Book Review: Paths that did not converge
by A Surya Prakash on 05 Dec 2010 11 Comments

Meenakshi Jain's book [Parallel Pathways: Essays on Hindu-Muslim Relations (1707-1857)] explains the leitmotif for Hindu-Muslim relations for over a millennium and demolishes the ‘harmony' theory.


Hindus and Muslims lived amicably in undivided India until Britain colonised the country, promoted conflict between the two communities, pursued a policy of divide and rule and eventually presided over the division of the country before exiting from the subcontinent. This is the standard narrative of many Left-leaning historians who shut their eyes to historical truths and moulded history to suit their ideological predilections.

Much of this, however, is false because it seeks to hide the facts regarding the cruelty and despotism of many Muslim rulers, the destruction of thousands of Hindu temples, the religious persecution of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains and the sustained efforts of these rulers to dismantle the cultural edifice of the Indic civilisation — all of which created a Hindu-Muslim divide that existed when the British arrived on the scene and remained thereafter, resulting in the country’s tragic partition.

The producers of this counterfeit history have just one objective in mind — to denounce indigenous religions and culture, to eulogise religions imported into this land and to expurgate from history books all facts that show the latter in poor light. A logical extension of this spurious enterprise is to imagine Hindu-Muslim harmony before the advent of the British and blame the coloniser for the discord that emerged between the two communities in the 19th and 20th centuries leading to Partition and much else.

For example, historians who carry this ideological baggage have tried — and continue to try — to paint even a despotic ruler like Aurangzeb in ‘secular’ colours. Aurangzeb persecuted Hindus, imposed a tax on them and destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples including the Krishna Temple in Mathura and the Vishwanath Temple in Benaras. He heaped indignities on Hindus and Sikhs and some eminent historians like Jadunath Sarkar, RC Majumdar and Will Durant, who have remained true to their calling, have chronicled the many facets of his oppressive regime.

However, in recent years, historians belonging to the pseudo-secular school have been working overtime to bury these truths and give Aurangzeb a more acceptable face. This is the common thread that runs through these narratives, however laughable it may seem, in the light of the chronicles left behind by Aurangzeb’s official historians, including the Akhbarats, which were reports on the orders passed by the emperor and other accounts like Mirat-i-Alam and Alamgir-Nama written by Mughal court officials. This is just a sample of the monumental disservice that historians of this ilk have done to our understanding of medieval history and thereafter, the historical background of Partition.

However, the enterprise of this school is not confined to just manufacturing the past. It extends to management of the present as well, with members of this school entrenching themselves in academia and institutions owing allegiance to those who are the prime beneficiaries of their spurious output and denying opportunities to those who oppose this disjunction between truth and history.

Given this background, Meenakshi Jain’s Parallel Pathways is a path-breaking work, seeking to blast the myths vis-à-vis Hindu-Muslim relations from 1707 to the Great Uprising of 1857.

As Jain points out, a school of historians believes that the revolt of 1857 “was the last notable manifestation of Hindu-Muslim unity”. That thereafter, this unity was undermined by the policies of the British leading eventually to Partition. In other words, Hindu-Muslim unity was “an accomplished fact” in the centuries preceding the great revolt. The reality, she says, is “considerably more complex” and can be traced to some precepts that are central to Islam and which have influenced Muslim rulers since the Arab conquest of Sind in 712 AD. For example, Church and state were intertwined in Islam and Muslims believed that “Islam could be Islam properly only in conjunction with political power”. As a result, “secularisation of the polity and society were incompatible with Islam”. Islam, she says, divided the world into believers and non-believers and “designated all Indians as kafirs”. As these concepts were at the core of Islamic belief, there was little scope for harmony between Hindus and Muslims. These concepts also had a great bearing on how a succession of Muslim kings ran their kingdoms and the attitude of the Muslim elite in India.

Jain says Islam and the civilisation that it confronted in India espoused “markedly differing ideals”. While Islam gave primacy to universal Muslim brotherhood and promoted a centralised autocratic polity, “the civilisation as it evolved in the subcontinent was... secular (in that the religious identity was not paramount), decentralised and democratic and exalted patriotism (love of the land) above other loyalties. The subsequent history of India was to a considerable degree shaped by the contest between these two varying perspectives”. This single paragraph in Jain’s book explains the leitmotif for Hindu-Muslim relations for over a millennium and effectively demolishes the ‘harmony’ theory.

This conflict between Islam and the Indian civilisation has been recorded by many travellers, court historians, writers and poets, and Jain packs her book with valuable quotes from the most authentic chroniclers to clinch the argument that the disjunction was too deep and fundamental for any kind of concord to emerge between the two civilisations. Further, the attitude of Islam towards the Indic religions resulted in the sustained and barbaric campaign against the adherents of these religions and their places of worship, besides the imposition of jizya (tax) on Hindus and the plethora of discriminatory practices by Muslim rulers.

This onslaught, however, was not just confined to matters of religion. It extended to the wider canvass of culture, including architecture and language. For example, Akbar made Persian the language of administration and the Mughal empire was “closely connected with the cultivation of Persian culture in all its aspects”. Further, Jain says no native language of India received any meaningful patronage from the ‘great’ Mughals, “who were widely perceived in the regions as unsympathetic to indigenous languages”.

Following the decline of the Mughals, it became imperative to replace Persian and Hindi/Hindavi seemed the natural choice, but for the Muslim elite “its (Hindi/Hindavi) principle drawback was its profusion of tatsama and tadbhava Sanskrit words”. So, a solution was found by purging Sanskit-origin words and replacing them with Arabic and Persian words — “a process that culminated in the birth of Urdu”. In other words, the assault on Indian civilisation was comprehensive and nothing was left out. Chapter VI on “Language: A Calculated Rupture” offers a wide-ranging analysis on the language issue as it deals with the expurgation of Sanskrit, the origins of Hindi/Hindavi and Urdu.

The Hindu-Muslim cleavage, largely fuelled by the bigotry of Muslim rulers, remained apparent during the revolt of 1857 and persisted thereafter. In the final chapter, the author explains the impact of this cultural dissonance on the subcontinental politics in the latter half of the 19th century. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s thesis that promoted Muslim separatism and the eventual Partition seems an inevitable corollary when one sees and acknowledges this dissonance. In short, this is a book that is worthy of recommendation, especially for those who wish to shift history from mythology.


Parallel Pathways: Essays on Hindu-Muslim Relations (1707-1857)

Author: Meenakshi Jain

Publisher: Konark

Price: 600/-

A. Surya Prakash is a senior journalist; Meenakshi Jain teaches History at Delhi University 

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