As the first millennium of the Common Era (C.E.) gave way to the second, the contours of political geography shifted substantially in South Asia. The Indian Ocean became an integrated commercial system, and South Asia became a land of wealth and trade, connecting the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean.
In Sri Lanka, virtually the whole population shifted to the coast doing business with merchants and traders that frequented the island from the territories to the west, especially the Muslim world. Though the Arab and Persian merchants had been trading for centuries before Islam, they started dominating the entire sea trade along the Indian Ocean since around the middle of the 7th century.
South Asia’s encounter with Islam dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (S), beginning with the conversion of a Hindu king of Kerala and the presence of the Mappila (also called Moplah) Muslim community in the Malabar Coast since the early 7th century CE. Sindh came under Muslim rule after its conquest in 712 CE by 20-year old Muhammad bin Qasim under the order of Hajjaj bin Yusuf – the Umayyad governor of Iraq. By the early 13th century, vast territories of South Asia came under Muslim rule who dominated the political scene for the next six centuries. No mass conversions into Islam were attempted by these Muslim rulers and the destruction of temples was forbidden. Historian Lane-Poole writes, “As a rule Muslim government was at once tolerant and economic.”
From its capital of Ghazni in today’s Afghanistan, the Ghaznavid rule in Northwestern India lasted over 175 years from 1010 to 1187 CE. It was during this period that Lahore assumed considerable status apart from being the second capital, and later the only capital, of the Ghaznavid Empire. Then the Ghurids from Afghanistan ruled India extending their eastern territories to the northern Ganges-Jamuna Doab, with Delhi as the capital. The Muslim Sultans in Delhi expanded their territory rapidly. By early 13th century, Bengal and much of central India was under the Delhi Sultanate, which became an epoch-making dynasty by repelling Mongols who were unstoppable elsewhere in Asia. This event changed the political landscape and culture in South Asia, because it marked a domestication of Central Asian Sultans inside India, where they had rich territory to defend. Yesterday’s invaders thus became India’s defenders.
Several Turko-Afghan dynasties ruled from Delhi: the Mamluk (1206-1290), the Khalji (1290-1320), the Tughlaq (1320-1414), the Sayyid (1414-51), and the Lodhi (1451-1526). Muslim kings extended their domains into Southern India; Kingdom of Vijayanagar resisted until falling to the Deccan Sultanate in 1565. The Mughals ruled the country from 1526 until its collapse in 1857 when the last of the great Mughal emperors – Bahadur Shah – was deposed by the British.
The vicious attacks of the 13th century on cities and towns across southern Eurasia by the Mongols, however, launched centuries of migration into India. As noted by Professor Ludden, warriors, scholars, mystics, merchants, artists, artisans, peasants, and workers followed ancient trade routes and new opportunities that opened up in the new domains of Indian sultans. “Migrants walked and rode down the Hindu Kush; they traveled from town to town, across Punjab, down the Ganga basin, into Bengal, down the Indus into Sind and Gujarat, across the Vindhyas, into the Deccan, and down the coast. From Bengal and other sites along the coast, some continued overseas. They moved and resettled to find work, education, patronage, influence, adventure, and better living. They traveled these routes for five centuries, never in large numbers compared to the resident population; but as time went by, new-comers settled more often where others had settled before; and their accumulation, natural increase, and local influence changed societies all across South Asia forever. This was one of the world’s most significant long-term migratory patterns; and it not only carried people and wealth into South Asia but also a complemented flow of commodities from South Asia to West Asia and Europe.” [India and South Asia: A Short History] Immigrants from Persia increased over time, especially after 1556, when Persian literati came into the Mughal service and the center of gravity of Persian culture shifted into South Asia.
Muslim rule saw a greater urbanization of India and the rise of many cities and their urban cultures. The biggest impact was upon trade resulting from a common commercial and legal system extending from Morocco to Indonesia. When Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta traveled to India in the early 14th century, he found Bengal to be “a vast country, abounding in rice and nowhere in the world have I seen any land where prices are lower than there.” He also observed that “most of the merchants from Fars [Persia] and Yemen disembark” at Mangalore, where “pepper and ginger are exceedingly abundant.” On the road from Goa to Quilon, he wrote, “I have never seen a safer road than this, for they put to death anyone who steals a single nut, and if any fruit falls no one picks it up but the owner.”
The impact of Islam on Indian culture has been immeasurable. It permanently influenced the development of all areas of human endeavor – language, dress, cuisine, all the art forms, architecture and urban design, and social customs and values. It replaced both Hinduism and Buddhism as the great cosmopolitan trading religion.
Royal endowments to temples and Brahmans and monks continued, mostly in the form of tax-free grants of land carried over from earlier dynasties. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb revitalized a legal proclamation of the Manusmriti in his famous 1665 farman, declaring that, “whoever turns (wasteland) into cultivable land should be recognized as the (owner) malik and should not be deprived (of land).”
With its unique message of casteless equality and brotherhood of men, and simple and easy to understand and practice the tenets, and superb morality it was quite natural that the vast majority of people in certain areas with access to Sufi Muslims would embrace Islam. The impact was felt more so in the Bengal region where under Sufi influence, the pressures of caste, and with no political support structure left in place to resist social mores, many converted to Islam. There is no doubt that the turmoil and millennium-old hostility between the two major religions – Hinduism and Buddhism – with the ordinary masses (e.g., non-priestly and non-ruling classes) caught in the middle that were tired of incessant religious wars greatly helped the cause of Islam to get rooted into the region.
As hinted above, this task was accelerated by exemplary missionary works of the Sufis and other pious Muslims who migrated into the region from areas that had been devastated by Mongol invasion. They essentially acted as cultural activists or goodwill ambassadors of Islam. To this day, Sufi dargahs still attract as many Hindu, Sikh and Christian pilgrims as they do Muslims.
Moreover, the taxation imposed by the Muslim rulers was much lighter on general masses (compared to how they were taxed under Hindu and Buddhist rulers). This also helped the downtrodden Indians to entertain a favorable opinion about Islam. To garner further concessions, some ruling classes also embraced Islam. And this change did not happen overnight but took centuries to gradually make Islam the dominant religion of the masses in some parts of India. Islam became the religion of the vast majority of the people living in the eastern and western parts of South Asia.
Geographies of people living in South Asia kept changing with the times. By the 18th century, social identities that were expressed in overlapping ethnic idioms of religion, language, caste, class, and occupation were typically attached to geographical places – villages, towns, and regions – which were separated from one another and ranked in relation to one another. Residential segregation was the norm for ethnic groups.
What was once administered by the Mughals came gradually under the East India Company first and then the British Empire. In 1757 the Nawab of Bengal was defeated by the Company at the Battle of Plassey. In the 1820s, the Company tightened its grip on the Ganga basin and on Bengal, Madras, and Bombay Presidencies.
In 1833, English became the imperial language replacing Farsi. Brahmans took up the English literacy religiously, thus, essentially transforming them to hold most of the important administrative positions under the British Raj.
In 1848, Punjab was conquered solidifying imperial territory. In 1857, the mutineers for freedom against the Company were crushed – mostly through loyal Sikh and Hindu troops from Punjab, thus, securing imperial authority and crushing the last vestige of Mughal authority. In 1876 when Queen Victoria became Empress of India, British imperialism entered its heyday.
All the territories east and northeast of Bengal were contested between the English and rulers in Burma. All these territories had local rulers who like the Ahom and Koch represented ethnically coherent, though often very small, populations of people who worked in forest and on farm lands on upland and high mountain fringes of medieval dynasties, the Mughal regime, and its successors in Bengal. Huge populations of Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Maghs from the independent state of Arakan moved to Company-administered Muslim majority Bengal in the aftermath of Burmese king Bodawpaya’s genocidal conquest in 1784.
In the Himalayas, Bhutan became a new political territory in the eighteenth century, when a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Sheptoon La-Pha crowned himself Dharma Raja and his successors consolidated their power over the peoples living in the steep slopes around their forts. Their Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism became a ruling monastic order.
Sikkim was established in 1642, when Phuntsog Namgyal became chogyal, a ruler who like the Dharma Raja combined administrative and religious power. The new state rested on the strength of Bhutias, who began to come from Tibet in the fourteenth century and settled among Lepchas.
Nepal became an imperial dynastic realm under Prithvi Narayan Shah, who brought many small mountain ethnic territories under a centralized military administration based in the Kathmandu Valley. Nepal officially became a Hindu state, when the Rana made the caste system law.
Sri Lanka was the first region substantially controlled by Europeans and it became a microcosm of European imperial history in South Asia. After 1498, Portuguese soldiers conquered a dozen major port cities on the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka to build coastal fortress enclaves. Portugal remained the dominant European power in the Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century, when Portuguese captains controlled the western Sri Lanka coast. They lost their position to the Dutch in 1707, and by 1818, Portugal retained only a few settlements in South Asia, including Goa, south of Bombay, which was then they surrounded by British India.
Eighteenth century English and French merchant companies competed with the Dutch in Asian waters. The English finally uprooted the Dutch from Sri Lanka during the wars that followed the French revolution.
A drive began to bring hill peoples under British control, most strikingly in the northeast, where Naga, Lushan, Garo, Shan, Khasi, Chakma, and Mizo chiefs were all attacked.
British wars for Burma began in 1852. Rangoon fell in 1862; upper Burma, in 1886. Battles for Kachin territories on the Burma border lasted from 1884 into the 1930s. India’s northeastern hill states were conquered between 1859 and 1893; and Bhutan and Sikkim, in 1865 and 1890, respectively. British troops conquered Baluchistan in 1877, 1889, and 1896; invaded Tibet, in 1903; and invaded Afghanistan from 1878 until 1891. Mountains north of Assam (now in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh) came under British control in 1914.
According to Professor Ludden, by the 20th century the context of everyday social experience changed so dramatically in all the regions that medieval environments had virtually disappeared beyond any recognition.
“South Asia became densely populated for the first time. Its wide open spaces were gone; its open frontiers and free movements of peoples and cultures, forgotten. Its new modern landscape filled up with farming communities, towns, and cities inside territorial boundaries that were fixed in place by the modern state. Urban populations grew more rapidly and with them the need to control resources in the countryside.” [India and South Asia: A Short History]
In August 14 and 15 of 1947, when Pakistan and India emerged as two newly independent states, it was religion which mattered most for division of British India. As many Hindus and Muslims lived in either side of the border, the partition saw one of the largest migrations in history when tens of millions moved from east to west and vice-versa. The poorly defined borders left Muslim enclaves in various parts of India and Burma, who became permanent hostages in foreign countries.
The partitioning of Punjab between India and Pakistan was followed within two decades by the repartitioning of the Indian Punjab into two new states, Punjab and Haryana, in which Sikhs and Hindu Jats, respectively, held sway. In 1956, partitioning old provinces according to linguistic majorities gave Marathas, Rajputs, Gujaratis, Tamils, Telugus, Oriyas, Kannadigas, and Malayalis their own territories.
When formerly eastern districts of Bengal Presidency became East Pakistan after August 14 of 1947, Bengalis in Pakistan found their government dominated by West Pakistanis. Separated by a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory, Pakistan’s two “wings” had little in common. The disparity between the two wings eventually led to the emergence of Bangladesh in December 16, 1971 after a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died.
In Sri Lanka, the Citizen Act (1948), Indian and Pakistani Residents Act (1949), and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act (1949) denied citizenship to most Indian Tamils and then disenfranchised the rest. As in India and Pakistan, language became a volatile issue in Sri Lanka. Parliamentary elections in 1956 triggered national mobilization by Sinhala-speaking rural elites who sought more positions in a Civil Service that was still dominated by English-literate Tamils, and also by Buddhist monks who sought more influence in government on the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment.
In 1956 the “Sinhala Only” election slogan attracted votes from aspiring Sinhala speakers and Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. In 1956, the most prominent public definition of nationality in Sri Lanka became Sinhala-Buddhist.
In 1972, a new constitution gave Sinhala and Buddhism supreme official status. Anti-government riots ensued in the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. Tamil demands for regional Tamil authority were opposed in Colombo and increasingly met with Sinhala hostility. In 1981 and 1983, political division and public hostility turned into civil war with the creation of Tamil fighting forces led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE). National violence reigned from 1987 to 1990, as troops and rebels killed each other on two broad, ill-defined fronts. Civilian victims remain uncountable. Up to a hundred thousand people officially “disappeared” without a trace. While the government has recently won the battle against the LTTE, peace remains elusive in Buddhist majority Sri Lanka.
>>> To be continued.