Bhrigu's question

कभी जो याद भी आता हूँ मैं तो कहते हैं के आज बज़्म में कुछ फ़ित्ना-ओ-फ़साद नहीं - मिर्ज़ा ग़ालिब

Location: the valley, California, United States

Bay Area, Strategy Manager, Haas- U. C. Berkeley, Marathons

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The genesis of secularism in India -1

This essay is my effort to understand the roots of secularism in India. It was inspired by Uma's prize-winning essay. I believe that in order to 'rethink secularism', one must understand how it came to be originally defined.

Secular adj. 1 not concerned with religion; not sacred; worldly (secular education, secular music). 2 (of clerics) not monastic. [Oxford English Dictionary]

This, the original meaning of secularism bears little resemblance to the secularism as practiced by the Indian state today. The state in fact, is the primary driver that concerns itself with all matters relating to religion. From college admissions to the rule of law, the state has based its decisions purely on religious motivations. To understand how these things came to pass, one must turn the clock back to the early decades of the previous century and examine the thought-process that preoccupied the philosophical patriarch of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal.

Iqbal, a descendant of a Kashmiri Brahmin, was a notable example of the conversion process that Naipaul refers to in ‘Beyond Belief’. His writings bear witness to the success of Arabic imperialism. In Shikwa, Iqbal wrote (1):

But sanamKhaanoan mein kehte hain musalmaan gaye
hai khushi unki ki Kaabe ke nigahbaan gaye
manzil-daher se untoan ke hudekhvan gaye
apni bagloan me dabayehue Quran gaye
khan jan kufr hai, ehsaas tujhe hai ki nahin?
apni tauheed ka kuch paas tujhe hai ki nahin?

In the temples of idolatory, the idols say, ‘The Muslims are gone!’
They rejoice that the guardians of the Kaaba have withdrawn.
From the world’s caravanserais singing camel-drivers have vanished;
The Koran tucked under their arms they have departed.
These infidels smirk and snigger at us, are You aware?
For the message of Your oneness, do You anymore care?


Mushkilein ummate marhum ki aasaan kar de
mur bemaya ko hum-desho-suleman kar de
jis-nayaab muhabba ko phir arjaan kar de
hind ke dair-nasheenoan ko musalmaan kar de
jue-khoon me-cakad aj hasrate-daireen-e-ma
me tapad naal: ba nashtarkda seen-e-ma

A people You had blessed, lighten the burdens they bear,
Raise the poor down-trodden and make it Solomon’s peer.
Make abundant that rare commodity love, so that all may buy and sell,
Convert to Islam India’s millions who still in temples dwell.
Long have we suffered, see how grief’s blood flows down the drain,
From a heart pierced by the scalpel, hear this cry of pain

Iqbal’s lament was governed by failure – one real and one imagined. Firstly, he saw the existence of Hinduism as an affront to the faith that his forefathers had adopted. Clearly, this caused him consternation. Secondly, in spite of Arab/Turk/Mughal rule in India lasting over eight centuries, he imagines that it is they (the Muslims) who have suffered. In other words, it is the cry of one who believes that the right to rule over non-believers is an Islamic birthright.

Iqbal’s beliefs soon turned into a genuine movement among the intelligentsia to prevent majority rule. Living under Hindu rule, however democratic, was unthinkable. They were kufr – infidels, hence impure. Ergo, the new state that they wanted to establish was the pure one, Pak-istan. Of course, the presiding dieties of the new states ignored the linguistic and cultural commonality of Indian muslims with their regional counterparts belonging to other religions. And they ignored liberal muslims altogether.

Thus India was defined by religion right at the outset. The schism was accompanied by bloodlust. And how the poets lamented! They, who were quite responsible for the romantic notions of a homeland based on sectarian considerations, expressed dismay at the course of events. Faiz’s lament was akin to Pablo Neruda’s who stands perplexed on hearing the death of Mario Ruoppolo in ‘Il postino’ - one for which he is responsible:

ye daaG daaG ujaalaa, ye shab_gaziidaa sahar
wo intazaar thaa jis kaa, ye wo sahar to nahii.n

This stained stained dawn, this biting hurtful night
This is not the dawn that we envisaged.

But then, what was the surprise here? Dr. Ambedkar had questioned whether the Hindus and Muslims were united in the first place, by detailing the atrocities committed by the invading hordes, thus giving it a historical context [2].

Once the idea of this schism was in place, there was no stopping it. The Congress itself was an active promoter of division. Its idea of division was based not on religion, but on linguistic differences. Dr. Ambedkar wrote:

Be that as it may, the fact remains that separation on linguistic basis is now an accepted principle with the Congress. It is no use saying that the separation of Karnatak and Andhra is based on a linguistic difference and that the claim to separation of Pakistan is based on a cultural difference. This is a distinction without difference. Linguistic difference is simply another name for cultural difference.

If there is nothing shocking in the separation of Karnatak and Andhra, what is there to shock in the demand for the separation of Pakistan? If it is disruptive in its effect, it is no more disruptive than the separation of Hindu provinces such as Karnatak from Maharashtra or Andhra from Madras. Pakistan is merely another manifestation of a cultural unit demanding freedom for the growth of its own distinctive culture.

Once the basis for division was set, the cat was truly among the pigeons.

[to be continued. Next part on the constitution, defining secularism, and its effect on liberal Indian muslims]

1. Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa - translated by Khushwant Singh.
2. The Partition of India - Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.


Blogger history_lover said...

Before shikwa/jawab shikwa there was Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914) with his Musaddas ..
Also should'nt you also keep in mind poetry of other languages of that period - Anandmath and of the views of the stalwarts of hindi poetry - bhartendu harishchandra
My point there was a ferment going on in this period with many expressing themselves in increasingly communal tones.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Yes, but Iqbal was the more influential (imho) since he was deemed as a progressive. AFAIK, Ananda Math did not aim to forge a separate state between Indian Muslims and Hindus. But in any case, the work was invoking religion.

5:41 AM  
Blogger history_lover said...

I agree with you that Iqbal was much more influential than Hali
However it was only later that Iqbal turned to what is termed as "muslim nationalism" If I remember right shikwa was written in 1903.Neither shikwa or nor jawab shikwa aimed at a separate state for muslims either.
When they were written muslims throughout the world were largely under colonial rule ,and the ottoman empire was dying so the shikwa was a complaint to Allah on the current sorry state of muslims.
At that time muslims were suffering

From :
Poems written between 1908 and 1923, in which Iqbal reminds Muslims of their past greatness and calls for the brotherhood and unity that transcend territorial boundaries. He urges the ummah to live a life of servitude to God, of sacrifice and of action so that they may attain once more the high civilisation that was once theirs. Yam Awr Syair (The Poet and the Cradle), Shikwa (Complaint to God), Jawab-i-Shikwa (Response to a Complain), Kiezr-i-Rah (Guidance) and Tulu'i Islam (Light of Islam) are considered among the greatest Islamic poems. Love and the Self reverberate as important themes throughout this section. "

In short you have not convinced me that shikwa/jawab shikwa advocated a separate state of muslims
But if you say that it considers muslims as a separate community ,part of the world wide ummah then I would agree with you.
Even that would be nothing new it has always a vision of the ulema e.g shah walliullah (RA) ....

8:31 AM  
Blogger Quizman said...


My point was not just that Shikwa directly constituted the demand for Pakistan, but the attitude of differentiation (even communal superiority) that was inherent in Shikwa was quite obviously the thought process behind such a move. One of my following installments will relate to how liberal muslims felt at being regarded as separate.

This brotherhood and unity that Iqbal called about is quite flawed in and of itself.

1:05 PM  
Blogger history_lover said...

The idea of ummah being one has always been a powerful thought (supported by the Quran and the Hadith) despite the numerous sectarian divisions
Also the Quran being the final word of Allah and superseding other religions is the normative vision of Islam
So it was nothing new although Iqbal articulated it quite well.
Yes it was flawed in the sense that it does not take into account the practical realities although Islamically speaking it was'nt flawed as the ummah is one spiritual community and perhaps some wish it were one political community too.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...


Exactly, that was my point. In effect, the categorical assertion that the Islamic 'ummah' is one monolithic entity is fatally flawed. It is as diverse as any other community. My point was that Iqbal, as a non-Arab convert, should've been the first to realise that, but he spoke of a philosophy that was akin to Arabic imperialism - a monolithic establishment of Muslims according to his ideals. Don't you think that was (and has been since) proved wrong? Don't you think you have more in common with your Hindu/Muslim/Christian/Sikh classmate in Delhi than a Muslim from a remote village in Yemen?

The creation of Pakistan was as much a betrayal of Muslims as anyone else.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Btw, HL - thanks for your comments. It is feedback like this that makes writing all the more worthwhile.

9:01 PM  
Blogger doubtinggaurav said...

Great Post Quizman.

I think that partition was advocated strongly not by the punjabi or sindhi muslims, but the muslims belonging to northern india.
Also it was a coalition of muslims from different classes which asked for partition.
While muslim peasants in east bengal were against hindu landlord,
muslim landlords were against land distribution which was I think a part of Congress manifesto.
Similarly some muslim intellectuals like iqbal could not think of being ruled by hindus (as you pointed out).
Similarly barelvi school of islam was in favour of partition
I think after partition India should have debated its cause and tried to eradicate it, instead of hushing it.
I think the concept of Ummah is in direct conflict with concept of nation state.


9:25 PM  
Blogger history_lover said...

Offcourse as an Indian muslim I am much closer culturally to my non muslim neighbour than say someone from Chechenya or Yemen.
But frankly very few muslims think of Islam and it's vision as a kind of Arab Imperialism .They view it's ideals for all of humanity and it's importance on the Day of Judgement .It is a message from Allah to all of mankind beyond the narrow tribalism of nationalism and ethnicity

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Srikanth said...

Hi Quizman,
Came here via Desipundit.

An interesting post! But if it was Iqbal who wrote "Sare jahaan se..." when did he change minds to think "Hindostaan" was not actually best in the world.

4:11 AM  
Blogger history_lover said...

Srikanth Iqbal also wrote a poem about Lord Rama calling him Imam a Hind

7:23 AM  
Blogger doubtinggaurav said...

History lover,

That's true,

Actually I am surprised how intellectuals like Iqbal and Jinnah who were called unifier of Hindus and Muslims went on to divide India

7:37 AM  
Blogger Quizman said...

This is a nice conversation. I didn't want to butt in and interject.

Btw, I do not think of Islam in and of itself as Arabic imperialism. I was pointing to the cultural aspects of colonization that Naipaul alluded to. For example, a brit can objectively look at the history of Viking/Norman invasions and decipher the behaviour of the colonizers thereof. Naipaul was concerned about the fact that - for example, the people of Sind, whose forefathers were butchered and raped, looked at the invader as hero. [Consider this: the Pakistani govt has named its missiles after Afghan invaders who raped and pillaged in what is present-day Pakistan]

This is colonization - or what Nietzsche talked about as the "slave mentality". I was not referring to the religious aspects of Islam vis-a-vis the Quran or the hadiths.

10:01 AM  
Blogger history_lover said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:03 AM  
Blogger history_lover said...

Perhaps it is because Muhammad bin Qasim is percieved as a muslim first (and a invader second) while forefathers had still not converted to islam

4:23 PM  
Blogger Jagan Mohan said...

quote>> This is colonization - or what Nietzsche talked about as the "slave mentality".<<

Societal Stockholm Syndrome in our sub-continent's context was elucidated by Kaushal Vepa at
I thought this might add to the context of this good article.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Quizman said...

Nice, Jagan. Thanks for the link.

1:37 AM  

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