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Three major factors shaped Indian Muslims political identity and their struggle to protect and promote it. These were the civilizational and cultural heritage and identity as a Muslim community in British India; the political experience of the Muslim elite in British India and their articulation of the demands of the Muslim community; and the shared aspiration which they developed for the future in the process of formulating and asserting their distinct socio-cultural and political identity.
Socio-Cultural Identity
The civilizational and cultural identity of the Muslim of British India could be traced back, on the one hand, to the teachings and principles of Islam that provided them a theoretical and intellectual foundation. On the other hand, the arrival of Muslims to the Indian Subcontinent from Arabia, i.e. Arab traders, as well as from what is today’s Central Asia, Iran and Turkey brought cultural traditions, lifestyle and food habits that were shaped by the teachings of Islam and the local customs of each territory. Most of these Muslims from “outside” became an integral part of the society in India, blending the customs and cultural norms they brought with them and local traditions. This process was helped by the conversions to Islam by local people belonging mainly to Hinduism and inter-marriages with or without conversions.
The Muslim rule in India created a sense of nostalgia among the Muslims of the Subcontinent who projected them as a socio-cultural identity different from local followers of other religions and the people of the Arab world, Central Asia, Iran and Turkey. They were described as “Indian Muslims,” referring to the Muslim population of India that shared the teachings and principles of Islam with the Muslims living elsewhere and imbibed some local customs and traditions. Despite this sharing, the Indian Muslims maintained their socio-cultural distinctiveness which distinguished them in many respects from the local population and the Muslims living in the neighbouring states.
Political Relevance
The distinct Muslim identity began to gain political relevance after the British government directly assumed the responsibilities of governing India in the post-1857 period. It began to create a modern state system in India on the pattern of the British political experience with an emphasis on autonomous state institutions and processes within a framework of a codified legal and constitutional system. The gradual induction of open and competitive induction into civil services and the limited electoral system created a competition between the two major communities, the Muslims and the Hindus. The fact that the Muslims began to opt for modern education rather slowly and late in post-1857 period, mainly on the initiative of what is described as the Aligarh Movement, they found them at a disadvantage in this open competition.
Two other factors made the religio-cultural identity relevant. First, in 1867, the Benaras-based movement for replacement of Urdu language with Hindi written in Devanagari script in government offices alienated the Muslims who established Urdu Defence Society in several cities. Second, in the last decade of the 19th century, several Hindu revivalist movements gained momentum which essentially targeted the Muslim culture and heritage for exclusion and emphasized the need of establishing a puritanical Hindu cultural order.
The growing cultural divergence between the Muslims and the Hindu majority population, mainly in North India, began to manifest more frequently in the 20th century. The partition of Bengal, dividing Bengal into two provinces in 1905 by the British, produced two opposite reactions from the Muslim and Hindu/Congress elite. The Muslims welcomed the establishment of eastern Bengal as a separate province because it had a Muslim majority. The Hindu elite, including the Congress Party, viewed the partition of Bengal as a negative development that divided the “natural unity of Bengal”. Their protest led the British government to reunite two Bengals into a single Bengal province in 1911. This decision was criticized vehemently by Muslim leadership.
These developments led the Muslim elite to evolve a political strategy to protect and advance their political rights and interests. They began to organize them by demanding separate electorate for electing Muslim representatives to the central and provincial legislatures in October 1906, and two months later, in the last week of December 1906, All India Muslim League was established in Dhaka, to project Muslim perspective on the political affairs of British India and suggest measures to protect the rights and interests of the Muslims.
By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the religio-cultural identities of the two communities had become relevant to the politics of British India. The Muslim elite had come to the conclusion that the Muslim youth should get modern Western education to compete effectively for the new governmental and non-governmental opportunities, including the competitive recruitment to civil services. They also realized that they will have to create their own exclusive political forums to bring the Muslim elite together for deliberations on their demands for safeguarding Muslim identity, rights and interests in British Indian context.
The Changing Strategies
A review of the Muslim political struggle in British India shows that it represented continuity and change. The continuity was in the goals and the ultimate agenda of their political struggle. It remained unchanged. However, the strategies to achieve these goals changed over time. What brought about these changes was the political experience from their interaction with the Congress Party and the Hindu community that was often dismissive of the Muslim League leadership, and adopted a disposition towards their demands that ranged from negative attitude to down-right hostility.
