Analysing history in its many dimensions -The Asian Age

Scholarly interpretations of politics and culture in South Asia have by and large been a rarity, especially in these times. There is therefore reason for happiness at knowing that A.F. Salahuddin Ahmed, who passed away some years ago, had been filling in the gaps, at least some of the larger ones.

In History and Heritage, there is a sweep that comes into his telling of the tale, obviously because of the large canvas upon which South Asian culture and politics have generally rested. Begin at the beginning. And that of course is Islam as it has evolved in the region.

Ahmed's analyses of the circumstances in which the faith travelled down all the way from Arabia are pointers to what may not have been done in recent times to explain the rise of Islam as a compelling factor in the region. Of course, there were the episodes of Muslim warriors making their way to India and in a militaristic way causing Islamic inroads into an ancient culture.

Ahmed notes such developments and then does something better. He pursues the comprehensive history of religious scholars, priests and pirs who, inspired by the Islamic zeal, made their way to the subcontinent. That in turn led to new configurations in the region. The lower orders in Hinduism, fascinated by the liberality of the new faith, quickly chose to be initiated into it.

Salahuddin Ahmed devotes a considerable length of time to a discussion of the conflict between modernity and tradition in Bengal as it came to be in the nineteenth century and later.

He raises the necessary question of whether Indian Muslims, in a time when British colonialism in India was rampant, went through a revival or found themselves inaugurating a new renaissance, particularly through the various movements based on the Islamic faith. The Wahhabi movement remains, to be sure, a seminal point in any discussion of Islam in the subcontinent.

But there were too all the other ideas that branched out from it, as also from other socio-religious enterprises.  Ahmed speaks of the Tariqa-e-Muhammadiya movement, led by Syed Ahmed of Rae Bareli, in northern India in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Besides all such discussions of Islam, of such clear new trends of thought as Sufism, the writer remembers at nearly every point to keep attention focused on Hinduism as it tried to deflect the onslaught of Islam. And then there are the inevitable reflections, as it were, on the causes behind Muslim backwardness in India against a background of the rise of English power.

Ahmed traces the reasons, those that we may have been familiar with and yet have in the recent past quite been unwilling to re-emphasise in our deliberations on the history of the subcontinent.

History and Heritage is, apart from being a study of the social forces that have shaped heritage in this part of the world, a considered, necessarily sympathetic research into the careers of two men who made an impact on life in South Asia.

Mahatma Gandhi's crusade against British colonial rule in India is a story Salahuddin Ahmed begins through recalling his meeting with the Indian nationalist leader in 1946.

Those were tumultuous times, with Gandhi travelling down to Noakhali to help contain the communal riots ravaging the country following the collapse of the Cabinet Mission Plan.

And equally tumultuous times were to be in the future, with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman spearheading a movement that would free Bengalis of Pakistani political control. In effect, it is an arc of history Ahmed throws up in his examination of the political evolution between the times of Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The scholarly is also what comes through in the earlier Perspectives On History Society Politics. Salahuddin Ahmed approaches his subjects (and there are quite a few of them) from a generally South Asian point of view. Perhaps that is as it should be? There are the grounds upon which the writer prepares his analyses, the central point of which is the growing spirit of cooperation between the nations of South Asia as a whole.

Lest the point be missed, though, the South Asian perspective in this work relates specifically to the three nations which today happen to be successors to pre-1947, undivided India. The legacy is all. And it is a terrible one, which is good reason for Ahmed to introduce readers to what he calls a quest for peace and harmony in the region.

And yet he does not plunge straight into an observation of reality as it defines the present but goes into tracing the long history of conflict and its resolution in the subcontinent. That surely leaves readers somewhat more educated on the nature of the politics, or varying threads of it, that have underscored the historical aspects of the land.

Take the instance of Bengal. Rare are the instances of a geographical region undergoing so much pain as this province on the eastern fringes of India has.

Salahuddin Ahmed traces the entirety of Bengal's history, through pre-Mughal times followed by the long dominance of the successors of Babar. And then, naturally, the story goes all the way down to modern times, an era that for the first time left the province knifed through the heart.

The partitions of 1905 and 1947 will remain sore points, though the first of the two divisions could eventually be rolled back owing to the spirited struggle put up by the Bengali middle classes and intellectual circles against the slicing of the province.

Such a movement, unfortunately, was conspicuously missing in 1947, for much water had flown under the bridge by then. If in 1905 the objective of the British power was to help advance the economic cause of the poorer eastern part of Bengal, in 1947 it was sharply polarised, communal politics that left the province reeling from the blows inflicted on it by divisive Congress-Muslim League politics.

And, yes, Bengal --- or the part of it that linked up with Pakistan --- was to go on bleeding, until it opted to prise itself out of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's creation through a war imposed on it by the genocidal acts of Pakistan's army.

These are the accounts of history Salahuddin Ahmed brings to the fore in Perspectives. And then too there are the other accounts of history as well. Women's rights, higher education, nationalism and democracy and communalism are self-contained statements on the heritage South Asia is heir to.

And part of that heritage comes in Salahuddin Ahmed's assessment of Urdu and Persian newspapers as they came to be, or withered away, in the earlier part of the nineteenth century in Bengal. You come away enlightened from the conversations Salahuddin Ahmed engages in with you.

The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age