The Indian Councils Act of 1909 (popularly known as the Morley-Minto reforms) gave the Muslims of India a separate electorate. This was a strategy of the British to create a further rift between the Hindus and Muslims, which had already begun in 1905 when Bengal was partitioned on religious lines. Sharply criticizing this development, Aurobindo wrote (emphasis mine):
The question of separate representation for the Mahomedan community is one of those momentous issues raised in haste by a statesman unable to appreciate the forces with which he is dealing, which bear fruit no man expected and least of all the ill-advised Frankenstein who was first responsible for its creation. The common belief among Hindus is that the Government have decided to depress the Hindu element in the Indian people by raising the Mahomedan element, and ensure a perpetual preponderance in their own favour by leaning on a Mahomedan vote purchased by a system of preference. The denials of high-placed officials, who declare that it is only out of a careful consideration for the rights and interests of minorities that they have made special Mahomedan representation an essential feature of the Reform Scheme, have not convinced a single Hindu mind; for the obvious retort is that it is only one minority which is specially cared for and this special care is extended to it even in provinces where it is in a large majority. No provision at all has been made for the safe-guarding of Hindu minorities, for the Parsis, the Sikhs, the Christians and other sections which may reasonably declare that they too are Indians and citizens of the Empire no less than the Mahomedans...
Our own attitude is clear. We will have no part or lot in reforms which give no popular majority, no substantive control, no opportunity for Indian capacity and statesmanship, no seed of democratic expansion. We will not for a moment accept separate electorates or separate representation, not because we are opposed to a large Mahomedan influence in popular assemblies when they come but because we will be no party to a distinction which recognises Hindu and Mahomedan as permanently separate political units and thus precludes the growth of a single and indivisible Indian nation. We oppose any such attempt at division whether it comes from an embarrassed Government seeking for political support or from an embittered Hindu community allowing the passions of the moment to obscure their vision of the future...
The Mahomedans base their separateness and their refusal to regard themselves as Indians first and Mahomedans afterwards on the existence of great Mahomedan nations to which they feel themselves more akin, in spite of our common birth and blood, than to us. Hindus have no such resource. For good or evil, they are bound to the soil and to the soil alone. They cannot deny their Mother, neither can they mutilate her. Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.
(6 November 1909)
In his critique, Aurobindo raises another important issue: the refusal of the Mahomedans to regard themselves as Indians first. When we observe the Islamic migrations in the last three or four decades, we see this recurring in every part of the world – a sizable majority of Muslims value their religion more than their country of residence, especially when it is a non-Islamic country.
In 1919, a pan-Islamic protest campaign began in British India known as the Khilafat movement. In 1920, the Congress foolishly joined hands with the Khilafat agitation at Gandhi’s behest. Not only did Gandhi support the movement, he gave it priority over swaraj (self-rule). He wrote: "To the Musalmans, Swaraj means, as it must, India’s ability to deal effectively with the Khilafat question... It is impossible not to sympathise with this attitude... I would gladly ask for postponement of Swaraj activity if thereby we could advance the interest of the Khilafat." (R. C. Majumdar. History of the Freedom Movement in India. Vol. 3. Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1998. p. 81)
Gandhi joining hands with the Khilafat movement ensured Hindu-Muslim unity for a short while. Soon there were riots in Amritsar and Multan (in 1923), in Calcutta (in 1926), and this went on all the way up to the Partition (in 1947). It continues to this day in India (there is no opportunity for a Hindu-Muslim fight in either Pakistan or Bangladesh because the Hindus have been outnumbered and oppressed completely).
When the riots broke out in Multan, in response to a question by a disciple, Aurobindo responded strongly:
I am sorry they are making a fetish of this Hindu-Muslim unity. It is no use ignoring facts; some day the Hindus may have to fight the Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean the subjection of the Hindus. Every time the mildness of the Hindu has given way. The best solution would be to allow the Hindus to organize themselves and the Hindu-Muslim unity would take care of itself, it would automatically solve the problem. Otherwise, we are lulled into a false sense of satisfaction that we have solved a difficult problem, when in fact we have only shelved it.
(18 April 1923)
And a month after the Calcutta riots, Aurobindo told his disciples:
Look at Indian politicians: all ideas, ideas – they are busy with ideas. Take the Hindu-Muslim problem: I don’t know why our politicians accepted Gandhi’s Khilafat agitation. With the mentality of the ordinary Mahomedan it was bound to produce the reaction it has produced: you fed the force, it gathered power and began to make demands which the Hindu mentality had to rise up and reject. That does not require Supermind to find out, it requires common sense. Then, the Mahomedan reality and the Hindu reality began to break heads at Calcutta. The leaders are busy trying to square the realities with their mental ideas instead of facing them straight...
(18 May 1926)
One might consider Aurobindo’s views to be rather violent but the fetish for peace led to much more violence over the years. Also, was there an alternative way? The ahimsa school felt that there was. Here is a conversation between Aurobindo and a disciple on the topic:
Disciple: There is also the question of Hindu-Muslim unity which the non-violence school is trying to solve on the basis of their theory.
Aurobindo: You can live amicably with a religion whose principle is toleration. But how is it possible to live peacefully with a religion whose principle is “I will not tolerate you”? How are you going to have unity with these people? Certainly, Hindu-Muslim unity cannot be arrived at on the basis that the Muslims will go on converting Hindus while the Hindus shall not convert any Mahomedan. You can’t build unity on such a basis. Perhaps the only way of making the Mahomedans harmless is to make them lose their fanatic faith in their religion...
Disciple: The Mahomedan religion was born under such circumstances that the followers never forgot the origin.
Aurobindo: That was the result of the passive resistance which they practised. They went on suffering till they got strong enough and, when they got power, they began to persecute others with a vengeance...
(23 July 1923)
When a disciple mentioned to Aurobindo that there were tendencies among the Mahomedans that showed a disintegration of their fanaticism, he immediately replied:
That is not sufficient because it would not change their whole outlook. What is wanted is some new religious movement among the Mahomedans which would remodel their religion and change the stamp of their temperament. For instance, Bahaism in Persia which has given quite a different stamp to their temperament.
(7 March 1924)
Sadly, movements like Baha’ism have been crushed in the Islamic world. In Pakistan, for instance, Shi’as and Ahmadiyyas are often not considered Muslims and treated like second-rate citizens. It is only in India that Muslims of all denominations live in harmony.
Merely owing to the fact that several religions exist, neither do they all become the same nor do they all have the same value to humanity. This is a bitter truth. Savants like Aurobindo realized this and spoke about this without mincing words:
The Mahomedan or Islamic culture hardly gave anything to the world which may be said to be of fundamental importance and typically its own; Islamic culture was mainly borrowed from others. Their mathematics and astronomy and other subjects were derived from India and Greece. It is true they gave some of these things a new turn, but they have not created much. Their philosophy and their religion are very simple and what they call Sufism is largely the result of gnostics who lived in Persia and it is the logical outcome of that school of thought largely touched by Vedanta.
I have, however, mentioned [in The Foundations of Indian Culture] that Islamic culture contributed the Indo-Saracenic architecture to Indian culture. I do not think it has done anything more in India of cultural value. It gave some new forms to art and poetry. Its political institutions were always semi-barbaric.
(12 September 1923)
However, Aurobindo did recognize the value the individual religions had. Much earlier, in 1917, he had written:
Each religion has helped mankind. Paganism increased in man the light of beauty, the largeness and height of his life, his aim at a many-sided perfection; Christianity gave him some vision of divine love and charity; Buddhism has shown him a noble way to be wiser, gentler, purer; Judaism and Islam how to be religiously faithful in action and zealously devoted to God; Hinduism has opened to him the largest and profoundest spiritual possibilities. A great thing would be done if all these God-visions could embrace and cast themselves into each other; but intellectual dogma and cult-egoism stand in the way.
All religions have saved a number of souls, but none yet has been able to spiritualise mankind. For that there is needed not cult and creed, but a sustained and all-comprehending effort at spiritual self-evolution.
Among the various religions and systems of faiths, Aurobindo gives a special place to Hinduism and not without reasons. In May 1919, he wrote:
The inner principle of Hinduism, the most tolerant and receptive of religious systems, is not sharply exclusive like the religious spirit of Christianity or Islam; as far as that could be without loss of its own powerful idiosyncrasy and law of being, it has been synthetic, acquisitive, inclusive...
Europe where men have constantly fought, killed, burned, tortured, imprisoned, persecuted in every way imaginable by human stupidity and cruelty for the sake of dogmas, words, rites and forms of church government, Europe where these things have done duty for spirituality and religion, has hardly a record which would entitle it to cast this reproach in the face of the East...
[Hinduism] is in the first place a non-dogmatic inclusive religion and would have taken even Islam and Christianity into itself, if they had tolerated the process.
(The Foundations of Indian Culture. Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library. Volume 14, pp. 76-90)
This last statement is particularly meaningful in the wake of modern-day historians and intellectuals who feel that if instead of Nehru, we had had a premier like Sardar Patel, India would have become a Hindu equivalent of Pakistan. They fail to realize that it is only the fundamental principles of Hinduism – those of plurality and tolerance – that can bring Hindu-Muslim unity and not the adherence to the exclusivist doctrines of the Semitic religions.
India – because of its roots in sanatana dharma – has the ability to absorb all faiths and all cultures in the true spirit of inclusivity and celebration of diversity. Aurobindo strongly felt this sentiment. When a disciple asked him, “If it is India’s destiny to assimilate all the conflicting elements, is it possible to assimilate the Mahomedan element also?” Aurobindo’s response was plain and unambiguous:
Why not? India has assimilated elements from the Greeks, the Persians and other nations. But she assimilates only when her central truth is recognized by the other party, and even while assimilating she does it in such a way that the elements absorbed are no longer recognizable as foreign but become part of herself. For instance, we took from the Greek architecture, from the Persian painting, etc.
The assimilation of the Mahomedan culture also was done in the mind to a great extent and it would have perhaps gone further. But in order that the process may be complete it is necessary that a change in the Mahomedan mentality should come. The conflict is in the outer life and unless the Mahomedans learn tolerance I do not think the assimilation is possible.
The Hindu is ready to tolerate. He is open to new ideas and his culture has got a wonderful capacity for assimilation, but always provided that India’s central truth is recognized.
(29 June 1926)
If India has to come out of its shackles and be a jagadguru (world-teacher) as Aurobindo imagined, then it must battle three enemies: the politicians who are stuck with the politics of appeasement and populism, the Muslims who place their religion above the country, and the Hindus who have forgotten that pluralism and harmony is their very identity.
We must never forget that India has been and continues to be a pluralistic society but at the same time we must be ever-vigilant if there is a threat to the tradition itself in the name of tolerating 'the other.' Eternal vigilance is indeed the price we pay for freedom and harmony.
Thanks to Sandeep Balakrishna for his meaningful comments on the conclusion of the essay.