Muslims of Pakistan celebrate their “independence” from the British Empire on the 14th of August, and Muslims of India do likewise the following day; on the 15th of August.
We won’t go as far as to delve into what kind of “independence” this really even is when the “free” nation remains caged within the neoliberal world order—forced to offer up a symbolic jizyah by adhering to its dogmas such as democracy, or being entangled with its financial institutions such as the IMF.
Instead, what we’ll be exploring is whether the Partition was something “good” or “needed.”
This is what divides the Muslims of both countries. Those in Pakistan would respond in the affirmative by pointing towards the situation of Muslims within contemporary India. The Muslims of India however, would argue that the current situation that they find themselves is a direct consequence of the Partition, as without it they’d be “more numerous” and thus “stronger.”
I should make it known that I myself, the author of the article at hand, have roots in Pakistan (the Azad Kashmir region). Nonetheless, in sha’ Allah, I wish to present a balanced and comprehensive assessment, taking into account all of the arguments and counter-arguments of both sides.
Please also note that this will be an analysis of the “theory” alone. Therefore there will be no discussion regarding the number of Partition victims and so on. Such details have been discussed at length and in great detail elsewhere.
The Two-Nation-Theory Predates Both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Pakistan Movement
Indian-Muslims that criticize the Pakistan Movement often focus a lot of their criticism on Muhammad Ali Jinnah as the lawyer who represented it.
Some disparage him based on his Shi’ah background. However, many argue that he accepted Sunni-Islam later on and this can be proven by the fact that his funeral prayer was led by Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad al-‘Uthmani, a major Deobandi scholar. And of course, Deobandis certainly cannot be accused of having any affinity towards the Shi’ah.
A more substantial critique is that MA Jinnah never abandoned the British-style classical liberalism—which he embraced during his student days as a lawyer in London—with all the modernist ideas that come along with it, such as democracy, republicanism, and even secularism.
But Indian-Muslims need to accept a simple fact: The Two-Nation-Theory (TNT)—the idea that Hindus and Muslims are two different nations—existed long before MA Jinnah and before the acronym “Pakistan” became a reality.
Venkat Dhulipala’s 2014-book, Creating a New Medina, is all about how the dynamics of the Pakistan Movement transcended just the individual that is MA Jinnah. There were also things such as the mobilization of the Muslim masses, the Urdu press and of course Islamic scholars; such as the aforementioned Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad al-‘Uthmani, who is considered the protégé of Mawlana Ashraf Ali al-Tahanawi (one of the most influential Deobandi scholars of recent times and someone who himself was against forming a nation with Hindus).
Venkat Dhulipala quotes Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad al-‘Uthmani as saying (p. 353):
To the world trapped in whirlpools of materialism and wandering aimlessly in the darkness of atheism, Pakistan wants to become the lighthouse showing a beacon of light.
Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad al-‘Uthmani’s rationale for Pakistan is described as follows, on pp. 360-361:
Usmani glorified Pakistan as the first Islamic state in history that would attempt to reconstruct the Islamic utopia created by the Prophet in Medina. He constantly used Pakistan and Medina interchangeably to solidify their identification in the public mind. Usmani explained Pakistan’s global historical significance by invoking powerful metaphors from early Islamic history. He pointed out that instead of establishing Pakistan in his native Mecca, the Prophet had migrated to Medina to establish the first Pakistan. The Prophet’s decision, he asserted, was based on his conviction that Pakistan could only be established in an area where Muslims could practice their religion with complete freedom, for it was only in such a land that the Muslim community could develop to its fullest potentiality. Given the unrelenting hostility to his teaching among influential sections of Meccan society, this would not have been possible in Mecca, thus compelling the Hijra. Usmani consequently argued that an Islamic state resembling Medina could never be established in an undivided post-British India even with extensive devolution of powers to the provinces, since the Hindus would always control power at the federal centre due to their numerical majority. Pakistan, therefore, needed to be a separate, sovereign Islamic state where Muslims could live under the Shariah and free from non-Islamic control.
