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Excerpts from the book Colonialism and the Call to Jihad in British India

This book examines the role of Ulemas in attempting to use the idea of jihad as an instrument for combating colonialism in South Asia as far back as 1914. Excerpts from the introduction to this important work is presented here.

By Tariq Hasan

One important outcome of India’s national movement in the 20th century is the realisation that ever since India came under the colonial yoke, her historiography was deliberately tampered with to serve the political interests of the British rulers. The 19th-century British historians, liberals, such as James Stuart Mill amongst them, had divided Indian history into Hindu and Muslim periods. This eventually laid the foundation stone of the two-nation theory, so much so that this facilitated Britain’s hold on power and tarrying in the subcontinent for half-a-century more before they finally sailed home in 1947. The colonial domination over historiography was a key element of their grand strategy.

The leaders of India’s freedom movement were alive to this but took time to realise that imperialism, to a large extent, thrived on a deliberately obfuscated narrative of the country’s past.

It was this compelling thought that prompted Professor Mohammad Habib, one of the leading Indian historians of his time, to state, ‘Three-fourths of the communal fanaticism we see today is the result of these textbooks; they have misrepresented the Musalmans to the Hindus and the Hindus to the Musalmans and have tried to sap the foundations of India’s self-respect’.1 Professor Habib tried to draw attention to the writings of Sir Henry Elliot, which were mainly politically-laced historiography to suit the tasks the British rulers had set for themselves.

Soon after India became independent in 1947, bringing in the Nehru era, systematic efforts were initiated to undo the grave damage to the country’s unity and syncretised culture by Western historians during colonial rule. Thus began a struggle to recover India’s past by postcolonial nationalist historians. Their task was, first, to painstakingly identify and then vigorously counter the problematic discourse woven through by colonial historiography of India. An all-India panel, comprising leading historians of the time, was formed. Its members were known for their erudition, scholarship, intellect and integrity, and it included Dr Tarachand, S. Gopal, Mohammad Habib, Nilkant Shastri and D.V. Poddar.

This crucial task of nation building was taken forward despite various setbacks and challenges faced by Jawaharlal Nehru’s successors, right up to the year 2000. Sadly, with the beginning of the new millennium, the then government launched a project to undo the good work of nearly half-a-century and to once again tweak, twist and maul history in a manner akin our colonial masters. Only this time, the insidious mechanisms were set rolling by ethnic nationalist and religious fundamentalist Indians themselves. The spirit and practices of Macaulay and James Mill, who spearheaded the brazen efforts to write warped history to benefit the British, were resorted to once again to divide India on the fault lines of faith, religion and belief.

Thus, a distinctly colonial worldview that treated any difference as being inferior and requiring assimilation or elimination has undergirded this 21st century move to rewrite Indian history for serving the political interests of sectarian radicals merrily donning and flaunting the convenient garb of Hindutva. Besides being at odds with the faith itself, the strident move under-taken in its name was nevertheless detrimental to those whose cause it feigned to espouse. It sought to deny people’s modern instincts and consciousness built so assiduously through the Nehru era. What it also did was to set the alarm bells ringing in progressive academic circles. Fortunately for India, the next government which came to power in 2004 stalled this blatant attempt to spread ill will and sectarianism amongst the people of this country. However, the vulnerability of the system had been exposed.

There is strong historical evidence to support the thesis that beginning from the early 19th century, the ulema (Muslim clergy) played a major role in mass nationalist mobilisation in India against colonial rule. It is understandable that prejudiced British historians in the colonial era had tampered with history to underplay, stain and blur the role played by the Muslim clergy in shaping Indian nationalism. After all, the interests of the British rulers were better served by promoting and projecting the separatist Muslim League as the ‘true saviours of Indian Muslims’. What is inexplicable is the failure of professional historians in independent India to give the ulema their due in their fight against colonialism. The present work is a small step in shedding light on this aspect. But it does not cover the role of the Indian ulema in the post-Independence era. It is unfortunate that in recent years, they have more than a few times failed the Muslim community in its faltering course of reform and modernisation. For this, the ulema be held accountable to history.

The insurrection of 1857 is a landmark event in Indian history. It has been chronicled extensively by historians, both Western and Indian. This book deals with one crucial facet of the tumultuous event—the role of the Muslim clergy in this clash with 19th century colonialism. It traces the roots of this conflict, beginning with the Mohamadiya Movement—erroneously referred to as the Wahabi Movement by the British. It covers the subsequent war waged in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of India by Sayid Ahmad Barelvi, a revolutionary Muslim cleric from Rae Bareli, a small town adjoining Lucknow, the capital of the former princely state of Awadh. Barelvi first led a campaign against the Sikh ruler of Punjab, Raja Ranjit Singh. Later, after Barelvi’s death, his loyalists turned their attention to the British and fought them for nearly three decades until the late 1860s. Many Western historians refer to him as the spiritual father of Afghanistan’s modern-day jihadi deviation. The present work seeks to unravel an intermingling of events and ideas which led to a fusion of jihad and Indian nationalism in the 19th century.

The narrative encompasses the entire trajectory of the clash between the colonial West and radical Islam, and seeks to distinguish between radical Islam and the militant strain of 20th century Islam. From the battlefields of Awadh to the tribal resistance of North West Frontier India, the stage shifts yet again to the dusty plains of the United Provinces (UP). It was here, in a small nondescript town of Deoband, that a battered and bruised section of the Muslim clergy from North India decided to set up a theological school for drawing spiritual sustenance after the traumatic reverses suffered by them in the failed Revolt of 1857. It is important to trace the roots of the Deobandi anti-imperialist movement which was largely accommodating, unlike Wahabi fundamentalism which was disturbingly divisive.

