Religion Still the Bane of the Indian Subcontinent

By Rahul Singh | 11 August 2020
Church and State

(Credit: Max Pixel)

On August 14 and 15, India and Pakistan, respectively, will be celebrating the completion of 73 years of their independence from two centuries of British rule. The difference of one day is because the then Viceroy of undivided India, Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma, needed to preside over the celebrations and formal handover of power in both nations. But to fully appreciate the independence of India and Pakistan, one needs to go back into history, to the start of the age of exploration and the beginning of colonialism.

Initially, the two major colonial powers were Spain and Portugal. The first great explorers also came from these two countries: Christopher Columbus (though he was born in what became Italy, his voyage to the Americas was sponsored by the King of Spain), Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama (who discovered the sea voyage to India, via the Cape of Good Hope). To prevent conflicts, in 1494 Pope Alexander IV issued a Papal Bull, dividing the newly-discovered lands outside Europe between Spain and Portugal, for exploitation, trading and spreading Christianity. This was reinforced by a treaty between them. The dividing line was along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verdes Islands. To the west of that line, the lands would go to Spain, and east of it to Portugal. Since part of Brazil bulged east of that line, it went to Portugal and still remains the only Portuguese-speaking area in South America.

The first major colonial enclaves in the Indian sub-continent were therefore Portuguese, the largest being Goa, which remained Portuguese till 1961, when India forcibly took it over. But as Spain and Portugal declined, other rising European powers began to muscle in, ignoring the 1494 Papal Bull. The Dutch East India Company and the East India Company, backed by Holland and England respectively, became major players in India and the Dutch East Indies (what is now Indonesia, Borneo and Papua New Guinea). Ceylon (now named Sri Lanka) also came under the Dutch. France was a later entrant. It went to war with England in Europe in the late 16th century, and their rivalry spilt over to India and north America for trading rights. The English defeated the French in India after 20 years of conflict. Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington and victor over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo) played a key role in defeating French forces in India. He became a General at the age of just 34 years and, after the French, his troops defeated the Marathas at the Battle of Assaye. The Marathas had become the dominant players in India, as the hold of the Mughals loosened. The way was now open for British domination over the Indian sub-continent. The Gurkhas of Nepal and the Sikhs in the Punjab provided the last bit of resistance. There was a stutter in 1857, when some Indian troops under the British army mutinied. A large part of north India was taken over by the mutineers and others who joined them. But the British eventually prevailed, suppressing the mutiny with great brutality. The East India Company was dissolved and Queen Victoria proclaimed as the Empress of India.

Let us move forward to the beginning of the 20th century, and the first stirrings for Indian independence. A large number of Indian troops fought in the British army, in both the world wars, with great distinction, winning several Victoria Crosses (the highest award given for valour in battle). But many Indians started asking, “If this was a war to save democracy, what about giving us in India democracy as well?” The turning point in India’s freedom movement came with the arrival on the scene of one of the most remarkable men of our times: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, later to be called Mahatma (meaning “great soul”) Gandhi. After training as a lawyer in England, he went to South Africa for a case. He stayed on, spending several years there, fighting for the rights of Indians who were settled and working in the country. He developed his philosophy of peaceful non-violence and acquired an international reputation. When he returned to India in 1914, he virtually took over the leadership of the freedom struggle. The other main Indian leaders were Mohamed Ali Jinnah, a brilliant Muslim lawyer who defied the precepts of his religion by openly eating pork and imbibing alcohol. He also married outside his Muslim community. Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at England’s elite Harrow school and Cambridge University was another stalwart for Indian independence. On the sidelines was a charismatic maverick, perhaps the most intellectual and flamboyant of them all, Subhash Chandra Bose. He challenged Gandhi for the leadership of the main political party, the Congress, and won. After World War 2 broke out, he joined the Japanese and raised an army in Singapore from Indian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese after they overran most of south-east Asia. The idea was that they would fight alongside the Japanese, and both would enter India in triumph. But they made little impact and, in any case, the Japanese were defeated on the Indian border with Burma and then rolled back. Bose died in a plane crash, yet he briefly captured the Indian imagination and still has devoted followers.

The British were perplexed by Gandhi and his non-violent tactics. They knew how to fight those who took to violence, like the Mau Mau in Kenya, and the communists in Malaya. But Gandhi bewildered them. He had also got the attention and admiration of much of the world, making the job of the British that much more difficult. However, a major fissure began to develop in the Indian freedom movement, which the British were able to exploit in their policy of “divide and rule”. At its core was a growing religious divide between the two main religions followed in the sub-continent: Hinduism and Islam. Hindus were in the majority, by far. Under British rule, the two communities had, by and large, lived amicably. But with independence looming, the numerically-fewer Muslims began to fear that they would be dominated economically and politically by the Hindus. Communal elements on both sides began to sow seeds of distrust.

