Source: South Asia, Vol. XXII, Special Issue (1999), pp. 29-37


Javed Alam

(Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi)

A CONSIDERABLE BODY OF LITERATURE- BOTH IN HISTORY AND THE Social Sciences, 1 has grown over the last fifty years or so which has argued that the unique genius of India worked to evolve, over the centuries since the coming of Muslims into the Indian sub-continent, modes of thinking and living which are a subtle intermixing or synthesis of the world-views and living habits of Muslims and Hindus. In fact there is a further thesis, where it has been repeatedly said, that it has been a chief characteristic of Indian civilisation ever since antiquity to take over or assimilate or synthesise attributes from diverse cultures which came in contact with it.

I will not, in the following discussion, go into this at all. I will only look at the nature of the synthesis which came about after the encounter with Islam from the eleventh century onwards. It is this particular synthesis that is now generally referred to as the 'Composite Culture'. Contemporary historiography, both liberal and Marxist in contradistinction to the conservative-reactionary, has treated it as a powerful resource in our society to combat communalism and other forms of sectarian strife. I want to look at this a little more closely, focusing chiefly on the inner changes in the cultural composition of Indian society and secondarily on the idea whether the mere existence of composite culture in itself can be a basis of communal harmony. The precise scope of this enquiry will become clear as we go on.

In the words of Tara Chand a co-mingling and a 'sense of larger allegiance',2 and according to Humayun Kabir a 'fusion of mentalities',3 did come about in the encounter of Hinduism and Islam or in the carefully weighed argument of Nurul Hasan, there was 'the development of a composite culture tradition ....'4 Nehru's The Discovery of India written on the eve of India's independence is in fact a major source of this trend of thought. Later on a large number of people from diverse disciplines and with varying intellectual perspectives have been imparting to this kind of thinking a fresh impetus.5 Even if we look at the terrain of secular cultural practice today it seems evident that the presence of composite culture is taken for granted, a kind of a cultural given.

Let us look at the philosophical basis and historical character of what has come to be known as the composite culture. It is not the intention here to deny the existence of a composite culture; I do believe that something in the nature of composite or a common ground did evolve affecting life at the key points and that some of it still survives influencing our social life at many intersections. Having taken note of this I do not any more want to go into the specific features of what constitutes or constituted composite culture.6 I would rather examine its foundations and try to see what were its infirmities. Its decline and loss are what immediately concern me.

Given both its historical availability and contemporary decline, what however seems to me to be questionable is the non-disaggregated manner in which the thesis has been advanced and the way it is assumed to be a living force in our social life. From the plane of philosophical thought, architectural styles, musical composition to modes of thinking, styles of living, moral outlook, etc. everything has been advanced, to suit the needs of the argument, as evidence of the composite culture. Let us begin by first ignoring the impersonal level of architectural style or musical composition or even the philosophical thought because some features within these can survive even after people belonging to different traditions come into hostile relationships. If instead we were to think of each other or the day-to-day sharing in life activities then one can go into both the strengths and weaknesses of what has been emerging as the cultural synthesis. The moral world views of, let us say, the Bauls7 in Bengal or the Bhakti saints, and the trends they gave rise to in day-to-day living, do suggest to us a very high degree over large areas of coming together or 'co-mingling' or 'fusion' of thought and living. In many other ways, independent of these, in their day-to-day interactions and dealings people did develop common themes and interests and meaning systems in their social life and they did share in religious festivals and ceremonies and auspicious occasions and derived meaning and satisfaction from these.

But the curious feature of syntheses and coming together was that these survived for as long as they were left alone; in other words, as long as there was no intervention from above. Once the intervention began - either by spokesmen of dominant versions of the orthodoxy or by the elite or by the state as such - the common features or compositeness begin to dissolve into the existing or parallel neo-orthodoxies propounded by these spokesmen, or with modification get reassimilated into prevailing modes of life sanctioned by the orthodoxy. The frail nature of the composite culture or syntheses was precisely in their inability to withstand the interventions from above.

