Living separately... together

PLURALIST NOTES: Professor Moshural Hasan shares a few things about our composite culture in New Delhi. — Photo: V. V. Krishnan.  

THE RIGHT wing forces talk of "many rivers, one ocean" to establish a fabulous monolith out of India. Many talk of Hindutva. Everybody seems to forget Rashtriyatva. Majority communalism masquerades as nationalism and minority rattling as separatism. Yes, there are people doing all this and more. Then there are people like Professor Mushirul Hasan, who edited "Will Secular India Survive" - released in New Delhi this past week - and whose "Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbahs in Colonial Awadh" is making headlines.

Speaking to Hasan is a lesson in clarity of thought, lucidity of expression. A stable head that has worn many a hat, and a heart that has had to learn to make a bouquet out of the brickbats thrown at him in the light of "The Satanic Verses" controversy, Hasan is at ease talking of his works, even as he prepares for a sojourn abroad. Giving an insight into his Oxford publication, he says, "Basically it is a reflection of how different castes and communities lived in a very typically Awadh rural settlement. The pattern of living is illuminating. It very clearly brings out the plurality of living. Every qasbah in earlier days had a Sufi shrine. Life around the shrine was a fine example of composite living."

REINFORCING HIS viewpoint that there was pluralism in every aspect of life in early modern India, Hasan who is the foremost Partition historian reveals, "Essentially what we find is from early 19th Century, there was an evolution of Qasbah lifestyle, refined and sophisticated, yet completely feudal. Yet this lifestyle was composite. There were Hindu landowners, just as there were Muslim landowners. There were Hindu workers, there were Muslim workers. All this was part of Qasbah tradition."

Professor Mushirul Hasan with I.K. Gujral at the launch of "Will Secular India Survive" in New Delhi. — Photo: S. Arneja.

Professor Mushirul Hasan with I.K. Gujral at the launch of "Will Secular India Survive" in New Delhi. — Photo: S. Arneja.  

Hasan has traced this mode of composite living, the lifestyle not about you and me but we, up to the Partition of India and the abolition of the Zamindari system. "Gradually the Qasbah system petered out because plural living suffered. People did not have enough money to finance the lifestyle to maintain poets and musicians. The tabla players, the bhands met their separate ends. Yet the system has not died completely. During Moharram - observed this Tuesday - they go back home, to majlis, to Imambara. Association is still there for such families."

Recounting that most of the biggest poets, writers and musicians of 19th and 20th Century India hailed from the qasbahs, Hasan states, "Qasbahs were insulated from city politics. Once politics became communalised, the qasbahs could not be insulated. They were, however, the last bastion of liberal ethics. They produced some of the best minds. Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Asrarul Haque, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Javed Akhtar have all been qasbati men. You name any writer, musician, poet and you can trace his genealogy to qasbahs. The Progressive Writers Movement was totally dominated by qasbah people. They were the cultural centres. They represented the creative genius of Hindu and Muslim groups, created a bonding between the followers of different casts and religions. They created an assimilationist culture."

Yet, gradually qasbahs ceased to be centres of renaissance of art and culture. As big cities like Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad got bigger and demands of modern living drew people away, the demography of the qasbahs underwent a change too. Says Hasan, whose ancestors came from Barabanki and who himself was born in Kolkata, studied in Aligarh and now lives and teaches in Delhi, "The movement from the qasbahs is fascinating to watch. People moved to Aligarh, Lucknow to study and then they spread out. Many of the best-known names of our times hail from the qasbahs. For instance the Bilgramis who dominated the service in they court of Nizam. They moved to Hyderabad only in the 19th Century. But it was a very vibrant elite, very eclectic."

Why read about qasbahs now? "One must because there has to be a desire to revisit a pluralist past far removed from Hindutva," Hasan sums up.