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Loss of Privileges Portrayed as Privation

A British scholar and civil servant, W.W. Hunter, wrote the book, The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel against the Queen?, which was published in 1871. It was reviewed by Alfred Lyall who was soon to succeed as the Lieutenant Governor of the North West Province (later on known as U.P.). Lyall had warned that ‘what Hunter had said will be overheard by Indian Muslims; they will be encouraged to think of themselves as ‘an oppressed people or a persecuted sect’.’1

The warning was only a thin veneer. What Hunter had written was meant to be ‘overheard’ by the ‘Indian’ Muslims. His book had been written at the instance of Lord Mayo, the then Viceroy of India. It was intended to make it easy for the residues of Islamic imperialism to revise their stance vis-a-vis British imperialism without loss of face.

The New Posture of Islamic Imperialism

The residues of Islamic imperialism were themselves in search of a new posture which they could adopt in an adverse situation. The heroic mask which they had donned earlier as Wahabis and Faraizis had paid no dividends. The mask had been torn off their faces by the Sikh sword and the British bayonet. The only ‘achievement’ they could claim was the killing of some Hindu kafirs, the slaughter of some cows, and the desecration of some Hindu temples in the countryside of Bengal. At the end of it all, they had nothing better to do than sit back in a mood of self-pity, and lick their wounds at leisure.

The tip given by Hunter, therefore, came in handy and at the right time. It was not long before the residues of Islamic imperialism started dropping their mask of mujahids, and donning the mask of martyrs. Ever since, they have been parading themselves as a ‘poor and persecuted minority’.

Hunter’s tip has also stood the test of time. Generation after generation of Hindus, particularly Hindu intellectuals, have been blackmailed by this sob-story about Muslim backwardness and poverty. In fact, the sob-story has succeeded so well with the Hindus that the Muslims themselves have come to believe in it. In the process, they have carved out two separate states where they rule the roost, and from where Hindus have been either hounded out or reduced to the status of non-citizens. They are now reaching out to repeat the trick in what remains of the ancient Hindu homeland.

We will deal with the ballyhoo about Muslim backwardness and poverty in a subsequent chapter. Right now we want to take a peep behind the mask of martyrdom in order to see the real face that has been secreted for quite some time. That will take us back to the last quarter of the 19th century when the residues of Islamic imperialism in U.P. first started soliciting pity and sympathy for their ‘sorrowful plight’.

Muslims Insist on Cow-Slaughter

The opening wail of woe was heard when Hindus in U.P. decided to call a halt to the open sale of beef in the bazars. Hindus had been helpless in the matter of cow-slaughter so long as Muslims were at the centre of power. Hindus were helpless even now about the British slaughtering of cows in many military cantonments. But they thought that they could do something about it in those towns where they were in a majority in the newly constituted municipalities. So they started adopting resolutions for a ban on open sale of beef in the bazars, and for moving the slaughter-houses out of city precincts.

The Muslim response was not merely recalcitrant; it was positively hostile. The Mullahs came out with fatwas that Id festivities could not be completed without sacrificing cows. Muslim scholars pronounced that the ‘prosperous’ Hindus were trying to deprive the ‘poor’ Muslims of the only ‘wholesome food’ within the latter’s reach. All of them insisted with one voice that cow-slaughter was a ‘established religious right’ which they could not and should not forego. They went much farther. Cows meant for slaughter were taken out in processions through public thoroughfares in order to show contempt for Hindu sentiments. This led to some street riots in which some Hindus and some Muslims got killed.

The Muslim mass media raised a horrified howl of ‘Islam in danger’. The ‘majority’, they said, was not only out to ‘deprive’ the ‘minority’ of its ‘religious rights’ of a long standing, but also bent upon a ‘massacre’ of the latter en masse. The howl was heard in other provinces in some of which Muslims had stopped cow-slaughter after the collapse of their political power. The Muslims in these provinces also rose in revolt against Hindu ‘aggression’. They started reversing a settled trend. The British power was there to provide protection. The British courts had already given a decision that the government could not stop cow-slaughter by law. As a result, there were more riots in more places and more Hindus and Muslims got killed.

Hindus did not know how to meet this situation. They knew next to nothing about Islam. Otherwise, they would have pointed out that although Islam stood for a lot of slaughter - of animals as well as of human beings - the poor cow was nowhere in the picture. They would have quoted a hundred Islamic theologians who had recommended cow-slaughter not to secure heaven for the mu’mins but to humiliate the ‘accursed’ Hindus. Cow-slaughter was not an obligatory religions rite in Islam, conceding that Islam was a religion. On the contrary, it was an unequal privilege enjoyed by Muslims as a corollary of their military power or, conversely, a disability imposed on the zimmis by an Islamic state. The case for cow-protection, therefore, went by default because Hindu society was not equipped to raise the issue to an ideological level.

No Music Before the Mosque

Meanwhile, another explosive controversy was moving to the fore. That was the matter of music before the mosque. A practice had prevailed earlier in areas which were ruled by Muslims that while Muslim processions could pass through purely Hindu localities, no Hindu procession was permitted to pass before a mosque, even if the mosque happened to be situated in a predominantly Hindu locality. Hindus were in no position to question this practice during the days of Muslim rule, and Muslims had taken it for granted. But now that Muslim rule was no more, some Hindus started having strong doubts about the sanctity of this practice. They started pointing out that Hindus were as good citizens as the Muslims and should have equal rights in the matter of public processions.

Once again, there was a horrified howl of ‘Islam in danger’. It was pointed out by the Mullahs as well as Muslim scholars that Islam was a ‘religion of peace’ and that Muslims loved ‘peace’, particularly at the time of prayers, unlike the Hindu dharam in which there was too much ringing of bells and blowing of conches. Muslim musclemen threw an open challenge that no disturbance of the ‘peace of Muslim prayers’ would be permitted. Simultaneously, they started stocking the mosques with all sorts of missiles. A select band of Muslim butchers started sharpening their daggers and swords inside the same sanctuaries.

Hindus in some places persisted in taking out processions after informing the police. But as soon as a procession passed before a mosque, it was pelted with stones and other flying objects. Next, the butchers rushed out and stabbed some processionists. And before the police could intervene effectively, there was some bloodshed on both sides. The riot spread very soon to the rest of the town. Again, some Hindus and some Muslims got killed.

But once again, the Hindus lost the case by default. The Muslims needed to be told that the practice of not permitting processions to pass before a mosque had nothing to do with the ‘peace of Muslim prayers’. Hindus could have quoted Caliph Umar and a hundred orthodox treatises like the Hidayah to point out that prohibition of non-Muslim public celebrations, religious or otherwise, was one of the twenty-two disabilities which an Islamic state had always imposed on the hated zimmis. Hindus under Muslim rule had not been permitted to celebrate their festivities loudly even inside their homes, not to speak of celebrating them on the streets. It was just another instance of an unjust privilege usurped by Muslims in the period of their political supremacy.

The Islamic state was no more. The British rule was supposed to be based upon equality of all citizens before the law. Yet, the Muslims got away with an unjust privilege acquired by them earlier. Those in charge of law and order could not see the justice in the Hindu point of view. They also enacted a law which prohibited music before a mosque. The law has been retained on the statute book of an independent India where Hindus are supposed to be in an overwhelming majority

Uproar Over Urdu

The national demand for cow-protection and passing of processions before the mosques had challenged some unjust privileges which the residues of Islamic imperialism had continued to retain in the name of their ‘religion’. These demands, however, were not likely to damage their economic or social status in any manner. They could laugh in private at their strategy of trouncing the Hindus and seeking mass Muslim support, while pulling long faces in public. But the next thing that happened looked like hitting them where it could really hurt. That was the so-called Hindi Resolution passed by the Government of U.P. in April, 1900. The residues of Islamic imperialism now raised a howl as if heavens had fallen.

So long as Muslim rule had prevailed in many parts of the country, Persian had been the language of government and administration. All public services had been the monopoly of Muslims, mostly of foreign descent, except at the lowest levels where some Hindus were also allowed to serve after learning Persian. The ranks of the foreign Muslim fraternity had continued to be reinforced by fresh arrivals from all over the Islamic world. The vast majority of natives, Hindus as well as Muslim converts, had been helplessly dependent on scribes who knew Persian, whenever and wherever they came in contact with the administrative machinery.

The situation changed with the change of masters. The British replaced Persian by English in the higher echelons and by Urdu at the lower levels. The residues of Islamic imperialism had resented this change also but got reconciled to it because their privileged position in public services had not been affected. They began feeling uncomfortable only when Urdu also started getting replaced by local languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu, etc. Muslims were not in a majority in these provinces except in Bengal, where also there was hardly any Muslim middle class and the Muslim peasantry had never known any language other than its native Bengali.

Meanwhile, pressure of public opinion was building up in Bihar, the Central Provinces and U.P., where Hindi, the mother tongue of the common people, had all along received a step-motherly treatment. Urdu was replaced by Hindi in the Central Provinces in 1872, and in Bihar in 1881. But the Government of U.P. continued to cold-shoulder Hindi due to the influence of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his Aligarh lobby. It was only after 1894, when Antony MacDonell became the Lieutenant Governor, that a long-standing and just demand of the local people came up for an active review. But even a sympathetic Governor could not go the whole hog in favour of Hindi. He converted the language controversy into a competition of rival scripts. Nagari script was now placed on par with the Persian script, and both were made compulsory for all those who aspired for government service at certain levels where English was not essential.

It was only a small concession. The Muslims were still free to write Urdu in Persian script. But even this small concession to the common people was too much for the residues of Islamic imperialism. They raised a strong protest that their ‘lofty language’ was being ‘brought down’ to the level of ‘Hindi gandi. They pointed out that Hindus had been learning Urdu all these years, and that it was only their ‘hatred’ for Islam and the Muslims which was leading them to neglect it in future. They added that next to Arabic and Persian, Urdu was the language of their ‘religion and culture’, and that Urdu could be written only in the Persian script. And they concluded that while the ‘prosperous and wily’ Hindus had many avenues of employment, the ‘poor and simple’ Muslims were solely dependent on government patronage.

MacDonell was not impressed. He told the Muslims that they already had their communal quota in terms of which a mere fourteen per cent of the provincial population had monopolised thirty-seven-and-a-half per cent of government jobs. But the Muslims were far from being mollified. They became extremely agitated under the leadership provided again by the Aligarh lobby. A pathetic couplet, composed by Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Secretary of the Aligarh College, now started circulating among the Muslims all over the province:

chal sath ke hasrat dil-i-mahrum se nikle,
ashiq ka janaza hai zara dhum se nikle.

(Walk with [the bier] so that the longing [for love] may not linger in the hollowed heart. This is the funeral procession of your lover. Let it proceed with some song and dance.)

Urdu Had Remained a Foreign Language

Before we pass on to the storm raised over Urdu by the residues of Islamic imperialism, we should like to quote what Professor Aziz Ahmad has said about this language. He writes: ‘The poets of Delhi, proud of the ‘pure’ Urdu of the imperial camp, rejected the Dakani principle and practice of borrowing extensively from the Indian languages, especially if these borrowings were related to Hindu religion, culture and world-view  In this process imagery was drawn exclusively from Persian precedents, i.e., from the unseen and unexperienced sights, sounds and smells of Persia and Central Asia, rejecting totally the Indian sights, sounds and sensuous experience as materials regarded not sublime enough for poetic expression  It was a desperate unconscious clinging to the origins of the symbols of Muslim India’s cultural experience which had begun abroad, and an instinctive fear of being submerged into the Hindu cultural milieu. These modes of aesthetic appreciation, rooted so deeply in the essence of universal Islamic culture, remained more or less incomprehensible to the Hindu mind. Its reaction has been summed up by [S.K.] Chatterjee: ‘Throughout the whole range of Urdu literature in its first phase  the atmosphere of this literature is provokingly un-Indian - it is that of Persia. Early Urdu poets never so much as mention the great physical features of India - its Himalayas, its rivers like the Ganges, the Jamuna, the Sindhu, the Godavari, etc; but of course mountains and streams of Persia, and rivers of Central Asia are always there. Indian flowers, Indian plants are unknown; only Persian flowers and plants which the poet could see only in a garden. There was a deliberate shutting of the eye to everything Indian, to everything not mentioned or treated in Persian poetry  A language and literature which came to base itself upon an ideology which denied on the Indian soil the very existence of India and Indian culture, could not but be met with a challenge from some of the Indian adherents of their national culture; and that challenge was in the form of highly Sanskritized Hindi’.’2

Yet Urdu Won a Victory

This was the language which the residues of Islamic imperialism wanted to impose upon the common people, Hindus and Muslim converts, till the end of time. Some years earlier, they had organised a Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental Defence Association of Upper India. Mohsin-ul-Mulk converted this body into an Urdu Defence Association. It was decided to call a conference of leading Muslims from all over North India to discuss the Hindi Resolution and to draft a representation to the Lieutenant Governor. Meanwhile, leading Muslims had spread out in the district towns of U.P. to whip up a mass hysteria. The cries of ‘Islam in danger’ were heard as far as Lahore in the Punjab, Dacca in Bengal, Bombay in Maharashtra, and Madras in South India. Finally, a conference was held at Lucknow in August, 1900. It was attended by 400 delegates from the Punjab, Bombay Presidency, Central Provinces, U.P. and elsewhere. The Mullahs, landlords, merchants, lawyers, journalists and others who had flocked to the conference called upon the ‘Muslim masses’ to defend their ‘religion and culture’ with all their might. Mohsin-ul-Mulk thundered: ‘Although we have not the might of the pen our hands are still strong enough to wield the might of the sword.’

Nothing came out of the Hindi Resolution of the government. MacDonell was soon succeeded by LaTouche who wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, that MacDonell ‘went too far in acknowledging Hindi as a language’. For a long time afterwards, no bilingual examinations were held and no government orders were issued in the Nagari script. In fact, the number of Muslims in government services increased in subsequent years.

The cat came out of the bag in October 1906 when the residues of Islamic imperialism, who had held another conference in Lucknow in the meanwhile, drew up a Memorandum to the Viceroy, Lord Minto. The Memorandum was presented by a delegation of 35 Muslim notables led by the Agha Khan. It was a prelude to the formation of the Muslim League, later on in the same year. The Memorandum reminded the British rulers that the Muslims had been the ruling class for a long time and requested that the government ‘give due consideration to the position that they [Muslims] occupied in India a little more than a hundred years ago’. It insisted that the ‘political importance’ of the Muslim community be conceded. Political importance, in turn, was spelled out in the following words: ‘The political importance of a community to a considerable extent gains strength or suffers detriment according to the position that the members of that community occupy in the service of the State.’

Professor Francis Robinson sums up the situation when he says that ‘Aligarh College and the All India Muslim League were founded to preserve a strong position, not to improve a weak one’ and that ‘It was the threat of becoming backward, rather than backwardness itself, which encouraged U.P. Muslims to organize for politics, and their power in the province helped them to do so with effect.’3 Backwardness in this context meant becoming equal to the rest of their countrymen - a prospect which the residues of Islamic imperialism have always dreaded as worse than death.


  1. Cited by David Lelyveld, op.cit., pp. 11-12. 

  2. Aziz Ahmad, Studies In Islamic Culture, Oxford. 1964, pp. 252-55. 

  3. Francis Robinson, Separatism Among Indian Muslims, Delhi, 1975, p. 346.