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

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