Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Do we know if Proto-Indo-European really existed?

In response to my piece tracing the first evidence found of Old Indic to Syria, Rohini Bakshi had this cogent piece. Please do read it since it adds context to this debate.

Let me, however, rebut this rebuttal.

Some of her points are not rebuttals and some answer themselves. I have clearly mentioned that the Mitanni spoke in Hurrian (#2) and worshipped non-Vedic gods (#3), so simply repeating them doesn’t serve much purpose. As for #4, I am not so sure why residents of northern Syria (for, literally, centuries) cannot be called Syrians. What would I call them? Either way, it is a trivial semantic point. And #6 uses BB Lal as a reference, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a joke. Happy to see some real references to Rig Veda compilation dates.

The two main points are #5, #7.

Rohini's point #5 reads:

Indologists like Theodore Proferes quote the Mitanni treaty merely as a chronological marker - saying that if the Indo-Aryan gods (as opposed to Proto-Aryan;See Thieme ibid.) feature in the Mitanni treaty, and if they were worshiped for the same functions in the Rig Veda - the hymns are at least as old as the treaty. However Proferes is the first to admit that Max Mueller's dating is arbitrary and there is nothing which says the Rig Veda was not composed centuries before this date.

Yes the Rig Veda's compilation is "at least as old as the treaty” (probably). But that just proves the point. Here's how:

1) By the time the treaty was written, the Mitanni had stopped speaking Sanskrit. In fact, we know they had stopped speaking Sanskrit before 1500 BC (founding date of the empire) since they had switched to Hurrian.
2) This means that the Mitanni were speaking Sanskrit before 1500 BC.
3) This means that the Mitanni were speaking in Sanskrit before the Rig Veda was compiled (since no on dates the Rig Veda compilation before 1500 BC).
 4) QED

David Anthony has a great explanation of this in his book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.

Rohini's #7 reads:

Shoaib unqualified-ly quotes PIE (Proto Indo-European) as the founding language of Sanskrit. He doesn't consider it necessary to explain PIE itself is a scholarly construct and there is by no means any agreement on whether it actually existed. Linguistic scholars like N.S. Trubetskoy categorically deny its existence. Even a scholar like Ernst Pulgram who does believe that PIE existed admits, "...a procedure whereby we choose to arrive at a reconstructed proto-language, be it Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Athapaskan, by comparing languages in pairs and advancing by way of a pyramid until we have reached the summit, the reconstructed proto-language, does not in the least entitle us to believe, or postulate, that historically the reverse process-that is, a series of binary splits-actually occurred." So when the jury is still out on PIE I would be very uncomfortable with adding gravitas to an article by quoting PIE (founding language) as a 'Fact.'

Rohini is right that Trubetzkoy denied the existence of PIE. However, Trubetzkoy is an ancient chap – he died in 1938 (always useful to provide a date with an old citation). Almost everyone disagrees with him today including, Rohini’s other citation, Ernst Pulgram. This is what Pulgram has to say:

“Let me first mention, and dispose of, the view (held by few, notably by Trubetzkoy, though perhaps only for a time and for the sake of argument) that there never was a Proto-Indo-European language, but that the similarity of the attested Indo-European idioms is due to progressive assimilation through constant and enduring contact with one another.”

The paper that Pulgram quotes from was written in the 50s. In that he agrees that PIE "actually existed" (to use Rohini's own words). To quote from the same Pulgram paper Rohini quotes from: “there existed a Proto-Indo-European language whence the later attested Indo-European idioms derive their peculiar structure and much of their substance”.

In effect, Pulgram is in perfect agreement with me when I, to use Rohini’s words, “unqualified-ly quote PIE (Proto Indo-European) as the founding language of Sanskrit”.

Therefore, when Rohini says, “So when the jury is still out on PIE I would be very uncomfortable with adding gravitas to an article by quoting PIE (founding language) as a 'Fact'” she is not only disagreeing with me she is also disagreeing with her own citation, Pulgram.

