Foreign Muslim rulers kept tight control over non-Muslims to the advantage of Muslims, not for love of converts but out of sheer expediency; they needed at least tacit support of converts to augment and perpetuate their minority rule.

Muslim saints, scholars and clerics, mostly of foreign extraction, continued adding to the numbers through their proselytising missions across the subcontinent. Men of the world and god-men were on the same wavelength. The former cherished political conquest of India and the latter dreamed of spiritual supremacy. But all this rapidly changed with the advent of colonialism.

Colonialism nourished by superior technology born of scientific advancement in the West was driven by the same primordial instinct to dominate and conquer that kept the rulers of pre-modern era rulers in a perpetual state of war. British occupation of Indian territories proved an apocalyptic happening that devastated the ruling Muslim elites because it took away the advantage they had in terms of state patronage.

The new masters were again aliens with one crucial difference; they shared little with the diverse communities of India. The Raj impacted the different communities in different ways with far-reaching repercussions as under the new umpire the rules of the game changed. Muslims would no longer be treated as a privileged minority to the detriment of majority. End of foreign Muslim rule opened new vistas for Hindu majority whose potential had been suppressed for centuries. New prospect animated and galvanised it as it was about to compete with Muslims, its erstwhile rivals, in a level-playing field. Muslims elite fed on the past glory and not exposed to competition turned further regressive; it began to bask in the afterglow of Muslim empire.

In a reaction to the British rule, Muslim elite and clergy, the old bed-fellows, signed a new pact to oppose all things western to save Muslims from their polluting and corrupting influences. They rejected western science, education, rationality and social institutions, even technology which introduced the rest of India to the modern world. Thus the moribund elite gradually lost the edge it had. Hindu, Sikh and other non-Muslim communities took to western education and new way of life without much effort which added to their social, political and economic clout.

With the passage of time the resistance against exploitative colonial rule grew in intensity and in the process Hindus and Muslims opened their closets, dusted off their dead heroes to be erected as symbols of their so-called glorious past. In the struggle for independence underpinned by competing ideologies such figures were juxtaposed with the modern western historical figures who helped change the course of world history. The effort helped politically but its deliberate distortion of history eventually created a skewed vision of future.

Search for heroes had the effect of further dividing the communities along the communal lines. Muslim heroes were villains for Hindus and vice versa. Hindu revivalist movements were supported by Hindu businessmen, traders, members of mercantile class and nascent bourgeoisie while Muslim revivalism was spearheaded by big landholders who felt threatened by sea of Hindus in Uttar Pradesh [UP], Hyderabad Deccan and Bengal. They could visualise that they would lose their lands and privileges in an independent India dominated by Hindu majority. In such conditions notions of Muslim separateness and exclusive Muslim identity were polished and dished out. All such notions were anchored in a predominantly past religious experience and fear of future. All other vital elements such as shared history, ethnicity, racial roots, language and cultural were discarded in favour of exclusive identity. One could witness a parallel process, with some differences, in Hindu community. Result was that in the run-up to independence the Raj administration, Hindu-dominated Congress and separatist Muslim League failed to resolve the communal issue in the framework of a united India. Consequently Pakistan was carved out as a Muslim homeland in the subcontinent. Interestingly the territories that opted for Pakistan had Muslim majority which had hardly been at the forefront of Muslim separatist movement launched by the landlords of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. Two nation theory [Hindu and Muslim] proved to be the raison detere of the Partition. After the emergence of Pakistan the elite faced a perplexing situation. Indian Muslim citizens in the majority areas became Pakistani citizens overnight. All elements other than faith which constituted the underpinnings of Muslim separatism such as Arab empire, Muslim history, alien Muslim rulers and Urdu language could hardly be factors that would provide a uniting link between diverse regions of Pakistan. What could unite people and create their new identity were the indigenous histories, cultures, languages, heroes and ways of living. Now the dilemma was that these were the things that distinguished the Muslims of these areas from alien Muslims who waylaid their lands. More importantly these were the things the people of new state shared with Indians. Affinity between Indians and Pakistanis was an anathema to the new self-important elite that apparently rode the crest of the wave in the wake of the Partition. But it was highly insecure in the face of ground realities that surfaced in the early decades of Pakistan. It erroneously believed that acceptance of ground realities would delegitimise what created Pakistan. Ground realities however cannot be wished away. Faith alone would not be a firm basis of national unity. But the elite treated faith as the central plank of its ideology. In its zeal to create integration with ideological stuff, it tried to impose Urdu on Bengal but eventually got Bangladesh. Glorifying Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Iranian rulers who invaded our regions, massacred people, raped women and took young male and females as slaves was nothing less than insult to the Muslim people here. Question of identity in Pakistan is a complex matter to the extent that it appears as if it’s a case of reconciliation of the irreconcilables. But nothing lasting can be built on the negation of indigenous social, cultural and linguistic assets our long history has bequeathed us. They are enduring markers of our identity. Any artificial identity erected on the debris of actual historical identity would be flimsy to say the least. One way to resolve the conundrum is to encourage the flourishing of multiple identities; one could be a Pakistani in terms of citizenship and Sindhi or Pashtun for example in terms of culture and ethnicity.

If historical experience is anything to go by, such multiple identities can co-exist. But our elite suffering from self-induced paranoia has upended the logic; what is alien is owned and what belongs to the soil is disowned in a futile pursuit of an abstract identity which has its roots nowhere. Who will “dare disturb the universe” that hinges on the outcome of self-loathing? —


Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2020