The Deoband School was essentially based on the Hanafi school of thought of Sunni Muslims. It was a revivalist movement which sought to focus on the Hadiths or the original sayings of the Prophet. It also sought to legitimise all the major established schools of Sufi thought. Politically, it was anti-West rather than anti-Christian.

The present work also seeks to remove a certain confusion which arose after the New York twin towers terrorist strike when the name of the Deobandi madarsas (schools) of Pakistan cropped up. When the movement for Pakistan was reaching its climax in undivided India in the 1940s, certain clerics broke ranks from the main Deoband seminary and switched loyalties to the Pakistan movement. After partition, they set up the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in Pakistan and broke away from the original India-based Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. Till the 1980s, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam remained moderate in its political approach. When America started funding madarsas across Pakistan to wage jihad against the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, these so-called Deobandi madarsas drew ideologically closer to the Wahabi school of thought rooted in Saudi Arabia. Flush with funds from the West and also from certain client states of the West in the Middle East, they became sanctuaries for the militant strain of Islam. Certain Western analysts erroneously linked these madarsas with the original Deoband seminary, which in turn sought in vain to disassociate itself from these deviant schools of Deobandi thought.

The Silk Conspiracy Case

In 1914, a determined band of Muslim clerics plotted to overthrow the British Raj in India. This ambitious venture was supported by the axis powers led by Germany and the Ottoman Empire. In the annals of the British government, this abortive revolt is referred to as the Silk Conspiracy Case. This narrative traces seemingly unconnected events in Asia, Europe and North America, and examines the role of jihad as an instrument for combating colonialism in South Asia.

The Silk Conspiracy or the Reshmi Rumal Movement, as it was referred to by Indian nationalists, ended in failure for its leaders. However, it led to the emergence of yet another charismatic figure on the stage of the 20th century Indian Muslim nationalism—Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani. British historians have described him as ‘one of the most important Muslim figures in 20th century South Asia’. Mahatma Gandhi revered him, and Jawaharlal Nehru held him in high esteem. Jinnah was dismissive of him, and yet feared him. After India’s Independence, the Nehru-led government was keen to bestow the highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, to Maulana. But Maulana politely declined the honour saying the award would make him indebted to the government. In the years following his death, Maulana’s sterling contribution to shaping collective Indian consciousness sadly faded away from public memory. The present work tries to identify the factors which have led to the near eclipse of Maulana’s role in Indian history textbooks.

Another narrative strand traced by this work is the trajectory of Muslim separatism leading to the creation of Pakistan.

Its main thrust, however, is limited to the role of the Muslim ulema in this decisive play of events. It seeks to emphasise that the majority of Muslim clerics in undivided India were till the bitter end against the move to establish the theocratic state of Pakistan. The overwhelming momentum given to the drive for Pakistan emanated primarily from the upper-class landed aristocracy of Muslims along with the middle class. In any case, 90 per cent of the masses were not voters in the crucial elections of 1945–1946, which were treated as a sort of plebiscite on the issue of Pakistan.

Among the ulemas who strongly advocated partition was Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi, the radical Islamist who founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941, a religious organisation with a pan-Islamist political agenda. He was a strong proponent of Pakistan, but had scant regard for Jinnah’s secular concerns. In time, he would become one of the founding ideologues of Islamic fundamentalism.

This book examines the role of the ulema in India’s freedom struggle through seven main protagonists. These are the 19th- century cleric Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, the mystic revolutionary Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah, Maulana Mahmoodul Hasan (the founding father of the Silk Conspiracy and later of the Jamia Millia Movement), Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi, Barkatullah Khan and Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani. All eulogised the ideal of jihad, but this was a call far removed from the present-day notion of this belief which rests entirely on warfare stemming from hatred. This is also the story of a Hindu prince, Raja Mahendra Pratap, whose close association with three of the clerics (mentioned earlier) transcends all commonly accepted barriers of religion and interpretations of jihad.

This work concludes with a brief account of Jinnah’s last days shortly after the creation of Pakistan—a state largely conceived and created by him—and is predominantly based on a long lost book, With the Quaid-e-Azam During His Last Days. This was written by Lt Colonel Ilahi Baksh, the doctor who first diagnosed that Jinnah was suffering from tuberculosis and treated him in his final days. First published in 1949, the book was heavily censored because the author was then in government service (He was, in fact, the first Pakistani principal of King Edwards Medical College, Lahore). The first edition of this book was quickly sold out, and then it was quietly put under wraps for more than half-a-century.

Obviously, Lt Colonel Baksh was privy to the innermost thoughts and feelings of the creator of Pakistan in his final days. If one carefully scrutinises this critical piece of evidence, then one is bound to arrive at a startling conclusion—the architect of Pakistan died of tuberculosis, but his end was hastened by another major killer, depression. He felt that the Pakistan which he had created was ‘departing from the cardinal concepts of what he had visualised’. In his dying days, Jinnah had awakened to the reality that a theocratic state has no place in the modern world.

Why I Chose to Tell This Story

I was born in the North Indian city of Aligarh during the tumultuous months preceding partition. The Muslim family into which I was born was deeply religious. It was, however, not a divisive faith. From childhood, we were taught to honour the holy books of all faiths. Pandit Sundarlal, the noted Gandhian and author of the Gita and the Quran, was a family friend; so also was Raja Mahendra Pratap, one of the protagonists of this work.

