Recent remarks by Shashi Tharoor, Madhushree Mukherjee, and others on British Rule in India, have shaken entrenched beliefs that benevolent British colonizers propelled us towards a progressive new world by extracting India from the morass left by the Muslim rulers that preceded them.
In lectures delivered at Oxford and books he has authored, Tharoor makes a convincing argument that India’s economy fell from a 25 percent share of the world economy during British hegemony, to a mere 3 percent at independence, firmly establishing us as a poor nation. Mukherjee has called out the complicity of Winston Churchill’s machinations with British policies, which led to the horrendous Bengal famine of 1942; several other major famines during the British period, some even bigger than the Bengal Famine, are on record.
The obvious conclusions are that the British destabilized and destroyed the country they conquered from its Muslim predecessors. But I keep wondering if there is a disconnect between the existing image of a progressive, benign British savior of an antiquated, barbaric Muslim kingdom, and the colonial masters Tharoor and Mukherjee describe.
I wonder if this ‘disconnect’ also applies to perceptions of earlier Muslim rule. Prevailing wisdom says that our Muslim rulers were cruel despots, indiscriminately killing, raping women, and forcibly converting thousands. The highly regarded historian Will Durant in his Story of Civilization reflects this view.
“The Mohammedan conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. The Islamic historians and scholars have recorded with great glee and pride the slaughters of Hindus, forced conversions, abduction of Hindu women and children to slave markets, and the destruction of temples carried out by the warriors of Islam during 800 AD to 1700 AD. Millions of Hindus were converted to Islam by sword during this period.”
Subsequent historians have expressed similar sentiments but I find little solid evidence that reinforces this dismal image of Muslim rule – that as Tharoor notes – controlled 25 percent of the world economy, only to be ruined by the British conquest. Even the legendary tale of Rajput Queen Padmini (Padmavati) who committed jauhar (self-immolation) after the ‘cruel’ king Alauddin Khilji killed her husband in the Battle of Chittor, as narrated by James Tod in his magnum opus Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han, does not stand up to strict historical scrutiny.
So, were Muslim rulers in India tyrannical, proselytizing despots, or did we believe a construct that British colonizers orchestrated to convince their Indian subjects that the British were more benevolent rulers?
I am no historian (I am a retired Civil (Geotechnical) Engineer) nor am I an ideologue of any strong persuasion, but here are my thoughts on this irksome ‘disconnect’.
I stumbled upon a map, of the 1941 census depicting the distribution of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent just before independence.
Interestingly, data shows that the highest percentage of Muslims (greater than 50 percent) were concentrated in the northwest – Balochistan, NW Frontier Province, Sind, Punjab, and Kashmir – and Bengal in the northeast. In the heartland under Muslim rule– Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa – that number rarely exceeds 30 percent and is often much lower.
This does not reflect widespread genocide and forced conversions in a region under Muslim control for 500 years, as British history would have us believe.
If Hindus were in the majority in this region during British, that must be true of demographics during Muslim rule as well. There is no record of later mass conversions back to Hinduism during the colonial era, simply because the religion does not permit reconversion from Islam to Hinduism, unlike in Spain where Muslims reverted to Christianity in the 16th century.
Balochistan and NW Frontier Province were British conquests and not under the jurisdiction of the Muslim rulers of India.
In Bengal, a unique situation emerged during the Mughal period. In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, history professor Richard Eaton describes major shifts in the Ganges river system that opened up vast tracts in East Bengal for rice cultivation. Mughal documents of that era report intense movements of populations into the region followed by unprecedented prosperity. Significant segments of the newly settled population embraced Islam inspired by a very vibrant Sufi movement. The Sufi movement also influenced large-scale conversion in Kashmir, as well as in Assam, which has 35-40 % Muslim population in certain areas, even though Assam was not subject to Muslim control for any significant period.
Another intriguing fact is that most Hindu practices that currently prevail originated or took root during the Muslim era. For instance, many of the leaders of the Bhakti movement flourished during Muslim times – Ramananda, Sant Kabir, Guru Nanak, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Vallabhacharya, Dadu Dayal, Mirabai, Surdas, Tukaram – and impacted Hinduism in ways we experience even today.
In the 16th century, by the Ganga in Varanasi, Goswami Tulsidas composed his magnum opus, Ramcharitamanas, a work that is foundational to Hindu religious life in northern India. Sridhar Swami wrote his major commentary on the Bhagavad Gita during the same period. After Sri Chaitanya discovered Vrindavan in the forests near Mathura, two of his disciples Goswamis Roop and Sanatan spread the gospel of Gaudiya Vaishnavism across northern India. And in my native Bengal, the iconic Durga Puja and Kali Puja in their present forms essentially took shape around the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.
The influence of these sages and poets is deeply felt even in the Hindu ethos of today. Clearly, Muslim rulers did destroy Hindu temples and suppressed Hindu life and religious practices on occasion, but the proliferation of Hindu religious movements and practices in the 16th century seems at odds with the British perspective of a Muslim hegemony under which Hindus suffered in silence.
Another key point is that India was far from an economic wasteland under Muslim rule. The Moroccan traveler Ibn-Batuta, who visited India between 1334 and 1342 and attended the court of Muhammad bin Tughlaq at the Delhi Sultanate, described India as fairly prosperous in his travelog, The Rihla. Evidently, European merchants in the later centuries agreed.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Portuguese, followed by the English, French, Dutch, and even the Danish, tried to gain a foothold in the subcontinent. Initially, they arrived as traders but later gave in to imperial aspirations culminating in the British conquest of India.
The most convincing arguments on this issue come from the literature and songs which predate the British era and have survived to this day.
Most Indian vernaculars had taken root by medieval times, and literature in these languages was fairly developed during the Mughal era. In Medieval India, The Study of a Civilization, the historian Irfan Habib indicates the presence of significant literary works in Kashmiri, Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Assamese, and Oriya. In Bengal, we inherited an impressive literary tradition starting with the Vaishnava Padabalis of Chandidas to the famous Mangal Kavyas, to the various biographies of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ramayana by Krittibas, Mahabharata by Kashiramdas.
An interesting composition called the Maharashtra Purana from the 18th century vividly describes the exploits of Maratha soldiers (Bargis), who regularly pillaged and plundered Bengal – a tale that lives on in Bengali folklore. The historical ballad Samarataranga, by Odia poet Brajanath Badajena also provides an eyewitness account of the Maratha -Dhenkanal war of 1781.
In a chapter called Living in Mughal Times in his book, Professor Habib relates five narratives, describing life and times in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He concedes that such available narratives are rather few. He asserts that these narratives portray “freedom in many spheres of life and a general tolerance of religious multiplicity” for both Hindus and Muslims across various professions. But he also observes mutual separateness in many spheres as general associations beyond one’s religion or caste seem to be largely absent in the narratives. Most importantly, depictions of large-scale tyranny and Muslim zealotry, genocide, and large-scale forced conversions that one would expect are essentially absent in these accounts.
So why do we believe unquestioningly in the idea that the Muslim Era was without its redeeming qualities? Were the British simply trying to persuade Indians they were fortunate to be British subjects by demonizing the Muslims? Would anyone care to enlighten me?
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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