RAZIUDDIN AQUIL | 6 NOVEMBER, 2014
'Elephant War' by Suresh M Lohar
Language and religion are two crucial matrices of culture, competing ideologies and politics of identities. They remain important analytical categories for understanding the significance of wide-ranging cultural practices and strategies, either as broad and inclusive notions of national identities, or exclusive and violent formations on separatist linguistic or religious lines. Religious practices and ideologies are expressed in cultural terms and are often articulated in vernacular literature and histories. Linguistic and religious identities then shape the politics of the time and place, which can be as true for Punjab as for Bengal or Maharashtra; surviving oppressive forms of politics from within becomes difficult and external critiques are often unacceptable. The issues raised above are central to the concerns of a fine collection of essays brought out by Anshu Malhotra and Farina Mir, Punjab Reconsidered: History, Culture and Practice (Oxford University Press)
Punjabi language epic-romances, or qissas, circulated historically in both oral and textual forms, are a literary genre with representations of piety as its central motif. The qissas are found at the interstices of different cultural and religious formations (Perso-Islamic and local Punjabi), and reveal a more inclusive practice of popular devotion, incorporating diversity of opinion, thought, and belief within Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian traditions, which either remains un-captured in the analytical category of syncretism or gets neglected in communal histories. Privileging veneration of saints, 19th-century Punjabi qissas were remarkably consistent in their representations of piety that accommodated all Punjabis, irrespective of differences of religion, class, or caste, displaying an all-encompassing regional cultural identity and not affected by the era’s increasingly communal political environment. As Farina Mir has shown, it is, thus, at odds with Punjab’s colonial history, the experience of Partition, as well as long-term Khalsa-centric attempts to cleanse the Sikh community of devotional practices deemed unacceptable to proper Sikh conduct in the 19th century, or earlier. From this perspective, the shared tradition of Punjabi qissas is different from the more exclusive Gurbilas texts, celebrating the struggles and martyrdoms of Sikh Gurus and also from the Rahit-namas on do’s and don’ts on how to be a good Sikh – distinct from both Muslims and Hindus.
In contrast, a particularly interesting example of breaking free from narrow theological and cultural boundary-markers – by choice or circumstance – is Gulabdasi panth, viewed through a fascinating perspective of Piro, a Muslim prostitute of Lahore who came to live in the Gulabdasi establishment. The theology, cultural expression and social practice of the Gulabdasis indicated a wide-range of influences on them: monism of Vedanta through Sikh ascetic sects, Bhakti literary and devotional practices, and broad mystical and philosophical ideas of the Sufis. Treating syncretism as a useful analytic category in this case, which helps understand theological equivalences (between dharma and sharia) and cultural conversations, or negotiations, between different religious traditions of Punjab (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs), Anshu Malhotra has suggested that religious conflict, as highlighted by Piro, could not wipe out pluralistic attitudes altogether, and could even highlight shared ethics and cultural values.
That such marginal individuals and groups as Piro and Gulabdasis survived to write their own stories, even histories, indicate that the dominant groups did not succeeded in completely decimating the body and history of the subordinated; that the region of Punjab does provide a space for shared or variegated cultural and religious traditions, even as religious identities of exclusive kinds assert, turn violent or abuse power during political crisis. Occasional slaughter of some millions of population notwithstanding, as in the wake of Partition or even a seemingly systematic cleansing of Muslims in the 18th century, extremist ideologies have not been able to sustain themselves beyond a point. The sanjhi sanskriti, composite culture, embedded in Punjabi language and literature and mediated by religious preceptors who do not subscribe to one dominant political ideology, has been an enduring feature of Punjabi history and culture.
We know through the history of the region of Punjab in the past one millennium, or more, that political upheaval through the preceding winter is necessarily followed by the celebration of life in spring. Violent separatist ideologies give way to shared cultural productions – literary and religious practices – in a more equitable political context, when Piro’s voice can also be heard and when a broader ethnic identity, Punjabiyat (though no less a problematic category), lords over narrow religious considerations. Early in 20th century, one of the most illustrious sons of the soil, Sir Muhammad Iqbal typically deployed the language of poetry for his political message, exhorting Punjabi landlords for breaking old and worn out customary barriers between tribes and communities for a larger unity, both religious and political: butaane sha’ubo qabaa’il ko tod…rasume kuhan ke salaasil ko tod. Less iconoclastic and more inclusive is the veneration of Guru Nanak by Nazir Akbarabadi in the late-18th and early-19th century: sab shish newa ardaas karo, aur har dam bolo waahe guru.
More broadly, the question of identity – multiple, dual, or exclusive – can also be understood historically through religious, national, and racial entry points as has been done by Benjamin Lieberman in an important work in global perspective, Remaking Identities: God, Nation, and Race in World History (Rowman & Littlefield). Leiberman’s book offers a rare combination of rigorous historical analysis and a fine narrative that will appeal to a wider readership, even though the theme involves dispassionately understanding terrible contestations over violent politics of identity for close to 1500 years. As a fine historian of ethnic cleansing and genocide, the author has unpacked a variety of ways in which human identities have been created, transplanted, and destroyed in the name of religion, nationalism or ethnicities. Identities could be large, exclusive, imagined, collective or dual and contradictory – all of them involved considerable political manipulation and mobilization, and though peaceful coexistence, appropriations and tolerance were the ideal, they often led to horrendous violence and destruction.
In this context, a thorough understanding of the making of the realm of Islam in 7th-century Arabia and the formation of an Islamic order in the Indian subcontinent since roughly the beginning of the 13th century is particularly significant. Moving away from the older Orientalist kind of politically-motivated approach of vilifying medieval Islamic traditions, Leiberman presents a more balanced, professional, academic and scholarly interpretation of a post-Orientalist historian. The discussion on Islam in India is especially important, as it highlights the complex ways in which medieval Islamic rulers and ideologues handled sensitive questions of crucial import, especially tricky issues of intermingling of religion and politics in diverse, multicultural contexts. It is also important for the appreciation of South Asian Islam as a major factor that policy analysts and others in the business of government would do well to understand. As a lesson from history, responsible governance based on a progressive law and an inclusive political theory can be the mantra for dealing with the crises involving failures of governments to resolve conflicts over religious and ethnic identities. A proper understanding of these themes and issues is critical in these times of xenophobia and resultant violence.
As the poet Iqbal painfully warned of a complete annihilation if voices were not raised against injustices and silencing under repressive political regimes: na samjhoge tow mit jaoge ey hindustan walo…tumhari daastan tak na hogi daastanon mein.
(Raziuddin Aquil teaches history in the University of Delhi).