AN erstwhile dominant class, almost reduced to rubble, is a subject that calls for anguished and objective analyses, not with the intention to mourn its decline, but to find a trajectory for its reversal.
I will not go into the causes of the demise of Mughal rule, even though that marks the beginning of the descent. My purpose is to look at the decline of Muslim primacy in India as a natural corollary to the advent of British power. A tectonic shift was occurring in the political landscape, but there is little evidence that the Muslims of India were able to grasp its seismic impact, with of course one solitary but very remarkable exception: Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.
When the environment changes in fundamental ways, species must adapt to changed circumstances for failure to adapt spells doom and extinction. That is a law of nature we failed to heed. Which is not to say that the human mind and spirit is not capable of engaging, influencing and shaping the forces of change; it is merely to admit that we were not able to do so. Our incapacity was due to the fact that we were not applying our minds when there was little to cheer our spirits.
In the new order, a critical imperative was English and Science education. It met with fierce opposition. English was the language of the ‘Firangi’ who had usurped our position of power and privilege. Its acceptance meant capitulation. Science was viewed with suspicion, its rationality a threat to religious orthodoxy. While our brethren in other communities eagerly embraced modern education, we remained either oblivious or resistant.
Muslims in most of India were tied to a fading feudal order and were largely innocent of the skills of trade and commerce. Except for the few trading communities, who do well even today, the opportunities that followed the growth of trade and commerce passed us by. A community in denial, we encaged ourselves in a prison of our own construction and imagination. We clung to memories of past glory with nothing but fantasies to guide our future course of action.
It is against this bleak backdrop that we must examine the contribution of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The traumatic events of 1857-58 divided his life into two, almost exact, halves. While the response of his co-religionists ranged from rage to resignation, Syed Ahmad relied upon the power of reason. In this he stands out as one of the very few Indian Muslims, nineteenth century onwards, to have done so. If reliance upon reason is what provided that sliver of hope, should we not be learning any lessons from Sir Syed’s example?
Another man to rely upon reason was Maulana Azad. His voice was drowned in the din of the demand for partition. With hindsight, his prescience seems prophetic, but failed to persuade when it could have made a difference. Another vitally important lesson that tells us of the potentially disastrous consequences that follows when emotions trump reason!
Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. “Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.” (Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, 2 May 1935).
Churchill was not commenting on the Indian Muslims; he may as well have been! We seem to be in the same thoughtless drift as we were in the past. We are still lost in a maze, not knowing the way out; caught in a time warp and unable to find the lever that will release us.
What are the factors responsible for our astounding absence of foresight? Our unwillingness to accept realities and the bankruptcy of our thinking in contemplating future possibilities.
Unless our thoughts are focussed and crystallized, our actions cannot be concrete and constructive. We surely have thoughtful women and men in our community who could be brought together to discuss our present predicament and the way forward. Hopefully, some consensus may evolve that could be the basis for a strategy where none exists.