In modern linguistics, PIE is very much a “fact”  with near "agreement on whether it actually existed" (agreement: it did). Pulgram agrees it was a "fact" in 1959 in the very same paper Rohini quotes from. And this fact has got stronger with age. Not only Pulgram, you would be hard put to find a modern linguist who would disagree with my statement that “The founding language of the family from which Sanskrit is from is called Proto-Indo-European”.


Now that I've cleared myself of all charges and have a free conscience, here's something extra.

The point that Pulgram was trying to make was somewhat different. He was questioning the method of reconstruction for PIE. 

Say your grandfather had a car which he sold before you were born. It was his favourite car and he spoke of it all the time. Today, though, all that's left of the car is a photo. Also, sadly, dadaji is dead in this tale.

Today if your wife asks you, "jaanam, what was your dada's car like that he bored us to death with?" what will you do? Look at the photo and tell her, right?

That's simple. 

But how good was the photo? Now if the camera was a B&W one you'd never be able to tell her the colour of the car. What if the photo ended above the wheels? You'd never be able to tell what the hubcaps were made off. If your little shit of a son cut out the back of the photo with a pair of scissors, you'd never be able to say whether it had a spoiler. And so on.

PIE is a bit like the car. It's lost since the people who spoke it were ganwaars and didn't write. But using a process of linguistic reconstruction (the camera), linguists have replicated PIE (the photo).

Like no one doubts the car existed, no one today doubts PIE existed. Pulgram doesn't and nor do I in my piece. And nor does any almost linguist today. Even the kooks like Elst agree that there was a PIE (he just says it came from India).

What Pulgram is saying in that paper is that we have a really bad camera which means we have a shitty photo. Hence Reconstructed Proto-Indo-European is a terrible replica of Real PIE. Just like the photo might be a terrible replica of the car.

Of course, PIE reconstructing is something that I don't even touch upon in my piece, so it's not relevant. I simply said the car (PIE) existed.

That said, Pulgram is also old. This paper we're quoting is 56 years old. By now almost everyone is convinced that the photo is a good one (say, some similar models still exist in the market and we've gone and checked them out at the showroom etc etc – this analogy is obviously being stretched now). 

Linguistic reconstruction has been so good that it has many, many times predicted old language features that have only later on been confirmed via archaeology. In effect, real world experiments have proved our camera works and have proven Pulgram wrong.

Fact check: India wasn't the first place Sanskrit was recorded – it was Syria

First published on Scroll

After yoga, Narendra Modi has turned his soft power focus to Sanskrit.  The Indian government is enthusiastically participating in the 16th World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok. Not only is it sending 250 Sanskrit scholars and partly funding the event, the conference will see the participation of two senior cabinet ministers: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who inaugurated the conference on Sunday, and Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, who will attend its closing ceremony on July 2. Inexplicably, Swaraj also announced the creation of the post of Joint Secretary for Sanskrit in the Ministry of External Affairs. How an ancient language, which no one speaks, writes or reads, will help promote India’s affairs abroad remains to be seen.

On the domestic front, though, the uses of Sanskrit are clear: it is a signal of the cultural nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism, so sacred that lower castes (more than 75% of modern Hindus) weren’t even allowed to listen to it being recited. Celebrating Sanskrit does little to add to India’s linguistic skills – far from teaching an ancient language, India is still to get all its people educated in their modern mother tongues. But it does help the BJP push its own brand of hyper-nationalism.

Unfortunately, reality is often a lot more complex than simplistic nationalist myths. While Sanskrit is a marker of Hindu nationalism for the BJP, it might be surprised, even shocked, to know that the first people to leave behind evidence of having spoken Sanskrit aren't Hindus or Indians – they were Syrians.

The Syrian speakers of Sanskrit

The earliest form of Sanskrit is that used in the Rig Veda (called Old Indic or Rigvedic Sanskrit). Amazingly, Rigvedic Sanskrit was first recorded in inscriptions found not on the plains of India but in in what is now northern Syria.

Between 1500 and 1350 BC, a dynasty called the Mitanni ruled over the upper Euphrates-Tigris basin, land that corresponds to what are now the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The Mitannis spoke a language called Hurrian, unrelated to Sanskrit. However, each and every Mitanni king had a Sanskrit name and so did many of the local elites. Names include Purusa (meaning “man”), Tusratta (“having an attacking chariot”), Suvardata (“given by the heavens”), Indrota (“helped by Indra”) and Subandhu, a name that exists till today in India.

