on Muslims serving in the Indian Army. The Indian Army remained faithful to its oath throughout the war, and Indians backed the Empire in its moment of peril. Sir Penderel Moon quotes John Buchan: ‘But it was the performance in India which took the world by surprise and thrilled every British heart India, whose alleged disloyalty was a main factor in German calculations . . .’ Recruitment rose from an annual rate of 15,000 in 1914 to over 300,000 in 1918. India’s contribution in materials is estimated at a minimum of 150 million pound sterling.

The British Raj, which frequently described itself as the greatest ‘Muhammadan power’ since more Muslims lived under the British flag than under the Ottoman, assured Indian Muslims that Jeddah, Mecca and Medina would never be attacked, and there would be no disruption in the Haj pilgrimage. Caution encouraged precaution. Despite the surface calm, the government detained, under Defence of India rules, three Muslims capable of inciting public opinion against the government: journalist-orators Muhammad Ali, editor of Comrade, his elder brother Shaukat Ali who ran the Urdu language Hamdard, and Abul Kalam Azad, editor of Al Hilal.

The Ali brothers belonged to an Aligarh generation that described itself as ‘Nai Raushni’, or the new light. Both had a puckish sense of humor as well. Muhammad Ali pointed out in an article in the Times of India in 1907 that if the English wanted Indians to be loyal, they should never have educated them. By the turn of the first decade, reasons for Muslim discontent had begun to accumulate. The government refused to grant university status to Aligarh without taking direct control of the institution; Bengal was reunited in 1911; and on the international scene, Turkey was under siege.

Muhammad Ali’s first editorial in Comrade, in January 1911, recognized the value of Hindu-Muslim cooperation. He gravitated naturally towards a leader of a similar disposition, Jinnah, and together they sought to change the pro-establishment character of Muslim politics as evident in the positions taken by the Muslim League, which was heavily influenced by the ultra-loyalist Aga Khan, elected permanent president of the League in 1908. Jinnah was a key participant in a Hindu-Muslim unity conference held in 1910 at Allahabad. The League, sensing the changing mood of the Muslims, passed a resolution supporting greater cooperation with Congress in 1911. In 1913, during a visit to London, Muhammad Ali persuaded Jinnah to join the League. In its March session that year, the League inched towards the Congress demand of a ‘suitable’ form of self-government for India. In an address in Allahabad in 1907, Muhammad Ali spoke of the League as an organization which would promote the integration of India rather than its disintegration. Comparing the Congress and the League as two trees growing on other side of a road, he said: ‘Their trunks stood apart, but their roots were fixed in the same soil, drawing nourishment from the same source. The branches were bound to meet when the stems had reached full stature. . .The soil was British, the nutrient was common patriotism, the trunks were two political bodies, and the road was the highway of peaceful progress.’

When the war broke out between the British and Ottoman empires, the Muslim heart was with fellow Muslims even if the mind advised ambivalence. In August 1914, Muhammad Ali wrote a famous article in Comrade titled ‘The Choice of the Turks‘ in which he listed Turkish grievances against the British: it’s entente with Russia at the expense of Turkey; it’s not-so neutral ‘neutrality’ in the Balkan wars; the occupation of Egypt; and, most crucially, Winston Churchill’s decision to seize two Dreadnoughts (warships) being built in England under commission from Turkey and put them into service with the British navy (the Turks had already paid for the ships). But Ali still hoped for Turkish neutrality and promised Indian Muslim support for Britain in the event of war against Germany. The government persuaded prominent Indian Muslims to impress upon Turkey that its best interests lay in neutrality. Dr. Ansari sent such a cable to the caliph after its text had been approved by government. The Aga Khan had already gone the extra mile, with an article in the Times of India in early 1913 suggesting that the Ottoman Empire would be wise to retire from Europe and concentrate on its Asia Minor possessions. The Urdu press labelled the Aga Khan anti-Muslim; later that year, the Aga Khan resigned from his permanent position as head of the League, citing frequent absence from India.

