Indian Muslims and India’s Sub-Nationalism

Muslims offering Namaz at Tajul Masajid in Bhopal (Photo –


UPFRONT Prime Minister Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President, Amit Shah, thought in their wisdom that all Hindus are monolith and will vote for BJP if they invoke Hindutva and depict Indian Muslims as an existential threat to the economic well-being of majority community. Literally, BJP has pushed all Muslims to vote for regional caste-based alliances (gathbandhan) and virtually blocked their option to vote for BJP.

The New York Times opinion page article by Mr. Bal on April 17, 2019 highlights ground realities that Modi is not seeking to pursue Indian voters to vote for him and his party on the basis of his record while governing India since 2014 or by presenting compelling ideas for India’s future. Modi blatantly seeking votes by doing what he does best: raising and stoking fear among the Hindu majority of the potential dangers posed by the presence of a large number of the Muslim minority in India. The antipathy between Hindus and Muslims that Modi stoked in 2014 Lok Sabha elections was manifest in day to day communalism against the Muslims over the next five years.

I wish PM Modi should have read ”Democracy on the Road”, a 25 years journey through India, authored by Ruchir Sharma, a US-based emerging economies investor, before commencing the 2019 campaigning. He has chronicled honestly the hard realities of Indian democracy. He spelled that the real strength of Indian democracy — both economic and political — lies in its diversity. He cited Middle East example where many empires have tried to dominate, only to be swallowed by its warring tribes, which are in far less numerous and varied than India’s.

Those who fear that rising sectarian nationalism threaten India’s democracy also tend to underestimate the check provided by sub-nationalism. Indians still see themselves as Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Kashmiri, Malayalis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Biharis, Bhaiyas of U.P and Marathis, and they are much more likely to support or seemingly supporting a strong regional party headed by fellow men or women than “so-called” national party in Delhi. The 2019 election is shaping as a series of state contests. It will offer a choice of two different political visions, one celebrating the reality of many Indias, the other delusional one India.

As a Prime Minister of India Modi should be aware of the rich civilisational heritage and diversity of India. North India was ruled by King Harshavardhana when Prophet Muhammad  (PBUH) announced a Message of God to the people of Mecca in 610. Known as Islam or submission to God. By the time of his death in 632, Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers have consolidated power in Arabia. Later caliphs built an empire stretching from central Asia to Spain less than a century after his death. However, King Harshavardhana in 630, attempted to conquer south India but was severely defeated by a king called Pulakesin (610-643).

Since time immemorial the Arab/Persian and South Indian Hindu traders used the power of monsoon winds to travel and navigate the distance between ports of southwest Indian coast of Malabar to Arabian peninsula ports in forty days. In April/May they travel from Arabian ports to Kerala coast riding by the force of NW monsoon winds and in October/November traders dhow (small ship) follow retreating monsoon winds and ride back to Arabian ports. Main merchandise traded by Arabs were Gold, Copper, African ivory and Arabian horses. From India, they were picking spices, pepper, and woods. Arab traders also brought their new religion with them and slowly locals started knowing about Islam and started liking new faith as it provides them social equity which was absent in the caste-ridden Hindu society of south India. Thus, India’s tryst with Islam has begun and survived to the present day.

Islam slowly merged into the cultural landscape of Malabar and other southern regions by adopting local languages and indigenous lifestyle and culture of Hindu middle class, supported and protected by local Hindu rulers. The first mosque outside Arabian Peninsula and during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was constructed in Kodungallur north of Trichur in 628. The land was provided by a Hindu king Cheraman Perumal who embraced Islam after meeting Prophet Muhammad in Mecca. All mosques of Malabar coast from Ponnani to Vadakara were built during the early days of Islam were similar to Hindu temples in typical Kerala architecture as the architect and workers were common.

In the architectural style of Muslim and Hindu religious places show similarities, as in the case of their cuisine, lifestyle, and language. The Arab Muslims in south India particularly at Malabar coast, on the contrary, have not come as invading armies to conquer and establish their rule, but as friendly traders to invest money and make region prosperous.

Consequently, the course of history differs and the fitrat (nature) of civil society. Whereas, north India has seen many Muslim invasions through the land route of Afghanistan. Here, Islam was mainly influenced by Afghan, Turkish, Iranian and Central Asian culture and merged with the local culture which was primarily feudal in nature.

The story of Islam in north India is quintessentially different than south India as  Muhammad Bin Qasim, son-in-law of the governor of Iraq, entered Sindh in 711 A.D, during the reign of Caliph Walid. By 714 the Arab conquest in Sind established Islamic faith, but remained confined to this region for three centuries, contained by powerful Hindu kingdoms in north and west. Islam surged in north India when the Muslims Kingdom established in Afghanistan in 870 and defeated Hindu rulers.

