As the Asia Bibi blasphemy case in Pakistan shows, we live in times when fundamentalism within Muslim societies is gaining significant currency. Turkey, once the world’s most liberal Muslim nation, is governed by an authoritarian Islamist. In the ruins of Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, terror groups like the Islamic State attract volunteers from around the world.
Within India, such a pernicious influence of Islamism is most evident in the strict Salafist interpretation of Islamic scripture promoted by petrodollar-funded madrassas and mosques. Salafism, with its aim of aping 7th-century Arabia and the (often-imaginary) time of the Prophet and his Companions, is fundamentally at odds with the liberal world. It is theocratic, misogynist, opposed to the idea of the nation-state, and considers Muslims to be a political community as much as a spiritual one.
This brand of Islam, as authors like Stanly Johny and Christophe Jaffrelot have documented, is in conflict with the Sufi sects that for a very long time defined Islam in South Asia.
In this battle of ideas, it is important that Indian Muslims are reassured of their place in the common project of nation-building through our society’s acknowledgement that India’s Islamic and Islamicate legacy is as much a part of India’s heritage as the Vedic civilisation that gave birth to Brahmanism. Muslims should be able to draw on South Asia’s unique heritage to affirm their sense of Indianness.
Foreign versus native
Despite this, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which purports an emphasis on cultural unity, is failing at its own project when it engages in chest-thumping renaming exercises.
What else can explain the virile impetus towards renaming cities, streets and stations? Allahabad is now Prayagraj, Ahmedabad might soon be Karnavati and there is even talk of renaming Hyderabad, the city established by the Qutb Shahi dynasty.
The cardinal reason behind such a spate of renaming places is simple. For the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, India was enslaved when Mahmud of Ghazni invaded the North Indian plains in the 10th century. It continued to be enslaved till freedom was won in 1947.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself confirmed this worldview when, in 2014, he hectored his fellow MPs to dispense with the “slave-mentality” that comes with “1,200 years” of foreign rule. Leading BJP politicians, from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to party president Amit Shah, regularly extend this foreign versus native dichotomy to all Hindu-Muslim conflicts of the past, be it the clash between Mughal emperor Akbar and Maharana Pratap of Mewar or the “struggle” between Hyder Ali and Krishnaraja Wodeyar II for power over the Kingdom of Mysore.
For the BJP, the renaming of cities and places is a necessary corrective to the perceived historical injustice meted out to a timeless Hindu civilisation by a millennium of mostly Islamic rule.
India’s ‘Muslim’ past
Were the Islamic rulers foreigners? Perhaps. From the 10th century onwards, most Islamic incursions into India were by pastoral-nomadic horsemen of Afghan, Turkic and Mongol descent. Moreover, the Mughal mansabdari elite, which effectively ran the country from the 16th century onwards, was constantly infused with Turkic and Persian nobility.
But is this any different when compared to the past 4,000 years of subcontinental history? Most recent research in genetics aptly confirms that since 2000 BC, pastoral nomadic peoples from Central Asia and the Iranian plateau made regular inroads into the subcontinent at least every 600 years to 800 years. So much so that 21st century Indians are largely a mix of Central Asian, Iranian and native subcontinental populations. Historians even suggest that many Rajput kshatriya clans, prominent in India’s political history from the 8th century AD onwards, were the legatee of Hunnic and Scythian invaders of the 4th century AD to the 6th century AD.
Did the Islamic rulers plunder and invade? Certainly. The first great Mughal, Babur, for instance, is quite honest in his memoir about the intentions behind his entering the Indian subcontinent – to satisfy his “mulkgirliq” (Turkish for imperial ambitions). Before Babur, there was wanton destruction of temples, cities and libraries, and slaughter of innocents by other Islamic rulers. The destruction of Nalanda University, and with it centuries worth of stored knowledge, by Bakhtiyar Khalji along with the repeated looting of the Somnath temple by Islamic invaders of all varieties surely count as among the worst atrocities.
But plunder, pillage and rapine, common products of premodern warfare of any stripe, were not the monopoly of Muslim rulers. The Marathas of the 17th century and 18th century were merciless raiders. Their invasion of Bengal in the mid-18th century is still noted for its savagery. Before the Common Era, Emperor Ashoka himself admitted to what amounts to a genocide in Kalinga on his inscriptions across India. Empires are usually built on blood and iron.
What about plurality and tolerance? Many Muslim rulers, often opportunistically, waged war under the guise of expanding Islam’s borders. This included the ill-fated decision of Aurangzeb to declare jihad against the Marathas after years of frustrating stalemate in the Deccan.
However, the Mughals, also motivated by circumstances and progressive ideas, laid the foundations for a cosmopolitan Indo-Persian elite culture to which the Hindu Rajput and Jat elite, along with their Persian and Turkic counterparts, could belong. Akbar banished jizya (a tax levied on non-Muslim subjects) and invited debate among thinkers from across religious backgrounds, much to the chagrin of the ulema (scholars). Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and even Aurangzeb could always count on Hindu Rajput nobility among their highest-ranking mansabdars or officials.
The fact remains that India’s “Muslim” past, like India’s “Hindu” past, is complicated. It has the good and the bad. One can cherry-pick instances to suit whichever narrative one is ideologically affiliated to.
Instead of reducing history to this binary, the BJP establishment needs to accept that Islam and Islamicate culture, kingdoms and rulers are a part of who we are. Admire the good, learn from the bad, and most importantly, let history be history.
It cannot simply be renamed away.
But when Indian Muslims are repeatedly told that the harbingers of their faith were fundamentally deleterious to the country, how do they reconcile their faith with their nationhood? More seriously, proponents of this jaundiced outlook are giving leeway to mullahs who argue that Muslims ought to listen to a self-proclaimed caliph in the wastes of northern Iraq as opposed to their homeland.
Akshat Khandelwal is an entrepreneur and writer based in New Delhi. His Twitter handle is @akshat_khan.