By Mohammad Mazhari

British imperialism had an adverse effect on Iran-India cultural ties: historian

July 30, 2021 - 11:1

TEHRAN – An Indian academic says British imperialism had an “adverse effect” on the cultural interaction between India and Iran.

“British imperialism had an adverse effect on culture interaction between India and Iran,” Syed Ali Kazim tells the Tehran Times.

“In modern India, the impact of Iranian scholars could not remain what it was earlier because of the British imperialism,” Kazim adds. 

Beyond political and economic relations, Iran and India have centuries-old historical and cultural ties. But these ties were greatly affected after Britain colonized the Indian subcontinent. 
“Age-old ties between these two great nations suffered a lot from the British imperialism from which that they haven't been able to come out,” the assistant professor at the History Department of Aligarh Muslim University notes. 

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you read the contribution of Iranian ulama and scholars to intellectual growth in modern India?

A: In medieval India, there had been a constant flow of Iranian ulema and scholars to the Indian subcontinent. No intellectual history of medieval India could be studied without the role being played by the above classes. Qazi Nurullah Shushtari, Mir Fathullah Shirazi, Hakim Humam, Hakim Abul Fath Gilani, Hakim Nuruddin to name a few were the scholars and administrators who ran the administration of the Mughal Empire. 

One cannot imagine the great Mughal Empire without the presence of powerful Iranian nobility till the end of the 18th century. However, in modern India, the impact of Iranian scholars could not remain what it was earlier because of British imperialism. Yet the cultural interaction between India and Iran led to the emergence of an intellectual class of Muslims in India who would always prefer Persian as their favorite language after Urdu. Several religious, political and philosophical texts continued to be written in Persian in the 19th and early twentieth-century India. Even we studied Persian as one of the optional subjects in high school.

Q:  How could British intervention cut the cultural ties between Iran and India?

A: Yes, British imperialism had an adverse effect on the cultural interaction between India and Iran. Najaf Khan was the last Iranian general and administrator who played a crucial role at the end of the 18th century. Thereafter the British imperialism and the rivalry between Britain and Czarist Russia over Afghanistan and the control over Hormuz and Suez as well as the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and the Qajar's Iran proved to be detrimental to the Indo-Iranian ties. Age-old ties between these two great nations suffered a lot from the British imperialism from which that they haven't been able to come out.

Q:  Could you update us about the influence of Parsis in India? Can we track Zoroastrian education in India?

A: The Parsi community in India is a microscopic community that exercised massive influence in India disproportionate to its numbers in almost every walks of life. 

The migration of Parsis has been going on to India since several centuries back. We have several references of Parsis from Yazd settling in Western India. The Parsis have been carrying the intellectual tradition of ancient and medieval Iran for centuries. In education, social sector, industry, science and technology they are second to none. 

The intellectual father of Indian nationalism who articulated the critique of imperialism and colonialism was a Parsi, the second president of the Indian National Congress, Dadabhai Naoroji. It was under the banner of the Indian National Congress that India waged an unprecedented battle against the British empire and succeeded in 1947.

Q:  How was the status of the Persian language in Indian culture and literature in the past? Why has it disappeared gradually?

A: Not only Persian but also Urdu which had been indigenously grown is also declining because of the lack of patronage and the growth of communalism from both sides of the communities, Hindu and Muslim communalism. Urdu came to be identified as the language of the Muslims whereas Hindi came to be symbolized with the language of the Hindus. The British imperialist wanted these two communities to fight on these issues so that they could exploit the rich resources of India. The creation of Pakistan and the adoption of Urdu as the national language by the new nation of Pakistan gave a death blow to Urdu. Such was the fate of a lingua franca being spoken by millions of people then what happened to Persian was a foregone conclusion that was spoken and read by a microscopic class amongst the elite Muslims of India.

Q: What are the main fields that can be capitalized on to revive Iranian-Indian old ties? 

A: All is not lost. There are still grounds upon which India and Iran can revive their age-old ties. We have a thousand years shared past. Kushan Empire boundary touched Iran. One of the theories tracing the origin of the Aryans indicates Iran as the place from which Aryans migrated to India. There are several linguistic affinities between ancient Indian languages and the old and middle Persian. Rather than looking towards far-off countries, we can bank upon each other for trade commerce and education especially the progressive ideas whose hub Iran has been for ages. 

There are innumerable platforms where India and Iran could find themselves on at the same time whether diplomacy or strategic interest. Indian intellectual class rate Iran quite high. Last but not the least, Iran is the only country that could provide the cheapest oil to India thereby mitigating the economic crisis we are faced with right now.

I would like to end this interview with a brilliant poem written by the great poet of India Allama Iqbal Lahori in praise of Iran. "Tehran ho agar Aalam e Mashriq ka Geneva...Duniya kee taqdeer badal jayey..." (If Tehran could become the Geneva of the Orient …The fortunes of this hemisphere might turn.)

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