First Muslim ruler of Afghanistan Yakub ibn Lias founded the city of Ghazni. In 1008, Mahmud, the  ruler’s son was the first of the family to cross the Indus and attached the Shahi king of Peshawar, who was at the head of an alliance that included rulers of Ujjain, Gwalior, Kannauj, Delhi and Ajmer, with single purpose to stop invaders at the western gates of India. Mahmud won the day and opened the gates of India for Jihadi Islam and the wealth of its fabled temples.

One of the intellectual in the court of Mahmud al Ghazni was scholar and scientist Al Biruni. He praised the achievements of Indian science particularly in mathematics, astrology and astronomy and criticised Brahman’s reluctance to share knowledge with other castes in the country, let alone foreigners. Al Biruni was not happy the way Mahmud his mentor plundering and looting the wealth from temples. He wrote that it has caused inveterate aversions to all Muslims. This is the reason, why Hindu scientists have moved far away from those part of the country conquered by Muslims and fled to those places which our hand cannot reach. Mahmud had no interest in ruling what he had conquered; but he kept the door of India open by installing a governor in Lahore. His successors continued the policy of turning India into a treasure hunt.

Later the Mughal, the greatest Muslim empire was established in the subcontinent by Babur. Islam spread in north India by blending the power of sword of ruling Muslim Kings with Sufism — allegiance only to God. Sufis have been the part of Islamic traditions from the earliest days. Ethnically the north Indian Muslims are mainly Urdu speaking – a language developed and prospered in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab of North India by ordinary civil society, enriched by Persian and Hindi and Sanskrit words. All Muslim rulers in India have ruled from Delhi, with the exception of Tipu Sultan. They used Persian as an official language for statecraft and spoken by the rulers and elite Muslim families.

More than 800 years of continuous Muslim governance in North India have made Muslims addicted to power trappings and in hierarchy of Ashraf’s and Ajlafs. Whereas, the Muslims in the southern states of India like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra, and Kerala lived on the outskirts of Muslim empire spoken local languages and adopted local Hindu culture and were not directly or indirectly involved in the governance of Muslim empires.

The Sultans and later Mughal rulers in Delhi gave largesse to the Muslim and Hindu communities and patronized to a new class of people known as Rajas, Nawabs, Taluqdars, and Zamindars. This class of people has patronized the local and a distinct kind of feudal culture which imbibed in the psyche of the common man over centuries. Such class was totally absent among south Indian Muslims and Hindus and they have an egalitarian culture.

In fact, Aligarh Muslim University was established by this class of aristocracy and nurtured  rarefied feudal or high class culture with care and passion in the university. Syed Ahmed Khan was their inspirational leader who took his journey to Britain in 1869 with his son Mahmud, who was going to join Cambridge University on a scholarship awarded by North West Frontier Governor.

Syed Ahmed spent seventeen months in England and visited important  universities like Cambridge and Oxford besides Eton and Harrow schools. Also attended the function in which Charles Dickens has given his last reading to a select audience. During his time in England he crystallized the vision of University for Muslims which later translated into M.A.O college and become Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. He wanted to develop a class in North Indian Muslims who acquire education through English medium and be faithful to British Raj and become important stakeholders in governance.

Even in their wildest dreams the aristocracy of middle of 19th century, ever imagined that at some point of time in future the British will leave Indian shores. Aligarh used to attract the students from Muslim aristocracy and they use to live in the campus with servants and khansamas (cook). They have come to the university to get a BA degree to become the Deputy Collector or Tehsildar and faithfully serve His Majesty’s Government. Wearing well-cut Sherwanis with Churidars or suit made by well known tailoring companies in England were the kind of dress code of the university.

Before partition of India, Aligarh Muslim University was the hub of Muslim politics and was the only center of Muslim education in the entire Indian-subcontinent. Many Muslims who became known faces in Pakistan like Nawab Liaquat Ali Khan, Ghulam Mohammad, and General Ayub khan were the former students of the Aligarh Muslim University. In the run up of independence movement of India Aligarh has became a hotbed of Muslim league politics.

First the leaders like Ali brothers and other nationalist were in the forefront of the independence movement along with Gandhi. But in late twenties and thirties the Muslim members of Indian National Congress have started drifting from Congress and looking for a leader who could take them to next level in Muslim politics. At that time Mr. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a leading barrister and was the active member of Congress party. A close political ally of Lokmanya Tilak and was a strong advocate of the pluralistic nature of Indian society and Hindu-Muslim unity.

After the death of Tilak, Gandhiji came to central stage of the Congress politics and Jinnah felt orphaned. A westernized liberal, Jinnah had many disagreements with the grass root politics of the Mahatma. Jinnah convinced both Congress and Muslim League to hold their annual sessions simultaneously at Lucknow. First time both parties had agreed  on a common set of demands to make of British — what became known as “Lucknow Pact”.