Usmani outlined Pakistan’s significance to Islam by declaring that it would be the first step in the process of self-purification of Muslims in the modern age, purging them of their earlier narrow identities based on race, class, sect, language and region and creating an equal brotherhood of Islam, as had happened thirteen hundred years earlier at Medina.
Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad al-‘Uthmani’s rhetoric for Pakistan was thus purely religious in nature. It was the natural realization that Muslims and Hindus subscribe to worldviews so diametrically opposed, that the latter, through their sheer numbers, would never allow Muslims to live their lives the way they wanted to.
In fact, this reasoning is so intuitive that you may not even be surprised to learn that it actually predates Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Mawlana Shabbir Ahmad al-‘Uthmani, etc. by centuries.
Akbar S. Ahmed (considered a pioneer of “Islamic anthropology”) writes in one of the best books on MA Jinnah, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic identity (pp. 120-121):
Many scholars trace the Pakistan movement to the two-nation theory Sir Sayyed had espoused which held that the Hindus and Muslims of India were separate people and needed to live separately. I would suggest we go back even earlier to look for the first stirrings of a Muslim nationalist movement. Haji Shariatullah and Dudu Mian in Bengal and Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi in northern India led movements in the first half of the nineteenth century based in the peasantry in the two areas that would become Pakistan.
Barelvi, who led a movement against the Sikhs, was a follower of Abdul Aziz, Shah Waliullah’s son. Shah Waliullah had helped shape an alliance between Ahmad Shah Abdali—who had just forged the tribes of Afghanistan into a nation —and Indian Muslims to resist the tide of Hinduism. Shah Waliullah had written: ‘If, God forbid, domination by infidels continues, Muslims will forget Islam and within a short time become such a nation that there will be nothing left to distinguish them from non-Muslims’ (Sayeed 1968:4). Shah Waliullah had made his thinking on Muslims in India clear: ‘We are an Arab people whose fathers have fallen in exile in the country of Hindustan, and Arabic genealogy and Arabic language are our pride’ (James and Roy 1992:36). Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi echoed him a century later: ‘We must repudiate all those Indian, Persian and Roman customs which are contrary to the Prophet’s teaching’ (ibid.).
Reformers like Waliullah, Barelvi and Shariatullah were not demanding a Pakistan in the modern sense of nationhood. They were, however, instrumental in creating an awareness of the crisis looming for the Muslims and the need to create their own political organization. What Sir Sayyed did was to provide a modern idiom in which to express the quest for Islamic identity.
Thus Ahmed links the Two-Nation-Theory back to the great Muslim scholar Shah Waliyyullah al-Dihlawi (commonly regarded as a reviver of Islam in India); centuries prior to MA Jinnah and others.
Others argue that a century before Shah Waliyyullah, the influential Ahmad Sirhindi (famously known as Mujaddid Alf Thani) had laid down the roots of the Two-Nation-Theory when he fought Mughal emperor Akbar’s syncretic religion called “Din-e-Ilahi.”
The point of all this is to establish the fact that the Two-Nation-Theory predates the creation of Pakistan by centuries.
It’s just natural to believe that Muslims and Hindus are too vastly different, from every aspect, to be able to ever form a single unified “nation.” Indian-Muslims will have witnessed and experienced this reality for themselves, especially since 2014 when Modi’s Hindu nationalists assumed control over their “nation.”
In what is considered to be the manifesto of the Pakistan Movement (it’s here that the acronym “Pakistan” first appeared), the 1933-pamphlet Now or Never, Choudhry Rahmat Ali summarizes the issue:
Our religion and culture, our history and tradition, our social code and economic system, our laws of inheritance, succession and marriage are fundamentally different from those of most peoples living in the rest of India. The ideals which move our people to make the highest sacrifices are essentially different from those which inspire the Hindus to do the same. These differences are not confined to broad, basic principles. Far from it, they extend to the minutest details of our lives. We do not inter-dine; we do not inter-marry. Our national customs and calendars, even our diet and dress are different.
