Indian simmer

The Furies of Indian Communalism - Legacy of a Divided Nation
September 19, 1997

Both of these books are firmly written statements of strong-minded opinions or biases buttressed by a plethora of notes and references. Both mourn the passing of a secular India and fear the future. Beyond that two treatments of the same theme could hardly be more dissimilar. Mushirul Hasan, a well-known Indian Muslim historian, heaps a thousand sins on the pre-1947 Muslim League leaders, denies Muslim separatism, considers the creation of Pakistan a tragedy, wears his frustrations on his sleeve, and makes depressing reading. Achin Vanaik, a Hindu journalist and a fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, conducts a wide-ranging survey of the place of religion in a plural society, casts his net wide in search of factors and causes, assails well-entrenched and traditional positions, and writes without muddying the waters of an intellectual debate.

The first half of Hasan's book is an ill-informed account of British Muslim India. His narrative feeds on "facts'' which are not always facts. "Muslim rituals, symbols and institutions remain intact'' in India today. For the Muslims who did not migrate to Pakistan "partition was a nightmare''; this "so-called Islamic community which had no place in Jinnah's Pakistan, was 'fragmented', 'weakened', and left vulnerable to the right-wing Hindu onslaught''. Partition "traumatised families and friends'' and was an "epic human tragedy I painful and brutal fact'' "I I question the Muslim League's representation as a unified, cohesive entity tied to shared religious goals."In the late 19th and early 20th century "there was no pan-Islamic ferment"; only the British "encouraged pan-Islamic sensibilities''. Mahbub Alam's influential Paisa Akhbar and other contemporary sources contradict this. Muslim delegates to the Round Table Conference were "rank communalists''; the only authority quoted in support is one of his own books. Muslim historical literature of 1875-1900 was "unconcerned with social and economic issues''. He has apparently not read Tahzib-ul-Akhlaq, Urdu journals of this period and Ameer Ali's articles appearing in Britain.

The league's demands summed up the fears and aspirations of the professional, feudal and rich industrial classes; the Muslim press of the Muslim-majority provinces tells a different story. Jinnah was "always eager to move centre-stage and be one up on Gandhi and Nehru'' - a snide remark. The Pakistan movement was "not unified and ideologically cohesive". Muslim "landlords'' were instigated by the British to give "moral and material sanction to the league''; the existence of the Unionist Party in the Punjab and the Khans of Northwest Frontier Province belies this. All "standard accounts'' of the Pakistan movement by Pakistani scholars are false. The British "created a community in its own image'' and allowed the league "to transform a segmented population into a 'national' or a 'juridical entity'"; no sources are quoted. The Pakistan ideal was a "fancy''. The league was "fundamentalist'' in religion, its spokesmen "vociferous''; in 1946 Muslims voted for "a traditionalist-fundamentalist theocracy"; each assertion is questionable, to say the least.

The second half of the book describes the rise and virulence of Hindu revivalism in India, concluding sadly that "the delinking of state and religion remains a distant dream; secularisation of state and society an ideal''.

More inaccuracies of fact: Firoz Khan Noon "played a key part'' in the league; he joined the league on the eve of partition. Nehru "read history'' at Cambridge; he read natural sciences. Ian Talbot's book is entitled Freedom's Cry, but is referred throughout and in the bibliography as Freedom's City. Omission: Jinnah's speeches and writings are neither quoted nor listed in the bibliography. Bad grammar: "comparatively higher''. Blatant contradiction: the whole book is a diatribe against Muslim nationalism and the Pakistan demand, but the "Nation'' in the title itself makes nonsense of the entire quiver of arguments. Respectful advice: sarcasm, derision, ridicule and inexactitude do not become a trained scholar.

Vanaik's collection of essays takes us to a different world. He discusses Hinduism, Hindu nationalism and Hindu communalism, with his "main obsessions'' being the "secularity of the Indian state and the secularisation of Indian civil society''. He contests the proposition that even in modernity religion is necessarily central to culture and to society. He confirms that the early stirrings of Indian nationalism owned much to the Hindu renaissance of the 19th century, and Hindu nationalism was important in promoting a national identity. The forging of an anti-British national identity coincided with the communalisation of the Indian polity, and the Congress-led national movement was mostly responsible for this. This tendency to underline religious identity was not a product of "colonial machinations'', but rooted in "local cultural and political practices''.

The notions of India's civilisational unity and cultural essence fulfilled the political needs of a developing Indian elite; they were not the result of serious empirical historiography. Indian (Hindu) philosophy did not separate itself from religion. Even the exponents of a composite Indian culture invoked the notion of an enduring Hindu tradition enshrined in ancient texts. Thus an "indissoluble connection'' between Hinduism and Indian civilisation was established and was used by nationalist intellectuals. The "composite patriotism'' of Indian nationalists emerged from a "distorted catholicity of a Brahminical Hinduism''. Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and others "saw Hinduism as a vital, indeed decisive, part of Indian culture and therefore of an Indian cultural nationalism''; and it is "entirely legitimate'' to talk of "Gandhi's Hindu nationalism and that of other nationalist leaders and currents''; it was "already an important stream in the wider flow of anti-colonial cultural nationalism''.

Vanaik's concern is not with creating a secular state in India but with secularising the Indian society. To this end "religion should become more privatised and religious affiliation more of an optional choice''. Looking around the world and watching the murderous furies let loose in Northern Ireland, Kashmir, the Sikh Punjab, Cyprus and Bosnia, this is a counsel of perfection. But he has made an heroic effort. It is significant that Hasan omits all references to the Hindu content of Indian nationalism and composite culture. This omission lies at the heart of his thesis that the Pakistan movement was artificial, the Muslim separatism was a "fancy'' and a composite Indian culture a "fact''. What he calls false Pakistani historical scholarship is vindicated by Vanaik's findings.

Vanaik's clutching anxiety to find a solution to India's religious problem makes him explore all possibilities. His theoretical analysis has the immense virtues of rigour, clarity, coherence and maturity. He argues persuasively and writes fluently. He is free of prejudice and predisposition and is not afraid of where the truth takes him. For the serious reader his is a rewarding text.

In the proliferation of studies of the communal state in India lies a grim lesson for the Pakistani intellectual. The Islamic state of Pakistan is being ripped apart by a horrendous sectarian conflict within Islam. But he is not roused to wield his pen. His silence is deafening and ominous. Is sensitivity too heavy a burden?

K. K. Aziz is a political scientist and historian and is former chair of the Pakistan National Commission on Historical and Cultural Research.

The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity and Secularisation

Author - Achin Vanaik
ISBN - 1 85984 921 0 and 016 7
Publisher - Verso
Price - £40.00 and £14.00
Pages - 374

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