The sameness of the ‘other’: India has an enduring Islamic legacy; confluence of art, culture make Muslims innate part of Indian history

Editor's note: In this debate, we ask the question — 'Can we eject Islam from our history?' Arguing against the motion is Ira Mukhoty, an Indian author with an interest in mythology and history. Read the counterpoint to this debate by Makarand Paranjape here.

"The Hindu, like the eunuch," wrote James Mill in the early 19th century, "excels in the qualities of a slave." Through these sentiments, the Scottish historian, economist and philosopher was explaining what had become accepted wisdom – the categorising of India into clearly defined communities, Muslims and Hindus, separate and apart, in which the Hindus were described as weak, and effeminate, and the Muslims, though "duplicitous", were nevertheless "manly and vigorous". The self-loathing and the fear of emasculation that this created among certain Hindus called for the re-imagining of this weakened creature as one of a "dying race" with a once-glorious Aryan past.

When the birth of a nation has been as cataclysmic as India’s, then the fault lines run deep. The violence with which the British suppressed the uprising of 1857 was just the visible extreme of an age of colonial suppression and reshaping. To reclaim the perfect past, the Hindu needed to rediscover his virility and strength.  A cult of the physique was initiated and violence and bravery now coalesced to form a revitalised Hindu who would never again cower before a foreign power. Even before freedom was achieved and the British dispatched, a new enemy had been identified, a danger signalled. One who had once been threatening and fierce. And so the Muslim became "the other".

 The sameness of the ‘other’: India has an enduring Islamic legacy; confluence of art, culture make Muslims innate part of Indian history

Representational image. Reuters

The notion that a land can belong to only one people is hubris. The search for a pure, "original" inhabitant is similarly flawed.  Recent genetic studies show that the very oldest inhabitants of the subcontinent are represented by the modern day Andaman islanders. All further cultures developed through the migration into India of "Iranian agriculturist" stock and then, later, "Steppe pastoralist" stock, all of which created the Indus Valley civilisation and the Vedas. Any attempt now, millennia later, to strip away the kaleidoscope layers that make up our countless, entwined identities would be foolish and destructive.

Muslims first had contact with India through the Arab traders, from the very beginning of the history of Islam itself.  From the 11th century onwards, the Islamicate dynasties that were established in India sometimes came from a Persianised, and even pre-Islamic world. While it is irrefutable that some, such as Nadir Shah, were purely destructive forces, many were not. For the Mughals of India, Islam was only one of many symbols of kingship, as they strove to legitimise their rule in a land filled with diverse peoples. They had a pragmatic and robust attitude to religion, using it for political expediency if required. It was Timurid art, architecture, etiquette, poetry and Sufi mysticism that each Padshah promoted according to his predilection, thus creating an enduring Islamicate legacy which owed quite as much to its Indic home.

There were less exalted areas of interaction too.  The close alliance of the Rajput clans with the Mughal elite resulted in not only a syncretic style of painting and architecture but shaped an entire genre of Raso poetry and epic tales. At this cosmopolitan Mughal court where Iranis, Afghans, Turks, Ethiopians, Indian Muslims and Central Asians rubbed shoulders with Rajput noblemen, Akbar composed verse in Hindi and elite noblemen like Abdur Rahim were accomplished Braj poets with a deep understanding of the Hindu religion.

Hari resides in Rahim’s own eyes

Then what need does he have to apply kajal?

The Hindu poets, meanwhile, negotiated this imperial reality with equal aplomb and incorporated the Padshahs into the local divinity. In Amrit Rai’s Mancarit, for example, the poet talks about Akbar as follows:

The goddess Lakshmi shares her time between Vishnu’s embrace

And nestling at Akbar’s breast.

It was not only Padshahs and Sultans, naturally, who lived in Hindustan and contributed to its culture. With the rise of Brahminical heterodoxy in the 2nd millennium, the lower castes converted en bloc to Islam and so there were communities of weavers, ironsmiths, butchers, and potters whose more humble endeavours also shaped the country.

During the uprising of 1857, the local leaders were well aware of the diverse people they represented. Hazrat Mahal in Awadh marshalled both Muslims and Hindus while realising clearly where the dividing force came from. "In the proclamation it is written that the Christian religion is true," declared Hazrat Mahal in her counter-proclamation, "to destroy Hindoo and Mussulman temples on pretence of making roads...while the places of worship of Hindoos and Mussulmans are entirely neglected." And so she sharply accused the British of creating bitter religious divisions.

To guard against the possibility of any future revolutions, the British began a systematic eradication of Muslim influence. Manuscripts and buildings were razed, the Muslim population was evicted from Shahjahanabad and the old nobility disappeared. The refined etiquette of Old Delhi was lost and the seeds of a new, despicable "other", were planted.

So, at a time when the fault lines are becoming starker, how corrosive and baffling it would be to define the boundaries of an accepted "Indian-ness". How would we decide which spice to remove from our cuisine, which rose essence from our perfume, which cloth, which song, which colour and which love? It is that heinous exercise which would truly reduce and unmake us, not any imagined "other".

(The writer is an Indian author, with an interest in mythology and history)

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Updated Date: Feb 05, 2019 08:24:27 IST