That the Hindus and the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent are two distinct communities needs
no gainsaying. No fundamentalist zealot on either side of the divide need remind us of this reality.
The irongrip of the British Raj, that was so brutally demonstrated at Jallianwala Bagh of Amritsar
in April, 1919 had held the two communities together under one yoke. The British bureaucracy had
successfully forced the two opposites in joint captivity. Yet the mere prospect, in the beginning of
the twentieth century, of even a modicum of self governance at once brought the differences to the
surface. The demand for separate electorates preceded the Councils Act of 1909. (The
Minto-Morley Reforms Act).
The differences between the Hindus and The Muslims of India have often been highlighted. Hindu
idolatory is pitched against Muslim iconoclasm. The original Hindu polytheism has been
contrasted with Muslim monotheism. Even though some Muslim ascetics permitted some forms of
dance, nevertheless devotional and tantric cults of Shaivistic Hinduism were at once shockingly
bold and alien to Muslim rituals. Hindu practice of 'Suttee' and the strait-jacket of caste offend
Muslim conscience, though the Muslim rulers of India did little to eradicate the former and, in fact
profitted (in revenue and the maintenance of the peace) by a clever employment of the latter.
(Sattee was finally prohibited by the Government of the East India Company in 1829). Since 1192
AD for a continuous period of about 500 years, Muslims ruled most of northern India. Hindus,
including the twice-born Brahmans and the proud and arrogant Kashatries, had been their
subjects. The highest positions the Hindu elite could aspire for were those of confidants and
courtiers of Muslim Kings and Emperors. At best they could aspire to become semi-autonomous
but nevertheless subject, feudatories. Nor could the iconoclasim of Islam, personified in the form of
the Sultan of Ghazni, be readily forgotten by the Hindu mind. It had been the high-point of the
clash of the two communities. We have already noticed Romila Thapar's most vivid and
elaborate account of early and medieval India wherein she recounts that "The destruction at
Somnath was frenzied, and its effects were to remain for many centuries, in the Hindu mind and to
colour its assessment of the character of Mahmood, and on occasion of the Muslim rulers in
general." But the sacking of the temples in the time of Firuz Shah, and later by Aurangzeb was
intended both to augment the decreasing revenues of a decadent feudal system as well as to
prevent the allegedly conspiratorial potential of anti-government congregations. The declining
empires had none of the permissive and liberal confidence of Allauddin Khilji or Akbar.
It would, however, be a distortion of history merely to highlight the differences between the two
communities. Even though the fundamentalists on both sides of the divide may not like to admit it,
the fact remains that the two communties had co-existed together, at most times in harmony,
over several centuries. Hindu ministers had served in Muslim courts, and vice versa. Often Hindu
and Muslim feudatories had formed alliances. At least at the level of the ruling elite the Mughals
had practised, inter-marriage, and Allauddin Khilji, Akbar and Jahangir had all taken Hindu rajput
princesses for wives and queens. In fact the Mughal system was substantially dependent upon
the support of the rajput princedoms, the twice-born progeny of the Sun and the Moon!
Prior to the Delhi Sultunate, firm contacts between the two religions had been limited in
geographical expanse, to the coastal regions. They had been transient elsewhere.
A narrow strip of land along the peninsular coastline of India had been initiated to Islam by Arab
traders and seamen. The Arabs had, since the fall the Rome, been the richest intermediary traders
between the East and the West. Their vehicle was the sea and they colonised small areas, such
as Malabar along the Peninsular coastline. But their sights were focused only on maritime trading
routes. They made no effort, whatsoever to penetrate inland. The Arab seamen had very limited, in
fact minimal effect upon the mainland.
The sole early invasion from the sea, that of Muhammad Bin Qasim, was also aimed at the
protection of maritime traffic in trade and pilgrims. Even if there had been any long term territorial
designs these were subverted by the recall of the spirited and precocious general. The
Rashtrakatas and Pratiharas, the neighbouring and successive regional dynasties, were thus
successfully able to resist any extensive Arab advance. The suzereignty of the Ommayyad's and
the Abbasids over Sindh lasted only about 140 years. And since Sindh was at the periphery of the
Islamic empire, their hold was weak and irregular. Islam could therefore not be established on a
very large scale anywhere in the Sub-continent by direct Arab impact. By the time the Central
Asian Muslim kings began their incursions upon the Indus more than a century had passed since
Arab suzereignty upon the southern reaches of the Indus had been terminated. Even the Muslim
pockets that remained had shed Arab ways and customs. Their Islam drew more from the
Indus than the Arab culture. They had also learnt to co-exist in a multi-religious environment
with people of other pursuasions.
