Review: Moderate or Militant by Mushirul Hasan

The Mushirul Hasan Omnibus

It will be a case of an empty vessel making too much noise if I proclaim that I am here to review Mushirul Hasan’s writings. For starters, he is a much respected Indian historian and has been awarded Padma Shri amongst various other awards. He has authored many books and taught (not sure if he currently does) at Jamia Millia University. Rather than buying the books individually, buying his omnibus turned out to be a wise decision as it packs four books in one: Moderate or Militant, From Pluralism to Separatism, A Moral Recknoning and finally Legacy of a Divided Nation. In the Introduction to the omnibus, he writes briefly about each book. He also mentions the pain of being ‘outlawed’ from his own university because of his view on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. He had expressed his displeasure at the book but was against a ban, reflecting his liberal ideology. This lead to an attack on him by students and had to be hospitalized. He writes, “To end up in a hospital bed on 4 December 1992 and imagine what an inglorious way this was to die? How much better off were those who died for a cause? For what was my cause here?” 

In the preface to Moderate or Militant, he quotes a beautiful poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The following is a verse worth

To those innocent souls

Who, in their naivete

With lamps lit in their hand,

Aspiring for high ideals,

Landed up where there

Was darkness, endless,

To the prisoners

Whose hearts lit with

Night-burnt fire of tomorrow’s

Dreams, turned into stars.

In the Introduction to the book he rues how despite India’s dominant role in Islamic matters a lot of histories exclude India’s Muslims. The purpose of this book is “to articulate a vision of Islam, rather the many different kinds of Islam instead of the frightening monolith of popular perception, living in harmony with other faiths and of the Muslims, inheritors of the great Indian civilization, living in a pluralist milieu”. And adds that “in a society where religion plays a dominant role in virtually every walk of life, it is my business and the business of every historian to bring secularism into our discussions and to affirm its validity as a principle guiding the nation”. One important facet of his books and a practice he propounds is of not stopping at 15 August 1947 with regards to debates on partition and pluralism. He states, “fresh facts on post-colonial India have enforced fresh thinking” and “Sarvepalli Gopal gave up the time-honoured practice and Ramachandra Guha and Sarah Ansari followed in his footsteps”. He then goes into the meanings of words like secularism and communalism. On ‘secularism’, he says that it has been “dissected relentlessly in all quarters by generalists as well as social scientists of all hues, secularism is sometimes derided as a Western import unsuited to Indian soil where indigenous traditions of tolerance have a long-standing presence” and on ‘communalism’, “Indian version of fascism” and “a narrow and disruptive creed

In the second chapter Mr. Hasan covers the neglect the subcontinent has suffered in Islamic studies and then covers various Indian writers, historians and journalists and their attitudes towards Islam and Muslims, which is mostly anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim. He quotes Peter Hardy, “Largely for political reasons the study of islam and of Muslims in South Asia is as yet neither as disciplined, dispassionate nor as sophisticated as the study of Islam and of Muslims in the classical lands of Islam” and when Muslims figure in the works it is “to narrate the story of the Mughal declineand not to showcase a highly cultured, and in many respects tolerant, society”. He narrates how M.N. Roy, intellectual and communist, “emphasized that the Muslims had adopted India as their own” and sought to “awaken interest in Islam’s contribution to human culture”. The author is clearly disappointed in the rightist views propagated by writers like Bharatendu Harishchandra who belittled Urdu as the “language of dancing girls and prostitutes”. Then he comes to the specific case of Nirad Chaudhuri, who was written about highly by Mr. Kuldip Nayar in his political autobiography - Beyond The Lines. From the detailed readings of Chaudhuri it is brought out that he was not too fond of Muslims and believed that their intellectual tradition ran independent of the Hindus. Chaudhuri writes in Culture in the Vanity Bag, “many Hindus took to wearing the Muslim costume, speaking Urdu, and writing in the Arabic script, and by doing all these things they gradually lost the sense not only of the uncleanliness of these things from the Hindu point of view, but even of the unnaturalness”. Chaudhuri discounts the role of leading Muslim clerics like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in the freedom struggle. Mr. Hasan also delves deeper into how the Muslim peasantry was at the receiving end in Bengal as they lost their lands to Hindu landlords.

Then Mr. Hasan comes to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranth Tagore. Again from the various writings of Bankim Chandra it is clear that he hadn’t had much of a secular ideology as well and “looked upon medieval India as a period of bondage”. Tagore’s writings reflect his views of universal humanism but, and rightfully so, the author ponders why there were so fewer Muslim characters in his works and why he never raised “his voice against the slandering of his own people?” and concludes by saying, “the ‘awakened’ in Bengal also happened to be almost exclusively Hindu by origin”. The author then correlates how the lack of secular outlook in many Congress men resulted in the Muslim League gaining momentum, “Muslim groups across the board had ignored the League until the 1937 elections but force of circumstances led them to change course”. 

V.S. Naipul, I believe, has been no stranger to controversies. Girish Karnad’s outburst at the Tata Literature Live was one which generated some heat (I wish I had gathered the courage to walk up to Mr. Karnad and struck a casual conversation with him and probably got a photograph clicked with him). Naipaul’s warning to readers of ‘Islamic parasitism’ is a statement enough to convince one’s self of the urgent need to separate the fundamentalists from Islam. Naipaul’s scant knowledge of Islam and his observations only based on other’s interpretations, rather than self-reading because he doesn’t know how to read Arabic or Persian, punctures his credentials. Naipaul in one of his works writes that Muslims did not come in a tourist bus to India and went away. He is correct in his interpretation as no religion has spread with the lure of benefit or the sword of force. To this Mr. Hasan writes a line worth mentioning, “Islamists who were driven more by the desire to establish the might of an evangelical Islam than to deface Hindu places of worship”. Muslims wouldn’t have come to India thinking that Hinduism is their enemy, but conflict was bound to be there irrespective of whichever religion must have been in India. Naipaul even criticizes Gandhi, stating “he was uneducated and was never a thinker. He has absolutely no message today” and Indians “take him as some vague idea of a great redeeming holiness”. The last statement of Gandhi being considered the most holy man is true – and I personally agree, despite of being a great admirer of him, that his (of Gandhi) shortcomings are never discussed or debated. His actions, like agreeing to send Indians to fight for the British during World War I, just to give an example, can be justified now given that we know all that happened, but should not escape the ire of the reason of rationality. About Tipu Sultan, Mr. Hasan convincingly writes that he wasn’t a plunderer of temples and Hindu religion as mouthed by the rightists but at the same time was no noble man either because all he wanted to save was his territory from the British by forging an alliance with the French. The author laments the lack of naming of public places after eminent Muslims and also the lack of interest in Islamic research in universities across the country. The typical portrayal of an Indian Muslim, wearing a skull cap and chewing paan, doesn’t escape either the author’s wrath. Journalists like Girilal Jain and Arun Shourie are mentioned along with their non-secular leanings. On the secular side as well a lot of names are mentioned: Kuldip Nayar, Praful Bidwai, Pran Chopra, N Ram, Vir Sanghvi, Vinod Mehta, Dilip Padgaonkar, Rajdeep Sardesai and Malini Parthasarathy to name a few.

The third chapter gives a sweeping view of how history has been viewed differently in different times and how it affected the views of the general public. He writes, “in the 1960s and 1970s, students of modern India experienced the historian’s denial of the element of ideology in nationalism”. He explains how for Anil Seal independence “politics was characterized by self-interest rather than altruism”. Many a historians found ideology lacking in the struggle – rather just plain Hindu v/s Muslim sentiment playing in the minds of millions of freedom fighters. This way of looking at things is entirely new to me. I always have been taught in schools and heard from people that British sowed the seeds of separatism amongst the Hindus and the Muslims for their own benefit – the famous ‘divide and rule policy’. But that the Muslims took part in the struggle only for reclaiming their ‘lost pride’ of the Mughal era is too jolting to be believable. The author covers how some historians questioned the “myth of Muslim backwardness in UP”, wrote that “Muslim revivalism was more the creation than the creator of politics of the UP Muslim landed and service elites”.  But Mr. Hasan faults such views by evidencing the support of Gandhi for Khilafat Movement and a sign of an underlying ideology. He also says how Bipan Chandra got it wrong when he thought that communalism was an aspect of ‘false consciousnesses. Then Mr. Hasan points to the degraded callousness of the British during Partition when they wanted to protect their properties and bungalows when millions were spewing death towards their own brothers and how they ignored Quran when delivering in lot of judgments concerning property inheritance for women. They also ignored and treated the secular intellectuals as fringes and supported the traditionalists with the catastrophic result in front of us. This chapter over turned my ways of looking at history and I had to read it twice to comprehend it. 

The fourth chapter is titled Questioning Civilizational Fault Lines and starts with two quotes – one of Ambedkar and the other of Nehru – contrasting the views and beliefs of the two with respect to the multi-religious society of India and directed towards Hindus and the Muslims. Ambedkar had written, “their past is of mutual destruction” while Nehru wrote, “while kings quarreled, silent forces in India worked ceaselessly for a synthesis”(not quoted verbatim). The author then wonders what should one make of Ambedkar who took a leading part in framing India’s secular constitution. He examines how Mohammad Iqbal went from composing patriotic songs like “saare jahaan se acha Hindostan humara” to seeking a “separate land of the future”. But Mr. Hasan clarifies here that what Iqbal wanted was a “state within the body politic of India”. This turnaround is ascribed to the increasing violence in the Hindu-Muslim relations and “his dissatisfaction with the Congress criteria of nationhood and his own philosophical disposition towards a conception of Muslim community”. Then the author covers the works of Aziz Ahmad and his shortcomings in not covering Marxian writings while analyzing the making of Indian Islam. This is followed by flowing praise for Mohammad Mujeeb. Mr. Hasan writes, “a historian cannot, be political propagandist; his function is simple to state and interpret the acts without allowing his own prejudices to influence the discussion of his them or warp his judgement”. Then are covered Mujeeb’s secular credentials and how he admired Zakir Husain, the co-founder of Jamia Milia Islamia. The second section of the chapter is titled “Living with Diversity” rather than the clich├ęd “unity in diversity”. Mr. Hasan writes, “while Islam presents the outward characteristics of a well-organized system, one must not lose sight of, first of all, the indeterminancy of social identity”. This section covers how incorrectly Muslims have been judged as a cohesive and singular unit, while in reality there are different sub-units engaging in differing and varied practices and beliefs and as Mujeeb found out, “allegiance to Islam as the only common factor”. Mujeeb criticized how a lot of Muslim intelligentsia were preoccupied with ignoring all cultural ties and imagined the glorious Mughal past in their demands of a separate Muslim identity, particularly in terms of a state.

The next chapter, with a sub-title of “Pre-history of Communalism?” questions whether before the demand of a separate state for Muslims, were the problems inherent in the past as well. And sadly enough the answer is a resounding “no”. Sadly because it was interpreted so by a few handful of people and became a mass of a movement leading to partition. He writes of various works by people in the nineteenth century and how they mentioned a shared cultural sphere by members of both the community and how Muslims used to take part in the Hindu festivities and vice versa and how practices and rituals were borrowed and shared amongst different religious communities. Any myth of animosity extending to centuries in the past is shattered to pieces. In the chapter titled Education and Faith, Mr. Hasan evaluates the role education (not necessarily in the sense of a ‘school education’, but even the one had in a Madrasa). He covers Deobands, the ulama, the seminaries, Jamia Milia itself, Aligarh Muslim University etc. He praises Jamia and upholds its secular credentials. He even outlines the struggles of MA Ansari. The next chapter is Partition, and rightfully so amongst the longest ones in the book and covers the political and human aspects majorly compared to others. The second last chapter discusses how still Muslims are in neglect, either due to the coincidence of what has transpired in the past or because of intentional non-action by successive governments for improving their lot. The state of affairs for Urdu is written about at length along with the agenda of RSS and the likes of BJP. I couldn’t agree, but, with Mr. Hasan when he almost laments the loss of the “princely states” when they were, across the country, asked (or forced) to join the Union of India. It seems he sides with the princely states. And then we turn the page finally to the last chapter titled Miles to Go, Promises to Keep which emphasizes and debates that though Muslims of India, a minority, are not homogenous so aren’t the Hindus, the majority. Hence, to treat them as one would be wrong. He quotes of Muslim intellectuals being proud of their dual identities – of being an Indian and a Muslim (in no specific order). This made me think that do Hindus think of themselves as Indians and Hindus – but probably it applies only to Muslims and other minorities because of their sidelining in a broader sense. He writes that Muslims “should not regard themselves as the sole possessors and upholders of true belief but acknowledge the right of non-Muslims to profess their own faiths”. 

And that brings an end to a master piece and work of highest intellect. I will be reading this one at least twice more in the near future to bask in the overflowing understanding of a very high order. Two things before I conclude: first, the title was slightly misleading for me because it directed my mind to think in terms of comparison of Muslim extremists and Muslim moderates while the book covered a vast array of topics not just related with extremism or terrorism; secondly the chapters can be read independently (more or less) and the book doesn’t run as a connected story – it is more like a collection of well written individual essays and not a inter-woven narration.


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