Premchand's 1931 essay on Hindu-Muslim unity and a muddled history of mistrust

July 31 this year happens to be the 140th birth anniversary of master storyteller Premchand. On this occasion we reproduce an abridged version of the essay translated by Shrikant Ashthana

Premchand's 1931 essay on Hindu-Muslim unity and a muddled history of mistrust

Munshi Premchand

The legendary Premchand wrote this back in 1931, and nine decades later, the essay still rings with undiminished salience. We present an abridged version, translated from the Hindi original by Shrikant Asthana, on the master storyteller’s 140th birth anniversary, which falls on July 31.

Misgivings are not conducive to harmony or unity. Painting a dirty surface with colour is just as futile as trying to plaster a dirty wall with cement. Our hearts have harboured prejudices and we profoundly misunderstand each other. What is worse is that we nurse our prejudices as if our lives depended on them.

Muslims resent that Hindus treat them as untouchables and refuse to accept even water from them. Hindus, in turn, accuse Muslims of having destroyed and looted Hindu temples, of forcibly marrying women from Hindu kingdoms and of committing various other atrocities. As if that weren’t enough, both communities mock each other’s religion and rituals.

The cruellest blow the victors deal to the vanquished is to poison their history. Poisoning the past and sowing seeds of distrust and division are the surest way of vitiating the future. This is precisely what we see happening in India today. We have been indoctrinated into believing that Hindus and Muslims have always been at loggerheads, though there is little evidence to back it.

It is a historical falsehood to believe that Islam surged by the sword. No religion has ever gained mass acceptance by the power of the sword; and if they do, they do not last very long. Islam gained currency because of the atrocities on lower caste Hindus by the upper castes. As Buddhism gained ground and Hinduism declined, Buddhists sought to remove differences of caste and creed. But when there was again resurgence of Hinduism and Buddhists were put to the sword, oppression of the lower caste Hindus resumed with greater vigour.

Upper caste Hindus resolved to avenge the revolt by lower castes. Lower caste Hindus had regained their self-esteem during the Buddhist period and clamoured for equality with upper caste Hindus. It was in the middle of this tug-of-war that Islam made its appearance. Islam held the promise of equality and lower caste Hindus revelled at the liberty to mix freely with others, offer Namaz with others and even eat with others without any discrimination. Even upper caste Hindus treated Muslims with respect. Hindus still had a problem with untouchables and lower castes. But they no longer asked Muslims to reveal their caste. Not surprisingly village after village embraced Islam, which spread more rapidly in those places where atrocities had been more severe, in Kashmir, parts of Assam and East Bengal. Hindus need to understand that Islam gained currency because it treated human beings as equals.

Lower caste Hindus even today treat Tazias and Ghazis with reverence. In their eyes Islam was not the religion of victors. It was instead a religion that had gifted them dignity and freedom. This is how Islam spread but upper caste Hindus have not been able to overcome their old prejudices. They continue to put restrictions on lower castes at wells, at temples and in public assemblies. The most significant contribution of Mahatma Gandhi has been to strike at such discrimination. What little liberalism one detects among upper caste Hindus is entirely due to efforts of the Mahatma.

Let us now turn to culture. One can hardly see any fundamental difference between the two. If Muslims are identified by pyjamas, Hindus in Punjab and the frontier provinces also wear pyjamas. Even the ‘Achkan’ can hardly be associated exclusively with Muslims.

Our gods and prophets are different. But just as we worship our gods for their wisdom, knowledge, spiritualism, sacrifice and their valour, Muslims too revere their gods for the same reason. We worship Shiva, Rama, Krishna and Vishnu while they look up to Prophet Mohammad and Hussain. If we venerate Rama, there is no reason not to venerate Hussain.

We go to temples while Muslims go to mosques and Christians to the church. But neither Jains nor Arya Samajis visit Hindu temples. But do we look at them differently? Sikhs too do not visit our temples but go to the Gurudwara. But we do not pick up a quarrel with them. If Hindus can overlook age-old differences and bitterness among their own castes and communities, on what ground do we object to Muslims offering Namaz? Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi does not mind praying in churches.

So, what can possibly explain the Hindus’ hostility towards Muslims? Is it because of cow slaughter? Or is it because Muslims do not wear the sacred thread or retain a tuft of hair on their head? As for the sacred thread, 80 per cent of the Hindus do not wear it and not all Hindus sport tufts either.

That leaves us with cow slaughter. We should be aware that in Arab countries there are no cows. They have camels and horses. In India we do revere the cow because ours is primarily an agrarian society. But very few Hindu rulers or Hindus educated abroad have abstained from consuming beef.

We are of course entitled to worship the cow. But we are not entitled to force others also to worship the cow. We may at best appeal to their sense of propriety. Moreover, only the poor among the Muslims eat beef. Most of them were low caste Hindus and had converted due to atrocities by the upper castes. They do nurse grievances against upper caste Hindus and tend to give vent to their feelings. But by and large Muslims also avoid eating beef.

If we speak of the rivalry between Hindi and Urdu, it is limited to the small section of the educated elite. In fact Muslims living in other states speak regional languages and can hardly be described as Urdu Bhakts.

In short, it is difficult to explain why there is so much animosity between the two communities. But then we cannot deny that the gulf exists and very few of us are able to rise above such irrational animosity. Unfortunately even some of our national leaders are not immune to this virus, which is why HinduMuslim unity remains so elusive.

Dispassionately speaking, Islam did an immense favour to our lower castes and freed them from the shackles of caste discrimination. It is indeed remarkable that in 1857, both Hindus and Muslims fought together against the British under the leadership of the then virtually powerless Muslim emperor in Delhi.

Hindu and Muslim rulers did fight battles but that was not because of religion but for expanding their rule and territory. Hindu rulers fought against other Hindu rulers. Muslim soldiers often fought for Hindu rulers while Hindu soldiers fought for Muslim rulers.

Prof Md Habib (Oxon), in his book on Hindu-Muslim relations in Medieval India, writes, “ In neither medieval politics nor history or literature and historical fiction is there even a hint of Hindu-Muslim rivalry. This could not have been because Hindus were not ready to pick up a fight. They were strong, organised and notorious for picking up fights. But we strangely do not find a single communal battle fought in those times. We do on the contrary have evidence of Muslims fighting side by side with Marathas at Panipat and Afghans fighting for Rai Pithaura.

To sum up, there doesn’t appear to be any real reason for the Hindu-Muslim enmity. The need is, as said earlier, we should erase or delete the distorted history from our minds. In doing so, we will see that those whom we considered as enemies actually emancipated the downtrodden. They eased the rigid bonds of our caste system and helped in the development of our civilisation.

(Translated from hindi by Shrikant Asthana)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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