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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 39

Exploring Azad-Iqbal Synthesis

Thursday 18 September 2008, by Mehtab Ali Shah


Muslims of India since Partition by Balraj Puri; Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi; 2007; pp. 1-246.

The book under review is mainly the collection of articles written by the well-known journalist, Balraj Puri, on the problems of the post-Partition Muslims of India. Most of these articles were published in the Economic and Political Weekly. His knowledge of the problems of the Muslims of India, South Asia, and of Islam as a religion, Arabic and Persian, is commendable. He utilises this expertise while discussing the contrasts between Dr Mohammed Iqbal, the poet of the National Anthem of India, and the “thinker of East and Pakistan”, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Congress leader.

Balraj Puri picks up the thread of the argument of his book with the trauma of Partition. The Pakistan Movement was strong in the Muslim minority provinces such as UP, CP and Bihar. It was quite weak in the present-day Pakistan, and Bangladesh. After Partition the feudal Muslim Leaguers and entrepreneurial Muslims callously left for Pakistan. The remaining Indian Muslims were stigmatised by the extremist Hindus as the guilty of taqseem (division). In those circumstances Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Sheikh Abdullah stood by the Muslims and acted as the bridge with other communities. They told the Muslims that their identity was in nowhere else but in the Ganga-Yamuna delta culture. They have to acquire their jobs, and safeguard their rights within the Constitution framework of India. Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru’s secular leadership also became a source of support to the post-Partition Indian Muslims. Being convinced by these ideas the Indian Muslims started their new political life in secular India.

With the exception of the RSS nobody doubted the loyalty of Muslims towards India. In the 1965 war, Hawaldar Abdul Hamid was decorated posthumously the highest military award, the Ashok Chakra. And the Indian Muslim remained delinked from any sort of terrorism. Only after 9/11, the Bangalore-born doctor, Hanif, was suspected in Australia for terrorism but his activities were not directed at India. According to Balraj Puri, till recently the Muslims were not suspected for any terrorist activities. The explosions in the Samjhauta Express running between Delhi and Lahore in February 2007 gave some clues about some South Indian Muslims, otherwise nobody pointed fingers at the Muslims as a whole. Dawood Ibrahim, the Bombay drug baron, who was allegedly behind the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 1993 as a reaction to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and still reportedly facilitates the ISI activities in India, living in Pakistan, escapes the author’s attention.

To Balraj Puri, the Muslim status of the University of Aligarah, Urdu, and Muslim Personal Law remain the symbols of the identity of the Indian Muslims. Since Banaras and the Aligarh Universities retain their respective titles, the issue is settled now. The author believes that the attachment of the Muslims of North India with the Urdu language is natural. It is next to religion for them. But like him there are many non-Muslims who also love Urdu. In the early days of partition 22 lakh Muslims and non-Muslims sent a petition to restore the official status of Urdu as the medium of instruction in North India. Balraj Puri argues that the Muslims should look at Urdu not through the religious prism but through the cultural one. And in fact, most of the symbols of the classical Urdu poetry such as maikhana, maikada (tavern), sanam, (idol) or beloved have the pre-Islamic Indo-Persian origin. Thus, the issue of Urdu as the medium of instruction for both temporal and religious education should be taken from the cultural point of view in unison with the non-Muslim fans of the language.

Balraj Puri’s assertion that Urdu speakers in Pakistan and Biharis in Bangladesh are victimised communities is debatable. (Chapter 8, pp. 91-98) On the contrary, most of them belong to the upper or middle class (Nadeem F Paracha, “Fissures in the middle”, Dawn Sunday Magazine, July 27, 2008), whereas 73 per cent of the Pakistanis, especially Sindhis and Balochs live below poverty line. The Urdu speakers may not be more than eight per cent of the population of Pakistan but their language is the national language of Pakistan whereas Sindhi, Saraiki, Balochi, Punjabi and Pashtu, having roots in their respective ancestral homelands, are just regional languages, which appears to be unjustifiable. Urdu speakers, after Punjabis, are the second largest group in the bureaucracy. Musharraf has been one of the most unpopular but the longest serving head of Pakistan. He has promoted disproportionately Urdu-speaking officers in the senior ranks of the armed forces. The Muttahida Quoami Movement, representing mainly Urdu speakers, reportedly and needlessly under Anglo-American pressure, is the coalition partner of the PPP in Sindh.

