Muslims of India since Partition by Balraj Puri

Reviewer: Geeta Puri
Book: Muslims of India since Partition by Balraj Puri
Gyan Publishing House,
5 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi, 110002

Balraj Puri’s work, a collection of his articles over a period of time in Economic and Political Weekly , Janata and some other journals is sagacious and scholarly contribution to the study of Muslims of India who after 1947, in the words of the author, ‘acquired a different form, in terms of their role, status, problems, challenges and opportunities. The partition of the country divided them in two and later three parts and led their political, bureaucratic and intellectual elite to migrate to Pakistan ‘. This book is essentially an empathetic study of Indian Muslims since partition, for it analyses the dilemmas and travails of the Indian Muslims with reference to their self-definition after suffering the trauma of partition. The author principally deals with the Indian Muslims and not Islam, though he does refer to the principles of Islam by invoking the works and views of two great Muslim scholars, one associated with the nationalist Congress, Maulana Azad and the other identified with the originator of the concept of Pakistan, Dr. Mohammd Iqbal. The author also explains the significance of the title of the book by highlighting the ‘post-partition’ problems concerning the Muslims rather than their ‘post-independence’ position as he believes that ‘the present title underlines the crucial impact on Muslims, of the partition of the country. For in reality it marked a division of the Indian Muslims, in three nation states: whereas the bulk of the Hindu community (and other non-Muslim communities) was consolidated in what remained of India, retaining its historic and civilizational continuity.'(p.15) In chapter 2, the author has made a comprehensive survey of the Muslim politics in Nehru and post-Nehru eras, right up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, especially, in relation to their three pronounced issues which according to him ‘ emerged as symbols of Muslim identity, namely Aligarh University, Urdu Language and Muslim Personal Law’. (24) But this rapid survey, though correctly diagnosing the Muslim mind, is not informed with a rigorous analysis of several other factors, especially in the domain of India’s changing political economy. The latter’s impact on the former is no less significant. It is in Chapter 4 that Puri provides an excellent conceptual framework in which he locates the Muslim identity which according to him ‘manifest …at three levels: Pan-Islamic, Sub-continental, and National.’ But he is quick to add that ‘They (Muslims) invariably possess non-religious identities, like belonging to a region, class, party, profession and so on. These identities (mostly shared with other religious communities) are as much part of the objective reality as Muslim identity’ (p.47). Though the author acknowledges the objective reality comprising non-religious identities, yet his focus remains on the religious identity of the Muslims. There is little attempt to analyze and understand the enormous economic deprivation of the Indian Muslims. On the contrary, Puri has made a bold assertion that ‘…the role of class is highly exaggerated’ (p.60). The moot question is can we understand, if not fully, at least, substantially, the Muslim problems, especially, socio-economic, including the ones relating to their multiple identities, in class terms. The cultural deprivation felt by the Muslims is largely the product of their economic deprivation, more so, when they see their miserable lives in glaring contrast with others and perceive an acute sense of discrimination resulting in a heightened sense of ethnic identity. There is, therefore no contradiction between cultural deprivation and economic deprivation. Some Marxists have, undoubtedly, shown some sustained interest in the reality of religious identity. Marxist parties, on the other hand, have perceived the notion of religious, caste, regional and cultural identities as an impediment to class struggle. There is a need to underscore the reality of multiple identities and locate class components in the latter or locate ethnic elements in the classes. This book, indeed, provides a rich theoretical framework to integrate the elements of Muslim identity with their class origins. Does it mean Muslim identity is above and beyond class? This pertinent question has not been adequately addressed by the author, though in his many qualifications attached to Muslim identity, he shows an ardent awareness of the question. Without any progressive orientation of the Muslim identity, the latter, like any other religious, cultural and regional identity, there is eminent possibility generating, if not, ethnic cleansing, then both inter and intra-ethnic violence. The task requires a high degree of sensitivity towards distinct ethnic groups and their cultures rooted in history, tradition and memory and balancing this sensitivity towards historical injustices located within-ethnicity the brazen class-dominated structures. It is essentially a theoretical challenge which also ensures that the concept and practice of democratic nationalism are strengthened as against both authoritarian nationalism and ethno-nationalism articulating a fascist intolerance. Puri has, nonetheless, very effectively brought about an intrinsic and implicit compatibility between Islam and modernization, on the one hand and on the other, between Islam and democracy which cogently challenges the ongoing refrain based on genuine or designed ignorance, underscoring the incompatibility between Islamic principles and the modern movements establishing the supremacy of reason, rationality and democracy to run human and societal affairs.

Puri’s persuasively and cogently argued work, is indeed, an insightful and creative contribution to the literature on Muslim studies by diligently marshaling all the relevant facts, vast material both from the colonial and post-colonial periods and making a rhetoric-free and critical, interesting and instructive presentation. The book is a must read for the policy circles in government and opposition, media and research institutions and social activists engaged in the arduous task of promoting inter-faith dialogue.

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