Sunday, March 25, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Felt Community (2002)

The Felt Community: Commonality and Mentality Before the Emergence of Indian Nationalism, Rajat Kanta Ray (Oxford University Press, November 2002 (India); January 2003 (U.S.A.)


Rajat Kanta Ray's insightful and deeply learned book "addresses a knotty old question: what were nations like before nationalism?" (Preface, ix). More specifically, what was India like before nationalism? In exploring possible answers to this question, Ray eschews the essentialism of those who imagine an Indian nationalism, a "national spirit" extending in an unbroken line from ancient times to the present day, but is no less skeptical of "the exaggerated stress on the invented, imagined, or constructed element of the nation" that according to Ray is characteristic of the contemporary academic left (Pg. 7). In other words, Ray astutely recognizes that even after one acknowledges the difference that nationalism makes, the novelty that is nationalism, one is nevertheless left with the problem that "Nothing can come of nothing." That is, there need be no necessary tension between the position that nationalism and the formation of nation-states -- the very political horizon we continue to operate under, a horizon bequeathed by colonialism -- is a relatively recent historical development, and the notion that this development must have tapped into notions of community that were far more rooted in order to gain traction:

A nation is born when it perceives itself as such. For all the objective factors that may assist it in this self-perception, this is, in the last resort, a mental process. Its roots are to be found in the history of mentality. Mentality, of course, consists of both ideas and emotions. . . . Nationalism is above all an idea: the modern idea of the sovereign nation-state. However, emotion is equally important. You may try and engineer a nation by propagating an idea. You may "invent" a nation, "construct" an identity, "imagine" a nation, but however much you print or propagate, the "project" will not be successful until you hit upon some real emotional bond.

Furthermore, it may be possible to invent the idea, but it is not as easy to engineer the emotion. You may discover the emotion if it exists, and harness it to your idea. Ideas have been known to be manufactured, but would you also say you can manufacture an emotion? . . . Only if power is built upon an existing passion will there be a tangible achievement, not otherwise. Manipulate the mechanism, and perhaps you may detach the emotion from an older idea and forge it into a newer one. The emotions are the building blocks. One may construct structures of widely divergent shapes with the blocks. One may build a united India, a separate Pakistan, a liberated Bangladesh, an independent Kashmir, a sovereign Khalistan. Much will depend on the specific developments and historical circumstances, on the chain of events. Nonetheless, the general principle is still valid: ideas and emotions are equally important in the political processes of forging a nation. (Preface, ix-x)

One might be skeptical of the bright line Ray draws between "ideas" and "emotions", as if the two could be cleanly demarcated, as if one might ever have a pure idea that somehow is unsullied by emotion, and vice versa. Nevertheless, Ray is onto something here: it is surely uncontroversial to assert that not all ideas are equally plausible, not all equally likely to command the passions of men and women. Particular circumstances and histories will determine what idea is plausible and when (for instance, Tamil separatism was a far more politically viable idea in the India of the late 1950s than it is today, due to various factors, not least of which is the success of the idea of India and the Nehruvian ideological project). And the histories Ray is concerned with here are the Indian histories of a mentality, a mentality that saw the self as part of a group and of multiple groups, a mentality whereby one was part of a group precisely because one felt oneself to be part of the group(s) in question.

Ray's thesis has (self-consciously) contemporary relevance, and the author makes no bones about the fact that he comes down firmly on the side of a "civic nationalism, which ultimately knows no ethnic boundaries" and is "the patriotism of the future," as opposed to the "patriotism of antiquity" which is "the ethnic nationalism of today" (pgs. 36-37). No surprises for guessing which of the two models Ray views the specifically Hindu and Muslim nationalisms of the Indian sub-continent as conforming to, a conviction that leads him to a defiant prophesy that "[t]he circle of reason will expand in the longer run and will incorporate the citizens of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh in an extended civil society" even if he has "no hope that [he] will see this in [his] lifetime" (Preface, xii).

Ray offers no reason to believe that his defiance is warranted; in other words, how does Ray's thesis about the history of certain Indian mentalities, mentalities that assumed or were at least somewhat consistent with the notion of a shared and common space for otherwise distinct or even opposed communities, tie into the contemporary sub-continental scenario, where (taking the ideology underlying Pakistan as an example) the entire raison d'etre of a nation-state continues to be the denial of any commonality? It appears to me that the mentalities Ray is speaking of have been superseded here by a mentality of "otherness", and otherness of a sort as to demand political segregation for the two "others". Like Ray, and for a host of reasons, I consider this a bad idea, but at a minimum it would appear to suggest that modern identity politics have overtaken Ray's historical thesis. Pakistan, for instance, is (leaving aside any notion of a political confederation with India) increasingly uncomfortable with its sub-continental skin, and prefers to regard itself as a member of a worldwide constituency of Muslims not tied to notions of commonality with the Indian "other". To flip the point discussed at length below (see (III)), the nature of the Pakistan experiment appears to be precisely the subversion of the sort of mentality that Ray studies, the one that began "ummah-centric" but ended "Hindustan"-bound; the dovetailing of the two-nation theory and the Islamist politics of the last few decades mean that Pakistan increasingly does not see itself as sub-continent bound. In short, even if Ray's historical analysis is spot on, it would thus appear odd to predict a "community of sentiment" on the basis of a history the subversion of which is a deliberate political project.


It would be easy to point out that the dichotomy between "civic" and "ethnic" nationalism is hardly a stable one, especially given Ray's own study of the links between pre-modern "patriotism" and its nationalistic heir. If the old patriotism (which maps to modern "ethnic nationalism") is not unconnected to modern nationalism -- indeed this is one of the central theses of The Felt Community -- how can "civic nationalism" be a wholly separate category from its "ethnic" analogue? Ray himself points to the (repressed) "ethnic" prehistory of nationalism when he accuses contemporary academic fashion of ignoring this prehistory in favor of the view that the "nation," along with various other group identities, are "imagined communities," functions of the theory and practice of colonialism as it were. Yet he appears to ignore this lesson when he casts his lot firmly with the "circle of reason" that "civic nationalism" will draw around us; one might say Ray acknowledges the pre-history of modern nationalism, but implicitly dismisses the survival of the "ethnic" within the "civic" whereby, while the latter is not reducible to the former it is never a sphere completely apart either.

The above is a fair charge, but ignores the subtlety, that is to say the sophisticated modesty, of Ray's vision, resting at bottom on an intuitive appreciation of the wisdom that not all ideas are equally problematic, even if all of them are equally contingent:

. . . India strongly resembled Europe: here, too, was a felt community comprising several communities of sentiment, all of which might claim nationhood in course of time, or federate into one composite nation. Several routes of historical development lay open. The generation that belonged to Rammohun Roy's grandsons construed one idea of nationality: a united Indian nation. The idea was propounded by Surendranath Banerjea's Indian National Conference. Behind the fragile construal lay a perpetual community of emotion: the "Hindian." Two generations elapsed before the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah came up with yet another theoretical construction: Pakistan. Behind it lay a similarly ancient felt community: the Muslims of Hind. Other construals have followed, based upon various tangled communities of sentiment: the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan have become a nation dubbed Bangladesh; and in India, an effort is on to make yet another nation based on the felt community of the Hindus. The problem with these identifications, with the exception of a confederation based on the Hindian, is that they are all communities of emotion based on the principle of exclusion. Hindiyat, unlike Hindutva, represents the principle of inclusion and not exclusion, and is therefore a less oppressive basis for building a state. . . . (Pg. 38)

In short, Ray does not deny the colonial political construction of both nation and group identities, but his point is that the construction was only plausible to the extent that it could lay claim to and harness an earlier "community of sentiment." The point is not that pluralism, Muslim and/or linguistic and ethnic separatism, or a Hindu supremacist ideology, were inevitable, but that the various histories of India made all of them at least somewhat plausible, as the contemporary sub-continent shows. None is essential, but on Ray's reading none is wholly "imaginary" either. Some of these ideas are better than others, and hence in terms of securing a less oppressive future, the thought our politics must think and the emotion our politics must harness is precisely the most inclusive of all the plausibilities we are heirs to (for an interesting discussion on a related notion, sparked by a recent Mukul Kesavan piece, see here).

In short, one might imagine Ray's critics within the Subaltern Studies school dismissing The Felt Community as bourgeois Indian nationalist historiography dressed up in post-modern garb, but if so, they will have to admit that Ray's book is arguably the most sophisticated and subtle contemporary defense of "Indianness" as a mentality and a sentiment (I suspect Ray would prefer those terms to "idea") that has a history predating colonialism and the birth of Indian nationalism in the late nineteenth century.


At its core, and irrespective of what one makes of Ray's advocacy of a European Union-style confederacy in the sub-continent or how this notion follows from the sub-continent's history, The Felt Community is a history of three major "communities of sentiment," coalescing around the identities "Hindu", "Muslim", and "Indian", the first two inasmuch as they created and conditioned the third prior to modern-era nationalism. The historical portion of the book is divided into three sections, focusing on concepts of "Indianness" from ancient times through the Islamic invasions (and the subsequent development of "Hindu" and "Muslim" group identities as distinct from the earlier use of "Hindu" as an ethnic designation of sorts); the late-Mughal era resistance to the expansion of the East India Company in North India; and the revolt of 1857, specifically with respect to certain rebel claims that they were acting on behalf of "the Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan," a phrase that links all three "communities of sentiment" that are relevant for Ray's purposes.

The Felt Community is formidably learned, but not forbiddingly so, and is written in an engaging style -- it is clear that Ray writes not only for the academic but also for the interested layperson. Ray is a careful historian, anxious not to explain away or hurry past the ambiguity and violence that characterized Islam's encounter with India during much of the first half of the last millennium. This might not seem like much, but is notable given the condescending reticence of most "progressive" Indian historians with respect to this issue, as if study of the depredations of the Delhi Sultanate might cause an anti-Muslim pogrom, or at a minimum amount to complicity with the Hindutva element that seeks to harness a sense of historical grievance to contemporary anti-Muslim politics. This infantile attitude is not only damaging to the intellectual credibility of Indian historiography but also prevents a serious engagement with pre-colonial Indian history, and it is heartening that Ray does not succumb to the temptations of so many of his colleagues in the academy. Ray is proudly pluralist and secular, and respectful enough of his readers that he will not finesse his medieval history for fear of the ugly shrillness of much contemporary Indian politics. Nor is he prone to sweeping generalizations in this area, and makes it a point to cite to evidence suggesting glimpses of multiple realities, multiple worldviews, during the period in question, ranging from violent religious conflict to syncretism and peaceful acculturation. Through it all Ray's point is not that one or other mode of Hindu-Muslim interaction is "essential", but that the fact and nature of the various sorts of interactions made plausible some notion of shared cultural space -- ultimately, of Indianness -- that was not simply reducible to religious or ethnic identity. In time, the shared space of India became the only horizon, even for those who valorized the subordination of kufr to an Islamic imperium. That is, Ray persuasively shows that an Islamic imperium in and of Hindustan became the ideal the Delhi Sultanate and its successors strove towards, as opposed to the notion that the empire in India might just be part of some other, wider, Islamic empire. Other historians have focused on the nature of this arrangement, but The Felt Community is concerned with a different question: why and how did "Hindustan" become the horizon, as opposed to some other community of sentiment?