These are facts–hard facts and historic realities which we challenge anybody to contradict. It is on the basis of such facts and realities that we assert without fear of contradiction that we, the Muslims of Pakistan, do possess a distinct nationality from that of the Hindus of India, who constitute the Hindu nation and live–and have every right to live–in most of India; and that we deserve–and demand–the recognition of our national status by the grant to Pakistan of a Federal Constitution, separate from that of the rest of India.
Even if you’re an Indian-Muslim who is against Pakistan, can you honestly claim that these lines are factually incorrect?
But What About Pakistan Itself?
We’ve taken a brief look at the background of the Two-Nation-Theory and the Pakistan Movement, and we’ve also seen how Indian-Muslims who reduce everything to MA Jinnah as an individual would appear unjust since it goes way beyond just him.
But they may have a point when they say that the 1947 creation of Pakistan did not fulfill all the promises and aspirations because the élite which represented the Pakistan Movement were liberal-secularists, starting with MA Jinnah himself.
Like other Indian leaders of the independence movement, such as his early mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale, MA Jinnah was a liberal-modernist. He would eagerly read utilitarian philosophers such as Bentham and Mill.
So his “Muslim nationalism” was more about identity politics rather than something genuinely religious. And it is for this reason that there are debates till today about whether MA Jinnah wanted an Islamic State or a State for Muslims. The latter would of course allow for State-secularism.
You could say that all of Pakistan’s early leaders were molded in the same way: They studied in British institutions and thus absorbed liberal-modernist ideas.
For instance, General Ayub Khan (the country’s first military dictator who ruled from 1958-1969) was one of these “Muslim modernists.” He would bash “mullahs” at will while allying himself with the likes of Fazlur Rahman Malik, a crypto-Qur’anist whose ideas are sadly still causing damage in countries as far as Indonesia.
The Pakistani State continues to modernize the Muslims of Pakistan to this very day, often subtly through imposing female education; more generally with a female presence in politics and media; and also more forcefully through drastic military operations in “underdeveloped” regions such as Waziristan.
This failure of Pakistan to be a genuine Islamic State is well encapsulated by Alija Izetbegović (Bosnia and Herzegovina’s inaugural president and himself a Muslim thinker of note) in his Islamic Declaration dating back to the ’70s. We read on pp. 58-60:
The lessons from twenty years of Pakistan’s existence are clear:
Firstly, the struggle for an Islamic order and a thorough reconstruction of Muslim society can be led only by tried and true individuals at the head of a resolute and homogeneous organization. This need not be any kind of political party from the arsenals of western democracy, but rather a movement founded on Islamic ideology, requiring unmistakable moral and ideological criteria from its membership.
Secondly, the struggle for the Islamic order today is for the essentials of Islam, which means ensuring the religious and moral education of the people along with the basic elements of social justice. Form at the present moment is of secondary importance.
Thirdly, the function of the Islamic republic is not primarily to declare equality among men and the brotherhood of all Muslims, but to fight for the implementation of these high-minded principles. Awakened Islam, wherever it may be, should grasp the flag of a juster social order and make it clear that the struggle begins with war on ignorance, injustice and poverty, a war which knows neither compromise nor withdrawal. Should it fail to do so, the flag will be taken by demagogues and false saviours of society, in order to bring about their hypocritical objectives.
These lessons have a bitter taste. We still believe in Pakistan and its mission in the service of international Islam. There is no Muslim heart which will not bound at the mention of something as dear to us as Pakistan, even if this love, like any other, knows fear and trembling. Pakistan is our great hope, full of trials and temptations.
Is the Two-Nation-Theory a Failure? Did Pakistan Make Muslims Weaker?
Indian-Muslims can’t really consider the foundations of the Two-Nation-Theory to be a failure since it’s just a geopolitical incarnation of al-wala’ wa ‘l-bara’ (alliance and disavowal in Islam for the sake of Allah). Basically, Muslims and non-Muslims can never really constitute a “single nation” because of the stark religious differences.
