The nationalist movement in India is much more than its conventional and nationally consecrated image of a struggle to end the colonial rule. It had instituted, within it, a long debate over the meaning and crafting of Indian nationhood in the context of modernity that was variously seen as enticing, liberating and undermining, our tradition which was too dear to be lost or too worn out to be retained as it was. It had triggered many debates, some of which had brought in authentic voices from outside the country. One such was Halide Edip’s. This brilliant scholar-activist from Turkey, who epitomised the best of the nation’s convulsive transition to nationalist modernity under Mustafa Kemal Pasha, had, among other things, maintained a happy and fruitful connection with liberal and introspective India. Mushirul Hasan has brought out the contours of that link in a scholarly habit and with commitment to secular values that are typical of him. He had earlier introduced us to Halide’s Inside India, and this book unveils the richness of her cultural liaison in full measure.
Halide’s creative engagement with Indian nationalism transcended the pan-Islamic passion that drew India to the Khilafat Movement. As Hasan reminds us, India’s Muslim intelligentsia had eagerly drawn from Turkey’s secular rather than religious inheritance. Zia Gokalp’s engagement with modernism had resonated in the ideas of Syed Ahmad Khan, Maulana Azad, and Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani in various ways. Halide’s interest in India was ignited when she, as a student in Istanbul, was hypnotised by Swami Vivekananda. She felt at home in Hyderabad, Banares, or Delhi, and the Indian press welcomed her. She served Jamia Milia Islamia as a lecturer and struck friendship with Zakir Husain, Muhammad Mujeeb, and, above all, M.A. Ansari. Her own literary sensibilities struck the right chords with the poetry of Sarojini Naidu. She admired Ansari and Ghaffar Khan for locating and harnessing the democratic and socialistic spirit of Islam “in favour of the ideal of a common Indian nationhood for men of all faiths,”
The robust cosmopolitanism of Halide brought her and Nehru on the same wavelength. She shared his antipathy towards organised religions and religious orthodoxies. “As with Nehru, Halide longed for the infinite in religious thought, and in every other thought activity; in fact, she refused salvation and felicity in which all mankind could not share.” Neither of them believed that religion could be the basis of nationhood and religion can serve man best if it connects him with his God. It is this outlook that drew Halide to Mahatma Gandhi, and she found in him a world-teacher who could bring the East and the West together on the firm moral foundation of love, truth, non-violence, and justice. Her stay in Wardha and participation in Gandhiji’s prayer meetings, her talks with the Mahatma, and her attempts to imbibe the Gandhian moods and thoughts on various themes convinced her that his ideas on religion could happily fit into the pristine essence of Islam — open, tolerant, cosmopolitan, and an eager instrument of social morality and justice. She found in Ram Dhun the timeless reverberations of hopes and sighs of the mystics and saints, transcending the narrow boundaries that men and geography have crafted. Although Gandhiji’s Hindu symbolisms inadvertently fuelled Muslim suspicions, Halide always felt that the amorphous spirit and mental elasticity of Hinduism would make for its happy coexistence with liberal Islam.
The positive dialogue Halide held with the West, her undying faith in pluralistic society, and her belief that the strength of any religion and its votaries lay in their openness to change and finding the modus vivendi in human relations offer a refreshing riposte to the idea of divisiveness that has stalked our discourse of modernity and nationalism. As Toynbee noted, “As a writer, as a patriot, as a woman, and, above all, as a human being who had loved and been loved, Halide had lived to the full.” This book is a fitting tribute to her life and ideas, and a firm reminder that inter-religious and cultural exchanges need not be acrimonious.
BETWEEN MODERNITY AND NATIONALISM — Halide Edip’s Encounter with Gandhi’s India: Mushirul Hasan; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 650.