Ray's account of the experience of Islam in India, that is to say the Indian acculturation of Islam, simultaneously with the impact and influence of Islam on Hindu religious beliefs and practices, provides an answer. The ambiguous encounter, fraught with opposition, necessity, and creative exchange(though not between political equals), led to a mentality that was not simply a "Hindu" or a "Muslim" mentality but something else, a mentality that shared common cultural assumptions. The commonality did not by any stretch of the imagination mean the same thing as "tolerance", "pluralism", or any of our modern concepts: medieval mindsets will not easily be shoehorned into contemporary liberal terminology. But on Ray's account the encounter -- I would say the many encounters -- between Islam and India made plausible the notion of a commonality, a mentality, such that in time the initial categories of "native" and "foreign" came to seem anachronistic; their replacement by "Hindu" and "Muslim" is not a question of a step forward so much as it is a question of recognizing the difference between the two binary oppositions. The former pits invader against native; the latter might be just as oppositional, but assumes nativity on the part of both referents. No coincidence, then, that the early Indian records tend to refer to "Turks", whereas a few centuries later it is a question of "Muslims".

Over the medieval time-span, the horizon shifted, became India-bound as it were, though Ray sometimes appears to verge on the essentialism he critiques elsewhere by occasionally positing a commonality that survives unchanged across different eras. Thus, the popular (and abortive) 1739 resistance in and around Delhi against the rampaging forces of Persia's Nadir Shah, when Hindus and Muslims fought in the name of something other than simply Hinduism and Islam, a something that was nothing less than a besieged common space, the legitimacy of which was incarnated in the figure of the disgraced Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah, is for Ray foreshadowed by the Delhi mob rising up against the forces of Timurlane in 1398. Apart from the fact that both incidents involved Delhi's "low born" population revolting against a victorious invading army (and being massacred as punishment), it is not clear that the two events are linked in any way. That is, Ray's thesis is quite persuasive as applied to 1739, but he himself can hardly cite similarly persuasive evidence where Timur's 1398 sack of Delhi is concerned. In the latter instance, no "Hindustan", embodied in the person of a legitimate ruler, appears to be implicated, and there is little sense that the public, certainly the Hindu public, invested the Delhi Sultanates with any great legitimacy (I would find it odd if it did, given the depredatory and frankly anti-Hindu nature of those polities).

The Felt Community also cites the rebellions and massacres of 1398 and 1739 as evidence of a persistent proto-patriotic sentiment. The chronological gap merely highlights the abiding nature of this sentiment where Ray is concerned. However, one might just as easily counter that "patriotism" is the sort of emotion that needs an "other" in order to exist, and that far from pointing to some common esprit, 1398 and 1739 are simply two dates when invaders posed a common, and arguably an equally grave, threat to Hindus and Muslims (one thinks of World War II, when the USA, Great Britain, China, and the Soviet Union were on the same side; the first two of these might well be part of a "community of sentiment," but surely China and Russia were not in the same position). Nor should the difference between the mentalities of 1398 and 1739 be surprising: The Felt Community itself argues that after several centuries of Hindu-Muslim interaction (often hostile, often not so, and overarchingly ambiguous) the conditions for a common space were created. It is thus fitting that the contours of this space should be far more visible at a rather late date like 1739 -- after Akbar's transformation of the Mughal Empire into an Indian empire, an Islamic realm for sure in the final analysis but unquestionably "native" as far as its subjects were concerned -- than they were nearly three-and-a-half centuries earlier. This is an instance of Ray reaching for too much, but it makes rather than mars his thesis, which must depend on close attention to facts and local differences. For a "community of sentiment" is not like a monument -- it is a far more ethereal creation, and likely cannot bear the weight of sweeping generalizations.


Ray's survey of medieval and ancient India serves as the backdrop to his more thorough study of the late-Mughal era resistance to the East India Company, leading up to the events of 1857. Ray is quick to note that organized armed resistance to the Company was not typical of the Mughal ruling class, and shrewdly locates at least part of the reason underlying this in the form in which colonialism came to India:

The sense of continuity arose from the colonial hegemony being effected not so much by head on collision as by gradual penetration of the Mughal system. After all, the Company itself was a zamindar and then the holder of Mughal office before it became sovereign. It rose to power from the subordinate layer of Mughal rule assigned to landholders and country powers. By Mughal decree, the Company became zamindar of 24 Parganas in 1757, and diwan of Bengal in 1765; it stood forth as the Diwan in 1772 after seven years of cautious diarchy; having pensioned off the Mughal nazim of Bengal, it also appropriated the Nizamat in 1793 . . . finally, it secured possession of the Red Fort of Delhi in 1803, establishing thereby its paramount position as regent of the Mughal Emperor. The Mughal system was taken over rather than blown apart. (Pgs. 214-215).

Interestingly, although armed Mughal resistance to the Company was far more spasmodic than that offered by the Sikhs, the Marattha confederacy, or Mysore under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, it is the Mughals Ray is concerned with. The reason is that in Ray's view the Mughal noblemen who did resist the Company articulated a broader ideological vision of the land, a pan-Indian potentiality, that was beyond the more "local" resistance of the Maratthas, Mysore, or the Sikhs. Ray rues the fact that "[t]he ideology of the Mughal confrontation with the British has not claimed the attention it deserved" (pg. 217), which shouldn't surprise anyone given the sub-continental tendency to exalt personality at the expense of an acknowledgment of political ideology. It follows from such a worldview that the pre-modern ruler is "before" ideology in a sense. He is a type -- a nawab, raja, emperor, etc. -- and his virtues and vices may be personal (Akbar as "tolerant", Aurangzeb as "bigoted" and "narrow-minded", for instance) but not impersonally political. One suspects that colonialism itself is at least partly complicit in such a discourse, insofar as it separates the modern citizen -- the product of colonialism -- from a "despotic" past and a dead end that does not offer the potential for self-actualization that the colonial discourse does. The de-politicization of pre-colonial historical figures, and their replacement by mere personalities, is not only the result of successful Mughal propaganda (it being the proper task of the purely imperial to efface its contingency in the world of the political, and to present itself as irrevocably, cosmically "given"), but also of the colonial incentive to contrast English liberality with native despotic caprice.

To his credit Ray stresses that his readers "must grasp at the outset . . . that these opponents [the Mughals and the British] spoke a political language" (pg. 218), a language that included space for "Indianness":

The war between Mir Qasim and the Company is the one exception to the pusillanimous surrender of the Mughal ruling class to the British. Culminating as it did in the league of the three Mughal princes, the episode is of particular significance to the course of Indian resistance to colonial domination. . . . The struggle of the Mughal ruling class against the Company, though brief and unsuccessful, was informed by a broader political vision. This because it derived from the explicitly articulated indivisibility of the sovereign Mughal realm of Hindustan. It was a concept that survived a hundred years later to be adopted by the rebel leaders of 1857. (Pg. 217).

Ray's historical survey of the late-Mughal government in Bengal is especially interesting for two reasons. First, for the glimpse it affords into the mind of Mir Qasim (and others), whose letters reveal concerns beyond those of mere statecraft. No matter how cynical one is with respect to the concern for the poor reflected in Mir Qasim's letters, it is hard not to be touched by the Mughal governor's bewilderment at the aggression of the Company, and of the impact on the poor of the Company's policies. Intriguingly enough, the political crisis precipitated by the confrontation between the Mughal state and the Company in Bengal apparently led Mir Qasim to become a free trader avant la lettre, in opposition to the Company's insistence that their relative advantage vis-a-vis other merchants (both native and foreign) be preserved by way of continued duty exemptions for the Company, but not for anyone else (Mir Qasim in 1763 decided to nullify the Company's comparative advantage by exempting all merchants from the relevant excise duties; earlier only the Company had been so exempt). The result was an inversion of the common stereotype contrasting the "feudal" Indian aristocrat with the entrepreneurial English: in this instance the latter were champions of crony mercantilism by virtue of imperial decrees past, and the former (in time, and admittedly under the pressure of a political emergency) of economic activity unfettered by duties and excises.

Second, one cannot help but be struck by the repeated references in Mir Qasim's letters, and those of his subordinates, to "my country" and "my people", in contrast to the alien British. More than the mere preservation of imperial privileges was at stake in the Mughal struggle for supremacy with the Company in eastern India during the late 1750s and 1760s, and Ray vividly demonstrates the popular nature of Indian resistance to the Company in Bihar and the eastern Gangetic valley by 1763. By that date, and leading up to the climactic battle of Buxar (1765) that settled the fate of eastern India in favor of the Company, the Mughal position was, Ray persuasively shows, not only imperial but also popular (the precise extent of its popularity is hard to gauge for obvious reasons), commanding support across multiple social groups, including, on at least one occasion documented by Ray, a marginal social group of itinerant faqirs who enthusiastically attacked a Company factory.

Ray is careful in stressing that we are not seeing nationalism at work, but he is not shy about referring to this as an imperial patriotism in action. The sense of an individual as representative of and subordinate to a national spirit that itself could only be adequately acknowledged via possession of a state, characteristic of nationalism, had not yet arisen. But, Ray shows, more than mere class interest or religious hostility was in evidence during the turbulent 1760s, replete with notions of native and alien, the customary privileges of the Mughal state as opposed to the innovations of the Company's dispensation, and occasional references to an (un-defined) "people" and "country." The nationalism of the future laid claim to these resources of cultural memory, indeed it needed them in order to gain traction, and in the final analysis these cultural resources were not simply products of the colonized imagination. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the pages of the Siyar-ul-Mutakhkhirin (1783), Sayid Ghulam Huasain Khan's history of the post-Aurangzeb Mughals:

The Mughal historian conveys a sense of the nation at large while dwelling on the differences between Hindus and Muslims; and, of course, Hindustanis, Muslims, Hindus, are all equally, as far as he is concerned, qaums. Saiyid Ghulam Husain Khan was of the view that the Muslim conquerors, despite their foreign origin, were assimilated among the people of India. They learned the language of the country; and unlike the English, they behaved to the native inhabitants of the land 'as brothers of one mother and one language.' . . . Dissimilarity and alienation gave way to friendship and union, and 'the two nations' coalesced together 'into one whole.'

As soon as the initial state of warfare, slaughter, and confusion came to an end, the Muslim sovereigns of Delhi settled down to living among their subjects 'as kind and condescending parents amongst their children'. Under the Mughal emperors, 'everything in Hindostan was quietness, love and harmony' . . . . It was quite otherwise with the English, who came as strangers and remained so: 'such is the aversion which the English openly show for the company of the natives, and such the disdain they betray for them, that no love, and no coalition . . . can take root between the conquerors and the conquered . . .' .

Ghulam Husain Khan then went on to make certain deductions about the altered equation of identities in the new situation: the people of Hindustan, both Hindus and Muslims, were one qaum, and the English, their conquerors in Bengal, another, with a strange and alien government opposed to the Mughal government of the country. 'In one word, it may be said in general, and indeed in almost every institution and custom, that there is a wide difference betwixt the two nations and Governments; and that it is of such a nature as cannot be remedied at all.' If the Hindus and Muslims at one time were two nations, so were the Indians and English two nations now. (Pgs. 332-333)

The point here is of course not the validity of Saiyid Ghulam Husain Khan's history -- it is impossible to accept his idyllic view of pre-British Indian history uncritically -- but the ideological underpinnings of his historiography, of his qaum-centric worldview wherein the qaum was nevertheless a malleable unit, having led in the course of time to a "Hindustani" qaum. It is no surprise that Ray locates the pre-history of Indian nationalism in the essentially conservative impulses of the Mughal aristocracy in decline: in Saiyid Ghulam Husain Khan's work, the legitimacy of the Mughal imperium is recast in terms of a popular, qaumi basis that was self-evidently other than a merely "Muslim" basis. Ray's sympathies are with the author of the Siyar-ul-Mutakhkhirin, and even allowing for his enthusiasm one would have to admit that no other contemporary Indian polity allowed for an India-wide view such as that afforded adherents of the Mughal order, by virtue of the fact that, as Governor-General Lord Wellesley recognized, "his Majesty [Shah Alam] is still considered to be the only fountain of . . . honors" and legitimacy. (Pg. 334).

