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

How Prophet Muhammad Was Ahead Of His Time

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, 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.

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

The Prophet, who founded the first Muslim state of Medina, was way ahead of his time. The Medina Charter, which many consider the constitution of this state, best illustrated this. The charter outlined the political rights and duties of the state’s inhabitants. Medina, one of Islam’s holiest places as the Prophet’s final resting place where the first Muslim community was established, was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter. The charter 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.

ALSO READ | Essence Of Ramadan: Charity, Sacrifice, Reflection

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.

ALSO READ | Babylon Brigade: Christian Militia That Fought ISIS On Muslim Cleric’s Call

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 eleventh century 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, 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.

ALSO READ | More Unites Than Divides Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity, Judaism

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 April 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. Addressing a BJP plenary, he claimed wherever Muslims live, they do not like to do so in coexistence with others. ‘Instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats.’

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 pretence. 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.

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

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 the 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.

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.

ALSO READ | Essence Of Ramadan: Charity, Sacrifice, Reflection

Gupta wrote no major political party would even hold a public iftaar 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 a 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 south-east Asia, a bastion of religious coexistence and home to 25 percent of the 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 speak 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 multi-culturalism. 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 ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan but is able to create globally-recognised cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which was completed after 28 years, a historical footprint of Indonesia.

ALSO READ | Babylon Brigade: Christian Militia That Fought ISIS On Muslim Cleric’s Call

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 the 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.

ALSO READ | Regime Changes In Iran, Iraq Hurt American Interests In Longer Run

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 representation to 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.

ALSO READ | Imperial Past Drives Russia, China’s Territorial Claims in Ukraine, Taiwan

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 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

Guru Nanak: Eternal Unifier, Guiding Light As Bigotry Becomes Order Of Day

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

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

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.    

ALSO READ | Imperial Past Drives Russia, China’s Territorial Claims in Ukraine, Taiwan

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.

ALSO READ | Why India Will Like To See The Back of Imran Khan

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. 

ALSO READ | Kim Ji Young, Born 1982: Familiar Story Of Life Women Live Universally

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 the 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. 

ALSO READ | Budapest: City Of Belonging In Bookshops, Longing

In May 2018, the Shiromani Gurdwara ParbandhakCommittee (SGPC), which manages Sikh places of worship, acknowledged Bular’s ‘immense contribution’ to the 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.

ALSO READ | Regime Changes In Iran, Iraq Hurt American Interests In Longer Run

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.

ALSO READ | Lack Of Ideological Commitment Helped Imran Khan’s Opponents Coalesce To Oust him

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. 

ALSO READ | Essence Of Ramadan: Charity, Sacrifice, Reflection

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 trore about 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. 

Also Read | From Rubber-stamping Coups To Activism: Highs & Lows Of Pakistani Judiciary

Muslim holy men such as Farid, whose picture adorns the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan and are 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.’

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

Why India Will Like To See The Back of Imran Khan

Khan’s archrival, Nawaz Sharif, has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India

Narendra Modi and Imran Khan at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan in 2019.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Cricket has been among the few common grounds through decades of mostly hostile ties between India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars over the 70 years of their existence as nation-states. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketer ever, once epitomized the potential of sport in bridging divides. A debonair sportsman, Khan enjoyed a fan following in India that no Pakistani could now dream of emulating. A part of his appeal stemmed from his background. Khan came from the upper-class westernized elite, which has admired the idea of India that its secular and democratic founding fathers articulated. The admiration was reflected in his early days as the Prime Minister until it perhaps became clear to him that India has fundamentally changed under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule.

The BJP leadership has no time or inclination for the niceties of their secularist predecessors. It has reshaped India to the extent that there are now no common grounds between the two countries. Khan, who has become increasingly intemperate, has since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 and prolonged siege of the region made fiery speeches against India. He has repeatedly referred to the origins of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He has highlighted at international fora how RSS drew inspiration from the Nazis in the 1940s and linked it to the situation of India’s 200 million Muslim minority.

ALSO READ | Essence Of Ramadan: Charity, Sacrifice, Reflection

Khan’s belligerence has brought him into the crosshairs of BJP-RSS’s well-oiled cyber warriors, and much of India’s media allied to the country’s ruling establishment. His critics, including Khan’s second wife, have for years been given generous space and airtime to essentially dig out dirt on him and project him negatively much like Indian opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Khan is now no exception and has joined the long list of Pakistan politicians, who have been seen as villains in India. The list includes Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto. 

Pakistani leaders are more unpopular in India when they are in power. Jinnah tops the list of villains in India as he led the movement for the creation of Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known in India for talking about a 1000-war and for nurturing Pakistan’s atomic programme for parity with India. He vowed to make the bomb even if they had to eat grass. Benazir Bhutto is blamed for her role in the insurrection against India in Kashmir in the late 1980s. She has been back in the news in India after a speech for her on Kashmir featured in a controversial Indian film, which has been accused of stoking hatred.

ALSO READ | Regime Changes In Iran, Iraq Hurt American Interests In Longer Run

In a speech at the UN announcing the end of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto resolved to fight for his country’s honour and blamed India for aggression. Bhutto warned they have the resolve, the will to fight for a ‘righteous cause’ irrespective of Pakistan’s size and resources. Benazir Bhutto, who was also articulate and western-educated like most of her predecessors and Khan, resorted to rhetoric against India in her early years of politics before India ceased to be relevant to electoral politics in Pakistan. Unlike them, three-time prime minister and Khan’s archrival Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India.

ALSO READ | Lack Of Ideological Commitment Helped Imran Khan’s Opponents Coalesce To Oust him

As he faces the toughest challenge of his political career, India will like to see the back of Khan even as New Delhi has no direct influence over Pakistan’s domestic politics. Khan survived an attempt to oust him after a no-confidence vote was blocked in Parliament on Sunday. The move has been challenged in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and likely to be struck down. Khan separately recommended the dissolution of Parliament and sought a fresh election as he risked losing power as an alliance of opposition parties and defectors from his party closed ranks to oust him.

Modi flew to Lahore to meet Sharif in 2015.

LSO READ | Why India Will Like To See The Back of Imran Khan

Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, was set to replace Khan as the Prime Minister and pave the way for the three-time prime minister’s return to electoral politics by finding a way out to end his disqualification. He is most likely to continue Sharif’s conciliatory approach to India if he is able to replace Khan as the prime minister. Sharif’s friendly approach to New Delhi began in the 1990s when he came into his own after starting his career as military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé. Zia, who is seen to be the architect of anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the Indian side of Punjab, handpicked Sharif and ensured his rise as a national leader while he was still in his 30s. He tried to replicate his success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the US help in Kashmir and Punjab. His protégé Sharif sought to turn his mentor’s policy towards India on its head and went on to sign the Lahore Declaration with his Indian counterpart, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan to sign the pact for peaceful co-existence years after his BJP led a movement for the demolition of a 16th-century mosque, which triggered one of the worst episodes of anti-Muslim violence and left thousands dead.

Sharif has repeatedly denounced the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan, which was fought months after the signing of the declaration. He maintained that the Pakistan Army planned the war without his knowledge and continued his conciliatory policy while he was in exile after his removal from power following a military coup in October 1999. Sharif backed unilateral visa-free travel for Indians ahead of the 2013 polls in Pakistan. He also called for demilitarisation of the world’s highest battlefield—Siachen Glacier—while linking his quest for peace with India to Pakistan’s prosperity. 

In its manifesto, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N) promised special priority to a peaceful settlement of outstanding issues with New Delhi while proposing to connect India with Afghanistan, Iran, and other energy-rich Central Asian republics via Pakistan. PML (N)’s promises came even as Islamabad saw India’s presence in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul in 2012 with suspicion and accused New Delhi of using the Afghan territory to stoke separatism in Pakistan. Sharif said he can even visit India without an invitation after his victory in the 2013 polls, which he saw as an endorsement of his conciliatory approach towards India. Sharif called his quest for peace with India ‘the cardinal principle’ of his foreign policy in his Independence Day speech in August 2014. Months earlier, Sharif flew to New Delhi to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the Indian leader was voted to power for the first time. He ended a tradition of visiting Pakistani leaders by refusing to meet Kashmiri separatists as per the wishes of his hosts.

ALSO READ | Kim Ji Young, Born 1982: Familiar Story Of Life Women Live Universally

Sharif even developed a good personal rapport with Modi, who has used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to win elections since his days as a provincial leader in the western Indian state of Gujarat. This ensured a short-lived turnaround in the bilateral ties when Modi flew to Lahore to meet Sharif in 2015. Modi embraced Sharif at the Lahore airport’s tarmac before they walked hand in hand. The meeting held out hope for better ties. Sharif and Modi risked the meeting despite much baggage. Modi was banned from entering the US until he became the Prime Minister a year earlier on the grounds of violating religious freedom over his alleged role in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the chief minister. Sharif’s risk was also greater as he hosted Modi in the absence of his national security advisor and foreign ministry officials. He drew flak for his contempt for institutional procedures as Pakistan is said to have no record of the meeting.   

Sharif’s attacks on Pakistan’s military establishment have gained him much admiration in India. They have earned him laudatory coverage in the Indian press, which largely sticks to the state’s line on defence and foreign affairs. The Indian media has amplified his criticism of Pakistan’s army’s leadership as part of a campaign against Imran Khan’s government. They have echoed the line that the army propped up Khan and had a role in the removal of Sharif, who was disqualified in 2017 after his family was found to have bought properties in upscale London through illegally obtained money through offshore holdings.

Sharif has been portrayed as a champion of democracy even as he repeatedly failed democratic tests during his time in power by slandering his rival, Benazir Bhutto, in the 1990s with organized campaigns to malign her. Jemina, Imran Khan’s first wife, faced a vicious anti-Semitic campaign allegedly at Sharif’s behest in the 1990s. Sharif harassed the media and got journalist Najam Sethi arrested. He influenced the judiciary to get his rivals convicted. His party attacked the Supreme Court. Sharif has also faced criticism for promoting dynastic politics and nepotism.

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