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A rally to counter the Islamophobes that were staging a gathering in NYC.

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Hindus, Muslims and Secular Traditions: Vande Mataram (Part II)

Vande Mataram debate has almost engulfed India these days. I would not claim it to be entirely of no consequence. And those who say that people should be left to sing what they want to, in the tradition of liberal democracy, in my view again, are continuing to enjoy a Hindu privilege. If for a moment, they would imagine how it feels to be member of a minority group being subjected to a song that was targeted against them, most of us would clearly understand the inherent pain. Muslims in India have been told from the beginning that they are citizens of a secular country, and it is the responsibility of the Hindu majority to live upto that expectation. There must not be any confusion in this regard.

Furthermore, some of my beloved readers of this blog have vociferously attacked the communalism in Islam, and in fact to that extent shown solidarity with Bankim Chandra, the poet of Vande Mataram, who also happens to be the founding father of modern Bengali literature.

I am not surprised at the way both perceptions have been intertwined. However, I shall like to dispel some myths about the dismissal of Islam as a communal or fanatical religion, as many in the Hindutva brigade would like to portray it and influence some of us in that process in their abominable quest to establish a “Hindu Rashta”. Some even bring to question the credibility of Mohd. Iqbal who penned down “Sare Jahan se Achha” and compared it with “Vande Mataram”, which I think is a valid comparison, but a grossly non-issue, this time. I will attempt to make some clarifications within the limits of a weblog:

Vande Mataram vs Sare Jahan se Achha:

Let there be no doubt that the origins of the writings and the world-views of the authors are important in understanding the significance of any work. However, even while doing so, one should always keep in mind the socio-political context in which the works have been authored.

I have elaborated on Vande Mataram already in a previous post. The origin of the song was embedded in the work “Ananda Matha” which was just like every other written work of Bankim Chandra, a highly hindu supremacist literature. It clearly outlined Bankim’s aversion towards Muslim people and possibly could have sowed the seed among the Bengali community to later on engage in the religious animosities that eventually led to partition of India into two separate religious regions (East Bengal-Pakistan region and India).

Sensitizing the Bengali population to become reactionary elements in that age was the sole aim of Bankim Chatterjee, and he fairly succeeded in it (which is why the Hindu hymn became so popular to begin with). It can be said without a doubt Bankim was the founding father of reactionary Bengali literature and unfortunately as it is, quite a handful of works during that time thrived with feudal stories and patriarchal protagonists with entire omission of British misrule, (Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s stories included) thanks to the unmistakable popularity of this legendary writer.

Speaking of historical context, Bankim Chatterjee lived at a time that was not about “Islam invasion”, that his works were so apprehensive about. It was rather a time when British people had already invaded India. The primary enemies of Indian people were the British colonialists. And yet, Chatterjee was a loyal civil servant of the British administration, and worked as a deputy collector. And he was instrumental in sowing the seeds of two-nation theory through his works full of hatred for Muslims, who he used to describe as “Mlechhas”.

As regards Mohd. Iqbal, who is unfortunately brought to discussion in the context of Bande Mataram controversy, one can only say this. Mohd. Iqbal was a patriot of the highest order whose revolutionary songs were targeted against the British rule only. He had no expressed hatred against Hindus, although looking at growing popularity of Hindutva brigade within the Congress those days, he had sufficient reason to turn skeptical. Muslims, Buddhists and Dalits were among the most oppressed in India, and yet they were the least represented in the high echelons of Congress power. Congress was losing its secular focus with continued tension between Nehru and Patel. Despite Gandhiji’s reluctance, the Patel faction was growing in strength also due to the immense influence the Indian business houses had on sponsoring Gandhi’s visits and shelters at Ashrams. In disillusionment, Netaji Subhas also had to quit Congress. One needs to remember that the hindu fanatics had taken up so much of political space that Netaji Subhash was as unsure as Mohd. Iqbal about the eventual victory of Indians under leadership of mere religious reformers. Netaji was always known for his determined effort to persuade people to give up all their political differences and get united under the banner of Congress. He has emphatically stated that Congress was the only platform that needs support from people all across political spectrum, thus helping to enlist thousands of communists as well as receiving communist support to win the presidentship. However, Netaji was deeply influenced by the Soviet system of governance, its secularism and collective ownerships and he wanted to establish India in similar lines. Except for Nehru, who had himself visited Soviet Union and was a pronounced supporter of Marxist philosophy, Netaji could not gather support from any other major leader, finally leading to his quitting the party and forming an alternative Left organization.

