Fulfilling Its Terrible Destiny

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creating-a-new-medinaDhulipala, Venkat. Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India. Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 544 pp.

By most accounts, Pakistan is a failed state: its inability to sustain a democratic process, oppressive treatment of minorities, regressive religious laws, and its developmental shortcomings certainly indicate a state that is not in congruence with modern – Western? – sensibilities. The prevailing consensus is that Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan project was hijacked soon after the Islamic state was cut out of British India and marked a sharp turning point in the trajectory and fortunes of the fledgling country. Venkat Dhulipala’s explosive book, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India throws the proverbial wrench into that hypothesis, arguing instead that much of what has been perceived to be flaws in Pakistan’s national fabric is actually so by design and not accident.

For so complicated and debated an issue as Partition, Dhulipala presents an admirably succinct and comprehensive survey of the literature. One school of thought, led by Ayesha Jalal, argues that Jinnah used the demand for Pakistan as a bargaining chip to secure parity for Muslims in a unified India. According to Jalal, the crotchety leadership of the Indian National Congress bears the brunt of the responsibility – blame? – for the creation of the Islamic state. She reaches this conclusion by surmising from the vagueness of the Idea of Pakistan that it could not have been a serious proposition. The counter to this comes from Anita Inder Singh, who, although agreeing with Jalal that the Pakistani project was ill-defined, insisted that Jinnah did nonetheless want a separate country. In both these tellings, there was room to imagine Pakistan as a secular and modern republic like Turkey in Jinnah’s dreams that were soon hijacked by religious elements.

Even bottom-up histories, despite their foci on peasants, the ulema, Punjabis, Bengalis, or the victims of the Partition violence, rhyme with the Great Man histories of Jalal et al. in that they all cast doubt on existence of any clear idea of Pakistan notwithstanding the mass support for it. Fashionably, they even question the concept of nationalism. Regardless, the inability of academics to reify the sentiment has scarcely reduced its power. It is this confusion, some argue, that has resulted in the turmoil we see in Pakistani national life.

Dhulipala, however, begs to differ. The idea of Pakistan was crystallised in the public debates of Uttar Pradesh as a sovereign Islamic state that could not only provide succour for India’s Muslims but was also a worthy successor to the Caliphate that had just died in the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Istanbul in 1924. The new state of Pakistan would be an Islamic utopia and the protector of Muslims all over the world. The author has found support for this revolutionary thesis in archives in London, Delhi, Lucknow, even an occasional one in the United States, as well as oral histories, newspaper archives, and published primary sources in Urdu and in English. Dhulipala discovers that the Pakistani project traversed on two parallel tracks: while the Muslim League propounded statehood and all that it entailed – an army, infrastructure, currency, natural resources, human population – the Islamic soul and the spirit of the new country was popularised by the ulema. There was, also, occasional intersection between the two groups. Dhulipala shows that both groups shared a common political vocabulary, and, more importantly, the demand for a separate state based on religion cannot suddenly become a secular quest.

Some scholars have put the divergence between Hindus and Muslims as early as the writings of Syed Ahmad Khan in the late 19th century. Others have delayed this separation until the Nehru Report of 1928, after which Muslim participation in the national struggle for independence was somewhat muted. While tensions certainly simmered even earlier, the Government of India Act of 1935 became the battleground around which separate religious identities would coalesce. The British aim to sow divisions in the Indian nationalist movement and string along its empire with promises of independence was only partially successful – it divided the Indians but Britain still could not hold on to its colonial possessions.

Dhulipala warns his readers that communalisation was not inevitable even after 1935. Parties such as the National Agriculturalist Party wove a coalition of Hindu and Muslim landlords, exhibiting class solidarity, and Muslims in the Indian National Congress such as KM Ashraf argued that there was no Muslim culture in India per se and that the great majority of the community originated from Hindu stock. The ulema had not yet taken a position in support of the Muslim League and this aided the Congress who had some ulema arguing for a unified India. It is undeniable, however, that the fortunes of a moribund League were revived only by the clergy concerned that Muslims interests were been quashed in the conflict between the Congress-leaning Jamiatul Ulama-e-Hind and the Muslim League.

Although traditional historiography plays up the nationalist credentials of the Muslim clerics, there was a small but vocal and influential section of Deobandi ulema who backed the Muslim League and vociferously propagated the idea of Pakistan. Two of the more prominent ulema in this camp were Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, the chief of the Deobandi madrasa, and his mentor, Ashraf Ali Thanawi. In fact, the title of Dhulipala’s book comes from a speech given by Usmani: the alim describes how Mohammad left Mecca due to opposition to his beliefs and went to Medina to create a new Islamic state and compares the event to the creation of Pakistan which would be only the second Islamic state in history. The future state was thus imagined to the masses in powerful Islamic imagery.

Dhulipala does not disagree with his historian colleagues that there was a fair amount of Muslim support for muttahida qaumiyat (united nationalism), particularly from Husain Ahmad Madani, head of the JUH, and Syed Sajjad, chief of the Anjuman-e Ulama-e Bihar. It was felt that the partition of the subcontinent would divide and disadvantage the community and hinder tabligh, the proselytisation of Islam among the kaafir. This argument, however, could not carry the day.