It is here that we find the slippery ground on which the historiography of this genre stands. Historians, as political partisans, only asked the question in terms of either/or; whether there was and is a composite culture or not.8 When the question is posed this way, there can only be interminable debate because evidence can be garnered for whatever way one may wish to argue. The historians never asked what was the foundational basis of our composite culture and the kind of terrain on which it was standing.

Now the problem has been that at these folk levels what came about as an intermingling or fusion or synthesis has been of a pre-reflective kind, that is, it was not thought out and consciously appropriated by the people belonging to different religious traditions or by the bearers of culture within them. Or, even at the pre-reflective levels, the compositeness that has been here was not aligned with contending orthodoxies in a way as to be taken as necessarily acceptable when consciously thought about. Once the orthodoxy felt the danger and began intervening, by whatever modalities from above, they more or less succeeded, and are succeeding, in pushing back or defeating most of these trends.

These interventions, starting roughly from the first half of the nineteenth century, did not have a uniform character to them. From the angle of the Muslims in India, some of these represented a retreat into traditional or fundamentalist Islam of rather primitive varieties. Shah Waliullah or Saiyid Ahmad of Bareilly and their lesser known followers like Haji Shariatullah of the Faralzis in Bengal or the Maulvi of Faizabad or Maulvi Karamat Ali of Jaunpur, all in the first half of the nineteenth century, were influenced by the Wahabi movement and concentrated their attention on 'un-Islamic' practices prevalent among Muslims such as: the folk practices of joining each others festivals, modes of salutations and greetings, common customs and etiquettes influenced by the surrounding Hindu ethos, and, above all, worship of saints as Shirk (associating other powers with Allah) and so on. They wanted to wean away the Muslims, especially the new converts, from residual Hindu practices and replace these with a purified form of Islam unadulterated by 'foreign influences'.9

Another form of intervention, which comes later in the second half of the nineteenth century, is best represented by Sir Saiyid Ahmad Khan. Instead of a retreat into the past and interpretations oriented to the times of Prophet Muhammad and his close associates, Sir Saiyid's vision was one of a Muslim community, staying away from the emerging struggle against the British, achieving rapid modernisation with a conception of Islam in consonance with reason, science and technology and the demands of the modern era. This trend had many regional echoes but was especially pronounced in Bengal and was personified by Sir Abdul Latif. 10
Whatever differences which can be discerned with respect to historical time, internal thrust and intentions or motivations, there are certain common features and consequences of these interventions from above. The more salient features that can be discerned are, firstly, a thought-out and planned move towards addressing the people directly instead of relying on or looking to the court or the aristocracy to defend Islam, as, for example, the orthodox did in the conflict between Aurangzeb and Dara Shikouh. Now, some set out to build bridges between the Muslim gentry and the lower ranks of Muslims to provide enduring channels of communication within the community. Secondly, these interventions sought to bring a shift from the terrain or site of theological arguments addressed to the learned to political appeals to and some form of mobilisation of the people on broad themes. Thirdly, there was a consistent effort to reconstruct a 'healthier' version of Islam as the ground on which the newly sought identity of Muslims could stand. It may perhaps be correct to see that these two trends within the interventions taking place then crystallised in the shape of the Deoband School ('Traditionalist') and the Aligarh Movement ('Modernist') which took diametrically opposite stands towards the nationalist movement even while looking at Muslims as a distinct cultural community.

The contradictory consequences involved in all this are worth noting. While these developments were slowly drawing the Muslim community away from the rest of the society, they were also slowly bringing them as a people into the public arena as active participants, insistent on being heard. The people were becoming, in an active sense, the subjects of the history. This was a development, democratic in essence, of far reaching consequences. When seen in conjunction with developments in the rest of Indian society, especially the Hindus, we can more clearly see the manner in which political contentions were taking shape in the society. What is important to apprehend is the nature of Hindu response to the conditions imposed by colonialism.

