How did the idea of Muslims as statistics emerge in India?

Siyasi Muslims
A Story of Political Islams in India
Book Excerpt 

[From the chapter 'Muslims, We Know as "Numbers"!']

The story of Muslims as numbers should begin from colonial India. The imperial regime—the East India Company as well as the British state of India—relied heavily on its knowledge-producing techniques (the census, organization of land records, research on religion, culture and history of the native population, etc.) to administer the empire. Although it would be incorrect to describe this British quest for knowledge merely as a reflection of the ‘divide and rule policy’ in direct political terms, the significant role of colonial knowledge in producing a new language of politics in India cannot entirely be ruled out.

The colonial census produced statistical data with regard to Indian social groups. In this process, religious groups such as Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis were converted into ‘populations’. The numerically superior data set came to be known as ‘majority’, while numerically inferior data set turned out to be a ‘minority’, i.e., Hindus as a majority and non-Hindus (mainly Muslims and Sikhs) as minorities. Let us take three examples to understand the ways in which Muslims were conceived as numbers.

John Strachey’s famous textbook India (1894), in which he categorically argues that India cannot be understood as a nation, is my first example. He writes:

India is a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries. There is no general Indian term that corresponds [to] it [ . . .] This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India—that there is not, and never was an India or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious; no Indian nation, and especially no ‘people of India’, of which we hear so much.12John Strachey, India (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Turner & Co. Ltd, 1894), pp. 3–5.
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Strachey thinks that British rule is necessary for this land because it could provide an administrative unity to the social and religious diversity of Indian people. His description of the Muslims of India is very instructive. According to him, the Muslims of this land are not entirely Islamic as ‘they are ignorant of the religion to which they nominally belong, and so little devoted to its tenets, that they might almost as properly be counted among the innumerable classes of Hindus’.13Ibid., p. 235. However, in order to classify Muslims into one measurable category, he makes an interesting distinction between the Muslims of foreign origin and Muslim converts. He writes:

The dominant races of Pathans and Baluchis are of foreign origin, but the majority of the population consists of the descendants of Hindus or aboriginal tribes, who long accepted, more or less, the religion of their conquerors.14Id.

We have now two kinds of Muslims: the foreigners, the warriors and those who won India; and the local Muslims who were converted to Islam long ago but who are not fully Islamic. The foreigners, Strachey notes, ‘hold a more influential position in the country than their mere numbers would give them; they are [. . .] energetic than Hindus, and possess greater independence of character. In perfection of manner and courtesy a Mohammedan gentleman of northern India has often no superior’.15Id., p. 240. The distinction between India’s Muslims and the ruling tribes of Muslims, Strachey argues, evaporates in the nineteenth century when the movements to ‘purify Islamic faith’ among Muslims begins. In his opinion, ‘the more orthodox a Mohammedan becomes, the wider becomes the gulf that separates him from every form of idolatrous worship’.16Id., p. 241. Strachey expects that purification of Islam would not merely produce a homogeneous Muslim community but would also empower them to imbibe the courage and determination of the ruling classes. This description very clearly tells us how a category called Muslims is produced and legitimated.

The census report of 1891 is the second example. This report makes another very crucial and powerful observation about Muslims by establishing a direct link between the Muslim population of British India and the Muslims in the world. It notes: ‘The Musalman population of the world has been roughly estimated at various amounts from 70 to 90 millions, so that whatever the real figure may be between those limits, the Indian Empire contains a large majority of the followers of the Prophet.’17General Report on the Census of India, 1891 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1893), p. 174. The report also makes a comparison between Hindu and Muslim population growth, probably for the first time in India. It argues:

As regards the progress of the faith of Islam [. . .] it has been undoubtedly rapid in Eastern Bengal, and has been perceptible, though on somewhat an uncertain basis, in the Punjab. Elsewhere, the increase seems to be mostly that due to normal growth. But so far as regards the large and heterogeneous class of urban Musalmans found all over the country, it is possible that that growth may have been actually impeded by the difficulty found in getting a living under the new conditions of British rule. For the minimum of literary instruction required now as a passport to even the lower grades of middle-class public employ is decidedly higher than it used to be, whilst the progress of learning amongst this class of Musalmans has not proportionately advanced, and with the comparatively small number of recruits for the army, police and menial offices that is now found sufficient, few outlets remain available. It is possible that some such reason as this accounts for the fact that the general rate of increase outside the tracts above mentioned is a little below that found to prevail amongst the population as a whole.18Ibid., p. 175.