Most of my cousins were given Hindu names by my maternal grandfather Abdul Majeed Khwaja, who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. This was not because of some hollow secular-ism, but because my nana (grandfather) was of the clear opinion that ‘names have nothing to do with religion’. He genuinely subscribed to the notion that ‘names should be rooted in the ethos of one’s land of birth’.

My earliest memories are, however, not of India but of the battle-scarred cities of London and Vienna, where my father had ventured shortly after my arrival in this world. He had gone to Europe to finish his higher education in modern medicine.

My paternal grandfather belonged to a zamindar family of district Pratapgarh, south of Lucknow. Our ancestral village, Garhi Samdabad, nestles on the banks of the river Ganga. My great-great-grandfather Asad Khan had been an artillery commander in the army of the ruler of Awadh.

Asad Khan had played a valiant role in the Great Revolt of 1857. After the defeat of the rebel-led forces, he narrowly evaded capture by the British, by hiding in a nearby village in the house of a family friend. If captured, it would have meant certain death for him. Subsequently, he took advantage of the general amnesty by surrendering before the British authorities. His estate was confiscated. Later, a small portion of his land holdings was restored to him.

My grandfather Ali Hasan Khan was an enlightened zamindar known all over the district for his nobility and wisdom. Like all members of the landed class in his time, he was a loyal subject of the British Raj. For this loyalty, he was rewarded with the title of Khan Bahadur. During the freedom movement, he initially thought it prudent to remain aloof and concentrate on rebuilding his depleted estate. His priority was to give the best education to his three sons. Thus, sometime in the early 1920s, my adventurous father Ajmal Hasan Khan boarded a steamship and headed for the shores of the imperial metropolis of London, with a little over 20 pounds in his pocket. His two younger brothers, Niaz and Majid, spent their early years studying in the neighbouring city of Allahabad.

My grandfather’s loyalty to the government of the day was, however, destined to face some testing times, shortly after my parents’ wedding in 1936. My mother, Akhtar Sultan Begum’s father, Abdul Majeed Khwaja, was a staunch Gandhian and would never lose any opportunity to display his anti-British sentiments.

Khwaja had studied law at Cambridge and struck up a friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru there, which had been a lifelong one. Unfortunately, this relationship was somewhat marred in his final days. The reason for this was my grandfather’s deep worry over the communal riots in the early 1960s, mainly at Jamshedpur, Jabalpur and Aligarh. I suspect that he was disappointed by Prime Minister Nehru’s subdued response to what he himself perceived as a grave portent to Hindu–Muslim relations in free India. Angered by the Congress government’s failure to swiftly dispense justice to the perpetrators of these riots, one of Khwaja Sahib’s sons, my uncle Raveend Khwaja, resigned from the Congress party and joined the newly formed Republican Party of India in 1961. Such happenings must have cast a shadow on Nehru’s feelings towards his old friend. Soon the Indo-China war broke out and Nehru was shattered by the setback brought by it. Abdul Majeed Khwaja passed away after a brief illness in December 1962.

In retrospect, I feel that though Nehru was very fond of my grandfather, he would often get impatient with Khwaja’s stubborn, and rather simplistic, approach to political issues. Thus, instead of taking Khwaja into his cabinet, he chose the more skilled politician and capable administrator Rafi Ahmad Kidwai.

It was Khwaja’s unflinching loyalty to Gandhian ideals which led Gandhi himself to comment just before the country was partitioned that if Indians could learn from ‘Badshah Khan [Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan] and Khwaja Abdul Majeed, then the India of their dreams would emerge’. The exact quote and the context in which the Mahatma had paid tribute to two of his closest associates find detailed elaboration in Gandhi’s official biography Mahatma Gandhi—The Last Phase by Pyaareylal.

Millions of Hindus and Muslims lost their lives and property during partition. Along the path leading up to partition, ironic as it may appear today, the Muslims of UP and Bihar had played a leading role in the struggle for establishing the Muslim State of Pakistan. Barring Mohammad Ali Jinnah, all the chief protagonists of Pakistan, including Liaqat Ali Khan and Choudhary Khaliquzaman, were from the heartland of U.P. An inexplicable wish for self-destruction apparently engulfed them. Besides the loss of life and property which all the migrants suffered, for the thousands of Muslims from the two states, partition led to a vertical split in their families—brothers separated from brothers, children from parents, wives from husbands.

Ours was a large family—if one counted first cousins, second cousins, uncles and aunts, the figure would cross a hundred. My mother had four other sisters and three brothers; her mother had three sisters and five brothers, and so on. Our family, too, was split equally between India and Pakistan.

Going back to my childhood years, I have vivid memories of small towns in the heartland of North India. On our return to India in 1950, after spending nearly three years in Europe with my parents, my father was posted as Civil Surgeon at Mainpuri district, a town in the badlands of U.P. It was the beginning of a new era. The country’s first parliamentary elections were still to be held. The British rulers had left but the Raj was still very much a reality. The respect and fear of authority was still palpable.

In the mofussil towns, it was the ‘Collector sahib’s writ which still ran’. ‘Captaan sahib’ (superintendent of police), Judge sahib and Civil Surgeon sahib would follow. The district officials lived a life of comfort and were in a way fairly insulated from the common people. The poor were suffering, yet it decidedly was a disciplined society. The justice delivery system was largely intact because corruption was still within limits. The one place where the district officials lowered their guard was at the City Club—a legacy of the Raj. Most top officials played tennis or badminton. There were no bars in such clubs and only soft drinks, such as Rooh Afza and lemonade, were served. On weekends, those fond of shikaar (hunting) would go to nearby ponds for duck and partridge shooting.