Even when vast and stable Muslim states and empires were finally established, communal
harmony remained the norm, and communal conflict was the exception. Most of the rulers of the
Delhi Sultanat and the Moghal line (excepting Feroze Shah and Aurangzeb) strived adeptly to
maintain a balance between the two communities. They always
needed their support of the martial confederacy of the rajputs. In fact countless Hindus were retained as feudatories, while
'Jaziyya' (tax on non-Muslim) remained only a very minor source of the State's revenue even
though an overwhelming majority of subjects qualified to this liability. Even where this tax was
imposed, it was confined to artisans and the urban pupulation, implicitly exempting both the rural
elite (the military retainers) and the already over-taxed peasantry.
While the armies of the Delhi Sultanat (kingdom) and the Mughal empire derived substantial
strength from recruits marshalled by Hindu feudatories, even lesser dynasties frequantly entered
into inter-communal alliances.
That enlightened Hindu, Diwan Ram Narain of Patna, was the friend and ally of Siraj-ud-Daula,
the brave Muslim Nawab who first faced the British orslaught and fell fighting in the field of
Plassey in 1757. It was the Hindu, Ram Narain who mourned the defeat and death of the Muslim
ruler Siraj-du-Daulah, in words that have saddened the hearts of so many:
"GHAZALAN TUM TO WAQIF HO, KAHO MAJNOON KAY MARNAIN KI
DEEWANA MARR GAYA AAKHIR KO, WEERAANON PAY KYA GUZRI"
O gazelles, since you know, tell us how did love die?
He died at last, and then what happened to the wastelands?"
In 1751, Nawab Wazir Safdar Jang of Oudh, sacked the Muslim principality of Rohilkhand, and the
entire Rohilla country, with the aid of the Marhatta army of Malhar Rao Holkor, Mahadji Scindiaand the Bharatpur troops of Raja Suraj Mal Jat. In doing so these Hindu-Muslim
allies were indeed avenging the humiliation of a Muslim emperor (Shah Alam), at the hands of a Muslim
chieftain (Ghulam Qadir Rohilla).
Muslims kings and emperors had married Hindu princesses. The imperial court had adopted
many Hindu practices including the association of divinity with kingship, a concept entirely alien to
Islam. Moghal Emperors had assumed the exalted and flattering title of "Zile-e-Ilahi", literally:
the shadow of God implying, of course, His appointee, or delegate. Many kings and emperors of
Delhi enthusiastically participated in such Hindu festivals as Holi, Dusehra, Diwali, and Basant.
The mixing of the two communities was not confined to the imperial and feudal elite. It was equally
obvious at lower levels even if prominence to this circumstance has not been allowed by historians
more concerned with dynastic fortunes and palace rituals than with the common man. The fact is
that migration of Muslims into India had definitely been limited. There was never any
mass-migration into the Indus or India along with Central Asian soldiers. The armies of the
Turks, the Aghans and the Mughals were only accompanied by the usual crop of camp-followers
and retinue. The consolidation of Muslim governments in India did, no doubt, induce some Muslim,
central Asian traders to create out-posts in India, and several artisans and architects to migrate.
Arab traders had also built settlements along the Peninsular coastline, particularly around the
ports of Broach (near present-day Bombay) and Malabar. But all these "aliens" together formed
only a fraction of the Muslim population in India.
