Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The gift of secularism

As I waited at the airport lounge in Mumbai last Saturday, I chanced upon a book titled "Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan". The title sounded a bit far reaching and pretentious, until I saw the name of the author. M.J. Akbar is in the opinion of this writer, one of the most analytical and unbiased socio-political analysts in India. The name M.J. Akbar was reason enough for me to buy the book.

As I read through the book, I got a wholly new perspective on the events that culminated in partition and the creation of Pakistan in the 40s. Most historians hitherto have traced the genesis of Pakistan to the events of the 20s and 30s when Hindus and Muslims in India drifted apart. A few of them have made a mention of the creation of the Muslim League in 1906 as a starting point. M.J. Akbar has introduced a whole new demension to the field by asserting the view that the genesis goes way back to the 18th century when the decline of the Mughal Empire forced the muslims of India, since long the dominant community, to confront the realities of a new world where their dominance was no longer assured.

I am no expert on the topic (I haven't even completed reading the book). Nevertheless, one point that struck me firmly was the view that relegion is unlikely to ever constitute the adhesive that holds a nation together. True, Jinnah had a secular vision, but the fact remains that Pakistan was created purely as a home for Muslims in the sub-continent where they were safe from Hindu domination/ oppression. It was an unprecedented attempt at social engineering, since no major country had ever been created on the basis of religion alone.

As I dwelt upon the subject, I could not help feeling that we in India were incredibly fortunate that our post-independence leaders did not and strongly resisted the call to see India as a Hindu nation.  Although extreme right wing organisations are still going strong, the fact remains that the idea of India as a nation, independent of any relegious identity, is firmly entrenched.

As is bound to happen in a country with a decidedly secular polity, religious freedom is something of a natural given and India has benefited immensely from it. Look at any major field, and you can see the presence of prominent Muslims there. The easiest example is of cinema: Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh, the three Khans who form the holy trinity, as it were, of Hindi cinema are Muslims. Dilip Kumar, one of the legends of Indian cinema, is a Muslim. Mohammed Rafi, perhaps the greatest singer to have ever graced Indian cinema, was a Muslim.

Take the field of cricket, and you find Zaheer Khan spearheading the Indian attack. A.R. Rehman is the jewel in India's crown, the man who won an Oscar for a proud nation. Wipro, one of the IT giants, is run by Azim Premji, a Shia Muslim. One of the most respected public figures and the father of India's nuclear programme answers to the name Abdul Kalam. Sai Baba of Shirdi, one of the most revered figures, worshipped by millions of devotees nearly a century after his death, was a Sufi saint.

And all these instances constitute but the tip of the iceberg. Look where you may, and one can find non Hindus firmly entrenched in the mainstream. In fact the person who took this writer around Kashi- the holiest of holies for Hindus- was a man named Ijaz Ahmed.

These are but a few examples that serve to illustrate how much India has benefited from contributions by non-Hindus (and I haven't even mentioned the Tatas, the Godrejs and the Shapoorji Paloonji Mistrys). None save the most cockeyed right wing extremists could possible deny that non-Hindus have made an extraordinary contribution to making India what it is today.

We have the founding father of the Indian nation to thank for that. Our identity is based on the idea of India and not that of a Hindu nation. As the experience of our neighbours shows, relegion alone is a shaky foundation to build a nation on.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

New insights into Indian history?

A few days ago I was reading this book on the Russian Civil War of 1606 and the Times of Trouble. The author, Prof. Chester Dunning has discussed at length the impact of changing weather patterns and increasing population on food sufficiency, food prices and the consequent political upheavals that rocked Eastern Europe in late 16th Century.

The book took me back to the time when I was doing my masters in History (admittedly by distance education). I remember studying the concept of 'auxiliary' sciences. The term refers to the use of findings from research in one field of study to gain insights into another. The above example- using demographic and meteorology data to gain a better understanding of the political environment in late 16th century Europe- is a striking example of the use of auxiliary sciences.

As I read through it, the question that came to my mind is whether such a thing has ever been done by researchers of Indian history. I am no historian and I have little idea about developments in the field of historical studies in India, but there exists to my knowledge not a single work where the impact of demographic factors like population or land-holding patterns on the political environement was researched.

Its a well known fact that 1921 was the year of the great divide: from that point on, India's population started increasing rapidly, a trend that continues to this day. In what way did the rising population impact food sufficiency and the size of land holdings? Given the fact that India was a far more agrarian society back then, rising population must have surely had an adverse impact on both.

The question that naturally follows is about the impact of the changing demographics on social and political structures in rural India. The reason why this point needs to be studied is that most historians of India's struggle for independence tend to focus on the elites- the leaders and the manner in which their actions and attitudes affected the struggle for independence. The whole approach looks flawed to me, given that the Indian leaders worked at creating a mass base and the masses in India were simply not educated enough to understand complex terms like dominion status or nationality- British rule must have meant little to the villagers whose perspectives hardly extended outside their native village or district.

Given that background, a study of the evolution of demographic factors like population and the size of land holdings and its impact on the socio-political structures of rural India will surely throw up new learnings on the evolution of rural Indian society and polity. Up until now, Indian historians have obsessed too much over developments that affected urban India to give a thought to the socio-political undercurrents affecting more than two thirds of the population.

Sadly, little documentary information must be available on the subject- its hard to imagine old reports and documents pertaining to the thousands of villages in India being available for study. Perhaps the use of auxiliary sciences is the only way forward...if anyone cares to do so.