Imagine that: the irritating, snot-nosed Subandhu from school shares his name with an ancient Middle Eastern prince. Goosebumps. (Sorry, Subandhu).

The Mitanni had a culture, which, like the Vedic people, highly revered chariot warfare. A Mitanni horse-training manual, the oldest such document in the world, uses a number of Sanskrit words: aika (one), tera (three), satta (seven) and asua (ashva, meaning “horse”). Moreover, the Mitanni military aristocracy was composed of chariot warriors called “maryanna”, from the Sanskrit word "marya", meaning “young man”.

The Mitanni worshipped the same gods as those in the Rig Veda (but also had their own local ones). They signed a treaty with a rival king in 1380 BC which names Indra, Varuna, Mitra and the Nasatyas (Ashvins) as divine witnesses for the Mitannis. While modern-day Hindus have mostly stopped the worship of these deities, these Mitanni gods were also the most important gods in the Rig Veda.

This is a striking fact. As David Anthony points out in his book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, this means that not only did Rigvedic Sanskrit predate the compilation of the Rig Veda in northwestern India but even the “central religious pantheon and moral beliefs enshrined in the Rig Veda existed equally early”.

How did Sanskrit reach Syria before India?

What explains this amazing fact? Were PN Oak and his kooky Hindutva histories right? Was the whole world Hindu once upon a time? Was the Kaaba in Mecca once a Shivling?

Unfortunately, the history behind this is far more prosaic.

The founding language of the family from which Sanskrit is from is called Proto-Indo-European. Its daughter is a language called Proto-Indo-Iranian, so called because it is the origin of the languages of North India and Iran (linguists aren’t that good with catchy language names).

The, well, encyclopedic, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, edited by JP Mallory and DQ Adams, writes of the earliest speakers of Proto-Indo-Iranian emerging in the southern Urals and Kazakhstan. These steppe people, representing what is called the Andronovo culture, first appear just before 2000 BC.

From this Central Asian homeland diverged a group of people who had now stopped speaking Proto-Indo-Iranian and were now conversing in the earliest forms of Sanskrit. Some of these people moved west towards what is now Syria and some east towards the region of the Punjab in India.

David Anthony writes that the people who moved west were possibly employed as mercenary charioteers by the Hurrian kings of Syria. These charioteers spoke the same language and recited the same hymns that would later on be complied into the Rig Veda by their comrades who had ventured east.

These Rigvedic Sanskrit speakers usurped the throne of their employers and founded the Mitanni kingdom. While they gained a kingdom, the Mitanni soon lost their culture, adopting the local Hurrian language and religion. However, royal names, some technical words related to chariotry and of course the gods Indra, Varuna, Mitra and the Nasatyas stayed on.

The group that went east and later on composed the Rig Veda, we know, had better luck in preserving their culture. The language and religion they bought to the subcontinent took root. So much so that 3,500 years later, modern Indians would celebrate the language of these ancient pastoral nomads all the way out in Bangkok city.

Hindutvaising Sanskrit’s rich history

Unfortunately, while their language, religion and culture is celebrated, the history of the Indo-European people who brought Sanskrit into the subcontinent is sought to be erased at the altar of cultural nationalism. Popular national myths in India urgently paint Sanskrit as completely indigenous to India. This is critical given how the dominant Hindutva ideology treats geographical indigenousness as a prerequisite for nationality. If Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism, has a history that predates its arrival in India, that really does pull the rug from out under the feet of Hindutva.

Ironically, twin country Pakistan’s national myths go in the exact opposite direction: their of-kilter Islamists attempt to make foreign Arabs into founding fathers and completely deny their subcontinental roots.

Both national myths, whether Arab or Sanskrit, attempt to imagine a pure, pristine origin culture uncontaminated by unsavoury influences. Unfortunately the real world is very often messier than myth. Pakistanis are not Arabs and, as the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture rather bluntly puts it: “This theory [that Sanskrit and its ancestor Proto-Indo-European was indigenous to India], which resurrects some of the earliest speculations on the origins of the Indo-Europeans, has not a shred of supporting evidence, either linguistic or archeological”.

