The saints, syncretism and scandals of one sub-continent and two solitudes

Living Together Separately
April 21, 2006

Just as the centuries of hostilities in British society between two religious communities, Protestant and Catholic, moved towards a political resolution last summer, attention shifted to the British Muslim communities after "home-grown" suicide bombers attacked the London Underground.

British debates on multiculturalism have been strikingly different from those of the French, who continue to reject the display of religious difference in state institutions, making it clear that debates about the relationship of ethnicity, culture and religion in Europe are going to continue for many years. While Islam is now globalised and modernising, it is often presented in the media as medieval, monolithic and timeless, so this volume, which presents histories of India's Islamic communities, is timely.

Although India is home to one of the world's largest Islamic populations, Muslims remain a minority there, in contrast to neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. The 1990s saw a seemingly inexorable rise of Hindu nationalism in the wake of the events at Ayodhya in 1992, but its trajectory is no longer clear, and consequently it is important to historicise the changing relationships between India's religious communities. Scholars of South Asian history have long demonstrated that different cultures can and do exist side by side, undergoing a certain fluidity in relation to each other as well as internally, and this volume examines these issues over several centuries.

The existence of multiculturalism as a concept belongs to the past two or three decades, and the word is not used anachronistically in this volume, which prefers to discuss "syncretism", "composite culture" and more traditional terms. But it soon becomes clear that this is for another reason: there is no "multiculturalism" in India as the word is currently defined because there is not necessarily a sense of any commonality or an overall shared community. Rather, the study of the relationships between Hindus and Muslims in India shows that they have often preferred to practise "living together separately".

Living Together Separately shows how these relationships were transformed by the impact of the West and growing discourses of nationalism, where Muslim separatism led to the Partition of India and the creation of the world's first Islamic republic, that of Pakistan post-1947, and of Hindu nationalism. As in Europe, there have been debates over the role of secularism and religious pluralism in India, of which the important discussions of Ashis Nandy and T. N. Madan are examined in the book's introduction. Most of the papers highlight the diverse nature of the religious communities thrown together into monolithic categories used by the colonialists as well as religious nationalists and which continue to be used today. "Hindu" and "Muslim" are historically inaccurate terms, as historians, notably Romila Thapar, have noted elsewhere.

Co-editor Asim Roy's paper summarises the debate between Imtiaz Ahmed and Francis Robinson over the merits of sociological and historical analyses of India's Muslim communities and of looking at "high" and "popular" forms of Islamic beliefs and practices. While the consensus is likely to be with Roy that a multidisciplinary approach is necessary, this book is located very much within the discipline of history and, even within that, a history of a traditional empirical sort. There can be no objections to this focus, but more research from other disciplines, in particular from the analysis of imaginative or creative texts would have been welcome. There is only one paper on a literary text (Kumkum Sangari on Qurratulain Hyder's extraordinary historical novel, Aag ka Darya ) and one on a genre (Madhu Trivedi on the marsiya ). There is only one paper on language, by Annie Montaut, although there should be more discussion of Urdu, Persian, English and other languages that are mentioned in several of the book's papers.

Notable by its absence, too, is cinema, which has long regarded itself as secular and has produced some of the most widely distributed images of the communities, their beliefs, practices, historical roles and engagement with one another. There is also a silence on music, traditionally seen as one of the areas of cultural syncretism.

In an edited volume, it is inevitable that some papers address the key theme in less direct ways than others. Some papers discuss broader issues: Peter van der Veer examines the uses of tradition in creating communities and their boundaries, and Gurpreet Mahajan studies democracy and citizenship in a plural society. Farzana Sheikh analyses Muhammad Iqbal's views on millat, qaum and mazhab , while Barbara Metcalf examines composite nationalism before independence and David Lelyveld discusses separatism in the 19th century. Najaf Haider examines Persian sources about a "Holi riot"

in Ahmedabad 1714, the only "communal" riot recorded between 1411 and 1761, which show that even in celebrations of Holi and the issue of cow slaughter, commercial interests often cut across religious lines. Kerrin Gräfin Schwerin discusses an 11th-century "syncretic saint", Salur Masud, who is not a Sufi but a saint who saves cows in the Rajput hero-martyr traditions. Shail Mayaram's paper on Ajmer is a fascinating study of a city where two strong pilgrimage traditions co-exist, while Joya Chatterji writes eloquently on the graveyards of Muslims in post-Partition West Bengal.

Three of the papers have such powerful and gripping narratives that they seem destined to be made into novels or films. Michael Fischer's impeccably researched study presents the colourful life of D. O. Dyce Sombre (1808-51). He was the great-grandson of a Catholic European mercenary, who became an Indian ruler and married a courtesan, who succeeded him and became an active ruler, even leading the army. Sombre kept a diary that recorded his journey from this world of mercenaries, courtesans and princely politics in north India via Calcutta to the House of Commons. His final descent into insanity is a tragic end to his bizarre life. Fischer shows how the debates around a whole host of identities that were current in his time were focused on this one unusual person and contrasts the diary's personal view with other historical reports.

Nupur Chaudhary and Rajat Kanta Roy's essay on matrimony examines the change from marriage within exclusive groups, notably those of caste and community, to love marriages that broke these boundaries. They discuss various "scandals" before turning to the life of Captain Laxmi Sehgal, who chose her own husbands and partners, led the women's regiment of the Indian National Army, stood for election against the current Indian President Abdul Kalam and continues to practise as a doctor in Kanpur.

Co-editor Mushirul Hasan's paper evokes the culture of Delhi's Muslim elites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. C. F. Andrews's encounters with Gandhi and Tagore seem to have largely overshadowed his meetings with the sharif Muslims of Delhi, even though Hasan has recently published an annotated edition of Andrews's Zakaullah of Delhi . Maulvi Muhammad Zakaullah (1832-1910) was a prolific historian whose magnum opus was a history of India ( Tarikh-i Hindustan ) that ran to more than 7,000 pages. He was a close friend of the novelist Maulvi Nazir Ahmad (1836-1912), whose most famous work is the Mirat-al Arus . Both men, who were associated with Delhi College and who lived through the events of 1857 in Delhi, came very much at the end of a great cultural tradition of Delhi and so were forgotten soon after their death.

While the book is already sizeable, and edited volumes cannot be comprehensive, the papers deal only with north Indian Muslims (covering the current states from Rajasthan in the west to Bengal in the east, though focused on Delhi and Uttar Pradesh). Although these areas contain the majority of India's Muslims, it would have been good to see more about the Muslims of western and southern India, in particular to contextualise the rise of political figures from western India such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the political influence of the Aga Khan in the independence struggle.

Although the papers are uniformly clear, most assume a fairly advanced background knowledge of the history and issues discussed. Some may find Adnan Farooqui and Vasundhara Sirnate's bibliographical essay at the end of the book a useful starting point. Although most of the papers are by senior historians of India's Muslim communities, the book includes some excellent research by a new generation. The book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Islam in modern India and for anyone working on modern India who is interested in this important question of "living together separately".

Rachel Dwyer is reader in Indian studies and cinema, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics

Editor - Mushirul Hasan and Asim Roy
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 4
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 566921 5

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