Jinnah also argued for Muslims a percentage of seats in any future legislature, among other benefits. In 1916 Jinnah manoeuvred to marry beautiful young Parsi lady Rutt and enjoying his personal and political life in the high end society of Bombay. Interestingly, in 1915 another fellow Gujarati 45-year old gentleman known as M.K.Gandhi returned from South Africa after spending two decade.

He earned a reputation for organizing Indian immigrants and fighting for their rights. He was smart and at the right moment took decision to return to India and lead the independence movement which was slowly getting traction of his vision that non-violence is most potent armor to remove colonial power from India. Non-violence will be our main weapon and will take blows and adopt strategy of satyagraha. Jinnah said we fully convinced of non-cooperation. He also put a caveat that Indian masses  are not educated and disciplined to ensure their protests remained nonviolent. Jinnah was unquestionably snob and aloof from Muslims masses. He found Gandhi appeal to Hindu masses and in prayer meetings raw and crude as Gandhi often revokes the concept of “Ramrajya”– a mythical state of ideal government under God Rama.

The  Muslim priests across the  Indian subcontinent threatened to start a Jihad if the British colonial power  after defeating Ottomans during first world war tried to depose Turkish Sultans — the  caliph or the leader of the world’s sunnis. Led by fiery brothers of Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali have energised the “Khilafat movement” and even roped in Gandhi. Jinnah has no sympathy for the rough-edged Muslims and their fanatic cause of restoring the Caliphate in the changing world. Jinnah was annoyed with Gandhi that by giving support to “Khilafat Movement” Congress will  garner more sympathy from Muslim masses and jeopardise the Muslim League writ over entire Muslim community as articulated by the leadership.

At this point of time, Jinnah was sailing in two boats and torn by his inherent ideology of secularism where he always distances from  fanaticism of his fellow co-religionists and Hindus. In 1920s, Jinnah was slowly marginalised both in Congress and Muslim League. In frustration he left for England and started spending more time in London than Bombay and even procured a British passport to settle there. However, he returned to India in 1935, but not the Jinnah who left for England 15 years ago. Historians wrote extensively that it was during this period that Jinnah’s views and thoughts totally transformed, whether there had been any individual or ideological change behind his rhetoric for demanding a separate homeland for Muslims.

Seemingly, one person who  has profound impact on his change of mind was his old friend  Nawab Liaquat Ali Khan from Uttar Pradesh. He was educated at Aligarh Muslim University and very active senior functionary of Muslim league. He argued with Jinnah that you return to India and take a command of Muslim League and articulate the concept of separate homeland for Indian Muslims. He assured that Uttar Pradesh Muslims will  follow you in hundreds and thousand as they have “power-friendly mindset”.

Liaquat  Ali Khan, after his second marriage with lady Rana, a Christian from Nainital in 1933, decided to go for honeymoon to England where his close friend Jinnah was parked after getting thoroughly disillusioned with divided and obscurantist Muslim League. During his stay he met Jinnah on many occasions  and give his perspective  of north Indian Muslims.

He appraised  in detail their passion for the legacy of power that they enjoyed for more than eight  centuries. He said: ‘You just offer them the recapture of power. The euphoria of the Muslim masses will not be confined only to one region alone, but will  be  resonated across  all parts of north India.’  At that point of time Jinnah was disgusted with Muslim leadership and bickering in their ranks back home. Liaqat mission beside honeymoon was to rekindle in Jinnah a hope for Muslim leadership and secure a place for him in history. Other mission was to enlist him for leagues renewal which was getting marginalised by strong Congress secular credentials.

Jinnah returned to India in 1935 after strong personal persuasion  of Liaquat Ali Khan. For Jinnah, who was a crowd-pulling orator, it was easy to capitalise the trend, especially when he had a befitting raison d’être in stock. He extensively skewed historical truths of the lost legacy, and created new myths to mobilise the masses to recapture power by any possible way. ‘If not act today, tomorrow will be a doomsday. If you are not recognised today with a separate nation, others will overcome you once India wins freedom”, he proclaimed.

This reasoning was music to the ears of large number of UP Muslim aristocracy, especially the Nawabs, Taluqdars and Zamindars, who were traditionally very accustomed to power trappings. They gave large funds to Muslim League to pursue their delusional vision. Jinnah’s popularity graph zoomed; he emerged a role model and  inspirational leader to general Muslim public, explicating all possible outward glitters of popularity. He kept aside his western dress code and appeared in well tailored ‘Sherwani and Churidar’. It was at the Muslim League session in Lucknow in 1937 that he first wore an Indian traditional Muslim dress of aristocracy. Moreover, during this session he played a pivotal role, sidelining other luminaries in the hierarchy of the League. After the session, Liaquat Ali Khan position was also  elevated  in the Muslim League’s chain of command: a befitting reward for the right advice  at the right time.

