Rajmohan Gandhi came to LUMS on December 4th to launch his book Punjab: A History From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten. The book and its launch in Lahore was significant for many reasons. While researching this book in 2011, Rajmohan Gandhi had stayed at LUMS for a few months in order to make best use of archival material and rare books available at Punjab archives and its library. This is why Lahore and LUMS has a special place in his heart. But one finds it rather ironic that while one of Mahatama Gandhi’s 15 grandchildren came to Lahore, stayed here for months, and interacted with a lively audience for about two hours, never has there been an occasion where Jinnah’s grandchildren would come to a country established by their grandfather to share their thoughts and sentiments with a live audience.
But it was not just Rajmohan Gandhi’s presence (and that of such a towering figure of Indian academia as Harbans Mukhia) which made this event important. It was the book itself and the discussion which took place about its content. Apart from its literary and academic merits, Rajmohan Gandhi’s book is important because there are not many histories of Punjab being written. Syed Muhammad Latif’s history of Punjab was perhaps the first example of work on Punjab written in European tradition of historiography. Others like Kanahyya Lal, Mufti Ghulam Sarwar Qadri and Nur Ahmad Chishti wrote much more useful and personalized accounts of Punjab’s history without following the rules of ‘modern history writing’. Since 1947, academic works on Punjab have been sparse and generally more focused along different themes.
In case of Pakistan, writing about Punjab or writing Punjabi literature at some point, was more an act of resistance against the state which was eager to subsume Punjabi identity within a larger Pakistani identity woven around Islam and Urdu. In such a situation only the likes of Shafqat Tanveer Mirza kept on writing about the history of Punjab which often carried a rather radical streak. In case of Indian Punjab, history became a source of communal identity. For example, among the Sikhs there has been a growing trend to focus on simply tracing the history of Sikh religion and community. Khushwant Singh and JS Grewal’s books are best examples of that. The Hindus of East Punjab were more concerned about differentiating themselves along linguistic lines by identifying their mother tongue as Hindi. This eventually led to a tripartite division of Punjab whereby the news states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pardesh were created. This also meant that source material relating to the history of Punjab was now distributed in different libraries and archives. One requires combing through material in Lahore, Amritsar, Patiala, Chandigarh, Ambala, Delhi and London to do justice to any work about an extensive history of Punjab.
At the book launch, Harbans Mukhiya raised an interesting debate about the theme of conversion to Islam in Punjab. Mukhiya pointed out that South Asia as a whole is home to largest Muslim population in the world. The bulk of this population is concentrated in North West and North East. As pointed out by other historians as well, these areas were away from the power centre which was North India and Delhi as the seat of that authority. The extent of Mughal power and that of rulers of Delhi sultanate preceding them was greater in the core region of North India than in the peripheries. Yet, conversion was maximum in case of peripheries than in the core areas of India. One can argue that North West may well have been at a considerable distance from the core region but it did not make it peripheral in the sense of a neglected or unimportant region. As it was situated along a major trade route which had historically been used for various raiders coming from trans-Oxus region, the North West was considerably important from a strategic and economic point of view. This is why Lahore remained an imperial capital for some time and Mughal princes were often deputed as governors in this region.
Harbans Mukhiya rightly argued that the term ‘conversion’ carries a meaning of suddenness and rupture. It implies as if a person is completely transformed from one belief system into another. While one can say that these kinds of transformations are also possible but they are a rare phenomenon and no historical evidence can be cited for such a process taking place for millions of converts in this region. Mukhiya also pointed out that state power was rarely used to carry out conversion. In cases where it did take place, said Mukhiya, was when the ruler wanted to pardon a Hindu noble or chieftain for some serious seditious act carrying the punishment of death. Accepting Islam was then offered as an alternative to escaping death punishment. The gradualness of the process of conversion was later pointed out in discussion by Dr Tariq Rehman as well. He cited the work of Richard Eaton in which he has talked about the names of Sial chiefs who became devotees of Baba Farid of Pakpattan. It took almost two hundred years before ‘Islamized’ names of Sial chiefs were historically recorded.
In my estimation, this gradualness of the process of conversion plays itself out as an important theme in the Islamic reform movements of 19th century. In various reform movements of that period, there is an increasing emphasis on the concept of bidat or innovation in religion. The reformist clerics repeatedly lamented the fact that since Muslims were previously Hindus, they have adopted a lot of beliefs and practices from the latter. For example, a Deobandi scholar celebrated the death of his brother-in-law because he could now arrange re-marriage of his widowed sister – a practice which had become a taboo in North India. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s Behishti Zewar is an excellent example of such a concept of bidat. He has written hundreds of pages about un-Islamic practices and rituals performed on such occasions as weddings and funerals. The underlying theme of all these reformist trends is to emphasize the incompleteness of the conversion process. The reformist clerics believe that the Muslims of India – because of centuries of acculturation with their Hindu counterparts – have still to come out of their former belief system and become ‘proper’ Muslims. This, they can only become, by dissociating themselves from local cultural practices and embracing the ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ Islam of Arabia.
I may conclude this article on a lighter note by sharing a comment made by a person from the audience after the discussion had ended. He approached me in person and shared his theory that the price difference between beef and mutton is probably a reflection of this continuity of conversion process. A large majority of those who can afford to buy meat, he said, prefer to consume mutton on the plea that beef is not good for health. Given that Pakistanis tend to have extremely unhealthy dietary habits (greasy overcooked food, odd eating hours, lack of fibre, fruits and green vegetables in diet etc), it is highly unlikely that this aversion to beef is simply on the basis of ‘health’ reasons alone. While I agree with him on this to a certain degree, it should not imply that eating beef will complete the conversion process or that it is the prerequisite for becoming a ‘proper Muslim’.