How did the idea of Muslims as statistics emerge in India?
[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:
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’.Ibid., 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:
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’.Id., 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’.Id., 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.’General 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:
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:
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:
Mill does not stop here. He goes on to describe the temperament and mannerisms of Hindus and Muslims. He writes:
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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