Buried in the archives of the British Library in London, historian Venkat Dhulipala discovered an amazing document that dates to 13 March, 1955. It was the record of a special séance (yes!) with the spirit of Muhammad Ali Jinnah by a government official. The Great Leader had died seven years earlier, a year after founding a new nation. In the course of the fantastic interview, the spirit said something striking: “It is easier to acquire a country, but it is extremely difficult to retain it. That is in a nutshell the present position of Pakistan to gain which rivers of blood flowed."

Perhaps the spirit of the Great Leader was talking to itself. On the 75th anniversary of the idea of Pakistan—which fell on 23 March—this seems even more likely. If one can single out one reason for Pakistan’s failure then it is Jinnah’s inability to see that religion and region could never be squared even if Islam is probably a wonderfully homogenous faith.

The story of the idea can be told in two parts: from 23 March, 1940 to 14 August, 1947, a phase that marked victory and from 14 August, 1947 until now, when only its husk remains.

Origin

Then, as now, the Subcontinent was so diverse that forging a nation required an extraordinary watering down of provincialism and an equally extraordinary elevation of religion as a motivating force. In this, the Quaid succeeded brilliantly.

To be fair, it was a one-sided match. Jinnah not only had the Congress arrayed against him but even his co-religionists in the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab, Bengal and the North West Frontier Province. His support came from the disaffected nawabzadas and sahibzadas of the United Provinces, far removed from Muslim majority areas where Pakistan could be created. In Punjab and Bengal, alliances between Muslims and Sikhs, and Muslims and Hindus mocked the idea of Jinnah as a sole spokesman for Indian Muslims. By 1945-46, this opposition had been demolished.

The strange thing was that while the Quaid wanted a weak and decentralized India to safeguard Muslim interests, he left no stone unturned to undermine his regional rivals. And from the moment Pakistan took its first breath, he did something of which he had bitterly criticized the Congress: he began creating an exceptionally centralized state.

Demise

If the Quaid thought he had buried regionalism, he was wrong. Within no time, religion as a uniting force disappeared. It remained useful to counter India but domestically regionalism held sway. The first rumblings of separatism in Bengal could be heard in the 1950s. Resentment against Punjab continues to this day. These troubles did not erupt one fine day but were foundational. In comparison to India’s two dozen-odd states in 1956 and six Union Territories, Pakistan was far more imbalanced internally—both in a geographic sense and in terms of relative political strength and resources between different provinces. This is a danger that India has never faced: there has never been one state or even a group of states that can dominate the rest of the country. The single biggest state, Uttar Pradesh is simply too anarchic to bother with anything else. In India, it is virtually each state for itself. In Pakistan, it is Punjab that has been in command for the majority of the country’s existence.

Jinnah never thought it worth his while to understand these problems even after he was made aware of them. The Cabinet Mission that came to India in 1946 warned him. The 16 May, 1946 statement of the Mission—which ruled out Pakistan—is worth reading even today. From the danger of lack of defensive depth (paragraph 8) to the lack of geographic cohesion (paragraph 10), the dangers that Pakistan could not overcome later were evident at that early date. The futile quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan and the inability to hold Bengal could have been avoided had these warnings been heeded.

Jinnah’s successors never bothered to understand these dangers, leave alone address them. While India continues to sub-divide internally—imparting political cohesion and economic and social disarray at the same time—Pakistan’s provincial boundaries remain etched in stone. To this day, Punjab can’t be touched; Bengal had to secede in frustration.

It is high time to ask if religion can ever be a substitute for nationalism. This is all the more so for Islamic nationalism. That construct cannot be imagined. Pakistan’s history is a testament to the fact that religion cannot knit together a people divided along regional lines. Overcoming those divisions requires a political flattening; religion cannot serve that purpose. As long as Islam remains a factor in Pakistan’s political equation, the country’s political problems won’t go away. In the same way, it is quite absurd to talk of Hindu nationalism: again, religious imagination is so fundamentally at a remove from nationalist imagination that mixing the two is meaningless.

Maybe it is unfair to blame Jinnah for all that has happened since 1947. Once the hard work of founding a nation is done, incompetence usually sets in. This is true the world over. Perhaps that is to be blamed. But that still does not absolve his lack of imagination, especially geographic imagination. But then that inability was linked to his strategy to overcome opposition in Punjab, and more importantly, Bengal.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist takes stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.

Comment at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to
www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist

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