Wednesday, March 31, 2010

People’s history of the Punjab: Birth of revivalist movements

People's history of the Punjab: Birth of revivalist movements



Adjust Font Size  The Friday Times The Friday Times

Allama Muhammad Iqbal: his ideas remained embedded in a
 religious ethos


Mahatma Hans Raj led the Arya Samaj movement


Maulana Zafar Ali Khan: Muslim Punjab's religious ideologue


At the Round Table Conference held in London, 1930 (from left to right): Sardar Aurangzeb, A. K. Fazl-ul-Haq, Nawab Chhatari, Mian Muhammad Shafi, Sir Shah Muhammad Aga Khan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum and Sir Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah


... The Punjabi Muslim masses looked outwards to Iran or Turkey for their salvation and got involved in Muslim revivalist movements. To some extent, this tradition recurs time and again because the Punjabi middle class is still in the process of maturing


The Punjab gave birth to many revivalist movements, principally Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj amongst Hindus, Singh Sabhas amongst Sikhs and the Khilafat movement amongst Muslims. More than pro-British Punjabi aristocrats, these reformist movements put into play the political dynamics of Lahore which had implications for the rest of the Punjab and pushed the province in the direction it ultimately went. From the Arya and Brahmo Samaj, Dayanand and Agnihotri were the most notable personages while Giani Ditt Singh was a prime mover of the Singh Sabhas and Muslim revivalist movements found their voice in Allama Mohammad Iqbal and Maulana Zafar Ali Khan.

Reformist movements were dominant amongst urban Hindus and Brahmo Samaj was the earliest formation. It was started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal. He was influenced both by Islam – he was educated in a Madrassa – and Christianity and wanted to reform Hinduism of its casteism and polytheism. Brahmo Samaj doctrine preached one Supreme Being and rejected the concept of the infallibility of mystics, prophets and scriptures of every religion. They maintained that every person or scripture is temporal and open to revision.

The Brahmo Samaj was founded in Lahore in 1861 by Navin Chandra Roy. It was popular amongst the upper class, better educated segments of Hindus. The most prominent Brahmo Samaji in Punjab was the well-known educationist, Sardar Dayal Singh, who founded the college in Lahore named after him. The most intriguing Brahmo leader was Shiv Narayan Agnihotri, a brilliant engineering student who, after being introduced to Vedanta philosophy, left his education and joined the Government High School, Lahore, as a drawing teacher.

Pandit Agnihotri joined Lahore's Brahmo Samaj in 1873 and quickly became a major figure in the organization. He was a prolific writer of Urdu, Hindi and English. He became an honorary missionary in 1875 and eventually took a modified form of sanyas in 1882. As a full time practitioner of religion he left the post of drawing master but retained his married life. By 1886 after friction developed within the organization, he resigned from the Lahore Brahmo Samaj and established his own sect, Dev Samaj (Divine Society). He started deviating from Brahmo doctrines and its rationalist approach.

However, Pandit Agnihotri's continued to preach the lifting of caste restraints and he also said that there was no bar on intercaste marriages or shared dining. Pandit Agnihotri proposed a restructuring of the role of women and opposed child marriages: he proscribed that boys must be at least 20 and girls 16 at the time of the marriage. He also rejected excessive dowry or exclusion of women from any field of life. He made widows' marriage acceptable and married a widow himself. In his code of conduct honesty in public and private life was essential and bribery, lying, stealing, cheating, gambling, consumption of liquor and drugs, adultery and polygamy were absolutely prohibited. After Pandit Agnihotri's death, the Dev Samaj faded away.

Before the Brahmo Samaj movement could take hold in the Punjab, another reformist movement, Arya Samaj, made its way to the province. The founder of the movement, Swami Dayanand, a Gujrati, perfected his message in Lahore. He was also against casteism, rituals and idol worship. He preached strict monotheism, which he claimed was the essential message of the Vedas. His message found fertile soil among Punjabi Hindus of all classes. Arya Samaj was established in Lahore in 1877 and in due course most prominent Hindu political or business leaders, including Lala Lajpat Rai, were attached to the Arya Samaj in one way or another.

In Lahore, Mahatma Hans Raj was the major moving force behind the spread of the Arya Samaj movement. Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College, Lahore, and hundreds of other educational institutions established by the Arya Samaj were instrumental in preaching its gospel. Having been educated at these Arya Samaj educational institutions, most Punjabi Hindu professionals and businessmen adhered to its ideals. The Arya Samaj unequivocally condemned idolatry, animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, priest craft, the caste system, the sati or burning of widows, inequality of women, untouchability and child marriages, on the grounds that all these lacked Vedic sanction.

