Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Prof Robinson on 'Separatism Among Indian Muslims..'

Pic: The Express Tribune 
Prof Francis Robinson needs no introduction to scholars and research students engaged in the study of South Asia. In the last few decades he has written several books that take a close look at Islam/Muslims in South Asia. Forty years ago his first book, Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The politics of the United Provinces’ Muslims 1860-1923 was published which continues to be an important entry point for anybody interested in the Muslim politics of British India. Though I have been in touch with Prof Robinson through email, I first met him at the SOAS Muslim South Asia Graduate Research Conference (MUSA) in Oct 2013. I was one of the presenters and Prof Robinson gave the key-note address.

As a lay reader, it was the exhaustive notes in the book that got me glued.  And the biographical notes at the end of the book introduce us to the professional, religious and agrarian links and divisions between the leading Muslim families and individuals. I learnt about a Mohammed Ali of Dharavi (apart from the more famous Mohammed Ali of the Ali brothers), the romance that bloomed between the affable journalist Syud Hossain and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and the politics involved in the elections of the district boards.

I requested Prof Robinson for an interview and he was kind enough to answer few questions:

1. What made you research the Muslims of North India?
I originally set out to do research on politics and society in medieval Italy. But in the mid-1960s could find no one suitable to supervise my research in Cambridge – one did not think of moving universities in those days as readily as one might do today. So my Director of Studies at the time, Anil Seal, said what about India?  

As it happens I had some acquaintance vicariously with India.  I had been brought up in the village of Willingdon just outside Eastbourne.  In those days it was full of old India hands.  The house I was brought up in was built by one – used to find rupees in the garden. Lady Willingdon used to open the Church fete. The Church organist had been organist of Calcutta Cathedral. My first Headmaster was a former Lt Col of the 8th Gurkha Rifles. An early girl friend was the granddaughter of Sir Norman Smith, the last DiB in India etc… etc…  So Anil’s suggestion was not such an odd one. It meant of course engaging with Indian history from scratch.  In terms of where I might focus my research Anil said ‘you will look at northern India in the nationalist period’. 

I very quickly discovered that Muslims were important people in northern India, and amongst the Muslims the ulama were people to be reckoned with, and in this case in particular the ulama of Farangi Mahall.  So this is how Separatism came to be about political change in northern India with special reference to the Muslims.  The response to Separatism led me to focus on Islam in northern India as much as on the Muslims.  Here I benefited greatly from the ulama of Farangi Mahall who made their records open to me.  Everything I have written since then has been influenced by this research.  I am currently writing the biography of Maulana Jamal Mian, the last many fully-formed in the Farangi Mahall tradition.

2. Any lingering memories of the days when you were researching and meeting people in North India?
My constant memory is of the kindness and helpfulness of all those whom I met in northern India. But this is not a lingering memory, it is one constantly reinforced as daily I am in contact with my Indian and Pakistani friends. One central figure in supporting my research in Lucknow has been Ram Advani, India’s best-known bookseller. Members of the Farangi Mahall family, in particular Abdul Bari’s grandchildren are in contact all the time. I see them now in Pakistan and the UK rather than in India. Indeed, one was in contact today.

3. It's been 40 years since the publication of Separatism. Any issue/strand on which you have had a re-think?
The book is very much of its time. The book is sub-Namierite in its approach and does not give much weight to ideas. I would change following things: (1) some language – I might use the term zeal rather than fanaticism; I would not described ulama as ‘priests’ as I do on occasion. Etc… (2)  I would give greater weight to ideas and ‘belief’.  You can see me moving in this direction in my debate with Paul Brass.  (3) the book would display generally greater cultural sensitivity. It is very much a young man’s book, largely written when I was 24/25. If I wrote the book now it would be infused with a much stronger cultural understanding.

4. Do you think more needs to be done to uncover and explore the role of the landlords, professionals, ulemas who figure in Separatism as the focus primarily has been on Jinnah/Liaqat Ali/Khaliquzzaman?     
There is certainly much more to be done on the second-level people involved in Muslim separatism, or in Muslim politics in general.  We are now getting down to that as PhDs are being produced of studies at the qasbah level.  I think of Riasur Rahman’s thesis on the politics of four UP qasbahs: Amroha, Budaun, Bilgram and Rudauli and my Oxford student Megan Robb’s thesis on the world of the Medina of Bijnor.  Study of local newspapers and of the huge output of the literati of the qasbahs is one of the ways forward.