Balraj Puri takes Altaf Hussain, the leader of the MQM, as the spokesman of the Urdu speakers, which appears to be incorrect. As a matter of fact, many educated Urdu speakers because of the alleged MQM’s terrorist activities, especially the carnage it committed on May 12, 2007 in Karachi on the occasion of the visit of the deposed chief Justice of Supreme Court of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammed Chowdhry, whom it dubs as the dahashatgard (terrorist) judge, keep a distance from the MQM.

MOST of the Pakistan-born Urdu speakers will not be pleased with the problematic title of the “Non-Resident Indians (NRIs)” (p. 96) conferred on them. Similarly, the MQM ideologue, late Rais Amrohi’s demand for the creation of a “homeland” or “Urdu Pradesh” for the “Pak-Indians” (p. 95) in Karachi and Southern Sindh is unacceptable to all Pakistanis in general, and Sindhis in particular. Many realist Urdu speakers will distance themselves from such provocative ideas. Thus, Puri should have avoided taking sides in the ethnic politics of the Pakistani polity.

As far as Biharis are concerned, due to their support to the Pakistani Army during the 1971 war, they have not been properly treated by the Bangladeshi authorities. But now the Supreme Court of Bangladesh has given them the right to vote in the next general elections which will grant them citizenship. In a BBC documentary it was shown that many of them take Bangladesh as their country. They are born and bred there; only some leaders from Pakistan instigate them to migrate. (“Asia Today”, BBC Television, 4.45. GMT, July 22, 2008) Balraj Puri is right when he argues that Urdu speakers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh should adjust themselves with the local cultures, such as participating in the local festivals and visiting the shrines of the saints, learning the local languages without losing their identity. They should give up their siege mentality, if any.

The third point of the identity of the Indian Muslims is ostensibly their demand for the application of the Muslim Personal Law to them. It is primarily Muslims of the Hanifi sect, comprising the majority of Muslims, who make this demand. The Hanafi jurisprudence allows its adherents to divorce their wives just repeating the word ‘talaq’ three times. Polygamy is also allowed in Islam. Defending Muslims, Balraj Puri argues that all Muslims are not polygamists. There may be more non-Muslim polygamists than Muslims. However, the law allowing them to divorce their wives without their consent ought to be reformed. In addition, giving Muslims a special status will fan the flames of communalism which is a stigma to the Indian polity.

The last chapter ‘Azad and Iqbal: A Comparative Study’ is a piece of scholarship. It examines the perceptions of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Dr Mohammed Iqbal, the two great scholars of India, about the Indian Muslims. Being a Brahman by origin, Iqbal knew Sanskrit well. He had the best possible relations with the non-Muslims. He was a Western educated scholar who wrote in Urdu, English and Persian, but not in his mother tongue, Punjabi (emphasis is added). He believed in modernity and suggested that Islam can be reinterpreted through the institution of ijma and ijtihad (congregation). His thoughts curved from Indian nationalism to Pan-Islamism and ended up in Muslim Homeland, only in the Muslim majority areas in western India. He suggested to Jinnah even to exclude the Muslim minority areas from his Muslim homeland.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was an orthodox in his views about Islam. He wrote prose in Urdu and English. His political career began as a Pan-Isalmist and he became quite close to Gandhiji during the Khilafat Movement, launched for the restoration of the Turkish Empire after 1918, which Iqbal opposed. Azad stuck to Indian nationalism. To him Allah is the sustainer of the universe (Rabul Alamaeen) not only of the Muslims. The creation of a state in the name of religion was un-Islamic to him. He opposed the Partition because, among other things, it would divide Muslims and make them weak in their mainland, India. Unlike Iqbal, who died before the creation of Pakistan, the Maulana became the Education Minister of Azad Hindustan.

Summing up his ideas, Balraj Puri states that if the Muslims of India had heeded Azad’s advice, they would have not been divided into three states. If they had followed Iqbal’s suggestion they would not have been stigmatised for the Partition of India. Thus, after a circular argument, Azad and Iqbal reach to the same point. The author recommends a fresh study to find a synthesis between the ideas of these scholars, having a great deal of impact on the minds of the Muslims of the subcontinent in general, and India in particular. The book is an excellent study of its own kind on the post-Partition Muslims of India. Students of Indian politics in the whole subcontinent should read it. Such clarity and broadmindedness which BalrajPuri demonstrates in this book are rare in our region.

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