Envisaging Indian Muslims as an inseparable part of a pan-Islamic community, the census report interprets the growth of Muslims in British India as ‘spread of Islam’. The lack of education among Muslims and their limited participation in public life are seen as some of the other specific reasons behind population growth. The expectation that educational empowerment would enlighten Muslims to embrace modernity is clearly reflected here. If this official expectation is reread with regard to John Strachey’s observation that Muslims were going to become more Islamic in the near future, the genesis of a very powerful thesis in favour of Muslim separatism could easily be traced. It is now possible to imagine the religious reforms (Islamization!) among Muslims as an assertion of their exclusive Muslimness. This Muslimness, as an unadulterated and pure Islamic identity, was invariably presented in opposition to authentic Hindu/Indian distinctiveness. ‘Muslims as numbers’ emerges as a powerful tool to substantiate this official reading of late nineteenth-century Indian society.

This straightforward classification of Indian religious groups as populations also functioned differently at another level. By the early nineteenth century, colonial historical researchers produced an equally powerful discourse of authentic India. The Hindus were seen as the old, natural and authentic habitants of this land (although Aryan invasion theory later complicated this kind of reasoning!) as all their revered places of worship were situated in the geopolitical entity called the Indian subcontinent. The Muslims, the numerically second-most powerful group, who were also the rulers of this land before the British, were considered to be the outsiders. James Mill, the British political historian—who wrote the famous book The History of British India in 1823—is a revealing example to underline this colonial thesis.

It is worth noting that Mill—who never visited India—was the first official British historian who divided Indian history into three periods: the Hindu, the Muslim and the British. Mill identifies only two sets of people in India: Hindus and Muslims. In his opinion, the original inhabitants of this land of India were the Hindus, who had always been backward by European standards. Muslims, on the other hand, as per Mill, were superior to Hindus in all respects. That was the reason why, Mill argued, Muslims were able to rule over Hindus. The British, in this sequence, were superior to Muslims and, hence, were the natural rulers of India. He writes:

At the time when the nations of Europe opened their communication with India, by the Cape of Good Hope, the people whom we have now described had for a number of ages been subject to a race of foreigners. That subjection, though it had not greatly altered the texture of native society, had introduced new forms into some of the principal departments of state; had given the military command to foreigners; and had mixed with the population a proportion of a people differing from them considerably, in manners, character, and religion. The political state of India, at this time, consisted of a Mahomedan government, supported by a Mahomedan force, over a Hindu population.19James Mill, The History of British India, vol. 3 (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826), p. 207.

The scope of this ‘authentic India theory’ was further expanded to answer a few empirically complicated questions. For instance, why did Hindus as a collectivity fail to protect their land despite being a majority in medieval India?

The existence of caste was projected as one of the main reasons behind Hindu subjugation. It was asserted that since Hindu society was not united on caste lines, it could not resist the powerful Muslim invasion that changed the course of Indian history. According to Mill:

Mahomedans were exempt from the institution of caste; that institution which stands a more effectual barrier against the welfare of human nature than any other institution which the workings of caprice and of selfishness have ever produced. Under the Mahomedan despotisms of the East, nearly as much as in republics themselves, all men are treated as equal. There is no noble, no privileged class.20Ibid., p. 430.

Mill does not stop here. He goes on to describe the temperament and mannerisms of Hindus and Muslims. He writes:

In point of address and temper, the Mahomedan is less soft, less smooth and winning than the Hindu. Of course he is not so well liked by his lord and master the Englishman, who desires to have nothing more to do with him, than to receive his obedience. In truth, the Hindu, like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave. The indolence, the security, the pride of the despot, political or domestic, [they] find less to hurt them in the obedience of the Hindu, than in that of almost any other portion of the species. But if less soft, the Mahomedan is more manly, more vigorous. He more nearly resembles our own half-civilized ancestors; who, though more rough, were not more gross; though less supple in behaviour, were still more susceptible of increased civilization, than a people in the state of the Hindus.21Id., p. 457.

This masculine representation of all Muslims fits well with two corresponding Muslim images: the image of a temple destroyer and the image of a bully! Hence, the claim, that Muslims, despite being less in numbers, looted and desecrated the Hindu temples and transformed them into mosques and also dishonoured Hindu women and forced them to convert to Islam, was legitimized. This overtly historical explanation found a powerful ‘scientific’ justification in the late nineteenth century when census data began to acquire the status of uncontested rational knowledge.

This colonial imagination of Muslims as numbers also offered a new kind of self-perception to Muslim communities. It now became possible for them to think of a homogeneous pan-Islamic Muslim community, the exact numbers of its members, its history, its authentic religion and, above all, its common political interests as a group. This self-perception encouraged the religious elites of the nineteenth century to search for the authentic Islam, which in effect led to religious reform movements. At the same time, the realization or recognition that there could be collective (read communal) interests paved the way for the debates on political representation.

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