It was during these times that Mohd. Iqbal also went through transformation as he was witnessing how the power structure of Congress was slipping into the hands of Hindu fundamentalists. He used to be a teacher in Philosophy after completing MA from Lahore University. During the college days, his radical poetry to destabilize the British rule with united efforts from Hindus and Muslims were inflammatory enough. At the same time, while on a short visit to London, Iqbal became conscious of the international Islamic revolutions against the European colonial powers, and his alignment towards Islamists became sharper. India was not merely struggling for independence from British during those days, one also needs to remember that some Hindu supremacists within the Congress were making clear their intent to get rid of Urdu as the lingua franca (which it was till that period), and to declare a Hindustan where Muslims would be tokenly represented as was the trend. Hindu leaders like Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Sardar Patel were rabidly pursuing Hindu scholarships. And Gandhi himself was trying to adjust to Hinduism demands by “reforming” the religion, not condemning it. Clearly the country was about to be divided, just like Bankim Chatterjee had envisaged, the question was regarding when.

Bankim and Iqbal: Dichotomies

Again unlike Bankim Chatterjee who preached religious violence based on Militant Hinduism, Mohd Iqbal was deeply secular despite being a Muslim. And this is why there were attempts to caste aspersions on his popularity. Iqbal’s poetry were nationally sung and were widely popular (interestingly, it became popular even on the space when Rakesh Sharma made India proud by saying he saw “Sare Jahan Se Achha” from above when asked by Indira Gandhi about what India looked like to him while he was on the Soviet space expedition). Iqbal’s poetry was in Urdu, as opposed to Sanskrit, and that was a great dichotomy already. He was a Muslim revolutionary writing about the poor and the oppressed people of India grounded on realism of political economy. Chatterjee was a Hindu Brahmin reactionary who was writing about glorification of one-nation of Hindu India that was conditional upon annihilation of the Muslims. Whereas Chatterjee was preaching that deaths of Muslims were inevitable for India to be a proud nation, Iqbal was writing:

“Gurbat mein ho agar hum, rehta hai dil watan mein
Samjho wohi humein bhi, dil mein jahna hamara
Majhab nahni sikhata, aapas mein bair rakhna
Hindi hain hum, watan hain Hindustan humara”

(roughly translated it means: We are where our hearts are, and even when we reside abroad, our hearts live in our land. Thus artificial borders cannot separate our patriotic feelings. What of the religions? Our religions do not teach us to create enemies among each other. We are the people from the land of the Hind and shall remain thus despite religions and artificial borders.)

This was the great radical poet Mohd. Iqbal who wrote this “Taraana-e-Watan” among other brilliant works where he always stressed on Hindu-Muslim unity that was needed to overthrow the British rulers.

Sadly, the country was so taken hostage by the Hindu supremacists that they did everything possible to highlight Bankim Chatterjee’s conservative anti-Islam works while they continued to demean Mohd Iqbal. Any serious reader of progressive literature would be able to fathom the length at which Iqbal was subsequently saddened by the way his hopes for a united India was being shattered through the aspirations of the growing Hindu militancy even within the rank and file of the mainstream Congress.

I am reproducing a rare poem of Mohd Iqbal written to his beloved son, where he is asking his child to treat poverty as an asset, and not a weakness. Living the life of the oppressed calls for revolution against the foreign invaders, he declares. He directs his son to recognize that Mother Nature (interesting because its not a similar portrayal like Goddess Durga) has gifted a heart to him that must be used to appreciate the diversity of flowers (his stress on ‘Gul’ is consistently present in most of his poems, including another poem by the name ‘Gul Hai to Gulistan ho’. Also interesting, considering that flowers have universal appeal unlike nation-state names). Iqbal asks his son to dedicate life towards serving the poor and the oppressed in a colonial India and not get disheartened by inherent limitations. “Do not be a sell-out; Make a name amidst poverty!”

