Through the Eye of Partition: An Exploration of Communalism in India- I

4 05 2010



A Song and a Scare.

Chalachithra ganangal (the film songs programme in Malayalam) by Akashavani (Indian national radio) after 1:00 PM was quite a part of the life of every Keralite (a native of the southern state of Kerala in India) born before late 80’s. A few days back, all of a sudden, perhaps from an upsurge of nostalgia, I tried to simulate it by putting a long playlist of Malayalam songs in my laptop with the random pick option. I was expecting a nap with the songs playing in the background like a sweet lullaby, yet the very first song sank me into a deep and disturbing thought………

Jaanakee jaanee raamaa ……. (lyrics)

I was completely taken over by the voice of Yesudas to the edge of slipping into a relaxing nap when I tried to recollect the details of the song.

Movie     : Dhwani

Singer     : K. J. Yesudas

Lyrics     : Yousuf Ali Kechery

Music     : Naushad Ali

Yousuf Ali Kechery and Naushad (known after Mugal-e-Azam‘s music)! For the very first time in my life I was conscious that a beautiful Hindu devotional song in Sanskrit (about Ram from Ayodhya- did that ring any bells) was written and composed by two great artists who happened to be Muslims. The very next second, this very thought gave me a scare. Never in my life were I conscious about the fact that Yousuf Ali Kechery or the legend Naushad Ali were Muslims. That thought simply did not occur any time.

I was not concerned if I too were getting communalised. Having moved out from the shell of religious identity and even theism, there was no grain of doubt regarding that. But what arouse my concern was that this sycophantic communal hysteria and the rampant identity profiling happening around is having a subconscious effect. Yes, to that extend, the very fact that I find it relevant to think and appreciate that two Muslims composed one of the best ever Hindu devotional songs in Sanskrit that appeared in a Malayalam movie and was sung by a Christian, made me ashamed of self on the second thoughts.

What is happening to us? Why is the world shrinking to narrow identities which were just a matter of accident? What has led me to think – even for a split second- that it was wonderful symbol of harmony, while the greater and normal course should have been to appreciate the musical talents of those legendary individuals?

A Conflict of Identities

A year before or so, Shabana Azmi, the renowned Hindi film actress, had remarked in an interview that she was becoming more and more conscious of her Muslim identity in recent times. I had visited the comment section of the article (published online) and wasn’t surprised by the gush of hooligan comments accusing her for being ungrateful towards the generosity (!!) showered by the majority population (Hindus). It was a revealing example of supposedly well educated urban upper middle class of India sparing no opportunity to vent out their self-imagined frustrations.

More recently I confronted the other side of the same issue when a colleague of mine, who happened to be a Muslim, was surprised when he saw that I was mailing to a close friend who had a distinguishable Muslim name. ‘Hey, so you have a Muslim friend too’ came as a shock to which I didn’t bother to answer and just smiled back. Both the confession of Mrs. Azmi and my colleague’s exclamation are current reality in stark terms.

Coming to think about it, our complex, intertwined identities, which have helped people to be more than the sum of the parts, and are getting more and more reduced and compartmentalised into a monoliths where choices are fast becoming binary. My colleague had multiple choices to look at the identity of my friend whom he didn’t even know; he could have been my classmate, belonging to my home town, a Keralite, an erstwhile colleague etc. While him being a Muslim by birth was the most interesting part that my colleague found. Also, this was not a singular incident and some Hindus (more often non-Keralites) too have wondered how it is possible to share and appreciate the cultural values of a Muslim (as if religion is the sole reason for all cultural diversities).

After the human tragedy of partition, the resolute intention of the Indian leaders (despite their own ideological differences and personal failures) was to lay the foundation of an all encompassing nationality where every other identity could still remain and flourish, but without being at war with each other. Have we failed them or were their intentions based on fundamentally flawed assumptions?

Presently in the wake of the so called war against terror, a much more terrifying paradigm shift is happening around us. On one side, being a Muslim is equated to a potential extremist or terrorist (at least in the subconscious level) by the right wing while on the other side being a religious Hindu, which is just one of the subsets of personal identity, is portrayed as the symbol of ‘Indianness’. Slowly, the definition of nationality is getting re-written along narrow communal lines without the knowledge of individual citizens. The blame does not squarely fall on one particular community- be it Hindu or Muslim- but on the very national discourse after independence and partition when we identified the communalist tendencies rightly but didn’t come up with a fool proof agenda to eradicate them. We forgot that chanting mantras of communal harmony (which although important) alone will not effect to wipe out or marginalise communalism. The issue has much more to do with our own perceived identities. And to understand this conflict of identities we need to have a fresh look at the pages of history- the history of communalism in India.

This series on the history and dynamics of communalism in India is in a way an attempt to contribute towards the question of ‘various identities vis-a-vis nationhood’. Rather than making sweeping generalisations on the question ‘who is to be blamed’, I would like to take the stand of a spectator. I would like to take this opportunity to review various perspectives about birth and growth of communal politics in undivided India- from right wing Hindu, through Colonial, Marxist, Centrist, Secularist views to right wing Muslim views from Pakistan.

To be continued




10 responses

4 05 2010
Kishore A

The example of the song is striking… Never did that point occur to me though I knew they were the artists who created the song…

Looking forward to the remaining parts.

6 05 2010

After you finish a substantial part we can have a discussion. Being hailed from Bengal which saw butchering of millions in the name of religion and birth of a new country, i have some opinions in this regard. Would like to share them with you. Keep it up.

7 05 2010

Although I don’t have such in depth study on this particular subject still I can
feel the pulse of the issue. I appreciate your knowledge and boldness of writing. Would like to read the next part..

7 05 2010

Thanks a lot.

Kishore, Tinni and Tishya : The next part is ready, but for a few final touches.

13 05 2010
S. Purkayastha

I am waiting for the next installment. I hope to be able to share my difficulties with identity-specific arguments.

13 05 2010

It will appear tommarrow or the day after (unless there is something too important for me to get fully involved).


11 05 2010
S. Purkayastha

This article, which, the author says, will continue, reminds me of some relevant writing (both books and articles) which address similar and related issues, not necessarily from same points of view.

I begin this response quoting from Tagore’s deep thoughts expressed in his essay “A vision of India’s History” (first published in the Visva-Bharati Quarterly in 1923, and first published in the form of a book in 1951).

“When individual communities, who come to dwell in the same neighbourhood, differ from each other in race and culture the first attempts at unity become too obviously mechanical in their classified compartments. Some system of adjustment is needed in all kinds of Society, but in order that a system should be successful it must completely submit itself to the principle of life and become organ for the vital functions.

“The history of India has been the history of of the struggle between the constructive spirit of the machine, which seeks the cadence of order and conformity in social organization, and the creative spirit of man, which seeks freedom and love for its self-expression.” (p. 9)

“Foreign critics are too often ready to misread the conservative spirit of India, putting it down as the trade artifice of of an interested priestcraft. But they forget that there was no racial difference between Brahmin and Kshatriya. These merely represented two different
natural functions of the body politic, which, though from the outside presenting the appearance of antagonism, have as a matter of fact co-operated in the evolution of Indian history.” (pp. 18–19)

Another important book that deals with similar issues is Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny” (Norton, 2006). Sen has been arguing forcefully defending plurality of identities of man for several years, perhaps decades, now. Let me quote from this book.

“…, identity can be a source of richness and warmth as well as of violence and terror, and it would make little sense to treat identity as a general evil. Rather, we have to draw on the understanding that the force of a bellicose identity can be challenged by the power of `competing’ identities. These can, of course, include the broad community of our shared humanity, but also many other identities that everyone simultaneously has. This leads to other ways of classifying people, which can restrain the exploitation of a specifically use of one particular categorization.

“A Hutu laborer from Kigali may be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited ti kill Tutsis, and yet to he is not only a Hutu, but also Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a laborer, and a human being. Along with the recognition of the plurality of our identities and their diverse implications, there is a critically important need to see the role of `choice’ in determining the cogency and relevance of particular identities which are inescapably diverse.” (Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, p. 4).

Sen has cast a critical look at cultural separatism in his essay “Tagore and His India” (available in his book “The Argumentative Indian” (Allen Lane, 2005) and also at Let me quote.

“Rabindranath would be shocked by the growth of cultural separatism in India, as elsewhere. … He would have strongly resisted defining India in specifically Hindu terms, rather than as a ‘confluence’ of many cultures. … Indeed, by pointing to the immense heterogeneousness of India’s cultural background and its richly diverse history, Tagore had argued that the `idea of India’ itself militated against a culturally separatist view — `against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others’. … In this context, it is important to emphasize that Rabindranath was not short of pride in India’s own heritage, and often spoke about it. He lectured at Oxford, with evident satisfaction, on the importance of India’s religious ideas — quoting both from ancient texts and from popular poetry (such as the verses of sixteenth-century Muslim poet Kabir).” (Sen, The Argumentative Indian, pp. 118–119).

Ashis Nandy has been writing on secularism, especially in India, from an apparently different point of view for several decades now. It may be worthwhile to recall his article “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance” (available in his book “Time Warps”, Permanent Black, 2002) in this context. Let me quote.

“Religious tolerance outside the bounds of secularism is exactly what he says it says it is. It not only means tolerance of religions but also a tolerance that is religious. It therefore squarely locates itself in traditions, outside the ideological grid of modernity. Gandhi used to say that he was a `sanatani’, an orthodox Hindu. It was as a `sanatani’ Hindu that he claimed to be simultaneously a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Christian, and he granted the same plural identity to those belonging to other faiths.” (Nandy, Time Warps, p. 87).

13 05 2010

Mr. S. Purkayastha

Thank you for the detailed comment. In deed, some of the books/articles you mentioned are worthy reference materials and would like to go through them.

In fact, I have already been through ‘The Argumentative Indian’ and ‘Indentity and Violence’ by Dr. Sen and I agree with most of his synthesis. I admire Tagore and more or less agree with his view about the subject.

Since I would like to consider myself as a student than an authority (whatever it means), I would like to refer some “unconventional” sources too. For example, Dr. Ambedkar’s book on ‘Partition’ is interesting, may be a bit diverging from the basic “nationalistic” views too, nevertheless insightful. Further, it was only recently (two or three years before) that I came accross the Pakistani and Bangladeshi views about the same subject. It is hardly suprising that three countries which shared a common nationalism or “nationalism in making” have mutually disagreeing historical views. And before putting the blame on squarely one particular discourse, it is essential to understand it too.

Any way, thank you for the suggestions and I expect more constructive criticisms and appreciation as the debate proceeds.

13 05 2010


“……… ‘The Argumentative Indian’ and ‘Indentity and Violence’” to be read as

“….. ‘The Argumentative Indian’ and ‘IDENTITY and Violence’ “

16 08 2010

An example of a Muslim composing a work for a specific Hindu programme is :

The screenplay of the famous TV serial Mahabharata was written by one Rahi Masoom Reza.

You write very good , I must say. Gr8!

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