Asghar Ali Engineer


Democratic polity in a multi-religious, multi-caste and multi-cultural country is based, more often than not, on identities. It is of course very complex issue which needs discussion and proper analysis. In any polity based on votes identity plays an important role. Identity can be divided into pre-mordial and acquired. Acquired identity is always post-natal and does not generate powerful emotions as primordial one does. One chooses acquired identity but not identity by birth.


India has been a multi-religious and multi-cultural since its known history. It never was mono-religious or mono-cultural. Then number of invasions and incursions from Aryans to Moghuls added to religious, cultural and linguistic pluralism. British colonialism also contributed to its cultural, if not religious, multiplicity. Thus with every invasion and incursion India became more and more complex and rich.


It is not that foreign incursions had impact over existing Indian civilization. Indian civilization also impacted on people who came from outside and their identities, customs and traditions also underwent a great change. Today we speak of Indian Christianity and Indian Islam but these terms are also inadequate to describe entire complexity of Indian Christianity or Indian Islam. We will discuss this at length.


Here in this paper we are mainly concerned with Islamic identity and polity in modern secular India, its role, its scope and its problems. It would of course necessitate some brief discussion on historical dimension as well including the colonial period which added new problems and complexities. However, it is contemporary period which we will focus on.


Islam entered India through south as well as north India. In south India it entered through trade channels as Arabs were trading with Kerala (Malabar area) since pre-Islamic days. The trading of course continued in post-Islamic period and many of them married local women who converted to Islam and this Islam began to spread peacefully in Kerala and Kerala has the oldest mosque believed to be constructed by Malik Dinar, one of the Prophet’s companions.


However, in the north Islam entered India through invasion of Muhammad bin Qasim, a young general of Umayyad period who reportedly came to punish Raja Dahir of Sindh who had refused to surrender bandits who had looted some Arab trade ships. Raja Dahir was defeated and Qasim left legacy of Islam in Sindh. Sindh, like Kerala in South, was the first Islamic centre in the north which evolved rich composite civilization. Sufi Islam left greatest impact on Sindh.


North subsequently saw several invasions by Turks and Central Asian invaders as well as from Afghanistan and each Muslim invader came with different cultural traditions. Ghauris, Ghaznavis, Khaljis, Tughlaqs, Lodhis and so on belonged to different cultural and linguistic groups and fought each other to seize power. Thus it will be seen that Muslims, right from beginning, were far from homogenous or monolithic.


Also, it is interesting to note that as a result of various linguistic groups Turkic, Arabic, Persian along with some North Indian languages like Maithili, Khadi boli, Sanskrit (though not spoken by common people and mainly confined to Hindu religious scholars), Purbi, Punjabi coming together, mainly in military camps, a new language later known as Urdu, came into existence and this new language slowly acquired a new identity and within a few hundred years  became main language of cultural expression  by ruling elite.


Urdu, as we will see, has become part of Muslim identity in the north and became an issue in communal politics. Also, in North India a new civilization, composite in nature, came into existence generally known as Ganga-Jamni Tehzib (i.e. the culture prevailing in between two great rivers Ganga and Jamuna. This composite cultural identity, mainly of the urban elite, became the main identity both of Muslims and Hindus.


This composite culture produced great musicians, painters, calligraphers, architects, poets and religious tolerance. One can see its impact even today to some extent. However, communal politics of the colonial era focused more on Hindu and Islamic identities. Religion began to take precedence over culture and competitive politics began to erode composite nature of elite identity.


As pointed out above, primordial identities are more or less fixed and not much amenable to change and hence provide greater certainty and stability. However, cultural identity is rather more complex in nature. Though it is, in as way, primordial in nature but also undergoes changes. Culture is never static and changes with context. For example when Muslim dynasties began to rule over India, the Indian culture began to change and a new culture came into existence. With Moghul rulers, culture became more Persianized and Persian institutions acquired primacy.


The British culture also created great impact when British rule was established and the urban elite during colonial times took to English ways along with the language.  British rule also brought new concepts, modernity and new technology. But British colonial rule proved to be much more problematic for Indian people. Muslim dynasties had assimilated Indian social and political institutions and created strong bond with Hindu ruling elite and hence they were hardly considered as ‘alien’. They became part of Indian culture and society.


It was not so with the British rulers. They considered themselves more civilized and maintained their distance from the natives and natives also not only considered the British as foreigners but also took British rule as slavery. And the whole political struggle against the British was thought to be struggle against slavery. This was a big difference between the Muslim rule and British rule.