“Garibi mein Naam Paida Kar”

Dayare-Ishq mein apna muqaam paida kar
Naya Zamaana naye subh-o-shaam paida kar

Khuda agar dil-e-fitrat-shanaas de tujhko
Sukute-laal-o-gul se kalaam paida kar

Utha na shisha-garane-Firang ke ehsaan
Sifale-hind se mina-o-jaam paida kar

Mein shakhe-taak hnu meri gazal hai mera samar
Mere samar se maya-e-lalafam paida kar

Meri tariq amiri nahni fakiri hain
Khud-i na bech, garibi mein naam paida kar

I could go on quoting from the works of the great poet who did his best to promote religious harmony in the country that was facing threats from fanatic Hindus and insecure Muslims in terms of its future. And bowing down to the pressure of the Hindu revivalism that was to sketch a conditional secular country, Iqbal, like Malcolm X of African-American struggle, turned more towards recognizing the religious mainstream than secular alternatives. When he died in 1937, the entire country mourned the great loss whose expectations could not be lived upto by millions of people of the country who were engaged in falling into the traps of Hindu supremacists’ hatred towards Muslims as well British endorsement of the riots. What’s ironic is that Hindu atrocities those days were only usually tolerated with grief (as Gandhiji famously used to feel ‘sad’ about the conditions in a non-violent manner, which later allowed people like Patel to infiltrate Kashmir with terrorism), and it was continuation of a tradition. What’s often missed in the discourse is that most Muslims actually were converted from Hinduism because of the atrocities and caste-structures of Hinduism. Islam, despite its Shia/Sunni divisions never practiced “untouchability” which was a cornerstone of Hindu religion, and continues to exist even today in practice.

Finally, the categorical difference between Iqbal and Chatterjee was that whereas the former was a die-hard secular who wanted a “Hindustan” based on religious harmony, Chatterjee was a Hindu fanatic and British loyalist who wanted the country to be divided into two parts. Of course Chatterjee won by design since that’s also what the British wanted, and later on towards the late 30’s and early 40’s even the secular people of India had no other option than to accept the two-nation theory, simply because in the other case, there was a clear indication that India would have been ruled by Hindu Brahmins almost to the exclusion of Muslim leaders in power sharing. Even having more Muslim population in India than there is in Pakistan, today, India continues to oppress Muslims when it comes to relegating power.

Those who say that Congress is “appeasing” the minorities are entirely misguided. In fact, Congress, as much as the BJP, has been appeasing the majority in all respects, as a result of which the country’s power equation has fallen in the hands of Hindu Brahmin Supremacists.

Historical evidences, and why the right-wing never quite gets it right?

“Battle of Algiers” is considered to be a landmark in the history of cinema. And its Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo (who co-wrote it with the great Franco Solinas) shot Algeria while the Islamic revolution was defeating French colonialists in the 60’s. His extremely sympathetic treatment of cause of the revolutionaries won him great admiration from the progressive world, whereas the French were quick to ban the film in their country.

Encouraged by the response from the world over, he and his son went ahead to shoot Algeria once again, this time in the 90’s to get the pulse of the country under Islamic rule. Surprised as he was, his videos showed that people just could not tolerate his entry into the country, simply because he was a European filmmaker. However, after knowing that this was the man who had directed “Battle of Algiers”, he was immediately recognized by the new generation of people who greeted him, although with a little pinch of salt.

Seeing the commotion on the streets, a fellow European journalist asked him the reason behind Islam being such a violent religion. Such violent was it, that the Muslims even would not entertain a Marxist filmmaker like Pontecorvo, just because he was a European. Since throughout Pontecorvo was sad while shooting the second film in Algeria (and at some places children were spitting on his car), I was anxious to see how Pontecorvo responds to this stereotyped “European” question.

