The Crusaders against India’s Poisoned Pluralism
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 4 Sep 2023
Too much thinking about Muslim rulers is now shaped along predictable, clichéd lines. This is true of all shades of opinion, perception and scholarship. There is evidence from several established scholarly discourses that the public perception of Muslim rulers is being increasingly manipulated to fit into a profile built by right-wing historians. The negative images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure of Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: hatred feeds on hatred. Ignorance of Islam exists among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, ignorant and misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most fundamental values.
Similarly, Muslims have their misconceptions. They, reacting to the hate and fear of non-Muslims, create a defensive posture within their societies and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric. In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of sanity are drowned.
The infamous book, ‘The History of India’, as ‘Told by Its Historians’, has done the most incredible damage to Muslim history authored by Elliot and Dawson. There was a time when this book was widely prescribed in schools and colleges. A casual glance at a few pages would reveal the authors’ determined effort to poison readers’ minds against Muslim rulers. The authors, keen to contrast what they understood as the justice and efficiency of British rule with the so-called cruelty and despotism of the Muslim rulers who had preceded that rule, were anything but sympathetic to the “Muhammadan” period of Indian history. Today’s politics in India’s history textbooks promote communal strife by creating a historical consciousness that gives pride of place to religion and proposes a narrative that traces back community identities and antagonisms and legitimizes their existence. Several new studies from Western scholarship also show that the Mughals were pluralists and catholic in their outlook and policies.
The History of Indian Reality
The Indian civilization has been illumined and inspired by Islamic culture throughout the ages spanning various fields, be it arts, painting, crafts and architecture. These artists inspired human imagination to visualize and conceive variegated artistry. The miniature paintings adorned palaces and mausoleums, and the princely rulers decorated their thrones with these artefacts.
The tragedy, however, is that historians have not documented the entire history without bias. These historians were filled with rancour against Muslims and were more loyal to their ideology than facts. Zealot rulers patronized them. Several ideology-minded scholars, even among intellectuals, courted the rulers by destroying and dismantling anything Islamic… So much so that chauvinists appropriated Islamic architecture and presented them as their own. In several cases, the rulers actively patronized the rewriting of history to suit their ideology.
How to Purge Distorted History
The most significant challenge for authentic historians is to resurrect Islamic heritage and purge them of alien accretions. One brave and passionate historian who has taken upon this audacious task is Syed Ubaidur Rahman, whose zeal and passion for this mission are admirable. Rahman has culled a vast corpus of unique insights from the humongous mountain of history and condensed them in such an incredible style that the book’s conciseness keeps the reader engrossed and helps him understand medieval history in its proper perspective.
The Bygone Era of Cultural Harmony
According to Audrey Truschke, a Mellon post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, much of the current religious conflict in India has been fueled by ideological assumptions about that period rather than an accurate rendering of the subcontinent’s history. In her book, ‘Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court’, Truschke says that the heyday of Muslim rule in India from the 16th to 18th centuries was, in fact, one of “tremendous cross-cultural respect and fertilization,” not religious or cultural conflict. , Truschke argues that this more divisive interpretation developed during the colonial period from 1757 to 1947. “The British benefited from pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and portrayed themselves as neutral saviours who could keep ancient religious conflicts at bay,” she says. “While colonialism ended in the 1940s, the modern Hindu right has found tremendous political value in continuing to proclaim and create endemic Hindu-Muslim conflict.”
Truschke finds that high-level contact between learned Muslims and Hindus was marked by collaborative encounters across linguistic and religious lines. Her research overturns the assumption that the Mughals were hostile to traditional Indian literature or knowledge systems. She reveals how the Mughals supported and engaged with Indian thinkers and ideas. As Truschke discovered, the Mughal courts sought to engage with Indian culture. They created Persian translations of Sanskrit works, especially those they perceived as histories, such as the two great Sanskrit epics. “A deliberate misreading of this past undergirds the actions of the modern Indian nation-state,” according to Truschke. At a time of conflict between the Indian state and its Muslim population, Truschke says: “It’s invaluable to have a more informed understanding of that history and the deep mutual interest of early modern Hindus and Muslims in one another’s traditions.” Another great ruler vilified by historians was Tipu Sultan, the fiercest foe the British ever encountered.
India’s Pioneer Global Revolutionary
As one of the first Indian rulers to suffer martyrdom while defending his homeland against the Empire, Tipu Sultan figures prominently in the British Army’s National Army Museum as one of the ten greatest enemy commanders the British Army ever faced. In his capability as a military strategist, Tipu was equal to Napoleon Bonaparte. Besides being a great military strategist, Tipu was a visionary and innovative ruler. Aside from military innovation, Tipu is said to have introduced new coinage, a calendar and a system of weights and measures mainly based on the methods devised by French technicians. Thus, he was a modernist who even planted the “tree of liberty” at the Srirangapatna fort in honour of the French revolutionaries. Tipu Sultan is, however, demonized, mainly due to the biased trajectory of British historiography, which branded him “a furious fanatic and an intolerant bigot.” Some even fondly compared Tipu with Mahmud Ghaznavi and Nadir Shah. Wilks and Kirkpatrick accused Tipu of exiling 60,000 Kanarese Christians.
