Dec. 5, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 5

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    Indian unity, diversity play out in historical debate over language

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    This painting from Alam’s book, A European Experience of the Mughal Orient, which he edited with Seema Alavi, shows Antoine-Louis Henri Polier watching a nautch, a courtesan’s performance.
    When people think of factors that can unite populations or divide countries, examples from Israel or Ireland may spring to mind. But perhaps the single greatest laboratory where questions of unity and diversity play out is India.

    There the fortunes of widely varied languages, religions and cultures in a vast political space can be plotted. The interplay of state power, local traditions and religious loyalties in India can make it look more like the world as a whole than does the United States.

    Last year, Chicago’s Department of South Asian Languages & Civilizations gained a noted expert on the early modern history of India. Muzaffar Alam, previously professor of medieval Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, has explored the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire, which ruled India from1526 until the imputation of colonial rule by Britain in 1857.

    ┴ocusing on the role of religion and literature in politics, Alam most recently published a translation of the Persian letters of the Swiss mercenary and Orientalist Col. Antoine Polier titled A European Experience of the Mughal Orient (with Seema Alavi). He currently is finishing Travellers’ Tales in the East (with Sanjay Subrahmanyam) and a monograph on Islam and the language of politics in India. Among his current interests are the role of language in identity and politics, addressed in his forthcoming article “Culture and Politics of Persian in Precolonial Hindustan,” to appear in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. The paper could help redefine the relationship and mutual influence of Indian Persian, the South Asian vernaculars, and Sanskrit; and the issue of the identity formation of Indian Muslims in the decades leading up to colonial rule.

    Alam said that having grown up in a university system where every good professor was at least theoretically a Marxist, it took time to understand religion as a powerful independent force and not see it as a smoke screen for something else. “Eventually, I realized that unless you understand culture and religion as interrelated, you cannot understand Mughal political culture.”

    In a culture divided between Hindu and Muslim, with hundreds of local dialects and competing interests, Alam said, “The Mughal emperors realized that you cannot survive unless you decide to coexist. This was accomplished through Persian and Sufism in theology. So political questions are naturally connected to issues of language and literature and the role of Persian.”

    Alam explained that the Mughal rulers had to decide what language to use to rule India. One Mughal text defines the different levels of Hindu language, with Sanskrit, or “akashwani” representing the divine voice, or the highest level. On the second level, Prakrit is “apabaransha” or “patalwani,” the language of animals. Finally, Braj Bhasha, the language of songs, comprises the highly varied regional dialects. “So what is going to be the language of power?” Alam asked. “Sanskrit is too high, Prakrit too low, the local dialects are too varied. Therefore Persian has a space because the Mughals come from central Asia, and Persian was their language of culture.”

    The actual story of Persian’s rise in India reads like an epic. “Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, wrote in Turkish, but from 1526 to 1576, the Mughals turned to Persian. This happened because after Babar conquered India, his son lost it to the Afghans.

    He took refuge in Iran, and with the support of Persians, regained his empire. But before he could consolidate power he died suddenly.

    “His son Akbar was very young but became the greatest consolidator and lawgiver of the empire. He sponsored a return to Persian at his court, where Persian had previously been part of court culture in India before the Mughals. The court brought scribes from Iran, and Persian was enshrined as the language of power and politics. Despite the fact that the Mughals were Muslim, they did not use Arabic, which was strictly the language of the religious elite in India.

    Arabic, said Alam, a Muslim himself, was a rarity for these Muslim rulers. “Before 1500 it was only rarely seen, in Bengal and in inscriptions and legends on coins. And after 1500, there was absolutely no political use of Arabic in India.”

    However, Persian was adopted partly for the political power of its poetics. “It also was chosen,” said Alam, “because Persian had become the vehicle of catholicity, non-sectarianism and liberation.” There is a major element in Persian poetry urging the reader to “rise above religious lines, whether Hindu or Muslim. It is pantheistic, Unitarian, all are one.”

    Above is an illustration of the title page of Polier’s Album of Miniatures and Calligraphies, from the book, A European Experience of the Mughal Orient: The I‘jaz-i Arsalani (Persian Letters, 1773-1779) of Antoine-Louis Henri Polier, translated by Alam and Seema Alavi.
    This message was effectively communicated through Persian poetry. “This was desired by Muslim rulers because they remained in the minority for the 400 years of their reign. They were rulers in a ‘hostile’ or potentially hostile environment, who managed it by encouraging a literary culture of non-sectarianism: ‘to each his own.’ There is a poem that states that, ‘The light you see in the temple of Somanat and the light Moses saw on Sinai and the light in the Muslim shrine are the same.’ Now, Somanat was the target of the first Muslim raids in the 11th century, yet the Mughal poet said the light of Somanat equals the light of Allah.”

    Thus, when the British came to India and inculcated English as a lingua franca to rule the country, they were following in the footsteps of other empires. “Simultan-

    eously, there is a problem with Persian–you are using it in a country with a long tradition of its own culture. Thus, it is an imposition of an alien language and literary culture. Indian languages were read left to right, Persian right to left. So when regions grew conscious of their own strength, the conflicts developed along religious lines. When they didn’t want the umbrella power of the empire for their defense anymore, resistance came in expressions of autonomy of religious culture. I had a teacher who used to talk about these religious expressions as matters of ‘convenience, not conviction,’ but I have come to see it as both.

    “With the conflicts came an official interest in reconciling them. Thus colonial powers later debated how much to ‘purify’ native languages with the enforcement of indigenous Indic expressions. How much Arabicized Persian to tolerate? Should they use Urdu or Hindavi script? How much Persian or Arabic vocabulary was to be allowed in the language?

    “In Amrit Rai’s A House Divided, Rai describes the conflict as fundamentally religious, whereas I find it to be between regional and central power. The linguistic axis of the conflict is revealed when areas break up along dialectal boundaries, not religious ones.”

    Alam explained another facet of language in India: “Persian in the Arab world counts as a secular language, but in the non-Persian Indic world, it is a more religious force. The effect of this force is not inherent to the language but to the historical context in which it finds itself. India is a myth of unity in diversity. This diversity always threatens to express itself in conflict. Persian helps manage this. The script of Persian is that of Qur’an, but that makes the script in my private scriptures different from the script I see when I look for a job.”

    Eventually, Alam explained, English became the new Persian. “But the British also engaged the vernaculars, generating new identities of sub-communities with linguistic traditions. Some of these traditions are invented. For example, most Muslims in India claim to be eastern–Afghan or Arab–but most are actually local converts from less-privileged strata. Islam here appears as egalitarian vs. the elitist Brahmans.”

    Alam, whose studies span sociolinguistics, political history, archival research and comparative religion, finds Chicago the right place to pursue his current interests after years of success in Indian universities.

    “I came to Chicago to learn. I am interested in understanding the pre-modern and early modern worlds, and how relationships between social groups were maintained. What do these groups identify with most, along the categories of language, religion and region? Why is writing so important in forming identities?” Here he finds a place where the artifacts he studies and his own personal quest can meet. “Writing,” reflected Alam, “is a dialogue with oneself.”