Pontecorvo, unfazed, replied that Islam was never a violent religion. Indeed its been violent from phase to phase since last 200 years only, and that marks the beginning of European colonization period. It was only in the manner that the European colonizers projected an image of the Muslim people as inherently backward that, they are now facing the wrath of a reaction (which is an ‘open wound’ still). He said he is convinced that the women in Algeria are not oppressed due to their religion, they are oppressed due to economic sanctions imposed by a group of elite colonialists who have made wealth by looting the Muslims during their illegal occupations. As regards the culture, Islamists were not ‘backward’ and the women were not ‘humiliated’. When asked why the women then covered themselves up in such primitive manner, Pontecorvo quoted a female Muslim doctor who said that burka is actually one of the most liberal outfit a woman can wear. It reveals the least and that’s why it makes the woman sexier. The point is to also see the perspectives of the other culture from different levels.

This is also a lesson one can get from the various radical postcolonial studies about how the Islam was never a regressive or oppressive religion in comparison to any other (every religion thrives on codes that are equally repressive). As in the case of India, MJ Akbar, the renowned journalist and author, gives the most comprehensive account about Muslim Rule in his book “Kashmir: Behind the Vale”.

He cites how Saiyyid Bilal Shah (called with love as Bulbul Shah) introduced Islam with love and compassion. That was a time when Kashmir was being ruled by Hindu King Sahadeva. Owing to Bulbul Shah’s immense popularity, there was great support for him, and consequently the King had befriended him in order to carry on the rule. In fact by the time Bulbul Shah passed away in 1327, the king, king’s brother and commander-in-chief of the army were all converted to Islam! The converted king had even constructed Bulbul Langar in Srinagar.

Two things can be noticed here. One, that the King was himself a convert, naturally a voluntary one. And there were many Hindus, predominantly lower castes, but also quite many Kashmiri Pundits themselves, who were horribly disenchanted by Hinduism’s orthodoxy and voluntarily converted themselves. In fact, works by Mulla Ahmed, the first Sheikh-ul-Islam, such as “Fatwa-i-Shihabi”, and “Shihab-i-Saqib” were immensely secular works that held more relevance to Hindus and Muslims than the epic superstitious mythologies of Hinduism.

Upon death of mongol expansionist Kublai Khan (1260-1294), there were huge tribal uprising that led to death of Beijing’s viceroy Lha-Chen-Dugos Grub. Tribes attacked the region Sonamarg valley, which was being ruled by Rama Chandra, who was the prime minister of King Sahadeva. But Sahadeva did not lend much support to Rama Chandra during the period of crisis when tribals attacked the area (in fact Sahadeva was supportive of the tribals). This betrayal led to Rama Chandra declaring himself as the King. As a rather feeble king, Rama Chandra was no match for Lha-Chen’s son Rinchin who attacked the king soon after. Rinchin had escaped the border and aspired to be a king, as much as his friend from Swat valley Shah Mir. Rinchin with support of Mir took over the palace. And Rinchin was declared the Lord of Kasmir on 6 October 1320. Interestingly, Rama Chandra’s daughter Kota who was in love with Rinchin much before the attack, quickly declared herself the queen.

Rinchin’s era is considered to be the golden age in the history of Kashmir, as Rinchin was a Buddhist and he wanted to spread peace throughout the region. He not only married Rama Chandra’s daughter, he also made Rama Chandra’s sons his prime ministers. But since Rinchin was a Buddhist, he could not rule over the state that did not have much Buddhist presence. Hence he decided to convert to Hinduism and called for the head priest. And as shocking as it may sound, the high priests of Hinduism declined to convert him, since they could not determine what caste in the hierarchy was King Rinchin!

Since the Brahmin pundits exercised this folly, Shah Mir found the opportunity to ask his friend to convert to Islam. Although Rinchin was skeptical, he soon saw the great Sufi divine Bulbul Shah at a prayer. Bulbul Shah provided Rinchin what the Brahmins could not: a casteless religion. Islam had no caste: it was built on the equality of humans and faith in the omnipotence of Allah and His last Messenger, the prophet Muhammad. To become a Muslim, Rinchin only had to utter the Qalimah: ‘La-e-laha illallah, Muhammad un-Rasul Allah’.

