Why Owaisi is wrong that Muslim freedom fighters have been written out of history

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Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of All India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and self-appointed protector of Muslim interests, has launched a shrill campaign to highlight the role of Muslims in the Indian freedom struggle, complaining that it is either being “erased or ignored”. He has been tweeting names of Muslim freedom fighters who, according to him, find no mention in history books.

“We are seeing that the communal and fascist forces are manipulating the telling of history in which the role of Muslims in the freedom struggle of this beloved country is either being erased, or not being spoken of,” he said announcing plans to educate the public on the “role and sacrifices” of Muslims in the freedom struggle to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence.

In the current climate of suspicion and distrust, he might have got away with this sort of divisive rhetoric, but he made the mistake of naming a number of prominent Muslim revolutionaries allegedly forgotten and written out of history.

He named four such “Muslim heroes”: (1) Maulvi Allauddin (real name Syed Allauddin Hyder), Imam of Makkah Masjid, Hyderabad, considered as the first freedom fighter to be sentenced and deported to Kaala pani for leading an attack on British Residency in Hyderabad in 1857; (2) Mohammad Maulvi Bakar, first journalist “martyred for India’s Independence”; (3) Khuda Baksh, the in-charge of Rani of Jhansi’s army; and (4) industrialist Sabah Sadiq who helped Mahatma Gandhi in the non-cooperation movement by shutting down businesses.

But, contrary to Owaisi’s claim, three of the four are well-known to anyone with the slightest interest in the who’s who of freedom struggle. Information about them is publicly available. All you need to do is Google their names. The only exception is Sabah Sadiq, though not because there’s a conspiracy to “erase” his role. I guess there were many private citizens — businessmen, zamindars, traders — who backed the non-cooperation movement not in the expectation of being recognised as “heroes” but because they simply wanted to do it as their patriotic duty.

Owaisi also mentioned a Muslim woman, Manjar, who was “always with the Queen of Jhansi and was martyred during the Battle of Kota”; and a man called Bhatniya Ansari, who used to cook food for Mahatma Gandhi and when he was asked to poison his food, he refused.

The problem with his argument is that millions of Indians took part in the freedom movement (my own parents did) not as Muslims, Christians or Hindus but as Indians. And it’s not possible to document every act of courage and defiance of everyone — whether Hindu or Muslim — who participated in what was one of the biggest mass uprising against colonial rule.

Most national-level Muslim leaders — Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Zakir Hussain, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Asaf Ali, Ashfaqulla Khan, Badruddin Tayabji, to mention a few — have been duly recognised and honoured. They occupied high government offices, have had roads and institutions named after them, their biographies have been written, and their birth and death anniversaries are routinely observed.

It’s an unfortunate aspect of any mass movement that it’s always the leaders — or those perceived to be leaders — who end up with the prizes rather than their plebeian followers who do the real dirty work. Indeed, this neglect of grassroots activists and foot soldiers — across the civil society and in the Army — spawned a whole school “Subaltern Studies” focussing on the class bias in historical studies of mass struggles.

Prominent historians on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide have faced criticism for writing the history of the freedom movement from the viewpoint of upper classes ignoring lower classes. Even late Mushirul Hasan, one of the most respected historians of modern Indian history, credited with highlighting the Muslim participation in the Independence movement, was criticised for focusing too much on the “ashraf” class.

Noted Marxist historian EH Carr famously advised students of history to “read the historian before you read history”. There’s no such thing as “objective history”. It’s selective by its very nature with every historian approaching from their own standpoint.

Yes, it’s perhaps true that the Muslim contribution has not been fully acknowledged but it could also be because it was overshadowed and undermined by their role in the creation of Pakistan. But the suggestion that Muslim freedom fighters have been deliberately written out of history is stretching it too far — and for Owaisi to use it as a dog-whistle to woo Muslim voters at a time when the Hindu-Muslim discourse is already so polarised is a dangerous strategy.

After the debacle his party suffered in Bihar Assembly elections, not to mention its poor performance in other states, he is desperately trying to revive his cadres’ flagging morale — and mobilise the Muslim vote by presenting himself as the only authentic voice of the community. And this campaign is clearly designed to do that.

But if Owaisi thought that it would have Muslims flocking to greet him, he must be disappointed because it has been largely greeted with a shrug. Many, I spoke to, were not even aware of it; and when told they gave a cynical smile dismissing it as a gimmick.

Victimhood narrative is being increasingly used by extreme elements on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide to rally their respective troops. But, judging from the dismissive reaction of ordinary Muslims and Hindus, the tactic is running out of steam. It’s time for them to wake up and smell the coffee.

And as for Owaisi, he must decide whether he wants to remain a reactionary rabble-rouser feeding on sectarianism, or evolve into a serious and responsible Muslim leader genuinely interested in his community’s bread-and-butter concerns. There is nothing wrong in looking after one’s own community but that means working to address issues that affect its daily lives — education, jobs, security — than shamelessly using it as a pawn in a proxy ideological war with one’s opponents.

On present form, Owaisi looks destined to remain a street-corner rabble-rouser more interested in exploiting the communal divide for electoral gains than in addressing the Muslim community’s real concerns. No wonder, most Muslims appear to be done with him.

The writer is an independent commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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Why Owaisi is wrong that Muslim freedom fighters have been written out of history
Why Owaisi is wrong that Muslim freedom fighters have been written out of history
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