India’s Muslim socialists

An encyclopaedic account of the intellectual ferment among the Muslims of India.

Published : Feb 04, 2015 12:30 IST

THIS is a work of amazing research, rich insights and commendable objectivity. The author is Professor of Islam and Cultural Diversity and Director of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Socialism always had a hold on the Muslim mind, secular or Islamic. The religious-minded talked about “Islamic socialism” and drew on Islamic concepts such as revolt against oppression, cares of the needy, besides the institution of the bait-ul-maal (a common fund for those in need). The secular drank at the fountain of Marxism and were either members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) or participants in the front bodies. Many others were sympathisers with a strong leftist orientation; pioneers in the Progressive Writers’ Movement and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA)—on which Rakshanda Jalil has written an able study, Liking Progress, Loving Change: Literary History of the Progressive Writers’ Association in Urdu .

Ordinarily, one does not begin a book review with comments on the appendices. This exceptional work demands exceptional treatment. The 126 pages of Appendices 1 and 2 contain brief but fairly detailed biographies of Muslims in the socialist movement, with full references that testify to the pains Prof. Ansari has taken. Appendix 1 contains the biographies of Muslims who became socialists or sympathised with socialist ideals. It comprises those who left India as pan-Islamists and became socialists, often returning via the Soviet Union, or those who remained in India but became politically active as a result of pan-Islamist anti-British agitation. Pan-Islamists were fiercely anti-British. Some in this group were disillusioned Khilafatists. Appendix 2 includes “Muslim socialists and Muslims sympathetic towards socialist ideas”. They were associated with the PWA or other like-minded bodies.

Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was then a hotbed of socialism. Many personalities mentioned in these appendices either studied or taught at the AMU. Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, who led the Amritsar agitation against the Rowlatt Act, was one of them. He supported Bhagat Singh, opposed Pakistan and, though he belonged to a landed family, died in impoverished circumstances. He had returned the Stalin Peace Prize of a lakh of rupees to the Indian Peace Committee. In this list figure men such as the great poet Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, K.M. Ashraf, Israrul Haq Majaz, Saadat Hasan Manto, Saghir Nizami, Ismat Chughtai, and Professor Mohammed Habib, Aligarshiams all who were opposed to the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan. None remembers them now. For that matter, Muslim contribution to the freedom movement has been ignored; not least by the Congress. This book fills a void.

As an American writer remarked, it is an unnoticed theme in the narratives of Indian nationalism. Behind the story of the defeat of Muslim socialists lies the tragic episode of Jawaharlal Nehru’s defeat at the hands of communal-minded colleagues in the Congress, led by Vallabhbhai Patel. Nehru was the president of the Congress then. Its general secretary was the communal-minded Acharya Kripalani. Rajendra Prasad and G.B. Pant were among those who ensured the failure of Nehru’s Muslim Mass Contact Movement and, with it, the marginalisation of Muslim socialists in the Congress. Some of them drifted to the CPI. S. Gopal has censured in his biography of Nehru the role of Patel’s cabal after Independence. This sordid stratagem is laid bare in a well-documented essay, The Failure of Nehru’s Mass Contacts Campaign and the Rise of Muslim Separatism ” by Lt Col. James E. Dillard at the University of Maryland. ( Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies ; Vol. XXXI, No. 2; Winter 2008).

He notes that in 1937, students at the AMU “voiced enthusiasm for the campaign”. From the university, Jamiluddin Ahmed wrote to Jinnah in near panic about it. So did the Raja of Mahmudabad.

“Muslims who advocated a socialist position appealing to unity and solidarity of the masses were numerous and represented a powerful ideological strand among the Muslim intelligentsia— a largely unnoticed theme in most accounts of Indian nationalism . Prominent among these leaders were K.M. Ashraf, who rose to political prominence in the 1930s as a member of the Congress Socialist Party; Z.A. Ahmad, an Aligarh graduate who joined the Economic Information Department of the All India Central Committee as secretary in 1936; Hayatullah Ansari of Firangi Mahal in Lucknow, a graduate of the AMU and editor of the pro-Congress Hindustan Weekly ; and young poets and writers such as Kaifi Azmi, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Ali Sardar. The adherence of such men gave the mass contacts campaign in U.P. [United Provinces] a radical orientation and an ideological thrust lacking in earlier Congress attempt at popular mobilisation. …

“The Muslim University at Aligarh, a premier educational centre and focus of intense intellectual and political activity, mirrored trends among the Muslim intelligentsia. The University remained in the forefront of the nationalist struggle all through the 1920s and 1930s. Many students, including leaders of the influential Students Union, voiced support for Congress. Pro-Congress students spearheaded the 1936 students’ strike against theuniversity’s repression of nationalist activities and opposition to a move by the Students Union to initiate an All-India Muslim Students Federation. The mass contacts campaign also struck a favourable chord in wider Aligarh circles.

“The political climate in the country in general and U.P. in particular remained highly conducive for the success of the mass contacts campaign. Despite mounting communal pressures and increased Hindu-Muslim strife, Congress could still count on the support of powerful Muslim groups in NWFP [North-West Frontier Province], U.P. and Bihar. Indeed, the progress of the mass contacts campaign in 1937 and 1938 caused veritable panic in Muslim League circles and led Jinnah to launch a counteroffensive to turn the tide.”

