Story of a Fall
A little over four hundred years ago, a monarch ruled South Asia with an élan never seen before in these lands. His Empire was truly massive. It was larger than the famous Ottoman Empire; also larger than the neighbouring Safavid Empire. It was larger than Ashoka’s great empire, as it was than the empire of the mighty Guptas. While this monarch held sway, his armies pummeled English and French armies off the coasts of Hindustan. One must not forget that European presence in Indian lands was a threat long before the infamous East India Company set up shop in Bengal in 1757. But while this monarch was in power, European armies were no match for his. Such was his military prowess and confidence, the legend goes, that his soldiers, while stationed in front of enemy fortresses, instead of always bringing ready made cannons with themselves - would make them cannons from scratch. while stationed in front of enemy fortresses.
The monarch was also famous for his kindness and altruism. During his reign, religious harmony reached levels never known before. Although he was Muslim by birth just like his famous forefathers, Hindu Rajputs proliferated in his army and in the upper echelons of his administration. He also greatly loved and married a Rajput woman.
The monarch was none other than Akbar, the Great Mughal Emperor. The Mughals were originally Turkic tribes who came from what’s today Uzbekistan. The first great Mughal Emperor Babur summarily defeated the Afghani Lodis near Delhi in 1526. Thus started an empire that could surpass some of history’s best, in its size, statescraft, prosperity, intellectual endeavours and artistic feats. The magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra is a fitting archive of this great Empire. The story of Islam in South Asia was very different four hundred years ago, than the ones you or I could try to tell of our times. Fast forward about three hundred years: the year is 1857. The British had broken the back of most Indian and Muslim rulers of the subcontinent. The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, a token ruler if there ever was one, yet the titular head of a great rebellion, was sent packing to Rangoon. The rebellion was sizable and spread all across North India. Bullets rained from British guns on the Indian rebels. Bullet holes on various edifices of the once great city, Lucknow, will bear testimony to the event’s tremendous violence. Soldiers, peasants, landlords, and a variety of other groups had united in trying to overthrow the British. Yet the British Empire did not fall. And in the aftermath, the wrath of the Empire came crashing on the Muslims of South Asia. Muslims, predictably or unpredictably, were seen as the chief architects of the event. Muslims didn’t like being ruled by others and they yearned for days when they ruled South Asia, the British thought. Muslims were seen as perfidious and jihadis. Those weren’t heady days if you were a Muslim; they perhaps signaled the beginning of a fall. Fast forward now to the late 19th century: the year is 1895, give or take five years. Hindu- Muslim tensions had taken a turn for the worst. The census, an instrument seemingly innocuous, but greatly aiding British policies of divide and rule, had helped sharpen religious identities in South Asia. Thanks to the census, for the first time ever, it was possible for various caste and religious communities to think of themselves as monolithic aggregates that could compete for patronage from the colonial state. Then there were various reform movements within Indian Islam. The Deobandis of UP and the Aligarh School of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan tried to uplift the falling Muslims of South Asia, the first with more spiritual ends in mind, and the second more secular and political. Then there were the Urdu-Hindi language riots which often turned ugly. Slowly but surely, fault lines between the two communities -– which, come to think of it, were hardly all-pan-Indian wide communities before – started to deepen. The culmination perhaps was the Partition of Bengal in 1905 along religious lines with a Muslim majority East and a Hindu majority West - seen by many as a necessary precursor to the Partition of India itself about forty years later. Surely then, the All India Muslim League’s founding in Dhaka in 1906, to fight for an independent Muslim polity, must not have surprised anyone.
Fast forward once again, to 1955. Less than a decade earlier, a momentous historical event, the Partition of the Indian subcontinent had resulted in a blood bath that uprooted 10 million from their homes and claimed at least a million lives. Women, with their bodies upheld as sites where nationalist paranoia could be sketched, paid a tragic price. The nation-states of India and Pakistan had been born. Within months, they were locked in war over the disputed territory of Kashmir. But by 1955, Kashmir was not the only region where Pakistan and India’s nationalist imaginations wrestled. The eastern wing of Pakistan, East Pakistan, sat uncomfortably, separated from the central government by a thousand miles of Indian territory. In 1952, the Language Movement of East Pakistan, ended with Bengalis experiencing martyrdom for the first time. Seeds of a national awakening were sown.
Fast forward one last time to May 2007. Exactly 36 years earlier, in 1971, the third partition of the Indian subcontinent witnessed the violent birth of Bangladesh. Muslim nationalism in South Asia had to re-imagine itself in only 24 years after it created Pakistan. Thereafter, under the hands of Zia-ul Huq, the Pakistani state not only reimagined its nationalist paradigms, aligning more with West Asia, than South Asia, it also took active part in the mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan to drive out the invading Soviets, culminating with the ISI becoming one of the foremost intelligence agency in the Third World. Pakistan had already gone nuclear in response to India’s own programme. Nuclear weapons promised to deter each state from attacking each other, and taken a step further, assumed to be a harbinger of status in the international community. But weapons of mass destruction would do precious little in the wake of September 11, as the Pakistani state, military and the ISI, had to turn their backs on the Afghan mujahideens and unconditionally aid America in its effort to root out Osama bin Laden. Of course, a general was in power yet again after a short democratic interregnum through Nawaz Sharif.
Meanwhile, Muslims in India and Bangladesh did not have it much better. Indian Muslims confronted the wrath of the Hindutva, first in 1992 through the annihilation of the Babri Masjid and then in the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, when Muslim homes were picked out and razed to the ground. In such moments, Partition appeared strangely necessary and at the same time unnecessary. To the east, the more demographically homogenuous Bangladeshi state continued to be ravaged by the war of its identity politics waged by the families of its founding fathers. And after shaky attempts at maintaining a democracy hard earned, the country once again, fell under military rule. Bangladesh, a part of undivided Bengal, more prosperous than Europe’s finest in the time of the Mughals, continued another war, a war against unending poverty. The nation also continued its unbroken run of topping Transparency Index’s list of corrupt nations. Meanwhile, Balochis and Sindhis continued their secessionist designs in Pakistan.
The story of Islam in South Asia has come a long way since the heady days of the Mughal Empire. No longer are South Asian Muslims setting standards in building stupendous monuments, producing powerful art, or setting standards in statecraft. They are battling corruption, dictatorships, poverty, nepotistic politics, or chauvinistic majoritarianism; to say nothing of their increasing limelight in the spectacle that is the war on terror. Akbar would have certainly been dismayed.
The writer is a PhD student at Columbia University.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007