August 30, 2004
Whether we like it or not, neither geography nor history can be changed. While both countries have engaged in rewriting the past to suit their respective agendas, the facts cannot be erased. Both Muslims and Hindus have to live together as neighbours, and in India, as citizens
In a tranquil place like St Andrews, there are not many distractions, so I have been reading lots of history and trying to reflect on its lessons. For some time now, I have been interested in the dynamics of Hindu-Muslim relations, and the impact of ancient enmities and grievances on current Indo-Pak relations.
We have forgotten much of our past, but it nonetheless affects our daily lives.
For instance, when we now think of the Afghan city of Kandahar, we equate it with the Taliban. But its original name was Gandhara, and it was a part of the ancient Buddhist civilisation with its capital city in Taxila. Swat, Peshawar and the Kabul Valley were all included in this thriving, peaceful community that had absorbed Mediterranean culture brought to the subcontinent by Alexander, and before him, by Greek mercenaries and traders.
While it was no utopia, it was a stable, prosperous civilisation that threatened none of its neighbours, and has bequeathed us a wealth of artefacts that attest to its high level of cultural development.
The reason I mention this period of history is to try and understand the bitterness that must exist in many Hindu minds over the Muslim conquest of their country. In his Story of Civilisation, Will Durant writes: “The Mohammedan conquest of India is probably the bloodiest in history”. While historical events should be judged in the context of their times, it cannot be denied that even in that bloody period of history, no mercy was shown to the Hindus unfortunate enough to be in the path of either the Arab conquerors of Sindh and south Punjab, or the Central Asians who swept in from Afghanistan.
The Muslim heroes who figure larger than life in our history books committed some dreadful crimes. Mahmud of Ghazni, Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, Balban, Mohammed bin Qasim, and Sultan Mohammad Tughlak, all have blood-stained hands that the passage of years has not cleansed. Indeed, the presence of Muslim historians on their various campaigns has ensured that the memory of their deeds will live long after they were buried.
Seen through Hindu eyes, the Muslim invasion of their homeland was an unmitigated disaster. Their temples were razed, their idols smashed, their women raped, their men killed or taken slaves. When Mahmud of Ghazni entered Somnath on one of his annual raids, he slaughtered all 50,000 inhabitants. Aibak killed and enslaved hundreds of thousands. The list of horrors is long and painful.
These conquerors justified their deeds by claiming it was their religious duty to smite non-believers. Cloaking themselves in the banner of Islam, they claimed they were fighting for their faith when, in reality, they were indulging in straightforward slaughter and pillage. When these warriors settled in India, they ruled as absolute despots over a cowed Hindu populace. For generations, their descendants took their martial superiority over their subjects for granted. When the British exposed the decadence of the Moghuls and seized power, the Muslims — especially the aristocracy — tried to cut deals with the new rulers to ensure that they would be treated differently from the Hindus.
It has been argued by some historians that Pakistan was really created to ensure that the Muslim ruling class would not be subject to Hindu rule in an undivided India. But having created Pakistan, the ruling elites promptly started lording it over the Bengalis of East Pakistan. What, after all, is the point of being descendants of Tughlak, Aibak and Mahmud if there is no under-class to persecute and exploit?
This, then, is the Hindu perspective of the Muslim invasion of their country. After centuries of first Muslim and then British rule, they are finally in charge of their destiny. For the first time in modern history, Indians feel that they can play a role on the world stage in keeping with their numbers and the size of their country.
Pakistan, especially its establishment and military, is smarting from successive military defeats and the steady diminishing of its international image. Due to their long domination of much of India, the Muslim elite in Pakistan feels it has some kind of divine right to be treated on a par with India.
With this psychological and historical baggage, both sides are unable to engage constructively with each other. Many Hindus feel they have centuries of humiliation to avenge. And a substantial number of Pakistani Muslims are secretly convinced that they are inherently superior to the Hindus.
One irony, of course, is that contrary to their wishful thinking, the vast majority of Muslims in the subcontinent have more Hindu blood in their veins than there is Arab, Afghan, Turkish or Persian blood. Many of the invaders took Hindu wives and concubines. And many Hindus converted to Islam to further their military or civil service careers. As a result of this intermingling, despite proud boasts of pure bloodlines, most Pakistanis have many Hindu ancestors.
This reality makes the Hindu-Muslim divide all the more bitter, for it pits brother against brother. And as students of Moghul history are aware, this is perhaps the bloodiest kind of conflict. By ties of consanguinity, culture, geography, and history, there is far more that unites than divides Indian Hindus and Muslims. But the politics of self-interest, too often garbed in the banner of faith, has pushed them far apart.
Why resurrect these ghosts from history? Because until we have confronted the demons from our past, we cannot understand the dynamics of contemporary events. As India and Pakistan go through the intricate steps of peace talks, each side needs to know what makes the other tick.
Whether we like it or not, neither geography nor history can be changed. While both countries have engaged in rewriting the past to suit their respective agendas, the facts cannot be erased. Both Muslims and Hindus have to live together as neighbours, and in India, as citizens.
A study and understanding of the past will promote better understanding between the two communities. It is important that Hindus grasp the central fact that their Muslim neighbours cannot now be held responsible for the persecution of their ancestors, and Muslims must face the fact that they are not the political heirs of the emperors Babar and Akbar.
Time is a great leveller; it is also a great healer.
The writer is a freelance columnist