The year is 1936. One-thousand Sikh youth wearing basanti kurtas are marching along the streets of Aligarh to tunes being provided by the celebrated Sham Singh band, hired all the way from Delhi at a princely sum of Rs 2,000. A series of tableaux and vignettes from the Ramayana follow in their wake.
Apart from the presence of Sikh marchers at its head, there is little that conveys the significance of the procession — customary, as it was, for every North Indian town, big or small, to witness such pageantry on the day of Dussehra.
What made this particular day exceptional, however, was the fact that it marked the resumption of Ramleela celebrations in Aligarh after a hiatus of 12 years.
Up until 1924, when the leading Muslims of Aligarh first objected to the Ramleela procession on the ostensible ground that it was a nuisance, the carnival atmosphere of this annual event had enlivened the lives of all of Aligarh’s citizens. As in other towns, children of all faiths used to wait in anticipation for the climactic pageantry of the 10th day, and, when it arrived, poured out on to the streets in throngs to see it.
The opposition of a certain class of Muslims, therefore, disrupted a tradition enjoyed not just by Hindus, but by ordinary Muslims as well. The burgeoning presence of this class of Muslims in Aligarh, as well as their strength, was, in fact, closely linked to a wider Islamism that would soon sunder the country apart.
The Aligarh Muslim University was founded as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1875. Aided actively by the British, the institution soon became a hub for Islamic education and culture, attracting thousands of elite Muslims to study and settle in Aligarh. As a consequence, the proportion of Muslims in the town increased substantially.
While the university claimed that its ethos stood for equality and liberalism, in reality, it became the nucleus of a growing Muslim nationalism that stressed the superiority and separateness of Muslim culture and society. (Years later, Urdu poet Jaun Elia would describe the movement for Pakistan as “Aligarh ke ladko ki shararat.”)
To sustain the logic of this nationalism, local assertions of Muslim power were naturally necessary: firmly established in the town, ashrafiya Muslims were able to effectively suppress the public celebration of Hindu festivals.
Unsurprisingly, the suppression of Ramleela festivities upset the local Hindu community, but, given the numerical strength of Muslims in the town, efforts over many years to revive the tradition proved abortive.
In the spirit of the Sikh belief that “sura so pehchaniye jo lade din ke het” (that is, the defining feature of a brave Sikh is that he fights for the oppressed), a Sikh jatha under Sardar Jagat Singh volunteered to lead the Dussehra celebrations of 1936, a decision that shored up the resolve of local Hindus.
The majestic Ramleela processions of that year, put together by Rai Bahadur Mohan Lalji and Jwala Prasad Jigyasu, and held on each of the 10 festive days, re-established the tradition in Aligarh.
The gratuitous Muslim opposition to Ramleela in Aligarh nonetheless belies the historical narrative of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb that is wheeled out by self-proclaimed liberals in present times. It also points to the paradox that growing assertions of Muslim power in the 20th century emerged from efforts aimed avowedly at providing a liberal education to Muslims.
The feelings of supremacy and dominance, thus, ginned up among elite Muslims would culminate in the partition of the country in 1947. That this ideology would ensure the near-destruction of the Hindu and Sikh faiths in Pakistan was, in hindsight, inevitable. Far more surprising and preventable was its continued growth among Indian Muslims.
Not only would Islam flourish demographically in India (the population of Muslims has increased five-fold since independence), but a particular version of political Islam would enthrall even those Indian Muslims that had stayed away from the movement for Pakistan. It is this version of political Islam that animates sections of the community to periodically oppose peaceful displays of Hindu pride and culture.
The haunting echoes of Aligarh from 1924 can be found across the length and breadth of present-day India. Perhaps, the least controversial example is provided by the largely forlorn struggle of the Hindus of Kalathur in Perambalur, Tamil Nadu, to take out processions during Hindu festivals over the opposition of local Muslims.
In 2021, after a long wait by Hindus, a division bench of the Madras High Court finally upheld their constitutional right to do so.
The same thread of intolerance is visible in the recent disruption of Ram Navami processions in four different states. Its most striking recent illustration, however, is provided by the incidents of Jahangirpuri in Delhi in April.
On 16 April, a rally taken out there to mark Hanuman Jayanti was obstructed and fired upon by local Muslims as it processed in front of a mosque. The attack appears to have been triggered by nothing more than the belief that those in the procession were unduly raucous.
While the violence directed at the rally was likely the work of criminal elements, the intensity of the opposition to the procession and, a few days later, that against the policemen sent to arrest the perpetrators, is reflective of the wider success of an ideology that obliges Muslims to fight for notions about the power and superiority of an insulated, idealised Islam.
One can locate reasons for the vitality of this ideology of domination in a number of places (arguably Islamic theology itself tends towards it), but, perhaps, none is more important than the process of orthodoxification that, gaining strength by degrees after independence, subordinated all other facets of an Indian Muslim’s identity to his religion.
Sadly, most state policies of the past 75 years were almost designed to facilitate this drift. Only decades of sustained political will can reverse it.
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