'Only Hindu-Muslim Unity can save India.' This oft repeated phrase is often associated with 'secular' or 'leftist' Indian politicians. However, what is not generally well known is that Jamaluddin Afghani, a figure much maligned because of his association with Pan-Islamism, also ascribed to this view. Many scholars, intellectuals and activists have often associated Afghani with the beginning of Islamism as a political movement. Operating in the tumultuous second half of the 19th century, Afghani was actually a Persian who had decided to make anti-imperialism his life's cause. He viewed the umma or Muslim community as an entity, which if united politically, could defeat avaricious western colonial governments. He travelled widely in the Muslim world and Europe and also visited India a number of times.
Just before travelling to India Afghani wrote a letter to the Ottoman Sultan asking for patronage for his various endeavours. Interestingly in the letter he makes an exception for India wherein he proposed that he would breathe a new spirit of love of nationality [r?h-i jad?d-i hubb-i mill?yyat] into the slumbering Indian Muslims. Importantly, milliyat here referred to the then relatively new concept of nationality and not to the Muslim millat. Afghani envisaged 'a linguistic and territorial nationalism' in India based on Hindu-Muslim unity. In making this exceptional case for India as opposed to Persia, Afghanistan or the Arab countries, Afghani argued that a cultural affinity to Muslims across the world would not detract from their sharing in a common nationality with the Hindus of India.
Afghani also saw linguistic unity as more important than religious ties in forming a common bond between Hindus and Muslims in India. He wrote about this in an article called The Philosophy of National Unity and the Truth about Unity of Language. It is worth remembering that at the time of his, writing Urdu was not associated just with Muslims. While in India between 1879-1882, Afghani often wrote and lectured about the greatness of Indian civilisation and while citing the Shastras and Vedas acknowledged the immense contribution that this 'cradle of humanity' had made.
Today, it is important to remember the rich and diverse history of India. It is noteworthy that even an ardent pan-Islamist like Afghani saw that India's true potential lay in the unity of her people. Unfortunately a situation has been arising where, far from Hindu-Muslim unity, forces are at work that seek to create an unbridgeable gulf between the two communities. Therefore, it is crucial to safeguard our unique historical legacy and see ourselves as the flag bearers and protectors of our country and constitution, even as institutions and individuals seek to undermine their very foundations.
We need to be aware that in a democratic country such as ours, it is not the duty of a minority to simply safeguard its own rights or those of other minorities but to act as custodians of the idea of India as envisaged by the constitution. After all, the country's well-being is fundamentally linked to the well-being of each of her citizens. For this to be possible and for there to be Hindu-Muslim unity, it is also important for the Muslims to be unified amongst themselves. The first condition for this is that Muslims should be clear about what is in the interest of the country and the community. Apart from this the other point on which there should be absolute clarity is that Muslims need to be clear about the issues that are either of little relevance or indeed are designed to sow discord and divisions. A recent example of this was the unfortunate instance of the fatwa released by a relatively unknown academy in Mumbai.
The fatwa, which practically speaking merely amounts to an opinion, alleged blasphemy on the part of some Iranian filmmakers who had made a film about the Prophet's childhood. All the precautions were taken to not show his face just as they were also taken during the making of the famous film, 'The Message.' It turned out that the person responsible for the fatwa had not even seen the film. According to the very theological and jurisprudential reasons that the cleric had taken recourse to, he himself had failed to live up to the rigorous standard of evidence required before pronouncing an opinion, let alone a verdict. Furthermore the only result of targeting A R Rahman for his association with the film is that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad generously offered him the opportunity of returning to home to his 'real' faith.
Some newspapers and writers have tried to make the issue of the film sectarian. On the one hand, the film's director is Iranian and therefore in some people's minds the film is inevitably a Shi'i portrayal. On the other hand, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Aal al-Sheikh, condemned the film as blasphemous and thus the issue became a Shi'a-Sunni problem. The truth is that nations — whether Iran or Saudi Arabia — always act in their own interests despite the more universal ideals that they might profess. It is important for Indian Muslims to realise that only they themselves can truly understand the problems that confront them and that caution is needed so that people's emotions are not manipulated by various vested interests. If a man like Jamaluddin Afghani could advocate the benefits of Hindu-Muslim political unity more than a century ago then surely these benefits should be even more obvious now.
Today deep and troubling changes are afoot in India. If you pick up a newspaper you will read about how the Minister of Culture wants to purge India of foreign influences or how he thinks that President Abdul Kalam was a good Indian "despite being a Muslim". On the TV you might hear people speaking of 1200 years of slavery ending while others try and distort history in order to paint Muslims as outsiders. Elsewhere you might hear about how Mahesh Rangarajan was coerced into offering his resignation from the directorship of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library whereas in other institutions openly sectarian and unqualified people are being given high office. If we do not wake up to the fact that our future and indeed the country's future lies in our hands, then we inevitably will become victims of our own prejudices, doomed to fight amongst ourselves over illusions and specters.
This article was originally published in the author's Urdu column, Sadaa-e Dil, in the Inquilab Newspaper.
Articles By Gandhi
May 11, 1921
That unity is strength is not merely a copybook maxim but a rule of life is in no case so clearly illustrated as in the problem of Hindu-Muslim unity. Divided we must fall. Any third power may easily enslave India so long as we Hindus and Mussulmans are ready to cut each others' throats. Hindu-Muslim unity means not unity only between Hindus and Mussulmans, but between all those who believe India to be their home, no matter to what faith they belong.
I am fully aware that we have not yet attained that unity to such an extent as to bear any strain. It is a daily-growing plant, as yet in delicate infancy, requiring special care and attention. The thing became clear in Nellore when the problem conforonted me in a concrete shape. The relations between the two were none too happy. They fought only about two years ago over the question of playing music whilst passing mosques. I hold that we may not dignify every trifle into a matter of deep religious importance. Therefore a Hindu may not insist on playing music whilst passing a mosque. He may not even quote precedents in his own or any other place for the sake of playing music. It is not a matter of vital importance for him to play music whilst passing 'a mosque. One can easily appreciate the Mussulman sentiment of having solemn silence near a mosque the whole of the twenty-four hours. What is a non-essential to a Hindu may be an essential to a Mussalman. And in all non-essential matters a Hindu must yield for the asking. It is criminal folly to quarrel over trivialities. The unity we desire will last only if we Cultivate a yielding and a charitable disposition towards one another. The cow is as dear as life to a Hindu; the Mussulinan should therefore voluntarily accommodate his Hindu brother. Silence at his prayer is a precious thing for a Mussulman. Every Hindu should voluntarily respect his Mussulman's brother's sentiment. This however is a counsel of perfection. There are nasty Hindus as there are nasty Mussulmans who would pick a quarrel for nothing. For these we must provide panchayats of unimpeachable probity and imperturbability whose decisions must be binding on both parties. Public opinion should be cultivated in favour of the decisions of such panchayats so that no one would question them.
I know that there is much too much distrust of one another as yet. Many Hindus distrust Mussulman honesty. They believe that Swaraj means Mussulman Raj, for they argue that without the British, Mussulmans of India will aid Mussulman power to build a Mussulman empire in India. Mussulmans on the other hand fear that the Hindus, being in an overwhelming majority, will smother them. Such an attitude of mind betokens impotence on either's part. If not their nobility, their desire to live in peace would dictate a policy of mutual trust and forbearance. There is nothing in either religion to keep the two apart. The days of forcible conversion are gone. Save for the cow, Hindus can have no ground for quarrel with Mussulmans. The latter are under no religious obligation to slaughter a cow. The fact is we have never before now endeavoured to come together to adjust our differences and to live as friends bound to one another as children of the same sacred soil. We have both now an opportunity of a lifetime. The Khilafat question will not recur for another hundred years. If the Hindus wish to cultivate eternal friendship with the Mussulmans, they must perish with them in the attempt to vindicate the honour of Islam.
- Young India, 11-5-1921