But Indian-Muslims argue the “failure of Pakistan” based on other reasons, primarily the 1971 creation of Bangladesh.
Bengali-Muslims escaping from the Pakistan Army and creating an independent Bangladesh out of the erstwhile “East Pakistan” is apparently proof that the Two-Nation-Theory is a failure. Otherwise, Muslims would remain with Muslims right?
Well, first of all, if the Two-Nation-Theory truly was a failure, then the Bengali-Muslims wouldn’t have created an independent Bangladesh, but instead “rejoined” the Bengali-Hindus of West Bengal, a state of India. Many Bangladeshi academics themselves opine that Bangladesh was not the product of a secular Bengali struggle, but rather a Bengali-Muslim struggle, and the religious identity has continued to secure prestige since the rule of the “Islamist dictator” Ziaur Rahman in the ’70s.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Bengali-Muslims—who were initially at the forefront of the Pakistan Movement—didn’t oppose Pakistan because it wanted to impose a religious agenda. They did so because it wanted to impose a secular-modernist notion of the homogenizing central State. This is something well noted by Salman Sayyid in his Recalling the Caliphate (p. 126):
The example of the break-up of Pakistan, if it demonstrates anything, demonstrates the failure of Westphalian notions of political community. Despite the mobilisation of the Muslims of South Asia to identify with Islam, the institutionalisation of that movement into the state of Pakistan was organised on Kemalist principles, which emphasised national cohesion in terms of linguistic and ethnic homogeneity. Thus the attempt to downgrade Bengali as an official language, the internalisation of colonial racial discourses around the ‘martial races’ and restrictions on citizenship that prevented even Muslims from South Asia becoming Pakistani citizens indicate not that Muslim identity was insufficient to bind the two parts of Pakistan, but rather that it was abandoned in favour of a project of building a Westphalian-style nation-state with its insistence on linguistic, cultural and ethnic homogeneity as necessary for high ‘sociopolitical cohesion’. The break-up of united Pakistan should be seen as another failure of this Westphalian-inspired Kemalist model of nation building, rather than an illustration of the inability of Muslim political identity to sustain a unified state structure.
So Bengali-Muslims (or Bangladeshis) did not abandon Pakistan because it “imposed” the Two-Nation-Theory but because Pakistan itself, emulating its liberal-modernist leaders, had abandoned the Two-Nation-Theory agenda in the name of a more liberal-modernist approach.
Besides the 1971 creation of Bangladesh, the other classic critique of Indian-Muslims is that the 1947 creation of Pakistan made the Muslims “weaker.”
There is some truth to this, as Christophe Jaffrelot (a leading Western academic from South Asia) has often written about how the flight of the Muslim élite from the old centers of Mughal power—such as the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, now ruled by Hindutva monk Yogi Adityanath—has deprived the Muslims who remained there of their “political representation” and so on.
But consider the situation now:
If 250-280 million Muslims of India have their “élite” literally brought and corrupted by Indian nationalism, who is to say that these additional 350 million Muslims wouldn’t have ended up in the same situation?
Without Partition, the Muslims of today’s Pakistan (and Bangladesh) would barely have an urban middle-class (which would be a Hindu-majority), so what “power” would they have wielded that today’s Indian-Muslims don’t?
Would 600 million Muslims against 1.1 billion Hindus really be “more powerful” than the current number (250-280 million)?
We could argue that there would have been more Muslim-majority States in a “united India,” but what’s happening with the only current Muslim-majority State, Kashmir? What would be the difference?
A better approach would be to say that Partition had at least saved hundreds of millions of Muslims from Hindu presence and especially Hindu domination.
So, in essence, this is our conclusion:
Partition was something fundamentally good and perhaps even necessary. However, to say the least, the way Pakistan turned out is a far cry from the optimal conclusion, mainly due to its liberal-secular-modernist élite.