Why is the BJP so keen on appropriating icons from outside its Hindutva fold?

First published on Scroll.

Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao was a man of versatile talents. An effective chief minister, he is also known for being the first Indian prime minister who was not a native Hindi-speaker – a somewhat patronising fact to remember him by, given that he was a polyglot who knew 17 languages, including Hindi.

Eleven years after this death, he still has the political classes chattering: the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is building a memorial to Rao in Delhi. So keen is it on achieving this that work was rushed to inaugurate the memorial on Rao’s 94th birth anniversary on Sunday.

The BJP’s move to remember Rao stands in stark contrast to the Congress’s attitude towards his memory. Although a Congressman for life, Rao was dumped rather hastily. His fall from grace was so complete that the Congress even forced his family to perform his last rites in Hyderabad and not in Delhi, lest the attention took away some of the spotlight from the Nehru-Gandhi clan.

Rao isn’t the only estranged Congressman that the BJP wants to commemorate. Last Wednesday, the Narendra Modi government approved plans for a national memorial at the birthplace of Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar. And then of course, there is the continued appropriation of Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose.

Searching for icons

Why is the BJP, the largest party in Parliament, and Narendra Modi so keen on appropriating non-BJP icons? The party claims to be feting Rao for instituting liberalisation. But to be consistent with the rationale, will the party also praise Manmohan Singh given that his contribution was also integral to the process? Seems unlikely.

It is also unlikely that Jayaprakash Narayan, the socialist leader the BJP is commemorating, would take too well to celebrations of liberalisation. It is also ironical that Modi is celebrating JP’s fight against over-centralisation of power in the person of the prime minister.

Platitudes aside, the core issue is quite simple. The BJP might be facing a surfeit of electoral riches now but its political legacy is shallow and weak. There is no historical depth in the Bharaiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine that now dominates Indian politics. On the one hand, this is a great story of a meteoric rise. But, on the other, lack of a historical narrative can be a serious handicap to building a strong foundation for power.

A long history of nothing

To be sure, the BJP-RSS aren’t new organisations. The RSS was founded in 1925 and will celebrate its 90th anniversary in September. The RSS’ political arm, the BJP, is no spring chicken either. It was founded in 1951, making it a venerable 64 years old.

The issue isn’t age – it’s impact. The BJP as a political formation might have existed for a great many years, but for most of that time, it’s been a marginal player in Indian politics with no influence and, consequently, no legacy.

In 1971, for example, the Jan Sangh only managed to win 7.35% of the votes polled. Added up, the vote share of the two Congress parties (the Congress-O and Indira Gandhi’s Congress) was more than seven times as much.

After that came the Emergency, the 40th anniversary of which is being so exuberantly marked by the BJP. The party today uses the event to claim its historical roots.

Did the Emergency birth the BJP?

This is understandable given that the BJP – or the wider Hindutva family – really has nothing to show for the Freedom Movement. Leaders such as Vinayak Savarkar and BJP founder SP Mookerkee, for example, opposed the Quit India movement and cooperated with the British Raj. This might have made tactical sense at the time and helped the Hindutva movement grow a bit but it really doesn’t make for a good historical narrative.

Thus, all the BJP has left is the Emergency and, for the past month or so, we’ve been treated to narratives about how seminal the BJP-RSS role was in this movement against Indira Gandhi’s despotism (expectedly, even Modi’s personal role in it has been lionised).

These narratives are effective and help the BJP carve out a distinct space for itself in India’s history. Narratives aside, however, the funny thing is that this supposedly heroic role of the BJP-RSS in upholding democracy during the Emergency helped it very little in actually getting any democratic support for itself.

After 1971, the next election the BJP fought alone was in 1984 (it fought the 1977 and ‘80 elections as part of the Janata Party, so there are no numbers to go on). Its vote share in ‘84 ? 7.74%. Sure, the numbers were up from 7.35% before the Emergency (1971 elections). But only by 0.39 or 5%. That’s it.