Gandhi, a firm believer in Hindu-Muslim unity, tried to stem the growing tide of discord. He was determined that India would remain one country after the departure of the British. Jinnah, too, did not want a separate Muslim-majority country. But the forces of separatism were relentless. Jinnah was thrust into the role of leading the Muslims. A political party separate from the Congress, the Muslim League, was formed. It demanded a Muslim-majority independent Pakistan. Eventually, the British hastily drew a line separating the Muslim-majority areas in the sub-continent from the Hindu-majority. In the west, the line went through Punjab, with Punjab’s main city of Lahore on the side of what would become Pakistan, and Amritsar, a city holy to the Sikhs, in India. Lahore and Amritsar were just 50 kms apart. In the east, the line split Bengal. In effect, Pakistan would consist of two wings, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, separated by almost 3,000 kms of Indian territory, a ridiculous situation, which was unworkable and would unravel in 1971, with a war between India and Pakistan and the formation of a third country, Bangladesh. But in 1947, the two wings of Pakistan was the only way out.

Meanwhile, in Britain, arch-imperialist Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party was surprisingly defeated by the Labour Party, led by Clement Atlee. Churchill had vowed the British would never leave India, but Atlee and his party had other ideas. As the imminent formation of two independent countries sunk in, a massive migration of people, the biggest of our times, began. Some 13 million people moved from one side to another, Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan, to India, and Muslims in India, to Pakistan – by train, on vehicles, bullock carts and by foot, carrying what little they could of their belongings. The migration was accompanied by an orgy of numbing violence, the likes of which the world has rarely seen. At least one million people, including women and children, were butchered. The memories of those terrible days still haunt the minds of many Indians and Pakistanis. Despite the desperate pleas of men like Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, the killings would not stop. Both new nations “celebrated” their independence while blood flowed all around. Nehru became India’s first Prime Minister and Jinnah, Pakistan’s. Gandhi, crestfallen that the sub-continent was being divided, refused to attend the celebrations. Soon afterwards, he was assassinated by an anti-Muslim Hindu fanatic, incensed by Gandhi’s pleas for amity between the two communities. Fortunately, Nehru, a true democrat, lived for another 14 years, putting India’s parliamentary democracy on a firm footing and keeping the religious genie bottled up. He effectively separated church and state and, being an atheist, frowned on superstition and ritual. India’s Muslims, who now number some 200 million, felt secure under him. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, who became India’s third Prime Minister in 1966, followed the same, secular policy. Pakistan was not so fortunate. Its two tallest leaders, Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, both died soon after their country got its independence, the first from Tuberculosis and second from assassination. A series of corrupt and inept administrations followed. The army stepped in and overthrew Pakistan’s democracy. For most of its existence, the nation has remained under military rule. Worse perhaps, Islamic fundamentalism reared its ugly head. But the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, and the formation of Bangladesh was not caused by religion, since Muslims were in a large majority in both wings. Language and differing cultures created the rift. West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu, an alien language to the Bengalis who were proud of their own language, Bangla, and their distinctive culture. A brutal crackdown by Islamabad on a revolt in East Pakistan followed. Seizing the opportunity, India aided the separatists in East Pakistan, leading to a war between India and Pakistan. India scored a decisive victory over the Pakistan forces in East Pakistan, with a formal surrender in Dacca, the Capital. Even in the western sector, the Indian army advanced all along the border and arrived on the outskirts of Lahore. China, an ally of Pakistan, threatened to step in, the US Seventh Fleet moved into the Bay of Bengal. Delhi and Islamabad settled for peace. What had been one country before 1947 now became three.

Pakistan never forgave India for the creation of Bangladesh. It tried to exact revenge by fomenting a separatist movement among the Sikhs in India and helping the terrorists in Kashmir to break away from India and join Pakistan. The first attempt has failed and the second is doomed to a similar fate. In the process, both countries have spent huge funds and efforts that could have used for much-needed development. India had managed to keep Hindu fundamentalist forces at bay, under Nehru and Indira Gandhi. But they erupted with a vengeance over a mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodhya, supposedly built by the first Mughal ruler of India, Babur. Many Hindus claim that it was built over the ruins of a Hindu temple, dedicated to their much-revered God, Rama. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) then allowed its fanatics to destroy the mosque. The destruction led to anti-Muslim riots and retaliatory bomb blasts that took the lives of close to 2,000 people. The BJP later scored a huge victory, riding the crest of a Hindu fundamentalist wave. Though the law courts condemned the destruction of the mosque, the Indian Supreme Court recently ruled that a new Rama temple could be built on the ruins of the mosque. And on August 5, BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in power for six years, laid the foundation stone of that temple with religious ceremonial pomp. India was well on its way to becoming what is called a Hindu Rashtra (nation). To be sure, Modi is a democratically-elected leader with a huge majority, but he heads what is a “majoritarian” government, supported essentially by Hindus, not by the increasingly marginalized Muslims. India is beginning to look more and more like Pakistan which, too, has had a democratically-elected government, though the army really calls the shots, as it has done since 1958.

In 1947, on the eve of independence, Nehru made one of his most memorable speeches in the Indian Parliament:

“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially,” he said with his usual eloquence. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new — when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India, and her people, and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

Has that “tryst with destiny” been fulfilled 73 years later? Sadly, not yet. India has remained the democracy that Nehru strove for (Pakistan is still struggling in that direction), but religious fundamentalism, obscurantism and hyper-nationalism have overtaken both countries – as indeed they have in much of the rest of the world as well – clouding the vision of a progressive world order where all communities can live in peace and amity.

Rahul Singh is a writer and journalist. A former editor of Reader’s Digest, Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times (Dubai), he has also contributed to the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes.

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