Yet one should be careful not to go too far: where The Felt Community could have done more is by highlighting that moments such as the imperial patriotic upsurge against the Company in the early 1760s stand out in large part because the backdrop might be read to tell quite a different tale, whether before or after Buxar. The question is whether the patriotism that Ray discerns in Mir Qasim's struggles against the Company is representative of a continuous tradition, albeit one among many, and often conflicting, traditions, or is it merely the exception that proves the rule, namely that one cannot speak of any commonality, of a "community of sentiment" other than one based on religious or caste identification, prior to the advent of nationalism in the nineteenth century? Ray's book asserts the former, but at least in his account of late eighteenth century India he does not persuasively account for the evidence cutting the other way. Thus Ray notes the cynicism of those Mughal officers who offered to serve the Company in the wake of Buxar, claiming a kinship of sorts with the British on the grounds that both were "strangers" in the land, but has little else to say about them. Certainly the self-serving statements of a few officers desperately seeking to gain a foothold in the new political dispensation ought to be taken with a pinch of salt; equally, however, it cannot be denied that the notion of these Mughal officers -- proud of their Iranian or Central Asian descent, and contemptuous of the "Hindustani" Muslims -- points to another plausible community of sentiment, and one with a long history among the "ashrafi" or elite Muslims of the Gangetic plain.

Perhaps Ray's rationale in passing over alternative communities of sentiment as The Felt Community moves into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and hence closer to the events of 1857, is that the book is a pre-history of sorts of nationalism. Alternative communities of interest -- Jat or Marattha solidarity, or the self-image of some Mughal officers as "strangers" to Hindustan, for instance -- might not have been less prevalent, but are less significant where the history of nationalism is concerned. To the extent 1857 is seen as a kind of climactic moment for the old Indian order, the upsurge that year reflects the triumph of pre-modern patriotism (a heightened form of the emotion Ray sees operating in the Eastern wars of the 1760s), over contrary tendencies. In other words, if 1857 is the horizon, then Ray's perspective makes sense -- though the modesty of such an approach diminishes its prescriptive power (a normative move that Ray himself has laid before his readers by prefacing his book with a polity-to-come, namely a sub-continent wide confederacy). As the book itself notes at the outset, other mentalities were also tapped by modern nationalism: Muslim "separatism" was one; Hindu "nationalism" was another.


The mentality of 1857 brought together all three of the communities of sentiment that The Felt Community begins with -- in the phrase "Hindus and Muslims of Hindostan" -- in a way that was not "nationalism", but was not a mere "restoration" of the pre-colonial categories. The old order's last gasp was something new entirely:

Outwardly, it might indeed appear as if everywhere the ancient supremacies that the British had overthrown were once again coming into their own. . . . [T]he question that arises is how substantive was the 'restoration'? After all, the old supremacies had vanished without a trace in large parts of the Doab, necessitating . . . all sorts of improvisations by the rebel selection of chiefs. Even where the surviving remnants of overthrown supremacies were more clearly marked, as in Awadh, Rohilkhand, and Bundelkhand, there were keen struggles for succession to the departed British magistrates, restoration being by no means automatic. What is more important, the restored chiefships had to come to terms with the sepoy councils that were then the most organized embodiment of the people's power. (Pg. 356)

Ray's imperial patriotism has come full circle by 1857: where nine decades previously Mir Qasim's Mughals spoke in the name of the "people" of Hindustan, in 1857 the "people's power" of the sepoys spoke in the name of the old rulers. It was symbolically fitting that Bahadur Shah Zafar II was intimidated by a mob of sepoys from Meerut into assuming leadership of the revolt in Delhi. Where once Saiyid Ghulam Husain Khan had written of a popular justification for Mughal rule, in 1857 the Mughals had no basis other than popular support for any rule.

Significantly, the popular sentiment of 1857 was all too often expressed in terms of "the Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan", a conjunction that itself was hardly traditional. Ray effectively demonstrates the religious nature of the conflict from the Indian point of view: while the British viewed it as a "race war", for both Hindus and Muslims it was a war to safeguard their religion and destroy the "Nazarene sect" root and branch. It is telling that "Christian" was synonymous with British during the conflict, and kafir signified Christians -- and not Hindus -- in the Muslim rhetoric of 1857.

The irreducible otherness of orthodox Muslim and Hindu religiosity to each other is perfectly captured by the phrase "Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan" (certainly "Hindustan" or "Hindustanis" was used alone as well, but Ray cites instance after instance where this term was immediately qualified or explained in terms of Hindus and Muslims), the name of the country serving as the connecting hyphen, a hyphen that did not, pre-nationalism, imply assimilation to any other transcendent ideal such as "the nation":

The Mutiny constitutes the great disjuncture of in the development of the Indian nation: it is not a part of the national movement, nor is it the dying throes of the old order. The best term for it is the one used by the mutineers themselves: the 'war' of 'the Hindoostanis' (or alternately 'the Hindus and Musalmans of Hindustan') to protect their 'dharma' and 'deen' and to 'save the country'. In other words, the patriotic war of a people who expressed their sense of national identity in terms of the attributed brotherhood of the two principal religious communities of a single land. (Pg. 358)


The events of 1857 pointed to the future, as well as to the past. Consider Bahadur Shah Zafar's 1857 proclamation on cow slaughter, reminiscent of nothing so much as the rhetoric of the Khilafat movement:

The slaughter of kine is regarded by the Hindoos as a great insult to their religion. To prevent this, a solemn compact and agreement has been entered into by all the Mahommedan chiefs of Hindoostan, binding themselves, that is the Hindoos will come forward to slay the English, the Mahommedans will, from that very day put a stop to the slaughter of cows, and those of them who will not do so will be considered to have abjured the Kuran, and such of them as will eat beef will be regarded as though they had eaten pork. . . ." (Pg. 388)

Ray astutely picks up on the rhetorical parallel, and intriguingly suggests that the Khilafat movement, far from merely being a marriage of convenience or an attempt by Gandhi to pander to the conservative Muslim ulema, might have been a successor to the spirit of 1857, "articulating a vision of the Indian destiny" not bound to the nation-state as to "one country with two realms, two nationalities within one people" (pg. 376). Ray is in my view simplistic to assign the blame for the extinction of such a possibility to Nehru's rejection of the Cabinet Mission plan, but he is on to something inasmuch as his point is that the language of nationalism and secularism, imported by virtue of colonialism, was not very consistent with India's traditional group identities. Those who saw themselves as upholders of dharma or deen might have been willing to fight together as in 1857, but might well have found the logic of modern nationalism -- requiring sublimation of a "Hindu self" or a "Muslim self" to the impersonal God of nationalism -- profoundly alienating. Faced with such a choice one danger is that one invests the transcendental deity of nationalism with one's own religious exclusivity; the impersonal God of nationalism is asserted to be the same as the "Muslim self" or the "Hindu self", and stands revealed above all else as the enemy of difference. Such a conception is consistent with the rhetoric of separatism or of "majorities" and "minorities", but would have appeared foreign to the rebels of 1857 (and might have seemed unnatural even as late as the Khilafat movement of the 1920s), who seem to have fitfully conceived of a pure (and militant) consociationalism.

Ray does not stop at the Khilafat movement, and extends the parallel to Jinnah and the Muslim League as well:

Thus, two nationalities in one people, one mulk and two qaums, were evident in 1857. Gandhi and Mohamed Ali instinctively followed the logic of the same struggle. They realized how deeply plurality was embedded in India's age-old social structure. When in the 1930s and 1940s the Congress adopted democracy, secularism, and socialism as the basis for an integrated nation-state, a new unitary model began to run counter to this beehive formation.

As Ayesha Jalal has established with a wealth of documentation, the famous Lahore resolution of the Muslim League in 1940 did not envisage Partition, nor indeed even mention Pakistan. Jinnah was willing to accommodate his vision of Pakistan within the confederation proposed by the Cabinet Mission. In a sense, the Muslim League stood for the beehive formation; and in strong contrast the Congress stood for the unitary state and society. It will be recalled how profoundly the unitary model of Islam strained the cellular structure of Indian society at one time; this time there was another, equally powerful unitary model: the secular democratic socialist state of the Congress High Command. Congress radicalism would not brook the conservative plurality of the beehive formation. Because of the mutual suspicions which this stand generated, the confederation proposed by the Cabinet Mission -- the only rational solution to the problems of the subcontinent in the circumstances -- did not materialize. Hence partition, and the continuation of an age-old tension: a perennial civil war between two embattled sovereign national states of the same population. Nonetheless, in the longer logic of history, the proposed confederation was, and is, a viable solution to the contradictions in the subcontinent." (Pg. 553)

To my mind Ray reads far too much of the mentality of 1857 and pre-nationalistic communities of sentiment into the Cabinet Mission plan, and ignores the fact that the plan purported to "solve" the Hindu-Muslim question by means of a geographic grouping of Muslim and Hindu-majority provinces, respectively. While certainly preferable to partition in light of the horrors that followed, one wonders how stable the arrangement would have been: the geographical "groups" seem to me like embryonic nation-states, predicated on a link between religious affiliation and territory, and hence on notions of "majority" and "minority" communities, that seem no less derived from Western liberalism and nationalism than the Nehruvian Congress orthodoxy Ray critiques (the "territorialization" of the Hindu-Muslim question in the plan also represents a rather different political animal from the consociational model of the Punjab Unionist Party and Khizr Tiwana). The Cabinet Mission plan is for Ray a successor to the 1857 mentality reflected in the pre-nationalistic analogue of "we, the people", namely "the Hindus and Muslims of Hindustan", but that is only true at a rather high level of generality. Viewed from up close, the Cabinet Mission plan seems no less foreign to the mentality of 1857 or of Saiyid Ghulam Husain Khan than "straight" modern nationalism does. Ray blithely glosses over the fact that Jinnah kept asserting an "opt out" right for the Muslim-majority groupings -- hardly calculated to inspire confidence in the structure -- and asserts the inherent conservatism of Jinnah's vision and its consistency with the mentality of 1857, in contrast to the radical nature of the Congress' conception of India. One can accept the latter without subscribing to the former. As I have argued elsewhere, Jinnah's two-nation theory was the very antithesis of tradition (recognizing that, as Ray reminds us, even the radical taps into some older notion, that even the radical needs to be plausible), and was no less of an innovation than the Congress worldview it stood against.

My fundamental disagreement with Ray on his reading of the ideology of the Muslim League (and his superficial treatment of the Cabinet Mission plan) notwithstanding, The Felt Community is an excellent book, wide-ranging in its scope and passionate in its attempt to uncover an Indian past that is barely accessible to citizens of a post-colonial order. Ray's careful attention to the local, and his ear for the individual voice as revealed in letters, rumors, and testimonies, stands him in good stead given that what he is after is the history of a mentality, one that is almost irrevocably past and the traces of which are buried deep. For that alone, this landmark book deserves to be read.


Ch@ry said...

very well written.

some things i'd like to say:

1. i don't know if you know, but the word used for muslim to this day in both telugu and kannada is either 'turka' or 'tuluka' (both for 'turk'), even though both states have had substantial muslim minorities for centuries. so what you said about records changing references from 'turks' to 'muslims' applies only to muslims in north india.

2. the reference to strange bedfellows in WW-II is, i feel, out of context. eg., the ussr and the us were not really 'allies' until almost the end of the war - they merely fought against the same enemy on different fronts (nazi germany declared war first against the ussr to sieze land for the 'aryan' race, and it declared war much later against the us, which had entered on the side of china only because of japanese aggression in hawaii). also, china was not communist at the time... the recognised govt then was the kuomintang's rep of china (roc) govt, whose successors are active only in taiwan today.

3. i cannot (and do not want to) understand the hindu fixation (talking about a community in very broad strokes) with banning cow slaughter. considering vedic indians ate beef, i don't even know where it originated. anyway, the proclamation by bahadur shah zafar you pointed out only strengthens my belief that hindus cannot accept muslims for what they are. little wonder the pakistan caught on.

Mahavir said...

I apologize for the thread-jacking at the CM website, however in defense I thought the thread was dead. What is axiomatic and therefore difficult to realize in the evolution of a "Hindustan" identity among the foreign Muslim conquerors is this: An identity of Hindustani among foreign Muslim ghazis and their attendants was possible as long as the polity was one of Islamic domination and the non-Muslims were under the jurisdiction of the sharia. In other words, once you go Dar-al-Islam, you can't go back. The counter-factual which makes any realization other than this one absolutely ludicrous is this:Imagine there are no East India Companies be they French, Dutch,or English nibbling at the coasts of India and therefore the possibility of outsider intervention is nil.Now imagine that Hindus arise and overthrow one of the various Islamic sultanates which came into existence after the breakdown of the Mughal dominion and the Hindus themselves consolidate a cohesive polity. Now with a straight face, tell me that Muslims in India be they Turks,Afghans,Persians,or of native stock accepting such a dispensation of a Hindu conceived and dominated polity.Actually, there is no need to imagine the counter-factual because a reality of this nature was emerging in early modern India, of course I speak of the Sikhs and the Marathas.And did not the Muslims declare and fight a jihad against the kafir Sikhs. Did not the Wali-Allah write letters to Muslim ghazis exhorting them to fight a jihad against the emergent mushrikun Marathas? It does not mater whether the Muslims had evolved in their mentality vis-a-vis the Hindus of India from one seeing the Hindu only fit as either a slave,a jizya paying dhimmi,or a dead, eternally damned kafir to one of grudging tolerance as Muslims qua "Hindustani" all of this was only acceptable as long as Islam and Muslims ruled. Islamic domination and control is the suppressed premise under which the Hindustani identity is nonetheless conceivable.

Qalandar said...

I do not agree: there was no need for any "Hindustani" identity premised upon Islamic domination -- why wouldn't one just stick with "islamic domination", why this Hindustani layering at all? That is precisely what Ray's book enagges with to an extent, the growth of a "Hindustani" mentality that isn't merely religious identity. [Note that we must avoid the temptation of anachronism: this "Hindustani" mentality is not IMO a nationalism (which simply did not exist at the time), but a "place-consciousness" resulting from long acculturation. Ray rightly uses a modest word, namely "mentality".]

Aside: you cite examples of exhortations to jihad against the "kaffir" Sikhs and Marathas -- but any fair estimation would also have to include the Muslims fighting for the Maratthas, more broadly who saw themselves as wedded to polities other than "Islamic" ones. In other words, you posit a counter-factual and ask rhetorical questions daring someone to contradict: "An identity of Hindustani among foreign Muslim ghazis and their attendants was possible as long as the polity was one of Islamic domination and the non-Muslims were under the jurisdiction of the sharia. In other words, once you go Dar-al-Islam, you can't go back" -- but where's the evidence for your claim? Especially given Ray's book is chock full of evidence for his claim (I might add, neither Ray nor I would deny other mentalities (let's use Shah Wali ullah as symptomatic), the point is that the historical evidence for believing that the Wali ullah mindset is the only one, is lacking. In essence I find unpersuasive the historiography that basically draws a straight line from Wali ullah to Pakistan/1947, even as I explicitly state in my piece here that those who ignore the ideology of "political Islams" also cannot "get" to 1947 using colonialism or some other category.)

On a different note, I hope you do correct your claim in your comment on CM that I was attributing some kind of magical power to British colonialism to create something out of nothing. I think my book review is quite clear on that front. Equally, however, I get the sense that you do not seem to have an adequate appreciation of the difference colonialism has made. [And that's the word I would like to use, whether we speak of colonialism or the Wali ullahs: the "difference" that we can say/think/speculate was made; rather than relying on a mystical belief in unchanged essences that transcend time and place. I don't find that a historical approach.]

Qalandar said...

PS -- no need to apologize, it wasn't my thread nor my blog. I just didn't want anyone to come away with the impression that I was narcissistic/insensitive enough to go off on a tangent. Obviously we all have done that many times on blogs, but given the seriousness of the issue and how many posts on the Ahmedi issue have appeared on CM in recent days, I was somewhat more conscious of that.

PPS -- Re: "Now imagine that Hindus arise and overthrow one of the various Islamic sultanates which came into existence after the breakdown of the Mughal dominion and the Hindus themselves consolidate a cohesive polity. Now with a straight face, tell me that Muslims in India be they Turks,Afghans,Persians,or of native stock accepting such a dispensation of a Hindu conceived and dominated polity.Actually, there is no need to imagine the counter-factual because a reality of this nature was emerging in early modern India..."

Firstly, the question of "outsider" is obviously not a black and white one. Certainly several of the "insiders" we are talking about (including Maratthas) didn't see any problem with cooperating or even allying with "outsiders" as and when the polities saw fit. To lay so much stress on "outsiders" seems to me to project nationalism "backwards", in a way that isn't supported by the record. [Of course, if you are referring to it in the sense of a "mentality" as Ray seems to, that's a different issue.] The emerging realities you are talking about tell a different tale to me: including one of Marattha/Mughal cooperation by the late-eighteenth century against other invaders (I see in this neither a "Hindu-dominated polity" nor that polity's deference to "Muslim polities" so much as the haphazard coming together of two polities that, by that date, both had claims to "native" status. It's too slender -- and brief -- a reed to hang an ideology on, be it Hindu nationalism; multiculturalism/pluralism; what-have-you; but I find it far more instructive (and, I will admit, moving) than whatever anachronising discourses can give us...

Mahavir said...

"[Of course, if you are referring to it in the sense of a "mentality" as Ray seems to, that's a different issue.]"

"Clearly associated with the superiority of the[Muslim] community has been its relationship with political power.It has been forged in the successful assertion of power,and the exercise of that power brought a large part of the civilized world to submit within its first hundred years.Islam did not speak from the saw the way to truth always passing through thrones...Moreover the use of this power was as much God's concern as the observance of the fundamentals of the faith."To Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth" declared the prophet.Church and state in the charismatic community was indivisible. So history and belief encouraged men to feel that Islam could be Islam properly only in conjunction with political power." Francis Robinson "Islam and Muslim Separatism"

Your putting to much weight on the usage of Muslim military mercenaries in Hindu dominated polities and vica versa as indicating a substantive identity within those respective zones. Also I don't think Muslims themselves feeling to be Hindustani after living in India for few hundred years albeit as power holders and also at the same time certain that only a Muslim domination is acceptable with one's fellow Hindu "Hindustanis" even though certain mentalities of shared identities exist are mutually exclusive. In others words you can have multiple identities but not all identities are equal and therefore certain identities hold far greater importance and attachment among people than others. So, undoubtedly many Afghan,Persia,Turkish Muslims felt ultimately an association with "Hind" however the idea that the identity of "Hindustani" was ever overriding the Islamic one, is crazy.In others words,these people could have conceived themselves as "Hindustanis" and as Muslims at the same time and yet in the hierarchy of identities,Islam would nonetheless have held held pride of place.

Mahavir said...

Also regarding the "magical powers of the British" I was deliberately being hyperbolic and facetious, however my point was this: No person with a proper knowledge of the British colonial era can deny its function via its institutions,structures, and ideologies in exacerbating certain identities and conceptions among the Muslims of India but they did just that:Exacerbate and expedite.In other words,the British was to put on turbo boost a process which was already in existence and bring it to the forefront.The confluence of the British colonial dispensation and Muslim identity and ideological constructions just crystallized an already substantive phenomenon. So I do not deny the British role and therefore I do appreciate it influence but am aware of the limited nature of that influence,that is all.

Qalandar said...

Re: "In others words,these people could have conceived themselves as "Hindustanis" and as Muslims at the same time and yet in the hierarchy of identities,Islam would nonetheless have held held pride of place."

This I do not deny. But why should Muslims be singled out? Given the social set-up of the era, one could make the same argument for any number of other groups -- might we not see the same underlying the taunt in Sivaji Bhonsle's letter to Jai Singh? The fundamental issue I have is that you seem to characterize only the Muslims as different/aberrant in a landscape where everyone else is apparently a participant in a nation-in-progress. As a reading of the landscape in 1700 or 1800, it doesn't hold water. (And where you have a Shah Wali ullah, this confirms for you the essence of "what Islam is" -- and hence "what Muslims can be"; counter-examples are ignored.) This is manifestly untrue, as even a casual history of (e.g.) the Maratthas, Mysore, Hyderabad, vis-a-vis the British, will make clear.

BTW, the notion that Muslims like Ibrahim Khan Gardi or participated in the Marattha polity (or hopes for polity, as in the case of Azimullah Khan in 1857) only as mercenaries, or that they were somehow more mercenary than others in those armies, is outrageous.

Qalandar said...

Re: "In others words,these people could have conceived themselves as "Hindustanis" and as Muslims at the same time and yet in the hierarchy of identities,Islam would nonetheless have held held pride of place."

To add to my earlier point, neither Ray nor I have ever suggested that this "mentality" makes a 20th century liberal of one. They were who they were, and notions of equality, liberalism, etc. that we take for granted were not relevant in the day, whether for Muslims or for Hindus or for anyone else. Stated differently, the fact that Islam "would ... have held pride of place", assuming this is true (I believe it is for the orthodoxy, although it is far more debatable where the sub-continent's "liminal" communities are concerned, estimated by some to have been a third or even half of the population in pe-modern times), is not the issue. The issue is your suggestion in your comments on CM and here that we can easily draw a straight line between the mentality that accords Islam pride of place -- and Pakistan/1947, ignoring the impact of colonialism, its structures, its incentives, its politics, etc. I disagree.

Qalandar said...

Clarification: when I wrote the above two comments I had not read your most recent comment above.

Mahavir said...

The Reza Pirbhai book I referenced in the CM post deals exactly with bards and folk storytellers and their performances with these "liminal" communities,inculcating in them these new Islamic revivalist ideologies that were ascendant once again independent of the British colonial authority.So these stories and folktales highlighting a self-conscious "Islamicness" were not doing so in response to the British or Hindu revivalism but as a something arising from within the fold of Islam,a processes of internal reform due to a sense of inner lack. Like I said, his book is paradigm shifting and it seems you hold on to the previous explanatory paradigm;the book if read will shatter that.

Qalandar said...

I look forward to checking out the Pirbhai book you reference. I hope you will (if you haven't already) read the work of the likes of Shail Mayaram, Yoginder Sinkand, Nicholas Dirks, and others (for a novelistic representation, check out Amitav Ghosh's "The Hungry Tide", set in the Sundarbans). On any complex historical process, I doubt any one book can provide "the last word", but I doubt Pirbhai intends to set out a rule applicable across the "liminal" communities, does he? The very nature of these communities (which so endangers them in the face of modernity's massive homogenizing moves, often under the guise of orthodox Islam or Hindu revivalism) makes generalizations difficult.

gaddeswarup said...

Very interesting post. It is beginning to clarify some points for me and may come back with queries after I absorb it a bit better.