Its role in the Emergency that the BJP is most proud of today – that it considers its moment of political birth – seems to have had no effect on India’s voters. Post emergency, the BJP was as much of a minor player as it was before.

Ram’s role

So if not the Emergency, what actually gave birth to the party which now has a majority in the Lok Sabha? Let’s look at the numbers again.

In the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote share jumped to 20.11% : a near tripling of its 1984 number. In contrast, the BJP vote share in 2014 only increased by a little more than 50% since 1991. The 1991 inflexion point? The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. The search for Ram’s birthplace generated a religious frenzy which also birthed the BJP as a serious contender to power.

Unfortunately, effective as they are at the ballot box, religious frenzies don’t make for terribly effective historical narratives. Until reminded by, say, a pesky Vishva Hindu Parishad functionary, the BJP wouldn’t mind forgetting this movement. And of course it seems to have no plans to build a temple as long as it is in a position of political strength.

Apart from that, however, there really isn’t much else of impact in the BJP’s rather uneventful history. So while the party has pushed its Hindutva leaders, given that they were political pygmies in their times, it has not been very effective. People such as SP Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madan Mohan Malaviya might be committed Hindutva ideologues but they really don’t add any heft to the BJP today.

To compensate, the BJP desperately trawls around for anyone who isn’t a Congress favourite – a fairly easy task, it might be noted, since that includes almost anyone who isn’t a Nehru-Gandhi. Legacies of ex-Congressmen such as Vallabhbhai Patel, PV Narasimha Rao and Jayaprakash Narayan are seized hurriedly and even the square pegs of committed ideological opponents such as Marxist revolutionary Bhagat Singh are sought to be hammered into the round Hindutva holes of the BJP.

Given the BJP’s absolute lack of options, this is hardly a surprise and till now, in fact, the Modi government has done a fairly good job of icon appropriation. After all, if there’s one thing this government is good at, it’s communication. Even so, this complete invention of a historical narrative is no easy task and it remains to be seen, a few decades down the line, how well the BJP has performed at this task.

Revisiting Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Trinamool's latest hero

First published on Scroll.

On Tuesday, the Trinamool Congress paid floral tributes to Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, (which later evolved into the Bharatiya Janata Party), marking another step on the road to the rapprochement between the TMC and the BJP.

From facing off bitterly against each other in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, the past few months have seen a definite thaw in relations between Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi. The BJP, since then, has now gone so far as to slow down corruption investigations against Trinamool leaders. And the Trinamool, in turn, has helped the BJP out in the Rajya Sabha as well as backed key foreign policy decisions with Bangladesh (such as the Land Boundary Agreement).

Even by these standards, though, feting SP Mookerji is significant. The Trinamool, till now, was a party accused of pandering to Muslim right wingers in Bengal – it instituted a stipend for imams and all but expelled Taslima Nasreen from the state. With Tuesday’s move, the TMC is trying to square the circle, by also identifying with a person who was one of the Hindutva movement’s leading lights and who, in 1947, openly called for Partition.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee

SP Mookerjee was born into bhadralok royalty. His father was Asutosh Mookerjee, the towering vice-chancellor of Calcutta University  (a post later held by the son too), who was awarded the Star of India and knighted for his services to the Empire.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee entered politics at the age of 28 and was first elected to the Bengal Legislative Council as a Congress candidate from Calcutta University in 1929 (without universal adult franchise, the Raj had a complex system of allocating legislative seats with quotas to special interests such as industries or, in this case, scholars).

He didn’t last too long in the Congress, though, given that it soon decided against council entry and SP Mookerjee didn’t want to vacate his seat, which he then held as an independent. Moreover, Mookerjee found the Congress’ attitude towards Muslims too soft and he was more interested in championing Hindu interests.

Communal Award

The politics of Bengal changed sharply after 1932, when the Raj released a new plan of legislative seat allocation known as the Communal Award. In Bengal, till then, in spite of the Muslims being a majority, there were more Hindu seats in the Council than Muslim seats. The Award reversed this anomaly, awarding more seats to the majority Muslims. To make matters worse for the upper caste bhadralok, in far away Pune, Mohandas Gandhi had come to an understanding with BR Ambedkar to award a large portion of “Hindu” seats to Dalits, in return for joint caste Hindu-Dalit electorates. This made the bhadralok’s position even weaker.

The bhadralok had, till then, dominated this province’s politics. Before the Communal Award, there were 46 Hindu seats to 39 Muslims seats in Bengal. This new system of distributing  power by the counting of heads, though, changed this system overnight. Now for 80 Hindu seats there were 117 Muslims seats.

Even as this new system was being introduced, the British governor of Bengal warned Delhi that this would “increase communal bitterness”. Sure enough, the Hindu elite of Bengal were alarmed at this sudden loss of power. One petition, signed by a stunning array of Bengalis, including SP Mookerjee and also Rabindranath Tagore, argued that the the Award was unjust since the “Hindus of Bengal, though, numerically a minority, are overwhelmingly superior culturally.” As historian, Joya Chatterji points out, “the implication was that the 'cultural superiority' of the Hindus more than outweighed the numerical majority of the backward Muslims, and entitled Hindus to a share of power far in excess of their numbers”.

Embattled minority

Almost overnight, the bhadralok community, that had almost come to define what “national” meant, started to see themselves as an embattled minority community (only a few decades back, the North Indian Muslim elite had gone through an near identical identity crisis).

In 1937, provincial elections were held in Bengal, which the Congress fought as part of an informal coalition with the Krishak Praja Party, a party of the largely Muslim peasantry of Bengal. The Bengal Congress, more than in any other part of the country, was a largely Hindu-based party. It thus didn’t fight a single Muslim seat – a wise move since it wouldn’t have won anyway – and left them for the KPP.

Unfortunately, post the election, driven by a host of factors, the Congress refused to form a coalition government with the KPP and its influential leader, Fazlul Haq (Haq has mostly been forgotten by the city he was once Premier of, but in Park Circus, the Kolkata street where he once lived, Jhowtala Road is now named "Fazlul Haq Sarani") . Haq was therefore forced into the arms of the Muslim League. Although both parties represented Muslims, there was a class divide: the League represented zamindars while the KPP, peasants and they had in fact fought as bitter rivals in the elections.

Again with eerie parallels to the United Provinces, this provincial government that was then formed did not have any minority (in Bengal’s case, Hindu) representation. This sealed the fears of the Hindus in the province that this new system placed them under the rule of a – to use Jinnah’s phrase – “permanent majority”.

Sectarian parties, paradoxically, do well in areas where their communities are in a minority and can be sold a certain kind of politics. Thus the Muslim League was strongest amongst the minority Urduwallahs and was, for most of the time, a bit player in majority-provinces such as Bengal and the Punjab.

After the formation of the League-Praja ministry, it was the province’s Hindus who realised that they were a minority in Bengal. It was in this situation, in 1939, that Vinayak Savarkar – another Hindutva stalwart – launched his party, the Hindu Mahasabha, in Bengal. Mookerjee joined the party and by 1940 had become the Mahasabha’s president and its most prominent face in Bengal.

Communal campaign

Mookerjee now took up a stridently communal campaign. Gandhi’s non-violence was ridiculed and the manhood of the Bengali Hindu was sought to be reclaimed. In a line of thinking that continues till today with the BJP, the Mahasabha attacked the so-called minority appeasement of the Congress, blaming the Grand Old Party for Hindus being “strangled to death” in Bengal.

In this campaign, he attracted a great measure of support, drawing to his party not only prominent zamindars but also the business wealth of Kolkata. While the Mahasabha could never supplant the Congress as the natural party of the Bengali Hindu, it did have a huge influence on Congress policy, yanking it to the right. In the crucial period of 1946-47, both parties worked together in close cooperation in the province.

In spite of his communalism, however, it was Syama Prasad who did what the Congress could not in 1937: he allied with Fazlul Haq and joined his Progressive Coalition Ministry, thus becoming Bengal’s Finance Minister. The Mahasabha had at the time opposed the Quit India movement and as minister, Mookerjee stuck to that agenda, writing in 1942 to the Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, in order to offer his “whole-hearted cooperation” in order to “combat this movement in Bengal”. The fact that Mookerjee cooperated with the Raj in order to try and crush the Quit India movement is, till today, used as a stick to beat the BJP with.