The goal of the Muslim League elite was to protect their civilizational and cultural identity that was inspired by the teachings and principles of Islam and the contribution of the Muslims to the history of mankind. They also demanded adequate guarantees to ensure the protection of Muslims’ rights and interests in any constitutional and political arrangements in British India.
The strategies of the Muslim League elite to achieve these goals changed over time. Their strategies can be enumerated as follows:
1. Concentrate on modern education and avoid active involvement in politics. (Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh Movement)
2. Gradual initiation of political activity by the beginning of the 20th century; demand for separate electorate and the formation of the All India Muslim League
3. Demand for introduction of a self-government in India keeping in view its peculiar political conditions. (1913)
4. The Muslim demand for constitutional safeguards and guarantees for Muslim representation in the assemblies, cabinets and government jobs. Special arrangements to make sure that the interests of religious minorities are protected. (the Lucknow Pact, 1916; Jinnah’s Fourteen Points, 1929; The Roundtable Conferences, 1930-32; and the 1937 provincial elections, as well as the working of the provincial governments in non-Muslim majority provinces, 1937-39).
5. Separate homeland demand in March 1940
6. Willingness to work within the framework of the Cabinet Mission Plan, especially its provincial groupings and right to review the overall arrangements after ten years.
7. The electoral triumph of the Muslim League in the 1946 provincial elections.
8. The Congress Party’s refusal to accept the totality of the Cabinet Mission Plan.
The Muslim League leadership was willing to work within the framework of single country provided the Congress Party acknowledged the distinctive Muslim religio-political identity and provided constitutional and legal guarantees to protect their basic rights and interests in the constitutional arrangement.
The Muslim League was looking for iron-clad guarantees in India’s constitution for assuring the Muslims that their religio-political identity, national rights and interests would be protected to their satisfaction. The Congress Party was not willing to give any guarantee to the Muslims to dispel their concerns and fears of being overwhelmed by an unsympathetic majority.
Separate Homeland
The political experience of the Muslim League elite and activists led them to revise the strategies to protect and advance their identity, rights and interests. The worst fears of the Muslims were stirred by the hegemonic approach of the Congress ministries in the provinces (1937-39) where they used state power to impose Hindu culture and identity in the name of Indian identity. The Muslims were alienated to the extent that the Muslim League moved away from the federal model to a separate homeland option.
The underlying assumption for the separate homeland demand was that the Muslims of British India were a nation and, as a nation, they deserved to have a separate homeland. Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said in his presidential address to the Lahore session of the Muslim League on March 22-24, 1940: “The problem in India is not of an inter-communal but manifestly of an international character, and it must be treated as such. So long as this basic and fundamental truth is not realized, any constitution that may be built will result in disaster and will prove destructive and harmful not only to the Musalmans, but also to the British and Hindus. If the British government is really in earnest and sincere to secure the peace and happiness of the people of this Subcontinent, the only course open to us all is to allow the major nations separate homelands, by dividing India into autonomous national states.”
Jinnah and the Muslim League offered a new nationalism as an alternate to the Congress-sponsored nationalism of one-nation secular India. He argued that the Muslims represented a distinct civilizational and cultural tradition based on the teachings and principles of Islam. The differences between these two nations were so strong that a “pure and simple” parliamentary democracy could not function because the electoral majorities and minorities were more or less permanent.
Though the demand for a separate homeland of Pakistan was articulated by the Muslim League elite for ensuring a secure future for the Muslims of India, however they mobilized popular support to strengthen the credibility of the demand for a separate homeland. The Muslim League contested the February 1946 provincial elections on two major demands: the Muslim League was the sole representative of the Muslims of British India; and it stood for the establishment of Pakistan. The election results showed that these two demands were endorsed by the Muslims of British India. This electoral success strengthened the demand for Pakistan and failed the Congress Party’s attempt to sidetrack the Pakistan demand by parading some Muslim leaders who supported the Congress.
Jinah’s vision of Pakistan emphasized: Pakistan as a homeland to secure the future of the Muslims of this Sub-continent; democratic state that derives its ethical basis from the teachings and principles of Islam; a liberal and modernist vision of Islam which accommodated modern state system and democracy; and that Islam emphasized socio-economic justice, the rule of law and participatory governance and political management.

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