Muslim educated aristocracy (middle class) in Aligarh, Delhi, Bhopal and Lucknow was hugely mesmerised by Jinnah’s speeches. What Maulana Azad, the great scholar and popular Muslim statesman, experienced at Aligarh Railway Station on his way from Delhi to Calcutta was a testimony to the depth and width of Jinnah’s influence  among north Indian educated  middle class Muslim psyche in the early 1940s. Students of Aligarh Muslim University garlanded Maulana Azad with shoes. The students argued with him that Jinnah had offered them power and pride, and promised to rescue them from the Hindu majority.

Maulana Azad was speechless for a while, then he remarked: ‘Flood has engulfed the landscape of Indian-subcontinent and in depressions water is stinking.’ Later, the history of India proved what Maulana meant, and who was right and who was wrong in the play. Maulana wrote in his India Wins Freedom, “After the partition, U P Muslims came to meet me in large numbers. Their plight was pathetic, every one of them said with deep regret and anguish that Jinnah had deceived them and left them in the lurch’’. Maulana was aghast and wondered why Muslims said now that they were deceived?

After talking with them, Maulana Azad realized that Muslims of Uttar Pradesh who were in the forefront of the Pakistan movement backed by Liaquat Ali Khan, Nawab Ismail Khan, Nawab Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal, and Raja Mahmudabad and other zamindars had formed  delusional  picture of Pakistan which had no relevance with the real situation. A Nawab was asked after partition: ‘ Huzoor aap to Pakistan ke bahut himayatdari karte thay, magar aap waha kyu nahi gaye”?, Nawab reflected a while and said, “Mian hum to samjhe the ke Pakistan yahin UP me bandage, wahan itni door kaun jayega.”

Maulana  Azad further elaborates that Muslim Leaguers foolishly articulated that once Pakistan was formed, Muslims, whether they come from a majority or minority province like UP or Bihar would be regarded as a separate nation. When Muslim majority provinces went out of India and even Punjab and Bengal were divided and Jinnah left for Karachi, these fools ( North Indian Muslims) realized that they have gained nothing but lost everything by partition.

Muslims residing south of Aravalli mountains or south Indian Muslims after independence were not affected by the partition per se andnot migrated to the new  homeland carved out on the western and eastern flank of India as they are alien to their language and culture. The entire drama of partition was enacted north of Aravalli mountains and through radio and newspapers  they got  a vague idea that north Indian Muslims are demanding separate country. Even the south Indian Hindus were indifferent to the partition of India as they were not seeing any threat to their own region.

Thus, the migration from non-Urdu speaking Muslim regions were minimal. Nonetheless, Muslims from former Nizam’s territory  including Hyderabad city  saw a large scale migration to Pakistan. I would like to clarify here that all Urdu speaking Hyderabadis are immigrants from Uttar Pradesh. Thus they imbibe north Indian Muslim culture.

However, the Muslims residing in Guntur, Kurnool, Tirupati, Cuddapah, Nalgonda and Hindupur speak and breathe only local language Telugu. I had good fortune to offer Friday prayers in the mosque at famous temple town Tirupati. The Qutaba was in Telugu and not a single Muslim could converse in Urdu. Similar experience I had during my visit to Kanyakumari and Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, interior Karnataka. Except in the Hyderabad and Bangalore cities there is no Urdu press and Muslim community in the hinterland are not aware what is written in them. They are totally unaware about the social, cultural and educational levels of north Indian Muslims, particularly, tehzeeb-o-tarbiat, which is highly rated in the Kasbahs of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The political leadership of south Indian Muslims whether they are in Congress, Telugu Desam, Communist parties, Dravidian parties, IUML or Janata Dal, unlike their counterpart in north India are committed for the welfare of poor and downtrodden and accountable to the community. One of the main reasons in the phenomenal growth of educational institutions is the political  leverage  provided by the elected politician from the community  in the government of the day.

The Muslim community in south India during the last sixty plus years have gone through a silent revolution, which north Indian media is neither aware of it, nor even bothered to know. The Muslim community is second to none as a major education provider by establishing a network of  school and colleges across the region. For example engineering, pharmacy and architecture colleges affiliated to Jawaharlal Nehru Technology University, Andhra pradesh are located not only in Hyderabad city but  also in backward cities like Nalgonda, Rangareddy, Krishna, Karimnagar, Visakhapatnam, Cuddapah, and Anantapur.

Make no mistake Prime Minister Modi to misread the mandate of 2014 and in 2019 Indian masses seem to have fallen back on Indian sub-nationalism. For BJP’s acche din the leadership have to reinvent themselves.


Prof Iqbal Syed Hasnain is an eminent educationist and former Vice Chancellor of Calicut University, Kerala


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