As has come to be expected of any book on nationalism since Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Dhulipala discusses the Urdu press and its influence in spreading the idea of Pakistan. Many of these newspapers, though produced locally, enjoyed a pan-Indian readership. The power of the press, we are reminded, can be only seen from the way Indian Muslims were mobilised during the Khilafat Movement in 1919 to protest the British treatment of the defeated Ottoman Caliph. Creating a New Medina is peppered with tussles between Muslims for and against the creation of Pakistan carried out in the subcontinent’s Urdu newspapers.

One of the other myths Dhulipala punctures is that of a secular Jinnah. Undoubtedly a non-observing Muslim, Jinnah was nonetheless brazen about using Islamic rhetoric. His hesitation to open up the membership of the Muslim League to non-Muslims, his casual suggestion of population transfers between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan all point to a tactical use of Islam and the ulema for his goals but also to someone who was culturally inclined towards an Islamic identity. Dhulipala quotes a contemporary historian of Islam, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who argues that a man is deemed Buddhist not because he is an exemplar of Buddha’s teachings but by his undertaking to try – Jinnah, and Pakistan, were both Muslim because they had undertaken to be so.

It is not true that Jinnah was unclear about what he wanted in a new state. In fact, in response to allegations that he is using the demand for Muslim statehood as a bargaining chip, Jinnah repeatedly states that he was not for an Indian federation. In fact, he suggests that Congress leaders read BR Ambedkar’s massive tome, Thoughts on Pakistan, that had come out within four months of the Lahore Resolution of March 1940. Interestingly, Mohandas Gandhi also recommended Ambedkar’s book. Jinnah also wrote the foreword for a two-volume compendium of articles by a Punjabi journalist, Mohammad Sharif Toosy, which made a powerful case for Partition.

Dhulipala argues that his work pushes against the countervailing understanding of the creation of Pakistan and he begins his review of the literature rather late in 1985 with Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Partition. The question arises, what was the consensus before 1985 that Jalal was arguing against? Is Dhulipala reviving old historiography, perhaps with much better data, or is his work genuinely new?

Second, was the debate between clerics like Madani and Sajjad arguing for unity and Thanawi and Usmani advocating Partition merely a matter of scholarship? What swayed the masses of the United Provinces, who had been so divided until the mid-1930s, to come down in favour of Usmani’s Jamiatul Ulama-e-Islam? Even a cursory glance at modern politics rubbishes any belief that scholarship is what carries the day with the electorate.

Creating a New Medina is not an easy book for the lay reader. Its 500 pages are densely packed with names and relations that only a professional historian of the era can keep apart. In that sense, it closely reflects Dhulipala’s 2008 dissertation – a scholarly work meant more for the well versed. However, even casual readers broadly aware of the history of Partition and the Indian freedom struggle in the North can still gain much from this work which brings to the foreground some undercurrents that went into the creation of Pakistan that better explain today’s events than other theories. For example, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani reminds us in his book, India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t We Just Be Friends, that it was not Zia ul Haq who infused Islam into Pakistan’s politics but that it has been there from the very beginning. Asghar Sodai’s slogan from 1944, پاکستان کا مطلب کیا لاالہ الا اللہ (Pakistan ka matlab kya, la ilaha illallah), supports this thesis and Creating a New Medina has several other such examples. Seen from this perspective, Pakistan is not a failed state but merely fulfilling its terrible destiny.

Dhulipala’s book also poses a serious challenge to the way history has been taught in India. While a small sectional elite have tried to ramrod a narrative of religious pluralism at the moment of independence, research now suggests that Indians were far more concerned with their religious identity. The official story, which was Congress policy towards the Muslim League since the mid-1930s, has been re-emphasised post independence to cover up for its abject failure in controlling the fissure between Hindus and Muslims in India. The divergence was inevitable – even desirable – according to some, but Dhulipala’s work shows that there was still a chance to save the subcontinent until the early-1940s. To accept this raises questions about the sagacity of the leaders of the Congress party at a critical juncture in Indian history.

Creating a New Medina serves as a useful guide in looking not only at domestic politics and communalisation of the Indian electorate but also for foreign policy analysts who study Pakistan and its relations with India. That this Sick Man of Asia is replete with inconsistencies – as the secession of East Pakistan and the rejection of minority Muslim groups shows – cannot be taken as a sign that the country was, as Philip Oldenburg argued, insufficiently imagined. Even the most cohesive of nations have some ambiguity in their national narratives; that has not yet stopped people in believing in them.

Dhulipala has produced a thought-provoking book that deserves a considered response. As he himself admits, there are still gaps in his narrative that need to be, sources permitting, filled. One obvious tangent is the role and political beliefs of Muslims outside the northern heartland. Another is the socio-economic condition of those who voted to stay in India and those who chose to leave: did all who migrated do it out of a sense of religious necessity or were there, as in the journey to the New World, many who just sought a fresh start? As any good book does, Creating a New Medina shakes us out of our historical complacence and leaves us with further questions to ponder.