In 1951, Muslims constituted 9.8 per cent of India’s population of 361 million. Put differently, about 35 million Muslims stayed back after rejecting the idea of Pakistan. But was their faith in a non-theocratic India politically or economically fructuous? No, says the historian Pratinav Anil, a lecturer in history at the University of Oxford.
Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947–77
Hurst Publishers UK
His latest book, Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947–77, is a totalising narrative about “the communal prejudice that lay under the carapace of Congress secularism” during its unbroken 30-year rule from 1947. In this period, declares the book, the state behaved like “an Islamophobic agency”, keeping Muslims out of the bureaucracy and sometimes even removing them en masse from public positions on suspicion of being “Pakistani fifth-columnists”.
In 1977, Muslims accounted for 11.4 per cent of the country’s population but constituted only 4.5 per cent of the judiciary, and 4.4 per cent and 6 per cent of the Central and States’ civil services, respectively, apart from being underrepresented in banking and the constabulary. They were, however, overrepresented in prisons and among riot victims, with the result that fewer Muslims made it to Nehruvian legislatures than to any other Parliament before 2014.
This disempowerment was brought about by the clever use of a whole gamut of constitutionally unassailable stratagems. One of them was the process of delimitation, through which the boundaries of electoral constituencies were fixed or altered to suit the majority community.
This discriminatory process politically weakened Muslims to such an extent that one of the Sachar Committee’s recommendations in 2006 was the establishment of “a more rational procedure for delimitation of constituencies” to improve the chances of Muslims getting elected to Parliament and State Assemblies.
Congress also used its dominance in the Constituent Assembly to exclude from the Constitution all political safeguards, including separate electorates, that Muslims had secured with the devolution acts of 1909, 1919, and 1935. Even the reservation of parliamentary seats was denied to them. And, “making a mockery of minority representation and the popular will”, the first-past-the-post electoral system (which Anil contemptuously describes as “the handmaiden of majoritarianism”) was adopted in place of proportional representation.
Anil recounts how Patel manipulated “nationalist Muslims” and sycophantic rebels from the Muslim League such as Tajamul Hussain and Begum Aizaz Rasul—who behaved like “Patel’s poodle”—to give up all political safeguards for their community in the interests of the nation.
And when Abul Kalam Azad and Hifzur Rahman demanded at least reservation, Patel used Hussain and the Begum to censure them for trying to isolate the Muslims from the general community. Indeed, the political asphyxiation of Muslims in the Constituent Assembly prompted Azad to call it “my new prison”.
Another shocking revelation in Another India traces the “go to Pakistan” taunt to September 1947 when Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel told Mahatma Gandhi that the “vast majority of the Muslims in India were not loyal to India” and as such, it would be better for them “to go to Pakistan”.
To stay back, they “should try win over the goodwill of the majority”. But “if they persisted in their old ways, the establishment of a purely Hindu raj was inevitable”. This was Govind Ballabh Pant, the first Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh who “purged the state’s services of Muslims and oversaw bans on anti-RSS protests”.
Anil marshals these statements to excoriate the Whig histories of postcolonial India—evident in the academic writings of Mushirul Hasan, Ashutosh Varshney, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Ramachandra Guha—for dogmatically eulogising Nehru and his stalwarts as “characters in a morality play” forever “rallying to the defence of minorities”.
The fact is that in the Nehruvian period riots were routine, occurring almost every five years. And it was under the Congress’ watch that a staggering 800,000 Muslims—one in 50 Indian Muslims—were forced to go to East Pakistan in 1964 after the “most violent Hindu-Muslim conflagration of postcolonial India” which happened in Bengal following the theft, in December 1963, of the “moi-e-muqaddas” (holy hair of the Prophet) from the Hazratbal shrine in Kashmir.
Anil provides a table titled “Riots in Nehruvian India, 1954-1963” to show that in the “riots galore” during Nehru’s tenure, Muslims made up a staggering 82 per cent of the fatalities and 59 per cent of the injured. The “planned and bloody affairs”, he says, were organised “almost with the precision of a watchmaker” to make political capital out of the resulting religious polarisation.
In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the Jana Sangh polled 10 per cent of the votes in 1957, 17 per cent in 1962, and 22 per cent in 1967, not too far behind the Congress’ 32 per cent. Clearly, the Jana Sangh’s prospects brightened at the Congress’ cost. For both parties then, says Anil, “if uniting Hindus meant vilifying Muslims, so be it. So it was that the Congress let riots run their course.”
The “illegal immigration” of Muslims from Bangladesh into Assam and beyond was yet another “Islamophobic dog whistle”. The Congress used this bogey to propagandise that Pakistani nationals were infiltrating India to convert local Hindus to Islam.
The deportation campaign that followed this disinformation saw the vicious transmogrification of “go to Pakistan” into “sent to Pakistan”, as thousands of genuine Indian Muslims were expelled to the newly created Muslim state.
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Citing official figures, Anil reveals that in Nehru’s second and third terms, over 35,000 “Pakistani nationals” in Assam were either deported or given notice to leave the country. Likewise, some 23,500 were deported from Tripura and about 40,500 from West Bengal.
Before being sent to Pakistan, the Muslims were usually driven out of their homes to makeshift camps on the border “like herds of cattle”, and forced to “sign papers declaring falsely that they were Pakistanis”, when many of them not only had the right papers, but also appeared on Indian electoral registers. “It was their faith that marked them as suspect,” says Anil, tellingly.
He describes Nehru’s reluctant suspension of deportations in December 1962 under the Foreigners Act as “too little, too late”, because six months after the suspension his government was still evicting “one Muslim every three minutes”.
