Friday, November 16, 2012

The myth of Islamic contribution to India

Is it ignorance or agenda that drives Indian history narrative? The myth about Islamic contribution to India

Actor Girish Karnad’s attack against V.S Naipaul,a Nobel laureate and celebrated author, at the Tata Literature Live festival was totally undeserving and in bad taste. It smacked of deep-seated prejudice and ignorance. Girish Karnad has showcased his vile agenda when he misinterprets Naipaul’s books India: A wounded civilization as anti-Indian Muslim. In his book Naipaul is only highlighting the wounds inflicted by the foreign invaders.

Karnad’s criticism of Naipaul stems from a historical narrative that is an apologist version of Indian history. A version which trivializes the real impact of Islamic invasion on Hindu society and which tries to weave a story of denial; ascribing positive aspects of the Islamic invasion of India like the Indo-Islamic cultural syncretism, while sweeping away the mass destruction and holocaust that ensued as mere generalization, isolated incidents, figment of Hindu imagination or plainly inevitable. People like Girish Karnad, William Dalrymple, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and few others have taken up the burden of projecting a benign image of Muslim rule in India, while the atrocities are ignored as isolated incidents. Dalrymple is one of the foremost proponents of the positive effect of Islamic invasion of India and how India ‘supposedly’ benefited from a bloody invasion.An apt analogy for such apology theorists would be deeming the rape of India as a fusion of two bodies and the resultant child a happy reminder of such a rape. The child is then brainwashed into accepting the rape of his mother as a good thing.

People who are listing Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, Red Fort, and Agra Fort as contributions to India should be really ashamed of themselves as they can’t tell the difference between real contribution to culture and civilization from self- aggrandizement, self-serving, egotistical constructions made on the back of poor people’s labour and tax money extracted from an already impoverished people.

Let us clear the air on the Islamic contributions to India and Hindu society at large. Let’s look at some broad categories that can be used as a framework to measure them.

Universities and Colleges

Before the advent of Islam on Indian soil, India had as many as 20 large universities some of them which were international in nature. Some of the prominent ones were Takshashila, Nalanda, SharadaPeeth, Varanasi, Kanchipuram, Valabhi, Vikramshila, Jagaddala, Lalitgiri, Phuphagiri, Udayagiri, Odantapuri, Ratnagiri (Odisha) etc., where student from across the world studied Mathematics, Algebra, Astronomy Physics, Alchemy, Medicine, Anatomy, Surgery, Literature and a whole lot of other subjects. As Muslim invaders progressed east across India, these Universities were extinguished one by one starting with Takshashila, the largest and the oldest, to the brutal destruction and burning of Nalanda by Bhaktiyar Khilji in 1193 AD. In turn, none of these benign invaders from Bin Qasim to Kutub-udin-Aibak to Babur to Aurangzeb to Nadir Shah instituted a new University or center of learning. I invite apologists like William Dalrymple, Romila Thapar, Girish Karnad etc., to cite examples where these invaders and conquerors promoted science, education and learning and institutionalized learning.

Farming and Irrigation

Girish Karnad takes great pleasure in belittling the Vijaynagar Empire, its achievements and rejoices in its destruction by blaming it on fictitious decadence theory. Little does he know that Vijaynagar was probably one of the first welfare states in the world if not the only? The kingdom paid from its treasury for empire-wide water works to ensure running water for its subjects. Even today we can see remnants of aqueducts in southern India from that era. The kingdom paid for irrigation tank building projects to harvest rain water – some of which are still in use today for farming. The kings of Vijaynagar, especially Krishnadeva Raya, personally engineered and supervised the building of a damn across the Tungabhadra still in use today. Similar irrigation works and canal building were undertaken by Hindu kings all across India. Indian farmers had perfected the irrigation using a system called Phad (river water diverted into fields) and Baadh (overflowing river, tank or lake is breached to irrigate fields) besides other mechanical methods still used today.In and around Bhopal huge natural lakes were maintained by Hindu kings for fish farming and as a source of irrigation for farmers, which were drained by Mughal’s to play polo. Compare this to lack of any such projects during the Mughal era or earlier Delhi Sultanate.

I would also like to point the blatant lie of Marxist historians to credit the revenue and taxation system to the Mughals especially Akbar. The system of revenue collection and taxation existed from time immemorial instituted by Hindu kings based on Hindu ‘Shashtras’ which the Delhi Sultanate and later Mughals institutionalized for brutal oppression. It was unimaginable that barbarian tribal warlords who roamed the central Asian dust bowl had any knowledge about taxation and revenue collection that they could impart onto others.


Fa-Hian, writing about Magadhain 400 AD, has mentioned that a well-organized health-care system existed in India. According to him…

Nobles and householders of this country had founded hospitals within the city to which the poor of all countries, the destitute, the crippled and the diseased may repair. They receive every kind of requisite help. Physicians inspect their diseases, and according to their cases, order them food and drink, medicines or decoctions, everything in fact that contributes to their ease. When cured they depart at their ease.

Fa-Hian’s account coupled with Charaka’s treatise on medicine and hospitals shows that India may have been one of the first countries to institutionalize public health care. Earlier during the Mauryan rule, Ashoka (300 BC) had institutionalized hospitals and established veterinary clinics in towns and villages and even on busy highways.

Closer to our times the Maratha’s had built a series of ‘Chatrams’ as rest and recovery places for travelers and pilgrims.

Chatrams were not mere boarding places. They provided food, health facilities and space for the animals that accompanied travellers. Each chatram was separated from the other by a day’s travel. Old resting places for travellers are found in other countries, but what makes these Chatrams different from the caravanserais is that they cater to all kinds of travellers — not merely traders. In South India, trade and pilgrim routes coexisted and the inns served both pilgrims and travellers. Endowing pilgrims and pilgrimage was considered important and special care and facilities were provided. The most important pilgrimage route in South India was the one that led to Rameswaram. Along this route, 18 chatrams were built and patronized by the Maratha Kings in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The most elaborate and ornate of them are the MukthambalChatram at Orathanadu and YamunambalChatram at Needamangalam.

The Chatrams were built by the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur, Maharaja Serfojee, who wrote to the British to continue the services…

‘Chatrams have Doctors, skillful in the cure of diseases, swellings and the poison of reptiles. Travellers who fall sick at the Chatram or before their arrival, receive medicines and the diet proper for them, and are attended with respect and kindliness until their recovery’.
This letter of Sarfojee Maharaj is reproduced in full in Annam BahuKurvita:Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty.

{This could probably also explain why Indian’s never grudged loss of food or property to invaders and this philosophy still exists with us because I have not met any man on this planet as generous and trusting as a Indian.}

One must not see these institutionalized public health-care services as stray, isolated acts of charity. These are well-documented treatise since Charaka (300 BC) and even before about the Dharma of a Raja and the policies he has to adopt towards his children i.e. ‘citizens’ living in his realm. In fact a lot medical science that was transferred to Arabs during peacetime early on came back to India with the invaders. So again I don’t see any unique contribution to India, which may have enriched India.

People interested in reading more about Indian medicine and health care in ancient India can refer to this paper.

In the field of secular arts like, dance, drama, music, painting and literature

In the near-1000 year presence of Islam in India starting with 713 AD to the occupation by the British in 1857, I am hard pressed to find contribution of Islam towards the advancement of fine arts. Islam did not introduce anything unique that already did not exist in India or take any art form forward. Dance and music was banned except in royal palaces or in brothels. Drama, dance and music was not encouraged and continued under the patronage of Hindu kings, village and town folks. Mughal paintings were poor one-dimensional renderings which had not evolved since the 10th century whilst Europe was mastering and perfecting painting in the same time period; the art of ‘shilpkaari’ or sculpting was banned so was temple building. No major literary works were written except panegyrics of emperors and nawabs and court chronicles. Urdu, the language of the army camps and a mixture of Khadiboli of North Indian plains, Persian and Turkish have no doubt enriched language and poetry. However, for India, with its own rich tradition of literature and language, the absence of Urdu wouldn’t have really mattered.

Trade and Economics

India has always been an agrarian and trading economy. Trade within India as well as other parts of the world was highly developed and well organized since ancient times. For example,Indian traders invented the promissory note prevalent today. Many Indian trading families settled in the Arabian Peninsula, Damascus, Persia, Jerusalem, Rome, Alexandria, South East Asia and other trading hubs around the known world. Trade was carried out by sea and by land through an extensive trade network. Trade with ancient parts of the world can be traced back to the Sarasvati-Indus civilization of India where some of the oldest ports and dry docks (a technology and engineering marvel) have been unearthed. Thus, even in this area India has not received anything unique or exemplary from the Islamic conquerors that could have added value to the existing system. In fact Islam had a negative impact on trade and businesses with its anti ‘usury’ dictate. A deeper study into trading families of ancient India will reveal that all of them were Hindu’s – a revealing fact as to who controlled trade even when the ruler was Muslim. Islam had little or no impact on trade, nor did it open new markets nor did it bring in new systems. In fact many Hindu traders of Bengal were many times bigger than the entire East India Company and all its shareholders put together.

Short of writing a ten-volume book, I have attempted to highlight in the above passages a quick, limited and easy understanding of how ancient India had all the prerequisites of an extremely successful civilization. The attempt is to dispel the fictitious notion about India getting enriched by Islamic conquest. Islam and its wild conquerors had nothing to offer which India did not possess or already know, in many cases these foreign invaders brought back what they had learnt from India generations ago. In fact India has made more positive and beneficial contribution to the world than it has received from it.

Those Indian Muslims who hark back to the glory days of the Mughals are ignorant of the fact that it was not they who ruled, but foreign invaders. These foreign invaders did not even consider Indian Muslims as Muslim and treated them as ‘Ajlaf’

In South Asia, the Muslims are divided as Ashrafs and Ajlafs. Ashrafs claim a superior status derived from their foreign ancestry.The non-Ashrafs are assumed to be converts from Hinduism, and are therefore drawn from the indigenous population.
A Turkish scholar Zaiuddin Barranni the court of Mohammad Tughlaq was specific in his recommendation that the “sons of Mohamed” [i.e. Ashrafs] “be given a higher social status than the low-born [i.e. Ajlaf].
In addition to the Ashraf/Ajlaf divide, there is also the Arzal caste among Muslims, who were regarded by anti-Caste activists like as the equivalent of untouchables.The term “Arzal” stands for “degraded”. The Arzal group was recorded in the 1901 census in India and are also called Muslims “with whom no other Muhammadan would associate, and who are forbidden to enter the mosque or to use the public burial ground”.

With the above perspective in mind it’s easy to see how half-baked historians like William Dalrymple and actors like Girish Karnad who concoct grand tales of Muslim rule, making Indian Muslims live in a dreamland of fake Mughal glory thereby forgetting their roots as well reality. This identification with foreign invaders assuming to be off-springs of Turks, Mughal or Afghan invaders is root cause of division and distrust between Hindus and Muslims. Muslims of India are in fact victims of these foreign invaders and it’s time for Indian Muslims to square up to these facts and stop being misled by people with dubious agenda.

Originally published in and Kannada Prabha Op-ed page 9

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