MUSLIM INDIA: The pain & the agony

I have been familiar with the writings of Professsor Mushirul Hasan, eminent social historian, where he comes across as an intellectual and a humanitarian. He is also the same sensitive and brave human being who dared to oppose the ban on The Satanic Verses, and as a historian he has inspired newer generations of researchers with his writings on communalism, nationalism and secularism. Nowhere in his writings, does Prof. Hasan present himself as a 'Muslim'. So when I came across his piece reprinted from the Indian Express in the Voices section of Himal (December 2001, "Test for a citizen"), I was granted a small window into the scholar's personal/political sensitivities as a member of a 'minority' in the country that I happen to share with him as one from the 'majority' community. The article was hard-hitting without being aggressive, and revealed the pain and agony of Indian Muslims living under the constant suspicion of being pro-Pakistani, the disillusionment and weariness of time and again having to prove one's loyalties and regenerate patriotic fervour, particularly during times of political crises. The present is such a time, with yet-again heightened tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, and the region at the brink of war. Has anyone in power seriously considered the renewal yet again of the pain and agony of 11 percent of India's population?

This piece by Prof. Hasan reminds one of another article, written some 30 years ago, by another 'Muslim' academic, Professor Imtiaz Ahmad of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. That article, penned soon after the Bangladesh war of liberation of 1971, delved into how, despite the destiny of Indian Muslims being inextricably tied up with India, Pakistan has been a conspicuous factor in their continuing distress and insecurity and an obstacle to their integration into national society. Prof. Ahmad elaborated on how Pakistan enters the life of Indian Muslims in a variety of ways: "Even twenty-five years after the Partition, the stereotype of the Indian Muslim as a Pakistani expatriate, a fifth columnist, or simply as someone whose basic loyalties are outside the country persists and affects his life chances fundamentally. The stereotype is usually latent during normal times, but it comes up to the surface in times of crisis." During the series of India- Pakistan confrontations, Indian Muslims would find their homes watched closely by the otherwise friendly and cordial neighbours, as possible saboteurs. Even a dim ray of light emanating from their houses during blackouts would be interpreted as a signal for invading Pakistani pilots.

While conceding that the stereotype of the Indian Muslim as a Pakistani expatriate in the initial stages was founded in empirical fact and that there was some basis for its popularity in the attitude and behaviour, both overt and covert, of a large majority of Indian Muslims, Professor Ahmad wrote that, '…it should not mean that the early involvement, social and psychological, of the Indian Muslims with Pakistan should be regarded as a permanent feature of their ethos and orientations and the community as a whole should be condemned forever as disloyal to India." A series of changes had occurred during the previous quarter century after 1947 to affect these orientations and ethos, he concluded, and if stereotypes continued to persist in the view of the majority community, that was clearly due to the prejudices formed during the early years.

Clenched-teeth tolerance

It is not easy to brush aside sentiments expressed by two eminent Indian scholars in writings separated by nearly three decades, because taken together they indicate that there has been no change in the perception and situation of Indian Muslims in the long intervening years. How can this be, for a country that we like to hold up time and time again as the supreme symbol of democracy and equality in South Asia and in the world. Muslims and Hindus are indeed part of the 'Indian' social reality, but then every so often there is the jarring reminder that some Indians in India might be a little less equal than others. Without being patronising towards the Muslims of India, it is important to be sensitive to the fears, apprehensions and tensions that they suffer from, which the majority Hindus do not have to contend with

The majority likes to see only two 'types' of Muslims in India: the Traitor and the Patriot. These stereotypical extremes remain applicable today. If a Haneef Mohammad cheers for the Pakistani cricket team at the Coca-Cola Series, why, he just may be clandestinely raising the Pakistani flag in the back streets of Jama Masjid in Old Delhi! At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Patriot, who earned his brownie points by (lately) joining the Bharatiya Janata Party, or pronouncing his utter disregard for the 'political' ambitions of his co-religionists, or his pathological dislike for beef. The Patriot loves to be patronised.

The majority community has been historically ambivalent towards the Muslims of the country. In the public realm, as the historian RC Majumdar put it, the majoritarian discourse, "ignoring the difference and estrangement between the two communities, invented slogans of Hindu-Muslim solidarity". Majumdar goes on to lambast historians for encouraging the ideology of "fanciful fraternity", and he saw this as a calculated act. Indian historians had conspired with the Congress Party to create and sustain this myth, and in doing so, they had "abandoned standards of good-history writing. They were unable to tolerate history that mentioned facts incompatible with ideas of national integration." In the post-colonial era, though the public realm has reflected a growing concern with preservation of minority rights and equality of citizenship, the symbols of national identity that have been developed are overwhelmingly majoritarian. These are symbols the minorities have problems identifying with, but on the whole it is a fact that the public domain in India has been able to preserve itself as a site where all Indians were equal.

In the private realm, on the other hand, the legacy of Partition and the very existence of Pakistan has continued to colour and define the notion of 'the Muslim'. This is the site where a Muslim is "pro-Pakistan" or a "Fifth Columnist". Various competing and complementary versions of 'remembered' histories are put in place – histories of hatred and conflicts, lists of temples desecrated by 'Muslim' rulers, forced conversions, the Pakistan Movement, the Partition violence – all of which justified a clenched-teeth tolerance of the residue that failed to join their brethren in the Land of the Pure. The majority Hindus in immediate-postcolonial India felt that all matters had been settled on the blood-drenched fields of Bengal And Punjab. All debts of a shared history had been squared and, having been given a fair chance to "go away", those who stayed back would now have to do so on the terms of the majority community.

Thus, while constitutionally and in the public realm India was committed to secularism and multi-culturalism, the private arena remained cluttered with troublesome memories and mindsets that did not go away with the sweep of time. The little interaction which exists, has been hesitant, incomplete and sporadic. There have been sharp reversals and sudden withdrawals, a stuttering dialogue between the two communities.

The cultural and family linkages of many Indian Muslims with Pakistan continued to provide ammunition to the orthodox in Indian politics and in Hindu society who sought to portray Indian Muslims as a community that was irresponsible, aggressive, and sometimes outright anti-national. Even a perfectly reasonable disagreement could be interpreted as a deliberate assertion of enmity, and therefore, anti-national. The overwhelmingly Hindu political elite read almost all expressions of cultural identity in communal terms.


Historically, as elsewhere, in India Islam was generally embraced by the poorer and weaker sections of the population, mostly artisans and peasants. The clergy also came from the poorer sections, and, additionally, after colonisation the clergy became downgraded as it ceased to wield political power. Because of the further impoverishment following colonisation, and lacking leadership other than an increasingly insular 'priesthood' which reinforced insecurities, the Muslim masses developed a fear of modern methods and processes. So it is not difficult to understand why large sections of Muslims remained orthodox, traditional, unchanging, even fundamentalist.

This is a problem that has to be faced squarely by the Indian Muslim community and its leadership. But the larger problem in terms of community relations in India is the inability of the very-comfortable majority community to try and understand why the Muslims find themselves in this cul-de-sac, and how their own (majoritarian) attitudes have helped foster a beleagured mentality.

Admittedly, there are no easy answers or ways out. Shifting blame to a 'communal historiography', or 'the Partition' or 'the divide and rule policy' of the colonial masters, while explaining why and how relationships between communities turned sour, does not offer a roadmap for the future of community relations in India. A fundamental change that has taken place in Indian society at the turn of the century is the emergence of a new generation of Indian Muslims and Hindus born and raised in the years after independence. With a completely different historical experience and sense of belonging that does not carry much of the virulent baggage of communalism, it is a generation that has less stake in the resurrection of the past, more in building a secure future for itself. This new 'social capital' must be turned to the task of building confidences between the two communities in India and it is from here, not from the older "Partition" generation, that new voices, new suggestions must emerge.

The first Prime Minister of India had very perceptively pointed out that majoritarian communalism was the most dangerous form of community strife in the world, and this is what India has been landed with. It is with the post-Partition generation of the majority community that the greater responsibility for change lies. If the new generation in India is able to build a society where the minorities perceive themselves as safe and secure, then that will be a society to celebrate and popularise.

To quote Bhupen Hazarika, rennaissance man of Assam (my translation):

On a cold, cold night,

Let me lend voice

To the silent cries of fear

Of a minority community somewhere,

And be a warm cloak of security.

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