When the ancient Persians and Arabs first used the word "Hindu" to refer to the then obscure people living beyond the river Indus (Sindhu in Sanskrit), they probably did not realize that their convenient shorthand would still be around centuries later. Much is known about the diverse castes, religious sects, folk and elite cultures, philosophical traditions, and languages that exist, or have existed, on the Indian subcontinent. But India remains for most people outside it a country of "Hindus." It even seems cohesive enough to represent "Hindu civilization" in Samuel Huntington's millenarian vision of a "clash of civilizations."
The description, which is not unwelcome to the Hindu nationalists who often despair at the lack of unity among Indians, suppresses not only the diversity of what is called "Hinduism"—a category invented by the British in the nineteenth century—but also the presence among the one billion peoples of India of over 130 million Muslims, the third-largest Muslim population in the world. It also denies history: that Muslims from Persia and Central Asia and their descendants ruled a variety of Indian states for much of the last eight centuries, and that India once was, as part of the Moghul Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the cultural center of the Islamic world.
"Were the arguments of those who advocated the partition of India right? Were they right to realize that Muslims will have to live in India as subjects of Hindus? That they cannot enjoy equal rights? These questions entered my life a bit too early."
This is the beginning of an anguished confession and polemic that appeared in a collection of essays about Indian Muslims, published soon after the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992. The author, Suhail Waheed, who writes for Urdu and Hindi newspapers in north India, offers an experience that is seldom found in India's English-language media, which is dominated by the concerns of middle-class upper-caste Hindus. As a young Muslim in a small town, Waheed saw himself as entering the secular world of new India, where he would be free to remake himself. But, as he describes it, he was always reminded of the fact that he was once born a Muslim in India. As a minor government official, he invited the hostility of a pro-BJP newspaper editor and was summarily reprimanded by his superior; when he asked what he had done, he was reprimanded once again. He eventually resigned after his Hindu bosses made him stay at work during official holidays for the Hindu festival Diwali. As a journalist on a Hindi newspaper he was confined to reporting on "Muslim issues," which enabled him to observe how anti-Muslim violence in north India made even affluent Muslims seek shelter in ghettos.
Waheed's essay seemed slightly overwrought when I first read it, and it took me some time to realize that it was describing the lower-middle-class world of stereotype and prejudice that I myself had known in my childhood in the small towns of north and central India during the late Seventies and Eighties. I experienced this world from the very different perspective of an upper-caste Hindu, who feared and distrusted both Muslims and low-caste Hindus, an attitude I was reminded of early this year when an old friend in Benares casually pointed out a distant relative of his, a retired police officer, who liked to boast of how he had himself shot dead fourteen Muslims during a riot in the city of Meerut. I remembered then how Hindu police officers charged by the English-language press or human rights groups with committing atrocities against Muslims often became heroes among upper-caste Hindus.
Waheed blames the BJP for creating much of the recent anti-Muslim hatred among upper-caste Hindus during the Eighties, particularly its dissemination of propaganda that accuses successive Indian governments of appeasing Muslims by allowing a special status to Kashmir in the Indian constitution and allowing Muslims to follow Sharia-based laws in matters of divorce and inheritance. This seems true to some extent. The Human Rights Watch report on Gujarat quotes from a much less subtle Hindu nationalist pamphlet which accuses Muslims of "destroying Hindu Community by slaughter houses, slaughtering cows and making Hindu girls elope" and asserts that "crime, drugs, terrorism are Muslims' empire."
Writing in 1993, Waheed couldn't have anticipated how Pakistan's support of the anti-India insurgency in Kashmir would help the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments among upper-caste Hindus. Nor does he explain the relatively recent roots of Hindu–Muslim antagonism, or why what strikes anyone examining South Asia before the nineteenth century—before the arrival of the British and the rise of modern nationalist ideologies—is the relative absence of Hindu–Muslim violence.
Such large-scale persecutions of religious minorities as took place in Europe in the Middle Ages were unknown in the Muslim-ruled empires and kingdoms of India, many of which—Akbar's Moghul Empire, Bijapur under the Adil Shahi dynasty, Zainal Abidin's Kashmir—offer, even in a more democratic age, models of an innovative multiculturalism. Many of the Muslims who invaded or ruled India then were zealots, but the majority of Indians did not convert to Islam, a significant fact not much discussed by the self-serving if influential early British historians of India, such as James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, who presented Hindus as backward and apathetic, Muslims as tyrants and fanatics, and British colonialists as preparing India's way to a high stage of civilization. In fact, over five centuries Islam in India gradually lost its Arabian and Persian identity; it mingled with folk traditions and became another Indian faith. The influences from Persia and Central Asia now coexist with indigenous traditions in the distinctive languages, styles of dress, music, and cuisines of South Asia.
The Hindu nationalists of today follow nineteenth-century British historians in describing Muslim rulers as alien violators of national honor. Their icons are such militant leaders as Shivaji, who in the seventeenth century led an allegedly "Hindu revolt" in western India against one of the most intolerant Muslim rulers in India, the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb. But they tend to ignore how the rewards of conquest and plunder, rather than anti-Muslim zeal, mostly inspired Shivaji, who was ruthless toward his Hindu opponents, and was often eager to strike mutually convenient deals with Aurangzeb as well as with Muslim rulers in south India who were then fighting to remain independent of the Moghul Empire.
The Hindu nationalist account of "Muslim fanaticism" suffers from a similar lack of historical context. Aurangzeb's relatively harsh attitude toward his non-Muslim subjects grew out of his attempt to reverse the—for their time—audaciously secular policies instituted by his great-grandfather, Akbar. Akbar's policies were embraced by Aurangzeb's brother and the Mo-ghul heir apparent, Dara Shikoh, who inclined toward mysticism and translated the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads into Persian. But Aurangzeb, along with other insecure Muslim practitioners of realpolitik, saw these policies as undermining minority Muslim control of the Moghul Empire (Aurang-zeb later executed Dara Shikoh after winning the battle of succession). The broad vision of the clash of religions also ignores the many complex, practical ways in which even the most devout Muslim rulers had to accommodate the religious sentiments of the vast majority of their subjects. In Ayodhya, a pilgrimage center the Hindu nationalists present as eternally Hindu, many of the temples and sects devoted to Rama were originally sponsored by the Shia Muslims who in the early eighteenth century had begun to rule Awadh, the region that is now part of Uttar Pradesh.
In any case, to speak as BJP ideologues do of a glorious Hindu nation defiled by Muslims is to retrospectively create a nation and an awareness of nationality at a time when there were, and could have been, no such things. And perhaps it's wrong even to use the words "Hindus" and "Muslims" to describe the Indians of the medieval era, and burden them with collective identities that emerged only in our own time. For a majority of the peoples living in South Asia then defined themselves not through such large and politically expedient categories as "Hindus" and "Muslims" but through their overlapping allegiances to family, caste, linguistic group, region, and religious sect.
Read the whole article at:The New York Review of Books