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Smokers’ Corner: Men in the high castle

Smokers’ Corner: Men in the high castle

The partition of India in 1947 is largely understood as a division between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority of the region; and how two mainstream political parties played a direct role in launching India and Pakistan as two distinct countries.

The parties were Jinnah’s All India Muslim League and Nehru’s Indian National Congress. Interestingly, though the separation between the Hindu and Muslim communities in this context came about on the basis of the political-religious tensions between the two populations, the mentioned parties were being overwhelmingly navigated by modernists.

Yet, almost three decades after its inception, Pakistan gradually stumbled and slipped into the pit of religious extremism, and today, India too seems to be going the same way.




Historians have continued to point out that both Hindu and Muslim extremism in the region is mostly the outcome of what emerged from within the highly charged scenario in which the League and the Congress conducted vicious propaganda campaigns against each other between the mid-1930s and late 1940s.

Indeed, the debate between the two parties, especially in the 1940s, did often take some extremely ugly turns. Congress began accusing the League of being communal and then used anti-Jinnah ulema to undermine the League’s Muslim credentials; whereas the League alleged that the Congress was an entirely Hindu nationalist party, vying to enact a Hindu-majority country.

There is, however, every likelihood that the top leadership of both the parties was never extreme. Much of the extreme rhetoric that arose in the debate was largely instigated (and inspired) by certain fringe groups on both sides of the divide.

In his excellent book, The Politics of Self-Expression, Marcus Daechsel argues that though such groups existed on the fringes of mid-20th-century Indian politics, their ideas had begun to take hold in some sections of the region’s Hindu and Muslim middle-classes.

These middle-class segments, when they began participating in mainstream politics (through the League and the Congress), brought with them rhetoric that bordered on the extreme.

Such rhetoric became more pronounced during the tense 1946 election whose results largely facilitated the exit of the British Colonialists and the consequent creation of a separate Muslim country, Pakistan.

Though not all, but some prominent roots of Hindu and Muslim extremism in the region can be found in these fringe groups.

For example, it can be safely suggested that one of the earliest expressions of what today is being flexed as Hindu nationalism in India, first emerged in 1894 in Ananda Math, a novel by Bankim Chandra.

He was perhaps the first to equate Indian nationalism with ‘love of Mother India’. He treated the notion as a Hindu deity. Marcus Daechsel explains this as being ‘Hindu proto-nationalism.’

Parts and tone of the novel went on to inspire a Hindu reformist outfit called the Arya Samaj. The Samaj appeared to supposedly reform Hinduism by denouncing many of its established rituals because the Samaj thought such rituals were weakening the Hindus as a nation.

Also important for the Samaj was to highlight the ‘superiority’ of the strand of nationalist Hinduism that it was constructing. It tried to do this by holding publicised debates with Muslim clerics and Christian priests and then publish (what according to the Samaj) were ‘inferior logic of Islam and Christianity’.

The Samaj also glorified and promoted ‘Hindu history’ rooted in the ‘golden age of the Vedas’ or a period before the 11th century Muslim invasions of India.

Such ideas were further evolved by V.D. Savarkar in his 1923 book, Hindutva: What is a Hindu? A lawyer by profession, Savarkar suggested that a continuous rejuvenation of Hinduism actually required external enemies who ‘remain forever outside of the organic Hindu whole.’

Thus, he saw no space for even the most patriotic Indian Muslim or Christian to declare their unity with their Hindu counterparts because they were needed not as Indian compatriots, but as enemies!

Savarkar’s notion that Hindus needed to deliberately create religious enemies and conflict with the region’s Muslims and Christians (to strengthen Hindu identity), directly inspired the creation of militaristic Hindu nationalist organisations such as the RSS (and later, the Shiv Sena).

On the other end, similar militaristic tendencies also emerged on the fringes of India’s Muslim milieu.

In the mid-1930s, the Cambridge-educated Alama Mashriqi formed the Khaksar.

Mashriqi was highly impressed by the paramilitary outfits formed in Germany by the Nazis (just as his militant Hindu counterparts had been).

Like Savarkar, Mashriqi too thrived on conflict and believed that a ferocious battle for the survival of the fittest was required for the Muslims to triumph. So his Khaksar deliberately provoked conflicts with the British, the Hindus and even those Muslims whom Mashriqi believed were weak-willed.

Mashriqi even went to the extent of denouncing the whole concept of the family, claiming that love for a family needs to be sacrificed because it weakens the soul and usurps a man’s will to fight for his beliefs. He also denounced those Muslim scholars who were trying to bring Islamic doctrines in line with modern requirements.

The Khaksar managed to gather thousands of young Muslim middle-class supporters. But by the time the moderate Muslim League evolved into becoming a large mainstream party, the Khaksar began to lose its influence.

Some members of the Khaksar who had joined the League in the mid-1940s were largely responsible for applying militant polemical rhetoric during the League’s 1946 electoral contest against the Congress in the Punjab.

Though Mashriqi detested the League, he did migrate to Pakistan and died here in 1963.

The same fringe that had produced the Khaksar, also produced three ultra-radical members of the Punjab Muslim Students Federation. Though the outfit was the student-wing of the League, these three men urged a more militant effort.

The young men were Ibrahim Chisti, Abdus Sattar Niazi and Mian M. Shafi. Chisti and Niazi were both studying to become religious scholars, whereas Shafi was a left-leaning nationalist.

In 1940 they authored a pamphlet titled The Pakistan Scheme. In it they urged Muslim leadership to shun constitutional politics and infuse a strict internal discipline in India’s Muslim community.

Like their militant Hindu counterparts, these men too were riding on the pseudo-science called ‘Social Darwinism’ which is an ideological distortion of biological Darwinism.

Also, just as the Hindu nationalists had been impressed by Nazism and driven by their half-baked absorption of the ideas of German philosopher, Fredrick Nietzsche, the three pamphleteers too saw strict discipline of a people to mean the regimented militarisation of a community.

Their pamphlet claimed that such discipline would produce a Muslim ‘ubermensch’ (the Nietzschean ‘over-man’). The three called him the ‘Khuda Mard’ — a man driven purely by his will to unite the Muslims (to reconquer India and then the world)!

So even though militaristic and so-called Nietzschean expressions of both Hindu and Muslim fringe groups did seep into the mainstream in the 1940s, at least the Muslim outfits who had originated these ideas, faded away after the creation of Pakistan.

But some of these ideas did return 30 years later in Pakistan (through new mouthpieces) after the country went through two wars, the separation of its Eastern wing and, especially, after it plunged into the Afghan conflict of the 1980s.

Meanwhile in India, most of the pre-partition militant Hindu outfits did not dissipate. Instead they remained latent and tucked underneath the flimsy carpet of Nehruvian secularism, before finally beginning to show again once the carpet began to wear thin (from the late 1980s onwards).

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 6th, 2015

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