Excellent background to Muslims in India

28 Nov

I was considering writing a piece about the history of religion and power in India, but TIME Magazine has finally published an article about India with some actual historical depth.  The poor relations between Hindus and Muslims are an interestingly recent (by Indian standards) development that dates to the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 against the East India Tea Company which essentially ruled North India in the name of the Persian-descended Muslim sultan in Delhi.

The British entered India as supplicants and traders to Indian kingdoms in the 1700s.  Playing the regional kings and princes against one another, they slowly grew in power becoming the tax-collector and coin engraver to the Emperor in the Red Ford in Delhi.  De facto control of the Emperor (king of kings) receded until the point that all he effectively controlled was his palace, harem, and late-night poetry jam sessions by 1857.  Urdu and Persian were the languages of the educated, and Urdu ghazals reached their peak under the last Emperor who was a notable Sufi poet himself.  With the effective British takeover of India, fundamentalist Protestant missionaries moved in, swearing to save the heathen Muslims and Hindus from damnation.  A spark (involving beef and pig tallow in rifle cartridges) lit the gunpowder of a civilization under threat.  A rebellion and jihad swept the nation, but it was inevitabally crushed due to the Indian habit of disorganization and in-fighting.

British writer William Dalrymple beautifully writes of the downfall of Emperor Zafar along with his era of Hindu-Muslim co-existence in the Last Emperor bringing together for the first time English and Urdu accounts of the mutiny in one book.  The last Mughal died along with the syncretic Indo-Islamic culture he nourished.  The British, not trusting Muslim minority after the Muslim sultan rose against them, ravaged the Red Fort, looted all of Delhi, and banished the enfeebled old king to Burma.  Hindus were promoted into civil service but not Muslims.  Muslim learning and culture were wiped out.

Colonial subjects pick up the habits and vices of their masters, and British mistrust of Muslims spread to their Hindu subjects.  And Muslims themselves split between Deobandi fundamentalism and secular modernists, as TIME so insightfully points out.

And South Asia still grapples with that legacy of 1857.  One bombing and riot at a time.

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