Ottoman reverses only increased support for the caliph, particularly since it became a very real possibility that Mecca and Medina would fall into British, and thus infidel hands. The Ali brothers and Maulana Bari sought a donation of one rupee from every Indian Muslim; more ambitiously, they wanted Muslims to swear an oath to sacrifice all their property and their life in the name of Allah. (This was amended to the more reasonable ‘all possible’ property). One-third from a fund of Rs. 100 million so raised would be sent to Turkey, another third kept for Indian madrasahs and missionary activity, and the rest retained for the defense of Mecca and Medina.  Bi Amman, the mother of the brothers, began women activism at the popular level, a first for Indian Muslims. The authorities banned the fund on grounds of sedition, but they could not prevent the Ottoman crescent from entering the imagination of Indian Islam. In his bureaucratic office in Bhopal, Shaukat Ali fantasized about German support for his war against Britain.

The Ali brothers were interned in May 1915, in Chhindwara, an isolated town in central India. Bari urged them to catch up on their faith in prison, and they did. They read the Quran in Urdu, and occasionally led Friday prayers at the local mosque, thus acquiring the reverent appellation of Maulana. When jail authorities complained that Shaukat Ali had been heard praying for the victory of the caliph one Friday, he replied that he could hardly be blamed if the caliph of Islam also happened to be sultan of Turkey.

Jail was good for their reputation. Muhammad Ali was elected, in absentia, president of the Muslim League in 1917. His veiled mother, Bi Amman, stood beside the empty presidential chair and delivered a fiery speech on her son’s behalf. It was the first time that a Muslim woman had addressed a political audience that included men. Her son was received with tears at the Amritsar sessions of the League and the Congress upon his release in 1919.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was brought up in the conservative-classical tradition of Islamic life and education. He was born in Mecca on 11 November 1888; his father, Shaikh Muhammad Khairuddin Dehlavi, a respected Sufi of the Qadri and Naqshbandi orders, had migrated to Arabia, and married locally. The family returned to India in 1898 and settled in Calcutta. Azad was educated at home in Islamic sciences by his father. By his teens, he had read the work of both the conciliator Sir Syed Ahmad and the anti-imperialist ideologue, Jamaluddin Afghani whose polemics would spawn radical movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Azad saw no contradiction between a pan-Islamic alliance against western colonization and Hindu-Muslim unity against British rule in India. They were two pillars of the same architecture and reinforced each other. Azad believed it was the duty of the Muslims to declare a jihad against any power that had occupied even a small part of Dar al-Islam. Islamic solidarity could be extended to Hindus through a ‘federation of faiths’, an alliance of all eastern people against the West. He used Prophet Muhammad’s pact with the Jews in Medina as a precedent for Hindu-Muslim unity, arguing that this was reinforced by the Quranic injunction to befriend those who believed in peace.

Although they had much in common, Azad and the Ali bothers remained aloof from one another. Azad thought Shaukat Ali inferior, intellectually; and Muhammad Ali a bit common.
Azad was only sixteen when he started his first journal, Lisan us-Sidq. He began to write on Turkey and the Middle East in other papers as well. In 1912, at the age of twenty two, within three years of his father’s death, he launched his own Urdu paper, Al Hilal from Calcutta. The first edition appeared on 12 July 1912. Its prose was powerful, its content mature.

Azad agreed that the obscurantism of some ulema was retrograde, but his solution lay in the Quran, not the West. He attacked the Muslim League as a stooge of the British.  Indian Muslims, Azad argued, ‘ . . . do not need to lay new foundations or to exercise ingenuity. They have only to revive and reaffirm what has been commanded. There is no reason why we should feel distraught over the new houses to be built; we need only to settle in the new dwellings we have forsaken.’ The paper’s circulation reached a dizzying 26, 000 copies at one point, helped by colourful reporting on the Balkan wars, including the innovative use of pictures and charts. In the 23 October 1912 issue, he wrote that Islam condemned narrow-mindedness and racial or religious prejudice, and that human virtue was not the exclusive preserve of Muslims.