Partition role

SP Mookerjee is most reviled – or feted, depending on where you stand – for his role in 1947. By the start of 1947, the Cabinet Mission plan, which promised a united India lay dead, rejected by the Congress. In this stalemate, as the country increasingly hurtled towards communal chaos, Mookerjee proposed a solution for Bengal. In a landmark piece in the Bengali newspaper, Anandabazar Patrika on 21 March 1947, Mookerjee wrote that “the mere mention of the word ‘partition’ need not throw us into a fainting fit”. He also listed the benefits of this division. The creation of West Bengal would help in “saving Bengali Hindus” because the new province would be 70% Hindu – helping engineer a majority.

For the Hindus left behind in Pakistan, he proposed the “Hostage Theory” – an extremely popular conjecture in 1946-47 which held that since both India and Pakistan had “each others” minorities, fears of reprisals would force both to keep their minorities safe. For SP Mookerjee, it meant that East Pakistan would take care of its Hindus since it would be anxious about Muslims in West Bengal. For Jinnah, it means that Uttar Pradesh wouldn’t harm its Muslims since Pakistan had Hindus too, which India wouldn’t want harmed.

In practice, however, it was seen that a calm weighing of the pros and cons of the “Hostage Theory” is something that frenzied mobs out to murder, rape and loot did not do. The Muslims of Delhi and the Hindus of Dhaka were attacked all the same.

This issue was especially stark in Bengal since after Partition, as much as 42% of Bengal’s Hindu population was now in East Pakistan. Ironically, after proposing Partition, SP Mookerjee, post 1947, also courted the votes of the refugees streaming in from East Pakistan. He resigned from the Nehru Cabinet when it signed the Delhi Pact on the minorities in the two Bengals. And in one of this more extreme suggestions (a permitted luxury now that he was in the opposition) Mookerjee wanted Nehru to declare war on Pakistan and annexe territory from East Pakistan.

Post-1947 collapse

Given these wild swings, it is not surprising that far from making a dent in Bengal, the Hindu Mahasabha couldn’t even attract the vote of the refugees streaming in from East Bengal, who largely turned to the the left and would later on go on to become one of the CPI(M)’s core support bases.

Moreover, serious allegations of a Mahasabha role in the assassination of Gandhi were a major blow to the party and its organisation in Bengal was severely affected. Consequently, Mookerjee left the Mahasabha and founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951. The party was formed in association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and is the earlier avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mookerjee, once a stalwart of Bengal politics, was now reduced to a bit player in the newly partitioned state of West Bengal that he had helped create. In the 1952 West Bengal Assembly Elections, the Jana Sangh won a paltry nine seats out of 238. This is how the Hindutva movement more or less remained in the state till 2014, with SP Mookerjee a near-forgotten figure. Of course, now with a small resurgence of Hindutva in Bengal in the form of the BJP, it is no surprise that he is being remembered again.

Why are Indian Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Ramadan’ instead of the traditional 'Ramzan'?

First published on Scroll

It’s that time of the year again. As the annual month of dawn-to-dusk fasting comes around, people everywhere are girding their social media loins to fight the inevitable lexical war that’s about to break out: Ramzan or Ramadan?

This contentious battle is being fought over the name of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which is also when Muslims fast to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad. Historically, most Muslims on the subcontinent have called this month by its Persian name, “Ramzan”, especially if they speak Urdu and Hindi. Languages such as Bengali, which don’t have a "z", use a variant of that word: “Romjan”. In the past decade or so, however, a great many subcontinental Muslims have rejected these traditional names and taken to using what they believe is the Arabic word for it: Ramadan.

“People have suddenly begun to call it ‘Ramadan’, since that is the pronunciation of the word in the Quran,” said Delhi-based writer Rana Safvi. “But as a child, growing up in Lucknow, it was always called ‘Ramzan’. This is a completely new thing.”