On the one hand Arya Samaj was a reformist movement, on the other it was very aggressive in preaching its doctrine, alienating other communities and ultimately creating unbridgeable hostilities. Its founder Dayanand and his followers preached that only the Vedas were divine scriptures and the holy books of other religions were invalid. Therefore, the only option for people of other religions was to convert to Hinduism if they wanted to achieve salvation. From this angle, the Arya Samaj was a precursor of contemporary Hindu extremists like the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS).

In the Punjab's political economy Arya Samaj represented the interests of Hindu urban middle classes versus the rural Muslim and Sikh peasantry. Muslim inhabitants of urban areas, though in a majority, were oppressed artisans and workers. Most probably, a clash of class interests led to irreconcilable socio-political contradictions and, ultimately, ended in a partition of the Punjab. Of course there were other geopolitical circumstances behind the partition but a fundamental reason was the uneven economic structure.

Sikhs who joined Arya Samaj had to leave it soon because Dayanand himself ridiculed the Sikh gurus. It is said that when Dayanand addressed a public rally in Lahore, the stage secretary was a Sikh, Giani Ditt Singh. But, when Dayanand ridiculed the Sikh scriptures, Giani Ditt Singh and other Sikhs left Arya Samaj and began to work on the process that culminated in the formation of the Singh Sabha.

Sikhism was being threatened from within and from without. The Mahants (Hindu priests) had taken over the holiest Sikh places and reintroduced Hindu practices that the Gurus had vehemently rejected. Casteism and idol worship had been brought back to Gurdwaras where they had been missing for decades. Idols were placed even in Amritsar's Golden Temple. The caste system and untouchability had so penetrated Sikh practices that a scholar like Giani Ditt Singh had to leave his Gurdwara when krah prasad (halwa) was going to be served.

The Sikh religion's degeneration into Hindu practices had started during Ranjit Singh's rule when many opportunistic influential families had converted to Sikhism. When Ranjit Singh died, seven women, two of his wives and five dasis, joined him on the funeral pyre and were burned to death. Thus, even sati had been brought back to Sikhism which was absolutely rejected by the Gurus. Therefore, the Singh Sabhas were formed to eliminate these degenerate Hindu influences and to rehabilitate the religion that the Gurus had preached.

Sikhs were also threatened by Christian missionaries. Many Sikhs were converting to Christianity and the situation was so bad that Giani Ditt Singh reported in his Khalsa newspaper that "An English newspaper writes that the Christian faith is making rapid progress and makes the prophecy that within the next twenty-five years, one-third of the Majha area will be Christian. The Malwa will follow suit…"

Interestingly enough Muslims did not need reformist movements like Hindus: Muslims got rid of Hindu social ills like sati and the banning of widow marriages by converting to Islam. Their main problems were related to the general backwardness caused by their economic deprivations and occupations as peasants, artisans or workers. Most of them had converted to Islam from lower castes but their economic status had not changed even during Muslim rule spanning some eight hundred years. Therefore, they were always oppressed by Muslim feudal and urban Hindu elites – Unionist Party of Punjab was a typical example of an alliance between Hindu elites and Muslim feudals – before and during (and perhaps even after) the British Raj. Muslim workers and artisans were never represented in government or businesses in a thousand years.

The absence of a large enlightened urban middle class among the Muslims of Punjab was one reasons they never found a way to address their fundamental problem of economic and social deprivation. Mian Muhammad Shafi and Nawab Fateh Ali Khan Qazilbash were leading Muslim aristocrats of Lahore. The former was well educated and enlightened while the latter was a traditionalist appendix of the British Raj. Mian Fazal-i-Hussain represented the liberal Muslims but he was not a people's representative. However, none of the established Muslim political figures was interested in or competent enough to address the issues facing the masses.

Allama Mohammad Iqbal, departing from feudal politics, preached uplift of the Muslim masses but his ideas were embedded in a religious ethos. He recognized and understood the dark forces (mullahs, pirs etc) enslaving the Punjabi Muslim mind but he could not find a solution other than reviving the original spirit of religion. Similarly, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, powerful writer and fiery speaker, fought polemical wars against anti-Muslim forces but he was not the kind of ideologue who could lead the oppressed Muslims of the Punjab. Therefore, the Punjabi Muslim masses looked outwards to Iran or Turkey for their salvation and got involved in Muslim revivalist movements. To some extent, this tradition still recurs time and again because the Punjabi middle class is still in the process of maturing.

Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sitemap / local search pages of brahmo links (01-March-2010)

Brahmo Samaj