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Posted on Tue 28 May 2024

Another India: the making of the world’s largest minority 1947-77 by Pratinav An

This is a well-researched work. The author has had access not only to the India Office and the imperial government of India papers but also to archives of publications, party records and other material relevant to his task. There is much to admire in the thoroughness of the method and in the display of wide-ranging erudition.

The author is clearly a protagonist of a secular post-independence India, making his writing challenging for both Hindutva nationalists and those Muslims who wish to maintain an imperium in imperio presence in India, based on a continuing adherence to the Personal Law of the Shari’a and the primacy of the Urdu language, recognised as such in public law.

He seems to regard the secular character adopted by the Congress Party as deriving from the syncretism prevailing in the periods of the Pathan and Mughal dynasties, at least until the accession of Aurangzeb. It is true that the Emperor Akbar was openly syncretistic and that Jehangir continued with the interest in other religions but even then the ‘Ulema were always in the background. Shahjehan’s closure of Christian churches and missions and the fate of Dara Shikoh, Aurangzeb’s brother, hardly make for comfortable reading! It is more likely that Congress secularism was derived more from post Enlightenment Fabian socialist ideas to which its leaders had been exposed during their sojourn in the West. Regardless of origins, however, the question has always been whether Indian secularity is a system that makes room for the free practice of religion, including its contribution to public life, or whether it excludes any religious participation in civil society on the basis of an alleged neutrality. At the same time, Dr Anil repeatedly questions Congress’ commitment to secularism and records its antiMuslim policies, even during the Nehru era. By contrast, surprisingly for some, he sees the Muslim League as being more secular than Congress, until it begins to bend to pressure from the 'Ulema and circumstances to adopt a more confessional attitude. Its basic agenda, however, remained the economic and political emancipation of the Muslims of India rather than the theocracy which some were and are advocating.

Continuing Muslim commitment, however, to Shari’a ‘at every level’ and the consequential limitations of cooperation with others have led to an abiding communalist mentality which resulted, on the one hand, in partition and, on the other, in a continuing sense of distinctiveness of the qaum for those who remained in India. While continuing to express their loyalty to Mother India, they harboured hopes that Indian secularity would enable  accused of separatism and of being pro Pakistan. It can also be argued, though this may have been far from the intention of Indian Muslim nationalists, that it provided fertile ground for the rise of extremism within the community. The continued opposition to the reform of marriage law, in favour of women, provides an insight into conservative instincts regarding Shari’a where taqlid (the following of established opinion) rather than maslaha (an interpretation which makes for the best social outcome) or ijtihad (a root and branch reform and renewal) has taken precedence. Such attitudes, though not extremist in themselves, can certainly open the door for various kinds of extremism.

Although the book is mainly about the Muslims in post partition India, there is a good review of the situation before and during partition. There is also illuminating discussion of prominent personalities both before and after independence and of those spanning the two periods, such as Maulana Abu’l Kalam Azad. Anil notes that the leadership of both ‘separatist’ and ‘nationalist’ Muslims was largely drawn from the Ashrafiyya (those who claimed a foreign origin) whilst the bulk of the Muslim population was, of course, as Ishtiaq Ahmed and Imtiaz Ahmed have shown, from the Asfaliyya (converts from the lower castes). To what extent then did initiatives like the Aligarh Muslim University and the struggle to maintain the independence of Auqaf (religious endowments) serve elitist interests? Indeed, the question could be extended to cover a whole range of political and social activity both before and after partition. It could even be said that partition was an opportunity for the elite in the new nation of Pakistan, such as they could not have had in undivided India, but for the masses that remained, it was a disaster.

The fate of Muslims in areas like Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh which were annexed through the use of force continues to be neuralgic for Indian Muslims and, in the case of Kashmir, remains an acute matter of international dispute between India and Pakistan, with huge political and military implications. The promised UN sponsored plebiscite has never taken place and significant parts of the population continue to be restive.

The author discusses, at length, the fortunes of the Muslim political parties, their survival, metamorphoses and alliances: an interesting example given is that of the Indian Jama’at-i Islami’s renunciation of Maududian theocracy which so characterises the JI across the western border. Congress antipathy towards ‘communal’ parties has meant their influence has not been proportionate to the numbers of the world’s largest Muslim minority (part of the book’s subtitle). At the same time, Muslims within Congress have not been afforded the recognition their numbers deserve. They also continue to be underrepresented in the Civil Service, the Police and other services. They are at greater risk of arrest and torture and of having their property expropriated (if inherited from a relative who migrated to Pakistan).

There is not much discussion of other minorities in post partition India, especially Christians, and how their experience compares with that of the Muslims. Some reference, for example, to the ancient Christian communities of Kerala would have been interesting in the context of Kerala’s fervid politics. In the present situation, Christians are suffering in similar ways to Muslims whether that is with attacks on churches, priests, ministers and religious communities or in marginalisation from civic and political life. Is there any move for minorities to act together and would it make any difference?

It is inevitable that a book of this length and depth should raise questions in the mind of the reader. One is the attitude to religion. There are plenty of examples of ‘bad’ religion but what about ‘good’ religion in terms of educational and medical initiatives, philanthropy, female and Dalit emancipation and, most of all, the forming of moral attitudes in the population? The quoted remark Of an Indian journalist that ‘incomprehension has nothing to do with faith’ is belied by the long intellectual histories of the major religions where faith seeks to comprehend and knowledge is at the service of faith. There is an unnecessary attack on the Church regarding slavery without taking account of the long history of anti-slavery teaching going back to Anselm, Las Casas and the Evangelical Revival etc.

The relation between ‘Abduh, Afghani and Rida, as influences on Azad, merited a paragraph or two and Shibli Nau’mani was, after all, the author of a revisionist biography of Rumi which became influential for thinkers like Iqbal. Terms like ’first world‘ are used without explanation and possibly anachronistically. I am aware that this is now conventional academic speak but the term ’colonial‘ is applied to British India when India was not a colony but an empire in its own right. The term ’imperial‘ might have been more appropriate and surely Mountbatten was not the penultimate viceroy but the last? By the way, Jawaharlal is not a ’patently‘ Hindu name. It is a combination of the Arabic Jawahir and the Arabic/Urdu La’l or Lal. The whole means precious ruby stones. Amongst Muslims, Jawahir is usually a name given to girls! India is described as richer than Pakistan in 1962 when, in fact, their GDP per capita was almost the same. In relation to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s desire for better relations with the Peoples of the Book, they are described as geographically ’distant' when compared with Hindus. Some acknowledgement here of the ancient Jewish and Christian communities of the subcontinent would have qualified this observation. The comment about migrant labour in the Gulf implies that it is monolithic in terms of social norms. In fact, there are significant differences within and between the countries in the region.

These questions notwithstanding, as we remarked at the beginning, this is a major work on India’s largest minority and deserves to be read and studied by all those interested in the future not only of India but of the whole South Asian region.

Michael Nazir-Ali 2024

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