NDIA has been a multi-religious and multi-cultural country since its known history. It never was mono-religious or mono-cultural. Then number of invasions and incursions from Aryans to Moghuls added to religious, cultural and linguistic pluralism. British colonialism also contributed to its cultural, if not religious, multiplicity. Thus with every invasion and incursion India became more and more complex and rich.

It is not that foreign incursions had impact over existing Indian civilisation. Indian civilisation also impacted on people who came from outside and their identities, customs and traditions also underwent a great change. Today we speak of Indian Christianity and Indian Islam but these terms are also inadequate to describe entire complexity of Indian Christianity or Indian Islam.

Islam entered India from south as well as north. In south India it entered through trade channels as Arabs were trading with Kerala (Malabar area) since pre-Islamic days. The trading of course continued in post-Islamic period and many of them married local women who converted to Islam and thus Islam began to spread peacefully in Kerala. Kerala has the oldest mosque believed to be constructed by Malik Dinar, one of the Prophet’s companions.

However, in the north Islam entered India through invasion of Muhammad bin Qasim, a young general of Umayyad period who reportedly came to punish Raja Dahir of Sindh who had refused to surrender bandits who had looted some Arab trade ships. Raja Dahir was defeated and Qasim left legacy of Islam in Sindh. Sindh, like Kerala in South, was the first Islamic centre in the north which evolved rich composite civilisation. Sufi Islam left great impact on Sindh.

North subsequently saw several invasions by Turks and Central Asian invaders as well as from Afghanistan and each Muslim invader came with different cultural traditions. Ghauris, Ghaznavis, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Lodhis and so on belonged to different cultural and linguistic groups and fought each other to seize power. Thus it will be seen that Muslims, right from beginning, were far from homogenous or monolithic.

Also, it is interesting to note that as a result of various linguistic groups Turkic, Arabic, Persian along with some North Indian languages like Maithili, Khadi boli, Sanskrit (though not spoken by common people and mainly confined to Hindu religious scholars), Purbi, Punjabi coming together, mainly in military camps, a new language later known as Urdu, came into existence and this new language slowly acquired a new identity and within a few hundred years became main language of cultural expression by ruling elite.

Urdu, as we will see, has become part of Muslim identity in the north and became an issue in communal politics. Also, in North India a new civilisation, composite in nature, came into existence generally known as Ganga-Jamni Tehzib (i.e. the culture flourishing between two great rivers Ganga and Jamuna.) This composite cultural identity, mainly of the urban elite, became the main identity both of Muslims and Hindus.

This composite culture produced great musicians, painters, calligraphers, architects, poets and religious scholars amidst an atmosphere of religious tolerance. One can see its impact even today to some extent. However, communal politics of the colonial era focused more on Hindu and Islamic identities. Religion began to take precedence over culture and competitive politics began to erode composite nature of elite identity.

Primordial identities are more or less fixed and not much amenable to change and hence provide greater certainty and stability. However, cultural identity is rather more complex in nature. Though it is, in a way, primordial in nature but also undergoes changes. Culture is never static and changes with context. For example when Muslim dynasties began to rule over India, the Indian culture began to change and a new culture came into existence. With Moghul rulers, culture became more Persianised and Persian institutions acquired primacy. The British culture also created great impact when British rule was established and the urban elite during colonial times took to English ways along with the language. British rule also brought new concepts, modernity and new technology. But British colonial rule proved to be much more problematic for Indian people. Muslim dynasties had assimilated Indian social and political institutions and created strong bond with Hindu ruling elite and hence they were hardly considered as ‘alien’. They became part of Indian culture and society.

It was not so with the British rulers. They considered themselves more civilised and maintained their distance from the natives who also not only considered the British as foreigners but also took being under British rule as slavery. And the whole political struggle against the British was thought to be struggle against slavery. This was a big difference between the Muslim rule and British rule.

However, the British rule also resulted in a divide between Hindus and Muslims and communal elements in both the communities began to assert their separate identities and Hindu communalists extended the concept of slavery to Muslim rule as well and stretched it over ‘thousand years’.

During colonial period new political institutions came into existence and sword was replaced by franchise, however limited it was. Thus for voting, identities became very important and through clever manoeuvring the British brought religious identities into play. Now cultural identity and regional identities which were main identities were replaced by religious identities which encouraged divisive politics. It is important to note that religion was not the principal issue; it was share in power. The educated elite was more interested in negotiating share in power than on any religious issue. Thus religious identities took a stranger turn.

The writer is chairman of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.

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