Book Review : Freedom Movement and Indian Muslims by Santimoy Ray
How many people from this part of South Asia know the name of Soomru Allah Bux (1900-1943), a legendary leader from pre-partition India, who fought against the communal politics of the Muslim League, was popular enough to defeat its candidate to the State Assembly and wielded so much support among the masses that he could even become the Chief Minister of Sindh in the early forties? As a Chief Minister he was opposed to the British war efforts in 1941 and openly supported Gandhiji’s ‘Quit India’ resolution. History records the tragic fact that he was assa-ssinated by a hireling of British imperialists (May 14, 1943) who was close to the communal politics of the League. Or for that matter how many people have heard about Mayzada Hashina Begum, a leader of the Calcutta scavengers and sewerage cleaners, who fought for their rights, courtedjail during the Second World War, ‘fought against police oppression, social injustice and obscurantist ideas of the mullahs and confronted boldly the rabid communal approach of Muslim Leaguers’?
The book Freedom Movement and Indian Muslims, written by late Santimoy Ray (1914-1999)—a renowned freedom fighter, educationist and crusader for communal harmony, who had been a part of the historic Jugantar revolutionary party since his young age and faced a decade of imprisonment—not only provides many such important details, which have remained largely hidden from the eyes of the concerned people, but also brings forth the role of the Indian Muslims on a broader canvas of anti-imperialist struggle. His contention is that “[t]he main reason to exclude struggles of 18th and 19th centuries by conventional luminaries is a conscious or (may be) an unconscious endeavour to blackout the role of the peasantry—both Hindus and Muslims—and of the tribals, more particularly of the heroic and positive role of the Muslim community to end the British rule in India”. The book, ‘dedicated to those martyrs of Pakistan and India who laid down their lives in protecting the minorities’, was first published by the People’s Publishing House in 1979, and has been reprinted by the National Book Trust; it should be translated in all Indian languages as it can help millions of people to get out of the stereo-types they are still carrying about the ‘other’ community.
Divided into six chapters, the book covers around two centuries of British rule and the militant struggles which arose against it. Starting from the ‘Revolt of Sannyasis and Fakirs’ (1763-1800) and Wahabi Revolt (1820-70), the book moves on to the ‘Phase of Emerging Nationalism’ (1857-1905) , Epoch of Armed Struggle (1900-34) , and ends by discussing the ‘National Mass Struggle and Indian Muslims’ (1919-34, 1934-47). A significant part of the Appendix, which comprises an extract from Prof Sumit Sarkar’s work, and the Sedition Committee Report on Muslim participation in the revolutionary movement before the First World War, is the “incomplete list of Muslim martyrs in the freedom movement’’. The forty-plus-page list of martyrs belonging to the Muslim religion has been culled from various sources and starts from the martyrs of the Wahabi movement like Abdullah (hanged in 1871), Ahmadullah (born in 1808, death in Andaman Jail, 1881) and proceeds with revolutionaries of ‘Agniyug’ (the phase of what has been popularly known as ‘revolutionary terrorism’); Anti-Rowlatt Act movement and Jallianwalabagh tragedy and concludes at the Royal Indian Navy revolt of 1946. It includes martyrs of the kisan and workers movement; and a supplementary list of martyrs of the 1857 war has also been added. At one place elsewhere in the book the author expresses regret that he has to ‘name these revolutionaries as Muslims’(page 79) but he explains the rationale behind it: to ‘expose the illogicality and baselessness of the anti-Muslim attitude of the Hindu pundits of history’ and expresses the hope that the reader would appreciate the purpose.
What prompted the author to take up this work is worth emphasising. In the Preface itself the author elaborates on the ‘perversion of history in school and college textbooks’ and the manner in which Muslims are stigmatised at various levels —ranging from them being considered ‘foreigners’ or a ‘separate cultural identiy’ and ‘betrayers of the national struggle’—and how it had been ‘the deliberate policy of the British rulers during the post-Mutiny period’ to generate more acrimony and strifes amongst various communities and groups. The discipline of history writing—on the framework drawn by James Mill—became an important tool here, which led to the depiction of Muslim tyranny over the subject people—the Hindus—and the resistance of Rajputs etc. became their postwar themes. For a layperson it may be told that Mill periodised Indian history into three periods—Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period which was largely accepted without question and this understanding has stayed with us for almost two hundred years. According to Prof Romilla Thapar:
Mill argued that the Hindu civilisation was stagnant and backward, the Muslim only marginally better and the British colonial power was an agency of progress because it could legislate change for improvement in India. In the Hindutva version this periodisation remains, only the colours have changed: the Hindu period is the golden age, the Muslim period the black, dark age of tyranny and oppression, and the colonial period is a grey age almost of marginal importance compared to the earlier two.
There is no doubt that colonialists succeded in influencing/impacting Indian historiography so much so that when (according to the author) India experienced stirring phases of Hindu-Muslim unity one witnessed knighthood for Dr Jadunath Sarkar whose four-volume study on The Falll of Mughal Empire well served the cause of British imperialism. The author cannot hide his derision for one of the leading lights of this ‘school’—the ‘eminent historian Dr R.C. Mazumdar‘ who had explained his philosophy in the 1968 Diwali number of the Organiser in such words—’that all the Muslims should go to Pakistan to solve the knotty problem of communalism’.
Elaborating on the exclusive approach of this conservative school of history in the introduction, the latter returns to Dr Mazumdar again and tells how he refused to give any importance to the great uprising of 1857 and who wanted us to go at least 700 years back—when Bakhtiar Khilji first conquered parts of North India—to write the ‘history of India’s freedom movement’.
Of course the author is happy that a ‘new generation of historians have cropped up’ to meet the ‘challenge of the pernicious philosophy and cult of hatred, which creates thousands of Nathuram Godses, and many of the earlier theories of Dr Jadunath Sarkar and Dr Mazumdar ‘have been mutilated and nearly demolished’.
THE first chapter ‘Revolt of Sannyasis and Fakirs’ (1763-1800) dwells upon the first flag of revolt against the establishment of British rule in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa which was unfurled by Majnusha, leader of a band of Fakirs, along with Bhawani Pathak, leader of a band of Sannyasis. These fakirs and sannyasis mainly belonged to religious orders like the madaria sect among Muslims and the saiba sect amongst Hindus. Although they were not properly organised, they ‘could successfully inspire the oppressed peasantry’. Their forces could inflict a series of defeats on the British armies. By 1800 this ‘first uprising against the firingis came to an end’ but left an indelible imprint upon future struggles like the ‘Wahabis and revolutionaries of Agniyug—known as terrorists’.
The second chapter focusses on the ‘Wahabi Revolt’ (1820-70), which ‘was one of the earliest, most consistent and protracted’ and the “most remarkable anti-British movement which dominated the nineteenth century”. (page 4) It wielded influence from Peshawar to Dhaka and also made inroads in southern States. The decade of the sixties of the nineteenth century witnessed (1863-65) a series of trials by which leaders of this “seditious community” were arrested and sent to jail or given capital punishment. But all such prisoners stood valiantly in the face of tre-mendous torture. In 1872 one Mohammed Sherali, a Wahabi convict in the Andamans, assasinated Lord Mayo while he went to visit Portblair Jail.
Chapter three deals with the phase of emerging nationalism and the changes in the nature of resistance put up by the Indian masses and the altered modus operandi of the Britishers as well. One notices that the ‘Muslim mind’ cannot be considered a monolith now and one can categorise the ‘Muslim mind into modernist and traditio-nalist’ or ‘pro-British and anti-British’. The modernist or pro-British Muslim leaders felt dismayed at the growing frustration of the Muslims’ declining aristocracy and their retinue including ulemas. They opposed the ‘suicidal resistance of the Wahabis and particularly negative attitude of the ulemas’… They wanted that Muslim masses accept British rule as salvation and appealed to the Muslim masses to educate themselves on Western lines. The traditionalists, represented by the ulama, continued in the same vein and ‘looked beyond the immediate communal gains to the historical growth of India’s national liberation struggle’. The founders of the Darul Ulema Deoband represented ‘the rebellious spirit of the disgruntled Muslims’ since the days of the Wahabi movement.
The author brings forth an important point that a significant chunk of the Muslims from the then Bengal province had opposed the partition of Bengal—which was supposed to be a smart move on the part of the British colonialists to divide the Hindus and Muslims. According to him,
The documents in government archives pertaining to the movement against partition of Bengal ..prove that throughout East Bengal in different districts a good number of mass meetings were held. (page 30)
He discusses a mammoth gathering in Calcutta on August 7, 1905 where the main resolution was seconded by Maulvi Hasibuddin Ahmed.
Chapter four starts with the advent of Agniyug, ‘an age of militant nationalism’, the birth of various secret revolutionary societies in India—Mitramela in Tamil Nadu, Abhinav Bharat in Maharashtra, Atmaunnati Anushilan, Suhrid, Sadhana, Brati, Sadesh Bandhab Samities in Bengal, Bharatmata Samiti in Punjab and ends with the sacrifices by revolutionaries under the leadership of Surya Sen. While discussing the martyrdom at the age of eighteen of Khudiram Bose who belonged to the Jugantar group of the Anushilan Samiti (August 11, 1908) it mentions the role of an ‘unnamed Muslim lady who had given him shelter before his arrest’—she was known to be the sister of Moulvi Abdul Waheed.
The author narrates an experience when Dr Alam, a leader from Punjab who toured the Muslim majority provinces preaching against communalism, had delivered his presidential address to the second annual meeting of the Bengal Provincial Students’ Conference held in August 1928 at Mymensingh town. He writes with candour that he still remembers Dr Alam’s words: “We must fight British imperialism with all our might; but before that we must fight communalism everywhere and always.”
The last chapter discusses the trial of the INA prisoners—Shah Nawaz, Dhillon and Rashid Ali—and how it electrified the whole country from Kashmir to Cape Comorin. There were demonstrations in major cities of undivided India when Rashid Ali Day was observed by the Muslim League, Congress, Communist Party, Forward Bloc. A mighty demonstration of around two lakh people was held in Calcutta. The author concludes his monograph with the words that while the rise of the Muslim League and its ultimate triumph is being recognised as a dominant negative feature, the positive contribution of the Muslim community in India went unrecognised among many knowledgeable people. He ends with a note: “This is a basic malady of the Indian social situation which needs to be ruthlessly rooted out if India wants to survive and prosper as a civilised community in the world.”