The Muslim question, never out of sight in the Indian context, has again been brought centrestage by the Sachar committee. It is time to look at some of the commonplace assumptions about how the Muslims came to inhabit India in such large numbers — after all, the world’s largest Muslim population lives in South Asia.
The notion that most of those who converted to Islam in mediaeval India did so to escape the oppressive Hindu caste system seems to underlie the Sachar committee report. This theory was lent academic respectability by a 100-odd page essay in 1952 by Muhammad Habib of the history department of Aligarh Muslim University.
Examining the easy victory of the Turkish Muslim invaders of India in early 13th century, Habib, inspired by visions of massive popular uprisings in Russia and China in his century, was dismayed by the absence of such resistance in India, and explained it in terms of caste oppression.
He felt that the coming of Islam, even at the hands of the decadent Turks, far from inspiring popular defence of India’s rulers, was welcomed.
The positive point about this novel explanation was that it brought society into the explanation of a major series of events, distinct from the ‘divided rulers’ theory.
The flaws were many: Its source was a mere two excerpts from Manusmriti and Al Beruni, separated by several centuries.
The assumption that these normative prescriptions reflected society’s actual functioning, which remained unaltered over centuries, was highly suspect.
But there is an even more substantial basis for questioning the theory. If rebellion against the repressive Brahminical caste regime led to the acceptance of Islam as an alternative, one would have expected massive conversions in the heartland of the Hindu orthodoxy: in the northern plains, in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar more than anywhere else.
Yet, here, according to census reports, the Muslim population never exceeded around 15 per cent. The real mass conversions took place in areas of very weak Brahminical hold: Kashmir valley, Malabar, and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh.
This brings up the second common assumption: the mediaeval Muslim state, guided by the binding Islamic precept of converting kafirs to Islam, exercising immense power for five and a half centuries, was clearly the chief agency of conversions.
This is the favourite hobbyhorse of the sangh parivar. History, however, has a strange habit of decimating easy assumptions.
If the Gangetic plains comprised the heartland of Brahminical orthodoxy, it was also the core of the highly centralised as well as long lasting Muslim power in mediaeval times.
Yet, massive conversions to Islam occurred in the outlying areas, in the four geographical corners of pre-partition India, which also comprised the politically peripheral corners of Muslim power in mediaeval India.
Kashmir valley had turned to Islam long before Akbar had conquered it and Malabar had forever lain beyond the reach of the Muslim state in the north.
West Punjab and East Bengal were in a fairly constant state of rebellion which the rulers sitting in Agra or Delhi were seldom able to control for any meaningful length of time.
There thus appears to be a clear inverse relationship between Hindu orthodoxy and concentration of poli-tical and administrative authority on one hand and regional density of Muslim population on the other.
If that were not enough, the available evidence suggests that the heaviest concentration of conversions occurred in a century or so when the British regime had fully established itself in India – between the mid-19th century and 1941 when the last census before partition was compiled.
While one in every six individuals in the subcontinent got converted between the arrival of Islam in India in the 11th century and about 1850, the ratio rose to one in every four in the next century, when Mughal power had long gone.
How about the Sufis, then? While we do get occasional references to conversions being effected by Sufis, even a preliminary review of the itinerary of their migrations would indicate that they were moving from one Muslim-dominated area to another and rarely to a non-Muslim area where conversions could be made.
Indeed, when Muhammad bin Tughlaq, before moving his capital from Delhi to Deogiri in Maharashtra suggested that Sufis go and settle in the region to prepare a Muslim base for his arrival, they refused point blank.
While practising Islam and spreading its message was central for Sufis, it seems to have fallen way short of any attempt for mass conversions.
We are thus faced with a massive paradox: While the world’s largest chunk of Muslim population inhabits the Indian subcontinent, there is not a single work on the process of conversions here.
This is largely because we don’t have enough data from mediaeval India for historians to work with. This absence by itself defies any attempt to locate a single, or even a major agency or cause or occasion, for mass conversions.
We need instead to look for diverse agencies and processes which worked unobtrusively over long stretches of time to turn such huge numbers towards Islam.
Harbans Mukhia , Times of India, 30 Nov 2006
The writer is a former professor of history at JNU.