The marauding Muslim that occupies the Hindu nationalist’s mind

They would have you believe the Muslim community is a monolithic group, thinking, acting and conspiring as one to destroy Hindu India.

ByRaj Shekhar Sen
The marauding Muslim that occupies the Hindu nationalist’s mind
Anubhooti Gupta
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The month of August would certainly be a metaphorical leitmotif in the story of India.

After all, before becoming the month of India’s independence, it was the month of the Quit India movement. August was also, in an almost Shakespearean irony, when the first East India Company representative disembarked at Surat in 1608.

Therefore, one cannot entirely deny the desire of the current regime to celebrate their coup de grace of the old India in August. So, on August 5, the collective conscience of society was satisfied one more time by putting firmly to the past the eyesore that was the Babri Masjid.

Not coincidentally, August 5 last year was also the day that the problem of Kashmir was, we were told, finally solved, by way of locking seven million people inside their homes — a lockdown that continues. And so, to have the temple foundation exactly a year later is a very in-your-face nod to that day.

In the eyes of the Hindu majoritarian sentiment, which is now a large section of Indian society both at home and abroad, this was the victorious culmination of a historic humiliation that was Islamic rule in India. This idea of humiliation has been at the core of how the Hindu Right has defined the agenda of its reassertion in the subcontinent. For if you were to scratch beneath the surface of the Right’s narrative of history, you’ll realise that to them, Muslims in India even today are part of the same Mughals and Lodis and Suris that once ruled them. Never mind that all three, with the support of many Hindu kings, fought each other to death for the throne of India.

But in the narrative of Hindutva, they are trying to protect their motherland from a deeper plan of Islamisation that began with Muhammad bin Qasim and continues till today. It’s as if history is a continuous domino, where one event leads to another, towards a final moment where a monolithic Islamic empire replaced a Hindu empire. To them, all Indian Muslims (barring a few good ones) are part of this 1,000-year-old conspiracy against the real Hindu India.

Of course, a better reading of history would lead you to see that Muhammad bin Qasim, the first Muslim to invade the Indian subcontinent, reached only up to Sindh. Around the 10th century, the Ghaznavids under Mahmud of Ghazni were the second. Finally, under the Ghurids, a Muslim army broke into the north Indian plains, leading to the establishment of the Islamic Delhi Sultanate in 1206 by slaves of the Ghurid dynasty.

Due to internal squabbling, however, new Muslim sultanates such as Bengal in the east and Deccan in the south broke off soon after. In 1339, Shah Mir became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir, inaugurating the Shah Mir dynasty.

The birth of political Islam in India was as factious as all the 1,000 non-Islamic kingdoms that existed in India before them. Meanwhile, Islam formed nearly 30 percent of the total population in the Malabar region, where it was never really a political power. Bengal, on the other hand, saw a large-scale conversion of its lower caste Hindus to Islam.

So, it goes without saying that Islam in India, just like any other community in India or the world, was never a monolith. The current Muslims living in India are as different or similar to any Mughals or Qasims than any of the Hindus. History is a scattered story of different people living in different places in a vast land mass, each with their own personal hopes, dreams and desires.

But this idea of humiliation and subjugation stays in the minds of the Right. As Tejasvi Surya, a Bharatiya Janata Party MP and one of the party’s young intellectual heavyweights, said during a Parliament debate around the Citizenship Amendment Act, “The new India cannot be built without healing the wounds of the past.”

These “wounds”, presumably, were inflicted by the Mughals onto Hindu India and the “healing” implies the assertion of the majoritarian power of Hindu might onto the Muslims alive now, as our prime minister’s role model, Gowalkar, stated in his Bunch of Thoughts.

This tool of a monolithic Islamic identity has been used as a dog whistle to “otherise” the Muslim community for a long time. Reading Surya’s statement, one recalls how then chief minister Modi, during his Gujarat state election campaign after the 2002 riots, evoked “Miyan Musharraf” and talked about Gujarat’s “asmita” (pride and sovereignty) being under threat.

In this process of the otherisation of Muslims in India, the Babri Masjid was an important chapter. After all, selling the story of an Islamic invader who dismantled the birthplace temple of Lord Ram to create his own structure is an easy pass to sell the larger narrative of the invading Muslims being savage warmongers.

While one does not claim that no temples were destroyed by the invading Islamic armies, this narrative conveniently skips facts like how, for example, the Rashtrakuta king Indra III destroyed a temple patronised by their arch enemy, the Pratiharas, at Kalpa in the early 10th century. And this is just one of many similar instances of Hindu kings destroying Hindu temples of rival kings.

Brahmins and Kshatriyas in the Mughal kingdom

Let us sample the period between the 16th and 18th century, arguably the heyday of the Mughal empire in India and the cause of most of the consternation of the Right.

Dr Rameshwar Prasad Bahuguna writes:

“The dominant class of Brahmans of Bañaras had links with the Mughal court and the Mughal ruling class...It may be argued that incorporation of the Brahmanical and other non-Islamic religious elites into the Mughal patronage system was an integral part of the broader political process of the integration of various regional and local ruling elites into the Mughal apparatus. The entry of Rajput chiefs into the Mughal nobility was followed by gradual extension of Mughal patronage to Brahmans and Brahmanical institution. In fact, the later medieval rulers offered various kinds of gifts (daan), land revenue grants and other forms of charity to the Brahmanical and other religious elite. Mughal land revenue grantees included not only ulema and sufis but also members of the Brahmanical elite, Shavite Jogis, Vaishnavite and Shaivite temples, Jain temples and Zoroastrian divines.”