The vast majority of Indian Muslims were converts from 'Hinduism' especially from the lower
castes. By conversion they expected to shed their inferior status. The tendency, once a decision
was taken, was for entire communities to convert at once. But when a class of artisans thus
converted to Islam, there was no immediate and sudden change in the life-style or status of the
converts. The artisans, for their own survival, had to continue to practice the same craft they were
experts in and had inherited from their forefathers. The practices of the trade, the mode of living,
the standard of life and social status, underwent little change. Weavers for instance, are one such
community that by the large converted to Islam 'en masse'. Yet their status, in the all-prevading
caste-order (that unfortunately remained the back-drop of all Indian social activity at the popular
level, whether Hindu or Muslim), remained as low as it was when they were Hindus. Because the
artisans were organized in "craft-castes", the caste distinction continued even after conversion.
And since the process of conversion could never be induced by any very substantial coercion
(barring the initial centuries) it was slow and gradual. The majority, with no real prospect of an
instant change in status, remained Hindu even under a long line of Muslim rulers. This in itself
contributed towards assimilation of the two communities as there was no sudden and lightening
break with the past or with the contemporary local environment. It may be difficult for us to
conceive today, but the two communities, although distinct in essential aspects, had learnt to
co-exist at all levels, from the highest to the lowest, at the time that the Moghal Empire, having
gone past its peak, was curving towards its decline. Though inititially derived from Persian
traditions, the 'but' (idol) and the 'butkada' (the temple) had become idyllic images Urdu and
vernacular works of Muslim poets. Leterature had fused many images and absorbed them upon its
soft and fertile soil. See, for instance, how the images of but, kufr and khuda merge with the full
play of poetic licence:
LAA-AY US BUT KO ILTAJA KAR KAY,
KUFR TOOTA KHUDA, KHUDA KAR KAY.
After pleadings the idol (beloved) came along,
The heathen's will broke, thank god.
The syncretics, the sufis and the bakhties also played an important part forging links and the
spirit of co-existence between the two communities. They focused on and identified both the
agents of conflict and the areas of harmonious co-existence. They targetted the fundamentalists,
and preached the love of man. They decried intolerance and dogma, and gave the message of peace
and communal harmony. Man, to them, was the supreme creation, and he had to be defended
regardless of religion, creed, or caste. In this belief they were boldly inconoclastic.
MASJID DHAA DAY, MANDIR DHAA DAY,
DHAA DAY JO KUJ DHAINDA,
IK BANDY DA DIL NA DHAAEEN,
SONAN RAB DILLAN WICH RAINDA.
Pull down the mosque, and pull down the temple,
Pull down eveything that can be pulled down,
But do no pull down the heart of a man,
For God lives in the hearts of men.
In the War of 1857, both the communities together joined issue with, and, shoulder to shoulder,
entered together a life-and-death battle against the British. The War had, indeed, been triggered
off by the greased cartridges that had incensed soldiers of both communities to rebellion at the
Meerut garrison in May that year. Both the Hindu and Muslim soldiers were equally outraged by
the procedure required to load the new Enfield rifles. Then as the partriots galloped the forty miles
to Delhi, the population of that town and the Oudh peasantry, that rose to welcome them drew
from both communities. While most of the princes, both Muslim and Hindu, either sided with the
British or maintained a significant neutrality, the name of Lakshami Bai, the attractive 20 years
old Rani of Jhansi who bravely led her cavalry to her defeat and death, cannot be omitted from the
ranks of the Indian heroes of the independence struggle against the "Farangees". Nor can we deny
the valour of Nana Sahib, and of his the guerilla commander, Tantia Topi who took up arms at a
time that their people, the Marhattas, were fully exhausted. The latter two continued their
resistance well into 1858, even after Delhi had fallen to the British. All were fighting, in effect, for
the posterity of a feeble Muslim emperor. The emperor himself recognised this contribution. The
Proclamation issued by him on august 27, 1857, before his final deposition and capture in
September began: "It is well known to all, that in this age the people of Hindoostan, both Hindoos
and Mohammedans, are being ruined under the tyranny and oppression of the infidel and
treacherous English. It is therefore the bounden duty of all the wealthy people of India ... to stake
their lives and property for the well being of the public." Though the Proclamation did not evoke
much response among the "wealthy people", it did indicate how to him the Christians, but perhaps
not the Hindus, were "infidels".
