New Directions

There may be a ray of light in the widespread protests that have erupted across India against the new citizenship laws.

By Justice (r) M. Shaiq Usmani | February 2020

Nationalism is a phenomenon unknown to the followers of the Hindu creed as, in spite of being an ancient people, they have never really projected themselves as a nation in the sense the word is understood today. Strangely enough, the current rise of Hindu nationalism in India has roots in the rise of nationalism amongst Muslims inhabiting British India. Indeed there was no cause for the rise of Muslim nationalism at all because neither was there any consciousness amongst the Muslims in British India of being a separate homogenous unit as there were great differences amongst them, nor was there any sense of persecution amongst them since the British by and large treated both communities i.e. Hindus and Muslim, alike.

However, differences between Hindus and Muslims were inherent and there was no meeting ground between them. There was no mixing between the two socially and hardly any intermarriages or participation in each others’ festivals. By and large, the two communities led separate lives. Nevertheless there was a perception amongst Muslims that if and when India gained Independence, the Hindus, being in numerical majority, would be in control of the country and hence may dominate them. Notwithstanding this perception, on the whole, the two communities co-existed peacefully though, on occasions, tempers did flare up but this was triggered by minor incidents of perceived sacrilege of symbols important to the two communities and not by any particular hatred for each other, at least not open hatred. Generally, before Partition, an uneasy calm prevailed in British India. But as the future revealed this was akin to a lull before the storm. The storm unleashed after Partition resulted in whole scale massacre of one community by the other, more in Punjab than elsewhere, which suddenly brought out in the open the hitherto dormant hatred amongst the two communities.

If one examines the reason behind this sudden outburst of hatred, one would have no choice but to delve into the past and look at the thousand years’ rule by the Muslims in the subcontinent. The Muslims, who came to India, were mostly adventurers looking for wealth and land to settle down and mostly came from Afghanistan, Persia, Anatolia and Central Asia. They were by no means a homogenous lot; instead they were disparate groups looking for pelf and power and often fought amongst themselves. Eventually, certain groups from Afghanistan prevailed over others and settled down in the land and established monarchic rule. Significantly, unlike the early Arab invasions in the Middle East, the proselytizing zeal was absent amongst these adventurers from Afghanistan though in their lust for pelf they did perpetrate atrocities amongst the local population and often justified them by exhibition of misplaced iconoclastic zeal.

The impact on the local population of the excesses by these adventurers was not so pronounced because the local people themselves were not a homogenous unit. They too, consisted of disparate groups continually engaged in internecine warfare and were riven by differences in cast and creed. Thus India then was a land without any organization or a machinery of State. But all that changed when the Mughals decided to make India their home and laid the foundations of a powerful dynasty. The Mughals by and large were a liberal lot and paid only lip service to Islam and that too, only to derive legitimacy from the Caliphate in Baghdad. Thus, there is no evidence of large scale atrocities committed by the Mughals due to any proselytizing zeal till the ascending of the throne by Aurangzeb, who was a devout Muslim. He did commit excesses against the Hindu population, perhaps to pacify his guilty conscience for killing his own brothers in the war of succession after Shahjahan’s death. But the fallout of his stern treatment of the Hindus was that liberalism, which was the hallmark of Indian society before him, waned to a great extent. Aurangzeb’s reign, though comparatively brief, did not permanently scar the relationship between the two communities.

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The writer is a former Judge of the Sindh High Court. He has been actively involved in human and women’s rights causes.

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