To continue from Bahuguna’s paper, between 1604 and 1614, Sanskrit poet Muraridas composed poems on Raja Man Singh, a general of Akbar. His poems credit Man Singh working under Akbar with reestablishing dharma and authority of Brahmins. Muraridas also regarded the monarch in this case Akbar as a divine being, looking at him as a Vishnu incarnate.

Another such poet, Dursa Adha — a famous bard of the late 16th and early 17th century — composed similar poems for both Maharana Pratap and Akbar. His poems, according to Bahuguna, wondered whether Akbar was an incarnation of Arjuna or Krishna, and whether he belonged to the lineage of Rama or of Krishna.

According to religious historian Audrey Truschke, “much of the current conflict in India has been fueled by ideological assumptions about the Mughal period rather than an accurate rendering of the subcontinent’s history.” After all, the famous battle of Haldighati was fought between Raja Man Singh representing Akbar and Maharana Pratap, two Hindus. Shivaji had Noor Beg and Darya Sarang as his commanders while fighting Afzal Khan and Aurangzeb. Truschke also writes about Sanskrit intellectuals Kavindracarya Sarasvati and Jagannatha Panditaraja, both patroned by Shah Jahan. Kavindra also taught Sanskrit to the Mughal royal family.

While all this might not convince you of the oppression or lack of it, under the Mughals, one hopes it helps the reader see the fallacies in pursuing history as a cascading waterfall and not as a river with multiple distributaries. A closer reading of history complicates, and rightly so, what it means and meant to be a Hindu. It also (if not categorically) at least tries to tell us that it’s naïve and simplistic to fall for the narrative being peddled by the Hindutva forces of two monolithic communities in constant state of animosity, where one needs to oppress the other in order to protect itself from extinction.

When the oppressor is our own

As the Right keeps talking about the atrocities of Islamic invaders, there is no public discussion around similar atrocities committed by Hindu kings on other Hindus, like Maratha invasion of Bengal.

As this piece in Scroll says, “Contemporary Dutch sources believed that the Bargis [Bengalis called these Marathas ‘Bargis’, which is a corruption of the Marathi word, ‘bargir’ meaning ‘light cavalry’) killed four lakh Bengalis and a great many merchants in western Bengal”.

The piece continues: “So great was the terror of the Bargi that, in a Gabbar-esque twist, lullabies were composed in which mothers would use the fear of a Maratha raid to get their children to go to sleep...One of them went something like this:

“Chhele ghumalo, paada judaalo bargi elo deshe

Bulbulite dhaan kheyechhe, khaajnaa debo kishe?

Dhaan phurolo, paan phurolo, khaajnaar opay ki?

Aar kotaa din shobur koro, roshoon boonechhi.”

Which roughly translates to a mother pleading with the Bargi army, saying that she cannot pay her tax yet as the birds have eaten up all the grains, but she has sown garlic which might fruit in a few days.

But these historic injustices do not find place in the contemporary narrative simply because they do not fit the idea of a world where Hindu India, as it came to be, was always in spirit a united Hindu homeland.

Grievance politics

The modern Right in India, through the Jan Sangh to the BJP, has stood by three main agenda items: repealing Article 370 in Kashmir, the only majority Muslim province in their conception of Hindu India; the building of the Ram temple over the carcass of a masjid built by the first Mughal king of India; and implementing a uniform civil code essentially to dissolve Muslim personal law in India. All this ties back to this idea of historical grievances born out of minority Islamic rule over majority Hindu India.

The power of the politics of historical grievances is great, since it can go back infinitely in time and constantly find things to be aggrieved about, like the National Register of Citizens to push more Muslims toward the brink, or talks of building temples in Kashi and Mathura after Ayodhya, to even an idea as absurd as reclaiming Taj Mahal as Tejo Mahalaya. This path of politics invests so much time in history that it always finds itself challenged when looking to the future.

Most of the poll promises by the BJP, outside of its grievance correction measures, are still unfulfilled, like smart cities, or bringing back Indian money from Swiss banks. Other extravagant, albeit whimsical, policy measures like demonetisation have also failed so miserably that no one talks of them anymore. Even the management of the Covid pandemic via the arbitrary lockdown and its release, as India was notching up daily records of infection, has left a lot to be desired.

On August 5, 2020, the holy trifecta of the RSS-BJP-Modi succeeded in delivering the promise they made to the people in 1925 and 1991 and 2014. But if you remove the lens of grievance, you find the current regime has very little to offer for the future.

And just as we began the piece with talking about Tejasvi Surya, the young intellectual of the BJP, and his evocation of Mughals, the party keeps looking to the past to make policies for the future. The BJP needs a monolithic Muslim as an enemy to ensure that they can keep fueling the engine of grievance and retributive justice for the wrongs of the past. This road does not end in Ayodhya or Kashmir. The need to seek apology and issue punishment is infinite and only growing within the ranks.

The problem with this politics of correcting grievances of the past as a means to governing is that at the end, what remains is only the glory of the past and there is no future to look forward to, only acts of God.

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