Muslims in post-1947 India

April 6, 2014

Muslims in post-1947 India

The term Indian Muslim seems to be a misnomer. From Prof. Mohammad Mujeeb, former vice chancellor Jamia Millia to Ayesha Jalal, several scholars have underscored internal fissures along class, ethnic, linguistic and sectarian lines to describe the nature of quite a fragmented imaginary of ‘the Muslim community’ in South Asia. Same was true during the colonial time and it holds even now.

Thus, in order to make better sense of the plight of Muslims in India, academics have started paying attention to the lived experiences of Muslims in different parts of India in particular settings. Christophe Jafferlot and Laurent Gayer’s recently published edited volume on the Muslims living in Indian cities is one illustration of that trend. Similarly, Nida Kirmani’s excellent book focuses on a particular area/locality in Delhi primarily inhabited by the Muslims that serves as a sample which then helps us to reflect on broader questions of Muslim identity, citizenship, security and gender issues among other themes.

One does not always have to cite the Sachar Committee Report to describe the lowly political status and deplorable economic conditions of the Muslims living in India. The findings of the report notwithstanding, the need to delineate the reasons for the abysmal state of the Muslims in the post 1947 era is direly felt, particularly when BJP’s victory in the forthcoming elections is very much on the cards.

In this article, I would argue that the grievous state of Muslims in India cannot be comprehended fully without understanding the impact of the partition. The intention, however, is not to divert the attention from the grave issues of inequality, exploitation and repression which Muslims in India have to confront on an everyday basis at the societal and state level or to put the entire onus on the Muslims themselves or point fingers towards Pakistan but to explore an additional, alternative line of argument. It is by no means a new argument but is generally overlooked in discussions in Pakistan on the status and living conditions of Muslims in India.

 The Muslims actually thrive at the expense of each other’s misery. Every time there is a communal riot (as in Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar), there is an outrage among Muslims in Pakistan. Similarly, sectarian killings and suicide bombings in Pakistan are reassuring for a Muslim in India.

The argument that I am trying to build here is that the creation of Pakistan has had an impact on the present day conditions of Muslims in India. The reason for that is two-fold. First, the bulk of Muslim aristocracy and professionals chose to migrate to Pakistan. UP (United Provinces) formed the heartland of Muslim cultural ethos in India. Till the creation of Pakistan, the Muslim aristocracy continued to be UP’s landed and professional elite. To cite Francis Robinson’s research, it was not the actual decline but the fear of decline in political capital and social prestige that made the Muslims of minority provinces -- especially UP -- to gravitate to the Pakistan movement. After 1947, majority of the leading families chose to migrate to Pakistan. This process of migration -- unlike in Punjab or Bengal where it was abrupt, violent and involuntary -- unfolded slowly but steadily which continued till Pakistan’s citizenship laws came into enforcement in the 1950s. Still, people from various parts of India, including UP, continue to trickle into Pakistan even to this date and seek various illegal channels to secure a Pakistani passport.

Till the late 1950s, when Nehru and Maulana Azad were alive, attempts were made to persuade the leading Muslim families to stay back and contribute towards the welfare of Muslim community in India. This mission was not shared by everyone, especially not by Sardar Patel who actively pursued a mission to the contrary. In many cases, however, Nehru and Azad personally contacted families such as that of Raja of Mehmudabad and Josh Malihabadi. Despite the best of their efforts, very few paid any heed to their advice. Quratulain Hyder and Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan were among the very few exceptions who went back to India after spending a few years in Pakistan.

With this mass exodus of resourceful, educated and professional Muslims from what once was the heartland of Muslim civilisation, India was left with a Muslim population which was numerically still quite substantial but was economically backward with very little representation in civil or military bureaucracy.

Secondly, the creation of Pakistan exacerbated the communal hostility between Hindus and Muslims. The Hindu nationalists started propagating with greater vehemence that Muslims were outsiders who had vivisected India. The stereotype which was conjured up of a Muslim was that of an individual thoroughly steeped in religion, which makes him essentially anti-Hindu. Figures like Mehmud Ghaznavi and Aurangzeb were flagged to prove this point.

These ideas were articulated even at public platforms by none other than BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former prime minister of India. In an article he ‘advised’ the Muslims to have exclusive loyalty towards India and to consider India more important than Mecca and Medina. A territorial nationalism, it implied, was incompatible with Islam and by extension to Muslim praxis because it collided with a Muslim primal obligation towards religion which was rooted outside India. It is because of such a territorialised concept of hyper-nationalism that the prominent Muslims in India have to go an extra mile to prove their loyalty towards India.

Ironically, the vice chancellor who expelled Kashmiri students for cheering for Pakistan’s victory against India in a cricket match was a Muslim. The person who lent unequivocal support to this bizarre decision, while the rest of Indian intelligentsia was largely condemning it, was no other than Javed Akhtar, the famous lyricist and presently a member of Indian senate as well. M.J. Akbar and Mushirul Hassan are other such examples.

The foreignness of Islam and Muslim as a suspect is routinely reflected in Indian films as well. In the blockbuster Indian film Chak de India starring Shah Rukh Khan, the Muslim hockey player redeems himself by coaching Indian women hockey team to victory before the word ghaddar (traitor) stenciled outside his house is whitewashed. In an older film, Ghulam-e-Mustafa, Nana Patekar playing the role of a Muslim goon has to justify his presence in an extremely orthodox Hindu household by shedding his blood for the protection of the honour of their daughter. In Chachi 420, the Muslim cook is instructed in clear terms that he can surely live in the house but he will have to follow the customs and rules of its Hindu owner who does not allow consumption of meat.

These films might have been genuinely aimed at creating a favourable social condition for Muslims in India. However, they also demonstrate the Muslims doing an extra bit in justifying their being Indian or in establishing their loyalty with India. Scholarly work on the issue of Muslim representation in Indian cinema is in plenty. The examples furnished above only showcase some of the biases which exist regarding Muslims living in India and their visual representation in the popular media.

To conclude, it can be said that the partition, among other things, was an attempt to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Muslims and resolve the problem of communal conflict. In the case of Muslims of post-1947 India, both these problems have exacerbated as a consequence of the partition rather than being resolved in their favour.

The Muslims in South Asia are currently divided into three nation-states: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nothing describes this phenomenon better than Intizar Hussain’s beautiful short story, Hindustan Se Akhari Khat. Written in the aftermath of 1971, the story is about an old man lamenting the loss of his shajra (family lineage chart) as members of his families are now dispersed. But such poignant revocation of shared Muslim lineage and lamenting the loss of civilisational heritage as a result of tripartite partitioning of Muslim population has become increasingly rare.

The Muslims living in these nation-states actually thrive at the expense of each other’s misery. This is especially true for Muslims living in India and Pakistan. Every time there is a communal riot (as in Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar), desecration of a mosque and the issuance of a report describing the plight of Muslims in India, there is an outrage among Muslims in Pakistan. Simultaneously though such incidents serve as a reassurance that the decision to vote for Pakistan and migrate (whether wilfully or per force) here was the right thing to do.

Similarly, sectarian killings, suicide bombings and increasing lawlessness in Pakistan are reassuring for a Muslim in India. They believe they can go to their mosques without the fear of any suicide attack and attend tazia processions without always being targeted on sectarian grounds. For them, this is an endorsement of the right decision made by their forefathers to stay back in India.

A strange connection thus continues to exist between Muslims of India and Pakistan.

Muslims in post-1947 India