Rinchin thus became a Muslim, and Islam arrived not through violent coercion, but through peaceful understanding of a harmonious religion. Rinchin took the name Sultan Sadruddin, and built a mosque called Bodro Masjid. During his friend Shah Mir’s rule as Sultan Shamsuddin, a dynasty that lasted for 222 years, Islam had become the paramount religion of Kashmir, but because of its popular success and their identification with the Kashmiri people. Jonaraja described this rule:

“This believer in Allah, calm and active, became the savior of the people and protected the subjects.”

And throughout, despite the brahminical prejudices against the converted kings (Hindus and Budhhists who had turned into Muslims), the Muslim rulers were always sympathetic towards the high priests. It was the period when Nand Rishi or Lal Ded and other religious people flourished. In fact, Abul Fazl wrote in the Ain-i-Akbari:

“The most respected people are the Rishis who, although they do not suffer themselves to be fettered by traditions, are doubtless the true worshippers of God. They do not revile any other sect, nor ask anything of anyone. They plant the roads with fruit trees to provide the traveler with refreshments. They abstain from meat and have no intercourse with the other sex. There are 2000 of these Rishis in Kashmir.”

Moghul rulers likewise, and especially Akbar, were aware of the large Hindu population and worked towards their harmonious living. Firstly, it was the most practical thing to do, since any alternative could have called for doom. Tribal populations were always up in arms against any empire, and it could become a matter of time before Hindus got disenchanted and joined the revolution. To that end, the emperors were forced to be considerate towards diversity of religions. Needless to point out, just as characteristic of any empire (just like it is true in today’s so-called democracies running large thought controls called mainstream media), there were state propaganda working those days to lull people to passivity and relaxation instead of agitated uprising. And just like today’s cheap slavery and draconic hours of call centers, people were forced those days to seek cheap labor in works they had no interests in. But as evidenced, the secularism during the Muslim and Moghul periods were quite practiced at several levels.

“The fusion of Islamic culture with existing Indian culture achieved the most positive expression in the activities of the artisan classes of the towns and amongst the cultivators, as is evident from the socio-religious ideas of the time, and also in primarily artisan activities such as building monuments, the fusion being evident in the architecture of the period. The pattern of living in both these classes came to be interrelated to a far greater degree than amongst the nobility. Domestic ceremonies and rituals such as those connected with birth, marriage, and death became mingled. The converted Muslims were also heirs to long-standing rituals practiced by the Hindus. New ceremonies which had come with Islam, and which were regarded as auspicious, crept into Hindu ritual.”
(page 300, A History of India, Volume One. Romila Thapar.)

Upon deconstruction, what it merely suggests is that Moghul rule created more problems for the upper caste Hindu feudalists than the working peasants. The assimilation was seen more among Muslims and the working poor of India, than between Muslims and the upper caste people.

Now I will quote from Orissamatters, authored by SCP, who is an eminent journalist of Orissa:

“Kalhan’s classic work ‘Rajtarangini’ describes how the Brahmins conspired against Queen Dida as she was not patronizing to Brahminism and after her death, beheaded from behind Sri Tunga, the most powerful protector of the liberal policies of the Late Queen.
So ruthlessly the Brahmins known as Kashmir Pundits imposed their caste supremacy that the people exploited under caste apartheid jumped into Islam which was not vitiated by caste system. They not only became Muslims en masse, but also they became so with so much revengeful resolution that they drove away the Pundits from the soil.
The entire land mass that has now become Pakistan and Bangladesh was the dwelling place of Indians where our ancient people had established their own civilization. It is the Brahmins’ supremacist mentality that has helped Islam to spread in India.
So whosoever has embraced the Muslim religion in this Sub-Continent is an Indian who has revolted against Brahminism, against Brahminic caste apartheid.”