Linguistic purity fail

The name of this month in Arabic can be transliterated into Roman characters as "Ramadan" – the "d" there being a rather arcane and ancient Arabic sound that really has no equivalent in any Indian language or English and is terribly difficult to enunciate. For non-Arabs, the "d" is usually approximated to the soft "d" of "dal-chawal" or (by English speakers) with a hard "d" (as in "dad").

Ironically, even modern-day Arabs pronounce this "d" sound quite differently from the time the Quran was written, a natural result of the phonological changes that any language goes through with time.

End result: in spite of the intentions of speakers to mimic Quranic pronunciation, it’s a lot easier said than said correctly.

Language is a powerful marker of intent and identity and, more often than not, people try and mould it into idealised shapes. Unfortunately, as this example shows, language is also an incredibly difficult thing to change, hardwired as it is into our brain. Arabic isn’t the only example. The brouhaha over teaching Sanskrit, right after the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party came to power was quite ironic since, right now, millions of Indian children supposedly study the language without even learning how to pronounce Sanskrit’s ancient sounds, which have long since ceased to exist in India’s modern bhashas.

Indo-Persian culture

If, however, Indian Muslims have jumped from one incorrect pronunciation to the other, what was the point of it all? Twisting the pronunciation of Ramzan does not serve any explicit theological purpose, but it does serve as a rather prominent cultural marker, signalling a significant change in the way Indian Muslims – specifically Urdu-speaking Muslims – look at their culture.

Much of what is Indian Islam – with possibly the exception of Kerala – comes down not from the Arabs but Central Asians and Iranis, members of the  Persian cultural sphere that dominated the Eastern Islamic world. India was itself a part of this cultural sphere and for hundreds of years, Persian was the country’s lingua franca, resulting in native languages such as Marathi and Bengali being inundated with Persian words. This influence was so pervasive that India’s de facto national language has a Persian name: Hindi (literally, “Indian”).

The language of Indian Islam is, therefore, highly Persianised – an oddity for a religion that has Arabic as its liturgical language. The word for the Islamic prayer is the Persian “namaaz” (Arabic: salaah) and for fast, the Persian loan “roza” (Arabic: sawm). Most prominently, the common everyday word for God is from Farsi: Khuda.

These borrowings, mixed in with local elements, created a unique Indo-Islamic culture that stood for a great many centuries.


Events in faraway Arabia, though, changed matters. After World War I, a family called the Saud, driven by a fanatical version of Islam called Wahhabism, captured much of the Arabian peninsula including the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In spite of housing these two cities, however, this patch of desert land had never been very powerful and the great Arab empires ruled from up north in what is now Iraq. A singular stroke of luck changed that for the Saudis: the land spouted oil, great fountains of it – a crucial mineral in the age of machines.

In the subcontinent, meanwhile, Muslim elites, defeated by British colonialism and facing a precipitous decline in their fortunes, weren’t terribly upbeat about their own cultural moorings. The influence of the rich Saudi state, both soft and hard, crept into the subcontinent, as its Muslims looked to the ultra-conservative theocratic state for cultural and theological ballast.

In Pakistan, for example, massively popular televangelist took to pushing Arab credentials as a marker of piety. “In their efforts to sell their Muslimness, televangelist such as Aamir Liaquat, started to use Arabic words and even wear Arab-style clothes,” said Pakistani journalist Tazeen Javed. Similar dynamics were at play in India too: superstar televangelist from Mumbai, Zakir Naik, wouldn’t be caught dead calling it “Ramzan”.

Muslims elites across the subcontinent borrowed these Arab liturgical words, now as markers of their religious identity. Not only were they Muslims, but a certain kind of Muslim, following a Saudi-influenced brand of Islam, so strict that even in common speech, no measure of so-called unIslamicness was allowed to creep in. “Ramzan” hasn’t been the only target, as can be expected. The word “Khuda", a mainstay of cultural expressions such as Urdu poetry, is also being expunged, since God can only have an Arabic name. The standard Urdu expression for “goodbye” – “Khuda hafiz" – is now being bowdlerised to “Allah hafiz".

Renaming God and fasts is still fine – men have been known to do odder things for religion. But when people begin chopping and changing their word for “goodbye”, then you know you’ve got a serious case of cultural insecurity on your hands.