Recent events, triggered by India’s loss to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup, have revived questions perennially lurking in the subterranean fault-lines of Indian politics since 1947.

A commentator describing the result as a ‘conquest of idolatry’, incidents of the Pakistani victory being cheered in India and consequent communally charged invective on social media — were all representative of the complications that the founding of Pakistan created for India’s Muslims and their relationship with the Indian state. Pakistani Home Minister Sheikh Rasheed’s claim that the ‘sentiments of India’s Muslims were with the Pakistani team’ graphically illustrated the deep political roots that questions of identity and belonging have — even when evoked in the innocuous context of cricket.

Divergent views: Poet-philosopher Mohammed Iqbal was unconvinced of Nehru’s idea of inclusive nationalism

In curious ways, the question of Muslim belonging and citizenship that has set Indian social media ablaze mirrors the illuminating debate that Jawaharlal Nehru engaged in with the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who believed that national loyalty was religious rather than territorial. Writing in 1933, after the failed attempt to think about India’s constitutional future at the Round Table Conferences, Iqbal criticised Nehru’s nationalism for its incessant drive to blend India’s divergent communities in a singular whole. Such a fusion, Iqbal cautioned, would always burden existing communities to purge their past and with it their religious particularities. He predicted that this erasure, in turn, would quickly spill over into violence as the old ethical framework of co-existence would evaporate. Pointing to Europe, where he identified secularism and nationalism for having eroded the principles of universal ethics and caused violence on an unprecedented scale during the First World War, Iqbal concluded that large-scale violence would erupt by adopting the same principles in India.

Even if one took Nehru’s India of an inclusive nationalism that accommodated all groups with a government that treated all groups equally, Iqbal found it hard to believe that a Hindu majority would be conducive to an egalitarian ideal. With Hinduism fractured along multiple lines of caste, creed and language, he thought it more likely that a Hindu oligarchy would put on the garb of democracy to push through a majoritarian agenda. Strengthening a Muslim political identity could serve as an antidote, in Iqbal’s eyes, to his gloomy prediction of a future Indian Republic — because it axiomatically entailed the syncretic ethical ideals that had made the co-habitation of Hindus and Muslims on the Indian subcontinent possible. For Iqbal, the attempt to overcome religion through secularism or socialism would necessarily splinter the subcontinent along religious lines and trigger a civil war.

Nehru remained unconvinced, partly due to his general disdain of religion and his reluctance to mix religion with politics. Nehru saw religion as a diversion from the far worthier goal of economically uplifting India’s poor masses. Iqbal’s concrete suggestion of how a Muslim community could be safeguarded through constitutional reform only fuelled Nehru’s doubts further. Iqbal had proposed that the colonial government should constitutionally exclude the Ahmadiyya, a tiny Muslim reformist movement, as he saw them violating the integrity of Islam through their theological beliefs. For Nehru, following this debate from Almora jail, inviting the colonial government to step into the terrain of religion — to define who was or was not a Muslim — appeared like a path for religious conservatism to employ constitutional means to shield itself from critique and reform.

Nehru worried that if Iqbal’s proposal for constitutional exclusion of this Muslim sect was implemented, then demands of orthodox Hindus to shield Hinduism from much-needed social reform efforts would be next on the agenda. A pan-orthodox resistance against progressive reforms, for instance, fixing the age of marriage for girls to 14 in 1929 in the so-called Sarda Act, had already alerted Nehru that the conservative faction had a large spectrum of political overlap.

Both Nehru and Iqbal were partly right in their prediction of India’s future. Nehru foresaw that following Iqbal’s suggestions for constitutional transformation to preserve religious doctrines would kickstart a cycle of “heresy hunts, ex-communication, punishment for apostasy, and a general suppression”. On the other hand, Iqbal may have raised a valid point that secular nationalism of the Nehruvian variety would ultimately fail to satisfy India’s minorities — or indeed its other communities either. Instead, it would lead to continuous bouts of violence and eventually, for better or worse, to separation.

Yet it is also clear that, despite partition, a consensus, let alone a resolution of the debate that Nehru and Iqbal kicked off, continues to elude India. Neither has overt secularism blended India’s communities into a singular whole, purged of their pasts; nor has the state’s intervention to define religious minorities and carve out distinct religio-cultural rights and legal regimes resurrected old ethical frameworks of co-existence. There is heresy hunting as well as religious splintering. As recent events demonstrate, the debate is wide open again — and newer and better answers are urgently needed.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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