Within two years after Nehru launched the mass contacts campaign, it ran into trouble, not so much because of the Muslim League’s opposition or the lack of Muslim support but because oftheCongress’ own reluctance to pursue it with any sense of purpose . By the early summer of 1939, the Congress scrapped the mass contact committees, signifying the unhappy end to a campaign started with much fanfare and enthusiasm (pages 58 & 63).

The idea “was Nehru’s and he alone… pressed it”. The Patelites disagreed and, worse, feared that induction of Muslims would rob them of their majority in the Congress.

Exposure of Muslim socialists’ prominence once upon a time is just one of the merits of this book, which covers the aftermath in Pakistan as well. In Pakistan, the liberal/socialist opinion became “utterly marginalised” and Islamist fundamentalism got a boost in the Zia-ul-Haq era.

But secularists are also to blame. Their dogmatism blinded them to the real significance of religion and its role in highly religious societies:

“What they failed to do was to engage fully with the intricacy of Marx’s understandings of religion. Crucially, they ignored the fact that he also recognised in religion an active moral agency, especially for the degraded and the despised—the essence of religion, in his view, was its voicing of passionate suffering, its cry against the realities of exploitation and degradation. Likewise, the essence of being human was the struggle for humanity to take back into its own hands a world that it had made but which has been taken away from it. …

“It is this recognition of the continuing depth of the religious dimension present within human life, and the close connection between religion and politics in human affairs—particularly the moral and ethical components combined with the social activism and welfare community interventions of the Islamist in social life—that secularly inclined Muslim socialists in colonial India, in post-colonial Pakistan, and even perhaps in Muslim societies more broadly, failed to incorporate sufficiently into their consciousness and political understanding.”

The historical resume since the 1857 mutiny deserves to be read closely for its own sake. Hitherto the writings of Muslim socialist writers were studied from the literary aspect rather than as contributions to political debate. This book fills the gaping void. “It sets out to uncover which kind of Muslims in British India were drawn to socialist ideals. It looks at the different ways in which they came into contact with socialist ideas, how they responded to these ideas, and by what means they disseminated them. Finally, it examines the various political and cultural strategies adopted by these Muslim socialists in order to achieve their objectives. In this way, it hopes to shed light on a major strand in Islamic responses to the modern world by examining the two phases of Indian Muslim reactions to socialism which took place between 1917 to 1947.” The period between 1937 and 1947 was the most active and productive time for these Muslim socialists, and was when they achieved a level of popularity that remains unsurpassed.

Intellectual and political failure

The later decline was as much an intellectual failure as a political one. Intellectually, Muslim socialists’ error was similar to the European socialists’ error in 1914. They fancied that the workers of the warring nations would unite to fail the war plans of their capitalist leaders. The workers, in fact, turned out to be even more jingoistic nationalists. Socialists led by Nehru committed as grave an error in 1937. Muslim Peasants and Workers were as susceptible to the appeal of religion and as resentful of the Congress’ policies as others.

This work is an encyclopaedic account of the intellectual ferment among the Muslims of India. Consider just one case. Maulana Shibli Nomani (1857-1914), for instance, although educated as an alim , was sympathetic towards Saiyid Ahmad Khan’s modernist ideas.

“Helped by T.W. Arnold, Professor of Philosophy at Aligarh, he acquired a sound understanding of Western ideas of literary criticism and historiography, which he subsequently applied to his own writings in Urdu. Having studied English historians, Shibli was greatly impressed by their methods of research and analysis, especially their objectivity which he felt contradicted the sentimentalism of Muslim historians: ‘A historian,’ he declared, ‘should never go beyond the bare transcript of events. He should cultivate perfect detachment like Ranke who rejected the imagination, had no sympathies, religious or political, and whose narrative leaves one in doubt as to his likes and dislikes and personal opinions’.

“Even more important from the point of view of later progressive writers was Shibli’s emphasis on extending the scope of history to embrace the lives of common people. He observed acutely that history in the past had been mainly an account of the lives of rulers and their courts. Little attention had ever been paid to the social and cultural concerns of the ordinary people: ‘the history of the rulers is there …’ he declared, ‘but of the morals, manners and culture of the people there is not the slightest mention’.

“Politically, Shibli himself gradually moved from a position in which he called upon the Muslims in 1908 to support the colonial authorities in suppressing ‘polytheists’, to a strong anti-British, pan-Islamic nationalist stance. In 1912, he wrote his famous article which called on the Muslim League to make the demands of the poor its own, and to establish unity with the Hindus.”

True to form, the Modi regime disgraced itself by denying visas to Pakistani intellectuals who wished to participate in a function at the Shibli Academy in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, to commemorate the death of Shibli Nomani at which Vice-President Hamid Ansari delivered a thought-provoking address.

Other figures receive as informed an analysis from Prof. Khizar Humayun Ansari. The chapter on “Themes in Muslim Socialist Literature” is particularly illuminating. Not one socialist figure of any significance is omitted; whether poet, writer, journalist or politician. The references are thorough.

Those socialists who blindly supported the CPI fell into the same ditch in which the CPI leaders fell; especially on the policy on the switch after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union. S.A. Dange told this writer that in 1951 Stalin scolded him for not supporting the Congress’ Quit India resolution. “Do you think we won the war because of the 200 rifles you sent?” Stalin asked. In truth the line was sold to the CPI by Rajni Palme Dutt and Henry Pollit of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

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