But one must not forget that the Kanarese Christians helped the English to conquer Mangalore during the Second AngloMysore War. He treated his kingdom’s Syrian Christians extremely well and encouraged Armenian merchants to settle in Mysore. Similarly, he was falsely accused of resorting to forced conversions. An archival record unearthed in 1913 revealed 21 letters he wrote to the Sringeri monastery proving him to be a patron of many Hindu maunders (temples). The reason for the acute venom spouted against Tipu by the British lay in the challenge he posed to colonial power. Following the surrender of the princes of Rajputana, Ranjit Singh, “The Lion of Punjab,” compromised, and the Marathas quietly buckled. Tip dared to confront the colonialists.
The Emerging Historians with a Clean Lens
There have been several new efforts to unearth unexplored Muslim culture. A Muslim historian Syed Ubaidur Rhahman has brought a new secular perspective that presents the Muslim view boldly to historians like Ubaidur Rahman. Several tenacious researchers deserve acclaim for unearthing the hidden history of unexplored Muslim India, unlike the focus purely on the North, which was a researchers’ paradise and drew huge scholarship, some genuine and some spurious. They have done their best to purge the poisoned pluralism and restore the pristine glory of Muslim culture. He is the right person with the zeal and appetite to resurrect the vast culture of the South. His research will undoubtedly help in redefining the landscape of Muslim history. It is a tenacious task, but Ubaidur Rahman is a scholar of deep commitment to the cause.
Rahman is an author based in New Delhi who seems to have wholly dedicated his life to preserving Indian Muslim history. In the last five years, he has authored at least five books, three of which are highly acclaimed. Among these are ‘Forgotten Muslim Empires of South India: Bahmani Empire, Madurai, Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Golconda and Mysore Sultanates’, ‘Ulema’s Role in India’s Freedom Movement’, and ‘Biographical Encyclopaedia of Indian Muslim Freedom Fighters’. His objective is to preserve Indian Muslim history systematically. The most significant disadvantage for South Indian Muslim empires was that it did not attract enough talented historians who believed it was not part of mainstream history.
Syed Ubaidur Rahman’s book, Forgotten Muslim Empires of South India, brings to light the grandeur of that bygone era. Rahman documents the history of Muslims in medieval India, and his book will serialize various facets and regions in the forthcoming volumes.
It is a thoroughgoing work of historical revisionism and excavation. It seeks to rehabilitate the Muslim Sultanate of medieval South India into mainstream historical discourse in India, seeking to correct its current marginal status. It is a significant work of historiography, and it succeeds in the goal it sets out to achieve.
Rediscovering the Muslim Culture of South India
Rahman narrates the lives of all the kings and major players of Bahamani times, the battles and significant milestones as if these were his family or people he knew personally. The story of Islam and Muslims in South India is fascinating and enchanting. From the first paragraph, the gets launched into the midst of the action, inside a series of fascinating nuggets drawn from the sidelines of centuries of Deccan history.
This book offers a unique remedy for communal disharmony. It provides a concise but comprehensive exploration of a series of important medieval Indian states, whose cultural and artistic heritage are unique in several respects but were obscured by vested interests so that no trace of authentic history remains even as a minor symbol of this heritage. The book is a rigidly scholastic document expressing Rehman’s commitment and devotion. He is a one-person army pursuing his passion. Rahman has accomplished an almost unimaginable task by extracting every misty nook of history to place the South in its rightful perspective.
There is no denying the fact that there is a massive population of Muslims down south. However, unfortunately, unlike Muslims in North India, the history of South Indian Muslims, their ruling dynasties, and the Muslim empires haven’t been documented in as much detail as needed, particularly in comparison to other regions. On the other hand, a deluge of historians owed allegiance to the North, and their research pursuits overshadowed the kingdoms of the South. That is why we find a disproportionate focus on the North. Rahman’s effort is to remove these aberrations and put the canvas of Southern history in its rightful place.
Even in the case of north India, the focus has always remained on the history of the Mughals, who ruled the country for nearly three hundred years. The history of the Delhi Sultanate and its different dynasties has been dexterously documented, bringing out Raman as an accomplished narrator of Muslims of South India. But other than the Delhi sultanates, not much has been written on various dynasties that have ruled different regions in the North, including the Sharqi Sultanate’s ruling dynasties based in Jaunpur.
Muslim history in South India is as glorious as the; much-acclaimed civilization of the Delhi or Mughal Sultanates. It lost its grandeur because historians found that it could not receive the wealthy patronage it received from northern rulers. At one point in the early fifteenth century, the Bidar-based Bahmani Empire was the most potent empire in South India and across the Indian Subcontinent.
The dilemma of Muslims is that they are at crossroads and facing crises on multiple fronts, which makes it challenging to prioritize the various agendas. Only people like Ubaidur Rahmnan and Truschke can keep the burning candles in their sphere of passion.
