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A travesty of history

Published Jun 10, 2005 12:00am

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STRANGE that one of history’s cradles, the Indian peninsula, should have so little truck with genuine history, as opposed to myth-making and mythology.

Is there any Indian Herodotus? Or Thucydides or Tacitus? One of the richest histories of the world, full of blood, conquest and great achievement without any chronicler, not even an apology of a Gibbon. Before Alberuni who accompanied the armies of Mahmud Ghaznavi, we have the Hindu holy texts, the Upanishads, Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Megasthene’s account of the court of Chandragupta Maurya. But nothing that can be credited as historical writing.

Indian history — that is, historical writing — begins with the coming of the Muslims. This is a remark made not in the spirit of drum-beating because we of the sub-continent are prickly to an inordinate degree, apt to stand on our dignity and pick quarrels about the wrong things, but just a bald statement of fact.

Before the coming of the British it was but dimly understood in India that the birthplace of Buddhism was India, that the divine Siddharta was a prince of India, not of any faraway land. So complete was the extermination of Buddhism from India in the early centuries of the last millennium that the fact that such a faith had once existed and indeed flourished ceased to form part of India’s historical memory.

Muslim historians — for the most part court historians — sang the praises of their own kings. Except for Alberuni, they had little interest in the India that had existed before them. Theirs are contemporary accounts not explorations of the past. It was the European arrival in India which spurred interest in Indian studies and, in time, through scholars such as Max Muller who translated the Upanishads laid the basis of the Hindu revivalist movement which grew towards the end of the 19th century.

Two conclusions arise: firstly, about the poverty of Indian historiography; secondly, about the lack of a developed historical sense as late as the second half of the 19th century.

Given this poverty of history-writing, is it any wonder if history has a strong parochial bias in both India and Pakistan, with scholars on both sides of the divide viewing the confused and tumultuous events of the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the partition of India, through their own rose-tinted or hate-filled glasses?

True, the black-and-white approach to history is more securely ensconced in Pakistan than in India, Pakistanis glorifying their champions and refusing to see any fault in them while demonizing the Indian side completely. India, by contrast, has produced a better tradition of historical writing. Even so, the biases and prejudices which rise to the surface when, say, the birth of Pakistan or the role of Jinnah is discussed, continue to be breathtaking.

Small wonder then if there has been such a storm in the dovecots of the Hindu right because of L. K. Advani’s not flattering but fair remarks about M. A. Jinnah during his Pakistan visit. What did Advani say? That...”His (Jinnah’s) address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947 is a classic, a forceful espousal of a secular state in which every citizen would be free to practise his own religion but the state shall make no distinction between one citizen and another on the grounds of faith.” Since this is no more than the truth, why such a reaction in India?

Because the image of Jinnah thus evoked runs counter to his demonizing which has been standard fare in India since 1947. Every child in India is brought up on the belief that Jinnah played the communal card by invoking the two-nation theory and this is what led to the breakup of Mother India. It’s a good line as far as selective history goes but nowhere near the truth.

Jinnah was a leading light of the Congress, a figure on the Indian stage, before Gandhi arrived in India from South Africa. That he was a staunch nationalist who stood uncompromisingly for Indian freedom goes without saying. What Indians of this generation find hard to understand is that far from being a communalist, he abhorred any intrusion of religion into politics. And it was on this very point that his differences with Gandhi first arose.

For what Gandhi did when he took up the mantle of Congress leadership was to bring to the politics of mass mobilization words and slogans steeped in Hindu symbolism. What was the objective of the freedom struggle? The setting up of Ram Raj. How on earth could Muslims be expected to rally to such a call?

The Muslim demand as articulated most ably by Jinnah was that Hindus and Muslims, before anything else, represented two distinct communities, each with their different outlook on life. The recognition of this reality far from dividing the nationalist movement would strengthen it by bringing Muslims and Hindus under a common flag of struggle.

That Hindus and Muslims were two communities was not something invented by Jinnah, as most Indians would like to believe, but a simple recognition of reality. Hindus and Muslims did not become two communities in the 19th or 20th centuries. They were two communities, and remained as such, from the moment the first Muslim set foot on Indian soil.

This was a truth best captured by Nirad Chaudhri in his ‘Autobiography of An Unknown Indian’, one of the most perceptive observers of the Indian condition, and perhaps for this very reason not universally loved in India. He writes:

“When I see the gigantic catastrophe of Hindu-Muslim discord of these days I am not surprised, because we as children held the tiny mustard seed in our hands and sowed it very diligently. In fact, this conflict was implicit in the very unfolding of our history, and could hardly be avoided. Heaven preserve me from the dishonesty, so general among Indians, of attributing this conflict to British rule, however much the foreign rulers might have profited by it. Indeed they would have been excusable only as gods, and not as man the political animal, had they made no use of the weapon so assiduously manufactured by us, and by us also put into their hands. But even then they did not make use of it to the extent they might easily have done. This, I know, is a very controversial thesis, but I think it can be very easily proved if we do not turn a blind eye to the facts of our history.”

The Muslims of India did not begin with the demand for Pakistan. Indeed, before 1940 only a few hotheads or political dilettantes spoke about it. Even Iqbal in his famous Allahabad address spoke about a special dispensation for Indian Muslims ‘within’ not without the framework of a united India. Haunted by the fear of being swamped by a Hindu majority — fears which the more questionable tenets of Hindu revivalism did nothing to dissipate — they wanted to be recognized as a separate community entitled to special constitutional safeguards. (Not all that strange a demand if we consider the constitutional dispensation in force in a country like Lebanon.) Only on the Congress’s refusal to accept this point of view, did the Muslim League leadership, very late in the day, move towards the demand for Pakistan.

Along the way there were other slip-ups. In the words of Ram Gopal whose ‘Indian Muslims’ should be a must read for students of that period, “When the Congress decided to accept office (in the U.P. after the 1937 elections) and proceeded with its ministry-making efforts, the League put forward its claim for a share on the strength of its pre-election understanding with the Congress. There were prolonged negotiations between the leaders of the two bodies, but there was no workable arrangement reached. It was one of the most fateful and distressing failures in the political history of India; it gave strength to the belief, held by some adventurous Muslim leaders, that the Muslims should have a separate homeland.”

What most Indians of this generation do not realize, or haven’t been told with enough emphasis, is that as late as 1946 the Muslim League leadership accepted the Cabinet Mission plan envisaging a united India. The Congress too accepted it before Nehru went back on the Congress’s committed word by introducing fresh reservations which wrecked the accord.

Maulana Azad’s ‘India Wins Freedom’ gives one of the best accounts of this episode. In vain did he plead with his colleagues to accept the Cabinet Mission plan which would have preserved a united India. Patel and Nehru were adamant. Accepting the plan would have meant compromising with the Muslim League which they were not prepared to accept. Towards the end it was not the Muslim League but the Congress which was hell-bent on partition.

Did Jinnah and the Muslim League not play the communal card in the 1946 elections? They did, the battle-cry of the League in those elections was the slogan, “Muslim hai to Muslim League mein aa” (if you are a Muslim come to the Muslim League). But the dragon’s teeth had been sown much before and the fire spouting as a result led not only to partition but one of the worst orgies of plunder, rape and blood-letting in the history of the 20th century.

Who’s to blame? Jinnah or a massive failure of understanding on the part of the Congress leadership? Not that Pakistanis regret partition. Far from it. It would, however, help if with the calming of the storms accompanying partition we could somehow arrive at a more judicious writing of history.

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