5.  Your research triggered an interesting debate with Paul Brass. What are your thoughts on it? 
 My debate with Paul Brass was all about the role of ideas in human action.  As I told you, it came at a time when I was exploring the importance of ideas and belief in human action. I no longer accepted my earlier position of treating ideas as instrumental, as Paul continued to wish to do.  So in that debate I was feeling my way to a new position and testing it out on him. I would continue to go with the position I reached in Islam and Muslim Separatism, but wish that I had never touched the term ‘primordial’.  It has led to much misconstruing of my position.  Paul I think put instrumental and primordial at two ends of a pole.  My final position was, and is, that I give greater room in explanation for culture and belief than he does.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Tyabjis - early members of new Indian middle class

CinnamonTeal Publishing
When we think of the Tyabji family, there are only few names that would strike most of us. It would primarily be Badruddin Tyabji and for those more informed perhaps Abbas Tyabji and other members of the extended family like writer Atiya Fyzee, ornithologist Salim Ali and jurist A A A Fyzee. Badruddin and his elder brother Camruddin's career in the legal field shifted the focus from the family's involvement in commerce and trade to professional service and scholarship. Within a period of a century and more after the death of Badruddin’s father and family patriarch Bhoymeaah Tyabji, there were some remarkable men and women who emerged from the Tyabji clan.

Salima Tyabji's book ‘The Changing World of a Bombay Muslim Community’ introduces some of the lesser known Tyabjis. Drawn largely on the family papers, journals and correspondence the book 'initially arose from my (author's) curiosity about how I, brought up as a Muslim, could have the freedom, intellectual and otherwise, that was popularly supposed to be denied to Muslims, women in particular.' I read for the first time about Rahat and Safia, wife and daughter of Badruddin Tyabji. As the Tyabjis married among themselves, no matter how many books or articles you read it is not difficult to get confused.

Salima Tyabji's book provides a glimpse to the unique persona of the Tyabji family. Belonging to the Sulaimani Bohra sect, the Tyabjis in the late nineteenth century had the prestige and popularity largely due to the achievements and standing of Badruddin and Camruddin to provide leadership to the Muslims of Bombay. Unlike the other wealthy and powerful families belonging to the trading and merchant communities, the Tyabjis had a good mix of members who were professionals as well as involved in business. The first Muslim Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer who did exceptionally well in the examination was Mohsin, son of Badruddin Tyabji.  

The most remarkable story that comes out from the book is that of the couple Safia and Jabir. Safia was married to Jabir Ali the eldest brother of Salim Ali. The author has translated the diary entries of Safia from Urdu to English and in doing so has brought to light a very emotional and, uncharacteristically candid saga of intimacy, struggle and love. It is just wonderful to go through those pages that detail how the Cambridge graduate grappled with looking after his family while spending time in jail due to his affiliation with Congress. Jabir was a close friend of Jal Naoroji the grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji and settled in Chembur which was far from the city.

In what ways were the Tyabjis different from a North Indian Muslim family of similar standing? Except few, most of the Tyabjis married among themselves and stayed away from the wealthy, landholding families of North India or of similar character in Deccan and Western India. Rahat Tyabji as the book notes "had strong views about not having her children marrying into Nawabi families, but wanted people of good solid bourgeois stock". This had a bearing on how the different branches of the Tyabjis responded to subsequent events in the country. The Fyzee sisters had fashioned themselves closely with the Urdu-speaking North Indian elites though it is equally interesting to know that the Fyzee sisters had learnt Marathi. Atiya Fyzee who later established a school in Bombay would constantly find faults in the teaching of Urdu in Bombay’s municipal schools.

This led to a cold relationship with Khadija Shuffi Tyabji who perhaps was the most active woman politician among the Tyabjis, which Atiya aspired but never managed to emulate. I wish the book had more information about Khadija Tyabji for she was a long running member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation and the Assembly and was very active on the city’s social and political front. It seems Atiya collaborated closely with Maulana Shaukat Ali though in all fairness I must say that Nazli did collect funds for the Congress as well and was influenced by Gandhi.

Khadija was widowed at an early age and her son had settled in Hyderabad where he managed few mills while she remained in Bombay. Khadija was also associated with the Haj Committee in the 1930s and did much for the education of women. Just like Khadija, Dilshad Begum the daughter of Camruddin Tyabji remains forgotten. Dilshad was married into the Murshidabad royal family. She was active on the restricted and exclusive social scene and her early death in 1925 shocked her friends in Bombay and Bangalore where her daughter shifted with her husband. The Sandhurst-educated Iskander Mirza who went on to become President of Pakistan was her son.   

The Tyabjis are one of the few and earliest families who gave their daughters a sense of independence and access to education. This explains the confidence and the multifaceted lives of the women discussed above. The Tyabjis, Hydaris, Fyzees, Futehallys, Habibs, Latifis are all related and the large number of outstanding men and women that they have given has few parallels. Polymath and brilliant ICS officer Sir Alma Latifi (father of Danial Latifi), scholar and keen sportsman A A A Fyzee (India’s ambassador to Egypt), ornithologists Salim Ali, Humayun Ali, Zafar Futehally, historian Irfan Habib, social activist Kamila Tyabji and other distinguished personalities all belong to the same clan. As the family expanded rapidly and different branches settled in various parts of India and world, a comprehensive biography of the Tyabjis is still to see the light of the day.

There was no uniformity of opinion amongst them neither did they consciously work towards it. But what was common was the drive to excel and make a difference to the society in whichever field they choose. As Moin Shakir and Theodore Wright have rightly observed: “It was perhaps the impact of Bombay and the compulsions of the trade that led Tyabjis to reject the increasingly dysfunctional feudal values of the North Indian and the Deccan nobilities but exemplified the commercial skills and adaptability of the Weberian prototype. In short they were the early members of the new Indian Middle class.”  

I came to know through Prof Nasir Tyabji that his sister Salima, the author of the book, passed away peacefully on December 20, 2013. I wish I had written to her more frequently. Salima was the daughter of Saif and Vazir Tyabji and granddaughter of Faiz and Salima Tyabji. Faiz Tyabji, a judge of the Bombay High Court, was the third son of Badruddin Tyabji. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Muslim Zion - Pakistan as a political idea

C Hurst & Co 
Farzana Shaikh’s Community and Consensus in Islam: Muslim representation in Colonial India,1860-1947, and Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman offered two different narratives of the Muslim League’s and Jinnah’s politics. While Shaikh focussed on the religious dimension, Jalal argued that League’s politics had much more flexibility towards Hindus where Pakistan was used as a bargaining counter. 

Commenting on these two narratives, Gail Minault wrote: “In any case, drawing a line in the sand and lining up votaries on either side of that imaginary line does little to advance our collective search for historical understanding.”

Faisal Devji’s Muslim Zion – Pakistan as a political idea, is a refreshing addition to the study of politics of Muslim League and Jinnah’s personality as it traces the creation of Pakistan (just like Israel’s a year later) in an ‘ambiguously religious way of imagining nationality in an alien geography, without a necessary reference to shared blood…’ To borrow Minault’s observation it is free from the drawing of an imaginary line in the sand. As the name suggests, the book explores the common characteristic of international or non-national state between Zionism and Muslim nationalism in India, a departure from the dominant variables of examining the Muslim League and Jinnah with the British, Congress and the high politics of Partition. 

Early on in the introduction, Devji makes it clear that for him history is not to be ‘written as a police report or judicial decision’, instead his interest lies in the ‘forms of argumentation and lines of reasoning that both transcend and survive such intentionality to shape the prose of history’.  The book makes some complex and nuanced observations spread over six chapters.

Muslim League’s ambivalence towards history and geography

Devji contends that both Zionism and Muslim nationalism share more with each other than with their immediate neighbours.  This ambivalence towards history and refusal to be defined by geography, Devji writes “led them to conceive of a novel and remarkably abstract form of political unity premised upon a paradoxical rejection of the past.”  One can infer that it is perhaps this rejection and ambivalence that bases them on “national will the greater part of whose history lies outside their borders.”

Does this explain the rewriting of history textbooks in Pakistan which is in complete opposite to Jinnah’s disdain of India’s Muslim history. Devji sees a pattern in this disdain, as the whole Pakistan movement was based on tying it to the recent colonial history rather than tagging it to the past. 

What also made Jinnah uncomfortable was the realisation that Hindustan would be claimed by Congress as ‘preexisting India’, with Pakistan coming out as a secessionist.

Devji quotes Jinnah in a 1944 meeting with Gandhi: “Ours is a case of division and carving out two independent sovereign states by way of settlement between two major nations, Hindus and Muslims, and not of severance or secession from any existing union which is non-existent in India.”   

That Jinnah was much of a constitutional player rather than operating in the religious realm is well known, but Devji’s extrapolation of and subtle use of Islamic and Muslim philosophy in the British colonial framework adds to our understanding of Jinnah’s and League’s politics and the subsequent creation of Pakistan. “Instead of being tied to a language of historical and territorial integrity nationality for Jinnah was a purely constitutional category, one crucial to the making of a social contract.” (page 105)

According to Devji, Jinnah’s opposition to Khilafat was not due to ‘generalized advocacy of secularism’, but rather due to its ‘appeal to Muslims as merely religious group.’ This was because it risked reducing Muslims merely as a religious group and thus relegating them to a minority in religious terms that could easily overshadow their distinct political place.   

Chaudhury Khaliquzzaman in his autobiography gives air to his disappointment to the fact that Maulana Azad avoided mentioning Khilafat, in which he himself played an active role, in his book. 
Was it because, as Devji notes that Gandhi was able to ‘seduce Muslims into a religious madness’ that Azad did not want to chronicle those days? 

Alliance with non-Congress groups Devji is not satisfied with the categorization of League’s leaders and members in terms of their attitude towards the British. Without naming Francis Robinson it is obvious that when he mentions the categorization of League leaders into the old and young party he is referring to his copiously referenced book Separatism Among Muslims.
“Because of the curious demographic configuration that Muslims possessed in colonial India, they were able to deploy two kinds of political strategies, one defined by the category of minority and the other by that of the nations.” (Page 184) It was this nature of Muslim politics that Devji argues made it possible for the League to link up with other minority groups. Why then was there no effective coming together of Jinnah and Ambedkar?

Taking through the possibility of Jinnah aligning with the non-brahmin and Dalit parties, Devji wonders whether it demonstrated ‘remnants’ of Jinnah’s ‘loyalty to India in some perverse way’ or his desire to be the ‘only one to destroy the country he had fought to kept united for so many years’. The part dealing with Muslim-Dalit politics makes for some fascinating reading.  Apart from being representatives of two major minority groups, Ambedkar and Jinnah also shared the common resolve to constitutional methods. Arguably much of the current Muslim-Dalit political dynamics in India can be traced to the nature of this relationship and parleys.

Muslim Zion brings forth the collaborative and competitive politics of Ambedkar and Jinnah, a much ignored aspect. The book thus effectively traces the creation of Pakistan by mapping Islam, Muslim, and minorityism packed with some fresh and original perspectives on Sir Syed Ahmed, Allama Iqbal, and Syed Ameer Ali among others.

Muslim Zion will also be of interest to those seeking to have some understanding of the Shia sub-sects. Devji suggests that the interest of prominent Shias in the politics of Muslim League had got to do with the fact that they wanted to protect themselves from both the Hindu as well as the Sunni majority. 

While Devji rightly points out the near absence of scholarship on the prominent trading and merchant groups of Bombay, it would have been great if he had elaborated more on the ‘long and unresolved struggle’ to control the League and its policies between North India’s Muslims and the merchants and landowners of the cities. 

Even as the book explores on the idea of Pakistan, the amazing parallels between a Muslim homeland and Jewish settlement seamlessly runs through the narrative making it eminently readable. Muslim Zion is a provocative and fascinating piece of scholarship with some very complex and tight observations and arguments.