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Muslim reactions to the shuddhi campaign in early twentieth century North India
By Yoginder Sikand
|The 1920s may be regarded as a crucial watershed in the history of inter-communal conflict in northern India. Communal rioting saw a sudden upsurge in this period , playing a key role in the political dynamics that later culminated in the Partition of India.
One of the most salient developments in the 1920s was the launching of the shuddhi movement by the Arya Samaj to bring into the Hindu fold various groups considered outside the pale of what had now come to be defined as 'Hinduism', including untouchables and, later, Muslim, Christian and even Sikh communities. The Arya shuddhi campaign provoked Muslim leaders and groups to respond, and this took the form of various tablighi or Islamic missionary initiatives intended to counter the Arya Samaj's conversion drive and, going further, to attempt to spread Islam among non-Muslims as well.
Unlike Christianity or Islam, what is today known as 'Hinduism' has historically not been an organized missionary religion. However, as the spread of Brahminical Hinduism from its centre in north Indian Aryavarta to the south and the east of India and among tribal and other groups living on the margins of caste Hindu societies clearly illustrates, the process of Hinduization has had a long history and is, in fact, a continuing phenomenon. Since 'Hinduism' lacks any defining set of tenets or beliefs, the Hinduization process, the Hindu parallel to conversion in Christianity and Islam, has taken the form of absorption of non-Hindu groups into the caste system. The extent to which this could be regarded as religious conversion, understood in the usual Christian or Islamic sense, is, however, debatable. While the 'Hinduized' groups were accommodated within the caste order, the process did not necessarily result in a total or even a very significant change in religious beliefs. Access to Vedic scriptural resources remained a closely-guarded Brahminical monopoly, and the Hinduized groups carried on with many of their earlier practices and beliefs, although, over time, they, too, were gradually transformed. Thus, for instance, the distinctly non-Aryan deity Shiva was appropriated as a member of the Hindu Trinity and various tribal goddesses were explained away as different forms of the devi, Durga.
The emergence of shuddhi as an organized missionary project, therefore, is a distinctly modern development, and one that must be seen as a product of and a response to the colonial Indian context. The crystallization of the notion of 'Hinduism' as a well-defined religion with its own set of scriptures in the manner of Christianity and Islam, conversion to which was indeed possible, was a product of several forces, in which Orientalists, British administrators and Christian missionaries, besides Hindu elites, had their own critical roles to play. Seeking to model itself on the lines of Christianity and Islam, the Arya Samaj, founded in 1875 by the Gujarati Brahmin Dayanand Saraswati, accorded the Vedas the position of the Hindu Bible or Qur'an. Conversion to this newly defined Vedic Hinduism was made possible through undergoing the shuddhi or purificatory rite, for which ancient scriptural sanction was sought to be manufactured. The first shuddhi ceremonies performed by the Aryas were of caste Hindu individuals who were believed to have lost their caste status or ritual purity by crossing the seas or by partaking of food cooked by Christians or Muslims. By the early twentieth century, however, shuddhi began being directed at entire social groups outside or on the margins of the caste order, including untouchables and recent as well as nominal converts to Islam, Christianity and Sikhism.
The transformation of shuddhi from conversion of individual caste Hindus who were believed to have been rendered ritually impure to the conversion of entire social groups outside the Hindu fold is a process that was inextricably linked to the changing nature of colonial rule and the Indian political context by the turn of the twentieth century. The institution of the census in 1871, which further lent legitimacy to the notion of a homogenous pan-Indian Hindu community identity transcending caste differences, proved to be a major catalyst in this regard. Alarmed by the revelation of declining Hindu proportions in various provinces in successive censuses, one cause of which was conversion of 'low' caste groups to Christianity and Islam, 'upper' caste elites were increasingly goaded into a race for numbers, to prevent further depletion in Hindu ranks. The gradual introduction of reforms in the bureaucratic and political machinery of the colonial state from the late nineteenth century onwards, which allowed limited Indian participation in the lower and middle ranks of the administration, made the race for numbers a particularly crucial one. Access to the benefits of colonial largesse, including jobs and representation in local bodies, was to be determined on the basis of the numerical proportion of each community, defined on the basis of a reified notion of religious identity. Middle class Hindus, seeing themselves as the 'natural leaders' of their 'community' so defined and being considered as such by the colonial state, were now increasingly concerned to bolster the number of their co-religionists, or at least to prevent further depletion in their ranks, as access to power, position and privilege came increasingly to depend on numerical strength. The logic of democracy was, in this way, employed to promote the interests of a dominant minority.
Shuddhi Among the Muslims
The first recorded shuddhi of a born Muslim was reported in 1877, when Dayanand Saraswati performed the shuddhi of a Muslim man from Dehra Dun, giving him the name of Alakhdhari. Individual conversions of this sort were few and far between, for such converts not only severed all social ties with their relatives but were also not fully accepted as equals not just by the Sanatani Hindus, who vociferously opposed the shuddhi project, but even by members of the Arya Samaj, who Ghai says, 'behaved like most of the traditionalists and conservatives, fearing the wrath of their caste biraderi'. Clearly then, the Aryas realized, shuddhi among the Muslims would have to take the form of conversion of entire Muslim social groups if it was to really succeed. As a prelude to the actual launching of this ambitious missionary drive, towards the end of the nineteenth century Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the Hindu ruler of the largely Muslim state of Kashmir, is said to have commissioned the preparation of a 21-volume encyclopaedia by the name of Ranbir Karit Prayaschit Mahanibandh ['Ranbir's Great Essay on Repentance'], which argued the case and suggested strategies for the mass conversion of all the 'neo-Muslim communities' [nau Muslim aqwam] of India to 'Hinduism'. This book, Muslim leaders were to later allege, had been secretly circulated among leading Hindus so that the Muslims remained unaware of the plot.
The first attempts by the Aryas at mass conversions of Muslim groups date to 1908, when Arya missionaries began touring the area around Deeg in the Bharatpur State in eastern Rajputana, calling upon Muslims there to renounce Islam, which, they alleged, had been forcibly imposed on their ancestors.
Some years later, Arya missionaries found active among the neo-Muslim Malkanas, a Rajput group who claimed to be Muslim but followed several Hindu customs and beliefs, in Etawah, Kanpur, Shahajahnpur, Hardoi, Meerut and Mainpuri in the western United Provinces, exhorting them to return to what they called their 'ancestral religion'. In 1910, shuddhi sabhas were set up in several places in these districts, and although it was claimed that they had converted some 1000 Malkana Muslims to the Hindu fold, they were wound up the following year. As in the case of Deeg, the Aryas are said to have met with little success, being successfully countered by the intervention of local Muslim bodies working in association with the Anjuman Hidayat-ul Islam, a Delhi-based Muslim missionary organization.
A decade later, however, the Aryas were to launch the shuddhi campaign in the Malkana belt on a war-footing. In August 1922, in the wake of grossly exaggerated reports of forced conversions of Hindus in Malabar in the course of the Mappilla rebellion, the Kshatriya Upakarini Sabha ['Kshatriya Upliftment Society'], an organization of Hindu Rajputs patronized by Rajput princes and landlords, passed a resolution at a meeting in Allahabad calling for the conversion of the Muslim Rajputs to the Hindu fold. In December that year, the Sabha met once again, and decided to launch a campaign to convert the Malkanas to 'Hinduism'. This provided the stimulus to the Aryas to start shuddhi work among the Malkanas. In August 1923, Shraddhanand, the leading Arya shuddhi advocate, presided over a meeting to discuss strategies for the shuddhi of the Malkanas. The fact that the meeting was attended by leading Sanatani, Jain and Sikh spokesmen, all of whom vociferously supported the shuddhi campaign, clearly suggests, as Muslim leaders were to allege, that the race for numbers and political interests, rather than the propagation of the Arya brand of 'Hinduism', were the motivating factors behind the planned missionary drive. The meeting approved the setting up of the Bharatiya Hindu Shuddhi Sabha, an all-India shuddhi council, whose objective was said to be the conversion of all non-Hindu groups all over India to the Hindu fold.
The shuddhi campaign among the Malkanas, which was launched in early 1923, reached its peak by the end of 1927, by which time some 1,63,000 Malkana Muslims are said to have been brought into the Hindu fold. Significantly, although the Aryas played the leading role in the drive, the shuddhi-ed Malkanas, by and large, did not convert to the Arya faith as such. Other than renouncing some of their Islamic practices, such as burial of the dead or male circumcision, there seems to have been little change in their own beliefs and practices. If they chose not to accept the Arya brand of Vedic 'Hinduism', orthodox Hindus seemed reluctant to accept them, considering them as ritually impure and inferior. Having 'rescued' them from their Islamic past, the Aryas and the Sanatanis were quite content to leave the Malkanas to their own devices. De-Islamization, and not an impelling urge to spread Arya beliefs, seems to have been the fundamental impulse behind the Arya shuddhi drive among the Malkanas.
Shuddhi emerged as a powerful mobilizational symbol and tool to consolidate Hindu ranks, helping galvanize the process of the construction of a pan-Indian Hindu community rigidly set apart from the rest. It is hardly surprising that Shradhhanand, the leading force behind the Malkana shuddhi, was also the most ardent advocate of sanghathan, the consolidation and militarization of all Hindudom. As testimony to the success of the shuddhi campaign in mobilizing and consolidating the Hindus, both Aryas as well as the Sanatanis who had initially been vehemently opposed to shuddhi, as one, transcending deep-seated caste, sectarian, racial, linguistic and regional divisions, the Tribune of Lahore, in its editorial of 2 May, 1927, remarked: 'The shuddhi… propaganda is no longer the exclusive concern of the Arya Samaj; an overwhelming majority of the Hindus are identified [with it]'.
Next: Muslim Reactions to the Arya Shuddhi Campaign