One feature that stands out about the Hindu response is its greater variety and range and a much higher degree of polemical exchanges. Each position was critically scrutinised and all philosophical trends were closely contested. What is also crucial was the greater emancipator thrust if we look at it in totality; this has been so from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, to the contemporary period. But at a certain point, around the 1880s, there were also highly restrictive and, potentially, divisive moves within this totality. In a broad sense even these restrictive moves can be seen also as part of the 'cultural counter-offensive' to overcome the sense of 'subordination and humiliation' as a result of colonial domination.' It is, I believe, not enough simply to recognise this if we have to understand how the Muslim communal response got patterned. Within the wide range of responses amongst the Hindus, there were tendencies, muted in some and pronounced in others, which extended the feelings of subordination far back into history before the beginning of the colonial rule; the temporal frame extended backward to include the period of Muslim rule in India as well. The 'foreigners' were now not only the British but all those non-Hindus who had become as much Indians as any others; now the British and Muslims were almost on par, with Muslims more and more displacing the British as foreigners as the 'cultural offensive' took a clearer shape.

The subordination was seen not simply as a result of colonial rule but also something quite intrinsic in having been ruled by the 'Muslims'. I do not want to pursue this point any further for its implications, including for nationalism, but would like to point out that it gave rise to the creation of the other in Indian society. Engagement with this other became, unfortunately, something necessary for one's own self-awareness. This other as a presence in Indian society was also viewed as something bestial and malignant. To elaborate this I will take only two very powerful voices whose ideas had a wide ranging and deep going refraction in the saciety: Vivekananda, one of the more radical of the Hindu social reformers, and Dayanand Saraswati the more sectarian and conservative in terms of influence on society. Much more than novelists and other intellectuals, they had a more direct influence in structuring popular sentiments and responses.

But before we do this it will be useful to ask a further question: what made these interventions possible and effective in the first place? Elites, in whatever period of history, are not omnipotent in society. They cannot, when they feel like it, sponsor a complete change in the way people relate to one another. People are not mere objects to be acted upon as and when it pleases the powerful sections of society. Under the worst of situations, they retain a certain capacity to reach their own judgments and understandings.

The one factor that made these interventions possible as well as effective was the politicisation of life in society. Expanding on this we can say, that the strength of the composite culture was its being limited to'spheres of life not involving questions of power. Once power became, with the colonial impact going deep down, the central concern of different groups, it became imperative for those in a position of vantage to rally the people behind them. Thus came the phase of political mobilisation in Indian society and those who were in the race acquired a new salience. It is this situation which allowed for the effectiveness of elite interventions in Indian society.

Let us now go back to the Hindu response, and how within a wide horizon of debates and contentions, restrictiveness also became one of its features, especially when viewed in relation to the Muslims. First, there was the perspective of the sober, if more radical of the reformer-thinkers. To Vivekananda, Muslim rule had been a foreign presence in India. This is how he pictures it:

... The final victory of royal power was echoed on the soil of India in the name of foreign monarchs professing an entirely different religion from the faith -of the land.12

In contrast to Muslim rule his assessment of British rule is revealing:

Of course, we had to stop advancing during the Mohammedan
tyranny, for then it was not a question of progress but of life
and death. Now that the pressure has gone, we must move
forward. 13

Compared to the Muslim 'foreign' rule, the British rule is obviously relatively benign. Not only this, the Muslims because of their religion are an ~ intolerable presence in India. Consider how Vivekananda defines - 'Muhammad' and Islam:

Now the Mohammedans are the crudest in this respect, and
the most sectarian. Their watchword is: 'There is one God, ~
and Muhammad is his prophet.' Everything beyond that is not =
only bad, but must be destroyed forthwith: at a moment's
notice, every man or woman who does not believe in that
must be killed; everything that does not belong to this
worship must be immediately broken; every book that teaches
anything else must be burnt. From the Pacific to the Atlantic
for five hundred years blood ran all over the world. That is
Mohammadanism. 14

This presence becomes especially malignant because Hinduism is so
tender and fraternal in contrast.