The War of 1857 proved, by and large, the shared concerns of the Hindu-Muslim peasantry and
the middle classes in the area of conflict. It also manifested the shared, though generally opposing,
concerns of the Hindu-Muslim aristocracy. The Divide was essentially on class and geographical
(or regional) lines, not on a communal basis.
The communal co-existence did of course break down at times. There was also occasional conflict.
Sometimes quite gory. But the periods of harmonious co-existence were always far more
extended than the times of conflict. Then, too, the conflict would be confined to geographically
specific and limited areas. And it merely highlighted that the two communites were indeed
different nations, not that they could not co-exist in peace. Quite often the disputes were extra
Then came the Battle of Plassey (1757). And a new power.
The 190 years between Plassey (1757) and Partition (1947) eroded all the factors that had
contributed towards peaceful communal co-existence. They made way for active and intense
It is not being simplistically suggested that this corosion of the spirit of communal co-existence
was the result merely of any conscious "Divide and Rule" policy of the new rulers. The policy must
also have played its part. But the divide was never artificial. It was indeed far more tangible and
real. It was too much a product of the inevitability of circumstances to go unnoticed. And it had its
roots less in religious differences and more in the differing circumstances of class, profession,
calling, means of livelihood, and status.
Traditionally Muslims had either been rulers or workmen. The invading migrants had ruled. The
caste-converts had been artisans.
Hindus had continued to pursue the professions of business and trade. They filled the ranks of the
merchants. As the British tradesmen found their first decisive foothold in the Sub-Continent at
Plassey, in 1757, Hindu merchants easily integrated into their system. The British and the
merchants (mostly Hindus), became partners. But the imperialists had had to defeat Muslim
rulers to gain power. The British and the Muslims became adversaries. The very objects and
purposes of the Raj, thus also made adversaries of the two Indian communities.
Hindu merchants soon began to play a complementary role to British commercial and industrial
expansion in India For this role they had a natural facility. They took to commerce and industry as
well as to participation in the adminstration, albeit at subordinate positions, from the very day that
the British set foot in Bengal. By the turn of the century they were establishing factories and mills.
The twentieth century saw a widspread and truly national Hindu bourgeoisie straining to break out
of unjust and uneconomical imperial controls restricitive of its growth and intended to preserve all
manner of British monopolies.
The Muslims, by contrast, had always looked down upon such vocations as trading,
money-lending of book-keeping. The Muslim aristocracy had been feudal and land-oriented. It
could fall into debt of the Hindu money-lender but looked down upon his profession as unworthy of
its own sons. The caste system, which had by now adopted readily discernible classification along
occupational lines, was also conducive in preventing inter trade or inter-occupational mobility. For
a Muslim feudatory to take to trading? How preposterous. (It is only recently that these barriers
have been broken with the pre-eminent feudal gentry of the Punjab and Sindh taking on, what are
today certainly more profitable occupations but which would, doutbless, have been scorned at by
their grandfathers). While the Arab traders, had, for centuries partaken of usurious transactions
and continued to go on with the prevelent trade practices, the more puritancial Turks and Afghan
were somewhat inhibited by the Islamic injuction prohibiting usury. This again restrained Indian
Muslims (other than the Coastal Arabs and the itenerant pathans from the north), from taking to
There were no merchants among Muslims as there were among the Hindus. The Muslims had
also sulked over the outcomes of Plassey and Seringaptam as they were later to resent the
annexation of Oudh and the failure of the uprising of 1857. They had stayed away from the British
system of trade and industrial expansion. The Vaish took this opportunity by the forelock. The
Muslim stood by and let it slip past him.
But this is not to suggest that there no elements, whatsoever, among the Muslim population of
the Sub-continent that did provide any support to the Raj. An entire elite of the Muslim
community did, in their own way, assist the Raj. The Muslim collaboration with the Raj was in the
role of the lower feudatories or 'Zamindars' collecting revenues and harvesting crops suited to
Lancashire industries. Mostly these crops were also grown upon "newly colonised" lands opened
up for cultivation by massive irrigation works and allotted to land-owners by the imperial
adminstration. The Muslim elite which had lagged behind in commerce and industry, was thus in
its own way, also supporting the Raj. Only its department of support was different. As landowning
feudals, enjoying almost arbitrary revenue-collection and law-enforcement authority over the
peasantry, the Muslim feudatories complemented the Raj, just as the Raj ensured them their
privileges and status. While the interests of the Hindu merchant and industrialist would, one day
in the twentieth century, conflict with the Raj, the relationship of this element of the Muslim
community with the Raj was not, and would nover become, competitive.
