Godhra riot in 1854, trouble over cow-protection in 1893: the roots of discord

How trouble between followers of Hinduism and of Islam began in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism is polytheistic and centred around idol worship. Islam is monotheistic and forbids graven images. Abraham started with breaking up idols, and Muhammad did the same in Mecca. Hindus worship idols of gods and goddesses. They believe in reincarnation, with the eternal spirit taking different physical forms in an endless cycle of birth, death, and re-birth. Muslims believe that in their afterlife they will be judged by Allah on the Day of Judgment, known only to Allah. Caste is an integral part of Hinduism whereas it has no sanctification in Islam.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Hindu-Muslim antagonism is grounded in eight centuries of history.

In 1192 Muhammad Ghori of Afghanistan’s army, in a surprise attack before sunrise, defeated the formidable Rajput army of Hindu emperor Prithvi Raj near Delhi and established the Delhi Sultanate, which went on to cover most of north India. In 1526 it fell to a siege by Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, then ruler of Kabul, who founded the Mughal dynasty. It gave way to the British Raj in 1807.

Unlike the previous foreign rulers of the subcontinent, the British, arriving by sea as fixed-term contracted employees of the trading East India Company, had an island homeland with a distinct identity to which they returned after their tour of duty. This was not the case with their Afghan and Mughal predecessors, who settled down in the conquered land and became an integral part of the indigenous society.

By 1807, Muslims were a quarter of the Indian population, most of them outcaste and lower-caste Hindu converts to Islam, with a sprinkling of the original Afghan and Mughal ruling elite settling at the top of society. In predominantly rural India, Muslims lived in hamlets outside the main villages and had their own wells. In towns and cities, Hindus and Muslims voluntarily lived in separate neighbourhoods.

Social intercourse between the two communities was minimal, with intermarriage nonexistent.

At the popular level the communal points of friction centred around Hindus’ reverence of cows and Muslims’ religiously sanctified loathing of pigs and their flesh. In Hindu kingdoms killing a cow was deemed a capital offence since the fourth century CE. To retaliate against Muslims’ slaughtering of cows, die-hard Hindus resorted to desecrating a mosque by a stealth depositing of a pig’s head or carcass at its entrance, or by playing music or musical instruments outside a mosque during prayers.

During the British Raj, the emerging apartheid between the ruling, white Christian minority and the large, subjugated Indian majority created widespread resentment against foreign imperialists among locals. This sentiment came to dominate the predominantly Hindu Indian National Congress (Congress Party) formed in 1885 in Mumbai with a modest demand that “the Government should be widened and that the people should have their proper and legitimate share in it.”

On the whole, having lost their empire to the British, the Muslim elite sulked, refusing to accept their dramatically diminished circumstances.

Contrary was the case with upper-caste Hindus. In the past they had adjusted to the reality of alien rule, learning Persian, the court language of the Muslim dynasties for seven centuries, to administer their rule. With the advent of the British Raj, they switched to mastering English. As such, Hindus started to spawn an English-educated urban middle class. By contrast, Muslims remained divided between the extremes of illiterate peasantry and richly endowed aristocratic landlords.

A minority among the Muslim nobility adapted to the new reality. Prominent among them was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898). A highly educated, pro-British, richly bearded aristocrat, Sir Syed was a political thinker and an educationist who urged fellow Muslims to learn English. He founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh in 1875. He advised his coreligionists to stay away from the Congress Party and focused on expanding the Muhammadan Educational Conference.

He perceived the Congress Party’s demand for a wider role for Indians in the government as the thin end of the wedge for the departure of the British from the subcontinent. “Now, suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, taking with them all their cannons and their splendid weapons and all else, who then would be the rulers of India?” he asked in a speech in March 1888. “Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations – the Mohammedans and the Hindus – could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable… But until one nation has conquered the other and made it obedient, peace cannot reign in the land.”

Sir Syed’s statement reflected the rising friction between the two communities, which he pointedly called “nations.”

At times these tensions escalated into violence. The first recorded communal riot occurred in the North Gujarat town of Godhra in 1854. Details of the episode are sketchy.

