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A Politics Manqué

Book: Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947-77
Writer: Pratinav Anil
Price: Hardcover `2,643.00
Reviewed by Firasha Shaikh

Every once in a while one comes across a book that truly evokes poignancy and an urgency for action, all at once. Another India by Pratinav Anil is one such book.

The history of post-Independent India is a genre that has no shortage of books, penned by both Indian and Western academics. Nor is the history of Indian Muslims a neglected sub-genre by any means. What sets Anil’s book apart is that it is one of the rare narratives that foregrounds the agency of Indian Muslims and engages seriously with Indian Muslim organisations and movements throughout the post-independent era, a privilege not easily afforded in most other academic works on the same topic. It does not shy away from a critical and honest overview of the realities of the Indian postcolonial state and Indian secularism, where other academics have sometimes been accused of glossing over the brutal truths about the same.

This book traces the ‘elan’ of Indian Muslim high politics in the first 30 years after Independence via biographical portraits of Indian Muslim personalities from across the ideological spectrum; nationalist Muslims who ardently supported the Congress party and firmly believed their co-religionists should do the same, communalist Muslims, as the author elucidates, often a pejorative term for political Muslim figures who opposed Congress hegemony, and finally the Muslim elite (the ashraf) – descendants of erstwhile princely state rulers, landed gentry and aristocracy. Even among these categories, there were variations, the clerical Muslims vs. the secular Muslims, the activist Muslims vs. the apolitical Muslims, etc.

The pièce de résistance of this particular account is the focus on Muslim agency and the reason this is significant, is that all too often, in political science works on post-independent India, the narrative of Indian Muslims is almost always one of victimhood and the superficial binary of good Muslim (nationalist) vs the bad Muslim (communalist). Muslims who preferred to take on any ideology other than secularism are routinely dismissed as “Islamists” and “communal” in these works. Worse, it is even suggested that it was “Muslim communalism” that exacerbated “Hindu communalism”.

This book is one of the rare works that engage academically with all shades of Muslim opinions, from the nationalists to the “Islamists”, with equal seriousness, placing each in its proper historical context and vicissitudinous exigencies. As the author states, “….no greater historical service to the Muslim community can be performed than to recover its agency, foregrounding not only displays of it, but also its limits.”

The book is then, divided into three parts.

The first part takes us through the evolution of Muslim politics from the anti-colonial struggle to the early post-independent years. Here, we meet the nationalist Muslims, i.e. Muslim Congressmen – Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, and Humayun Kabir. They were considered the sole representatives of Muslim India and their politics revolved around three main beliefs: that the nation and party were one (supporting Congress equated to being a good patriot otherwise one was communal or anti-national), subservience to Congress high command and towards Hindu sensibilities as a political modus operandi and thirdly, an avowed crusade to protect the autonomy of sharia at any cost, even exchanging political safeguards like reservations to that end.

Indian Muslims being able to practice Muslim Personal Law today, owe this to the efforts of the nationalist Muslims.

The second part of the book chronicles the politics of the Muslim “communalists”, which as the author demonstrates through vivid reconstruction of the political upheavals of the fifties and sixties, is a misleading term, betraying the biases of liberal-secular political commentators.

There were two main strategies adopted by Muslim political parties during this period: one, to further Muslim interests by bagging political positions, and on the other hand, an attempt to influence policy and thus effect meaningful change from within the Congress Party itself. The two methodologies used were the protest vote, in which Muslim politicians utilized their limited leverage to undermine Congress hegemony to express their disaffection. The other was associationalism, i.e. operating through pressure groups and coalitions to compel authorities to take their demands seriously. This is illustrated through accounts of prominent Muslim parties and blocs during this period like the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Muslim Convention, All India Majlis Ittihad-ul-Muslimin (AIMIM), and All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat.

The author includes a dedicated chapter on Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind and Radiance magazine and the fascinating evolution of how their political understanding evolved with the changing political climates.

The third part of the book focuses on the fates of the Muslim elite, the descendants of rulers of the princely state, Aligarh Muslim University, and the custodians of the Auqaf – all of whom fared much better during this time as opposed to the subaltern, working-class Muslims. The author’s class analysis helps us get a better understanding of Indian Muslim society.

Most interestingly, one of the author’s contentions is how this variance in the fortunes of Indian Muslims, is ultimately an indictment of the majoritarian, exclusionary, and anti-minority character of the Indian state. As the author states, “Muslim politics was shaped as much by political ideas as by political realities”.

There are several underlying assumptions in liberal-secular discourses on Indian Muslims that the author has debunked through this book. For example, it’s a commonly-held belief even among secular academicians that it was the Muslim League alone and Jinnah in particular who were responsible for Partition. The author provides evidence to argue that it was the Congress Party’s as well as the nascent Hindu nationalists’ machinations that were equally responsible.

Another tendency of secular academicians is to present the Nehruvian era as a relatively tolerable and amicable bastion of secular India before the onslaught of Hindu nationalism from the nineties onwards. The fact that some of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms of independent India took place during the Congress’ heyday is often forgotten, along with not just complicity but the blatantly active anti-Muslim role played by many Congress notables.

The author mainly drew upon critical analyses of renowned academicians and extensive archival data, due to which the book is full of interesting lesser-known anecdotes and details not usually found elsewhere. The book’s flow is structured almost in a novelistic style, reminiscent of William Dalrymple, which makes an otherwise dry subject like history, eminently engaging.

The author acknowledges one of the major limitations of the book, which is a lack of a Muslim subaltern perspective.

The author concludes with his personal analysis of “the ashraf betrayal” where he contends that upper-class and upper-caste Muslim politicians and the elite have prioritised inconsequential matters of spirituality and in the case of the elite, their own class interests at the expense of the larger interests of the Muslim masses, like political safeguards, education, representation, etc. Here, the author falls into the trap of other secular-liberal academicians who tend to draw false equivalences between Hindu nationalism and Muslims’ concern with religiosity.

The author’s conflation of ashrafism with adherence to sharia, for one, is quite strange, given that adherence to sharia, even if outwardly, is something that cuts across caste lines for Muslims. This is very different from ashraf Muslims’ discriminatory and exclusionary attitudes, which is no doubt, objectionable; however, conflating both is troublesome because it encourages the Islamophobic notion that Muslim religiosity is inherently intolerable, or that it is a vestige of upper-caste sensibilities and thus must be discarded in favour of a secular moral/ethical framework.

The author questions why Muslims prioritized the protection of sharia and Muslim personal law as opposed to more pressing, material concerns of representation and improving their socioeconomic conditions.

This particular opinion of the author is simply secular academia’s perennial puzzlement at the metaphysics of the Islamic worldview which always gives precedence to the Aakhirah (Hereafter) rather than the dunya (the present temporal world). However, the Islamic faith also exhorts Muslims to have hikmah (wisdom/prudence), to be pragmatic, and to learn from the mistakes of the past.

In the current state of affairs, it is imperative for Indian Muslims to know their history so that they do not repeat their mistakes for the sake of their present in this nation, and for the coming future.

[The author holds a postgraduate degree in Political Science and is currently working as a Research Associate at the Centre for Study and Research (CSR), New Delhi.]

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