Another India: the making of the world’s largest minority 1947–77 book review. photo shows book cover

[This is an excerpt from an article in the April 2024 edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

This is a well-researched work. The author has had access not only to the India Office and the imperial government of India papers but also to archives of publications, party records and other material relevant to his task. There is much to admire in the thoroughness of the method and in the display of wide-ranging erudition.

The author is clearly a protagonist of a secular post-independence India, making his writing challenging for both Hindutva nationalists and those Muslims who wish to maintain an imperium in imperio presence in India, based on a continuing adherence to the Personal Law of the Shari’a and the primacy of the Urdu language, recognised as such in public law.

He seems to regard the secular character adopted by the Congress Party as deriving from the syncretism prevailing in the periods of the Pathan and Mughal dynasties, at least until the accession of Aurangzeb. It is true that the Emperor Akbar was openly syncretistic and that Jehangir continued with the interest in other religions but even then the ‘Ulema were always in the background. Shahjehan’s closure of Christian churches and missions and the fate of Dara Shikoh, Aurangzeb’s brother, hardly make for comfortable reading! It is more likely that Congress secularism was derived more from post Enlightenment Fabian socialist ideas to which its leaders had been exposed during their sojourn in the West. Regardless of origins, however, the question has always been whether Indian secularity is a system that makes room for the free practice of religion, including its contribution to public life, or whether it excludes any religious participation in civil society on the basis of an alleged neutrality. At the same time, Dr Anil repeatedly questions Congress’ commitment to secularism and records its anti-Muslim policies, even during the Nehru era. By contrast, surprisingly for some, he sees the Muslim League as being more secular than Congress, until it begins to bend to pressure from the ‘Ulema and circumstances to adopt a more confessional attitude. Its basic agenda, however, remained the economic and political emancipation of the Muslims of India rather than the theocracy which some were and are advocating.

Continuing Muslim commitment, however, to Shari’a ‘at every level’ and the consequential limitations of cooperation with others have led to an abiding communalist mentality which resulted, on the one hand, in partition and, on the other, in a continuing sense of distinctiveness of the qaum for those who remained in India. While continuing to express their loyalty to Mother India, they harboured hopes that Indian secularity would enable a distinct Muslim identity to emerge. In this, there was always the risk of being accused of separatism and of being pro Pakistan. It can also be argued, though this may have been far from the intention of Indian Muslim nationalists, that it provided fertile ground for the rise of extremism within the community. The continued opposition to the reform of marriage law, in favour of women, provides an insight into conservative instincts regarding Shari’a where taqlid (the following of established opinion) rather than maslaha (an interpretation which makes for the best social outcome) or ijtihad (a root and branch reform and renewal) has taken precedence. Such attitudes, though not extremist in themselves, can certainly open the door for various kinds of extremism.

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Although the book is mainly about the Muslims in post partition India, there is a good review of the situation before and during partition. There is also illuminating discussion of prominent personalities both before and after independence and of those spanning the two periods, such as Maulana Abu’l Kalam Azad. Anil notes that the leadership of both ‘separatist’ and ‘nationalist’ Muslims was largely drawn from the Ashrafiyya (those who claimed a foreign origin) whilst the bulk of the Muslim population was, of course, as Ishtiaq Ahmed and Imtiaz Ahmed have shown, from the Asfaliyya (converts from the lower castes). To what extent then did initiatives like the Aligarh Muslim University and the struggle to maintain the independence of Auqaf (religious endowments) serve elitist interests? Indeed, the question could be extended to cover a whole range of political and social activity both before and after partition. It could even be said that partition was an opportunity for the elite in the new nation of Pakistan, such as they could not have had in undivided India, but for the masses that remained, it was a disaster.

The fate of Muslims in areas like Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh which were annexed through the use of force continues to be neuralgic for Indian Muslims and, in the case of Kashmir, remains an acute matter of international dispute between India and Pakistan, with huge political and military implications. The promised UN sponsored plebiscite has never taken place and significant parts of the population continue to be restive.

Michael Nazir-Ali is with OXTRAD: Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy & Dialogue.

Another India: The making of the world’s largest minority 1947–77 by Pratinav Anil, London, Hurst, 2023.