The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

The Burden of the Past for Muslims in India

By Mosarrap H. Khan

The past is a longing. The past is a contested domain. We invent and reinvent our past. The past mediates our present and our future.

One of the most lucid expositions of the past is found not in a humanities or social science scholar. But in the Nobel winning scientific formulation of Higgs-Boson theory: how elementary particles acquire their masses. A poetic way to describe this would be how we are weighed down by our past.

As individuals obsess about their past, so do cultures. So do nations.

The invention of ‘nation’ is a matter of inventing a credible narrative about the past. Remember Ernest Renan, the pioneering scholar? He writes, “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitutes this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.” In other words, the present gains legitimacy only in continuing the legacies of the past.

Closer home in India, we have travelled far into the past. Sometimes the supposed Golden Age in ancient India tantalizes us. At other times, we search for equestrian presence in the remains of the Harappan Civilization. After all, the Aryan invasion itself was a myth – some of our historians would like us to believe. In some cases, we abandon historical authenticity altogether and search for scientific inventions in a mythical past, when Indians flew planes and conducted plastic surgery.

Myth and history seamlessly merge into each other in our quest for a glorious Indian (read, Hindu) past.

The past produces pleasure. The past frames the present hopelessness with elusive gilded edges – a time of glory and grandeur that one could no longer relive. Individuals, cultures, and nations remain incarcerated in a past fed on real or imaginary riches. Ask any refugee who crossed over from East Bengal during the time of Partition. Their desh was always overflowing with milk and honey. Compare that with their desolate life on the railway platforms at Sealdah Station or their meager existence in numerous refugee camps on the outskirts of Calcutta. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote how the past for the Hindu Bengali refugees was a space of sanctity and beauty in their native village in East Bengal, the sacredness of which was defiled by the violence of Partition.

The past is also a burden. Indian Muslims have a particularly fraught relation with the past. No other community in India had its life inflected by the past as has been the case with Indian Muslims. They seem to be occupying a position of suspended animation between present hopelessness and past glory (and, sometimes, in the role of oppressors in the past). While Hindus in India have been trying to invent a glorious past that is consistent with its new-found respect in the global community, Muslims have remained hostage to their past.

Here are three examples of Indian Muslim’s engagement with the past:

First, the humiliating defeat of the Mughal Empire in the hands of the British. It still makes our writers spin narratives about the last day of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, such as what he ate that day or who did he speak to. Mir Nihal’s nostalgic longing for the Mughal times in Ahmed Ali’s novel, Twilight in Delhi, is already well-known.

Second, the violence of Jinnah’s Direct Action Day on 16 August, 1946, followed by the violence of Partition. Immediately before and after the Partition, Muslims were seen as alien to India, whose real place was Pakistan. As historian Gyan Pandey has shown, popular nationalist discourse for a long time before and after the Partition was undecided if Muslims were Indian enough or if they belonged to India at all. A Congress leader, Babu Sampurnanand, wrote in Vartman newspaper on 19 June, 1947: “our worries will be greatly increased, for it is not impossible that the sympathies of our Muslim population will veer towards Pakistan.”

Third, the legacy of the Shah Bano case in the 1980s that decisively bolstered the right wing forces in India and culminated in the demolition of Babri Masjid. Each subsequent event involving Muslims, including Yakub Memon’s hanging and Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching, has been linked to a spirit of Muslim separatism and exceptionalism.

The more the present looks bleak for Muslims, the more they retreat to an imaginary pre-colonial past, when they were the rulers. The more the present looks imbued with conflict, the more the past becomes a signpost for communal amity and peace. Such views have been further bolstered by current scholarship about India’s Muslim past. It reiterates that in order to mitigate their present perception as being communal, Indian Muslims must prove their secular credentials in medieval times.

The past haunts Muslims in India. An innocuous act of changing the name of a street in Delhi – from Aurangzeb to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam – produces rage and reignites debates about India’s Muslim past.

Is obsessing with the past a recent phenomenon for Muslims in India?

If we delve a little deeper, we would find the past has always been the well-spring of utopian thinking among Muslims everywhere. The inspiration for creating an ideal society always came from the past. In contrast, the notion of an ideal society in the West always belongs to the future.

From the late eighteenth century onward in France and from the late nineteenth century in England, utopia or an ideal society was set in a future time and linked to a notion of technological progress of the existing society toward perfectibility. As the Western utopia became future oriented, the neologism euchronia conveyed that sense. Time travel into the future has always been a mode of utopian thinking for the West, as evident in Thomas More’s Utopia or, for that matter, in numerous science fictions.

In the Islamic utopic thinking, contrarily, utopic impulse draws sustenance by harkening back to the Golden Age of early Islam in Medina and to the persona of Prophet Muhammad as the embodiment of perfection. The first Caliphate in Medina and the ‘pure Islam’ that was practiced there came to be associated with a state of harmony and grace, in accordance with the teachings of the Quran. The Muslim notion of utopian life has always looked back to the past as an ideal that needed to be recreated. ISIS is merely a perverted form of this utopia and, no wonder, it calls itself a Caliphate.

A Muslim sense of loss and longing for a utopic past exasperated Jawaharlal Nehru so much that he claimed the idea of a separate “Muslim culture” and “Muslim nation” had a very different temporal logic and was always located in the past. Nehru further asserted that such an anachronism was best personified in the figure of Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League.

In a speech to Muslims in 1947, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad emphasized this temporal disjunction far more directly, when he said, “If you [Indian Muslims] falter and fall behind the march of times, if you remain inert and lethargic, the future historian will record that your flock […] adopted an attitude towards freedom, which was characteristic of a community heading towards extinction.” However, Azad, unlike Nehru, exhorted Indian Muslims to draw inspiration from the past Muslim glory for a creative renewal in a future time.

As Muslims in India function within these two competing pulls of distinct historical memories – the glorious days of the first Caliphate and the grandeur of the Mughal Rule – the present is even more overshadowed by the past with the eruption of each political controversy in India.

Muslims in India must decide how much burden of the past they are willing to bear.


Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, New York University. He is an editor of Café Dissensus.

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