Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Prof Robinson on 'Separatism Among Indian Muslims..'

Pic: The Express Tribune 
Prof Francis Robinson needs no introduction to scholars and research students engaged in the study of South Asia. In the last few decades he has written several books that take a close look at Islam/Muslims in South Asia. Forty years ago his first book, Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The politics of the United Provinces’ Muslims 1860-1923 was published which continues to be an important entry point for anybody interested in the Muslim politics of British India. Though I have been in touch with Prof Robinson through email, I first met him at the SOAS Muslim South Asia Graduate Research Conference (MUSA) in Oct 2013. I was one of the presenters and Prof Robinson gave the key-note address.

As a lay reader, it was the exhaustive notes in the book that got me glued.  And the biographical notes at the end of the book introduce us to the professional, religious and agrarian links and divisions between the leading Muslim families and individuals. I learnt about a Mohammed Ali of Dharavi (apart from the more famous Mohammed Ali of the Ali brothers), the romance that bloomed between the affable journalist Syud Hossain and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and the politics involved in the elections of the district boards.

I requested Prof Robinson for an interview and he was kind enough to answer few questions:

1. What made you research the Muslims of North India?
I originally set out to do research on politics and society in medieval Italy. But in the mid-1960s could find no one suitable to supervise my research in Cambridge – one did not think of moving universities in those days as readily as one might do today. So my Director of Studies at the time, Anil Seal, said what about India?  

As it happens I had some acquaintance vicariously with India.  I had been brought up in the village of Willingdon just outside Eastbourne.  In those days it was full of old India hands.  The house I was brought up in was built by one – used to find rupees in the garden. Lady Willingdon used to open the Church fete. The Church organist had been organist of Calcutta Cathedral. My first Headmaster was a former Lt Col of the 8th Gurkha Rifles. An early girl friend was the granddaughter of Sir Norman Smith, the last DiB in India etc… etc…  So Anil’s suggestion was not such an odd one. It meant of course engaging with Indian history from scratch.  In terms of where I might focus my research Anil said ‘you will look at northern India in the nationalist period’. 

I very quickly discovered that Muslims were important people in northern India, and amongst the Muslims the ulama were people to be reckoned with, and in this case in particular the ulama of Farangi Mahall.  So this is how Separatism came to be about political change in northern India with special reference to the Muslims.  The response to Separatism led me to focus on Islam in northern India as much as on the Muslims.  Here I benefited greatly from the ulama of Farangi Mahall who made their records open to me.  Everything I have written since then has been influenced by this research.  I am currently writing the biography of Maulana Jamal Mian, the last many fully-formed in the Farangi Mahall tradition.

2. Any lingering memories of the days when you were researching and meeting people in North India?
My constant memory is of the kindness and helpfulness of all those whom I met in northern India. But this is not a lingering memory, it is one constantly reinforced as daily I am in contact with my Indian and Pakistani friends. One central figure in supporting my research in Lucknow has been Ram Advani, India’s best-known bookseller. Members of the Farangi Mahall family, in particular Abdul Bari’s grandchildren are in contact all the time. I see them now in Pakistan and the UK rather than in India. Indeed, one was in contact today.

3. It's been 40 years since the publication of Separatism. Any issue/strand on which you have had a re-think?
The book is very much of its time. The book is sub-Namierite in its approach and does not give much weight to ideas. I would change following things: (1) some language – I might use the term zeal rather than fanaticism; I would not described ulama as ‘priests’ as I do on occasion. Etc… (2)  I would give greater weight to ideas and ‘belief’.  You can see me moving in this direction in my debate with Paul Brass.  (3) the book would display generally greater cultural sensitivity. It is very much a young man’s book, largely written when I was 24/25. If I wrote the book now it would be infused with a much stronger cultural understanding.

4. Do you think more needs to be done to uncover and explore the role of the landlords, professionals, ulemas who figure in Separatism as the focus primarily has been on Jinnah/Liaqat Ali/Khaliquzzaman?     
There is certainly much more to be done on the second-level people involved in Muslim separatism, or in Muslim politics in general.  We are now getting down to that as PhDs are being produced of studies at the qasbah level.  I think of Riasur Rahman’s thesis on the politics of four UP qasbahs: Amroha, Budaun, Bilgram and Rudauli and my Oxford student Megan Robb’s thesis on the world of the Medina of Bijnor.  Study of local newspapers and of the huge output of the literati of the qasbahs is one of the ways forward.

5.  Your research triggered an interesting debate with Paul Brass. What are your thoughts on it? 
 My debate with Paul Brass was all about the role of ideas in human action.  As I told you, it came at a time when I was exploring the importance of ideas and belief in human action. I no longer accepted my earlier position of treating ideas as instrumental, as Paul continued to wish to do.  So in that debate I was feeling my way to a new position and testing it out on him. I would continue to go with the position I reached in Islam and Muslim Separatism, but wish that I had never touched the term ‘primordial’.  It has led to much misconstruing of my position.  Paul I think put instrumental and primordial at two ends of a pole.  My final position was, and is, that I give greater room in explanation for culture and belief than he does.