One of the most enduring narratives in the repertoire of the Indian Right is that the country’s secularism is alive because India is a Hindu-majority nation. Had it been otherwise, the argument goes, secular forces would have taken a backseat, which is what has happened in the Muslim-dominant polities elsewhere in the subcontinent.

“Those who believe that India’s secularism is challenged by a Ram temple in Ayodhya should realise that India is secular primarily because of its Hindu ethos,” wrote best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi in a widely shared article in 2020.

There are two ways to look at this argument. First, it rests on the premise that in fostering the ethics on which India’s secularism stands, Muslim participation is too frugal to make any meaningful difference. Second, it seeks to cast the concepts of tolerance and pluralism in India as part of the cultural Hindu vernacular that only the espousal of Hindu values can guarantee. Since Muslims had cut their way out in 1947, and the new nation they built was hardly a representative of religious harmony, their value system has revealed itself to be incapable of establishing, let alone protecting, and nurturing secularism.

One may, therefore, feel compelled to ask: Have Muslims then, whatever remained of them in India after the Partition, merely been passive beneficiaries of this Hindu-engineered secular culture to which their contributions, if any, have largely been supplementary?

It is arguments like these that historian Amar Sohal’s new book The Muslim Secular complicates.

The book threads its way through the political exploits of India’s three big Muslim leaders; Maulana Azad, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Sheikh Abdullah, who dominated the political scene during the subcontinent’s seminal moment in 1947. By locating their commitment to a secular polity in the exigencies unique to their circumstances, Sohal inverts the Hindutva logic that attempts to situate the provenance of Indian secularism in majoritarian generosity.

Secularism as culture

When Jinnah decided to mobilise for Pakistan, dogged as he was by the concerns over the Congress’s renunciation of the “language of minority rights”, these three Muslim leaders embarked on separate pathways, tethering the religio-cultural expression within their regional identities to bypass the communal schisms at the national level. Azad’s 1940 Ramgarh speech, where he made a case for single nationality for all Indians, embodies this sentiment, which was shared by a welter of Muslim intellectuals in India like Syed Mahmud, a politician from Bihar, Humayun Kabir, a Bengali writer, and Zakir Hussain, Hyderabad-born educationist.

Directly opposed to Jinnah’s movement that threatened to unravel the cultural aspects shared by Hindus and Muslims, these Muslim seculars increasingly tapped into the shared historical cultural memory to argue for a unified nation where the idea of separate Muslim representation appeared devalued.

Mehmud’s 1949 treatise “Hindu-Muslim Cultural Accord”, for example, foregrounds how India’s Mughal rulers resurrected Hindu art forms thereby giving rise to a composite art genre that couldn’t be reduced to one religion.

Progressive Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi invoked a kulah, a Central Asian cap that acquired its crooked angle (kaj huin) – supposed to connote a sentiment of resistance – only once they reached the Indian shores. Invoking a kulah as a metaphor was meant to convey that as people not necessarily of native ancestry, Muslims could reach their truer intellectual potential only as a consequence of social interaction with Hindus. Elsewhere, Malihabadi also likens India’s Independence struggle to the sacrifices of the Third Imam of Islam.

Likewise, Humayun Kabir’s assertion that the Vedas, despite being brought into India by non-native Aryans, were accepted by the natives and turned into repository of their religious beliefs, was a significant construction, for it laid the groundwork for the Central Asian Muslims’ naturalisation in India. Thus, by situating this spirit of fusion in the domain of the profane rather than in the sacred, the Muslim Seculars were able to skirt the demarcations between the communities along religious lines in India and angle towards fostering a common national imaginary that would become the basis for a larger social contract.

Three-nation theory

Turning his attention to Sheikh Abdullah, Sohal examines how his idea of the devolution of sovereignties under the auspices of the larger Indian nation was one of the most persuasive countervailing forces against the League’s religious separatism. Spurned by the Jammu and Kashmir Dogra dynasty that denied him a job, Abdullah became a major dissident in the valley, mobilising massive agitations on short notice. With white sideburns, a rigid jowl and a patrician forehead, the Sheikh cut a powerful figure. He peppered his speeches with verses from the Quran as thousands raised their arms in supplication.

His politics began from Pathar Masjid, an abandoned mosque built by the Mughal Empire in Srinagar which had fallen into disuse after Kashmiris fabricated an account that Empress Nur Jahan, when asked at what cost she had constructed the mosque, gestured to the pearls studded in her slippers. This boycott was perhaps driven more by the demands of politics than by genuine indignation over hurt feelings, as new historical evidence shows Nur Jahan never commissioned this mosque in the first place.

What the boycott really communicated was how Kashmiris may have internalised the idea of the Mughals being outsiders who conquered the Valley by force – a trope that Abdullah deployed very skilfully as he drummed up support for his new political enterprise: The Muslim Conference. Then suddenly the neglected mosque was yanked out of oblivion and repurposed to serve the political aims of Abdullah. Though its boycott, as well as the reappropriation, was imagined in religious terms, both went on to lay the foundation for the political program with fairly secular objectives.

Set up to investigate the grievances of the Muslims in the aftermath of the 1931 uprising, the Glancy Commission became a stepping stone for Abdullah’s radical politics. Based on the commission’s recommendations, Jammu and Kashmir got a 75-seat legislature – albeit with limited powers, free press, and freedom to establish political parties.

Thus, the building blocks of a democratic polity were established using “Islam in danger” as a clarion call. And because the franchise for the legislature was limited to a sum that mostly pauperised Muslims couldn’t afford but which the relatively prosperous Pandits could, Abdullah decided to bury the hatchet with Kashmir’s tiny Hindu community and renamed his party the National Conference as part of his secularisation program. Pandit intellectuals who were admitted into the folds of the NC were instrumental in rallying sentiments in favour of the Congress Party – which Abdullah reciprocated positively, manifesting in his close relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru. It was these interactions that became the basis for Abdullah’s zealous repudiation of Pakistan.

And the mountains echoed

In Frontier Areas, the region bearing the brunt of British repression under the shadow of “Great Game” rivalry, Abdul Ghaffar Khan founded Khudai Khidmatgars in 1929 as Pashtuns sought to go beyond the traditional demands of education and tribal justice, and imagined an autonomous Pashtun province they believed the secular Congress in a unified India, not Pakistan, would deliver. Ghaffar Khan went out of his way to build rapport with the Congress. Khudai Khidmatgars reinterpreted their tribal code Pashtunwali to persuasively challenge the Pashtun valorisations of violence, and locate non-violence in its ethos. Khan’s associates like Yunus likened Gandhi to Sufi saints entombed in the Pashtun heartland.

Congress also duly reciprocated these gestures. In the aftermath of the April 1930 massacre of unarmed Khudai Khidmatgars at Qissa Khwani Bazaar, it was Congressmen like Vithalbhai Patel who clamoured for an inquiry into the killings. This only enhanced the prestige of the party among Pashtuns, with Khan calling Congress a jirga of not only Hindus but also Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Khan never stopped articulating his disillusionment with Pakistan and also grew estranged from Congress which he believed had “abandoned” them to the forces of Partition.

Rather than see them as people who need to be subsumed under Hindutva – ironically, to promote and safeguard secularism – the book, nudges us to look at Indian Muslims as the legatees of the vibrant political and cultural tradition that these three towering leaders had helped reify. The Muslim Secular is an extremely resourceful, well-argued research work that is going to provoke a great deal of discussion, especially in India, as the country reconciles with ascendant Hindu nationalism, part of whose political programme involves redrafting the region’s history as we know it.

The Muslim Secular: Parity and the Politics of India’s Partition, Amar Sohal, Oxford University Press.