The Muslim response to the challenges of Islamophobia and Hindu nationalism came from three categories of actors: the nationalists, the communalists, and the notables.
The attitude of “nationalist Muslims”—mostly Muslim Congressmen—was expressed in three ways: they conflated India’s progress with that of the Congress; shielded their party from criticism by blaming the communalists (“Muslim nationalists”) for Partition; and placed the constitutional protection of sectarian sharia above the community’s political rights. Backing them to the hilt were the ulama, especially those belonging to the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, a branch of the Congress in all but name.
Topping the list of “communalists” were sociopolitical parties such as the IUML, the Majlis-e-Mushawarat (MeM), and the Jamat-e-Islami Hind. Anil describes the formation of the MeM in August 1964, six months after the Hazratbal riots, as the first bold manifestation of Muslim agency in independent India against the anti-Muslim bias of Congress.
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The “notables”, of course, were elitist (Ashraf) Muslims such as mutawallis (custodians of waqf properties), waseeqadars (princely pensioners) and waaqifs (dedicators of properties for waqf), who used their aristocratic agency to feather their own nests in the guise of working for the community’s economic development.
Even the movement for Aligarh Muslim University’s autonomy, alleges Anil, was in reality an attempt to secure the class interests of the Ashrafs by presenting them as community concerns.
Robbed of agency
However, despite its painstaking research, Another India suffers from a major inconsistency. It insinuates that “nationalist Muslims”, to appear loyal, better their career prospects, and focus attention on protecting the shariah, surrendered their political agency to help Congress dilute the constitutional rights of Muslims.
But Anil himself lays out a long list of Congress’ Islamophobic acts, which, he says, left little room for Muslim agency. It includes, apart from the aforementioned facts, the misuse of preventive detention laws against Muslims leaders; “the mass pogrom in the Deccan” which resulted in the massacre of between 27,000 and 40,000 Muslims, and Nehru’s suppression of the Sunderlal Report that brought this fact out.
Even the tallest “nationalist Muslim”, Azad, had no real independence. As a figurehead president of the Congress his correspondence was often vetted and ghostwritten by Nehru. When he displayed some independence and criticised Nehru for rejecting the Cabinet Mission Plan, and Mahatma Gandhi for betraying the nationalist cause by agreeing to partition India, an angry Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Nehru seeking the replacement of Azad with “more manipulable Muslims”.
Eventually, he was forced to resign and “make way for a younger man” just as Mahatma Gandhi wanted. In a telling description of Azad’s impotent reaction to his cold-blooded marginalisation, Anil writes: “He resigned himself to his fate, a venerated has-been, a man without agency.”
As for Muslim Congressmen of lesser stature, the “insufferable” Hindu Congressmen routinely insulted them and doubted their loyalty. Cars of prominent Muslims, including lieutenant governors and excise commissioners, and other high-ranking Muslim officials of the Secretariat were regularly stopped and searched by the police for arms.
It is unimaginable, therefore, that a handful of “nationalist Muslims” could have defeated a majoritarian onslaught of this kind to secure their community’s political rights. They had no option but to meekly accept the tradeoff offered by Congress: the protection of Muslims’ cultural and religious rights in lieu of their political rights. Had they pressed for their political rights, they may have ended up losing even their cultural rights.
It was this psychotic angst that robbed the “nationalist Muslims” of their agency and inculcated in them what Anil calls “a tendency to mute their demands and privilege party discipline and loyalty over all else”.
In fact, Azad feared so much for the vulnerable Muslims that he advised them to totally give up politics and “live as loyal citizens”. Interestingly, Anil agrees that loyalty in the context of Partition could only be a demonstration of submission, not a sign of agency.
Another India’s iconoclastic assessment of postcolonial history raises some troubling questions too.
Was the idea of composite nationalism, which Azad invoked along with Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind in support of the Congress’ secularism, a conceptual farce because Congress used secularism only as “a rhetorical strategy” to legitimise its rule, as Anil argues?
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Was Azad right in holding the Congress more responsible for Partition than the Muslim League because he realised that his own upper-caste party saw the political advantages of letting a large number of Muslims “go to Pakistan”?
It is worth noting that Dr B.R. Ambedkar, in his 1941 book Thoughts on Pakistan, wanted Hindus to concede Jinnah’s demand because, without Pakistan, India would have to contend with 65 million Muslims, while after its creation, that number would fall to 20 million, thus greatly reducing the proportion of Muslim to Hindu seats in Central and provincial legislatures, which would further fall once weightage was cancelled.
However, by August 1947, the Muslim population had crossed 100 million. But only around 35 million remained in independent India. In other words, Partition saw to it that over 65 million Muslims were rendered non-Indian in a manner that was most unmerciful and unceremonious. Was this staggering purge engineered by the Congress to establish Hindu upper-caste hegemony in India?
H.M. Seervai, one of India’s greatest constitutional experts, wrote in Partition of India: Legend and Reality that what India needed was a Constitution that would have kept the country united by securing for Muslims “all that Pakistan would give them without the drawbacks and hardships of Partition”.
But, the Constitution that ultimately resulted, according to Anil, was “forged by the improbable entente between Jacobinism and Hindu traditionalism”, and therefore, it could not retain the political safeguards that Muslims had secured before Partition.
Was Azad, then, right again in arguing that in a divided India with a centralised and unitary government Muslims would be “left to the mercies of what would become an unadulterated Hindu raj”?
There is enough evidence in Another India to answer all the aforementioned questions in the affirmative. This makes the book a devastating demolition of the myth created by dominant historiography that Nehru was the “generous and magnanimous torch-bearer of secularism”, and that Muslims were so immensely satisfied with constitutional and Congress protection that they simply did not require a politics of their own.
The reviewer is the secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought.