Hindu Slavery During Muslim Rule in India: Its Contemporary Relevance and the Imperative of Muslim Moral Renewal

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In Islamic tradition, slavery was perceived as a means for converting non-Muslims.’ Paul Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.16.

‘In Muslim society, slavery was one of its manifestations and a fundamental constituent. The very existence of believers and infidels irreparably induces the dichotomy between free men and slaves. [sic] There could be no infidels without believers, no paradise without hell, no free men without slaves’. Mohammed Ennaji, Slavery, the State and Islam, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 41.

Muslim rule in Medieval India regulated and legitimized enslavement of Hindus for a variety of uses ranging from personal pleasure and entertainment to the imperatives of governance or the demands of war and conquest. The costs of such enslavement to Hindus were heavy while the suffering of individual slaves was heart-rending. Scott C. Levi’s Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road [ Allen Lane: Penguin, 2015 ] writes of Hindu exhibits in a slave market in Kerala and describes a girl exhibit in these words: ‘so beautiful that, I beg to state, I have not seen the like of her’. And adds ‘a neck a cubit long; her eyes as large as a cup, her tears fell like rain in spring and she was so altogether lost in grief that she seemed bereft of her senses’. The other author writes of orders given by a senior to a subordinate: ‘you were instructed to buy and send me two beautiful ten-year old girls. Despite this, you have not sent them. Let this suffice as a reminder’. Experience with Hindu slaves fostered arrogance among Muslim owners and produced serious cultural effects in Hindu-Muslim relations.

For example, the forced submissiveness of Hindu slave girls boosted the self-image of Muslim youngmen as virile and masculine. It was reinvented later in Bollywood as ground for representing them as romantic heroes and matinee idols. This encouraged them to narrate filmi stories which were acted out through song and dance. Love as seductive gesture a la Bollywood became popular and opened upto political and other uses. One of its variants became ‘love jihad’. Love jihadists did not first light a lamp in their own homes to remove darkness in the lives of women there.Their heart was not where their home was; because love jihad prioritized politics to love and for them love was political in conception and political in practice.They lined it up as an instrument of demographic engineering for approximating Muslim population to Hindus numbers.For this reason, they also extended the strategy beyond jihad to zarkhezi and hijrat [fecundity and migration].

Why did Gandhi’s ahinsa [non-violence] and Nehru’s darmanirpekshta [secularism] not allay Muslim-fear of Hindu majority? The ethical ideals, when viewed in historical context, should have been effective as bulwark against the feared Hindu retribution for their barbaric practice of slavery.Muslims welcomed these ethical values but were not content with their working out of a higher law or authority to their advantage. Their fear of Hindu retribution would not go away under the shadow of such ethical ideals. In a way, their fear was rooted in what Quran called qisas [retribution] and translated as ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. Retribution represented the very ‘epitome of Muslim behaviour’. The Islamic qisas was in the hearts and minds of Muslims as belief and practice.It coloured their perception of Hindu detractors as well as of those among their own blood relations. They never spared them from retribution for the harm done by them, not even their own children.

With such a mind-set in place, they feared that the Hindus in power might not be different. The Islamic orthodoxy blinded them to the cosmopolitan aspect of Hinduism as ‘the religion of a broad and expansive humanity’, a religion which searched for truth in every faith, the truth of a non-material existence, [the truth which was ‘up above so high’].

How could the trust deficit between the communities be made up? Despite such an inter-faith face-off, Hindus and Muslims brought together by history had no option other than living together in mutual respect, love and friendship, an option to trust in liberal citizenship, an option to fostering these liberal humanist sentiments. [ See my book, Liberal Humanism and the Non-Western Other, Shimla: IIAS, 2014] But fostering trust in liberal citizenship was not easy when the fear of Hindu retribution for Muslim ignominies was in the background.

The Hindu voices supporting liberal citizenship were re-assuring to Muslims but inadequate. The ‘real history’ of the Muslim rule was so abhorring that it could neither be factored into a definition of India’s identity nor could it be forgotten. This was the problem before Muslims.The only solution to it was a thorough revision and reconstruction of this history and the use of cosmetics to light up its face. This magic was made possible by the Muslim ummah. It lifted all bars to freedom of action on the part of Indian Muslims in dealing with their predicament in India. The ummah enjoyed autonomy in pursuit of its interests. It was not subject to state control over its ways of doing it. The ummah thus signalled freedom to Indian Muslims in reconstructing the history of their rule in Medival India without getting into conflict with the state in India. Faiz Sheikh and Samantha May recently addressed the issue, the role that Muslim ummah played in a world of sovereign states. In their opinion, ‘the ummah disrupts some of the assumptions of liberal citizenship [sic.] by drawing on pre-colonial memories’ [See their ‘Remembering the Ummah in the Confines of the Nation State’, Religion in Diaspora, 2015, pp. 80-99].

Nearer home, Maidul Islam [teaching in Calcutta] blamed the ummah for playing such a rolein India; see his book, Between Nation State and Ummah’s Appeal: The Contradictions of Islamism in Contemporary India and Bangladesh, Oxford: OUP, 2015. He quotes Laclau to signify the ummah as an ‘empty signifier around which particularities are organized to claim a common universal identity’. The ummah thus enabled the Jamaat to bend its Islamism on Islamic populism by inviting on Muslim poor in opposing the neo-liberal policies [ calling them Ambani, Adani policies ] and extend its support to an emancipatory agenda. It therefore succeeded in launching chakka jam movements which were openly anti-statist, anti-liberal and anti-majoritarian. Its driving force was not democratic freedom but anti-Hindu populism.

Islamic populism was a response to post-Nehruvian surge in anti-Congressism, compelling the Congress to mobilize Hindu votes for electoral gain. This represented a political shift which alerted the contemporary Indian Muslims to the need for anticipatory defences against any threats arising from Hindu gaining political power. One such measure was to swell their numbers through migration. Was the national leadership ignorant of Muslim politics behind Muslim migrations into India? Or, was it a deliberate wink at it? They ignored the warning held out by Human Geography also, that foreign migration was motivated by political interest, that it impacted the political identity of the host country.Examples of governments resorting to forced migration as an instrument of demographic engineering were also ignored. They too were overlooked.

The Ottoman Sultan for example repeatedly used it for resolving identity-related conflicts within his Empire. Ever since the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina, migration [hijrah] was significant in Islamic politics. Indian Muslims were fully cognizant of its potency as a tool of politics against the Hindu majority.[See, Colin Williams and Anthony D. Smith, ‘The national construction of social space’, journals.sagepub.com, March 4, 2016]

The post-Nehruvian political shift led to the launching of a‘Nehru Project’ to serve as an academic platform for devising rational and stylistic initiatives for opposing the shift. The Project was conceived within an idealist framework [treating ideas as autonomous and sui generis] and, for this reason, it did not include within its design a discussion of material indicators of the preferred national identity or of material evidence in favour of the claimed shift. [See Somdeep Sen, ‘Population Exchange and Identity Formation: The Case of Post-Partition India’, Website of E- IR, August 2, 2010 ] The Project was thus meant to assert an imagined idea of India, a mental construct of ‘true India’ which was different from ‘false India’ as represented by its history and material reality. The ‘true India’ was the teleological end-point of development [vikas] which, as a holistic process, covered the full circle of political, economic and cultural development. An imagined ‘true India’ [popularly called the ‘idea of India’] defined ‘what India was’ and ‘how could one know about it’. The ‘idea’ thus combined the ontology of India with its epistemology. There was nothing beyond the idea except the material falsity of India. The ‘idea of India’ so conceived was positioned at the centre of the Nehru Project and juxtaposed in opposition to its‘ material falsity’.

At this point, this rather obtuse discussion should return to the context relevant here , the context of post-Nehru Hindu-Muslim relations.The Nehru Project embodying the ‘idea of India’ was meant to pull the electoral shifts back into their former position. The shifts represented the material falsity of India. But the Muslims while floating through such thin air of politics, did not lose their sense of reality. The open field of what was dubbed as ‘material falsity’ was taken by the Muslims seriously and they focussed on this ‘material falsity’ for balancing the shifting foundations of nationhood in India to their advantage. Their focus was now, first and foremost, on demographic change. They harnessed religiously sanctioned family practices to this goal while simultaneously welcoming Muslim migration into India from neighbouring countries.

The legitimacy of migration into India was grounded on India’s spirited participation in Khilafat movement when Maulana Azad called for hijrat to Iraq and Syria to recover these lands for Islam. It was seen by Indians as an injunction to ‘bulbuls’ to ‘fly out to these lands’ [paraphrasing Muhammad Iqbal’s Taranah-e-Hindham bulbulen hain is ke, yeh gulistan hamara’] It was khilafat to external opponents of Islam, the allied powers which abolished the caliphate. In reverse, it permitted khilafat to Islam’s internal opponents also. Hijrat into India aimed at strategic regrouping of Muslims who came from outside for reclaiming infidel land {Hindustan] for Islam. Hijrat was thus an ally of gazw-e-hind [final conquest of India by Muslims ] as ordained by Hadith No. 377. Hijrat was thus very Islamic and, in the anti-majoritarian political setting of India, very ‘Indian’ also.

The scholar – bureaucrats of East India Company viewed such Muslim efforts at domination of Hindus as unjust [ a view which was partly influenced by Englishman’s growing presence in India] . They described the Muslim domination as external intervention designed to change the direction of India’s history. They aimed at undoing its effect on Hindu history. To this end, they hailed the English conquest of Sindh in 1843 as emancipation of Hindus from Muslim dominance.

The aim of Muslim dominance, according to a local text MA Asif’s Chachnama> Muslim Origins in South Asia, Cambridge, MA, Harvard, 2016], was to turn India into an Islamic state. The Company Rule thus aimed to be a corrective to Muslim invasions of India and the wrongs done to Hindus. Restoring Hindu dignity and religion was claimed to be one of the purposes of the English rule in India. Edward Ellenborough, Governor-General of the Company went so far as to recover for Hindus the gates of Samantha temple from Afghanistan. The East India Company officers also published books to make soul-stirring disclosures relating to Muslim invasions and rule in India. Take the case of H.M. Eliot. He studied Arabic and Persian documents of the ‘Muhammadan Period’ His book is, The History of India as Told by Its Own Historian,:Vol. I –VIII, A Posthumous publication, Editor: John Dowson]: London: Trubner and Company, 1867-1877.

The historians who predicated India’s nationhood on Hindu-Muslim unity brushed aside such history-writing and converged history-writing on Muslim preference for historical revisionism and reconstruction. They labelled the history written by Company scholars as an ‘imperialist conspiracy’. And they sought to counter-balance it with a tailor-made history of the Muslim period and closely textured it with their preferred nationalist narrative.They conceived the ‘one nation’ idea as a ‘multi-class vanguard movement’ led by ‘Marxist’ intellectuals’ who positioned themselves in opposition to a conception of India as a market-based neo-liberal nation.

The intellectual ground for such a role for Marxist intellectuals was prepared by India in Transition [1922] written bythe founder of Communist Party of India, MN Roy. The author pleaded for a Marxist historical materialist approach to the study of India’s historical development. His focus was on modern India. He thought that pre-modern India had little to contribute to it. Such an understanding of India was re-affirmed by Second and Third Internationals held in the historical context of the Cold War. Inevitably, it was influenced by the Marxist intellectual strategies specific to the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War and endorsement of neo-liberal globalization by India itself therefore had an upsetting effect on the‘Nehru Project’. This compelled the leading ‘Marxist intellectuals’ associated with the Project to re-orient their strategy. They opted for a liberal path to reach Marxist goals. They decided not to seize state power as a one-off event and waged a protracted ‘war of position’ by contesting hegemony and slowly transferring it from one ‘historic bloc’ to another. They perched themselves on the goals of World Social Forum (WSF) for realizing what WSF called the‘ another world’.

In Indian context, it signified Hindu-Muslim unity. ‘Another world’ was just a new dress for what was being pursued already. Revising India’s medieval history was the need of the hour. For going round the ‘reality’ of Muslim rule, the need was to improvise a complex labyrinth of fact, fiction and interpretation that it went home convincingly as real history. Otherwise the Muslim rule would hang out as discontinuous with Modern India and jeopardise the prospects of Hindu-Muslim unity and undermine the one-nation idea. Hence they even refused to recognize a differently written history of Medieval India as history. They rejected it as no history at all.They‘challenged the academic validity of a differently recorded account of this period. They even refused to take note of such books. New books were written which rendered Muslim rule congruent with national history.

This approach fanned out to other disciplines also.The various disciplines of conventional social sciences and the claim of scientific knowledge as the sole producer of social and political rationality’, was questioned. In fact, the aim was to ‘liberate’ the intellectual from the rigour of disciplinary and inter-disciplinary pursuits, with a view to make him or her available for the ‘struggle’ whose modes were ‘extremely diverse’. The over-riding purpose was to mobilize scholarly effort in support of their idea. This was a call for ‘relevance’ in teaching and research.Higher education was mandated to re-direct the intellectual towards a ‘radical critique’ of the presentand ‘aspiration for a better society’. In other words, the intellectual was called upon to advance a radical critique of the trend towards electoral mobilization of Hindu vote and the consequent opening of space for majoritarian politics.

Such articulation of relevant academic writing could be effective only when it was simultaneous with adulation of Muslim rulers and so Medieval India was subjected to processes of ‘revisionism, denialism and negationism’. The call for relevance encouraged demagogic manoeuvring, which, rather than clarifying issues, reinforced popular bias against Hindu power. Sociology, political science and history-writing were squared with anti-majoritarian ‘another world’ and became a part of officially sanctified knowledge system.A recent addition to the stock of books on it was ShashiTharoor’s The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, and What it Means to be Indian, New Delhi: Aleph, 2020, is one of the latest in this genre. The author targets power-seeking politics of the Hindu majority.

The other pillar of anti-majoritarian politics was the call to India’s upper classes [nurtured by Muslim rulers and British colonial state] and distinguished by its ability to transcend socio-cultural differences in lifestyle, modes of communication and interaction, to present itself to the people of India as a model of ‘composite culture’, a mixture of contemporary co-existing cultures, even though it disguised inequalities of power and status among the constituent cultures.It was therefore just euphuism for a combination of Islamic and Christian cultures and lifestyles.

Embeddedness in the culture of the majority community as an option was overlooked. The effect was to arm Muslims with a handle against any manifestation of Hindu majoritarian culture especially in the sphere of education [it was worth remembering that in liberal thought anti-majoritarianism was meant to be a defence of the middle class against the labouring majority only. Such arbitrary line up of a liberal concept to oppose Hindu majority should have been avoided. See, Struan Jacobs, ‘John Stuart Mill on the Tyranny of the Majority’, Australian Journal of Political Science, 28, pp. 306-321]

Yet another pillar of anti-majoritarian politics was populist assessment of Hindus as naturally inferior and servile in relation to Muslims. Such social stereotyping including religious stereotyping was common practice among Muslims and an expression of their arrogance. Perry Anderson took them on their word in his Lineages of the Absolutist State [London: NLB, 1974] approvingly quoted Aristotle in support of his reading of non-Western people, including Hindus, as inherently servile. Muslim arrogance found expression in the eleventh century when Al-Biruni’s Kitab Tarik al-Hind assessed Hinduism as ‘inferior to Islam’. The arrogance got institutionalized by sociologists when they picked up Hindus for study and research, to the exclusion structured injustices within other communities. They regarded Hindu social structures as primitive and in need for democratic change through sociological analysis. Such scholarly pronouncements on Hindu inferiority soon shot themselves as hypertext of narratives of India’s nationhood.

They were taken as of great relevance in differentiating the choices open to political actors in building modern India. Obviously The Muslims got into the bandwagon of a partnership between Hindus and Muslims for constituting India into a nation. The Hindu majority by itself was regarded as not capable for the task. The Muslims treated it as a truism and used it for legitimizing Hindu slavery during Medieval India.The treatment of Hinduas inferior was rooted in the nature of Hindu society and not an Islamic imposition. The Hindus under the circumstances were advised to advance their political interests by collaborating with Muslims in the short run, and, in the long run, by welcoming inputs from Islamic culture towards their reform and cultural development.

Social science scholarship thus succeeded in its India mission: stand the history of Hindu-Muslim relations on its head. This was what they succeeded in doing. The tormentors of yesteryears were seated by them on the pedestal and hailed as saviours of the Hindus. The questions what did history do to Hindu society?, the damage it inflicted?, should have been addressed by scholars. But they did not address it. The populist [in fact, the perverted]face of Hindu tradition and society was not traced back to its origin in the violent and humiliating treatment given to Hindus during the Muslim rule. The kind of treatment that Hindus got at the hands of Muslim rulers was known for producing not only socio-cultural effects but even genetic damage. Hinduism recessed, in fact slide downwards, when making adaptive responses to such treatment – a treatment which lasted for more than twelve hundred years, spanning about fifty generations of Hindus.The colonial state too was eager to weaken Hindu majority by dividing it along lines of social difference. The 1932 Communal Award was such an attempt.

It was important to recall how Gandhi reacted to it. He rejected it to save Hindu unity. But the scholarly world, true to its ilk,did not go the Gandhian way. It was obsessed with Hindu-Muslim unity and pursued it even by transferring the costs to Hindu community. The scholarly strategy was to sacrifice the latter for promoting the former.

‘Women and dalit studies’ therefore occupied the centre stage in sociological study of the Hindu society. A big push was given to dalit studies by conflating India’s dalits with America’s blacks. Positing dalits with blacks as chattel slaves was hailed as a bold initiative in dalit research. The scholars could now draw on innovations made in black studies such as the role of race and ideology in defining backwardness. The issues like Aryans versus Dravidians surfaced to the top of the research agenda. Was Gandhi a black racist? Such interrogations got academic legitimacy in a context of a perverse‘ anti-Aryan Hinduism’. And they did get such legitimacy.The blacks on their part were enamoured of Gandhian non-violence, while the dalits got enamoured of black obsession with race and colour. But like black scholars, the dalit scholars did not uncover the dynamic impact of International Relations (IR) on their academic pursuits. The trend in dalit studies was not to uncover the political spin-off of IR on their subject-matter.. [See, Azza Salama Lavton, International Politics and Civil Rights Politics in the United States, 1941-1960, London: Cambridge University Press, 2000 ] .The international dimension of populist mobilization in support of the weaker sections of the society in India, the role of foreign actors in it, were, as a consequence, a neglected feature of social science study in India.. . [See Arun Shourie, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkat and the Facts That Have Been Erased, New Delhi: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1997. But the IR in dalit studies found expression as early as 1930 when the All-India Depressed Classes Congress declared, in its Nagpur session: ‘The depressed classes welcomed the British as their deliverers of age-long tyranny and oppression by the orthodox Hindus’, quoted by Christophe Jeffrelot in his article ‘Ambedkar against nationalism’, published in Indian Express App, dated August 14, 2016].

The dalit scholars did not pick up the thread from there. Even the more informed views on extending IR research agenda to domestic issues held back from making a case for induction of dalit studies into IR..[See, Rajen Harshe, “Culture, Identity and International Relations”, EPW, Sep. 16-22, 2006, pp. 3945 ff.] .The message to Hindus was loud and clear: if they condemned slavery as practised by Muslims then they should also condemn servitude as experienced by Hindus at lower levels of caste hierarchy. [See, Utsa Patnaik and Manjari Dingwaney, eds., Chains of Servitude, Bondage and Slavery in India, Madras: Sangam Books, 1985].

The comparison between slavery and servitude was rated as highly ‘relevant’ research, even though it was far-fetched and motivated by anti-Hindu sentiment. Slavery was altogether different from subservience. The conceptualization of the two as comparable was meant to pull the Hindus down to the same level of moral degradation as Muslims who practised slavery. Rather than painting the Muslim face black with Hindu slavery, the social science teaching in India, especially sociology ended up in painting the Hindu face black.

Being morally degraded yourself [Hindus were told] why should ‘the pot call the kettle black’? A wide gap thus separated the disciplinary knowledge and the truth signified by ground reality. Bertrand Russell underlined the dysfunctional effects of this gap in his Inquiry into Meaning and Truth [London: Allen and Unwin 1940]. No wonder, the gap opened for Muslims space for their anti-Hindu initiatives. They harnessed hijrat, jihad and aazadi to target the Hindu majority. The ground selected for playing it out was the university campus. They strategized higher education as an institutionalized site for it. The scholarly endorsement of Max Weber’s : The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, [German Ed., 1916; English Trans., 1958] cleared the ground fora legitimate institutionalized thrust. Weber’s emphasis was on ‘popular religiosity’ of the Hindus saturated as it was with historical accretions owing their origin and social effect to the barbarity committed against them during the Muslim rule.

The Hindus, when pushed by them to the edge, were forced to adapt to the possibility of extinction by contriving ‘disciplinary’ measures for the very survival of the community. These accretions were put together by Weber and described as ‘Hindu ethic’ and characterized as working against the ‘development of capitalism in India’. [Refer to Richard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, 1977] .

Maulana Azad as the first Education Minister after independence probably saw in Weber a call to Indian Muslims to position ‘Islam against oppression’ [zulm] and devote themselves to Hindu social reform. He saw in Weber a call to Islam to play a role in India similar to that it played in ‘early Meccan society. He wanted ‘Islam to target its appeal to the oppressed mazlum’. Indian Muslims thus imagined themselves in the role of the Prophet in relation to Hindu mazlum! [See, Hayat Alvi, ‘The Islamic Principles of Social Justice: Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Nonviolent Civil Disobedience’, Contemporary Review of the Middle East, August 2015].

Such reconstruction of Muslim image in relation to backward and dalit Hindus was ever since an important focus in higher education. Support for such strategic convergence of Islam on social justice issues in Hindu society was recently found in Indian Express, dated 27 July 2020. The national daily carried a report by Deeptiman Tiwari saying that a serving IPS officer and Interim CBI Director claimed that history was distorted with the ‘whitewashing of bloody Islamic history’. The effort went on, he claimed, for almost thirty years since independence beginning with Maulana Azad and continuing through successive Ministers of Education, Humayun Kabir, MC Chagla, Fakruddin Ali Ahmed and Nurul Hassan. MC Chagla’s resignation from Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet on issues relating to teaching of Hindi and Sanskrit underlined the hold of anti-Hindu sentiment in post-colonial India.

The Muslim-Left’s ‘whitewashing of the Muslim past’ settled down into attitudes favouring an important role for Muslims in India’s state and nation-building strategies. Any accommodation of Hindu sensibilities in public policies was now seen as disturbing political balance to the disadvantage of the minorities. Against this background, MC Chagla’s resignation was only the thin edge of the wedge. This was followed by additional measures for limiting the majoritarian power of the Hindus, whether it was in relation to the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution, or whether it was in relation to backwardness in Hindu society as highlighted by ‘mandal against kamandal’. All along, it was anti-majoritarian mobilization along caste divisions. The genealogy of Hindu slavery, highlighted by memories of Muslim ‘us-them’ dichotomy and, Muslim rulers inhuman trading of thousands of Hindu slaves for horses from Kabul and Central Asia for their respective cavalries, and that too to win wars against Hindu rulers, did not get even a mention in today’s political narratives.

It should not be forgotten that such institutionalized anti-majoritarian politics, armed with the legitimacy of academic research, was likely to produce a critical mass of highly educated young people who were not open to political change towards Hindu majoritarian rule. And so they were likely to get trapped into a kind of oppositional politics which might not be in their best interest. The recent demonstration of mob power on campuses and other sites should warn everyone that now was the time to limit the use of higher education as ideological strait jacket.

Political fungibility is integral to democratic development.Its deficit has been evident from India’s diplomatic silence on Hindu slavery. It has been in sharp contrast with the noise that India made to condemn trans-Atlantic slavery. A pressing need is to foreground the impact of slavery on the emergence of the Hindu subject. The Hindu is now awakening to it.The present juxtaposition of Ram Raj in opposition to New Madina calls for a New Synthesis driven by the imperative of Moral Renewal among Muslims in India.

The author is former Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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