Thursday, December 18, 2014

Where do Indian Muslims come from: RSS' Ghar Wapsi rests on colonial history of conversion - by Ajaz Ashraf

Where do Indian Muslims come from: RSS' Ghar Wapsi rests on colonial history of conversion

by Ajaz Ashraf  Dec 16, 2014 15:56 IST

The Sangh Parivar’s fervour for reconverting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, euphemistically described as Ghar Wapsi programme, is linked to its narrow, even flawed, reading of history.

It is ironical that the Sangh should be closer to colonial interpretation of India’s past than even the ‘sicularists’ whom they love to deride.

In embracing this colonial interpretation, the Sangh has been inspired to attempt the impossible – convince or compel people to accept the myth that the past of Hinduism was not only glorious but also perfect and incomparable.

Critics of the Sangh’s imagining of the idyllic past point to the presence of Muslims and Christians in large numbers to ask: If the past was perfect, then why did a large segment of India’s population leave Hinduism to embrace Islam or Christianity?

The Sangh theory of conversion

It’s a question that irritates the Sangh no end. In its imagining, a people bestowed with such knowledge as to write the Vedas and the Upanishads, and also master the science of plastic surgery and nuclear tests, could not but have organised their society harmoniously. For it, therefore, the four-fold varna system was merely a division of labour to maximize the efficiency of the social system. It did not segregate people, nor was it discriminatory and exploitative.

But to impart credibility to this narrative the Sangh has to explain the conversion of Muslims and Christians as their presence in today’s India is an indelible blot on the picture of it having a perfect past. Thus they cite two reasons for their proselytization, reasons which do not indict Hindu society for evolving the exploitative caste system.


One, the Muslim rulers of India, zealots all but for a few exceptions, offered the Hindu subjects the stark choice between being slaughtered and converting to Islam. In such circumstances, who wouldn’t opt for conversion? Two, the Hindu were lured into converting to Islam, and later to Christianity, through the offer of state patronage – such as land grants or jobs or measures which could facilitate trade or craft they were engaged in. In other words, both fear and allurement were deployed as state policies to wean away the Hindus from their religion.

Both these theories suffer from palpable weaknesses. If Muslim rulers were converting people ‘by the sword’, and had no qualms about shedding blood to fulfil their religious duties, why did they not covert all, particularly in those areas over which they enjoyed complete supremacy for centuries? Why did they not root out Hinduism altogether or substantially? Again, the theory of patronage may explain the conversion of some notable Hindu rajas and their followers, but can’t account for mass conversion.

The colonial view of conversion

These two theories – proselytizing by force and allurement – as well as the one which claims conversion was a consequence of certain social groups seeking liberation from the caste system were propounded during British rule. Colonial historians were then analysing the past to explain, as also justify, the advent of the British in India, besides harping on the inevitability of animosities between two religious communities – Hindus and Muslims.
Thus, from the perspective of these writers, Hindu society was weak – and therefore susceptible to conquest – because it had been organised to suit the interests of Brahmins and other upper castes. Such a social system created an oppressive social context from which lower castes sought to escape as soon as Muslims became India’s paramount power. This was because, it was argued, Islam emphasised on the equality of all.

Then again, since Muslims enjoyed power and unlike the new foreign rulers, the British, were barbaric, they used the sword to win new converts to their faith, believing proselytization was a noble act which endeared them to Allah. This theory had the inherent advantages of portraying British rule as benevolent as well as enabling it to harvest the past for the seeds of discord that could be sowed between Hindus and Muslims.

As Indians began to transform themselves into a nation and, as elsewhere, sought to tailor the past for this project, the theories about conversion had their distinct appeal for different sections. For the Hindu Right, or the Sangh, conversion by force and allurement skirted around the problems of the caste system and didn’t challenge its imagining of the idyllic past. It also neatly dovetailed with the Sangh’s idea, articulated so often in the last few months, that every Muslim or Christian was in the past a Hindu and should therefore call himself or herself as one.

So who became a Muslim?

The tenability of any theory about the past is always difficult to prove. This is also true of the three theories of conversion, which Richard M Eaton, professor at the University of Arizona, tears apart. In his essay, Approaches to the Study of Conversion to Islam in India, he raises a seminal question: Why is it that there is an “inverse relationship between the degree of Muslim political penetration and the degree of conversion to Islam?”

This question Eaton answers thus: “If conversion to Islam had ever been a function of military or political force (however these might have been expressed) one would expect that those areas of heaviest conversion would correspond to those areas of South Asia exposed most intensely and over the longest period to rule by Muslim dynasties.”

Citing data, he says the opposite seems to have been the case: “Those regions of the most dramatic conversion of the population, such as Eastern Bengal or Western Punjab, lay on the fringes of Indo-Muslim rule, whereas the heartland of that rule, the upper Gangetic Plain, saw a much lower incidence of conversion.”

Obviously, Eaton is talking of undivided, or pre-1947, India. Then the most densely populated Muslim areas were Eastern Bengal, Western Punjab, the Northwest Frontier, and Baluchistan. The bulk of the Muslim population in the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan was not converted communities, but descendants of the immigrants from Iran. This means East Bengal and West Punjab witnessed the highest incidence of conversion, quite surprising as these two were the farthest from the epicenter of Muslim rule – the Agra-Delhi belt.

The other interesting aspect of this phenomenon, according to Eaton, is that the communities which converted to Islam in these two regions were not fully integrated into the Hindu social system at the time of their contact with Islam. In East Bengal, such social groups he identified were Rajbansi, Pod, Chandal, Koch, etc. In Punjab, innumerable Jat clans converted.

The Sangh should note what Eaton says, “Since the greatest incidence of Muslim conversions occurred among groups that were not fully Hindu in the first place, for the vast majority of South Asian Muslims the question of ‘liberation’ from the ‘oppressive’ Hindu social order was simply not an issue.” It may just be that the Sangh’s imagining of the past has been motivated by a fact it thinks is embarrassing and which it wants to camouflage, but which most likely wasn’t a significant factor in conversion.

So why did these communities in East Bengal and West Punjab convert? As Muslim rule pushed from the Centre, or the Delhi-Agra belt, to the periphery, it sought to settle its frontiers, claim arable land and establish an agriculture infrastructure to extract surplus revenue from the land. These communities were largely pastrol or forest-dwellers and their integration into the Hindu social system was nominal. They were not converted to Islam in the sense we understand today.

Moreover, their conversion was over centuries of socialization, brought about through Sufi saints, who were their immediate figures of veneration. For many of them, for centuries, Allah may have just an addition to the pantheon of deities endowed with supernatural powers.

Thus, for instance, in Bengal, the Ganges silted and shifted course in the 16th century, making huge tracts of land available for cultivation. This was also the period in which the Mughals had established their rule over Bengal. With the colonizing power moved Muslims and Sufis from North India. Those who were pastoral became peasants and were subsequently incorporated into the socio-economic structure. Since they weren’t integrated into Hinduism, as peasants in Uttar Pradesh were, and as Islam was the ideology of the state, their conversion to the new faith, from which they stood to gain, gradually happened, spread over centuries.

Much the same happened in west Punjab, where Jats migrated from Sindh. It appears they may have become agriculturists relatively quicker than their self-identity of being Muslim was formed and institutionalized. As Eaton notes, “In the early fifteenth century, 10 percent of recorded Sial (a Jat clan) males had Muslim names; for the mid-seventeenth century, 56 percent; for the mid-eighteenth century, 75 percent, and for the early nineteenth century, 100 percent. This is, I think, a most revealing index of the gradual process of group identity formation.”

After laying out the broad patterns of conversion centuries ago, and pointing to the ecological, political, and cultural-religious dimensions of the phenomenon, Eaton declares, “To the extent that this was the case, Islam, in India at least, may properly be termed more a religion of the plough than a religion of the sword, as formerly conceived. (Italics mine)”

But tell this to the Sangh activist and all that you will harvest are abuses. Indeed, there is no one history, but multiple histories; no one imagining of the past, but a bewildering multiplicity. The Sangh’s choice of a vision of the past is as self-serving, blinkered and unidimensional as that of the British.


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