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Sunil Sharan Headshot

Reconciling South Asia's Hindus and Muslims

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A new government has taken office in India a couple of months ago, a government that was voted in to majority on the backs of a coalescence of Hindu support, the first ever instance in the country's history. The prime minister has the reputation of being right-wing, which in India means, in part, being unfavorable to the country's Muslim minority but has promised to treat all communities equally.

Even so, there have been a string of anti-Muslim incidents and comments from people allied to the government that have sent India's vast numbers of secular Hindus into a tizzy, as well as provoked howls of protests from Muslims themselves. No doubt each and every provocation has been obnoxious, but have they been virulent enough to make the country come to a standstill.

The Hindu-Muslim divide led to the breakup of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan when the British quit in 1947. Muslims had ruled India for close to 500 years before the British and thought themselves as the master race. Muslims constituted only one-quarter of India's population in 1947, and disdained being dominated by the Hindu majority in a one person, one vote India. So the cry for Pakistan went up, and due to some excellent manoeuvring, the new state came into being.

The subcontinent's Muslim psyche has effaced the idea that most of them converted to Islam, voluntarily or involuntarily, from Hinduism. In Pakistan, there have been great efforts to devise Arabic, Iranian, and Turkish links to their history, and deny any Hindu lineage, but most analysts believe that the outsider DNA in the subcontinent's Muslim heritage is around 2 percent, at best 5 percent.

Many Pakistanis, especially of the northern Punjab province point to their generally fairer skin than the average Indian's as evidence of their Middle Eastern roots, but forget that the skin tone of the northern Indian is exactly the same as theirs.

Why then is there so much hostility between Hindus and Muslims? After all India has given birth to or assimilated a variety of religions such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism without significant friction between adherents of these faiths and Hindus. Also, to say that because Muslims eat beef is a primary cause is fallacious because so do Parsis (followers of Zoroastrianism), Jews, and Christians.

Over their centuries of rule, Muslim rulers found it easy to lure the lowest-caste Hindus to convert. Theirs, after all, was a miserable lot, and Islam offered a way out. Once Muslim, they belonged to the King's own religion, placing them at a peg higher than the highest caste Hindus, their erstwhile oppressors. And now they could take it out on them.

For the caste Hindus, the situation was intolerable. Not just the Muslim invaders (the Afghans, the Turks, the Persians) could humiliate them at will, but even the new Muslims reveled in the fun. One peculiar custom followed by Muslims against Hindus was to order them to open their mouths and spit in it. For a caste Hindu, this meant being defiled by a beefeater and led to an immediate loss of caste. He had no option then but to embrace Islam.

There are numerous other instances of maltreatment of Hindus at Muslim hands, including conversion at the pain of death. Ingrained in the collective Hindu consciousness is a fear and loathing of the servile conditions they labored in for centuries altogether.

The subcontinent's Muslims have an entirely different take on history. They see the long period of Muslim rule as an apotheosis of architecture, music, literature and culture. They refuse to accept that Hindus, many their very own ancestors, were forcibly converted. The see Islam as a breath of fresh air that liberated the subcontinent. They do not believe that Hindus were discriminated against, or that their temples were blown to bits. They refuse to be apologetic about any aspect of Muslim rule, even the depredations of the biggest despots.

The subcontinent's Muslims hark back to the golden years of Muslim rule, whereas for the Hindus that is a dark period of slavery. When partition happened in 1947, many Hindus mourned the carving up of their ancient homeland. The Pakistanis were delirious; they had been able to escape the clutches of a vengeful, majoritarian Hindu rule. Today though some Pakistanis put forth the notion of reuniting India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh into the old India as it was. Combined it will have a Hindu population of about 900 million and a Muslim population of about 600 million.

This notion is anathema to all Hindus, even those whose hearts still bleed over partition. For the Hindu population is growing at about half the rate of the Muslim population, and Hindus do not want to relive painful, old times by allowing Muslims to come into a majority.

Pakistan's Hindus (just like India's Muslims) have been caught in a bind since partition. Just 1.6 percent of Pakistan's 180 million population is now Hindu, down from 15 percent in 1947 (figure refers to today's Pakistan and does not include Bangladesh). Most migrated to India, and the rest live in a continual fear of blasphemy or conversion. Many of their women are abducted, raped and forcibly converted to Islam.

India's Muslim population has fared better in numbers, rising from 10 percent in 1947 to 15 percent now, but the community finds itself at the bottom end of the socio-economic totem pole, widely discriminated against, as well as at the receiving end of bloody riots that break out ever so often. And in both countries, the respective minorities are accused of being agents of the other country.

Truth and reconciliation is what South Asia needs to get out of its quagmire of hate. If Muslims realize that their long rule was not some kind of liberation for the Hindus, rather a time of humiliation and peril, and acknowledge the many atrocities that Hindus were subject to and apologize for them, then it will break the ice with Hindus. Hindus in India would lose any locus standi to propagate further hatred against Muslims. Instead, they too would be given reason to apologize for their mistreatment of the Muslims since partition. The two communities can come together. After all, beef alone should not be held responsible for driving them apart.