A historian explains why India’s “national culture” is both Hindu and Muslim


As Indian as anything else. PHOTO/EPA/Harish Tygai

If history is essential to nationalism as has been frequently said, so too is the claim to a national culture frequently curated from this history. The problem arises when selections have to be made as to what goes into the construction of a national culture. At the official level there is a continued use of the colonial terms: majority and minority, derived from figures of those following different religions. Instead of looking for more valid descriptive terms, the configuring of culture as majority and minority cultures, however inept, is reinforced by saying that whereas the majority culture will be prominent, the cultures of the minorities will also figure. What this means is that Indian culture more often is defined centrally by what is projected as Hindu culture, with an addition if required of items associated with those that come from minority communities.

In India today Islamic and Hindu monuments dominate the landscape. Should they be juxtaposed or should there be an attempt to place each of them in the larger context where their relationship to each other and to the many more cultural items can be observed? Many today, either out of ignorance or for reasons of political ideology, propound theories that can only be called ridiculous—such as, that the Hindus have been victimized by Muslim rule and have been slaves during the last thousand years. The degree of ignorance contained in such a statement is astonishing, because it is actually a denial of the most effective, evocative and cherished religious articulations in various facets of Hinduism that took place during the last thousand years.

This is not to say that there was no confrontation at the political level but this should not be confused with claiming that there was massive victimization of the Hindus bringing about Hindu resistance in the late Mughal period. Political relations should be examined in terms of the politics of the time. Conflicts of a routine kind were clearly local and more casual than has been assumed. Relations between communities in general tend to be governed by some degree of accommodation and some degree of confrontation. It makes greater sense to try and analyse the reasons for either.

Political relations should be examined in terms of the politics of the time.

The British conquered India but did not settle in the land. They drained its resources to enhance industrial capitalism in the home country and find markets in the colonies. Unlike the British, the Turks, Afghans, Arabs, and Mughals—commonly bunched together as “the Muslim rulers”—invaded India, but also settled in the country. New communities and new patterns of thought and expression came into being. To treat all Hindu and Muslim cultures as separate cultures, entirely segregated and demarcated from each other, is historically untenable, nor is it viable in cultural terms. The form taken by facets of these cultures, and from earliest times, from the architecture and ornamentation of monumental buildings to the compositions of music whether as ragas or qawwalis, derives from the interplay of more than even two cultures. The recognition of this multiplicity gives authenticity to a cultural form.

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