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22 February 2020

OPINION: History and the Plight of Muslims in India

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By Waheeduddin Ahmed

"In the year 997, a Turkish chieftain by the name of Mahmud became sultan of the little state of Ghazni, in eastern Afghanistan. Mahmud knew that his throne was young and poor, and saw that India, across the border, was old and rich; the conclusion was obvious. ------ Each winter Mahmud descended into India, filled his treasure chest with spoils, and amused his men with full freedom to pillage and kill: -----Six years later he sacked another opulent city of India, Somnath, killed all its fifty thousand inhabitants, and dragged its wealth to Ghazni." So writes Will Durant in his "The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage". His reference to this narrative is: "History of India" by Mountstuart Elphinstone (1841). He was a Scotsman, who had become a civil servant in the East India Company and later the governor of Bombay in the early 1800s. What Elphinstone's source of information is, I do not know but what we do know is that India lacked historians in the ancient and Middle Ages. There was no Herodotus, Plutarch, Gibbon or Carlyle in India. If there was any mention of historical events, it was not written in chronicles but sung in epic poems like Ramayana and Mahabharata, potpourris spiced with myths and flavored with fantasies. It is significant to note that Eight hundred and fifteen years elapsed between Ghaznawi and Elphinstone, while the story of Somnath was told and retold, mouth to mouth.

On the other hand, synchronous historical narratives are more likely to have originated in Khurasan where Firdausi was writing Shahnameh and such giants of science and literature were at work as Al-Biruni and Bayhaqi. Small wonder therefore that Mahmud, a patron of arts, science, literature and architecture was capable of such extraordinary cruelty as has been depicted! This is not to say that the Invaders' incursion into India was benign and they came to India to distribute sweets. Ghaznawi had only one purpose of these incursions: to enrich Ghazni at the expense of Mathura and Somnath. The dynamics of this plunder will be explained later.

So, what is history? Some historiographers divide it into two categories: Speculative and Analytical. Analytical history is philosophy, whose greatest exponent was Ibn Khaldun. He changed the often superstitious, unrestricted acceptance of historical data and introduced "the scientific method".
An ancient as well as medieval concept of history was that it is cyclical: "History repeats itself". This concept prevailed even up to the time of historian Spengler. Later, in the age of Enlightenment, history began to be seen as linear rather than cyclical. Axioms such as: "History was irreversible". "You cannot step into the same waters twice in a flowing stream", began to define the irreversible march of events.

The most talked about concept of history however, is that of Hegel. He proposed that history evolves due to contradiction between two systems: old and new, through a process of thesis and antithesis, known as Dialectics. Marx illustrates the process by the example of French Revolution. He points out that in the Eighteenth century France, the Napoleonic period emerged as a result of contradiction between the age of Louis XVI and the French Revolution. He reformulated Hegel's into an economic theory, that proved to be speculative and crashed in front of our eyes.

In our own times, Samuel Huntington predicted culture wars between Muslims and Christians in post-cold war period and infamously called them "Clash of Civilizations", a bitterly toxic viewpoint, which has already been invalidated. Naef Al-Rodhan, an American neurosurgeon and philosopher of Saudi origin has repudiated this theory by asserting that civilization should not be thought of as consisting of different competing civilizations but an ocean into which all the sub-cultures flow.

History can be classified into two groups by virtue of how it is looked at by a narrator: from bird's-eye view or from worm's-eye view. A philosopher of history, like Ibn Khaldun looks at history from the bird's-eye view and sees its trajectory, its dynamics, its twists and turns, the causality of events and the factors which drive its engine. He gives more importance to the nature of governance than the relationships between Mahmud and Ayaz; Raja Bhoj and Gangu Teli and Akbar and Birbal.

The worm's-eye view however, is more down-to-earth. Its scope has small dimensions of time and space. Most of the history of India falls within this category as told by foreign travelers and explorers, who landed in an area at a certain time in history, met certain rulers and witnessed certain cultures. Megasthnes was the Hellenic ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya's court; Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang were Chinese travelers, who came to India in search of knowledge about Buddhism. Ibn Battuta was a Moroccan traveler who came to India during the Mongol invasion. Al-Biruni, a polymath, who visited India in 1017 A.D. from the south coast of the Caspian Sea, was a contemporary of Mahmud Ghaznawi, and wrote "Tarikh-al-Hind". Firishta, who came from the south coast of the Caspian Sea to the Deccan Sultanates, wrote treatises about Muslim India and its rulers. The chronicles that these visitors wrote and from which our knowledge ensues, are limited to their own experiences in the company of their patrons and mentors and must be thought of as worm-like intrusions into the body politic of the Indian society.