The Pioneering Role of Muslims in the Freedom Movement
Indian Muslims’ contribution in different phases of the country’s freedom movements was, without any iota of doubt, enormous. While there is an effort to obfuscate Muslims’ assistance in the freedom movements, spanning from 1800 to 1947, there doesn’t seem to be any concerted effort on the part of the 200 million-strong Indian Muslim community to preserve its history.
They played larger-than-life roles and made significant sacrifices for the cause. From the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to nawabs, princes, landlords of all sizes, clergy and clerics (religious scholars) and the familiar people, they all stood for the cause, took on enormous challenges and sacrificed almost everything for it. A massive number of clerics were hanged. In the wake of the 1857 uprising, entire Delhi was vacated of Muslims, who were not allowed to return to their homes and reclaim their properties.
It is a historical fact that the Muslims were presumed to be the real conspirators behind the Mutiny. Subsequently, they faced the full wrath of the colonial government. British troops seized and occupied their places of worship and other symbols of spirituality and power as barracks. Jama Masjid became an army barrack where Sikh sepoys were kept for several years before being returned to the Muslims following a lengthy negotiation process initiated by Mufti Sadruddin Azurdah.
In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Amaresh Misra, a writer and historian based in Mumbai, argues that there was an “untold holocaust” which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over ten years beginning in 1857. Britain was then the world’s superpower but, says Misra, came perilously close to losing its most prized possession: India.
The preeminent role of Muslims in the Mutiny is why the British government singled out the community for the worst revenge. When the British hangmen got tired, many others were taken to secluded places and shot dead.
“It was a holocaust, one where millions disappeared. It was a necessary holocaust in the British view because they thought the only way to win was to destroy entire populations in towns and villages. It was simple and brutal. Indians who stood in their way were killed. But its scale has been kept a secret,” wrote Misra.
His calculations rest on three principal sources. Two are records about the number of religious resistance fighters killed – either Islamic mujahideen or Hindu warrior ascetics committed to driving out the British.
The third source involves British labour force records, which show a drop in human resources of between a fifth and a third across vast swaths of India, which, to one British official history, was “on account of the undisputed display of British power, necessary during those terrible and wretched days – millions of wretches seemed to have died.”
Muslims Lead the Mutiny
Muslims took the lead in Mutiny and remained at the forefront in all other efforts to topple the British colonial regime in the country. When British intelligence finally got wind of it, hundreds of Reshmi Rumal Tehrik sympathizers were imprisoned for years without trial. The top leadership, including Maulana Mahmud Hasan and half a dozen disciples, were bundled off to Malta after a sham trial where they endured the worst hardship.
Much more facts based on current research have thrown more excellent light. Most of this contribution has come from an intrepid historian, Ubaidur Rahman. Before the Mutiny, clerics and sufis had been predicting the imminent doom of British rule in the country. When the Mutiny was at its height, hundreds of thousands of religious resistance fighters (Muslim fighters) converged at the hotspots of revolt that included Delhi, Lucknow, Bareilly, Agra and Thana Bhawan, besides Kanpur and Shahjahanpur, and fought till the end. It is no secret that when the rebels almost gave up in Delhi, the religious resistance fighters fought the stiffest despite going hungry for days due to a lack of supplies. They also suffered the highest number of sacrifices against the marauding British armies that eventually defeated the rebels.
In several places, clerics called for jihad long before the outbreak of the Mutiny of 1857. Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah was preaching jihad in Agra. He was arrested in Faizabad a couple of years before 1857 and was released when the fighting started and his supporters broke open the Faizabad prison. Similar was the case of Maulvi Liaqat Ali, who took control of Allahabad during the Mutiny and was proclaimed the governor there by Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Not just clerics and sufis, Muslim nawabs, landlords and ordinary citizens fought valiantly and made numerous sacrifices for the cause of the nation’s freedom. Many Nawabs who supported the Mutiny or even the ones who extended their moral support were singled out for British retribution.
William Dalrymple, while writing in his book, says: “Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin. Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor’s sixteen sons were captured, tried and hung. At the same time, three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then been told to strip naked: ‘In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar,’ Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister the following day. ‘I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.'”
A Time to Heal
Hindu nationalist ideologues still periodically subject Indian Muslims to loyalty tests. As the great British statesman James Baldwin writes in Notes of a Native Son: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” A reappraisal of history can alone put the record straight and clear the misconceptions created by partisan historians, in whose works fantasy, conjecture and stereotypes have replaced fact and reality. Or else we will confirm the fears of the great thinker, Walter Benjamin: “The victors write history.” The paradox underlying this puzzle is best captured in the dedication template of Bhagwan S Gidwani, author of ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’, who devoted 13 years to part-time research on his book in the archives of half a dozen countries for writing his novel. It reads: “To the country which lacks a historian; to men whom history owes rehabilitation.”
Efforts are being made to rewrite the Indian history of the recent past. Muslims need to make conscious efforts to preserve their account. It is not an easy job and requires resources and determination. Muslim organizations must take the lead or support those filling the gap in their ways.
Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a member of NITI Aayog’s National Committee on Financial Literacy and Inclusion for Women. He is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Sep 2023.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: The Crusaders against India’s Poisoned Pluralism, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
Click here to go to the current weekly digest or pick another article: