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Book Review

The Role of Minorities
They Too Fought For India's Freedom

Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Indian textbooks routinely describe the country's freedom struggle from British colonial yoke as an essentially 'upper' caste movement. The 'nationalist' heroes they portray and extol are almost all 'upper' caste Hindus. Several of these were unabashed Hindu supremacists and defender of 'upper' caste/class privilege and entered into various forms of collaboration with the British. If these history texts are to believed, other communities, particularly Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits, had little or no role to play in the anti-colonial movement. An unstated assumption here is that Hindus, by definition, are 'patriots' and that the loyalty of non-Hindus to the country is suspect or, at best, lukewarm. It as if the rest of India must always live under 'upper' caste Hindu tutelage and rely on 'upper' caste saviours to represent them as guardians of the 'nation'.

This book seeks to forcefully challenge this version of the nationalist myth. It provides fascinating glimpses into the lives of non-Hindu Indian freedom fighters, many of whom laid their lives for liberating the country from British rule. As the largest non-Hindu community in India, the Muslims understandably receive the greatest attention here. This is important for yet another reason: 'Upper' caste Hindu ideologues spare no effort to brand Muslims as 'anti-national' and their loyalty to India is always sought to be questioned. Hence the need to highlight the contributions made by numerous valiant Muslims in opposing British rule.

Asghar Ali Engineer's chapter neatly summarises the role of leading 'ulama in the freedom movement, providing a valuable counter to contemporary depictions of the ulama of the madrasas as 'anti-national' and 'subversive'. He refers to the role of the late eighteenth century Shah Abdul Aziz of Delhi, who issued a fatwa declaring India under the British an 'abode of war'. He discusess the legacy of Shah Abdul Aziz's disciples, some of who led a jihad against the British and the Sikh rulers of Punjab. Some of those associated with this tradition carried on the banner of revolt in 1857 and even thereafter, being brutally repressed by the British. Thereafter, sections of the ulama continued their struggle against the British through the Deoband madrasas. Shaikh ul-Hind Mahmud ul-Hasan, rector of the madrasa, launched an organization devoted to this purpose, and one of his disciples, Ubaidullah Sindhi, a Sikh convert to  Islam, tied up with leftist and nationalist revolutionaries, of both Hindu and Muslim background, to set up India's first government-in-exile, in Kabul. Deobandi ulama were also involved in the Khilafat movement against the British along with Gandhi, taking part in the Non-Cooperation movement and opposing the 'two-nation' theory of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League and denouncing the demand for the Partition of India. At the same time, numerous other Muslim groups, such as the Shia Conference and the Momin Conference, also joint the anti-colonial movement and stiffly opposed the Pakistan demand.

The Khilafat movement is discussed in considerable detail by Mushirul Hasan and M.Rafiq Khan in their respective chapters. They argue that the demand for the protection of the Ottoman Caliphate must not be seen as simply an expression of pan-Islamic sentiments divorced from local Indian politics. Rather, the movement to protect the Khilafat launched by key Indian Muslim leaders was at the same time powerfully anti-colonial in thrust, and these leaders insisted, as did numerous Hindu Congress leaders, that the struggle for the Khilafat and for India's independence and inter-community solidarity were inseparable.

Name of the Book: They Too Fought For India's Freedom-The Role of Minorities
Edited by: Asghar Ali Engineer
Publisher: Hope India Publications, Gurgan (www.hopeindiapublications.com)
Year: 2006
Pp:214
ISBN: 81-7871-081-1

The role of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in India's freedom movement is discussed in considerable detail by Moin Shakir and Uma Singh in their respective essays. They argue against the standard Indian 'nationalist' depiction of the Muslim League being the principal or sole villain in the Partition of India, and stress the need for a closer look at class factors leading to consolidation of political differences between Hindu and Muslim elites. Equally important is the role of caste Hindu chauvinism and the refusal of the Congress (besides avowed Hindu supremacist groups) to fully respect and recognise Muslim rights, identity and representation in the name of a unified nationalism that was really (and still remains) a cover-up for caste Hindu domination.

Shantimoy Roy's essay on Muslims in India's freedom struggle refers to numerous charismatic Muslim leaders in different parts of India who led local struggles against the British. The focus is here particularly on Bengal, where numerous such Muslim heroes rallied the support of local Hindus, too, particularly from the so-called 'low' castes. Abida Samiuddin's essay examines the critical role of Urdu newspapers, from the early nineteenth century onwards, in promoting anti-British sentiments and exhorting Muslims, Hindus and others to engage in a joint struggle against British imperialism.

The remaining essays in the book look at the role of various other non-Hindu communities in India's freedom movement. Harish Puri discusses the Kuka movement among the 'low' caste Sikhs and the Ghadar movement, again largely Sikh-dominated, showing how mobilizing to protect and promote a certain form of community identity and to struggle against colonialism could be so deeply interlinked. T.R.Sharma's essay looks at the complex role of the Akali Dal as it sought to negotiate Sikh rights while at the same time participating in the anti-colonial movement. Aloo Dastur's essay examines the role of noted Parsis in the Indian National Congress and various local anti-colonial initiatives in the Bombay Presidency. Teresa Albuquerque's paper discusses the participation of Christians in various social reform efforts and in the larger struggle for Indian freedom, noting that this was often at the cost of antagonizing white Church leaders, the vast majority of whom were committed to the British Raj.

This collection of essays is a valuable counter to official and popular historiography of India's freedom movement. It forcefully challenges the notion of Indian patriotism being a solely 'upper' caste Hindu monopoly. The title of the book is apt to be a little misleading, however. There is no single majority community in India, the Hindu 'majority' being a myth that exists only on paper and not on the ground. Hence, to speak of the role of 'minorities' in the freedom struggle, as contrasted with that of the 'majority', is misleading. Further, the book suffers from a complete silence on the role of such marginalised communities as Dalits and Adivasis in the freedom struggle (while it does include an essay on Sindhis, focusing essentially on Sindhi Hindus), this being probably the result of the conventional, although hardly forgivable, tendency to club these communities together with caste Hindus as 'Hindus', thereby building up the myth of a Hindu monolith, which is, in turn, used to justify caste Hindu hegemony.

[The writer, until May 2004, was post-doctoral fellow at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden. He was appointed, in July 2004, to head the newly set up Centre for Studies on Indian Muslims, at Hamdard University, New Delhi. He also edits a web-magazine called Qalandar, which can be accessed at www.islaminterfaith.org. His email address is: ysikand@yahoo.com]

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                  

 

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