It is imperative that we view the arrival of Islam in the subcontinent of India in the light of the Philosophy of History, whether the carriers were the horsemen of Mohammad Bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghaznawi; the cargo boats, which landed at the Malabar coast or the Sufis, who followed the trails of the conquerors. It must be understood that history rolls under its own weight, driven by "pressure differentials". These differentials are generated by  military, political and social imbalances as well as by the dynamics of opportunism. Winds of conquests have blown from the nomadic cultures to the sedentary cultures, from riders on horses' backs to the unsuspecting people at ease in their civic dwellings, from the deficient to the sufficient, from the austere to the opulent and from high density areas to the low density areas. When the storm settles and the curtain is lifted, new vistas open in the aftermath and new social dynamics unfold. New history begins; the Old becomes irrelevant and the New becomes a starting point of another era. Such is the linearity of history's progression. If you try to regress it, history fights back, causing physical and social destruction.

In the Indian subcontinent, the two-nation theory is attributed to Mohammad Ali Jinnah. This is like saying that the heliocentric solar system is the invention of Copernicus. The reality is that it has always been so. If you follow Hinduism or you follow Islam, you fall into two distinct belief systems and cultures but are they two different nations? That depends on how you define nations. Switzerland is a country (nation) with three different subcultures: German, French and Italian. Each of these three have their own separate countries. In Afghanistan, there are five different ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen. Three of them have their own separate countries and the largest group of them all: Pashtuns, has a larger part of the group living in Pakistan. Although countries are carved out artificially due to geopolitics, colonialism and imperialistic wars, all these people have developed systems in which they have learnt to cooperate with each other and live peacefully, as the alternative is death and disaster. In doing so, they define nations with varying qualifications and merge the colors of the rainbow into a monochrome. Not so in India, says the Rashtria Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist party.

The RSS and its Hindu nationalist forerunners like the Hindu Mahasabha preexisted the Nehru Report of 1928 in the All India Congress Committee, proposing outlines of a constitution for the future independent India, based on a majoritarian system of government, which Jinnah opposed and all others, including a majority of Muslim leadership supported. It was "politically correct" and in keeping with the progressive world view, fashionable with the intellectuals at that time. It was also beautiful in isolation, provided you shut out the "vengeance" sentiments of the RSS. It is only now, almost a century later that the dark aspects of the majoritarian system have dawned upon the stalwarts of Democracy, vindicating Jinnah and exposing Nehru's miscalculation. Those were the circumstances which caused Jinnah"s exit from the Congress and the promulgation of the Pakistan Resolution of 1940 (Lahore Resolution).

Muslims in India are in a unique position. Their population is estimated to be about 200 million. If they were to inhabit one country, it would be the sixth most populous country in the world between Pakistan and Brazil and yet they form a minority of only 16% in India. Only seventy-three years have passed since they were separated from their co-ethnic compatriots in the east and the west. There is a glue of culture and religion, which still joins them sentimentally together. They are asked not only to readjust their sentiments but hate the people across the borders, who one generation ago were their kin and creed. The fact that such a reversal of sentiment is unnatural should be recognized and acknowledged. Anything other than that would be hypocrisy.

So, where do we go from here? I gave the example of two countries above: Switzerland and Afghanistan. There are many more, which can be put in the same category. As I have argued, history is linear; you cannot roll it back. You can only correct the course and go forward. You cannot abolish Radcliffe Line, Durand Line or McMahon Line by driving tanks over them. You can only erase those lines by joining the people's hearts. In order to do so, you must settle your disputes by providing justice; detach the present from the past. I am not a product of Mahmud Ghaznawi or Babar. I am a product of the soil, which has been made beautiful by both you and me, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. You built Ellora and Ajanta; I built the Taj Mahal. You gave the world Buddha and the sophistication of philosophy contained in Geeta and Upanishads. I brought the spices and gave you the cuisines you love. We both brought India to where it is today. You produced Aryabhata; I found Al-Khwarizmi and carried mathematics to the world, without which there would have been no science and no space ships. Let us work together: you and me, Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis so that the Radcliffe Line gradually fades into oblivion and a new, mighty and prosperous subcontinent emerges.

[Waheeduddin Ahmed Ph.D. is a researcher and freelance writer. His works can be seen on his website at www.mjournal.org]

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