After a two-year stint at Mainpuri, my father was transferred to the neighbouring district of Etawah—then in the limelight because of the legendary dacoit Maan Singh and his son Tehsildaar Singh. Maan Singh had acquired a reputation for being somewhat of a Robin Hood. He had for years eluded the police of three states. It was during our stay at Etawah that Maan Singh met his end after being lured by a police informer who spiked his glass of milk with poison. His son, Tehsildaar Singh, was arrested and sent to the district jail at Etawah. Since the district jail was administered by the civil surgeon, my father would often come across Tehsildaar Singh during his daily rounds of the jail. He was always very respectful towards my father. My father would often tell me that the dacoits of the Chambal ravines would refer to themselves as baghies (rebels), and had their own code of conduct and sense of honour.

There were no good schools at Etawah, and so I was sent to Bombay (now Mumbai). I was admitted to class I at St Marys High School, where two of my cousins were already studying. My uncle was then the general manager at the newly established pharmaceutical firm Cipla, now world-renowned.

Bombay was even then a truly cosmopolitan city. The ambience was marked by its melting pot culture devoid of any sort of parochialism. At school, in my class, the ethnic mix of students was like this: In a class of around 50, there were at least four Jews of European stock, about half a dozen Parsis and at least 15-odd Anglo-Indians. As a child, I do not remember any incident which smacked of any parochialism or communalism.

My memories of Bombay’s high society are, to a large extent, linked to what I saw at the Colaba residence of my uncle (my mother’s cousin) Dr Khwaja Abdul Hamied, founder of Cipla Pharmaceuticals. Dr Hamied, then a budding entrepreneur, was selected to be the Sheriff of Bombay, a post more grand then than today’s mayor of such a city. For a Muslim to adorn such a post in those early years was no mean achievement. But then Dr Hamied was no ordinary man. After obtaining his doctorate in chemistry from Germany, instead of taking a cushy teaching assignment in Europe or India, he chose the difficult task of setting up an indigenous pharmaceutical company in India. From the very beginning, Hamied took on the giant pharmaceutical firms of the West, then operating in India. Such was his vision of swadeshi or indigenous capitalism that when Mahatma Gandhi visited Bombay, he spent several hours at Cipla just to express his solidarity and encourage this promising young man who, he felt, embodied the ideal of young India’s new breed of entrepreneurs. Dr Hamied became a sort of role model for me and the rest of our extended family. After him, his two sons Yusuf Hamied and Muku Hamied, led Cipla in playing a heroic role in confronting the multinational pharmaceutical companies and their exploitation of Third World countries on the issue of providing cheap medicines to the AIDS-affected millions in Africa.

The one unforgettable memory from that early stage of this midnight’s child revolved around Sunday mornings. Cricket was a passion for Bombayites. The Times of India Cricket League Tournament was a favourite event during winters. It was a league contest in which about 20 top clubs of the city vied for honours in matches played at about half a dozen grounds spread all over the city. The most famous destinations, of course, were Azad Maidan and the Oval. On such Sundays, you could find most members of India’s test team representing some club or the other. More than half of India’s test team was from Bombay.

Cipla, which was hardly known till then, came into the limelight after its team drew laurels in the Cricket League. The Cipla team, which was led by my uncle Niaz Hasan, included test stars such as Rusi Surti, Ajit Wadekar and Salim Durrani. When they played for Cipla, they were still knocking on the doors of test cricket.

But the real romance of the Bombay of the 1950s was the magical world of the film industry which was beginning to come into its own. The golden era of Bombay films had truly begun, and the whole of India was captivated by the magic of the trio of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. As a starry-eyed eight-year-old, I along with my cousins would often get an opportunity to peep into this world of magic when our uncle, Dr Hamied, would throw lavish parties in which some of the most sought-after luminaries of the film world were frequently invited.

Winter Dreams

In the month-long winter vacations, the entire family would congregate at our ancestral village. From different places, such as Pakistan, Britain and the US, family members would come in to share the joys of family life. These annual get-togethers were the bedrock of our existence.

Garhi Samdabad has undergone sea change. And some of it is for the better. As for us, about a dozen houses, once bustling with our large extended family, now remain vacant most of the year. The families have moved to towns, such as Allahabad or Lucknow. Gone are the annual family gatherings. My cousins, uncles and aunts, who had migrated to Pakistan, find it impossible to get visas to meet the family and visit the land of their ancestors’ birth.

There is, however, a positive side. There has been a marked reduction in poverty which had dogged most villagers during my childhood days. At that time except for our family, the rest of the village folk lived in mud shacks. For potable water, the village had a single well. All that has changed now. Except for an odd hutment here and there, all the residents live in brick houses. There is electricity, and community hand pumps for all.

I am writing about the life and times of a Muslim zamindar family in the very heart of the so-called Hindi belt—or cow belt as many describe it—barely 150 kilometres from the yesteryears’ disputed site of Babri Masjid. Our village is located in Tehsil Kunda where the percentage of Muslims in the population was less than 10 per cent.

