ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Muslims in South Asia

Islam and Muslim History in South Asia by Francis Robinson; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000; Rs 595, pp viii+299.

FRancis Robinson’s first book, Separatism among Indian Muslims: The Politics of the United Provinces’ Muslims, 1860-1923 (1974), was a major statement on the objectives of Muslim communal politics in the United Provinces (UP). Conclusions diligently garnered from a large mass of evidence were skillfully woven into a clear narrative. Besides pointing to the fears engendered by Hindu revivalism, he argued that it was the threat of becoming backward, rather than backwardness itself, which encouraged UP Muslims to organise for politics, and their power in the province helped them to do so with such effect. Finally, he analysed the role of government in sowing the seeds of communal hostility: ‘because of their view of Indian society, and their particular fear of the Muslims, the divisions the British fostered were communal ones. There can be no doubt that British policy played the main part in establishing a separate Muslim identity in Indian politics by 1909’ (pp 348-49).

These arguments were substantially modified during the academic exchanges that took place between Francis Robinson and the political scientist, Paul Brass (The Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, November 1977; David Taylor and Malcolm Yapp, eds, Political Identity in South Asia, London, 1979). The debate, which has not lost its relevance even after more than two decades, centred round issues of ethnicity and nation-formation. Brass, the erudite American political scientist, defined ethnicity ‘as the pursuit of interest and advantage for members of groups whose cultures are infinitely malleable and manipulable by elites’. Francis Robinson, on the other hand, established the connection between Islam and political separatism and suggested modifications to Brass’s theory of nation-formation. According to him, Islamic ideas had a moulding and on occasions a motivating role to play amongst the elites of UP, and that the continuing power of these ideas suggest that the balance of power should shift more towards the position of the ‘primordialist’ rather than the ‘instrumentalists’.

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