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The Birth of a Nation

The Muslims of India were late to embrace the inadvertent benefits of colonial rule in the nineteenth century: the access to the modern world that Western-style education provided to the Hindus and that created a pan-Indian intelligentsia—people like Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore—who went on to assume the leadership of the freedom movement. Many of the Muslim leaders still dreamed of reviving the power and glory of Muslim rule over India, which the British had comprehensively destroyed. As independence from colonial rule began to appear a possibility in the early twentieth century, many educated Muslims began to know new anxieties about their people’s inferiority vis-à-vis both the British and the Hindus.

It is no coincidence that the person who articulated best the fears and frustrations of Indian Muslims was a Kashmiri, Mohammad Iqbal, one of the most important Muslim philosophical thinkers of modern times. Iqbal was born in 1876 in what is now Pakistan to an illiterate family of shawl peddlers and tailors. His parents managed to send him to school and college, where he did very well. He was already famous for his poetry when he went to Cambridge in the early years of the twentieth century to study philosophy.

Iqbal followed many other Indians in being deeply impressed by the progress made by Europe in the nineteenth century; the idea of individual struggle and fulfillment, and the related idea of the individual’s responsibilities to society and the nation, could not but come as a revelation to people from listless subject communities. Iqbal came to admire Nietzsche. The idea of the Superman, of self-creation and self-assertion, spoke to him in the powerful way it always has to people from colonized countries. But he was also disturbed by racism and hypercompetitiveness, and while in Europe, struggling with the complex mix of admiration, fear, and insecurity the place aroused, he became even more aware of his Muslim identity. The history of Islam acquired new meanings for him; from a ship the sighting of Sicily, the setting of one of Islam’s greatest triumphs in Europe, could make him weep.

He came back to India convinced, like many Indians before him, that the progress of his community lay not in imitating Europe but in reforming and reviving the religion he had been born into. To this end, he began to exalt masculine vigor and the great Islamic past in his writings. He became a determined critic of Sufism, of the mystical and folk traditions within Islam that advocate the rejection of the ego and the self, and that had found such a hospitable home in his ancestral Kashmir. He saw these traditions as emasculating Muslims, making them inadequate before the outstanding tasks demanded of the self and of the larger Islamic community.

Iqbal’s ideas about Islam in India had to have political ramifications. Politics itself at that time of colonial oppression was primarily a quest for dignity, an assertion of identity first, and then only secondarily an attempt at creating new institutions. As such, it could not be separated from religion, from the larger sense of a shared culture and past which was the beginning of the political sense for all deprived and subjugated peoples. If, as Iqbal believed, Islam had weakened itself by mingling with the local traditions of Hinduism, its original purity under the democracy established by the first four caliphs couldn’t be recovered within an India dominated by Hindus. True Islam, as Iqbal conceived it, could be reinstated only if Indian Muslims formed a separate nation. The idea which Iqbal put forward at an important political meeting of Muslims in 1930 was the beginning of the two-nation theoryå? which, seventeen years later, worked itself out in the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan.


For most Hindus in India, Iqbal is the misguided instigator of the movement for Pakistan. I hadn’t really thought of him in connection with Kashmir until recently, when I met Dr. Mohammad Ishaq Khan in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital. Dr. Khan teaches medieval history at Kashmir University in Srinagar, and has done pioneering work on Islam’s acculturation in the Hindu-Buddhist environment of Kashmir. He is a small, round-faced man, gentle in demeanor; he speaks slowly, as if unaccustomed to talking much of his work, but in clear qualified sentences that indicate a quietly active mind. During the past decade, the years of the insurgency, when the university ceased to function, he has done his best work: a book on the spiritual dimensions of Islam that stressed the contemplative aspects of the faith over the ideological ones.1

In one of the Kashmiri newspapers I read during a recent visit to Kashmir—pages that were full of bad news but always offering something lively in their editorial pages—I read a piece by Dr. Khan describing his recent visit to Pakistan. He had met many Kashmiris settled there; but he had stayed away from the awkward subject of politics altogether. When asked why he and other Muslim intellectuals in Kashmir weren’t involved in the anti-India insurgency, he had thought of the Persian sufi Rumi’s words: “The intellect is destroyed by partial reason.”

But he did visit Iqbal’s tomb in Lahore; and in a striking passage he describes how overwhelmed he was with emotion as he approached the tomb: “I couldn’t control myself. Tears started pouring from my eyes.”

Dr. Khan’s allegiance was to the Sufi tradition of Kashmir, which Iqbal had rejected. His suspicion of Islam as ideology had only grown after the violence and suffering caused by the insurgency, which one of his own students had joined, someone whom Dr. Khan remembered as denouncing, in the way Iqbal once had, Sufi Islam for turning the Kashmiris into apathetic slaves of Hindu India. The student had gone to Pakistan for training in the military camps and risen high within the leading pro-Pakistan guerrilla group, Hizbul Mujahideen, before being killed in Srinagar early last year.