Yet, the atmosphere was tranquil. Communal amity, warmth and goodwill permeated our social relations. The biggest temple of that area—the Jwala Devi temple—was managed by our family. According to the temple records, this arrangement had been in place for well over a century. This single fact reflects the traditions which were deeply rooted in this area right from the Mughal era. This was true not just for our village but also to the large swathes of Awadh stretching through several districts. Around 1960, an over-enthusiastic government officer in all his wisdom thought it prudent to wrest control of the management from our family. It was a pointer to the mindset of a system which failed to grasp the simple fact that India could only thrive if its social fabric and pluralistic ethos are nurtured, instead of being subjected to bureaucratic whims and political machinations.

In October 1956, my father was transferred to the cantonment city of Jhansi. Since the place had some excellent missionary schools, I promptly joined my parents and was admitted to class five in Christ the King School. The Catholic priests who managed the school were Irish. I fondly remember our Principal Brother Gannon. I was the favourite pupil of my class teacher Brother Malaky. My views on Christianity were shaped by those pious souls. As a sensitive child, I was never made conscious of my identity as a Muslim.

I can say that in the early 1950s despite the trauma of partition, the 1950s were the golden era of communal amity in the 20th century Independent India. The credit for this, undoubtedly, goes to the founding fathers of India. But with the beginning of the 1960s, sporadic incidents of Hindu–Muslim violence started taking place in North India, such as in Jamshedpur (then in Bihar), Jabalpur in Central India, Aligarh and Meerut in U.P. On hindsight, it can be said that had the Congress government of the time taken remedial steps to introduce constitutional and statutory measures for combating communalism and communal violence, India perhaps would have been saved from some of the most virulent forms of inter religious violence in the decades ahead. But by then, perhaps, Prime Minister Nehru had become too tired and old to take such bold steps.

Life in My Village

My grandfather and his brother lived in a style reminiscent of the zamindari era. The spacious haveli (mansion) was surrounded by at least five acres of lush green mango groves. The property included a riverside bungalow which served as a guest house. Throughout the holidays, there were shikaar parties, partridge hunts and cricket matches with neighbouring villages and conviviality all around.

There was a large retinue of helpers. Barring two or three Muslim retainers, all were Hindus. Till their old age, they served us with utmost loyalty, honesty and complete dedication.

It was only in the winter of 1992, when the Babri Masjid clash took place, that for the first time it jolted us like never before, mainly because for decades after partition, we had been living in a world where followers of different faiths cohabitated peacefully.

After my father was transferred from Jhansi, I was packed off to a boarding school in Allahabad—St Joseph’s Collegiate—in July 1959. It was here that I started becoming aware of my social moorings.

I cannot deny that the India of my childhood was deeply conservative in its social norms. Social interaction between different religious groups was limited. However, there was a certain code of behaviour which was observed in social interaction between Hindus and Muslims.

My experience in school contrasts sharply with what my three children faced in the post-Babri Masjid era of the 1980s. None of my close friends at St Joseph’s ever made me conscious of my religious identity. I was quite popular in school as a member of the cricket and hockey teams. It was, above all, an era of idealism and this touched all of us even in school. Politics and politicians were not held in general contempt by the masses. Prime Minister Nehru was a figure of admiration and love for children.

After school, I completed my 12th grade from the Government College, Allahabad and then went to AMU to study engineering. I had no particular aptitude for the subject but in those days, smart boys were supposed to study either engineering or medicine.

Aligarh was where I got a reality check. AMU had passed through a very testing period in years following independence.

There was a powerful lobby, which included some members of the ruling Congress party, who were of the opinion that a Muslim university had no reason to exist in secular India after the cre-ation of the Muslim homeland of Pakistan. The state of affairs which had prevailed at AMU in the run-up to partition had given strength to their argument. But Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru had different ideas. With the help of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the then education minister and Dr Zakir Hussain, AMU was given a new lease of life after being on the very brink of closure. I am privy to first-hand accounts as to what happened in those tumultuous days as my grandfather Abdul Majeed Khwaja was a key figure in the high drama over the university’s future.

AMU was a vibrant place in those days. Yet, I could not escape the feeling that at a certain level, the campus had not fully emerged from the hangover of partition. There is a background to this. Since its early days, the Aligarh College while catering predominantly to the Muslims took pride in itself for its open door policy towards other communities. This liberal approach had been the cornerstone of the ideology of its founding fathers in the 1870s. This state of affairs continued right up to 1937, but underwent a drastic change in the last decade or so before India became independent. Between 1940 right up to 1947, Jinnah’s Muslim League had succeeded in making the university its stronghold. During this period, anyone who spoke in favour of the Indian National Congress was ostracised. My uncle Raveend Khwaja, then known as Rasheed Bilal Khwaja, a committed Gandhian, was amongst the half-a-dozen Congress activists who were expelled from the university for opposing the Muslim League. It was this turbulent phase that made things very rough for AMU in the early post-Independence years.

My years at AMU gave a new perspective to my identity as an Indian Muslim. Having spent all my school years in missionary schools, I did at times feel uneasy. But during my stay of more than four years at AMU, I do not recollect any incident of communal prejudice against Hindu students. Most of my close friends at AMU were Hindus, and I have no hesitation in stating that it has been a life-long association with most of us.

AMU was, however, destined to pass through another turbulent phase which began in the early 1970s and lasted over a decade. It all started in 1969, when the country’s highest court questioned the legality of the university’s status as a minority institution. The university community and Muslims of North India got deeply exercised over this, as they perceived that they were being deprived of their legitimate right of administering this historic institution and preserving its Muslim identity. There were widespread protests by Muslims. The agitation ultimately subsided after the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government restored what it described as AMU’s special historic character in 1981.

Things, however, did not stay calm for long. The rise of the Babri Mosque and Ram Janambhoomi issue—a legacy of the Raj—ensured that the communal cauldron would continue to be on the boil. Aligarh was one of the most inflammable cities during this period. I was covering this city for The Times of India during this critical phase. It was, indeed, a challenging proposition to be objective, truthful and, at the same time, resonant of the concerns of my own community in those days. How far I succeeded in this endeavour is not for me to judge. That is the reader’s prerogative.

The post-Babri Mosque demolition violence was one of the most disturbing phases in the history of Independent India. I must confess that for quite a few months after the demolition of the Babri Mosque, I was overcome by great despondency. I was tormented by the fear that the India in which I had lived was gone forever. My fears, however, proved unfounded. Things gradually started returning to normalcy. This state of affairs continued right up to 2002. Then the Gujarat carnage took place in February 2002, one of the worst of its kind.

In the life of a nation, a few years are of little consequence. Ultimately it is only history which will assess the damage which the Gujarat carnage caused to the country’s pluralistic ethos. Till it took place, terrorism by Muslim fanatic groups was largely the handiwork of Kashmir-based outfits.

The sad truth about the existing state of Hindu–Muslim relations in India is that 65 years after India gained independence, the discord between the communities and mutual suspicion is dangerously high. The Gujarat violence will remain a dark milestone in the history of Hindu–Muslim relations in post-Independence India. The issue relates not just to the intensity of the violence which occurred, but also to the near-total abdication of authority by the state in rebuilding shattered lives and rehabilitating thousands of victims.

Unlike what happened in the aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition, this time no substantive initiative to heal wounds and build bridges was undertaken. Instead of attempts to heal, there was a vicious move to spread the venom of communal hatred through the social media. This is one of the most pernicious attempts to strike at the very roots of India’s pluralistic ethos.

The most disturbing element in this emerging reality is the glaring gap in the perceptions of the Muslim community as a whole and an influential segment within the majority community. The Muslim community feels increasingly isolated and persecuted, ironically enough, in states ruled by the secular parties. On the other hand, a large section of the majority community insists that the so-called secular parties are appeasing the Muslims. It is an alarming clash of perceptions. The failure of the secular parties to go beyond mere tokenism and address the real issues brings their guilt almost to the same level as those whom they dub as Hindu fundamentalists.

The Emerging Scenario

India is becoming a dangerously intolerant society. The media—the guardians of our conscience—is refusing to take up cudgels for the right to dissent.

The track record of the Congress-led government—which ruled India for 10 years beginning 2004—on the issue of framing innocent Muslim youth on terror charges, does not quite cover them with glory. There is, naturally, a socio-political cost to this.

Meanwhile, a new political dispensation has taken charge in New Delhi, introducing a new element into the power equation. The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi has taken the entire country in its sweep. There has been a radical shift in the power structure, having been triggered by a highly polarising and divisive election campaign. This poses serious questions about the future of Nehruvian pluralism, which ushered India into a new era in 1947.

In the history of a nation, five or 10 years can well be of transitory significance. What matters is the broad direction in which a nation moves. Since the very idea of pluralism and secularism is being questioned by an influential section Indians, it becomes an issue of critical concern and calls for soul searching. No one, not even the preceding secular political dispensations will escape the verdict of history. They too will be held accountable for allowing the concept of secularism to be mauled and belittled when the need was to reinvent and make it a dynamic creed.

As mentioned earlier, the fallout from 9/11 worldwide and the Gujarat riots in India have led to the proliferation of Muslim terror groups all over the globe, including India. There is no doubt today that the George Bush War against terror has gone horribly wrong. This war is instead breeding fear, frustration and fanaticism throughout the Muslim world. Pakistan, America’s once highly trusted ally, which was supposed to lead this war against terror, is itself imploding. The chances of peace in the region have receded drastically after America targeted innocent civilians in tribal Pakhtoon areas in drone attacks.

Pakistan, in fact, is fast turning out to be a failed state. Radical strains in Islam have drawn strength from the acts of inhumanity perpetrated by the West. But the moot point remains: If Pakistan is allowed to fall into the hands of extremist forces, then the fallout for neighbours, such as India, would be calamitous. It is, thus, of critical importance for India to nurture good relations with an emerging section of moderates and realists in that deeply troubled land. Jingoism and hard line policy towards our neighbours may not deliver the desired result and could, in fact, backfire on India. The battle against religious fundamentalism, including militant strains in Islam, cannot be fought in isolation.

In its early years, Islam had started its quest for capturing the mind and soul of the restless tribes of the Arabian deserts and had extended its sway to most corners of the Old World. Its strength lay in the simplicity of its monotheistic faith and urge for selfless enterprise. Somewhere down the line, the world of Islam lost touch with its own roots and failed to keep pace with the Industrial Revolution.

More recently, the Islamic Revolution of Iran triggered events which exacerbated relations between the West and the Islamic world. As a practising Muslim, I certainly cannot absolve my co-religionists of their share of responsibility in this crisis. Wallowing in self-righteous indignation, the followers of Islam have miserably failed to evolve a balanced relationship with the Western world. Muslims, the world over, are either in a state of denial regarding the real causes of their own woes or are simply in a state of apathy and inertia where they are unable to break out from the shackles which bind them.

I have no compunction in stating that if today a large number of non-Muslims, the world over, share an antipathy towards the Muslims, then a large degree of responsibility rests with my co-religionists. I go even further to state that a section of the followers of Islam have strayed sharply from the teachings of the prophet of Islam, peace be upon him. In fact, any impartial analysis of the history of Islam will confirm that within just a few years of the demise of their Prophet, a politically significant section of followers of Islam chose to abandon his egalitarian, humane and conciliatory approach towards his fellow beings. It is, however, equally true that this deviation was not a permanent feature and for long periods in Islamic history, the followers of Islam did live up to the highest moral principles expounded by their prophet.

India and the War against Terror

Muslims like me, who grew up on a staple of Gandhi–Nehru nationalism, have watched with increasing dismay the fading away of true Indian nationalism. The estrangement of the Muslim community as a whole, especially from the state, should be a subject of grave concern.

The Indian Muslim community’s fears, both real and perceived, have led to a situation in which the faith of the community in the state has eroded to dangerously low levels. If corrective measures are not put in place with extreme urgency, we would arrive at a situation wherein every Muslim could be viewed with suspicion. To put it in other words, there would be 200 million terror suspects swarming this country. It is a situation whose consequences are so grave that one finds it nightmarish.

The rising disenchantment of the Muslim community with the justice delivery system in the wake of an alarming rise in the incidence of trials connected to terror cases has been exploited by some secular parties. In a bid to gain cheap popularity, some so-called champions of secularism have made clumsy attempts to free some Muslims who are facing trials for crimes, involving incidents related to terror activities. Far from securing the release of innocent Muslims who have wrongly been implicated in such cases, these attempts have given an opportunity to right-wing Hindutva groups to raise the bogey of appeasement.

The feeling of alienation becomes more acute against the backdrop of communal riots, as the Muslim minority questions the impartiality of the law enforcement agencies at such times. Note how Wajahat Habibullah, a man of unimpeachable credentials who has occupied some of the most prestigious offices in government, speaks of repeated cases of ‘police complicity and collusions’ while tackling communal riots. Habibullah, who once headed the National Commission for Minorities, had spoken out about a slew of enquiries conducted by the Commission, which pinpointed the role of the police in targeted killing of Muslims, ironically occurring under governments headed by the so-called secular parties. Habibullah hails from one of the most prominent Muslim families of North India and has, in a recent paper on the trajectory of Nationalism in India, expressed his anguish on the torpedoing of the Communal and Targeted Violence (Prevention Bill) which has been languishing in the Parliament for years.

If political parties had been serious about tackling the twin monsters of organised communal violence and religion-based terrorism in India, then this would certainly have been on the very top of their agenda. The shocking reality, it appears, is that established political parties are more interested in short-term political gain leading from identity politics, rather than addressing the fear, anger and frustration of people in India’s Muslim-dominated ghettos. The emerging reality, however, is that an entire generation of Indian Muslims, including a burgeoning population in urban ghettos, is growing up in a climate of suspicion, violence and antipathy. The state watches on with callous indifference even as political parties hungrily grab each opportunity to glutton on political gain.

It cannot be denied that a section of Muslims who stayed behind after partition displayed a certain ambivalence in their rejection of the dream of the idea of a Muslim homeland. This dream was finally laid to rest after the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh.

Today’s Pakistan is certainly no role model for those belonging to the present generation of Indian Muslims who identify with the dreams and aspirations of millions of their own countrymen. It will be a folly to stain them with the past and treat them as the other. This can only lead to the ghettoisation of the community such as that took place in Gujarat and more recently in Muzaffarnagar in UP.

By now it should be clear to all that the West is not succeeding in the so-called war against terror which had been launched by President George Bush. The fundamental cause of its failure is the premise that it is based on the theory of Clash of Civilisations. It is this erroneous perspective that prevents a more historicised and better grounded approach towards these issues.

It is the failed war against terror, which has spawned terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror, strikes in the US. It will be very difficult today for the American establishment to deny the role of Western and Israeli intelligence agencies in propping up the original avatar of the extremist IS in Syria then known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This act of folly was no doubt done with certain objectives of achieving regime changes in that troubled area. As mentioned by the noted American journalist Roger Cohen, ‘The war on terror, it seems produced only a metastasised variety of terror.’ The West will also find it difficult to stand scrutiny for the dubious role played by some of its closest client states in the Middle East for fomenting trouble in that area and playing a double role on the issue of justice or the people of Palestine.

The only viable strategy today for containing and defeating monster groups, such as the IS in Iraq and Syria, is to isolate them from the rest of the Islamic world. Mere military might not be able to destroy such extremist forces. The real battle lies in winning over the minds and hearts of the younger generation of Muslims the world over. Frontline Arab states including Saudi Arabia, who have been promoting American interests in the region with a certain brazen indifference to the broader interests of that region, will now have to swallow a bitter pill. They will have to win over the confidence and join hands with each other, even if in a limited manner, to defeat IS and others like them.

The role of the West in embittering relations between the Shias and Sunnis in the Arab world is quite well documented. In the beginning of the First World War, two British Agents T.E. Lawrence and Gertitude Bell, found it expedient to arm Sunni warlords against the Shiete tribal chiefs. Such divide and rule tactics initially paid off, as a result of which Turkey had to lose its hegemony over the Arabian peninsula. Today, however, the chickens are coming home to roost because of such reckless meddling and intrusion by the West in the affairs of the Middle East.

Under the pretext of civilizing the heathen peoples of the East, the 18th century Western powers, mainly Great Britain, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal launched one of history’s major invasions to subjugate an entire continent. Between 1757 and 1857, the East India Company alone ruled nearly two-thirds of South Asia. From the deserts of Egypt to the palaces of Peking, the West had created a moral justification for ravaging some of the greatest civilisations of the world. The treasures of Egypt, the riches of Mughal India and the fabled wealth of the Chinese emperors were plundered by the colonial powers with impunity in the name of ‘civilisation, law and order, and conservation’.

There is no authentic record of the number of people who were killed by different colonial powers in South Asia and the Middle East between 1757 and 1900. The figure is in millions. Here, it must be conceded that barring the massacres by the army of the East India Company in the aftermath of the failed Revolt of 1857 in India, the track record of the British colonialists was generally much better than that of the other colonial powers. For instance, according to the monumental encyclopaedia of Africa, more than two million of Algeria’s native population out of its three million people were killed during the first 40 years of French colonial rule. History will bear evidence that the record of the killings during the rules of the colonial powers between 1857 and 1900 would easily overshadow the massacre by the Mongol hordes led by Chengis Khan in the 12th century—the only difference being that the Western colonial powers were killing people under the pretext of civilising them. Strangely, the darkest chapters in the history of colonialism, whether in Africa or Asia, unfolded after and despite the civilising influence brought to the world by Industrial Revolution and the Renaissance.

It was earlier in 1757 that the troops of the East India Company led by Robert Clive defeated Nawab Sirajud Daula of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey. This was a turning point in the history of colonialism not just in South East Asia but also in the Middle East. Clive was hailed as a hero in England and can be dubbed as the founding father of colonial rule in India.

The fact remains that despite all attempts of colonial historians to portray Clive as a great conqueror, he will be remembered essentially as a corrupt provincial middle class adventurer who sought legitimacy by looting the vanquished and then acquiring all the trappings of British aristocracy. Clive, perhaps more than anyone else, epitomises the dual moral standards of the West in their perpetual quest for empire. The Battle of Plassey, in many ways, opened the gateways of the Orient to colonial powers. Not just India, but Egypt, Arabia and North Africa fell prey to colonial powers.

The final denouement would come about two centuries later in 1948 when the colonial powers, mainly the US and Great Britain, in a brazen defiance of all international law and modern principles of human rights deprived the legitimate rights of Asian people and handed over a large territory of Palestine to alien people.

The creation of the state of Israel by the West, aided and abetted later by some client Arab states, represents a cataclysmic symbol of Imperialism. By supporting a genocidal government in Israel and persistently stoking internal strife within the Middle East, such as the Shia–Sunni conflict, the West is yet again following a short-term policy of geopolitical gain.

In the 1980s, the US government had opted for a similar path of political expediency by funding radical Muslim seminaries in Pakistan, ostensibly to fight pro-Soviet forces in neighbouring Afghanistan. This approach paid short-term dividends to the West, but it was like playing with fire. The world paid a heavy price for the US government’s patronage to the rabidly fundamentalist regime of General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan. Instead of learning its lessons from this fiasco, the US government under President Barack Obama has repeated this disastrous policy in Iraq and Syria.

When President Obama rode to power in the US, there was considerable optimism in Third World countries, including in the Islamic bloc, that the US—which till the middle of the 20th century had occupied a certain moral high ground for its position on issues of rights of the underprivileged in the Third World—would herald a new era in East–West relations. This optimism soon dried off and instead of adopting a more principled approach to the problems in the Middle East, Obama has drifted dangerously away from public opinion in the Muslim world.

If the US cannot wash its hands off its responsibility for the present catastrophe in Iraq, Syria and of course Gaza, then the Muslim world too cannot but hang its head in shame for the monstrosities which have occurred in Iraq and Syria during this period. Brutal acts of inhumanity committed by rival Shia and Sunni militants cannot be wished away simply by attributing such acts to flawed Western policies. In the ultimate analysis, there has to be collective realisation both in the West and the Islamic world of their own misdeeds. Till then there will be no lasting peace in the world.

As for the followers of Islam, if they fail to understand the message of ‘peace, accord and goodwill with their fellow beings, cutting across faiths, beliefs and persuasions’ so strongly espoused by their Prophet, they will remain outcastes in today’s highly interdependent world. This would not only put them at risk but also their future generations for whose sake this story has mainly been put together.


In the past six decades, India as a nation has emerged as a potential super power in South Asia. This, while quite a few other countries in the region suffered due to major internal strife, their plight has often been fuelled by identity politics. Yet, tragically, a sizeable section back home now appears to view secularism not as a source of national energy but as a burdensome symbol of subjugation, appeasement and at best a distant idealism.

There are nagging fears, real or perceived vis-à-vis freedom of expression and possible saffronisation of the state’s educational system under the new government. Precious little is being done to allay these fears. The debate over rewriting history, the unseemly controversy over replacing the study of German with Sanskrit in schools run by the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan and the rising prominence of those from the Sangh Parivar in matters pertaining to education and the media are cases in point. For over 2,000 years, India emerged as one of the greatest civilisations because of its capacity to accommodate and assimilate disparate cultures. The next few years will test the tenacity of this ancient civilisation, and its culture and ethos.

Thus, I place this account in the hands of readers to weigh and judge the crosscurrents of times and chart out a vision for the future. A vision based on their wisdom, informed opinion and discretion, I am sure would lead to collective good as has so far been the case with us since Independence.

Tariq Hasan is an Aligarh-based veteran journalist and author of the books The Aligarh Movement and the making of Indian Muslims mind published in 2005 and Colonialism and the Call to Jihad in British India published in 2015.