The Indo-Persian Synthesis

By Vijay Vikram

It’s been a while since I wrote on this blog. And a very good piece by a chap called Ahmed Kamran on The South Asian Idea has pushed me into rectifying that.

One of the themes that I love ruminating on is the synthesis of Indic and Persian cultures that emerged after India’s encounter with Islam. What is equally fascinating is how this culture has fractured and is in a state of war after the Partition of India – probably one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated of world-historical events. Intellectuals, both Subcontinental and Western tend to treat Partition as a localised event. A horrific event, worthy of intellectual analysis and monograph upon dry academic monograph but in essence, a tragedy restricted to and contained by the Indian Subcontinent. In actuality, the Partition of India is a world-historical event whose consequences shall be felt on the continuum of civilisations for generations.This could be read as hyperbole of course, but a very clear line can be drawn between what happened in Punjab in 1947 and what happened in New York in 2001.

Politics aside, the cultural consequences of Partition are very interesting. In the immediate post-colonial years, both India’s and Pakistan’s macaulite elites were united by the experience of subservience to a common master, being socialised by the same institutions and most importantly, living within the same political unit. I never cease to be struck by the fact that the Zia-Ul-Haq attended St. Stephen’s College and was on civil terms with Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw (although that changed after Zia purchased the Field Marshall’s motorbike in 1947 and forgot to pay after he migrated to Pakistan). What has happened over the past 60 years, is a gradual Arabisation of Pakistani public life and an accompanying Sanskritisation of the public conversation in India. In Pakistan, words with Arabic roots are seen to be more authentic whilst terms that have a clear Subcontinental or ‘Indian’ connotation are seen as inauthentic. Ahmed Kamran provides a clever illustration of this phenomenon in the title of his piece – “From A’daab → Khuda Hafiz → Allah Hafiz”.

I rue this development because I hold the Indo-Persian synthesis to be the authentic culture of Hindustan. When I say Hindustan, I use it in its less expansive sense and restrict the meaning of the term to North India and Pakistani Punjab and Sindh. In fact, I should have been clear from the beginning. At various point in this short piece I’ve used the term India when I should really be saying North India.

Is it possible to resurrect this Hindustani culture? I don’t think so. That’s because culture is the servant of politics and is increasingly being made to conform to the diktats of hegemonic nationalist narratives. If I were to put my cultural hat on I would find this disgraceful. If I were to exchange that cultural hat for a political one, I might not find this state of affairs altogether unsurprising – inevitable even. That’s because the politics of the nation-state requires a unitary national community with a defined culture and history that aids the nationalist cause rather than undermines it. You can’t expect an Indian solider stationed on the Siachen glacier to have a nuanced understanding of the Subcontinental soul – he needs a clear narrative that defines friend and enemy – just like his Pakistani counterpart, regardless of the fact that both of them probably speak Punjabi.

This post appeared first on Centre Right India and is reproduced here on the request of the author.


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