Iqbal’s personal response to Europe and Islam and the melancholy beauty of his poetry had been reduced in the end to simple ideologies that had sent thousands of other young men to an early death. Nevertheless, the idea of Iqbal as the man who had brought a hope of redemption to the Muslims of the subcontinent survived, and—this is what struck me—still had the power, many decades later, of moving even someone like Dr. Khan, committed to the intellectual life, to tears.

It was somewhat easier after that to imagine the impact Iqbal had on millions of Muslims across India with his poetry and philosophy—something comparable to Gandhi’s influence on the Hindus; and it was somewhat easier to enter the Indian Muslim’s sense of dispossession, and understand how much the charisma and persuasive power of men like Iqbal derive from the raw unformed nature of their communities.

For Kashmiris the person who came to embody their fate a generation after Iqbal was Sheikh Abdullah, once hailed as the Lion of Kashmir, who for more than half a century since the early 1930s remained the most popular leader of Kashmiri Muslims. His funeral in 1982 was attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners. But eight years later, his grave was desecrated—a moment that marks not only the beginning of the insurgency, but also the decline of the politics of personality in South Asia.

Abdullah’s early mentor was Iqbal, whom he had met in 1924 in Lahore, when Iqbal was at the height of his fame. Iqbal had first visited Kashmir, the land of his ancestors, three years before, and had come away distressed by the condition of the Muslims: “In the bitter chill of winter shivers his naked body,” he wrote, “whose skill wraps the rich in royal shawls.”2 He had joined the Muslim-owned newspapers of Lahore in highlighting the fate of the Kashmiris Muslim under Hindu rule: how though they formed 96 percent of the population the rate of literacy among them was only 0.8 percent.3

Iqbal was sympathetic to Abdullah, who, like himself, came from a family of poor shawl sellers, and was one of the few Kashmiri Muslims who had managed to educate themselves up to the point where they found their way blocked by discrimination on grounds of religion: under the Maharajah, only Hindus, who were a mere 4 percent of the population, were allowed to aspire to higher education and better jobs. Abdullah had to leave Kashmir and go to Aligarh, near Delhi, where the first college providing Western-style education exclusively to Muslims had been set up in 1875. On his return to Kashmir in 1930, he had joined a small group of graduate students from Aligarh who called themselves the Reading Room Party.

Barely a year later, Kashmir witnessed the first major disturbance against the autocratic rule of the Maharajah. A Muslim called Abdul Qadir who was working as a butler for a European resident was arrested for giving a seditious speech. Crowds who came to protest at the prison gates were arrested; more protests followed, and then at some point the police fired on the demonstrators. Twenty-one people died. Then the procession carrying the bodies for burial became unruly, and Hindu-owned shops along the route to the graveyard were looted.

The Maharajah’s Hindu army cracked down more brutally on Muslim dissenters. Abdullah spent a year in prison with other members of the Reading Room Party. When he was released in 1932, he announced the formation of the Muslim Conference: it was the first organized opposition to the regime of the Maharajah in Kashmir. There was a special edge to Abdullah’s relationship with the Maharajah. No two men could have been more dissimilar: the horse-racing Maharajah with a weakness for fraudulent Hindu holy men, and the devout Muslim and brilliant manipulator of the masses. In his opposition to the Maharajah, Abdullah found himself supported by leaders of the Indian nationalist movement against colonial rule, particularly Pandit Nehru, who under Gandhi’s patronage had become the unchallenged leader of the Congress Party. The friendship between Abdullah and Nehru grew fast.

There was a special reason for that friendship. Nehru’s Brahmin ancestors came from Kashmir, and had moved just a few decades before his birth in 1889 to Delhi and Allahabad, where they became one of the first families of modern India. There was always an air of the solitary visionary about Nehru. He was sent to Harrow and Cambridge by his Anglophilic father. During his time in Europe he was much influenced by European ideas of socialism and nationalism. His discovery of India came later and made all the more valuable for him the discovery of his roots in Kashmir, the ancestral connection which was deepened by the pantheistic feeling he, a man who disdained organized religion, had for the Himalayas.

In 1924, Iqbal had told Abdullah that though his body was confined to India his soul existed in Kashmir. Nehru came close to making the same claim in his various scattered writings on Kashmir. He himself visited the state as a young trekker and was enraptured. In The Continent of Circe, Nirad Chaudhuri wrote of the Hindu sense of loss associated with the Himalayas: the cold regions the Aryan settlers of North India had come from, the longing expressed by Nehru himself when he wrote in his autobiography, “And I dream of the day when I shall wander about the Himalayas.”4 In official and personal correspondence, Nehru kept coming back to what he himself described as his “partiality for Kashmir.”

  1. 1

    Mohammad Ishaq Khan, Experiencing Islam (New Delhi: Sterling, 1997).

  2. 2

    Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Flames of the Chinar: An Autobiography, abridged and translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh (New Delhi: Viking, 1993), p. 3.

  3. 3

    See Victoria Schofield, Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan, and the Unfinished War (I.B. Tauris, 2000), p. 16.

  4. 4

    Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 38.

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