Geography, Pipe Dream: Bigger Odds India Overcame For Kashmir’s Accession

India was disadvantaged more geographically than demographically when Pakistan-backed irregulars marched from the tribal northwest to wrest Muslim-majority Kashmir in October 1947

The Pakistan-backed irregulars unsuccessfully planned to occupy Srinagar’s lifeline airstrip to prevent the Indian army from landing there before the snow closed the Banihal Pass days before the onset of harsh Himalayan winter in November. Wikipedia

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When the British left after dividing the subcontinent along religious lines in 1947, there was virtually no road, railway, or air connectivity between mainland India and the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The only all-weather road connecting the Kashmir Valley to the outside world led to Rawalpindi in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The road, which now connects the Valley to New Delhi via Jammu, passed through the 9,000 feet high Banihal pass that remained closed during winter. A tunnel through the pass was built only in the 1950s and the road is still not considered all-weather. The road via Jammu in 1947, too, connected Kashmir to Lahore and Sialkot in Pakistan’s Punjab.

India managed to get tenuous access to J&K via a dirt track intersected by the bridgeless tributaries and streams when Punjab’s Muslim-majority Gurdaspur district was awarded to it at the last minute. It was thus disadvantaged more geographically than demographically when Pakistan-backed irregulars marched from the tribal northwest to wrest Muslim-majority Kashmir in October 1947.

The irregulars planned to occupy Srinagar’s lifeline airstrip to prevent the Indian army from landing there before the snow closed the Banihal Pass days before the onset of harsh Himalayan winter in November. The plan was frustrated as an Indian army contingent managed to land in Srinagar on October 27, 1947, as the irregulars’ advance from Baramulla, over 50 km away, was impeded by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah-led National Conference, which backed J&K’s accession with India.

Mohammad Maqbool Sherwani, a member of the National Conference that hurriedly raised a militia to resist the invasion from the northwest, made the irregulars believe the Indian army had arrived on Baramulla’s outskirts. He forced them to change their strategy, which delayed their advance towards Srinagar. It was too late for them by the time they realised they had been bluffed and nailed Sherwani to death.

The delay gave the Indian troops the much-needed time as the equipment and reinforcements they needed reached Kashmir nine days after they landed in Srinagar. An all-out offensive that followed drove away the irregulars from the Valley while J&K acceded to India.   

A chance meeting between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Abdullah in 1938 perhaps sealed Pakistan’s fate without Kashmir. The two met for the first time at the Lahore railway station, around five km from the place where the resolution for the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims of British India was adopted in 1940.

Abdullah, 33, who founded the Muslim Conference in 1932, accompanied Punjab Congress leader Mian Iftikharuddin to meet Nehru during a layover en route to Peshawar. They got along quickly so much so that Abdullah ended up accompanying Nehru. Abdullah gravitated to Nehru’s social-revolutionary nationalism after their extended discussions in Peshawar.

Abdullah would convince his colleagues in 1939 to rename their party as the National Conference as per Nehru’s advice about the need to secularise their politics. The phraseology explaining the change was in contrast to Mohammad Ali Jinnah-led Muslim League’s 1940 Lahore resolution, which called Indian Muslims a nation by any definition. The resolution sought a separate homeland encompassing Muslim-majority areas including Kashmir. Choudhary Rahmat Ali coined the acronym ‘Pakistan’ in 1933 with the ‘K’ standing for Kashmir. 

The condition of Muslims in J&K was much worse than that of their coreligionists in Bengal and Punjab, the two big provinces that became the mainstay of the Pakistan Movement. The socio-economic conditions of the majority of Muslims in Bengal and Punjab helped the movement take root there in the 1940s when the Hindu Dogra kingdom had ruled J&K for almost a century and reduced its Muslim majority to the status of serfs. 

Abdullah burst onto the political scene as an embodiment of anger over Muslim exclusion from positions of power, jobs, and education. The Dogra rulers discriminatory policies dashed first his hopes of becoming a doctor and later a bureaucrat despite his eligibility and good academic record. Abdullah’s politics changed under Nehru’s influence when the Pakistan movement gathered steam as the Muslim League raised the spectre of post-independence Hindu-dominated India.

The traction for the movement coincided with Abdullah’s rising popularity as communists within the National Conference ranks authored Naya (New) Kashmir manifesto in 1944 promising land redistribution. The pledge capped Abdullah’s rise as the messiah of deprived masses while support for Pakistan’s creation grew in other Muslim-majority areas. 

The pledge became the basis of Abdullah’s politics in the 1940s which made Nehru, a socialist, his natural ally. The alliance proved crucial in depriving Pakistan of Kashmir. Jinnah could do little to bolster support in Kashmir. He was left with no allies after National Conference’s creation. The organisational strength of Abdullah’s party gave India the much-needed edge when the Dogra kingdom collapsed as the Pakistan-backed irregulars were on their way to its summer capital Srinagar.

Hari Singh, the last Hindu king until October 1947, believed Kashmir could remain independent and maintain ties with both India and Pakistan. He ignored Nehru’s requests for accession to India as he pursued his pipedream. Jinnah banked on Kashmir’s Muslim majority and dependence on western Punjab, which became a part of Pakistan, for ensuring the accession as per his wishes. 

Kashmir’s political future hung in balance when Hari Singh fled to Jammu as the irregulars closed in on his capital, making the Srinagar airfield pivotal to both sides. Armoured cars and gun carriers arrived by road nine days after the first Indian planes touch down in Srinagar. The National Conference, meanwhile, played an important role in fending off the invasion and rallying the public against it.

The Muslim League could do little with virtually no structure to mobilise the public or block the airstrip. Abdullah, who did everything to neutralise the remnants of Jinnah’s ally Muslim Conference, was flown to Delhi on October 25, 1947, to devise the Indian strategy to repulse the invasion. Women were among hundreds of Abdullah’s volunteers, who joined the National Conference militia and assisted the Indian army in Kashmir.

Nehru relied on Abdullah’s popularity to retain J&K as its accession to India was subject to a referendum, which was agreed upon after a ceasefire to end the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir. Abdullah, who argued for India’s legitimacy over Kashmir at the United Nations, endorsed the accession even as virtually the entire Muslim population of the Jammu region of about half a million was displaced or butchered in the run-up to the accession. 

Abdullah negotiated autonomy for J&K except in defence, foreign affairs, and telecommunications until his ties with India’s governing Congress soured within a few years. Abdullah antagonised powerful Hindu traditionalists within the Congress, including Vallabhbhai Patel, when the Kashmiri leader tried to end the dispossession of the J&K’s Muslims as per Nehru’s assurances. Abdullah formed a Land Reform Committee in April 1949 to distribute land to tillers as per his pledge in the Naya Kashmir manifesto, believing he could implement it in line with Nehru’s socialist policies. 

Kashmiri Brahmins, or Pandits, accounted for less than five percent of Kashmir’s population but owned over 30% of the land and had a lot at stake to let Abdullah get his way. Patel’s tried to stall the land reforms but Abdullah managed to restrict land holdings to distribute the land among Muslims and so-called untouchables in the Jammu region while trying to placate the Pandits, who refused to take kindly to the reforms.

The differences that began over the reforms snowballed as Patel rushed top Intelligence Bureau (IB) operative B N Mullick to Kashmir in August 1949 to plot Abdullah’s removal. IB agents penetrated the National Conference to divide its ranks for the ouster of Abdullah, who was placed under surveillance. Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the precursor of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), separately aligned with the Praja Parishad, which Hari Singh apparently financed to launch a violent campaign against Abdullah.

These groups were livid over the land reforms and the end of the monarchy, which conformed to the Hindu idea of kingship. Kshatriya and Brahmins, which are at the top of the hierarchical caste system, helmed with Dogra state while Muslims were virtually reduced to mere outcasts. Abdullah, who upended the region’s social structure, somehow managed to finalise the Delhi Agreement in July 1952, which recognized Kashmir’s autonomy.

BJS leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee launch an agitation with the support of Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad against the accord. Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin, chose to dump Abdullah as the situation became too hot to handle. On 9 August 1953, Abdullah would be summarily dismissed and arrested at midnight.

Abdullah’s humiliation polarised J&K on religious lines as Muslims saw his unceremonious ouster as an attempt to reverse their empowerment. The Pandits wanted to see the back of Abdullah, whose short-lived rule threatened their grip over levers of power. Their hold increased greatly under the Dogra rule through land grants and their preference for government jobs.

Abdullah’s ouster marked a dramatic reversal of his fortune six years after he helped India overcome the impediments to accession—geography, Hari Singh’s pipedream, and demography—after neutralising the idea that Hindus and Muslims are separate nations. His purge marked the beginning of engineered politics in Kashmir and the installation of a series of clients as rulers sustained through patronage networks, corruption, and strong-arm tactics. It has been a slippery slope since. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Indian Muslim Couple Pioneered Women’s Empowerment Via Education

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh Movement was for modern Western–style education based on a rational outlook and opposition to blind adherence to tradition

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When Sheikh Abdullah and his wife, Wahid Jahan, resolved to empower women by educating them in Aligarh, a dusty town in northern India, they knew how daunting the task would be. Hindus and Muslims both opposed the idea, fearing western education, which was first introduced in far-off British-ruled coastal centers, would lead to ‘immorality’.

But the couple persisted and started Aligarh Girls School defying all odds. The school went from strength to strength and would in 1937 be upgraded to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Women’s College when the literacy rate among India’s women was just three percent. The college came into being almost two decades before New Delhi’s premier Lady Shri Ram College was founded.

Years later, Abdullah spoke with a sense of triumph and pride about their labour of love and realisation of their dream in form of the college. Addressing a gathering of the students of the college, he said education had the same bright effect on them as silver polish has on pots and pans when they came out of the darkness after innumerable odds. He underlined that educated girls illuminated their society.

The couple was part of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh Movement for modern Western–style education based on a rational outlook and opposition to blind adherence to tradition. Educating women became their lifelong endeavour. The Muslim Educational Conference, a platform for mobilising masses to promote education, formed a department for promoting women’s education in 1898. The idea was also promoted through Aligarh Institute Gazette.

In December 1902, Abdullah, who was among Sir Syed’s close associates, was made in charge of the women’s educational project and a special ‘Aligarh Monthly’ issue was published the following year for the purpose.

Educated at AMU, Abdullah, who was born in Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, started the journal ‘Khatoon (woman)’ for the promotion of women’s education in 1904 and founded Female Education Association the same year to promote his cause and provide support to institutions working for it.

Bhopal’s ruler, Begum Sultan Jahan, provided a shot in the arm for the project when she offered Abdullah a grant for the Aligarh Girls School to take off with five students and a teacher on October 19, 1906. Science and social science were part of the first syllabus, making Abdullah among the pioneers of female education in India. Abdullah was duly awarded Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian, in 1964 in recognition of his contribution, which puts him in the league of the founders of India’s first women’s college, Calcutta’s Bethune College (1879) and Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College (1886).

Aligarh Girls School was also the first for Muslim girls in north India. Abdullah’s daughter, Rashid Jahan, was among the students who honed their rebellious streak there. Rashid Jahan chose a radical path as a communist and a rebel. Her personal life and the literature she produced were ahead of her times. A gynecologist, who was among the first Muslim women to study medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi, she spotted khaddar sari with sleeveless blouse and short hair. She would travel to far-off places to treat the poor.

Rashid Jahan’s lifestyle and ideas were rare for women of her generation in the first half of the 20th century. She attacked female seclusion, patriarchy, and misogyny and wrote about bodies with the exactness that only a doctor with knowledge of human anatomy would. She influenced iconic Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Marxist ideas. Her husband Mahmuduzzafar was Amritsar’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College principal while Faiz taught English there.

Rashid Jahan was one of the authors of a polemical collection of stories ‘Angaarey (embers)’ which triggered outrage in the 1930s with its attack on British colonialism and religious conservatism. ‘Angaarey‘ was banned in March 1933 but would lead to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association. The association revolutionised Urdu literature and attracted people such as poets Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, and iconic Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai.

Rashid Jahan would inspire Indian and Pakistani feminist Urdu writers to explore forbidden subjects such as sex. Chughtai was Jahan’s junior at the Aligarh school. Her ‘Lihaaf (quilt)’, which humorously dealt with lesbianism and the sexual desires of women, also triggered a storm and prompted British colonialists to charge Chughtai with pornography.

Lihaaf’ portrayed alternative sex in 1941 two decades before second-wave feminism. Her portrayal of a woman’s conditioning vis-à-vis her body had no parallels in the West. The feminist subversion of patriarchy by Chughtai, who went on to become South Asia’s top feminist after literary grounding at the Aligarh school, with ‘Lihaaf’ predated Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ by five years.

Her work draws as much attention as her Western peers in almost every department where South Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminist/Gender Studies, and South Asian literature are taught, according to Chughtai’s translator Tahira Naqvi. Naqvi believes Pakistani poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz derived inspiration from Chughtai’s bold and uninhibited writing style. Described as one of Urdu fiction’s pillars, Chughtai also influenced the likes of writer Hajra Masroor and novelist Bano Qudsia.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Why Mulayam Singh Yadav Mattered

Yadav’s death has left a void in Indian politics. Here is why it seems hard to be filled in the foreseeable future

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Matter of life, death literally: Why Pakistani army chief's naming is crucial MyPluralist

One Pakistani Prime Minister ended up losing his life and another almost spent the rest of it behind bars despite thinking they had covered all the bases. Politicians have found it difficult to have what they could consider the right man for Pakistan's top job of the army chief
  1. Matter of life, death literally: Why Pakistani army chief's naming is crucial
  2. Pakistani Military's Domination Is Linked To Events Over 3 Centuries
  3. Geography, Pipe Dream: Bigger Odds India Overcame For Kashmir’s Accession
  4. Reframing Of History & Change In Saudi Arabia
  5. Indira Gandhi was on verge of quitting politics & then…

Mulayam Singh Yadav: Social Justice Champion Who Challenged Hindu Nationalists

Mulayam Singh Yadav was key to changing the course of Indian politics in the 1990s and along with Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then chief minister of Bihar, gave Muslims a breathing space from the backlash they suffered in form of repeated pogroms following Pakistan’s creation

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Mulayam Singh Yadav, a leading champion of social justice in India and among the politicians who notably impeded the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise to power in the 1990s and 2000s, has passed away at 82. His political career spanned over five decades and owed his success to his rootedness. A former wrestler, Yadav came from a marginalised caste background and yet went on to become one of India’s leading politicians. 

Yadav, a socialist, began his political career as an opponent of the secularist Congress, which claimed to be a party of all Indians but was dominated by the upper castes that account for just around 15 percent of the country’s population. He became a lawmaker in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, for the first time in the 1960s when he entered politics drawing inspiration from socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia.

Also Listen: Why Mulayam Singh Yadav Mattered

Yadav was catapulted to the highest echelons of power when he forged a formidable alliance of Muslims and the communities (around 85 percent of the population) historically disadvantaged under the Hindu caste system in the 1980s and 1990s. Congress’s failure in protecting Muslims when they faced increasing violence as the Hindu nationalists vied for power worked in helping Yadav cement the alliance. 

Yadav was key to changing the course of Indian politics in the 1990s and along with Lalu Prasad Yadav, the then chief minister of Bihar, gave Muslims a breathing space from the backlash they suffered in form of repeated pogroms following Pakistan’s creation as a Muslim homeland. The politics of the Yadavs enabled Muslims to think beyond their security and focus on education, helping create a new middle class within the community, which is now back to square one with state-backed exclusion and invisibilisation. There was a near complete exodus of Muslim middle and upper classes to Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947.  

The Muslim backing was key to the success of Mulayam Singh Yadav as he replaced Narayan Datt Tiwari, whose Brahmin community is at the top of the hierarchical caste system, as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 1989.  The Congress has not since returned to power in the state, which sends 80 of 543 members to the national parliament. 

Yadav adopted the Muslims as their own, which would eventually also help the BJP discredit the politics he represented. The BJP has leveraged the concentration of influence and wealth that upper castes, its traditional supporter base, have to successfully build narratives to break the lower castes and Muslim alliance by projecting politicians like Yadav as corrupt and nepotistic. 

Muslims under Yadav’s rule got representation somewhat proportional to their population for the first time when the community suffered its deepest sense of insecurity since partition with the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque and the mob violence it sparked across the country. The BJP has discredited the due share Muslims appeared to be getting to paint Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) as a “Muslim party”. It has for long opposed any Muslim representation as appeasement and successfully rendered the Muslim vote irrelevant and excluded Muslims from power.

The BJP has successfully used the “appeasement” card to discredit secular parties, particularly in north India, and benefitted electorally to emerge as a hegemon in Indian politics. It nurtured a persecution complex among its core supporter base even though people from upper castes control almost levers of power, wealth, information, and resources. 

The BJP’s ideological forefathers opposed the idea of equal citizenship for Muslims guaranteed in the constitution. They wanted them to stay in India “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation”, claiming not even citizen’s rights. The BJP and its allies have promoted the idea of Muslims as the other and delegitimized as appeasement the rights they are entitled to while amplifying unfounded demographic anxieties. 

The delegitimization of the politics Yadav represented is now complete. It is reflected in invisiblisation of the marginalised Muslim minority. Muslims account for 14 percent of the population, but none of the 36 Indian states or federally administered territories have an elected Muslim chief minister. There is no Muslim elected official in 15 states. Ten states have one elected Muslim official each mostly in charge of the insignificant minority affairs. None of the ruling BJP’s 303 lawmakers in India’s lower House of Parliament is Muslim. BJP did not this year renominate its three Muslim lawmakers to Parliament’s Upper House. The lone Muslim federal Cabinet minister, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who headed the minority affairs ministry, hence lost his position.

Political parties including even Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, which rely heavily on the Muslim votes, have avoided being identified with Muslims. They can no longer afford to be seen to be standing up for Muslims. The BJP has pushed them on the back foot so much so that they would not speak out when they have been increasingly subjected to medieval collective punishments like house demolitions, highlighting the void Yadav’s death has left in Indian politics that seems hard to be filled in the foreseeable future.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Series Of Deaths Created Conditions For Indira Gandhi’s Political Rise

After canvassing vigorously for Congress in the 1957 election and taking over as the party president two years later, Indira Gandhi wrote to her friends about her plans to quit public life

Congress leaders chose Indira Gandhi at 52 to replace Shastri hoping the chhokari (a chit of a girl) or gungi godiya (a dumb doll) that some described her would be easy for them to manipulate. Simon and Schuster

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri offered Indira Gandhi the insignificant information and broadcasting portfolio in his Cabinet in June 1964, she accepted it partly for financial security. She was hard up with royalties from her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s books being her only source of income. Indira Gandhi’s estranged husband, Feroze Gandhi, died four years. He left no property for his widow and their two sons. Indira Gandhi did not have a house of her own to move to when she had to leave the bungalow allotted to Nehru as prime minister upon his death the same year. The Nehru family mansion in Allahabad had earlier been donated.

The circumstances following Nehru’s death scotched Indira Gandhi’s plans to quit public life. After canvassing vigorously for Congress in the 1957 election and taking over as the party president two years later, she began writing to her friends about her plans to quit public life. She would step down as the Congress president in 1960 instead of serving a second term. 

In his book Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, academic Sunil Khilnani writes a series of deaths would create political and personal conditions that brought Indira Gandhi to power. Nehru died at 74 in May 1964 two years after India’s demoralizing loss in the war with China devastated him. His successor, Shastri, died two years later. Congress leaders chose Indira Gandhi at 52 to replace Shastri hoping the chhokari (a chit of a girl) or gungi godiya (a dumb doll) that some described her would be easy for them to manipulate.

Indira Gandhi would prove them wrong—and how! She would go on to dominate Indian politics for the next two decades and emerge as the most powerful woman of the 20th century after British leader Margaret Thatcher, overcoming the trauma of a difficult childhood and ill health.

Indira Gandhi was still in her teens when her mother, Kamala, died of tuberculosis. She would never really forgive her anglicized father and her two aunts for belittling her mother, who came from a modest background and felt strained among the highbrowed Nehrus. Indira married Feroze, a Parsi who cared for her mother when she was ill, defying Nehru.

Indira Gandhi’s relationship with Nehru in her early years was mostly epistolary as he would be in and out of jail as a key leader of India’s national movement. Nehru’s first book on world history was based on letters he wrote to Indira from prison.   

Khilnani has cited Nehru and Indira’s unpublished correspondence from these years and noted it ‘is charged with accusation and guilt, as well as an intense emotional interdependence.’ He writes Indira Gandhi wrote to her father with ‘the clarity of someone trying to set the historical record straight about his neglect – the Nehru household not being deficient in a sense of its own historical significance. When she ultimately married Feroze, in 1942, after years of her father’s resistance, she seemed to be trying, pointedly, not to be a Nehru.’

The marriage was short-lived. Indira Gandhi was back with her father along with her sons as Feroze Gandhi proved unfaithful and erratic. She would soon get busy as a leading female face of independent India as the daughter of the country’s first prime minister. Indira Gandhi was initially content with entertaining world leaders and managing home before her interest in politics deepened as she accompanied Nehru on his frequent overseas trips for a decade.

Khilnani writes Nehru’s letters make clear he initially saw his daughter as more of a calming influence than an adviser. But she soon began taking interest in Congress’s organizational work that Nehru had little interest in. Indira Gandhi moved up the party’s hierarchy as she grew in confidence with an improvement in her health after secretly battling tuberculosis (TB) for close to two decades. She spent nearly a year at a Swiss sanatorium before she was cured after the discovery of new antibiotic treatments for TB. She became stronger, campaigned in the 1957 polls, and become the Congress chief in 1959 before losing interest in politics.

Circumstances catapulted Indira Gandhi to power and once she got it she sought to ensure it remained in her family, which her father would not really have approved of. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her as the Prime Minister after her assassination in 1984. The Gandhis remained away from politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination less than a decade later.

Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, a reluctant politician, was convinced to lead an adrift Congress in the late 1990s. She led the faltering party to power for 10 years until 2014 and has since become the longest-serving Congress chief. Her son, Rahul Gandhi, stepped down as the Congress president following the party’s rout for the second time in a row in national elections in 2019. He is said to be reluctant to run for the top Congress post as the party is due to hold elections for it. 

Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to return as the party’s interim chief. Her daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, too, has refuted speculation that she will eventually lead the party, which may now have a non-Gandhi as the leader for the first time in over two decades though Indira Gandhi’s legacy of entrenching her family’s hold over Congress is unlikely to change anytime sooner.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Frenemies: Indian & Pakistani Military Men Who Shared Close Affinity

Top Indian and Pakistani military officers shared much affinity in the early years of India and Pakistan as nation-states having trained and served together in the British Indian Army before 1947

Sam Manekshaw (1), who led the Indian Army in the 1971 war with Pakistan, and Muhammad Musa Khan (2), the Pakistani Army chief from 1958 to1966, were part of the first batch at Dehradun’s military academy.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Indian Army chief General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri responded rather approvingly when American academics Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph asked him about Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup against President Iskander Mirza in Pakistan. He thought Khan must have felt obliged to move in and ‘put things right’ finding Mirza playing ducks and drakes with the country’s political situation. Chaudhuri’s assessment two years before he led the Indian Army in the second India-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1965 echoed Khan’s claim of having been forced to act and getting drawn into politics to prevent Pakistan from descending into political chaos. 

The opinion was significant as the two knew each other well. Khan and Chaudhuri were batchmates at British Royal Military College in Sandhurst and among many top Indian and Pakistani military officers, who shared much affinity in the early years of India and Pakistan as nation-states. These officers trained and served together in the British Indian Army before Pakistan’s creation in 1947 and were among a group of tightly knit cadets chosen for training at Sandhurst from 1919 following a selection process based on shared features. 

Most of these officers came from the so-called martial races and families seen to be loyal to the British. They were thought to be compatible with British values and norms and were concentrated in a few platoons to overcome distress from being away from home in unfamiliar surroundings and for accommodating the biases of the British.           

Mirza, who retired from the army as a Major General and was the scion of an aristocrat Bengal family, was also trained at Sandhurst. He served in the British Indian Army and was part of the 17th Poona Horse before becoming a joint secretary in the Indian defense ministry in New Delhi. After Pakistan’s creation, he served as its first defense secretary. Like other Indians at Sandhurst, he spent a year with a British regiment after training before his posting to an Indian regiment. 

The Indian officers trained at Sandhurst were sent to eight Indanised units or a 10th of the total number of battalions. This was due to British prejudices about serving with Indians and doubts about the leadership abilities of the Indians. In his book Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence, Steven Wilkinson writes the links as such between these Indian officers were much tighter than if they had been spread across all the units of the army at the beginning of their careers. 

Ten Indian officers trained at Sandhurst were commissioned from 1920 to 1929 into just one of these eight units, 1/14 Punjab Regiment, which was later merged into the Pakistan Army in November 1947. Wilkinson writes these officers ate and drank as well as trained, often went on leave, and served in the field together. By 1951, six of them were in service in the Indian Army with one retiring the year before because of ill health. They included three of India’s 22 major generals. On the Pakistani side, their batchmates included Ayub Khan. The officers forged close bonds during training at Sandhurst and at staff colleges as well as operations during the Second World War.

Sam Manekshaw, who led the Indian Army in the 1971 war with Pakistan, and Muhammad Musa Khan, the Pakistani Army chief from 1958 to 1966, were part of the first batch at Dehradun’s military academy when training began there in 1932.

In Manekshaw’s obituary in 2008, Pakistani columnist and fellow Parsi Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote about having heard much about the Indian military leader from his friend, Attiqur Rahman, a Litunent General in the Pakistani army. Manekshaw and Rahman served in the British Indian Army as young officers on the Burma front. In February 1942, Manekshaw asked Rahman to leave his pistol so that he could shoot himself after getting wounded in Burma. Cowasjee quoted Rahman telling Manekshaw not to be silly and that all would be well. It was a close call with the surgeon attending to him almost giving up. He wrote Rahman and Manekshaw did not meet again until 1945 when the latter was one of his instructors at the Quetta Staff College, which became the Pakistan Army’s institute for training mid-career officers after 1947.

Gen Mohammed Yahya Khan, who led Pakistan in the 1971 war, was also a good friend of Manekshaw and the two were part of British Indian Army chief Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck’s staff in 1947. Cowasjee wrote Yahya Khan offered to buy Manekshaw’s motorcycle for Rs 1,000 which he promised to send from Pakistan but failed to do so. Manekshaw is quoted to have said after the 1971 war that Yahya Khan ‘never paid me the Rs1,000 for my motorbike, but now he has paid with half his country’, referring to Bangladesh’s creation.

Cowasjee wrote when he met Manekshaw he told him that Yahya Khan had never forgotten the debt, but never got around to it while offering to pay back the Rs 1,000 with interest on his behalf. ‘No, no, said the field marshal [Manekshaw], Yahya was a good man and a good soldier. We served together. There was not one mean or corrupt bone in his body. Your politicians are as bad as ours. Yahya was condemned [after the 1971 war] without being heard. After he was put under house arrest at the end of December 1971, up to his death in 1980, he clamoured unceasingly for an open trial. Why was he condemned unheard?’ Cowasjee quoted Manekshaw as saying.

Many of these officers maintained such cordial ties despite continuing hostilities between the two countries. Asghar Khan, who led the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and came to be known as its father, spoke to Indian veteran Squadron Leader Dalip Singh Majithia days before his death in January 2018. In October 2017, Asghar Khan phoned his Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) roommate Randhir Singh to offer condolences over Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh’s death. 

In the 1940s, Arjan Singh and Asghar Khan were batchmates. They maintained their relationship despite heading two adversarial military forces. Their bond also helped avert an all-out war following an India–Pakistan skirmish in March 1965 in Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch. Asghar Khan would pick up the phone and speak to Singh. He urged Singh not to get the IAF involved as PAF would be forced to respond if the latter did and end up broadening the theatre of war. Singh was convinced and prevented a full-scale conflict before Pakistani incursions into Kashmir in 1965 triggered a full-blown war later that year. 

These bonds also helped save the lives of Asghar Khan and his family when they were caught in the middle of the bloodbath subcontinent’s division into India and Pakistan triggered in 1947. Khan was the chief flying instructor at RIAF’s Advanced Flying Training School in Ambala on the Indian side when the violence began. His successor at RIAF, Wing Commander Nair, convinced Asghar Khan against taking a train across the newly-created border. ‘Wing Commander Nair did us a good turn and saved our lives,’ Asghar Khan wrote in his book, My Political Struggle. Nair would get in touch with PAF chief Air Vice-Marshal Allan Perry-Keene to help arrange a plane for Asghar Khan and his family’s evacuation to Pakistan.

In 1965, Ayub Khan offered to release K C Cariappa, who was taken as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down on the last day of the war that year, as a special gesture since the Indian Air Force officer’s father, General Kodandera Madappa Cariappa, was the Pakistani military leader’s senior. Ayub Khan directed Pakistan’s envoy to India to meet General Cariappa, the first Indian commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, and brief him about his son’s condition. General Cariappa, who was later conferred with Field Marshal rank, instead asked the envoy to look after all the captured Indian soldiers. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Essence of Prophet Muhammad’s Teachings: Equality, Egalitarianism

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shortly before he passed away, Prophet Muhammad spelled his moral and ethical mandate for Muslims in his last sermon. He essentially reiterated his vision that was pivotal to his successes against possibly all odds. The Prophet declared all humans descended from Adam and Eve and there is no superiority ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, a white person over a black person, or of a black person over a white person.’ He called for treating others justly to ensure that no one would be unjust to his followers. ‘You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity […] you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. […] Treat women well and be kind to them […]’

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s last address and his life-long egalitarian teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority. He challenged inequalities based on kinship, tribal affiliation, and wealth, and triggered ferocious opposition from the elites such as Umayya, whose slave Bilal, an African, was among Islam’s first converts and prominent members of the budding Muslim community. Umayya tortured Bilal, who was known for his euphonious voice, to force him to renounce Islam. He would place a rock on Bilal’s chest to have him fall in line. Bilal, who was known to be close to the Prophet, refused to give in. He would go on to have the distinction of giving the first public call for prayers or azan to Muslims and marrying a woman from an important Arab clan.

Bilal’s social mobility illustrated how the Prophet transformed Arabia with social justice at the core of the transformative change he effected. He created a society, which took care of its weak and treated them with respect, uprooting an oppressive power and social structure that accorded an individual low or high social status as per nasab (kinship or lineal descent). The change did not come without trials and tribulations. The Prophet’s own turned against him. The persecution he faced forced his flight to Medina. He suffered assassination attempts and wars by much stronger adversaries. But he struck a balance between idealism and pragmatism, which helped him win him over even his worst enemies. He ended a cycle of reprisals and constant warfare and ushered in unity, order, peace, and justice. The Prophet united warring tribes and gave them a sense of community to eventually have them welcome him back to the city of his birth—Mecca.

The Prophet founded the first Muslim state in Medina and governed it as per the principles of socio-political justice. The principles were enshrined in the Medina Charter, which many consider the constitution of this state. They outlined the political rights and duties of the state’s inhabitants and sought to end conflicts among tribes and maintain peace among all its inhabitants – Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans.

The charter declared no Jews will be wronged and will be treated as one community with the believers. It sought to protect the religious rights of non-Muslims and was known as Sahifah Medina or Dustur Medina in Arabic. It was perhaps the first such written document incorporating religious and political rights. The charter specified means for conflict resolution and sought to promote mutual respect and acceptance. It underscored Muslim commitment to human lives and religious minorities in line with Quran’s mandate for Muslims to respect all previous messengers such as Jesus and Moses and to honour their followers. It recognised equality and the right to peaceful coexistence with all groups getting protection and rights to live as per their beliefs.

The Charter had its roots in infighting, which the Prophet ended by unifying communities. Muslim scholars have sought to revive its spirit to end the political violence in the name of religion, particularly since the 1980s in the name of fighting communism, which boomeranged and sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. In January 2016, they put their heads together at a conference in Morocco reaffirming the values enshrined in the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, underlined the charter promoted unity, pluralism, and religious freedom. He sought the revival of its spirit for a more peaceful and inclusive world.

The Prophet also signed a charter of privileges with Christians in 628 and pledged them freedom of worship, movement, and protection in the event of war years after Ethiopia’s Christian kingdom offered asylum to some early Muslims when they faced persecution in Mecca. The Prophet allowed Christians from Najran in modern-day Saudi Arabia to worship in his mosque when he ruled Medina. The treaty he signed with the Christians pledged ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. […] No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’  The treaty reflected the Quranic spirit. The Quran says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ It calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times and also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel). The Quran mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

The four Khulafa Rashidun (rightly-guided) caliphs Abu Bakar, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, the Prophet’s close companions, succeeded him and laid the foundation of Islam’s Golden Age, which produced icons such as polymath Ibn Isa, known in the West as Avicenna. The period between the eighth to the eleventh centuries marked the high point of this age marked by great strides in science and learning. For Islamic science expert Glen M Cooper, this era profoundly affected the development of empirical science. Cooper has argued the West ultimately became the heir of those scientific developments. For him, the contributions of Muslim scientists to medicine and the flourishing of science during the Golden Age of Islamic civilisation can be explained, in part, by basic Islamic religious beliefs and practices. British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili wrote scholars and scientists of the Islamic Golden Age are no less worthy of mention in the history of science than Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Among them, Ibn al-Haytham was the greatest physicist in the 2,000-year period that separated Archimedes and Newton. Polymath Al-Bīrūni is regarded as the Da Vinci of Islam. Mathematician and astronomer Al-Tūsi influenced Copernicus while Ibn Khaldūn is known as the father of social science and economic theory.

The golden age was the most remarkable period of scholarship and learning since Ancient Greece when the Islamic Civilisation spread across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Muslims produced rich literature, thought, and contributed to science. The quest for knowledge was among the primary goals of the Muslim rulers when Christian Europe followed outmoded teachings and Arabs mastered science. In an essay titled Questions on Natural Science Englishman Adelard of Bath, who left behind his traditional education at the cathedral schools of France and travelled to Antioch (Turkey) in the 12th century, cited the blind adherence of Europeans to intellectual orthodoxy. He wrote that Arabic science has freed man to explore the natural world with his own faculties and reason as a guide.

Medicine became a part of Islamic culture that espoused sound health. ‘Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease: old age,’ the Prophet advised his followers. Muslims over the centuries drew on traditional practices to make their medicine the world’s most sophisticated by the 10th century. The Islamic culture fostered a tradition of book-making that transmitted knowledge from one place to another when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness. Crusades were a manifestation of this darkness for which distortions about the Prophet were used as a justification in an attempt to eliminate Islam and Islamic Civilisation.

The misrepresentations persisted even as Europe overcame its inferiority to the much intellectually advanced Islamic world to dominate the world. They gained a fresh currency in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have put a spotlight on these distortions. They echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions in a futile attempt to overshadow an extraordinary legacy, which could be the panacea for many of the contemporary problems provided Muslims, in particular, understand its essence—justice and equality.  

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Misplaced Indian Exceptionalism & ‘Bad Muslim’ Myth

Misplaced Indian exceptionalism has perpetuated myths about the so-called Muslim world even as they fly in the face of facts

The tallest Hindu statue is located in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Wikipedia

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In 2002, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, otherwise projected as a rare ‘moderate’ in his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fell back upon his core ideological characteristic—anti-Muslim rhetoric. He claimed wherever Muslims live, they do not like to do so in coexistence with others.

The sweeping Muslim-bashing was seen as Vajpayee’s attempt to rescue his standing among the hardcore elements of the BJP and its parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The hardliners were angry over his public chastising of Narendra Modi, who rose to become India’s Prime Minister in 2014, for the pogrom of Muslims under the latter’s watch as the highest elected official of the western state of Gujarat. Vajpayee is also believed to have privately pressed for Modi’s resignation amid global outrage over the pogrom and angered the hardliners further.

India has changed radically since 2002 under the political dominance of Hindu nationalists. The BJP has even given up its pretense. It no longer needs the ‘[liberal] mask useful only for theatre‘, as a colleague famously described Vajpayee, with BJP’s rise as a hegemon under Modi’s leadership since 2014. Muslim demonisation and dehumanisation are par for the course. They have been a staple of India’s media and political discourse over the last eight years, not to mention mob attacks, lynching, weaponisation of laws, and open calls for genocide.

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Much of this discourse revolves around the supposed wrongs of their co-religionists far away from the Indian shores to target India’s Muslims and unfounded demographic anxieties. The worries surround the supposed ballooning of the Muslim population and its threats to the country’s basic Hindu character. They are amplified through both traditional as well as social media, echoing the underlying message of Vajpayee’s comments back in 2002 in far cruder terms virtually 24X7. Wherever Muslims are in the majority, they do not let others exist is the broader messaging to ensure the political status quo by projecting BJP as the only bulwark against the so-called Muslim threat.

The increasing invisiblisation of the marginalised Muslim minority, accounting for 14 percent of the population, has been one of the manifestations of India’s radical transformation under the BJP. None of the 36 Indian states or federally administered territories have an elected Muslim head or chief minister. There is no Muslim elected official in 15 states; 10 have one each mostly in charge of the insignificant minority affairs. None of the ruling BJP’s 303 lawmakers in India’s lower House of Parliament is Muslim. BJP has not re-nominated its three Muslim lawmakers to Parliament’s Upper House. This means the lone Muslim federal Cabinet minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who heads the minority affairs ministry, will lose his position.

Even the so-called secular political parties, which are dependent on Muslim voters, have been trying to avoid being identified with Muslims, and forget about speaking up for them. In an April 2022 piece, journalist Shekhar Gupta noted they cannot afford to be seen close to Muslims or a Muslim cause and called it ‘suicidal in today’s electoral politics.’ Gupta wrote there is squeamishness about calling out targeting of the poorest Muslims, which he called a pattern. He noted that BJP has psyched the secular parties out. He added they are too paranoid to even be seen to be speaking up for them, for instance, most recently in the aftermath of violence triggered following processions of ‘lumpenised’ Hindus, who carried weapons and played provocative music in Muslim ghettos. Police actions have invariably followed such violence in what Gupta called ‘a 21st-century form of colonial-style collective punishment’ of demolition of Muslim houses.

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Gupta wrote no major political party would even hold a public iftar during the month of Ramadan, nor would many leaders be seen there. Modi has added to his appeal by shunning Muslims, publicly refusing to wear the Muslim skullcap while donning every possible Indian headgear, and ending the practice of hosting receptions to mark Muslim festivals. Bigotry, once confined to private spaces, has become a badge of honour and a tool for climbing up the ladder, particularly in the media and politics.

India’s servile Muslim leaders and public figures have not done the community any favours by pandering to the majoritarianism and exceptionalism of an India invulnerable to wrongs that happen in Muslim countries. Patronisingly regarded as the ‘good Muslim’, they are expected to acknowledge Hindu largesse towards Muslims in India, and the lack of such generosity in Muslim-majority countries. Muslim countries were again in the crosshairs of the belligerent Indian media amid the diplomatic row over the derogatory comments of two BJP functionaries about the Prophet Muhammad.

Veteran lawmaker Ghulam Nabi Azad’s tone-deaf farewell speech upon his retirement from the Indian Parliament’s Upper House in February 2021 reinforced what a ‘good Muslim’ requires for majoritarian validation. He portrayed a fantasized India and attacked Muslim-majority countries saying none of them have any reason to be proud of anything. He curiously months earlier complained about being ostracised and said many fellow Hindu Congress candidates have stopped inviting him to campaign for them fearing they will lose votes if a Muslim canvassed for them.

Azad echoed a favourite trope of the Hindu nationalists, who claim that no Muslim country is secular, and claimed Muslims fight themselves when they have no one left to battle. He called India the safest for minorities, claiming religious plurality comes naturally to India. Azad got an ovation for riding roughshod over his fellow Muslims by avoiding any mention of the troubles they faced under the BJP, whose ideological forefathers wanted them to stay in India ‘wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing — not even citizen’s rights.’

Azad was way off the mark and particularly vis-a-vis southeast Asia, a bastion of religious coexistence and home to 25 percent of Muslims globally. Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the region’s Muslim-majority countries, in particular, are the biggest refutation of BJP-RSS’s standard propaganda. That the world’s tallest–Garuda Vishnu Kencana—and sixth-highest Hindu statues are located in Indonesia and Malaysia speaks volumes, especially about the status of the Hindu minorities in these countries.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo inaugurated the Garuda Vishnu Kencana at a ceremony in Bali in presence of the country’s top leaders including one of his predecessors, Megawati Soekarnoputri, in September 2018. Thousands attended the ceremony, where traditional dancers performed and fireworks lit up the night sky in a grand celebration of Indonesian multiculturalism. Speaking on the occasion, Widodo called the statue a masterpiece and a source of pride for Indonesia. He said the statue shows the nation has not only inherited extraordinary masterpieces such as the ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan but is able to create globally-recognized cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which was completed after 28 years, a historical footprint of Indonesia.

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The 75m tall sculpture of the Hindu God Vishnu sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, said to be his companion and vessel, atop Ungasan Hill in the Garuda Vishnu Kencana Cultural Park is the world’s largest copper statue and the third tallest. With a wingspan of 65m, it stands on a pedestal, making its total height (121m) 30m taller than the Statue of Liberty. With his eyes half closed, the statue showcases Vishnu, who is seen as the preserver and protector of the universal equilibrium, in a meditative state, riding on Garuda’s back. 

The statue is the centrepiece of Bali, a Hindu enclave in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Hindus form two percent of the country’s population and 90 percent of them—around 3.4 million—are concentrated in Bali, one of Indonesia’s developed parts, where only five percent of the people live below the poverty line against 12 percent nationally. Hindus in Indonesia also include those who converted to Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s in Java and the Indian Hindu diaspora. In Indonesia’s Lombok, Hindus and Muslims jointly pray at the 18th-century Pura Lingsar Temple complex. 

Indonesia’s national airline is named after Garuda. Another deity Ganesh’s picture adorns the country’s currency notes highlighting Indonesia’s official promotion of syncretism. A 16-feet high white and gold statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom, atop a lotus was installed on the premises of the Indonesian embassy in Washington in 2013 to honour the country’s Hindu population. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent,’ and spoke about religious tolerance when he presided over the installation ceremony. The Huffington Post reported long sleeve blouses and headscarves of observant Muslims contrasted with the brightly coloured strapless and tight sarongs of Balinese dancers at the ceremony. It noted there were some moments during the celebration where the faiths abutted but did not clash, summing up the essence of Indonesia.

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In neighbouring Malaysia, the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of Murugan outside the capital Kaula Lumpur is an emblem of the Muslim-majority country’s multiculturalism and pluralism. It is the world’s largest statue of the deity and the sixth tallest Hindu sculpture located near the base of a 272-step flight to a Hindu temple in Batu Caves. Malaysia Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein visited the temple in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam, which commemorates Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman as well as the deity’s birth, as a national festival. 

The 140-feet high gold-painted statue of Murugan outside Kaula Lumpur is the world’s largest of the deity and the sixth tallest Hindu sculpture.

People of the Indian-origin, mostly Hindus, account for eight percent of Malaysia’s population. They are the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia and have held key positions in the country. Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu has been among one of the longest-serving ministers (1979 to 2008) in Malaysia. Gobind Singh Deo, Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were ministers of Indian origin in Mahathir Mohamad’s last government (2018-2020). In 2020, Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin politician, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second Malaysia-Indian minister in Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, ensured the representation of all ethnic communities including Indians. His rule ushered in harmony and political freedoms. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation formed a multi-ethnic coalition, which was later expanded and came to be known as Barisan Nasional. The coalition included the Malaysian Indian Congress and governed the country from 1957 to 2018.

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Misplaced Indian exceptionalism has fostered the kind of ignorance, to put it mildly, Azad’s farewell speech represented. It has perpetuated the myth of the essentially ‘bad Muslim’ in the so-called Muslim world, which flies in the face of the fact that around two dozen Muslim-majority countries identify themselves as secular. The secular Muslim-majority nations include Indonesia, which embodies pluralism in every sense, and refutes the wilful inaccuracies of Vajpayee’s April 2002 speech, which have become a pandemic now. And ironically he made the speech upon his return from south-east Asia.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Furore over remarks against Prophet marks shift in Arab perception of India

The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as a historical adversary, and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s centuries-old mutually enriching ties with the Arab world

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

The high point of Islamic civilization between the eighth and the eleventh century coincided with Baghdad’s centrality to global trade, knowledge, science, and scholarship. It drew people from around the world to the city and by the ninth century, Baghdad had Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Armenian quarters apart from Jewish and Christian suburbs. The diversity also led to an exchange of knowledge that facilitated the development of some of the pivotal scientific ideas. A text that a merchant from India brought to Baghdad in the eighth century first introduced nine numerals and zero and changed the face of mathematics. It made multiplication and division simpler as well as helped develop the decimal system and calculus, which is vital to almost all branches of science and underpins important discoveries in physics.

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Scholars such as polymath al-Khwarizmi, whom algorithms are named after, built on these ideas to create what has been described as “the Arabic hegemony” in mathematics. The Arabs helped the new system of numerals, which Europeans called Arab numerals, to reach Renaissance Europe even as Arabs continue to correctly call them Hindsa (the Indian numerals). The Arab world’s age-old links with India have enabled such mutually-enriching exchanges for centuries and have had Arabs hold Indians in high esteem. Over the recent decades,  Arabs have associated India with Gandhian ideals of religious coexistence. 

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The furor over the derogatory comments ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries made about the Prophet Muhammad underlines a shift in how the Arabs have perceived India. The Arabs appear to have finally begun to grasp the radical changes India has undergone since BJP emerged as a hegemon in Indian politics. The comments were a new low in what has been a staple of India’s Islamophobic political and media discourse over the last eight years. They marked a tipping point for Arab countries, where people have been trying to wrap their heads around the situation in India.

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The increasing weaponization of history in India through its narrow interpretation has blurred lines between myths and reality. The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as the monolithic other; a historical adversary and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s collaborative and mutually enriching ties with the Arab world. Thanks to the collaborative ties, Panchatantra, one of India’s most significant contributions to global literature, found its way to the rest of the world through its Arabic translation. Kalila wa Dimna, an anthology of Indian fables, has been among the most popular books in the Arab world for over a millennium. Ibn Mukaffa compiled the book in the eighth century from the fables sourced from Panchatantra to engaging philosophers in the wisdom of its tales.

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Alf Laylah wa Laylah (The Arabian Nights/One Thousand and One Nights), which has for centuries influenced storytelling and inspired generations of writers and is known as the Arab world’s biggest contribution to literature, may also have an Indian link. Novelist Salman Rushdie has argued the iconic book’s probable origin is Indian. In a New York Times piece in May 2021, Rushdie wrote Indian story compendiums too have a fondness for frame stories, for Russian doll-style stories within stories, and animal fables. He added somewhere around the eighth century, these stories first found their way into Persian. Rushdie cited surviving scraps of information and wrote the collection was known as Hazar Afsaneh (a thousand stories). Rushdie referred to a 10th-century document from Baghdad and added it describes the Hazar Afsaneh and mentions its frame story about a king who would kill a concubine every night until one of them manages to delay her execution by telling him stories. 

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The Arabs began acquiring Sanskrit texts before they sourced nearly all of the Graeco-Roman philosophical and scientific works to usher in the Islamic Golden Age. In 771, an Indian delegation visited Baghdad carrying a library. The brilliance of its texts is believed to have prompted the commissioning of their translations into Arabic. Indian mysticism was among the subjects the Abbasids, who helmed the Golden Age from the eighth century onwards, tapped into. 

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A courtyard at the tomb of a Sufi saint in Baghdad signifies Indo-Arab links in the spiritual realm. It commemorates Sikhism founder Guru Nanak’s stay there during his 16th-century journey through Arabia for inter-religious dialogue. Nanak, who is believed to have gained deep insights into Islam thanks to the journey, founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion drawing from Islam as a synthesis between two of India’s major faiths.

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In Kerala, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, believed to be the oldest mosque in the southern Indian state, also attests to deep India-Arabia links. Linked to mythical ruler Cheraman Perumal, who, the story goes, saw the moon splitting into two either in his dream or from his palace. Arab traders are believed to have told him how the miracle was associated with the Prophet. This is said to have prompted Perumal to travel to meet the Prophet in Mecca, where he is believed to have died as a Muslim. A friend of Preumalis is said to have later built the Cheraman Juma Masjid in the seventh century. 

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The 8.9 million strong Indian expatriate community in the Arab world represents the continuing symbiotic relationship. The remittances they send have often surpassed India’s other sources of capital inflows. The remittances constituted 2.7 percent of the country’s GDP in 2017 and double the spending (1.15% GDP)on healthcare. Over $30 billion from the region accounted for nearly half of the total remittances of $69 billion India got in 2017. Remittances of over $10.5 billion in 2017 from Saudi Arabia, where almost a quarter of 17 million Indians around the world lived, was the most significant contribution to the flow of capital from a single country.

Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

How Hindu Statue, Temple Became Emblems Of Pluralism In Malaysia

Murugan’s statue and temple at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Batu Caves, a major tourist attraction outside the Malaysian capital of Kaula Lumpur in Selangor, were little-known except to the locals until American naturalist William Temple Hornaday came to know about them during a hunting trip in 1878. Hornaday drew the attention of western archaeologists to the hitherto obscure but important site. He discovered the locals would catch bats in the caves within a limestone outcropping dating back to prehistoric times, and retreat into them when wild animals overran the woods. The caves’ popularity grew after British explorers found aboriginal drawings made of charcoal, which have since disappeared, at their entrance.

Over a century and a half after Hornaday popularised the Batu Caves, they are better known for a Hindu temple built there in 1891 and the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of the chief Tamil deity Murugan. The world’s largest Murugan statue and sixth tallest Hindu sculpture is located near the base of a 272-step flight to the entrance to the largest of the Batu Caves, where Tamil trader K Thamboosamy Pillay built the temple. Pillay chose the site to build the temple after finding a similarity between the shape of the entrance of the caves to the tip of vel, the spear Murugan wielded. He is said to have dreamt of the Hindu Goddess Sakti requesting him to build the shrine for her son, Murugan.

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In 1888, Pillay placed a vel before a consecrated idol of Murugan was installed at Batu Caves. The Thaipusam festival, commemorating Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman with his vel and the deity’s birth, was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1892. The Hindus continued praying there until the British rulers stopped the prayers in 1916 and ordered the vel’s removal. The vel was reinstalled and the Hindus were allowed to resume prayers at Batu Caves after a court ruled in their favour.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Malaysian prime minister after independence, visited Batu Caves during Thaipusam in 1959. His successor Tun Abdul Razak Hussein followed suit in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam as a national festival. When Tun Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third prime minister, visited the shrine in 1978, he advised the temple management to take legal action against the companies involved in quarrying activities at Batu Caves. The quarrying continued until Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu became Malaysia’s works minister. Vellu ordered an end to the quarrying activities and relocated them to an alternative site with the help of the Selangor state government. 

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Murugan’s statue, the centrepiece at the site, was added at the foot of the stairs to the caves in 2006 as the world’s tallest statue of the Hindu deity in Muslim-majority Malaysia. One of the caves lined at the site with dioramas, representing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, is known as Ramayana Cave. The cave’s entrance is marked with a statue of Lord Hanuman, one of the heroes of the epic. 

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims annually visit the site. The main celebrations of Thaipusam in Malaysia are held at the Batu Caves. Hindu devotees from all over the country, carrying kavadis or symbolic burdens including body piercings, pay annual homage to Lord Murugan after climbing the 272 steps to his temple.

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Murugan’s statue and Hindu shrine at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group after the majority Malays and the Chinese (26 percent), the dominant economic force. Tamils account for a bulk of the Indians, mostly Hindus, in the country—81 percent—numbering about 1.5 million. They trace their roots to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and began arriving in the region in the 15th century mostly as textile and spice traders. The British rule in Malaysia accelerated their migration in the 18th century when Tamil labourers were brought to the region to build roads, and railways and to work on plantations. Other Indians in Malaysia include a sprinkling of Sindhis, Bengalis, Telugus, Gujaratis, and Malayalis.

Malaysian Indians, who otherwise lag behind other communities, have risen and held key positions in the country. They have served in the Malaysia Cabinet since independence with Vellu being one of the longest-serving ministers from 1979 to 2008. Vellu was appointed as the special envoy on infrastructure to India and South Asia after demitting office. Gobind Singh Deo became Malaysia’s first Sikh Cabinet minister when he was named as the communications and multimedia minister in Mahathir Mohamad’s government in 2018.

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Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were other ministers of Indian origin to serve in Mahathir’s seventh Cabinet. Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin minister, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister in 2020. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second minister of Indian origin in the current Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.

Tunku Abdul Rahman-led Malaysian ruling alliance set the tone for an inclusive system in the country. He ensured representation to all ethnic communities including Indians as nation-building overshadowed divisions. His rule coincided with harmony and political freedoms in the country, where the Constitution’s Article 3 guarantees the freedom of religion. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation worked with Chinese and Indian political parties and formed a national coalition, which later expanded and was renamed National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN). The interethnic coalition, which included the Malaysian Indian Congress, governed the country from 1957 to 2018 when BN, which delivered robust economic growth, lost power for the first time.

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There was a rupture in Malaysia after 1969 when the alliance lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. The racial riots and the 18-month emergency rule that followed led to a rise in Malay nationalism. In 1971, the government launched New Economic Policy as an affirmative action plan favouring Malays as the democratic space narrowed and sparked ethnic tensions. Over a decade later the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism was established in 1983 to promote harmony among Malaysians. There have since been efforts to address Malaysia’s polarisation and to adopt an inclusive Malaysian national identity with civil society groups playing a key role in bridging differences through dialogues among different faiths and ethnic groups. 

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan