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Partition and the Ideological roots of Pakistan

By: Anwesh Satpathy

Abstract- Although partition has remained a much-talked-about topic of discussion, its
ideological roots before the reinvigoration of the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali
Jinnah are rarely discussed. While partition was not inevitable, its roots were nevertheless
not spontaneous. This article argues that Jinnah merely utilised the two-nation theory
propagated by extremist elements with a history that spans centuries.

The origin of the nation-state as a concept can be traced back to the treaty of Westphalia in the 16th century. Even though nations have been widely accepted as a modern social construct since then, this has not stopped nations from laying claim to their own self-narrative. This “self-narrative” is not necessarily true in the historical sense but it’s nevertheless necessary to ensure the continuance of what Benedict Anderson refers to as “imagined communities”.  

Pakistan’s own self-narrative dates back to the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who first outlined the creation of an Islamic state in North-Western India in his Allahabad address to the Muslim League in 1930. Iqbal’s ideas were rooted in the intellectual and political context of his time. The emergence and solidification of the nation-state and the strict separation of the Church and the state greatly worried Iqbal. The spiritual and temporal worlds were considered inseparable and part of Islam’s organic whole. Iqbal argued that India was a conglomeration of different communal groups with separate interests. This form of communalism was distinct from narrow communalism inspired by feelings of ill will towards the other, which Iqbal renounced as “low and ignoble”. Iqbal’s “communalism” was supposed to allow the free development of each group with maximum cultural autonomy. Yet, Iqbal never desired or argued for a state separate from India. He referred to India as “the greatest Muslim country” and argued that an autonomous Muslim was in the best interest of India as it would result in more stability through the balance of power. Moreover, it would help rid Indian Islam of “Arab Imperialism” and bring it closer to modern times. Thus, Iqbal’s Muslim India existed within the larger India.

The political mobilisation for Iqbal’s vision happened only after his death under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah sought to mobilise the disparate Muslim population primarily by emphasising the other. Through the “two-nation theory”, Jinnah argued that Hindus and Muslims are two distinct social orders which can never evolve into a common nationality. The religious customs, philosophies, history and literature of the two are not just different but antagonistic to each other. The two-nation theory was in no sense novel. The 19th-century Muslim reformer Sir Syed Ahmed Khan also propagated a version of this theory while claiming that one nation has to conquer and rule over another. Nevertheless, Jinnah was the first to mobilise the two-nation theory in support of the creation of a state separate from India.

The historian Ayesha Jalal has argued that Jinnah was merely using communal arguments as an ideational tool to mobilise the masses and acquire a greater federal structure. While there is some ambiguity regarding the final shape that Pakistan was to acquire after its formation, a clear picture emerges upon closer examination of the Muslim League documents. In 1940, B R Ambedkar published “Pakistan or the partition of India”, where he argued for Pakistan as the best realistic solution for India’s long-term stability. This book created waves and was also endorsed by Jinnah during his talks with Gandhi. The Muslim League realised that it had to formulate a coherent treatise/position on the question of Pakistan to allay the critics. The propaganda machine functioned through newspapers like The Dawn, The Morning News, The Star of India and The Eastern Times. As a direct response to Ambedkar, two books written by Mohammad Sharif Toosy- Pakistan and Muslim India and Nationalism in Conflict in India, were directly endorsed and recommended by Jinnah. In his foreword to these volumes, Jinnah wrote that he:-

“commend these two books to all readers who want to understand the problem of India’s future constitution and its solution and I feel that anyone who reads them dispassionately and with an open mind will find by sheer facts and figures and historical arguments that partition of India is in the interests of both the major nations, Hindus and Muslims.”

To these two volumes, we must turn to get a better glimpse into the vision of Pakistan if there was any, in the first case. Appealing to international law and the intellectual debates prevalent during the 1940s, Toosy argued that Muslims must be granted the right to self-determination in the proposed regions, as the same has been granted to various territories in the aftermath of World War 1 for similar reasons. The precedent of partition was provided through the instance of Syria and Lebanon based on religion. Within the Muslim League, there were debates regarding whether the boundaries of Punjab and Bengal were to be retained as a whole or divided on the basis of religion. According to Toosy, the Muslim League represented those who sought to divide these two regions based on religion. On the question of minorities, Toosy invoked the morally reprehensible and absurd “hostage population theory” as a deterrence which argued that non-minorities in Pakistan would face repercussions if there were to be ill-treatment of minorities in independent India. This theory was affirmed by Jinnah in a cruder form when he declared that “he was willing to perform the last ceremony of martyrdom if necessary and let two crore Muslims of the minority provinces be smashed.” 

Caught amidst two very different imaginations of the nation were the people, who were arbitrarily divided and thrown out of their ancestral lands. A sense of ambiguity existed among the populace regarding what Pakistan really meant. In his novel “Khawab Nama”, Akhtaruzamman Elias pointed out that Muslim Peasants of East Bengal advocated for Pakistan in the hopes that they’d be relieved from the oppression of landlords. Alas, in the aftermath of partition, only the religion of the landlords changed. Even in times of the senseless violence that accompanied partition, glimpses of humanity were visible, as documented through the book “Humanity Amidst Insanity”. People on both sides of the border were acutely aware of their shared common culture and mourned its demise through literature and art. Amrita Pritam, for instance, called upon the legendary Sufi poet Waris Shah to rise from his grave and speak for love amidst bloodshed in her poem. The arbitrary borders have still not managed to erase the shared culture, literature and cuisines that the common masses share. 

Author’s Bio: Anwesh Satpathy is an author, blogger and political science student at the Jindal School of International Affairs.

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