MUSLIMS OF INDIA SINCE PARTITION: Balraj Puri; Gyan Publishing House, 5, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 540.
The idea of a book perhaps could be defined in two prominent ways. One is in which a master narrative revolves round a central argument, and the other is in which the content primarily passes a “weight test.” Had this book not been authored by Balraj Puri, it would have fallen in the latter category.
This is a collection of essays and commentaries written over several years by the author, who has been an active champion of democracy and human rights in South Asia.
The book does offer solid evidence of such a varied life experience of having witnessed perhaps the most tumultuous years of the subcontinent’s politics and its uneasy relationship with history and religion in determining its political trajectory.
There are eight essays that had appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly at different points of time, and the book addresses a wide variety of themes dealing with Muslim politics like ethnic violence, identity formation, and other concerns of community such as the rise of Hindu fundamentalism.
The essays on Meerut, Ayodhya, and Gujarat are particularly well written. He also addresses other major issues such as the impact of Iqbal and Azad, and their thoughts on the community’s political views, and the chapter comparing Iqbal and Maulana Azad raises some interesting concerns with regard to Indian Muslims’ contemporary perception about history.
The book’s primary concern is the predicament of Indian Muslims after Partition. On this theme, he argues that the three issues, Aligarh Muslim University, Urdu language, and Muslim personal law were considered as the major symbols of Muslim identity. While the Indian Muslims are very touchy about each one of these issues, it is the threat from the Hindu fundamentalists, especially with regard to Muslim personal law and Urdu language that has forced the community to be on the defensive. What also finds appreciation here is the growing voice of Muslim liberals, often muzzled by nearly all political parties, who choose to deny them as being representative of Indian Muslims, and their vision as the community’s vision. This concerted denial has been the enduring source for the growing grip of Muslim fundamentalists over the community’s fate.
The essays on secularism and communalism offer interesting insights on the challenges that Indian society faces. But the author seems to be optimistic about the future of Indian Islam whose distinct character makes it particularly a privileged one as opposed to Islam in Pakistan or Bangladesh.
In the chapter on Bangladesh he pushes the discourse on Muslim identity to a new territory, especially on the language dimension. Had the author updated few chapters such as the one on Ayodhya or Gujarat, the book would have been more relevant.
These developments have taken new turns raising new concerns for Indian democracy as well as for Indian Muslims. Nonetheless, considering the fresh insights it offers on the various concerns of Muslims, the book definitely deserves to be read by all those who care for India’s democracy and its growing struggle with multiculturalism.