Home / Opinion / Book Review | Creating a New Medina

Even Muslim children understand it but here is this great leader (Nehru) who says he does not understand Pakistan. Pakistan means partition. Pakistan means division," (Dawn, 20 October 1945). These were the clear terms in which Muhammad Ali Jinnah described Pakistan in a speech at Quetta.

These are not the words of a man who had “insufficiently imagined" the nation he was founding nor are these the words of man who did not really demand a separate sovereign state of Pakistan, as eminent historian, Ayesha Jalal, has argued so persuasively. These are the words of a man who knew exactly what he desired and secured it in the cool, calculated way in which a Bombay lawyer of that era could be expected to operate.

Yet, much of Partition and Pakistan historiography has reiterated that the cause for Pakistan’s travails, even 67 years after independence, has to do with the fact that Qaid-i-Azam (Jinnah), who envisioned Pakistan, died so soon after the creation of a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims. He left behind a people who did not know what it meant to be a nation. Was Pakistan to be a modern nation-state? Or was it to be another extension of the ummah? It has for long been fashionable to say that Pakistan has been unable to decide. That is the “insufficiently imagined" thesis. In a carefully argued book on the run up to Partition, Creating a New Medina, historian Venkat Dhulipala describes how misplaced this widely held notion is. At a time when hagiography is increasingly passed off as history, Dhulipala’s book is a good example of what evidence-based history writing should be.

Dhulipala argues that far from being insufficiently imagined, Pakistan was imagined “plentifully and with ambition". Not only the Muslim League (ML), but also a powerful section of the Deobandi ulama and students of the Aligarh Muslim University, all took part in the project to create a “new Medina". The results were somewhat paradoxical. If the United Provinces provided the stage upon which this drama played out, the Muslims of this province, where they were a minority, were its protagonists. They rallied behind the ML to “liberate" the Muslims of majority provinces from the “tyranny of the Hindu Congress Raj". Well aware that they would not be a part of Pakistan if and when it came into existence, they still made this “sacrifice for their brethren".

Dhulipala presents evidence of cooperation between a section of the Deobandi ulama and the ML to take the cause of Pakistan to the masses. Here again, he has challenged the consensus that the ulama never wanted Partition and supported the idea of Muttahida Qaumiyat (composite nationalism). This is only part of the story. While a section of the ulama led by Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani did oppose Partition, equally strong, if not more, were the voices of those of the Deobandis led by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi. Thanawi was convinced that the ML was the sole representative of Indians Muslims and told his followers to rally behind it and support the demand for Pakistan. “Thanawi expressed his satisfaction that the community was getting organized in Allah’s name and not in the name of nationalism (watan parasti). He hoped that the ML would eventually become Allah’s lashkar (army)", (Page 103).

No less a figure than B.R. Ambedkar, weighed in on the demand for a separate country for Muslims, in his Thoughts on Pakistan. In a chapter dedicated to Ambedkar’s views, Dhulipala has presented Ambedkar’s careful examination of the Partition question. He not only analysed the viability of a separate country for Muslims of India, but also dismissed sentimental objections Hindus and the Congress had regarding Partition. “Thus, while Pakistan would not entirely solve the communal problem for Hindustan, Ambedkar strikingly noted that Pakistan would at the very least ‘free the Hindus from the turbulence of Muslims as predominant partners’," (page 144).

Sixty-seven years after independence, Pakistan is still trying to reconcile its Islamic and democratic character. This process has not been made easy with repeated coups, wars and, now, a raging Islamist insurgency. Many historians have sought to pin the roots of Pakistan’s problems to the result of an unfair Partition. Thus, we have seen variants of arguments such as, “Pakistan would have been a great country if Jinnah hadn’t died so soon", “Pakistan would have been successful if India had not cheated it out of productive land and industry", or “Pakistan is unstable because it was forced on Muslims by the Congress, who didn’t know what to do with the country once they had it", being made to explain away Pakistan’s travails. Those who believe in such myths find it hard to accept that Pakistan’s problem lies in the fundamental difficulty of trying to use religion as a substitute for wataniyat (territorial nationalism), especially when the religion in question eschews such a belief.

Gayatri Chandrasekaran is Staff Writer (Views) at Mint.

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