Eminent historian Irfan Habib says that Moghul rulers had even appointed Brahmins as administrators owing to their upper caste/class/knowledge backgrounds. And even in such positions, the Brahmins under the Moghul rule, did not amend their behavior. As an example, we shall take the case of ‘Satnamis’, a sect founded in 1657 by a native of Narnaul, who proclaimed himself to be of the tradition of the great monotheist Kabir, the weaver. They were opposed tooth and nail by the banyas and Brahmin caste people, since Satnamis (worshipper of the True Name or God) comprised people from sections such as sweepers, carpenters and tanners. “It was obviously owing to this contamination from contact with the untouchables that the sect became particularly hateful in the eyes of the orthodox,” says Habib. (Essays in Indian History, Tulika, New Delhi, 1995).
Isardas Mehta in “Futuhat-i ‘Alamgiri” quotes a loyal Hindu official of the Mughal government describing Satnamis as:

“That community, because of its extreme dirtiness, is rendered foul, filthy and impure. Thus in their religion they do not differentiate between Hindus and Muslims. They eat porks and other disgusting things. If a dog has eaten from their bowl, they do not abstain from eating from it or show any revulsion.”

Thus, even during the Mughal period, the Hindu supremacists continued to hold sway, even in the face of definitive secular reigns by Akbar and Aurangzeb. Unfortunately, they continue to do so even to this date–to the extent that the stories of forced labor were exaggerated by the Hindu revisionists, without a mention of exploitation of workers to build temples. More than the Hindu kings, it was the Moghul rulers who played their part in promoting economic parity. Indeed Sir Walter Lawrence’s works show how in Moghul periods, women were given six annas a day for independent sustenance. And in projects involving large-scale labor, the main gates were written with inscriptions such as these:
“Na kardeh hech kas beggar anja
Tamame yaftand az makhzanash zar”.

(No one, it proclaims proudly, was shanghaied into beggar, or forced labor, for this imperial project; each worker was paid fully for his her labor.”)

This blog cannot go on in the direction of glorifying the Moghul rulers. Indeed far from it, this stands to condemn any of the rules by the kings and emperors, since none of them established peoples’ democracy. Also because of the stages of development those days, such dreams were quite distant. But in view of the current attack on Islam and an ignorant dismissal of it as a religion inherently violent, oppressive or backward, I thought it would serve well to do a small analysis of the situation using a critical historiography.

In Conclusion:
The day of patriotic exhibition of India has passed us by. We can rejoice at its passage. To begin with 2006 is not the centenary of Vande Mataram. It was used this way solely for sensational purpose. In addition, even singing of National Anthem Jana Gana Mana is not compulsory and should not be. Hence Vande Mataram controversy was furthered solely for the political purpose. Lastly, Islam is unlike Hinduism. Just the way Hindu preachers know that Hinduism is an organically developed national religion that has always stayed inside India due to its exclusionary philosophy that forbids people from joining it (just like Puri Pandas are absolutely right in not allowing non-Hindus to enter Jagannath Temple since they know Hinduism quite well to be discriminatory), Muslims know it well that Islam is a global religion that is based upon spreading the word of the last Messenger of Allah, and hence it does not recognize a nation-state to be paramount. So certain religious people condemning certain other religious people because they think their base of religion is valid while other bases of other religions are not, amounts to mere assertion of misconception.

And the way the right wing brigade took advantage of death of Pramod Mahajan and statue of Bal Thackrey’s wife to cause unrest in the country, they are now trying to take advantage of a song-recital drama. News reports say that their Vande Mataram demonstrations are causing violence in muslim areas where the hindu fanatics are having a free hand in harassing the minorities in India. And this is simply intolerable and unacceptable, and every patriotic Indian must rise up against the narrow minded ignorant bigots of the rightist parties and stop them from further claiming that they represent us in any manner whatsoever. Its time for them to either gain newer knowledge and get rid of their professed idiocy, or prepare to face the wrath of the oppressed in coming times when the people of India will no more merely vote them out of power like a dying party of losers, but also wipe them off the public platforms where they stage hypocritical melodramas.