The Hindu bourgeoisie was, at the turn of the century, becoming impatient with the restraints cast
upon it by monopolistic trading policies of the Raj. The two Indian communities, the Hindu and the
Muslim, thus now stood well apart, and the distance between them was rapidly increasing. The
harmony and co-existence of the recent past was soon to become a fantastic, unbelievable tale of
some distant age, long since gone past and forgotten. This conflict of interests was to ensure the
parting of the ways, and to lead to Partition in 1947.
These essential differences of profession and calling between the Hindus and Muslims extenuated
other more deeply ingrained differences of attitudes and cultures.These were, again, less the
product of dogmatic divergencies, and more the creatures of these distinct and differing
circumstances and acquired social status. The trader in India was not supported by a
lego-administrative system whereby his credit could be recovered or gauranteed. He faced the
prospects of sudden losses, distraint of goods, breaches of contract and denials of pecuniary
liability. His only insurance therefore, was his monetary savings. He became known for his thrift.
The bourgeois retained all the surplus liquid deposits. The feudal, by contrast maintained, and was
allowed the aid of, coercive revenue collecting retainers. He could employ these levies to extract
revenue from the peasantry, or forcibly expropriate what crop there was. He required no insurance
except the loyalty of his men. His ways were, therefore, extravagent. Not so that of the Hindu.
The primary distinction therefore that coincided substantially with the Hindu-Muslim divide was
that the Hindu community had a vigorous bourgeoisie, while the Muslim society was still
agriculture based, and feudal. The two communities were in different historical time-zones. Even
if this divide had not coincided with the religious divergence, it would have been enough to impel a
division of the Sub-continent.
And this distinction was to remain, and was ultimately to become the prime-mover impelling the
Pakistan Movement of the mid-Twentieth Century. The predominatly feudal and agranian society
of northwestern India was to be repelled by the prospect of becoming subject to the predominantly
bourgeois areas south of the Gangetic plain and the Rajasthan desert. The use of the word
"predominantly" is deliberate as the contrary elements on either side were not insignificant. The
peasantry and many feudals, Hindus and Muslim, supported that sole spokesman of the Indian
bourgeoisie, Mohandas Karamchan Gandhi, as did many bourgeois Muslim politicians and
intellectuals. At the same time the Bengali bourgeoisie and the Muslim commercial communities
of the west coast were an important element in the Pakistan Movement. Doubtless the Muslim
bourgeoisie expected a protected, monopolistic market in the new State, exactly what it did
manage to obtain.
The predominent trends were, however, so powerful, in fact, that the latter-day, West
Pakistan-East Pakistan rift, and the creation of Bangla Desh out of East Pakistan, was also a
result of it. Bengal, with its bourgeois relations of production had always been too much a part of
this Gangetic India, and the world of maritime trade and commerce. It was, thus, quite distinct and
different from the land-locked and landowning elite of the north-west. Here the divide, of 1971,
was not prevented by commonality of religion. The divergencies of social and political culture were
more powerful and irresistible. When this inherent cultural distinctiveness outpaced the
commonality of religion, many were confused and utterly at sea. Their basis of the "Two-Nation
Theory", adverting only to the Hindu-Muslim divide on the basis of religion, was thus put at
But Bengal, that featured so prominently at a very critical juncture of the history of the
Sub-continent, provides many key elements necessary to the determination of the effects of the
bourgeois-feudal conflict of interests, and to the discovery, ultimately, of the "Indus person", (the
Pakistani). If we are interested in identifying the attributes of the Indus person, and determining
the essential core of the Hindu-Muslim divide in the Sub-continent, many events and
developments in the history of Bengal will throw much light on the subject. Its conquest, plunder,
and adminstration by the British hold the key to the Hindu-Muslim divide. To Bengal we must
now, therefore, turn.Read more...
The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan