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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sri Lanka is unlikely to immediately overcome the chaos as the next government faces an uphill task of addressing shortages of essentials such as food, medicine, and fuel
Embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has agreed to resign as the months of discontent in Sri Lanka came to a head with thousands of protesters storming his official residence on Saturday. The country’s opposition parties were due to meet on Sunday to discuss the formation of a new government even as Rajapaksa’s whereabouts were unclear. The parties together have the 113 members required for a majority in Parliament. They are expected to request Rajapaksa to install the new government before resigning.
But Sri Lanka’s troubles remain far from over. The country is unlikely to immediately overcome the chaos as the next government faces an uphill task of addressing shortages of essentials such as food, medicine, and fuel. A peaceful transition of power is among the other immediate challenges the country faces as continuing instability could also frustrate the talks for the restructuring of debt and the raising of funds.
Sri Lanka, which needs $6 billion this year to buy essentials and to stabilize the economy, has a monthly fuel bill alone amounting to about $500 million. Suppliers have been reluctant to provide fuel as Sri Lanka has struggled to pay for it, prompting the suspension of petrol sales. The cascading impact of the economic crisis has also led to the closure of schools, and delays in medical procedures amid a shortage of drugs and equipment. The United Nations has warned of a potential humanitarian crisis against this backdrop.
Food and medicines have not been transported in many cases due to acute fuel shortages. Fresh farm produce has been unable to make it to cities and people have found it difficult to travel. The airlines have been asked to ensure they are carrying adequate fuel for return flights due to a shortage of jet fuel. The inflation is at a record high of 54.6%. The food prices have increased by five times and about two-thirds of Sri Lankans are estimated to be struggling to have enough meals.
A new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion bailout is expected to take months even as the talks with it have suffered because of the continuing upheavals. Sri Lanka has been negotiating with IMF to restructure billions of dollars in debt it has defaulted on. The new government needs to submit a plan on debt sustainability to IMF in August before an agreement could be reached. There have been doubts about whether the new dispensation could do more than what the previous government was doing. The new government has to agree on IMF-backed economic reforms, which some opposition parties expected to be a part of it may find difficult to accept.
The negotiations with the IMF have been complicated because of Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. In April, Colombo announced the suspension of repayment of loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Sri Lanka needs to repay $28 billion of its total foreign debt of $51 billion by the end of 2027. It has struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it ran out of foreign exchange reserves. At least 15 people have succumbed to heatstrokes as they stood in fuel lines while the country repeatedly ran out of petrol.
Rajapaksa remained defiant until Saturday in the face of calls for his removal for mismanaging Sri Lanka’s economy and causing economic ruin. He relented in May and removed his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the prime minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been involved in talks with the IMF and the World Food Program, also failed to inspire much confidence. Wickremesinghe came to be seen as an instrument to perpetuate the Rajapaksas’ hold over power before he too was forced to announce his resignation as the protesters stormed his private residence and set it afire.
The Rajapaksas have dominated politics for close to two decades and held the top positions of president, prime minister, finance minister, and other key cabinet posts on the back of an ultranationalistic agenda. Things came to a head as the prolonged mismanagement of the economy and corruption pushed the country to bankruptcy. Protesters have been calling for the Rajapaksas’ ouster since March as the nation of 22 million grappled with a dire economic situation.
The crisis hit Sri Lanka as it was overcoming a three-decade civil war triggered over the discrimination against the minority Tamils in the 1980s. The war ended in 2009 but the Rajapaksas, who have been accused of running the government as a family business, continued their majoritarian Buddhist Sinhalese policies, which were among the causes of it. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was accused of war crimes when he was the defence secretary under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. The siblings ended the civil war through a brutal military operation, turning a blind eye to widespread rights abuses.
Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father, Don Alwin Rajapaksa, was a lawmaker in the 1950s and 1960s. Mahinda Rajapaksa led the family’s ascent to the highest echelons of power. He first became the prime minister before serving as the president twice from 2005 to 2015. The Rajapaksas lost power in the 2015 elections but returned to helm the country with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the president in 2019 thanks to his majoritarian Buddhist Sinhalese agenda and projection as the strongman the country needed. Mahinda Rajapaksa was inducted into the government as prime minister.
Basil Rajapaksa was the finance minister until last year and presided over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since it gained independence from the British over seven decades back in 1948. The inflation hit a record high of 54.6% in June and was feared to mount to 70%. The COVID-19 pandemic also came as a major jolt to the Sri Lankan economy as it hit the remittances from workers overseas and the pivotal tourism sector the country has come to be heavily dependent upon. There separately was a build-up of government debt amid rising oil prices. A ban on chemical fertilisers import in 2021 damaged agriculture before it was rescinded in November.
The downward spiral coincided with high energy prices and food inflation afflicting much of the world. Sri Lanka’s woes increased further as the sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine disrupted global food supply chains and increased energy prices and sparked largely peaceful protests in March. Demonstrators have been traveling to Colombo for protests over the economic ruin despite a grave shortage of fuel. Closure of schools and rationing of fuel for essential services fuelled anger in the cash-strapped country.
Sri Lanka’s options so far have been limited as oil and gas prices have skyrocketed because of the Ukraine war and prompted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to even seek the help of Russian President Vladimir V Putin, a global pariah. In a tweet, Rajapaksa said he phoned Putin to ask him for “credit support” to import fuel three days before protesters stormed his residence and sent him packing.
Sri Lanka has faced a crippling economic meltdown and struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it has run out of foreign exchange reserves
Thousands of protesters descended on the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence and office on Saturday demanding his resignation amid growing anger over his inability to address a worsening economic crisis. Police fired shots into the air, and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters but failed to prevent them from getting into the sea-front presidential secretariat. Over two dozen protesters and police were reported to have been injured in the clashes that followed.
The whereabouts of Rajapaksa, who has remained defiant in the face of calls for his resignation, remained unclear. His brother, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and other members of their family have resigned amid mounting public pressure over the last five months. The Rajapaksas have dominated politics in the south Asian country for close to two decades and have been blamed for the crisis. Sri Lanka has struggled to even import essential items such as fuel, food, and medicines as it has run out of foreign exchange reserves.
At least 15 people are believed to have died in fuel lines of causes such as heatstroke with Sri Lanka repeatedly running out of petroleum products. People have often been forced to line up at gas stations for hours and still been unable to get fuel.
Protests have rocked Sri Lanka for five months with the fresh demonstration being one of the biggest yet. People took to the streets on Saturday even as a curfew was imposed overnight and trains were halted to stop protesters from coming to Colombo. The restrictions were put in place as the UN asked the Sri Lankan authorities to show restraint in the policing assemblies and ensure every necessary effort to prevent violence.
The escalating crisis prompted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to call for an emergency meeting of top political leaders. Wickremesinghe, who took office in the middle of the crisis in May and has also been has been facing calls to resign, asked the speaker of parliament to summon the House to discuss the situation.
The protesters shouted slogans asking Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down and held Sri Lankan flags as they broke into the president’s residence by breaking the gates to enter the colonial-era premises. The security personnel deployed there were outnumbered and could not hold the crowd back. The protesters dismantled police barricades to reach Rajapaksa’s residence. News agency Reuters quoted unnamed defence ministry sources saying the president was removed from his official residence on Friday for his safety ahead of planned protests over the weekend. It added Wickremesinghe too has been moved to a secure location.
Live visuals streamed on Facebook showed protesters shouting slogan against the Rajapaksas in the rooms and corridors of the president’s house. Some of them were seen in a swimming pool inside the house while others filled the grounds outside with no visible security.
Sri Lanka has been facing its worst economic crisis since it gained independence from the British in 1948. The inflation at a record high of 54.6% in June was feared to mount to 70%. Sri Lanka has been in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a $3 billion bailout. But the growing instability could frustrate the talks as well as the restructuring of debt and raising of funds from other sources.
The COVID-19 pandemic escalated the economic crisis as it hit the remittances from Sri Lankans overseas and paralysed the tourism industry the country’s economy has been heavily reliant on. The government debt rose amid rising oil prices. A ban on the import of chemical fertilisers in 2021 damaged agriculture before it was rescinded in November.
President Rajapaksa’s mismanagement of the economy has been blamed for Sri Lanka’s woes, which triggered largely peaceful protests in March for his resignation. Demonstrators have been traveling to Colombo for protests over the economic ruin despite a grave shortage of fuel. Closure of schools and rationing of fuel for essential services has fuelled anger in the cash-strapped country.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In August 2019, tensions escalated between India and Pakistan when New Delhi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status to take full control of the Himalayan region, which the two countries have claimed in full since the end of the British colonial rule in 1947. Islamabad reacted to the change in the Muslim-majority region’s constitutional status by downgrading diplomatic ties with India amid a lockdown and a communications blackout to prevent protests over the sweeping changes and sweeping restrictions. The ties between the two countries deteriorated months after they were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when Islamabad retaliated against an Indian airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama.
Meanwhile, the construction of a corridor to provide visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at the last resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, in Pakistan continued unhindered. It was finished and inaugurated within a year ahead of Nanak’s birth anniversary in November 2019. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, participated in the inauguration ceremonies of the corridor on either side of the border as the two countries, which have fought four wars, found a rare common ground amid fraught relations.
Nanak remained a unifier even as ties between India and Pakistan were at their lowest ebb. High-ranking officials of the two countries, who had been avoiding each other like plague, rubbed shoulders with each other at the inauguration of the corridor on the premises of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib on the Pakistani side. Centuries after he passed away, Nanak remained an uniter. Nothing symbolises it more than the gurdwara, which stands at the place where Hindus and Muslims, who revered Nanak equally, are believed to have found flowers under a white sheet when they arrived for Nanak’s last rites. Muslims buried a part of the sheet and flowers and built a mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. Hindus put their share in an urn and interred it.
Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism. The composite culture Nanak contributed significantly to is being torn apart with Muslims at the receiving end of bigotry passed off as nationalism for their erasure with full state patronage. Nanak’s family was Hindu and his association with Muslims was much deeper than is widely known. His teacher was a Muslim and the first to understand his spiritual prowess. He called Nanak a blessed and gifted child and attributed his superior intelligence to it.
Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, was the one to prevail upon Nanak’s father and his employee, Mehta Kalu, to allow Nanak’s otherworldly pursuits. While Nanak wandered with holy men, Kalu wanted him to focus on his education. Bular was also the first to report miracles which indicated Nanak’s holiness. Bular, who became Nanak’s first devotee outside his family, is said to have witnessed a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun while he was sleeping under the open sky. He saw this as a sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular also reported how the shade of a tree remained on Nanak even when the position of the sun changed while he slept. He rushed to tell Kalu Nanak was an exalted person upon seeing this.
Bular was totally devoted to Nanak and convinced Kalu that his son was a man of God. He dedicated much of his land to the Guru. Gurdwara Janam Asthan, which stands at the place of Nanak’s birth, and much of the city around it is located on the land Bular bequeathed to Sikhism’s founder. Rai Hadayat, a 17th-generation descendant of Bular, led Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s family has continued a tradition of leading annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s anniversaries in Nankana Sahib in what is now Pakistan. Bular’s descendants are the custodians of the bequeathed land, whose revenues are spent on the welfare of the Sikh community and the maintenance of their places of worship in Nankana Sahib. Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh bestowed the Rai Bahadur title on Bular’s descendant, Rai Issa Khan, a fellow Bhatti Rajput, and made him a revenue collector in recognition of his family’s contributions to Sikhism.
In May 2018, the Shiromani Gurdwara ParbandhakCommittee (SGPC), which manages Sikh places of worship, acknowledged Bular’s ‘immense contribution’ to Sikh history and erected his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. The SGPC unveiled another Muslim Nawab Rai Kahla’s portrait at the museum in July 2017 for sheltering Nanak’s spiritual successor, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1705. Kahla ruled a small principality in Punjab when he offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s decree. Guru Gobind gave Kahla a holy pitcher known as Ganga Sagar, which holds water despite its asymmetrical holes, and a sword as a token of gratitude. Kahla’s descendants have preserved the relic, which they took to Pakistan in 1947 after they were uprooted from the Indian side of Punjab at the time of the Partition in 1947. It has remained in the custody of Rai Azizullah Khan, a former Pakistani lawmaker, since 1975.
The courage Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, the ruler of Malerkotla in what is now the Indian side of Punjab, showed in speaking out against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, in 1705, ensured his kingdom remained untouched in 1947 when the subcontinent’s division triggered violence. The violence left around a million dead and triggered a virtual exchange of populations between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab. It damaged the centuries-old coexistence and continues to cast a long shadow. But Malerkotla has remained untouched by the upheavals. It remained the Indian Punjab’s only Muslim pocket while the rest of the region was emptied of Muslims in 1947. It continues to be an exception even amid the fresh wave of violence against Muslims thanks to what is seen as Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla. Guru Gobind is believed to have blessed the nawab that ‘his roots shall forever remain green’ when he learnt about his stand against Zorawar and Fateh’s execution.
Baba Bulleh Shah, a Muslim saint and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, also spoke out against the Mughal highhandedness. He was a friend of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur and hailed Tegh Bahadur as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was executed. The saint earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims for Aurangzeb’s attitude towards the Sikhs. He followed in Nanak’s footsteps and promoted inter-religious harmony. Nanak in fact travelled to Arabia in the 16th-century with his Muslim companion, Mardana, for inter-religious dialogue, which provided him deep insights into Islam. In Baghdad, Nanak stayed with a Muslim saint. A courtyard at the tomb of the saint in Baghdad commemorates Nanak’s stay in the city.
The Muslim descendants of Mardana, known as rubabis, performed kirtans or devotional songs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple for generations before partition ended the tradition. They began the practice at the instance of the ninth Sikh Guru Guru Tegh Bahadur as Mardana played a musical instrument called rubab as Guru Nanak sang his poetry. Baptized Sikhs alone have since 1947 been doing kirtans as partition tore apart Punjab’s syncretic culture. But syncretism remains integral to Sikhism, whose scripture Guru Granth Sahib includes the writing of Muslims including Baba Farid. Guru Arjan, who compiled the first edition of the scripture and had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, is widely believed to have invited Mian Mir, a Muslim saint, to lay the shrine’s foundation in Amritsar.
Muslim holy men such as Farid, whose picture adorns the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan and is among revered Muslim figures in Sikhism, also made vital literary contributions. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha and contributed to Punjab’s syncretic culture until the revivalism in the 19th century weakened it. But Nanak has remained a guiding light, who in poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s words ‘awakened India from a deep slumber.’ Iqbal hailed Nanak as ‘mard-e kaamil [perfect]’ in a poem about him. Iqbal lamented ‘our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]’; did not recognise the worth of that ‘jewel of supreme wisdom’. In another poem, Iqbal paired Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti and wrote: ‘The land [India] in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.’