Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Islam and Indian Nationalism

Steve Muhlberger

In this lecture we are going to look at the development of a new Muslim nationalism in  India.  Here, in the years after the First World War, it looked like Muslims aspiring to independence from Britain might ally themselves with other Indians and create a new, non-sectarian nationalism.  This did not take place.  Instead, Muslims in India developed a new nationalism for Indian Muslims only and in the end created the first Islamic republic—a modern state based on Islamic principles.   “Islamic Republic” is a phrase that brings Iran to mind; but Pakistan, which originally included Bangladesh, has been trying to implement this idea off and on since the 1940s.   It’s the lead-up to the formation of Pakistan that concerns us today.

Muslims had been dominant in  India before the British came.  Thereafter,  Muslims lost their dominant position, and as the English language and European education and administrative methods were introduced, Muslims were put in an awkward position.  In those areas directly ruled by the British (most but not all of India), there were no longer any institutional guarantees for their culture or social position.  (Existence of princely states, many of which were ruled by Muslims, did little to reassure Indian Muslims.  Such places were out of the mainstream.)   Being swamped by Hindus was one fear.  Hindus did  not find it demeaning to learn from the British in the same way that Muslims did.  There was no pre-existing history of hostility between Hindus and Christians, and Hindus did not base the legitimacy of their religion on the revelation of the “last of the Prophets.”  After the failure of the Great Mutiny,  some Hindus began to see the British as providing an opportunity to revive Hindu culture, a culture that would be free of Muslim features.

Symbolized by the conflict over the northern Indian languages, Urdu and Hindi.  When written in Arabic letters, the language was called Urdu; when written in Sanskrit characters, it was called Hindi.  During the modernization efforts of the late 19th century, some Hindi speakers began to reform the language to emphasize its ancient Indian roots, mainly by replacing loan words from Persian with new or old words with Sanskrit roots.  This naturally alarmed Urdu speakers, who in the absence of powerful patrons for Urdu culture, had to come to the defense of their language and begin to transform it, too, into a modern language.  One can visualize quite easily the insecurity of Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders in this situation.

Indian Muslims began to feel a double need:  a need for modernization to meet the European challenge; aneed to secure themselves a place—what they would consider an honorable, even a dominant place, in the new society of British India.

This situation did not necessarily make conflict inevitable.  After all, the power of the Hindus in India was pretty much a theoretical menace as long as the British were in complete control of the Indian subcontinent.   And in fact after the Mutiny of 1857 and before WWI, the power of the British in India, despite the fact that it was exercised largely through Indian clerks and Indian soldiers, looked impregnable.  In this situation, even  the smallest share of self-rule, would only be won with a great struggle, a struggle in which Muslims, and Hindus, not to mention Christians, Sikhs, and Parsis, would need to pull together.

Post WWI situation led to active and cooperative efforts by Muslims and Hindus.  Britain had made great demands on India during the war, and there had been a nationalist reaction.   In 1917 Britain had found it prudent to promise to introduce self-governing institutions.   Indian nationalists rejected the government proposals as inadequate and began organizing to put pressure on the govt.  The Indian National Congress (a mainly Hindu organization, but officially non-sectarian) united with the All-India Muslim League to demand an elected legislative assembly.  Others wanted to go farther faster.  But even the more moderate demand was less than the British govt. was willing to grant.

In the aftermath of the war, the British showed themselves to be quite ungenerous in their attitude.  Unrest connected with taxation, famine, and the great influenza epidemic was met by anti-sedition measures.  This led to further unrest, of course, and that ended with the Amritsar Massacre of 1919.   Amritsar was a town in the Punjab province of North India; during a demonstration there the British commandant had his troops open fire on an unarmed crowd, killing 379 of them.   This of course really put the government on the spot, and further reforms were brought forward.  The Government of India Act of 1919 introduced both an all-India legislature and separate provincial legislatures, with a limited franchise (less than a million out of 247 million inhabitants).

In the wake of these concessions, some Indian nationalists decided to cooperate.  However, some of the most influential groups and leaders decided to hold out for more.

This resulted in the first of Gandhi’s non-cooperation campaigns, and it was pursued in cooperation with Muslim organizations.  Gandhi supported by two brothers, Muhammed and Shaukat Ali.   In fact, the campaign had a double focus.

The campaign of 1920-22 had mixed results.  In many areas there was a unified front against the British.   Muslims were as active as Gandhi in preaching a non-violent but determined resistance to British rule, and Muslim non-violent efforts in some areas led to greater unity with their Hindu neighbors.

But it was difficult to maintain the non-violence consistently.  Gandhi called off the campaign when some nationalists led peasants to attack a police station and kill 22 officers.  And some of the violence that came out of the campaign served to divide the two religious communities.  Particularly important was the rising of the Moplahs, a group of Muslim peasants in Malabar who in the grip of the nationalist excitement murdered their Hindu landlords.  This episode was an example of the potential hostilities waiting to be wakened.  If people were rising against oppression, they might see each other as easier and more relevant targets than the British (who were in most places almost invisible).  There were many Hindu peasants with oppressive Muslim landlords, and vice-versa.

The troubles of 1920-22 did not, however, split Hindus and Muslims.  Throughout the 20s, Gandhi remained the most influential nationalist leader, and both his goals—eventually Dominion status, like Canada or South Africa—and his methods—non-violence—were adopted by the nationalist movement.  A second civil disobedience campaign in 1930-31 and a threatened third one in 1933 forced the British government to make much bigger concessions in the Government of India Act of 1935.  Under this act, both the provinces of India and the all-India government were to have legislatures with considerable powers, though the appointed governors were to have the final say in many areas.

However, by this point, Hindu and Muslim unity had become a thing of the past.  During the tough economic times of the 30s, the nationalist movement had been torn in several directions—between those who wanted independence now or very soon and those who were willing to work within the institutions set up by the new Government of India Act, for instance.  Equally important was the split between the old Hindu dominated nationalist organizations, especially the Congress party, and the Muslims, whose main organization was the Muslim League.  In the complicated series of negotiations that took place between the Imperial government and the nationalists, the Muslims began to insist on guarantees that would ensure that they would not be overwhelmed by non-Muslims as self-government slowly approached.  The guarantee that they particularly wanted was voting on the communal system.  That meant that there would be one list of candidates for Hindu voters to choose among, and another for Muslim voters.  In this way, Muslims thought that they would always have some members in the various new legislatures.  And when the Government of India Act was passed, communal voting was part of the package.

Hindus believed that the British were playing upon divisions in the Indian population to delay independence, and that the Muslims were playing into their hands.   Whatever the motives of the various factions, communal voting did prove to be divisive.  Muslim candidates appealing to Muslim voters had little choice but to appeal to their interests specifically as Muslims and thus accentuate their differences with other Indians.  The Hindu nationalists did not trust the Muslims, and when they won large majorities in several provinces in the 1937 election, they did not choose to include the Muslim League in their cabinets.  At that point, the distrust of Hindus that had led to the push for communal voting seemed confirmed, and a permanent breach opened up between the two nationalist movements.

So what was this new Muslim nationalism?  There were two possibilities.

The practical problems in the first solution pushed Muslims toward the second.  But that was no easy solution either.  There were some areas where there were few Hindus or few Muslims, but most Muslims were mixed into the Hindu population of India pretty thoroughly.  The big cities of North India were the centers of culture, religion and political life for both groups.

Nevertheless, the idea of a Muslim homeland on the Indian subcontinent gained support.  It seems to have originated in the mind of an Indian student at Cambridge, Rahmat Ali, who invented the name Pakistan.  It supposedly meant “Land of the Pure” and was a semi-anagram for the provinces of India that would be included in that new country.  By 1940, when Jinnah’s Muslim league and Gandhi and Nehru’s Congress Party had become totally alienated, partition of India—the creation of what would become Pakistan—had become an official demand of the Muslim League.

Further political developments were delayed by the Second World War.  But the war made British withdrawal from India inevitable.  Sacrifices and resentment in India were followed by imperial weakness and the accession of a Labour government in Britain.  The British knew that they would go soon, but the question was, what would they leave behind?

There was the problem of the princely states (in class).  Even worse was the problem Muslim-Hindu relations.  The Muslim League was demanding partition, and asking for huge areas where Muslims were perhaps a majority, and perhaps not.  The key provinces of Punjab and Bengal were important to both Muslims and Hindus.

Britain refused to pull out without some guarantees that minority rights would be respected.  However, the pressure was very great to leave.  Britain was broke, India was in turmoil.  A quick exit was finally decided on.  The Imperial government made an offer of a much smaller Pakistan to Muhammed Ali Jinnah, with a special procedure for Punjab and Bengal -- one that led to the partition of both provinces -- and Jinnah took it.

As it happened, the independence of British India was announced by Lord Mountbatten only 10 weeks before it was to take place.  (August, 1947)  The reaction to the upcoming partition of the empire into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim Pakistan was tremendous.  Mass migration, paranoia, mass slaughter.  It can be compared to the situation in Yugoslavia in 1990.avia in 1990.  The breakdown of an empire with a dominant majority that was feared by an irreconcilable minority led to panic.

People left their homes to find what they hoped would be safety with their own kind.  People who stayed put were killed as fifth-columnists for imaginary invaders.  People on the road were murdered before they reached safety.  8 million Hindus and other non-Muslims left the new Pakistan; 8 million Muslims left the new Indian Republic and went to Pakistan.  At least 200,000 were killed en route.

The result:  two hostile countries facing each other across an armed border—as they have continued to do for more than 50 years.

One of them, the Republic of India, is officially a secular state.  Despite its Hindu majority, it remained a state with many religious groups within it, including 40 million Muslims.  (There are many more Muslims now, since the population of all groups in India has increased tremendously in the last half century.)

The other state, Pakistan, was after the great transfer of population, 90% or more Muslim. The choice here was for a state in which Muslims could be secure.  Some of its founders actually wanted Pakistan to be a secular state; but with such a birth and such a population, the role of Islam in the state has always been a key issue.  Not the only one—for Islam has proved to be an insufficient glue.

There have been divisions between East and West (which led to the secession of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, in 1970); between natives and migrants; between rich and poor;, and between military leaders and civilian politicians.  Founded on an ideal, Pakistan has always found it difficult to sort out its practical difficulties.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.