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Book Review: The Seedbed of Pakistan: Cultural Conflicts, Elite Muslim Anxieties and the Congress (1885-1906), by Saumya Dey


The story of Pakistan is one of the most complex and tragic in the history of the Indian subcontinent. It illustrates how a few-centuries old notion of ‘nations and ‘nationhood’ evolving in the western world clashed with a more than millennia old civilizational unity of Bharatvarsha. The attacks on the Indian subcontinent started with the Arabs (Bin Qasim) in the early eighth century CE itself and later continued by the Ghaznavids and the Ghurids. Timur (1336-1405), of Turco-Mongol descent was a late attacker but returned to his home base. The proper ‘settlement’ started with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate with the Mamluk dynasty (1206–1290) who were Turkic slave soldiers. The Khaljis (Turko-Afghans, 1290–1320); the Tughlaqs (Turkic, 1320–1414); the Sayyids (claiming descent from the Prophet, 1414–1451); and the Lodis (Afghans, 1451–1526) followed in succession.

The ‘golden’ period of Islamic rule was the Mughal period (1526–1857) starting with Babur (1483-1530 of Mongol origin. He settled in India in 1526 coming from Uzbekistan and ruled for 4 years. The most famous lineage drilled into our heads from the earliest history books were of course Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb. Akbar ruled from 1556 to 1605 and these 49 years were the best period of the entire Indic civilization if we believe our eminent historians. Aurangzeb also ruled for forty-nine years, and quite a few apologists minimize his crimes in the modern scholarship despite his explicitly recorded brutalities. Thirteen kings followed Aurangzeb with the progressive weakening of the Empire, ending with the twentieth in line, Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1837-1857). The first War of Independence (1857) brought curtains down to the Mughal rule.

Islamic conversions of indigenous people took place over the centuries and at the end of the Mughal rule, many Muslims of the Indian subcontinent traced their ancestry to the Mughals rather than Bharatvarsha. Pakistan was an outcome of Muslims identifying themselves as a ‘nation’ or a group of people who deserved a territorial land of their own (a ‘state’). The idea of a separate state based on religion was an intensely alien idea to Indian culture.

As an aside, Rahmat Ali first coined the term Pakistan, comprising of Punjab, Afghan Province, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan, as the national home of the Muslims, by taking the initials of the first four and the last part of the fifth. The story of Pakistan has many layers. Creating A New Medina by Venkat Dhulipala deals with the events leading to Pakistan formation. It starts from the year 1940 with the important Lahore Resolution. The Lahore resolution shows how varied forces (Jinnah, the Muslim League, the Ulama, Aligarh Muslim University, the Communists) came together in the evolution of Pakistan.

This present book takes the story even prior laying the basis for Pakistan. The Muslim anxieties grew with the loss of their power and prestige after 1857 and the period of the late nineteenth century was that of intense activity regarding the creation of a strong identity for the Muslims. The book covers an important period of history beginning with the creation of the Indian National Congress (1885) and ending with the formation of All-India Muslim League (1906).

The author

Dr. Saumya Dey is a professor of history at the Rishihood University at Sonipat, Haryana. A Ph.D. from JNU, he is a prolific writer with three previous books to his credit: Becoming Hindus and Muslims: Reading The Cultural Encounter in Bengal 1342-1905; The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva; and Narrativizing Bharatvarsa. The last two are a collection of essays. Originally belonging to the Sylhet region of Bangladesh his ancestors shifted to Tripura during partition. The trauma of Sylheti Hindus during partition remains outside the conscience of most Indians unfortunately and the author dedicates the book to them.

Saumya Dey is an intellectual force resisting the left-liberal-Marxist derived cultural and historical narratives, which eerily wants to deny India any political, religious, cultural, or social past generating a collective pride. It takes tremendous amount of grit and determination to run counter to the hegemonical narratives set forth by his alma mater itself. In his first book dealing with the complex cultural encounter between the Hindus and Muslims in Bengal, he deconstructs some of the dominant liberal-secular narratives which erase actual historical and demographic data showing Islam as a story of violent expansion, forcible conversions, ethnic cleansing and iconoclasm. He also debunks influential historians like Richard Eaton that prior to colonial rule, there was no cultural or religious consciousness as a Hindu, just as there was no political India too.

The Cultural Landscape Of Hindutva, amongst other thoughtful essays, details the evolution of “Cultural Marxism,” which looks at themes of exploitation in practically anything and everything around us. This, when perpetuated by the sympathetic media, damages our cultural, social, and religious fabric. In Narrativizing Bharatvarsha, Dey shows how liberal narratives serve a moralizing function. The delivery of value judgments, abundant in western narratives on India, is by two methods: substantialism where events and characters are manifestations of a ‘changeless essence’ (religion and caste in the Indian context); and reductionism, which reduces phenomena, events, or actors to a set of causal laws (like Marx’s ‘materialist’ history which reduces any historical phenomena to the laws of class struggle). One of the stereotypical ways is the continuous churning of atrocity literature and subaltern studies (the voice of the dispossessed and the non-elite). The present book also rebuts wonderfully the sanitised version of our freedom struggle as the victors after independence (the Congress along with the Marxist historians) chose to depict it.

