Was the idea of an independent, sovereign Pakistan an “exceedingly vague idea in both elite and popular consciousness”, an idea staunchly opposed throughout by the ulema of Deoband, merely a bargaining chip for Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League that tragically turned real in an accident of history?
Was Pakistan given birth to “in a fit of collective South Asian absent-mindedness” only because things went awry in the inner corridors of “high politics”, during negotiations involving the British, the Congress and the Muslim League? Yes, seems to have been the broad consensus so far, even while scholars differ over the pros and cons, over the heroes and the villains in the story of India’s partition.
Now comes a young historian, Venkat Dhulipala, whose first book, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, punctures the prevailing wisdom through meticulous research, venturing into territory hitherto ignored or unknown. Debunking the notion that Pakistan was “insufficiently imagined”, Dhulipala offers us a wealth of information to establish that no sooner had the Muslim League “lobbed its bombshell at Lahore in March 1940” that the Pakistan resolution was “talked about, discussed, debated and fought over in the popular press, through books and pamphlets, in public meetings and political conferences held in cities, towns, bazaars and qasbas across the length and breadth of India”.
That the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (UP) — “the heart of Muslim India” according to Jinnah — was the birthplace of the “Muslim separatism” which culminated in the formation of Pakistan may be part of the existing “historical commonsense”. But it’s a fact that prima facie defies common sense. Why would UP’s Muslims, constituting less than 20 per cent of the province’s population, be such ardent supporters of Jinnah’s two-nation theory, considering that the birth of a separate Pakistan in the Muslim majority provinces in the west and east, in undivided India, would leave them stranded in the midst of a Hindu majority province and nation?
Paradoxical or not, it’s apparent from the evidence unearthed by Dhulipala that UP’s Muslims were fully aware of the implications of their demand. In fact, the entire debate proceeded on the assumption that UP would remain outside Pakistan. Does this make any sense? Apparently it did for those among UP’s Muslims who bought into the Muslim League’s sacrifice logic supplemented by its “hostage theory”.
The pro-Pakistan argument was that given the logic of numbers, democracy in Hindu-majority India would spell certain doom for the Muslim minority. Even a federal arrangement with substantial autonomy for the provinces would not help much, it was argued, because the Centre would inevitably be Hindu dominated. So, it’s better that some Muslims opt for subjugation so that other Muslims breathe free.
Here’s Jinnah speaking at the Aligarh Muslim University in March 1941:
As a self-respecting people, we in the Muslim minority provinces say boldly that we are prepared to undergo every suffering and sacrifice for the emancipation and liberation of our brethren in regions of Muslim majority.
In his address to the Muslim Students Federation at Kanpur a few weeks later, he even went to the extent of declaring that in order to liberate seven crore Muslims of the majority provinces, he was “prepared to perform the last ceremony of martyrdom if necessary and let two crore Muslims of the minority provinces be smashed”. The statement created a furore in the Urdu press but Jinnah had made his point. Alongside the call to sacrifice, rode the pernicious “hostage theory”.
B.R. Ambedkar rightly denounced it as a repugnant “scheme of communal peace through a system of communal hostages” on both sides of the partitioned sub-continent. Crudely stated this is what it means.
But beyond the sacrifice logic and the hostage theory was the idea that even today tantalises many Muslims across the world: the return to a global Islamic Caliphate. The great merit of Dhulipala’s book lies in meticulously documenting how at a critical juncture in the 1940s, a small but highly influential section of the ulema from Deoband — Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi and Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani the most prominent among them — switched to the Muslim League, armed with a theology for fusing Islam with state power.
With the “growing symbiosis and a marked osmosis of ideas between the League and the (pro-Pakistan) ulema”, while the former started speaking more frequently and freely about an Islamic state in Pakistan, the latter provided the theological rationale for the proposed state. Maulana Usmani went to the extent of repeatedly speaking of Pakistan and Medina “interchangeably”.
Another cleric, Maulana Muhammad Manzoor Numani even claimed that the highly respected Maulana Thanawi once had a dream in which at an assembly of Prophet Mohammed and his companions, he saw Jinnah sitting right next to the Prophet who was treating him with great love and kindness.
The muttahida qaumiyyat (composite nationalism) plank of the bulk of the ulema from Deoband, it seems, lost out to the arguments of dissidents like Maulana Usmani who argued that Islam has demolished “the idols” of watan (nation) and nasli asabiyat (racial affinity) and all that remained was the Muslims’ Islamic identity.
You can cherry-pick statements and incidents even from Dhulipala’s book to paint Jinnah as a secular leader committed to creating a liberal democratic Pakistan. But there is no wishing away his numerous other statements and incidents which show that though secular in his personal outlook, Jinnah at best flirted dangerously with those fantasising about the creation of a new Medina, the birth of a new pan-Islamic caliphate.
It’s difficult to argue with the book’s conclusion: “The idea of Pakistan may have had its share of ambiguities, but its dismissal as a vague emotive symbol hardly illuminates the reasons as to why it received such overwhelmingly popular support among Indian Muslims”. Dhulipala’s may not be the last word on the history of India’s partition. But there is no running away from the hitherto unexplored and uncomfortable questions that it raises.
Javed Anand is co-editor of Communalism Combat and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy