Note: The Author, Sanjeev Mahajan, is a mathematician specializing in algorithms
To answer the larger question of why Muslims have always been eyed with suspicion (if not full fledged hatred) has to do with the peculiar history of the Indian National Movement which was the first upper caste, albeit effete expression of opposition to the British rule (there were far more radical challenges to the British rule by the lower castes, when British introduced and formalized the Zamindari system, a system that gave unbridled power to the landed gentry to collect taxes on the behalf of the British, a system that made an already oppressive British rule a lot more intolerable, but since the lower castes do not count, these events have been relegated to the dustbin of history).
To explain how the movement acquired this peculiar characteristic and the class/caste composition of its prominent exponents, one needs to go back further to the time when Islam set foot in India.
Islam came to India with a liberatory potential. Although brought to the subcontinent by foreign conquerors, it was attractive to the working classes (clumped together into the shudra caste by a tiny sliver of the upper caste elite, who had complete contempt for manual work) because this is the first time people had heard of the inspiring slogan of universal brotherhood. It does not require genius to understand that common people suffering under the yoke of a brutal system would flock to such a religion.
Islam’s promise was however shortlived. Once the conquerors settled down, they realized that it was in their interest to keep the upper castes, and especially the Brahmins happy, and both adversaries got down to the real business of squeezing the peasantry. The syncretism that blossomed under the great Akbar was not just because he was a remarkably curious person for a King and a man of great intellect (although it would have been better, had he used his intellect to understand the various scientific discoveries Europe was making at the time, rather than squander it on the arcana of obscure Indian philosophies), but also because he was a master at making the right alliances to enlarge and secure his Kingdom. He kept the upper castes not only happy, he also patronized Tulsidas and the writing of the Ramcharitmanas (the transliteration of the great Hindu epic Ramayana into the Awadhi vernacular). The Mughal emperors after Akbar (including the much reviled Aurangzeb who is akin to the villain Ravana in the Hindu pantheon) patronized many of the Hindu holy sites and temples and showered them with lavish financial gifts. Many of the customs today considered Hindu were innovations by the Mughals, such as the palanquin for the baby Krshna during Janmashtami (the Birth of Krshna), It would not be an exaggeration to say that modern day Hinduism is the invention of the Mughals.
Since the Muslim ruling elite became cozy with the Hindu upper castes, they had almost no motivation to rock the caste system boat although the system was an anathema to their professed religion. The irony is that in the end, a universalist religion with great promise which could have smashed an inequitable and profoundly inhuman system, instead fell prey to the virus of caste. The subcontinental Islam, albeit not as stratified as Hinduism, has the same hierarchical pyramidal structure as the nativist religion.
Even though Islam did not live up to its promise, the very fact that it challenged the hegemony of the upper castes, meant that it could be used as a rallying point for the lower castes to challenge the tyranny of the upper castes.
It was therefore natural for the upper castes to regard Islam as a dangerous enemy, and since they, and in particular the Brahmins had the monopoly on the written word (the lower castes were forbidden by law to exercise their mind), they rewrote Indian history with a singular purpose in mind – to portray muslims as lecherous and font of all evil. Even the most educated and enlightened Indians do not know that the stories of villainous, cunning and lustful Muslims prevailing over honest, upright, and guileless Hindu rulers and eying the always beautiful HIndu queens, are merely stories, and have no basis in history.
The genesis of Indian national movement (I now use this phrase without qualifying it with the adjective – Upper caste) can be situated in the mid nineteenth century, and the novel that immortalized the first upper caste rebellion against the British was written in 1892. Anand Math, although considered to be a canonical text of the Indian national movement, is more hostile to muslims, than to the British. After the defeat of the British by a rag tag army of sanyasis in this wish fulfilment story, the main protagonist exhorts his followers to fight their real enemy, the muslims.
The Indian Freedom movement of the 20th century which inherited the mantle from the 19th century Hindu nationalist movements was unable to resolve the Muslim question either. The movement under Gandhi, although aspiring to be a pan Indian and pan religious movement, had confused and self-contradictory views of the Muslims. On the one hand, Gandhi was rightly of the opinion that without a movement that was genuinely inclusive, one could not overthrow the mighty British empire. That meant not just that the mutual suspicion and hatred that existed between Hindus and Muslims had to be bridged, but also that the bane of untouchability that had infected Hinduism from its very inception had to be eradicated (Gandhi was not radical enough to challenge the utterly inhumane Caste System, and in fact was its defender, most famously against Ambedkar, and only towards the end of his life, did he become an opponent). Despite his herculean efforts to eradicate untouchability and to achieve Hindu Muslim unity, both of his missions ended in spectaular failures. Moral colossus that Gandhi was, he was able to stop the insanity that ensued in the wake of the partition in the eastern theater of Bengal. However, in spite of his efforts, close to a million people died in the conflagration, and many more were displaced. With India taking a sharply rightist turn in the 90’s and a sharply fascistic turn in this millenium, the dream of Hindu Muslim unity lies in tatters. As for untouchability, Gandhi’s efforts yielded, even in his own time, nothing substantial. The antiquated and uniquely Indian belief that a simple touch from the so called “untouchables” can defile an upper caste person, is as entrenched in modern day India as it was in Gandhi’s times.
On the other hand, Gandhi was suspicious of Muslims, and insisted that they take an oath pledging loyalty to India. He also thought of them as bullies, and intolerant of other people’s beliefs.