The primary factor that has determined the success or failure of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia has been contested by a number of historians. Hinduism and Islam have had centuries of unbroken contact since the advent of Islam in South Asia. This contact has been anything but consistent. There have been long periods of peace. There have been bloody wars. There has been warmth. There has been hatred. There has been tolerance. There has been fanaticism.
When discussing Hindu-Muslim contact in the subcontinent, generalizations should be avoided because they are frequently untrue and the result of bias.
Having said that, it is a historian’s responsibility to identify patterns correctly and objectively.
Muslims and Hindus: The Contest
A careful examination of some historical facts will reveal a pattern that I intend to elaborate on today. From the era of Mahmud Ghaznavi to the advent of the British Raj, the Muslims have ruled large parts of the subcontinent despite being a minority (20-25% of the total population at most points in time). However, Hindus have always contested this rule. To cement their rule, Muslim rulers frequently formed alliances with certain Hindu clans (e.g., the Rajputs), but as soon as the alliance was broken, the Hindus made regular bids to reclaim the apex of power in the subcontinent. To establish his rule in the subcontinent, every Muslim conqueror had to fight and defeat a powerful Hindu foe (Mahmud vs. Jaypal/Anandpal, Ghauri vs. Prithvi, Babur vs. Rana Sanga at Khanua, Akbar vs. Hemu, Ahmed Shah Abdali vs. Sadasheo Rao at Panipat, etc.).
Afterward, the rulers would reach an agreement with their erstwhile enemies resulting in an age of symbiosis in which some Hindu factions enjoyed complete autonomy while the Muslim rulers remained at the apex of power. Then, as the decline of the incumbent Muslim dynasty set in, the symbiosis would be disturbed. The Hindus would start thinking about regaining full power with the Muslims getting insecure from the Hindu majority. At these points in time, cataclysmic clashes occurred between the Hindus and Muslims. Despite displaying great bravery and unity among their ranks, the Hindus lost all of these encounters, from the Battle of Chach (present-day Attock) between Mahmud and Anandpal-led Hindu alliance in 1008 to the 3rd battle of Panipat in 1761.
What does this pattern of Hindu uprisings and subsequent defeats teach the descendants of Mahmud and Babur in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan today? Why did the Muslims always win? Can we find something profoundly impressive in the Hindus despite their defeat? Despite their victory, can we find the proverbial Persian flaw in the Muslims?
The Hindu Dominance
The answer to the first question is that better weaponry, command, organization, and luck on the Muslim side conspired to thwart the Hindus’ bid for total subcontinental dominance. Concerning the second question, I find it deeply impressive that, despite living under Muslim rule for centuries, Hindus were almost always able to reignite and operationalize their unity as soon as the Muslim rule began to wane. Ibn-e-Khaldun would praise the Hindus for their “asabiyyah”.
Despite significant intra-Hindu divisions based on caste, clan, language, and region, the Hindus raised massive armies that fought valiantly on the battlefields of Chach, Khanua, and Panipat.
Such asabiyyah and the preservation of a sense of nationhood while being ruled by another nation have few historical parallels (another example is the Christians of Spain during the Medieval Era).
But it’s the third question that I think is most important. What was the flaw that led Muslims into such great peril before they were rescued on the fields of Khanua and Panipat? In this section, I’ll add another historical fact to the mix. We have discussed Muslim victories that kept Muslims in control of the subcontinent. However, in the 1000 years of Hindu-Muslim contact, the Hindus have won a victory to maintain their subcontinental dominance as well. They decisively defeated and tore apart Pakistan (the subcontinent’s successor Muslim state) in 1971.
There were many reasons for Pakistan’s defeat in 1971, but the primary reason, in my opinion, was a complete breakdown of Islamic unity and solidarity among Pakistan’s Muslims. When we look at the history of the perilous situations that the Muslims faced in Khanua (1527) and Panipat (1761), we see that there was a complete breakdown of unity among the Muslims of the subcontinent, which created the opportunity for the Hindus to seize power. Potential disasters were only averted because Muslims rallied around the Islamic flag on the eve of battle. This did not occur in 1971, and the result was defeat.
The Dwindling Muslim Unity
We must always remember that Pakistan was envisioned and formed as a continuation of the subcontinent’s 1,000-plus Muslim presence and political power. In 1947, Muslims faced a threat similar to previous ones in our history when a mobilized Hindu majority appeared poised to devour them. Again, the Muslims had arrived at this point due to their mutual discord. Again, the Muslims evaded utter defeat by rejuvenating their unity in the nick of time. For the umpteenth time, the Hindus were defeated, and victory was snatched from them just as it seemed to be within their grasp. Hindus continue to bemoan the Partition of 1947, viewing it as a defeat and a tragedy. Finally, after waiting for more than a thousand years, they won a victory in 1971. This time, the Muslim subcontinent was “cooked up” first by a vicious, 9-month civil war. This time around, the Hindus accomplished what Sun Tzu advocated in his seminal work “The Art of War”: “Thus, in war, the victorious strategist seeks battle only after the victory has been won.” Unlike Khanua or Panipat, the 1971 war was over before it even began.
This brings me, finally, to the article’s central argument. The presence or absence of Muslim unity in the subcontinent (which includes modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and India) has been decisive in the power struggle between Hindus and Muslims. When the Muslims became divided, the Hindus pounced.
Thus, for Muslims in the subcontinent fighting for survival, unity among Muslims is the holy grail.
Similarly, disunity among Muslims is the holy grail for subcontinental Hindus seeking complete dominance over the region stretching from Kabul to Dhaka. The Hindus have learned their lessons well. Without being viewed as the cause, they were able to significantly exacerbate the hostilities between East and West Pakistan. For the first time, they were able to successfully employ the strategy of fomenting discord and were rewarded with their first decisive victory. They have discovered the secret to replicating this victory in the future.
Pakistan: The War Within
In 2023, as Pakistan appears to be at war with itself, Hindus are patiently waiting and fanning the flames to the best of their abilities. Modi and Co. look confident and upbeat. They are sensing that a more substantial victory than 1971 might just be around the corner for if Pakistan disintegrates, India won’t even have to fight for that victory and all subcontinent will fall like a ripe fruit into its lap. The danger is real, the knife is only a few inches from our throats, and the only way forward is unity. I am reminded of a poem from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” in which the sorting hat preaches Hogwarts solidarity in response to Lord Voldemort’s threat:
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
The warning history shows,
For our Hogwarts is in danger
From external, deadly foes
And we must unite inside her
Or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
Let the Sorting now begin.
Simply replace the word “Hogwarts” with “Pakistan,” and the poem perfectly describes our situation.
Finally, let me state unequivocally that the call for unity does not imply that criminals should be given free rein and forgiven. Not at all. It means that the nation must unwaveringly unite under the banner of Islam and then thoroughly purge all those elements who confuse, divide, misguide, and harm us by peddling our enemies’ narratives, looting our national wealth, and depositing it abroad, abusing their authority and power to boost their fragile egos when that power was entrusted to them solely for the purpose of serving Pakistan and its ideology. Salahuddin Ayyubi had to fight and win against the Muslim kleptocrats of Syria and Iraq for 17 years before he could launch a campaign to liberate Jerusalem. But he did achieve unity, and when he did, he only needed a single day at Hattin to vanquish the Crusaders and end their 88-year-long occupation of Bait-ul-Muqaddas.
ہے زندہ فقط وحدت افکار سے ملت
وحدت ہو فنا جس سے وہ الہام بھی الحاد
وحدت کی حفاظت نہیں بے قوت بازو
آتی نہیں کچھ کام یہاں عقل خدا داد
Only identity of thought keeps the Faith thriving—
Doctrine by whose means schism is brought is impious striving;
And only the strong hand is fit to guard the creed:
Let no‐one trust man’s native wit to serve such need.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.