You know that Hindu religion never persecutes. It is a land
where all sects may live in peace and amity. The
Mohammedans brought murder and slaughter in their train, i
but until their arrival peace prevailed.15

While the Muslims are bestial, they do not have to fear the Hindus; for the
Hindus can provide the kind of shade under which all can flourish. This
theme of tolerance within the interpretative reworking of Hindu tradition has,
since then, became the basis of filling up the other with negative features.
Dayanand does not look at Muslims and their religion very differently, only
his language is much worse. See, for instance:

... They have to their charge the greatest sin of killing innocent people. The non-acceptance of Moslem's religion they call heresy and they hold slaughter superior to heresy; that is, they say that they will put to death those persons who do not accept Islam. This they have been all along doing.16


Now see. This is also a lesson of betrayal of confidence that God is teaching to the Moslems. Whether a man be a neighbour or a servant, they should fight him or betray him whenever there be a chance. Such things have often been done by Moslems.17

Having said all this, Dayanand goes on to refer to the prophet of Islam, 'Bravo. Muhammad Sahib, Bravo.'

This two sided process of interventions from above within the religious communities in India has been an ongoing process with many and varied ramifications. It has not come to an end. The controversy meticulously built over Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid is the latest instance of it. The Hindu communalists have found in this a very potent symbol - the most popular Hindu folk God Ram is given a concrete manifestation in the shape of bricks and temple - to rally the Hindus. The Muslim communalists, whatever their other concerns revert more to the defence of their own history and the notion of the community as one with that history.

The intervention from above is invariably, unless as a part of the revolutionary struggles of the people, a ruling class-elite manoeuvre. It leads to bifurcation of common concerns and interests. It not only destroys the common heritage, from history in general and of the history of anti-colonial struggle, but gives rise to two further consequences.

First, it destroys tradition as a resource with people to renew themselves or to bring people together. Tradition in such a situation becomes more and more a weapon with the dominant to exercise power; and people become more and more a means for such power to be attained. Tradition becomes a restrictive imposition, an authoritarian device even when not felt by the people in this way. Now I do not want to suggest here that all the syncretic traditions at the local levels, which have been so very well researched,18 have disappeared or been appropriated; far from it. The thrust of my argument is that the militant and politicised forms of the re-worked tradition have completely filled up the publie sphere, and the mass mobilisations now in the name of tradition, unlike those of Gandhi, are all around these. It has pushed the lived experiences of the people into the corners of their private lives; in other words, these have been domesticated.

And, even within this domain, the re-worked Hindu militancy has created confusion and uncertainty among the people. An indication of this uncertainty is the bias of those poor Hindus, let us say returning from Ajmer Sharif, who have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Muslims are 'dirty' or 'bad' and so forth. Confusion is easy to create because a good bit of the syncretic tradition was also founded on the superstition of the poor and illiterate. Ask those returning and often you hear from them that they had gone to pray for a son or a cure for illness or some other boon. It is not that people have ceased to think in opposition to the monopolistic definitions of tradition being imposed on the society. But within the terrain of their habitual cultural day-to-day life, they do not find avenues to contest or contradict these monopolistic definitions. A disjuncture exists such that on one side there is a feeble presence; a presence which has no larger social canvas on which the political contestations and struggles take place.19

Secondly, emancipatory concerns in the domains of economic and social relations, gender questions, cultural enrichment of life and so on recede more and more into the background. Instead a communal narcissistic selfcontemplation gains in prominence. In other words, a second disjunction emerges between the socio-cultural life of the people which is subjectively getting divided and the socio-economic processes which produce on the objective plane unified structures for existence and struggle. People tend to occupy the same space more and more without becoming part of the same historical order of time.


1. The first major work on this problem was written, to the best of my knowledge, by Tara Chand
in 1920 but was published in 1963 after the debate on this problem was revived in the 1960s. See his Influence of Islam on lndian Culture (Allahabad, The Indian Press, 1963); and also Humayun Kabir, The Indian Heritage (Bombay. Asia publishing House, 1946); and Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Calcutta, Signet Press, 1946). It is interesting to note that in the cases of Humayun Kabir and Nehru the stringency of the demand for Pakistan provides the imrnediate background. The debate was revived in the early 1960s. as noted above, as a part of the struggle against the communal uses of history from both the Hindu and Muslim viewpoints. Between 1957 and 1961, The Pakistan Histoncal Society published a four volume edition entitled, A History of the Freedom Movement (Being the Story of Muslim Struggle for Freedom of Hind-Pakistan, 1707-1947). I. H. Qureshi in his Introduction (Vol. 1, pp. 1-57) tried to show the distinct and parallel paths of developments among the two communities; he debunked the efforts made by certain kings, especially Akbar, as detrimental to Muslims; and castigated the Mughal kings before Aurangzeb for the crime of lulling the Muslim community. Around the same time the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, under the editorship of K. M Munshi, published the History and Culture of Indian People (1960) from a distinctly Hindu point of view. R.C. Majumdar explicitly argued that Hindus and Muslims can never come together, that there was 'no sign that the twain shall ever meet'; see Vol. IV, 17, p. 636 of the above cited work. In C. H. Philips (ed.), Historians of hidia, Pakistan and Ceylol1 (London, OUP, 1961) Majumdar wrote that 'the newly acquired ideal of a "secular state" is opposed to all known facts of Indian history' (p. 426). Peter Hardy in Theodore de BMY (ed.) Sources of Indian Tradition endorses the position of Qureshi and Majumdar. The renewed interest in finding the common grounds and synthesising processes in history was both a result of and an effort to combat this kind of communal and prejudged use of history. Interestingly in both periods - 1940s and 1960s - when writings on this theme mulliplied, the shadow of Pakistan looms in the background.
2 Chand, op. cit.
3 Kabir, op. cit.
4 Narul Hasan, Presidential Address, Medieval Period, Proceedings of tile Indian History
Congress (Calcutta, 1963).
5 See for instance symposium: 'The Contribution of Indian Historians to the Process of National
Integration', in Proceedings of tile hidian History Congress, ibid .
6 For a detailed discussion of the specific features see Rasheeduddin Khan (ed.), Composite
Culture of India and National hitegration (Simia. 1988).
7 For an analysis of the Bauls see Hugh B. Urban, 'The Politics ot' Madness: The Construction and Manipulation of the "Baul'' Image in Modern Bengal', Sout/' Asia, Vol. XXII, no. I (1999), pp. 13-46.
8 Refer to notes I and 5 above.
9 Among many others see for instance, Shah Waliullah and his Times. For a specific region where syncretic traditions were particularly strong, see Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906. A Questfor Identity (New Delhi, 1981) But to get a rounded view of the problem it is important to read the above cited work together with A. Roy, Islamic Syncretic Tradition In Bengal (Princeton, 1983).
10 For details see M. M. Ali (ed ), Autobiography and Other Writings of Nawab Abdul Latif
(Chittagong, 1968) and K K Aziz (ed), Amir Ali, His Life and Work (Lahore, 1968) To understand the differences in the character and outlook of these organisations see Salahuddin Ahmad, 'Muslim Thought and Leadership in Bengal in the Nineteenth Century', in Barun De (ed.), Essays in Honour of Prof S C. Sarkar ( Delhi, 1971).
11. See among others Gyan Pandey. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. (New Delhi. 1991 )
12 All citations are from the Complete Works of Vivekananda thereafter CWV] 8 Vols. (Calcutta. Advaita Ashram, 1962) Vol. 4 p. 448.
13 Ibid., p. 373.
14 Ibid p 126.
15 Ibid, p 19().
16 Swami Dayanand, The Light of Truth (Tr., Ganga Prasad Upadhaya, Allahabad, 1981), p. 667.
17 Ibid., p. 707.
18 Ihave already referred to A. Roy's work on Bengal which is a comprehensive account of one province in India. Just a few days back J. J. Roy Burman, 'Hindu-Muslim Syncretism in India', Economic and Political Weekly, 18 May 1996, has given a brief but quite exhaustive survey of these local syntheses from across the country. There is a considerable body of literature for different regions of India and the various syncretic tradition within these. All of these still remain strong.
19 I have tried to handle some of these questions in my 'Tradition in India Under Interpretative Stress, ...' in Thesis Eleven, no. 39 ( 1994).

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