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Prime Minister Modi: his Hindu credentials and India’s Hindu-Muslim past

The Prime Minister has had a good start in office. Reputational risks from his anti-Muslim past seem under control; the US and the rest of the world’s governments have accepted to deal with him as the legitimate head of India’s Government. But for history-minded observers, the anti-Muslim legacy remains of interest. For millennia, India belonged to the Indians and their Hindu way of life (as some prefer to call their Hindu religion). Islam came to India, or Hindustan, as European travellers and observers used to call the Subcontinent during the 17th and 18th century, with military invaders. Not the first, but the most effective before the arrival of the British was Babur from Central Asia, who erected the Mughal Empire on the debris of the Delhi sultanate. It was to formally last three centuries. That North Indian Empire covered large parts of the Subcontinent, but never the whole. It was a system of a Muslim invading dynasty ruling over large masses of indigenous people who kept their Hindu faith and traditions. Reading contemporary reports from European travellers, the most important ones being the Frenchmen François Bernier and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, we learn more about the character and the internal structures of the Mughal court. The dynasty had central Asian roots, intermarried with Persians, adopted and developed the most advanced warfare technology such as field artillery and must be seen as one of three modern military powers of its time, beside the Turkish Ottoman and the Persian Safavid Empires. When around 1600, the Safavid king adopted Shia as the Persian State’s official religion, he raised the antagonism between the Turks’ official Sunni denomination and the Shia sects to an inter-state antagonism. The Persian language, court language to the West of Persia, in Constantinople, and to the East, in Delhi, was the common cultural identity of the courts of three dominant regional Islamic empires and served, thus, also as platform for debates on philosophy and religion. From Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, to his son Humayun, then to Akbar the Great, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, the court’s attitude towards religious questions changed from strict to tolerant and back to strict. The deadly fight among Shah Jahan’s sons Dara and Aurangzeb, the eventually victorious pretender, was of course for power, but when Aurangzabed executed his elder brother Dara, a man who had shown an inclination to religious tolerance and a particular interest in the Persians’ Shia belief, he accused him of heresy. So, the initial split of Islam into Sunni and Shia, dating back to the very first generation after the Prophet, had its impact on North Indian dynastic politics almost 1000 years later (and is, four centuries later, still alive in the Islamic World, as we daily see). Imperial rule, warfare, inner-Islam disputes and conflicts and exploitation of the subjects by Muslim rulers with “foreign background” was the dominant collective experience and remembrance which seems to date to be one of the driving factors in domestic politics and social life of modern India. Today, India’s Muslims are mostly ethnic Indians, the product of imposed rule and by no means “direct descendants” of a dynasty with central-Asian origins. But it seems that among those who pretend to have resisted the rulers’ Islam for three hundred years, there are some who take revenge for history, by the way a similar phenomenon we experienced during the civil war in Yugoslavia and particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina twenty years ago. Of course, revenge on history lacks any legitimacy, and the secular state of India has fared quite well since Independence by containing inter-ethnic violence. To see now one of those fervent activists of inter-communal dispute in command of the whole Nation is an interesting case to be observed. It can serve at best as an example that history can be overcome by governance which makes an active effort of “forgetting history”.

29th July 2014 / Philippe Welti

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