The Mughal era and its decline

The Mughal empire started breaking up fast after Aurangzeb. Hindu resurgence by Marathas started denting the Mughal empire within two decades of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 CE. The rise of Shivaji finally defeated and dispersed the worn-out enemy. The effective political power in India had already passed into the hands of the Marathas, the Jats, the Rajputs, and the Sikhs in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the British started playing their imperialist game. The Mughals by nineteenth century presented a picture of utter helplessness. They were inviting Ahmad Shah Abdali from across the border to come and rescue Islam as Sita Ram Goel informs in his book, The Story of Islamic Imperialism in India.

The first War of Independence (1857) marked the end of both Mughal and the East India Company rule. The British Crown took over the reins of India. The alliances formed were complex during this revolt but there was a semblance of unity against the British despite the fact that some Muslim groups, some Hindu rulers, and the Sikhs were with the British. The reasons for the mutiny were complex but the final result was a permanent dissolution of the Mughal empire and a great loss of the Muslim power and prestige. There were many socio-cultural-economic changes and overall, it was another disastrous run for India till independence. However, with regards to status, it definitely improved the lot of Hindus and decreased that of Muslims. The Islamicate suffered after 1857.

State and cultural symbols: Islamicate

The author delves on the concept of ‘Islamicate’ or the artefacts, traditions, practices, ideas, and behaviour associable with Muslims during the Mughal Era. This paralleled the pre-Islam Indian cultural matrix of varna order, shrines, deities, and Sanskrit language. However, pre-Islamic Indian culture was more accommodative of alien and differing thoughts. Paradoxically, it had a peculiar disinterest to deeply study alien cultures.

The Islamicate cultural matrix, expressed by powerful and evocative symbols, could accommodate non-Muslims but only as subordinates or marginal partners. The Islamicate cultur discourse of power included iconoclasm, association with the clergy, especially the Sufis, a strong preference for the Persian language, and projecting domination through monumental Islamic architecture while simultaneously curtailing the public cultural displays or ‘sacred spaces’ of the non-Muslims.

Even with Akbar, who made some attempts to make non-Muslims stakeholders, the Mughal empire in his hands was very much an Islamicate enterprise. Akbar prided in calling himself Majesty and Light of the Faith (Jalal al-Din Akbar) and periodically contributed to the coffers of Mecca and Medina. Akbar Nama shows evidence of forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, just as he was close to the Sufi saints. As Dey notes, Akbar’s enlightened outlook stayed firmly within the Islamic framework of dealing with non-believers but with perhaps some concessions.

Like the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal empire restricted the public cultural displays of the non-Muslims. The iconoclasm of Hindu and Jain temples continued after Akbar and reached its peak during Aurangzeb. The language of the Mughal empire associated with culture, power, prestige, government jobs remained firmly Persian. It was the language of the royals. The Mughal empire tilted towards Iran drawing many immigrants. Persian poetry flowed high just as it was the language for all administration purposes. Though Hindu literates did take the language, they could not gain acceptance in the higher echelons of power.

The author shows how the Mughal empire left two crucial imprints in North India: one, it culturally shaped an entire society of Muslim elites or the ashrafs; and second, it created Islamicate spaces all over North India which were the qasbas. The promotion of Islamicate culture took place in these geographical areas. Ashraf (plural of sharif), or the Muslim elite, typically claimed foreign ancestry (Arab, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey) and were aware that they had previously formed the powerful bureaucracy during the Mughal rule.

The Islamicate cultural symbols for this ashraf included a continuation of Islamic ideals by a strict study of the Quran right from childhood; a fascination for Urdu because it assumed a distinctly ‘Persianate’ character during its development; and an association with the Sufis. In qasbas, the non-Muslims and the non-ashrafs looked up to the ashrafs, but it was such that the average Muslims identified themselves with the Mughal might and the ashrafs conceived of themselves as a former ruling class. There was always a possibility of restriction of public non-Muslim cultural displays by the non-ashrafs on behalf of the ashrafs. It was precisely the anxieties of this Muslim elite which laid the foundations of Pakistan.

The development of Congress

The Indian National Congress has a deep association with the freedom struggle of India but scholars differ on its status as playing the ‘most important’ role. AO Hume initiated the Congress in 1885 with WC Banerjee as its first President. Hume had no goals related to independence but wanted to channelize the educated Indian elite so that they do not become inimical for the British. He says, “… Congress was designed to limit and control the forces which Western education and ideas had let loose before they would burst into a revolution”. The initial years of the Congress were basically in trying to make the Indian voice heard in the British administration.

Though scholars might see the initial Congress movement as more of an alliance rather than resistance to British, it was an important organization which brought some unity even if they were gentle pleas. Later nationalists like Lala Lajpat Rai and Sri Aurobindo were severely critical of the gentle approaches of the Congress. The nationalists charged the moderates of an ineffective method of ‘pleas, petitions, and prayers’ to challenge the British. Sri Aurobindo called the moderate Congress approach ‘the theory of opposition in words but co-operation in practice.’ They wanted a revolution leading to complete independence and the Congress later split into two opposing camps: The moderates and the radicals at the Surat session in 1907.

However, the Congress right from the beginning was Hindu in its form and structure. Though, it proclaimed to transcend religious values and focus only on the ‘secular, political, and civic’ issues, the Muslims remained steadfastly away. Dey interestingly shows in the appendix that in the 22 years of the Congress from 1885 to 1906, the Muslim delegates, as a percentage of total, were single digits for 15 years! It was low double digits (10-17%) for the rest; only once in 1899, the Muslim delegates constituted 39% of the delegates. The Congress body, despite fervent appeals to the Muslims, and despite appeasement policies remained largely Hindu. The issues taken up by the Congress like cow protection and beef ban did not gel with the image of Congress being really ‘secular.’

The English rule radically changed the structure of education and replaced Persian and Urdu with English language. The Hindus were more rapid in adapting to the new structure. English-based education and representative political systems, important parameters in British India, severely disadvantaged the Muslims in the aftermath of 1857. The Hindus went ahead and the Indo-Muslim elite rapidly ceased to be a privileged and dominant minority group. As Dey notes, their administrative roles diminished, their land holdings receded too, and finally ceased to dominate the urban spaces to set its cultural register.

In this period, Hindus increasingly asserted themselves as they became more powerful in the local self-governments introduced by the British systems. As the hegemony of the previous Islamicate diminished, the Hindus broadly became consolidated into one group and both the non-elite and elite Muslims became increasingly conscious of their Islamic identity. The Indian National Congress was never ‘national’ and ‘inclusive’ in its history. It had always a strained relationship with the Muslims who finally formed the All-India Muslim League on the last day of 1906.

Syed Ahmed Khan, Simla deputation, and the AIML

The author beautifully traces the dynamics of Muslim nationalism to Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) and the establishment of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (1875) which later became the Aligarh Muslim University. Syed Ahmed Khan maintains a strong legacy in Pakistan and among Indian Muslims. He was a strong influence on later Muslim leaders like Allama Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The falling education and the increasing application of representation politics were clearly detrimental to the Muslims.

Syed Ahmed Khan was the first Muslim intellectual who perceived the importance of education. A pedigreed sharif, as Dey informs, he drew inspiration from the West and during a visit to England in 1869-1870, he had come to think of a separate Muslim education movement. Thus, the unsettled Indo-Muslim elite embarked on a modernity project to regain the rightful place of Muslims and invest itself with ‘security, stability, and its ruler’s goodwill.’

Syed Ahmed Khan was clear that representative bodies and the right to franchise would become instruments of majoritarianism. The Hindus would always outnumber the Muslims. The Indo-Muslim elite were persistently wary of the Indian National Congress and its reform agenda, which it thought was very Hindu in character. Syed Ahmed Khan, with a clear idea of a separate ‘nation’ of people based on religion, was never a part of the Congress. The fear of representational politics made Syed Ahmed persistently stay away from the Congress and the idea of common Indian nationhood.

The gradual distrust of the Congress during the final years of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century finally led to the famous Simla Deputation, a thirty-five-member delegation, led by Mohammed Shah Aga Khan, who met Viceroy Minto to grant Muslims greater political representation. As Dey quotes, the deputation ‘politely urged the Viceroy to be mindful of the position Muslims had occupied a little more than hundred years ago.’ Minto, through the Indian Councils Act 1909, granted the wishes of the deputation.

Dey points out though there were lawyers and merchants, the ‘Simla Deputation’ was largely an initiative of the traditional Indo-Muslim elite or the ashraf (multiple types of land-controllers like jagirdars, taluqdars, zamindars, and the nobles). Dey quotes one scholar Hardy that these Indo-Muslim elites and the colonial administration had found expedient allies in each other. The Simla delegation finally called the Indian Muslims a ‘nation.’

The institute which he, Syed Ahmed Khan set up, played a very important role as a central think-tank for framing Muslim intellectual responses, right up to independence. Venkat Dhulipala (Creating a New Medina) details clearly how the Aligarh Muslim University faculty and students played a crucial role in gathering support for the Muslim League. Dhulipala quotes one member who declares, ‘Aligarh being the arsenal of Muslim India, must also apply the ammunition in the battle for the freedom of the Great Muslim Nation.’The All-India Muslim League (AIML) formed on December 31, 1906, continued the perspectives and positions of Simla Deputation finally leading to the birth of Pakistan in 1947.

The diverging paths

The Hindu challenge in North India to the ‘Islamicate cultural symbols’ came in the form of the Hindi language, cultural displays on a grander scale, and cow protection. This got the unfortunate and misleading term of ‘communalism’ by later authors. Dey says that Hindus deployed their cultural symbols and public ceremonies to push back against an existing cultural hegemony; ‘communalism’ hardly captures the essence of what was actually happening.

However, the author demonstrates that the Congress could not answer some of the genuine anxieties expressed by the Muslim elite. Superficial platitudes, concessions, and plain appeasements hardly helped matters in preventing the consolidation of the Muslims. As the book progresses, the divergent paths of the Hindus and Muslims become evident. As a meticulous historian, Dey does not take sides in this process of crystallization of Muslims as a separate nation. In fact, at many places he is sympathetic towards the Muslim side who get an improper response by the Indian National Congress. The Congress simply failed to address the core worries of its Muslim opponents.

As Dey notes, the Congress ceased to engage with them and made themselves the sole representatives of the Indian nation. A sweeping claim like this generated a sweeping counterclaim by the Muslim elite that they represented all of the Indian Muslims. The author ends the book by saying that the origin of Pakistan owed a bit to Congress’s missteps and in a sense it was a part of the seedbed from which Pakistan emerged.

Religions and traditions

The book shows, at some level, the differences between Hindus and Muslims were irreconcilable at that peculiar time in history without some extraordinary measures. At a fundamental level, the Ghent school (initiated by SN Balagangadhara) shows how the Indian traditions differ from Islam. The latter is ‘religion’ because it claims to be the one true revelation of God, and sees other traditions as false religions. The Hindu traditions, in contrast, is a huge conglomeration of various traditions with no single ‘true’ doctrine but having the fundamental characteristic of an indifference to differences.

The Indian solution for harmony at a social level was to traditionalise the religions where the philosophy turned from ‘I am true and you are false’ to ‘I am true and you are not false.’ However, the political solutions, looking through a religious lens, continued to frame Hinduism as a proper religion in the Abrahamic mould. The search for doctrines made it more intolerant towards the ‘others’, a concept which never existed in Indian culture before the advent of Islam and Christianity. As Jakob De Roover explains (Europe, India, and The Limits of Secularism), the nature of the conflict between Muslims and Hindus were not based on a clash of doctrinal truths, like the Christian religious wars of Europe, or the Muslim-Christian encounters of medieval times. The conflict was predicated on social, political, and economic issues, rather than on ‘truth values.’ There have been no serious studies on the nature of Hindu -Muslim encounters in India.


This is an important reading written in a lucid language to understand the evolution of Pakistan and the underlying Hindu-Muslim frictions. The author, himself a displaced Sylheti-Bangladeshi Hindu, shows a deep understanding of the Hindu and Muslim encounters. Like his first book on Bengal cultural encounters, this book brilliantly documents an important period of Indian history where the Muslim identity categorized itself into a ‘nation of peoples’ and finally carved a ‘state’ for itself. When going through this book and that of Venkat Dhulipala, another accomplished historian, Pakistan as a separate country was almost inevitable. It would have been another set of problems had the Partition not happened and we can only speculate on them. Looking at Pakistan today, a broken country, defined by only its hatred to India, it is perhaps a good thing for India.

Finally, Islam came to India, converted a huge number of Indians into Muslims, and then tragically split the country into three with the connivance of the British colonials. India, a civilizational unity based on a sacred geography, is inclusive in its core philosophy, but could not prevent a carving out a nation-state based on religion. The ideas of nation and nationalism are inherently European ideas, and they are antithetical to the notion of India. Sadly, we are seeing a continuation of these ideas of separatism based on language and sub-cultures in post-independent India.

This brilliant book covers the complex dynamics of Pakistan and the nature of Hindu-Muslim encounters in the period between 1885 and 1906. Dhulipala covers the period after the Lahore Resolution of 1940 till independence. We need another erudite scholar to cover the period between 1906 to 1940, arguably the most happening period of pre-independent India. The Partition of Bengal (1905) into East and West on religious identities was a key event in the history of India. This set the basis of a continual clash, with periods of uncomfortable temporary alliances between the so-called main bodies representing India (mainly Hindus), and the Muslims. Perhaps, a joint venture by the two historians? This book must reach the libraries of all interested laypeople and professional historians.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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