Ideology-driven research agenda, left or right of the centre, and divergent Hindu-Muslim interpretations of India’s medieval past have less to do with any serious attempt at understanding how the past might have been like and more of an exercise in abusing the past for the politics in the present. The desperation to show the past in a particular manner in popular histories of the public domain is understandable, for it serves the purpose of identity-politics and political aspirations of people, ethnic or religious, but professional historians falling in the same trap is against the protocol of their discipline, the primary purpose of which is to contribute to knowledge production, mainly for experts in the field, but also for some diffusion in public.
Consider the example of conversion and Islamization in medieval India. Politically-motivated popular Hindu and Muslim interpretations can be easily dismissed as biased and unverifiable propositions. On the other hand, unfortunately, serious historians have tried to hush up this communally sensitive topic, instead of applying rigorous historical methods to analyse and interpret whatever little evidence available and come to some conclusion even if that conclusion may not be consistent with one’s preferred political position in, say, a context like the current Hindutva aggression.
For instance, it is the responsibility of the historians to examine and illustrate how such a vast Muslim population has come to happen in the Indian subcontinent — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh taken together. These are mainly local converts to Islam and not immigrants from Central Asia, Iran and the Arab world, despite claims from sections of Muslims of their being of Turkish, Iranian and Arab descent. Their DNA test might reveal it to be a far-fetched genealogical claim as part of a process of Islamization, which is perhaps still continuing.
This process, beginning from around the 13th century when various Muslim Sultanates emerged, needs to be analysed and explained, but even the best of the historians have been in a denial mode: that Muslims are not foreign immigrants, that sword was not used by rulers to convert people, that sections of Muslim religious leaders, ulama, would have wanted to use political power for proselytization but did not get that support, and that it would be erroneous to say that Sufis were responsible for conversion, for they always worked for communal harmony and tolerance. Thus the question remains that if neither rulers, nor ulama and not even Sufis were responsible for conversion and Islamization, how do we explain the making of Islam and such a huge population of Muslims in large parts of the subcontinent, not only in mainland Hindustan, but also in Punjab, Bengal and the Deccan?
My own understanding developed over the past couple of decades is that Sufis have shown the way, taking Islam culturally and peacefully to most remote corners of erstwhile Sultanate and Mughal rule, being part of the political process, yet maintaining critical distance from politics, which often involved violence especially in conquests and control of areas offering resistance. Sufi traditions have been claiming and showing at least since mid-14th century that Islam has spread in localities wherever Sufis of various spiritual genealogies were settling down, carving their own sacred geographies with large numbers of followers, with no demand or pressure to formally convert to Islam. Over time, these communities of people have undergone multifaceted processes of religious change and many formally adopting Islam without abandoning cultural practices of localities they inhabited. Thus, for example, Punjabi Muslims would remain culturally Punjabis as would be Bengali Muslims Bengalis, with various aspects of their cultures shared with fellow Punjabis and Bengalis, who subscribed to some other religious worldview and rituals abhorred by Islamists.
Self-styled reformists have risen from time to time to put pressure on these Muslim communities, telling them that they were not Muslim enough and that all the “innovations” in their religious rituals have to be purged for them to be proper Muslims of the Arabic kind; they also identified non-Muslims as hostile kafirs, infidels, who were to be eliminated in the most violent manner possible. Such reformist streaks are now being organised in terror groups of the kind the world is confronted with, rupturing older traditions and bringing such a bad name to Islam even if the ideal for them is an understanding of 7th century Arabia ideologically developed since the 18th century. At the root of the struggle is political control for forcibly implementing a particular kind of Arabic Islam, a flawed and wicked strategy creating so much difficulty wherever it can.
Historians need to stand up, authoritatively confront and educate the public on the complexities involved in these issues, rather than attempting to sanitise or exploit them in conformity with their ideological positions, which they wish to upheld.