However, the British rule also resulted in a divide between Hindus and Muslims and communal elements in both the communities began to assert their separate identities and Hindu communalists extended the concept of slavery to Muslim rule as well and stretched it over ‘thousand years’. One qualitative difference between pre-British and colonial period was that during pre-British period power could be captured only through might of sword.


But during colonial period new political institutions came into existence and sword was replaced by franchise, however limited it was. Thus for voting, identities became very important and through clever maneuvering the British brought religious identities into play. Now cultural identity and regional identities which were main identities, were replaced by religious identities which encouraged divisive politics.


Now the Hindu and Muslim elite sought share in power through assertion of religious identities.  However, this was not total reality. There was a section of political elite which was conscious of religious and cultural pluralism and was well conscious of the fact that India can stay together only if Hindus and Muslims unite to fight British colonialism. Also, India should emerge as a secular nation.


It is also important to note that religion was not the principal issue, principal issue was share in power. The educated elite was more interested in negotiating share in power than on any religious issue. Thus religious identities took stranger turn. The educated elite led by M.A.Jinnah went separatist way and religious elite among Muslims led by Ulama of Deoband, preferred to ally with the Congress and accepted secular nationalism.


The Ulama of Deoband opposed partition and stood by united nationalism and Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, then chief of Jami’at-ul-Ulama-i-Hind wrote a tract Muttahida Qaumiyyat aur Islam [1] i.e. the Composite Nationalism and Islam justifying composite nationalism in the light of Qur’an and hadith and opposing Muslim League’s separate nationalism. The reason was obvious: the educated elite were aspiring for power and hence wanted their exclusive domain whereas the Ulama’s priority was an independent India where they could practice Islam without let or hindrance.


Muslim Identity in Independent India


The Indian constitution is secular in character and guarantees complete freedom of religion and fundamental rights to all its citizens. It also guarantees special rights to religious as well as linguistic minorities including right to establish ones own cultural institutions to protect and promote ones religion and culture (see Article 30). Minorities in India do establish their own institutions.


However, in independent India history of Aligarh Muslim University, a premier minority institution, has been quite chequered and Muslims had to launch several agitations to retain its minority character. Urdu also came under severe strain and it lost its central status in north India as it had in pre-independence period. It was slowly but completely replaced by Hindi written in Deonagri script.


Though Muslim personal law (Sharri’ah law) was not touched the right wing Hindu forces constantly pressed for uniform civil code thus posing a threat to Muslim religious identity. Thus Islamic identity in post-independence India, secular Muslim intellectuals maintained, revolved around emotional issues. Also, after Maulana Azad and Zakir Husain there was no universally respected Muslim leader left and some Muslim leaders, in order to carve out their own niche often exploited these issues, strengthening in turn Hindu communal forces.


Also, even Nehru’s prestige, could not prevent out breaking of communal violence after partition. These communal riots posed great threat to Muslim security. The first major communal riot took place in India in 1961 in Jabalpur in Central India[2]. It shook Jawaharlal Nehru as he never expected communal riots of such intensity in independent India. He was highly idealistic and thought in secular India all will behave to uphold secular values. However, it was far from so.


There were very complex reasons for that. The Congress had adopted secularism as its credo but had admitted, right from anti-colonial freedom struggle, all sorts of elements. Hardly a handful few had strong secular convictions. Even among its top leadership there were rightwing Hindu elements with anti-minority proclivities[3]. And there were many in the middle and lower rungs.


It is alleged that Chief Minister of M.P. Shri Katju coldshouldred Nehru’s emissary Smt. Subadhra Joshi who was sent to establish peace in Jabalpur. Also, partition of India had created great bitterness among Hindus, particularly in the north and unfortunately they considered all Muslims responsible for it though it was not correct. Not only that they thought Muslims have no business living in India as they have created their own homeland. Jansangh, the Hindu communal party constantly indulged in this propaganda and even some secular Hindus too entertained such ideas.


Thirdly, text books were never reformed in independent India and continued to teach what Britishers had introduced to promote communal division. These text books still continue to be problematic and continue to communalise minds of young students who then look upon Muslims with suspicion and as demolishers of Hindu temples and Hindu-haters. Fourthly, with every election, and all elections are fought on identity politics, religious and caste identities become more and more central to power struggle.


The phrase ‘vote-bank politics, coined by the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party), the Hindutva Party to begin with, is now used by all political parties. Every party has evolved combination of caste and religious groups to win electoral battles. The BJP itself has its upper and OBC caste groups and wins elections on that basis though it accuses Congress of indulging in vote-bank politics. It accuses the Congress of ‘appeasement of Muslims’ to get their votes at the cost of Hindus. Such accusations appeals to a section of Hindus who then vote for the BJP.


Two events were quite significant in mid-eighties from point of view of Muslim and Hindu identity – the Shah Bano case and Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid movement. Shah Bano, a Muslim divorcee, claimed maintenance from her husband under a secular law Indian Criminal Procedure Section 125 according to which she could bet maintenance until she re-marries or dies. She was 70 years old at the time of divorce. Her case was upheld even by the Supreme Court and she was awarded maintenance under the secular law.


Her husband, however, maintained that both of them being Muslim only shari’ah law will apply according to which his divorced wife was entitled to no more than 3 months maintenance called iddah period. He made the Muslim Personal Law Board a party but lost the case. The Muslim leaders, always exploiting emotional issues, as pointed out before, launched a huge agitation that Islam and Islamic identity is in danger in India unless the Government changes the law in order to upturn the Supreme Court judgment.


They brought hundreds of thousands of Muslims on street to agitate on the issue and ultimately forced the Rajiv Gandhi Government to change the law. A new law called Muslim Women (Protection on Divorce) law which provided for 3 months maintenance along with payment of mata’ (which was one time substantial payment according to the Qur’anic verse 2:241).


This unleashed a highly charged and controversial public debate on meaning of secularism and religious identity.[4] The Muslim leadership, in mutual competition for power and pushing themselves ahead in political significance, caused great harm to the interests of Muslim masses. The Hindu middle class was convinced of the BJP propaganda that the Congress government ‘appeases’ Muslims to get their votes and they began to express their solidarity for the BJP. Thus the Congress opportunism became ‘appeasement’ for upper caste, upper class Hindus.


This was nothing but reckless and totally irresponsible exploitation of Islamic identity in secular India which proved totally disastrous for the Muslim community and immensely benefited the right wing Hindu forces represented by what came to be known as the Sangh Parivar which consisted of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), BJP, VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and Bajrang Dal. The Sangh Parivar represented Hindu identity in Secular India.


Rajiv Gandhi Government almost panicked at the strong reaction of not only Hindus but also of the well meaning secular forces by changing the Supreme Court and, in order to display another bout of opportunism, the Rajiv Government not only opened the Babri Masjid doors which were closed for more than 40 years for Hindus to worship Ram, but also laid the foundation of Ramjanambhoomi Mandir in the same complex.


He thought he would ‘appease’ both Hindus and Muslims but such opportunism was taken cynically by both and lost support of both the communities and hence lost the election in 1989. It was highly critical period for Indian secularism and competitive identity politics was destroying its very core in India. Both Government as well as opposition led by the BJP were cynically destroying secular values.


Unfortunately in this cynical game of religious identity, the Congress was looser and BJP the gainer. There were several reasons for that. The Congress had won most of the elections through combination of Brahmin, Muslim and Dalit votes but so far had played this game in a very subtle manner retaining its secular f ace. Mrs. Gandhi, after Nehru, was very shrewd politician and could brought to bear her shrewdness as well as experience in subtle maneuvers of religious identity. Rajiv Gandhi had neither experience nor such shrewdness.


On top of it the desperate and unwise Muslim leadership created insurmountable problems for him. The BJP, on the other hand, desperate to win lost ground by adopting secularism and Gandhian socialism in 1977 and merging with the Janata Party, also threw all caution to the wind and began to exploit grossly religious and emotional issue and even gave a slogan “garv se kaho hum Hindu hain i.e. say with pride that we are Hindus and also raised the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (long live Shri Ram) and made it a greeting for All BJP members. This had great emotional impact in highly charged atmosphere of polarized religious identities towards the end of eighties.    


Added to this were series of major communal riots like 1985 Ahmedabad riots, 1987 Meerut riots, 1989 Bhagalpur riots and in all these riots large number of Muslims were killed usually 200 to 800) which intimidated Muslims and made them worry about their very existence. The Hindu communalism was at a great offensive. This was followed by demolition of Babri Masjid on 6th December 1992 followed by Bombay riots in which again more than 1000 Muslims were killed. Besides Mumbai communal violence broke out in Surat, Ahmedabad, Kanpur, Bhopal and several other places.


The Muslim masses now understood the game their leaders were also playing and began to ignore their calls for identity politics. These leaders who had, using these religious controversies, raised themselves to high political stature, were suddenly marginalized and Muslim masses now became more assertive. Meanwhile the implementation of Mandal Commission Report by V.P. Singh Government in 1990 brought many OBC (other backward classes) leaders like Mulayamsingh Yadav of U.P., Laluprasad Yadav of Bihar and Kanshi Ram and Mayavati to the fore who shunned communal politics but asserted caste identities. Thus the OBC identity began to weaken upper caste communal politics indulged in by BJP and Muslims got an alternative to the Congress and BJP. This by itself was a great relief for Muslim masses.


Though OBC caste politics was also basically identity politics but much less dangerous than religious identity politics of BJP as far as minorities were concerned. For example, Bihar which was a communal tinderbox for long witnessed no communal riots after Laluprasad Yadav came to power with Yadav and Muslim votes. He became a challenge to the BJP communal politics.


Thus regional and caste based politics has become an effective counter to communal politics on which BJP or entire Sangh Parivar tries to thrive. In south also Telugu Desam Party, DMK of Karuna Nidhi and AIDMK of Jayalalitha, though enter into alliance with BJP at times, do not directly promote communal politics and in these regions Muslims prefer to vote for these regional parties. South has much less been communalized compared to north India. But now BJP has succeeded to enter Karnataka in sought which it calls gateway to south.


Earlier for all terrorist attacks in India Muslims were blamed  by the Sangh Parivar and large number of young Muslim boys were arrested by the police as suspected terrorists ruining their professional careers in some cases. The RSS even spread, through SMS, that though all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims. It was certainly not so. Now, after thorough investigation by some honest police officers it has been established that Hindutvawadis belonging to Abhinav Bharat and Hindu Sanatan Sanstha were involved in terror attacks on Mecca Masjid, Ajmer Dargahsharif, Malegaon in 2008 and also probably on Samjhota Express near Panipat going to Lahore. Further investigations are going on.


Due to arrests of innocent Muslim boys Muslims were feeling highly unsafe, most unsafe after Gujarat riots. Now of course again there is apparent peace though one can hardly say how long this peace on the surface will last. It appears, at least of now, that people are not keen to respond to communal violence and BJP is undergoing serious political crisis involving several dimensions.


It is facing internecine fights, groupism, and corruption scandal, charges of fake encounter deaths of Sohrabuddin, his wife and colleague Tulsiram Prajapati. The CBI has accused involvement of Home Minister of State Amit Shah and has arrested him. Also Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court is investigating role of Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi himself. Thus political credibility of BJP has been seriously eroded.


But in politics fortunes change quickly and unpredictably. Also, RSS is quite active in spreading communal propaganda and therefore, absence of communal violence, does not mean absence of communalism. People’s political attitude is moulded through communal propaganda and riots can erupt, at times, on petty issues if communal polarization exists in the society and which is increasing.


Thus it would be seen that situation is highly complex. There are interaction between caste, communal, regional and linguistic identities depending on the context. Caste identities can suppress communal identity and communal identity can also suppress, in certain context, caste identity. Thus there are different phases – communal identity overwhelming caste identity and vice-a-versa.


Much will depend on how Muslim leadership charters its political course. As pointed out above there are no leaders of all India stature who can inspire confidence among Muslims. Regional leaders are also petty and seen as utterly selfish often changing political parties depending on political fortunes. The ulama or theologians are too conservative to lead Muslim masses in this complex political geography. They are more worried about dogmas and doctrines than safety, security and progress of Muslims in India.


Muslim masses are immersed in poverty and illiteracy. And in communal riots too, it is these poor Muslims who suffer most. But in last few elections it is these poor Muslims who have shown more wisdom in voting and defeating communal forces. Also in this complex web of castism, communalism and regionalism it is secularism which gives hope for unity and co-existence. Not only minorities but a large number of majority Hindus also realize this and Islamic identity in secular India faces acute crisis in certain critical phases but also guarantees their safety and security as well as progress. (Centre for Study of Society and Secularism:



[1] -This tract written in Urdu has now been translated into English.


[2] – See for details Asghar Ali Engineer ed. Communal Riots in Post-Independence India (Sangam Books,1984)  for communal riots in post-independence India; see also Asghar Ali Engineer Communal Riots After Independence – A Comprehensive Account (Shipra Publications, Delhi,2004)


[3] – See Maulana Azad  who discuss these proclivities in his 30 pages published 30 years after his death in his book India Wins Freedom (Orient Longman)


[4] – See Asghar Ali Engineer ed. The Shah Bano Controversy (Orient Longman, Mumbai, 1986)


(Secular Perspective September 16 to October 15, 2010)

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