Roots of discord

Neera Burra on Hindu-Muslim relations in 19th century Punjab

Roots of discord
The carnage at Partition and the human exodus on both sides may give the impression that this was inevitable because Hindus and Muslims traditionally hated each other. But this does not seem to be the case according to Ruchi Ram Sahni, in his autobiography A Memoir of pre-Partition Punjab. Writing in 1942, Sahni laments how things had changed in the Punjab at the beginning of the 20th century. Some of it was because of the British divide and rule policy and the other reason was the rise of the right-wing Arya Samaj movement, which asserted the right to re-convert those who were formerly Hindus. While both Hindus and Muslims were worried about the spread of Christianity as a result of heightened Christian missionary activity, right-wing Hindus were happy to re-convert Muslims and Christians and bring them back to what they considered to be the pure path of orthodox Hinduism. The fear of Christianity, he says, made both Hindus and Muslims defensive.

Ruchi Ram Sahni did not share this outlook. As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that believed that all religions were of equal value, he went to prayer meetings organised by other sects and religions, even though he had serious disagreements with them. He also had many Christian, Muslim and Sikh friends.

Recalling his childhood in the 1870s in Dera Ismail Khan, he writes that social relations between Hindus and Muslims were cordial. In his words, “There were occasional Shia–Sunni riots at Muharram, but very seldom Hindu–Muslim riots even at the time of Bakr Eid. I never heard of cow slaughter taking place in public. On all social occasions and at religious festivals, Hindus and Muslims fraternized with due regard to the beliefs and social usages of both communities. On Eid, for instance, my father received presents of rice, meat, ghee, spices, and so on from the Nawab of Dera Ismail Khan and other Muslim friends. Similarly, he would send sweets and such like to Nawab Sahib on Baisakhi and Dussehra as well as on other social occasions. Hindus and Muslims joined in marriage and other festivities on a more intimate footing than they seem to do at the present time”.

But there were orthodox Hindus and Muslims who observed rituals to ensure religious purity. “At Bannu, Muslim servants used to supply drinking water in their mashaks to Hindu families, but they were not permitted to touch the pitchers. They threw off the lid of the earthen pitcher by means of a small stick, which is supposed to be a non-conductor of religious pollution, and then filled the vessel with water from their goat skins”. He says, “One may laugh as much as one pleases at these stupidities of customs, but they were tolerated in the spirit of good neighbourliness as parts of one’s ‘religion’”. Muslims also practiced notions of purity and pollution in retaliation, according to Sahni.
Sahni says, "One may laugh as much as one pleases at these stupidities of customs, but they were tolerated in the spirit of good neighbourliness as parts of one's 'religion'"

Ruchi Ram Sahni was considered a social rebel because he refused to accept orthodox customs and practices. As a first-generation English educated Punjabi, he found that many of his school and college friends were “only a replica of their extremely orthodox parents in their social life”. But Ruchi Ram was different and he paid a heavy price for it. When he gave up his title of Rai Sahib at the behest of the leader of the Khilafat Movement Shaukat Ali, the then Principal of Government College, A.S. Hemmy, removed his portrait from the hall of the College. Public protest, particularly of students, forced Punjab University to reinstate the portrait.

But it was at the personal level that he faced the most difficulty. His orthodox mother could not accept his heterodox ways and told him that she would not eat in his house or live with him. No amount of pleading helped and she moved to Bhera to live with her younger son.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were interesting times. Like him, some educated youth rebelled against caste and religious prejudice and were then ostracized. The famous freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai’s father remained a Hindu but said the namaz and observed Ramazan, much to the consternation of his family. But there were other Hindus who were very orthodox. Sahni describes how in the early 1900s at Government House garden parties, orthodox Hindus made sure there was a screen to segregate Hindus from non-Hindus. From Ruchi Ram Sahni’s autobiography it seems that there was a wide range of beliefs and practices as far as religion was concerned.

But the tide was turning. The British seemed to be making special efforts to bring about a rift between Muslims and Hindus. Ruchi Ram Sahni recalls how in the late 1880s, there was an Education Department circular saying that preference would be given to Muslims for new appointments in Government College. In fact, he narrates an incident when a senior professor in the Science Department of Government College asked Ruchi Ram to find a Muslim to fill in a post. Ruchi Ram sent a special messenger to his village to find someone whom he knew would be a suitable candidate. The man’s name was Karam Din. When he introduced the person to the British professor, the professor turned around and said, “Nai mangta” (I do not want you). The reason was that he thought Karam Din was a Hindu because the professor had another student, a Hindu called Karam Chand. For Ruchi Ram Sahni, this story was evidence of how little the British understood about the affinities between the two communities.

He goes on to write, “…in the early 1880s of which I can speak with personal knowledge and bitter experience, it required courage to make the verbal profession of the ‘Brotherhood of Man’ and to acknowledge openly that all the great teachers of humanity were as worthy of homage and reverence as Ram or Krishan. More than once I was challenged to a public discussion on such subjects by educated men who called themselves reformers. I noticed scores of times when the mere mention of (the prophets of Christianity and Islam) with respect as great religious teachers, immediately led to the emptying of the Samaj hall of practically everybody excepting the few Brahmos. How many times, on such occasions, have I not heard people exclaim, as they rushed out of the hall, ‘Oh, they are Christians’, ‘They are Muslims’, ‘They have no faith of their own’, ‘They are denationalised people’.”

In these troubled times when religious polarisation is increasing the world over, it is important to remember that this was not always the case. There were times when people of all religions lived in harmony. Courageous people set examples and Ruchi Ram Sahni was one such person, a man ahead of his times.

Neera Burra is the great granddaughter of Ruchi Ram Sahni and has edited his autobiography “A Memoir of pre-Partition Punjab: Ruchi Ram Sahni 1863-1948” (OUP 2017)