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Published in the 1-15 December 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Crucial role of Urdu-speaking Muslims

MQM leader Altaf Hussain, during his recent visit to India, reiterated his statement which he made in his earlier visit that the partition of India was the greatest blunder in human history . In essence, it divided the Urdu speaking Muslim community which he represents and among whom the movement of the partition had maximum support, into three countries.

Some years back I met MQM leaders in London. I told them that while I concede that a girl's loyalty, after her marriage should be to her in laws, her emotional and cultural ties with her parent's home need not be snapped. My analogy appealed them to very much as it aptly summed up their dilemma. they confessed that their cultural roots lay in India--in Ganga-Jamuna belt. The urge to belong to their roots was becoming stronger and stronger over the years.

In its hey days, the community shared power with the non- Muslim elite of the heartland region of India, which no other Muslim community is known to have done elsewhere, and with its help subjugated Muslim communities around like those of Kashmir, North West and Bengal in the name of extending the frontiers of Hindustan. Even today folk tradition of these peripheral regions regards Mughals as aggressors. Some of the Hindu rulers also revolted against the Central authority. But revolts of both communities were more regional than communal.

Dilemma of Urdu speaking Muslims has its own specificity, different from the Muslim problem viewed from global, sub-continental, historical and macro angles which implies an inevitable oversimplification.

However, problems relating to specific time and space have often not only some degree of autonomy but are closer to reality and provide much needed corrective to long-term generalizations. Out of micro dimensions of the Muslim problem, the current crisis of the Urdu-speaking Muslims is perhaps the most significant- in itself as also as a clue to understanding the wider problem.

The community has been victim of riots in Meerut, Aligarh and Delhi as also in Karachi. It suffered a worse fate in Bangladesh where around 2.5 lakh Bihari Muslims (as Urdu-speaking community is called there) are in refugee camps whom nobody wants to accept. In all the three countries, the community faces a similar crisis of identity and a similar charge. Bangladesh does not forgive it for opposing its struggle for liberation. Local communities of Pakistan do not forgive it for its continued nostalgia for the land of its origin. Many Indian Hindus have not quite forgiven it for having demanded the partition of the country.

Notwithstanding its present plight, the community had a unique geo-historical entity. Drawn from diverse ethnic stocks, it was homogenized and indegenised by a common political role and powerful Urdu culture. Under the impact of the two greatest civilization of the world ancient Indian and modern Western its intellectual and cultural attainments are almost unparalleled by any other Muslim community of the world. Though a minority in its own region, it materially shaped the religious and political role of Islam in the entire sub-continent. The Red Fort, Taj Mahal, Ajmer Sharif, Deoband and Aligarh represent political glory, aesthetic achievement, spiritual centre, seat of religious learning and symbol of modern Muslim resurgence respectively not only of the Urdu region but also of the Muslims all over the sub-continent.

In its hey days, the community shared power with the non- Muslim elite of the heartland region of India, which no other Muslim community is known to have done elsewhere, and with its help subjugated Muslim communities around like those of Kashmir, North West and Bengal in the name of extending the frontiers of Hindustan. Even today folk tradition of these peripheral regions regards Mughals as aggressors. Some of the Hindu rulers also revolted against the Central authority. But revolts of both communities were more regional than communal.

The Mughals and the Urdu-speaking Muslim aristocracy came to represent not only the central authority but also a spirit of pan-Indian patriotism. It was therefore not an accident that Bahadurshah Zafar became the natural choice for leadership of the first war of India's independence in 1857. The end of the Mughal empire was a traumatic experience for the ruling Muslim elite. From a dominant community of the heartland, it stepped into the role of a leading elite of the pan-India Muslim community. But in its new role, it could not settle terms with the emergent Indian nationalism, defined in Hindu religious idiom and with the expanding role of the more numerous community of the Hindus in the national stream. 

Separate homeland
The attempt to redefine Indian Muslim identity in Pan-Islamic terms, though encouraged by Gandhi, was rebuffed by the collapse of the Khilafat. It is obvious that the identity problem was not so acute for those Muslims who were in a majority. But minority Muslim communities of which the Urdu-speaking community was the most vocal, sought an answer to their identity urge in a separate homeland.

Far from consolidating the Muslim identity, the formation of Pakistan split it and the worst victim of the split was the Urdu-speaking community. Its dilemma was tellingly demonstrated during the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 when it learnt what it meant to be divided into two-and later three-different nation states with conflicting claims of patriotism. Loyalties of the community were heavily strained.

The people who comprise the present Pakistan were never too deeply enthused by its ideology. The Muhajirs as the Urdu-speaking migrants to Pakistan are called were the most faithful followers of that ideology. They supported the Muslim league and later the Jamaat-I-Islami to demonstrate their belief in the primacy of religious identity and disapproval of ethnic, linguistic and regional loyalties. Those who were in the then eastern wing of Pakistan never wavered in their loyalty to united Pakistan during the revolt of Bangladesh. But while Bangladesh treated them as traitors; Pakistan refused to accept them. Ironically, loyalty of the other part of the same community who had migrated to the western wing of Pakistan also came to be suspected by every other community there.

A liberal Pathan leader like Mr Wali Khan said, during his visit to India, that if Muhajirs were unable to adjust themselves in Pakistan, they should return to the country of their origin. A Sindhi leader, Pir Ahmad Bux had retorted that if "Urdu wallahs had their way and India was willing to admit them, Karachi would overnight be denuded of 70 percent of its population. "A Sindhi daily Hilal-e-Pakistan described them as "virtual Indian agents who should be sent to India".

Having come to clash with other Pakistani nationalities separately, now a joint Punjabi-Pathan front is threatening their physical existence in Karachi where most of them are settled. Ethnic assertion of others, says the Muhajir Qaumi Mahaz leader Khalid Sultan, "made us aware that we have a separate, cultural, historical and linguistic identity from other nationalities of Pakistan". Having failed to discover an Islamic melting pot in which all ethnic identities would dissolve, the Muhajirs too demanded their recognition as one of the five nationalities of Pakistan and a separate homeland within the country which they called Urdu-Pradesh, to revive their nostalgia for U.P. the land of their origin.

Nostalgia for the mother country and a sense of pride for their roots are becoming as powerful among the Muhajir as among any other Indian community settled abroad. Rais Amrohi, the doyen of Pak-Indians, as he preferred to call his community, was proud of the fact that "our ancestors gave to the sub-continent one of the greatest civilizations of the world". He is equally proud of the delta land between the Ganga and the Jamuna on which flourished "the great edifice of the Indo-Islamic civilization". If four other nationalities like Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis and Baluchs can claim their homeland in Pakistan Rais Amrohi asked, "what is wrong in the demand of Pak-Indians for recognition and having its own homeland." Further a confidential survey conducted by the central government of Pakistan quoted by the daily News some years back revealed that broadcasts of Urdu service of All India Radio were heard in 90 per cent homes in Karachi. Asked why they were switching to the enemy radio, some of the listeners replied that "this is the only source of correct pronunciation of Urdu for their family members, especially children." 

Such assertions are being regarded by the compatriots of the Muhajirs as disloyalty and even treason. As alienation of Muhajires from other nationalities increased, their plight worsened. India should not remain unconcerned about their plight, not only from humanitarian angle but also because they are the largest NRI settled abroad.

The experience of the Urdu-speaking Muslims in the third country of the sub-continent viz India is hardly happier. The first and foremost casualty was of Urdu language which was dislodged from the status of dominant language of culture and politics in its homeland. They were the main targets of the riots in places outside their own region like Bhiwandi where they had migrated. Even in case of Gujarat, the epicenter of the communal trouble was in the U.P. The basic problems of the community in India is similar to that in Bangladesh and Pakistan viz of its urge for identity and of its adjustment with the requirements of other communities and of the national identity. But there is a vital difference. In India, the community is asserting its religious identity while in other countries of the sub-continent, it is asserting its cultural identity. Muslims like any other human beings need and belong to a multiplicity of identities; out of which religion and language are the most important basis of identity formation in the politics of the sub-continent. That identity becomes pronounced at a time which the people perceive to be threatened. Thus Muslims of Kashmir asserted their Kashmiri identity in 1947 and are now asserting their Muslim identity. Likewise Muslim Bengalis asserted their religious identity, against their colinguists in 1947, but asserted their regional-cultural identity in 1971.

Siege mentality
As long as the Urdu-speaking Muslims suffer from a siege mentality, they would not be able to grow in all dimensions and unfold their cultural potentialities. But converse is also true. If their cultural potentialities are unfolded, it would be easier for them to get adjusted with other communities and feel free from the siege.

While it is important to discuss the role and obligations of Muslim identity in a secular India, it is equally important to know the needs and urges of the components of its identity and its cultural and ethnic dimensions. In fact a view from the sub-regional angle may be further instructive; to rediscover and replenish grass root level integrating forces e.g. folk tradition, legends, local faqirs and saints and even innocent superstitions. Some institutional innovations might be needed to strengthen such grass root forces. It is certainly not easy to remove all accumulated prejudices, fears and suspicions between the two major communities of India to resolve all contentious issues like the dispute in Ayodhya. But a beginning may be made with another approach at another level, besides what is being customarily done.

Taking note of the current deep psychological and political crisis of the Urdu-speaking Muslims in the changed sub-continental perspective, their indegenisational compulsions, and potential of a pluralist democratic polity, a fresh agenda may be drafted for an inter-community dialogue at micro-regional level. Mush certainly needs to be done by this vital segment of the Muslim community in learning from lessons of the last over half a century, if not more, properly analyzing its national and sub-continental dilemma and redefining its role and identity in an idiom that is understood and appreciated by others and in a manner that revives its creative potentialities. Similarly, Hindus too, need to outgrow their obsessions about a simplistic view of a monolithic and transnational character of Islam and its extra-territorial loyalties and update their understanding of the ethnic, cultural and regional aspirations of the core of the Indian Muslims community.

In particular, three vital facts about the Urdu-speaking Muslims must be noted. Firstly, there is now no other Muslim society in the world which is intellectually and culturally superior to them and thus able to be a source of inspiration and loyalty to them. Pakistan has, in any case, lost that status. Secondly, their cultural roots lie deep within India and they are as much in need of continued cultural nourishment as any other people are. Thirdly, Urdu speaking Muslim community could possibly be the most vital bridge between India and Pakistan. In the interest of friendly relations between the two countries, this bridge needs to be strengthened.

Such factors should encourage an attempt, to arrest the present drift and correct an aberration in the behaviour of the Ganga-Jamuna delta, the original home of the Urdu speaking Muslims of the subcontinent, that had deflected the course of the great Indian civilization about a century ago. 

Balraj Puri

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