In 1913, he launched a political party, Jamiat-e-Hizbullah, or the Party of Allah; he believed that politics could not be separated from religion. The party did not take off but its ideas did. A revealing British intelligence report in 1916 contains Azad’s notes for a lecture he had prepared for his students at the madrasa, Dar uL Irshad, which he had started to encourage independent thinking among the ulema: ‘The Quran forbade Muhammadans to remain in subjection. A country like India, which has been under Muhammadan rule, must never be given up. . . Ten chores (100 million) of Muslims were living in slavery; it was a disgrace.’ the director of the C.I.D. In Calcutta, C.R. Cleveland, commented: ‘I do not think there is any personality that could arouse the same personal sympathy and fanaticism in the general Muhammadan community.’

Azad condemned the ‘minorityism’ of the Muslim League as a sign of weakness, an unwarranted inferiority complex. Muslims were not a minority tail attached to the Hindus in the struggle against the British; they were equals in the nationalist cause as well as part of a world struggle against British imperialism, he argued. The government closed Al Hilal after the outbreak of war. Azad resumed in 1915 with a different name, Al Balagh, but that too was shut down in March 1916. Azad was arrested and kept in Ranchi prison till January 1920.

Why did Gandhi, a passionate recruiter for the British war effort in 1918, insist on non-violence for Indians in 1917? Surely, if war was good enough, morally, to protect the British Empire, it was good enough means to destroy it? Those who see Gandhi merely in the fashionable spotlight of moralist, forget that he was first and foremost a realist. Without an honest appreciation of Indian weaknesses, he could never have controlled incubation through the tribulations of a protracted and tortured labour to deliver freedom.

Philosophically, Gandhi recognized the corrosive impact of violence on the perpetrator. This was particularly dangerous in India, where old passions had repeatedly instigated bouts of Hindu-Muslim violence. He sensed that if he sanctioned violence, Indians would probably kill one another long before they killed the common enemy. Moreover, violence would pit Indians against Indians, for Indians manned the British instruments of repression, the police and army. Dyer may have been a white imperialist, but those who carried out his cold-blooded orders were from the subcontinent.
It is an illusion to think of India as a pacifist nation. All the major religions, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, include a war ethic in their religious doctrine. Islam, of course, has jihad. The two major Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are war narratives. The ideal Hindu king, Lord Rama, is pictured in popular iconography with a bow and a sheaf of arrows. His triumph over the evil Ravana is celebrated as a major festival across most of India each year. Rama’s most famous warrior-lieutenant, the monkey-god Hanuman is worshipped fervently for his devotion and martial feats. Sikhism was the most pacific of the three faiths until, forced by circumstances, the tenth master, Guru Govind Singh, gave the community a striking martial identity in the Khalsa creed.

Gandhi knew that to sustain non-violence might require unprecedented heroism, but to permit violence would be suicidal. These perceptions run through an essay that a deeply saddened Gandhi wrote in 1924, after his dream of independence had curdled, when communal violence had resurfaced and he had become the target of cynical barbs from all sides. Some Hindus were even calling him a turn-the-other-cheek Christian for advocating non-violence amidst riots. He writes in the 29 May 1924 issue of Young India: ‘My claim to Hinduism has been rejected by some, because I believe and advocate non-violence in its extreme form. They say I am a Christian in disguise. I have been even seriously told that I am distorting the meaning of the Gita, when I ascribe to that great poem the teaching of unadulterated non-violence. Some of my Hindu friends tell me that killing is a duty enjoined by the Gita in certain circumstances . . . what I see around me today is . . . a reaction against the spread of non-violence. I feel the wave of violence coming. The Hindu-Muslim tension is an acute phase of this tiredness. . . I am then asking my countrymen today to adopt non-violence as their final creed, only for the purpose of regulating the relations between the different races, and for the purpose of attaining Swaraj. . .This I venture to place before India, not as a weapon of the weak, but of the strong.’

Courtesy of Tinderbox by M.J. Akbar, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2011.