More is known about the communal riot in Bombay (later Mumbai) in August 1893. It erupted against the background of the rise of a militant cow protection movement – Gaorakshak Mandali – that many Muslims regarded as provocative and was launched in Bombay Presidency in late 1892. Muslim worshippers leaving the Juma Masjid, a striking mosque in South Bombay, after Friday prayers attacked a nearby temple on Hanuman Lane. In a predominantly illiterate society in a pre-broadcasting era, wild rumours spread rapidly over the next two days. The army was drafted to restore control. All together seventy-five people lost their lives.

In December 1906 the Muhammadan Educational Conference meeting in Dacca (later Dhaka) decided to transform itself into a political party, the All India Muslim League. Dominated by feudal lords with a sprinkling of religious scholars and educationalists, it elected Adamjee Pirbhoy as its president. He was followed by Sir Ali Imam and the twenty-three-year-old Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah – popularly known by his title of Agha Khan (or Aga Khan) – in successive years. The League was headquartered in Lucknow. Its primary goal was to promote loyalty to the British crown while advancing Muslims’ political rights.

It demanded separate electorates for Muslims when the British government decided to introduce the concept of conferring the right to vote on Indians with the enforcement of the 1892 India Councils Act. It turned the hitherto fully nominated central and provincial legislative councils into partly elected chambers. Nominated municipal boards, chambers of commerce, landowner associations, and universities were authorised to submit lists of elected members from which the viceroy and provincial governors made a final selection of council members. These members, forming a minority, had the right to debate the budget but not vote on it. In popular terms it meant franchise for 2 percent of the adult population, about a third of literate Indians.

Since the League also wanted to promote understanding between Muslims and other Indians, it did not bar Muslim members of the Congress Party from its membership.

It soon became a common practice for the League and the Congress Party to convene annual conferences in the same city and around the same time to enable Muslim delegates to attend both assemblies. Among those who did so in 1913 was Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), an elegant but skeletal British-trained lawyer with an austere, tapering face – an Edwardian gentleman in hand-tailored suits and starched collars – who had joined the Congress Party seven years earlier.

Those sponsoring Jinnah’s membership in the League declared that “loyalty to the Muslim League and the Muslim interest would in no way and at no time imply even the shadow of disloyalty to the national cause to which his life was dedicated.” Jinnah was elected to the League’s council, where he came to play a leading role.

By then, however, the India Councils Act, amended in 1909, had incorporated the Muslim League’s demand for separate Muslim electoral constituencies with reduced franchise qualifications. This concession was made because of the historical reluctance of upper-crust Muslims to discard Persian and learn English, resulting in their reduced socioeconomic standing vis-à-vis their Hindu counterparts.

To qualify as voters, Hindus were required to have a minimum taxable income of Rs 30,000, whereas the requirement for Muslims was only Rs 3,000. On the education franchise, a Hindu had to be a university graduate of thirty years’ standing, while the figure for a Muslim was only three years. Qualified Muslims were entitled to vote in the general constituencies as well.

Until 1913 the Congress Party, led by lawyers and journalists, had limited itself to petitioning the British government in India, based in Delhi from that year onward (the earlier capital being Calcutta), for modest administrative-political reform.

It had welcomed London’s concession of letting a minority of the provincial and central legislative council members be elected on a franchise of a tiny 2 percent of the population. It and the Muslim League backed Britain and its allies in their war, which broke out in 1914, against Germany and Ottoman Turkey, whose sultan was also the caliph of Muslims worldwide. Almost 1,441,000 Indians volunteered to join the British Indian army, with 850,000 serving abroad.

They were shipped out from Bombay and Karachi, the main ports on the west coast, to fight in the Middle East and Western Europe. While Delhi was the centre of the imperial power exercised by Britain, Bombay, the capital of Bombay Presidency, had emerged as the focal point for domestic politics in which lawyers played a vital role. And it was to this city that Jinnah returned after studying law in London in 1896, and not to Karachi, his birthplace.

Five years earlier, another lawyer, after having been called to the bar in London, arrived in Bombay. He shared with Jinnah Gujarati, his mother tongue, but not his religion.

Excerpted with permission from The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry between India and Pakistan, Dilip Hiro, Nation Books.

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