By Swapan Dasgupta
The public commemoration of anniversaries is drearily routine and, at best, a marketing opportunity for the publishing, postage stamp and collectibles industries. Yet, which birthdays, death anniversaries and momentous events a country chooses to remember often tells us more about contemporary realities than the past. Likewise, any landmark anniversary a society chooses to overlook is a commentary on collective awkwardness with a facet of the past.
March 23 marks the platinum jubilee of the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution. On that day in Lahore, with Qaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah as the presiding deity, the Bengal peasant leader Fazlul Haq moved the momentous resolution that proclaimed that no future political settlement “would be workable…or acceptable to the Muslims” unless “geographically contiguous units…in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North-western and North-eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute ‘Independent States’ in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.” The resolution triggered political developments that culminated in the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan on August 14, 1947.
It is understandable that today’s India will be disinclined to remember that day in Lahore. Although time can be potentially a great healer, the wounds inflicted by Jinnah’s successfully advocacy of the two nation principles still rankle in the collective psyche of India. The creation of Pakistan was a body blow to the idea of Indian nationalism and constituted a major defeat amid the triumph of Independence. Neither the vivisection of Pakistan in 1971 nor the existential agonies our troublesome neighbour is at present experiencing has quite served to sweeten the bitter pill the country had to swallow as a result of the Lahore resolution.
However, it is not an acknowledgment of defeat—and barring B.R. Ambedkar, the nationalist pantheon was unanimous in seeing it as a colossal tragedy—that makes it embarrassing to address the hiccups of history. The sequence of events from March 1940 to August 1947 raises very awkward issues that seem best to run away from.
After the creation of Bangladesh—an event that punctured the belief that Islam constitutes a sufficient basis of nationhood—there has been an increasing tendency to view Pakistan as an unintended consequence of the Lahore resolution. Jinnah, it has been contended, and not entirely without basis, was basically using the threat of Pakistan to press for a federal India where the powers of the Centre would be limited. By this argument it was the determination of the Congress leadership—and particularly Jawaharlal Nehru—to ensure a strong Centre that thwarted Jinnah’s attempt to achieve Hindu-Muslim parity. The Cabinet Mission Plan was a missed opportunity.
Jinnah, it was also claimed, was using the Muslim community as the pressure point for his constitutionalist thrust and, consequently, never had too much time for abstruse debates on the proposed Pakistan’s Islamic identity. For Jinnah, Pakistan meant a modern nation with a Muslim majority.
Extending this argument to politics on the ground, it has been suggested that the idea of Pakistan was always kept utterly vague and confusing so much so that Muslims in the ‘minority provinces’—the ML’s core support—were completely unaware of what separation actually involved. Likewise, it has been suggested that the Muslim ulama was resolutely opposed to Pakistan and, had the franchise been extended to the poor Muslims, the social limitations of the ML as a party of the landed gentry and the educated middle class, would have been thoroughly exposed. According to this version of history, Partition was a knee-jerk response to Lord Mountbatten’s hasty withdrawal timetable and the communal riots resulting from ML’s Direct Action Day in August 1946.
In a just-published book Creating A New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan that may well be at the centre of a new bout of revisionism, a young historian Venkat Dhulipala has challenged the new orthodoxy. Basing his research on the speeches, writings and poetry of those who were actually involved in the hard slog of mobilising Muslims, particularly in the United Provinces and Bihar, he has, in effect, resurrected a memory of the Pakistan movement that was shared by the participants (and opponents) but which has somehow not found place in recent history writing.
First, Dhulipala has questioned the claim that Pakistan was insufficiently imagined. On the contrary, using evidence from the ‘minority provinces’ that were ML strongholds, he has documented a vibrant engagement between the protagonists and opponents of Pakistan over the implications of separate statehood. This was a debate that touched not merely the clergy but also involved the participation of the Muslim professional classes. Almost every aspect of Pakistan ranging from Hindu-Muslim differences, the viability of new country vis a vis India, the likelihood of an Islamic state and the boundaries of Pakistan were hotly discussed at different levels from March 1940 till the moment of Partition. Therefore, far from the idea of Pakistan being shrouded in deliberate vagueness, Dhulipala suggests it was “imagined…plentifully and with ambition.”
Secondly, contrary to the claims by a repentant and orphaned ML regional leadership in the ‘minority provinces’ that it was unaware of the serious implications of separation, Dhulipala documents the openness with which the plight of Muslims in UP, Bihar and the Central Provinces was discussed. The anti-Pakistan Muslim politicians attached to both the Congress and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Hind (JUH) was quite explicit that there was nothing in Pakistan for the Muslims in the Hindu-majority provinces. Curiously, the ML leadership didn’t disagree. Instead it posited the strong support for Pakistan among the Muslims in the Hindu heartland as evidence of “sacrifice” for a lofty cause: the creation of a new Medina that would become the focus of an international Islamic brotherhood. The Muslims there were assured that no harm would come their way after separation because the Hindu minority in Pakistan would be “hostage” to their security and well being. In short, the Muslims in the ‘minority provinces’ waved the flag of Pakistan knowingly and with their eyes wide open. Their post-Independence repudiation of the ML was born of sheer expediency.
Thirdly, contrary to the impression of the Muslim clergy opposing Pakistan, Dhulipala reveals a vertical split with only the Madani-controlled JUH endorsing the Congress and the rest, including a large chunk of Deoband-trained maulvis, joining the ML campaign for separation. The schism was essentially over two issues: composite nationalism versus Muslim nationalism, and the likelihood of an Islamic state in Pakistan. Indeed, both the pro-Congress and pro-ML clergy were united in their endorsement of an Islamic state as the ideal for all Muslims. Contrary to what Jinnah said in his speech of August 11, 1947 to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, the mood of the ML’s foot soldiers were unambiguously for a state that would replicate the early Islamic experience.
Finally, it would seem that Pakistan struck a deep emotional chord among most of the Muslims in united India—a reason why established regional parties and regional leaders proved powerless to combat it. Jinnah may have kept the doors of a federation of self-governing states open till the last minute. However, the passions the Lahore resolution aroused meant that any last-minute compromise would not have endured. By 1946, Muslim India was unwaveringly committed to a separate Pakistan. The alternative was civil war.
Dhulipala has raised a host of uncomfortable issues that politicians and intellectuals on both sides of the Radcliffe Line would prefer to shy away from. In the quest for an elusive modernity this denial is understandable. Unfortunately, history often comes back to haunt the present.
The Telegraph, March 13, 2015