The road to new Medina.
THE YEAR 2017 will mark the 70th anniversary of the birth of India and Pakistan. While official Independence celebrations will no doubt be organised on both sides of the Radcliffe Line to mark the event along with a host of patriotic observances and festivities, Partition itself is certain to receive a sustained bout of attention. A slew of public events involving not just denizens of the divided Subcontinent but also its far-flung diaspora are already afoot to commemorate it in a grand way. In Amritsar, a Partition Museum is fast coming up. A small initiative at University of California at Berkeley to collect stories from Partition survivors living in the US has expanded into a much larger operation involving scores of citizen-historians reaching out to these survivors living in over 157 cities across the world, racing to collect 10,000 stories by August 15th, 2017. The British Arts Council plans to commemorate Partition in the UK, perhaps belatedly acknowledging this slice of history as an important part of the history of modern Britain, while the BBC is producing a series that will ‘embark on an epic adventure to tell the story of the Partition’. Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy will be released around the same time and one should not be surprised if Bollywood comes up with a film or two on the theme as well.


The last time I witnessed such interest in Partition was in 1997, the fiftieth year of Independence and also the year I left India to go to the US to start graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At the time I was thinking of working on a comparative study of the regional and English language press in India. That I ended up writing a book on Partition can only be described in terms of a series of serendipitous encounters. To begin with, I was hardly the likely candidate for the task. Most Subcontinental historians who have written on the subject have generally come from families which were in some way impacted by that momentous event. I had no such background, being born in the small coastal Andhra town of Narsapur, unknown in the annals of modern India, but better known in early modern history as a centre for cotton textiles and ship-building for the Dutch trade on the Coromandel Coast in the 17th century. I however grew up speaking not just Telugu but Hindi, as I spent most of my childhood in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. Growing up in Jhansi in the 70s and 80s, Pakistan was on my mind only due to the cricket matches between the two countries which we as kids followed through live commentary on shortwave radio. It was also not uncommon to bump into people who had fled from the other side of the Radcliffe Line. Our neighbour, my father’s colleague and good friend, was a refugee from Lahore. Otherwise, Babina Cantonment in Jhansi had a large Army presence, and captured Pakistani tanks from the 1971 War were put up on display in a few places and I remember climbing into them and playing games with friends.

At Madison, I learnt the rudiments of the script from a fellow graduate student for the simple reason that I have had an abiding interest in poetry and felt that by learning the Urdu script I could read its rich poetry in the original. A dissertation on Partition was not even in the horizon yet. Velcheru Narayana Rao, the eminent and ebullient Telugu scholar and historian, was my supervisor. Madison offered a wide range of opportunities in terms of the sheer variety of courses and Rao encouraged me to explore them to my heart’s content. A serendipitous encounter with Muhammad Umar Memon, a professor of Urdu and Islamic Studies, took me into the world of Urdu literature. Electrified by his lecture on the writer Naiyer Masud that I chanced to attend, I was soon in his Readings in Advanced Urdu class. The number of students in this class never topped three and I often found myself in one-on-one sessions with him. Over the next few semesters, twice a week, we read among other things, selections from the poetry of Mir and Ghalib, Urdu short stories, and a didactic novel by the 19th century writer Dipti Nazeer Ahmed. These sessions often spilled beyond Urdu literature into discussions of history, contemporary politics and culture in India and Pakistan, or just about life in general. I came to know about his childhood in Aligarh, his family’s migration to Pakistan in the 50s, his journey to America and life onwards. A man of impeccable literary taste and great sensitivity, Memon sahib had just compiled a volume of Urdu short stories on Partition, and it is these that sparked my initial interest in the subject. A deeper exploration of Partition historiography followed my move to the University of Minnesota and led to my PhD dissertation. It finally became my 2015 book, Creating a New Medina, that looked at how the idea of Pakistan was discussed and debated in the public sphere and how popular mobilisation happened in successful achievement of that goal, especially in the UP whose Muslims gave the idea of Pakistan its earliest, most sustained and overwhelming support.

In historiography as well as in the popular media, the story of Partition follows a particular trajectory. It is supposed to have happened in those mad months of 1947 due to the final breakdown of constitutional negotiations at the very top between the Congress party leadership, the ML supremo MA Jinnah, and the British Government. There is an intense focus on personalities—Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Mountbatten—as well as their tactics, strategies, motivations, to find out who was responsible for this catastrophe. Of the many narratives at whose centre sits the Qaid-i-Azam Jinnah, the one that has attracted considerable following over the last three decades claims that the founding father of Pakistan never wanted a separate sovereign country to come into existence. Rather, he was using Pakistan as a ‘bargaining counter’ to gain for Indian Muslims parity with the numerically preponderant Hindus in an undivided India, as envisaged in the Cabinet Mission Plan. Moreover, Partition was forced upon him by a bitter Congress leadership, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, who rejected the Plan as he sought to create a centralised state in India and was unwilling to generously share power with Muslims.

A prop for this storyline is the image of a secular Jinnah, a lawyer educated in London where he allegedly aspired to become a Shakespearean stage actor, the cosmopolitan Bombay figure once married to a Parsi woman several years younger, and the early ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’. This is a man who wore Western suits, smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, reportedly ate ham sandwiches, raised dogs, never went on Hajj or sported a beard, and spoke in English even in his public speeches. Such a figure, it is argued, could never have conceivably wanted Pakistan. And even if he was eventually forced to go for it, he did so by leading a secular nationalist movement for the creation of a modern Muslim- majority state a la Turkey, and not an Islamic state. The corollary to this argument is that his tragic early death robbed Pakistan of its modernising founding father and that the ‘ideological state’ that eventually emerged was very much a legacy of General Zia that had nothing to with Jinnah’s own vision of Pakistan. It is this view of Jinnah as a secular figure publicly upheld by LK Advani that landed him in hot water and irretrievably damaged his standing within his own party.

But how does this narrative of Pakistan as a state that accidentally came into existence, led by a secular Jinnah, along with its various assumptions stand up to close scrutiny? At the outset, Jinnah himself repudiated the ‘bargaining counter’ theory, publicly stating that “it would be a great mistake to be carried away by the Congress propaganda that the Pakistan demand was put forward as a counter for bargaining. The vital contest in which the Muslims were engaged not only for material gain but for the very soul of the Muslim nation. It was a matter of life and death for the Muslims and not a counter for bargaining.” More importantly, at the heart of this view that Jinnah was using Pakistan as a ‘bargaining counter’ is the fundamental assumption that as the Qaid-i-Azam of all of Indian Muslims, Jinnah would never have considered abandoning Muslims from Muslim-minority provinces such as UP, Bihar, Central Provinces, Madras to the tender mercies of a Hindu India. But this view totally ignores the fact that Jinnah made his position on the matter very clear at the very outset. For Jinnah, Muslims in the Muslim majority provinces of Punjab, Sind, North West Frontier Province, Baluchistan and Bengal, were a nation with concomitant rights to self- determination and statehood since they constituted a numerical majority in a contiguous piece of territory. On the other hand, Sikhs, though distinct enough to be a nation, did not fulfill either of these criteria and hence were a sub-national group with no option but to seek minority safeguards in Pakistan. Jinnah specifically compared the position of Sikhs to that of UP Muslims. He argued that UP Muslims, though constituting 14 per cent of the province’s population, could not be granted a separate state because “Muslims in the United Provinces are not a national group; they are scattered. Therefore, in constitutional language, they are characterised as a sub-national group who cannot expect anything more than what is due from any civilised government to a minority. I hope I have made the position clear.”

JINNAH WENT FURTHER in a speech that he delivered at a meeting organised by the Muslim Students Federation at Kanpur in March 1941. He declared that in order to liberate 70 million Muslims of the majority provinces, he was “willing to perform the last ceremony of martyrdom if necessary, and let two crore Muslims of the minority provinces be smashed.” In simple terms, Jinnah was asking Muslims of the minority provinces to make a personal sacrifice for the creation of Pakistan. This speech, found in the earlier editions of Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah edited by Jamiluddin Ahmed, disappears in the post- 1947 editions printed in Pakistan. It caused quite a furore and was discussed at some length in UP as the nationalist Muslims aligned with the Congress raised a ruckus and demanded to know what possible right Jinnah possessed to sacrifice the lives of 20 million minority-province Muslims.

Jinnah however tried to soften the blow for these Muslims by arguing that Pakistan’s creation would entail a reciprocal treaty with Hindu India to safeguard the rights and interests of minorities in both states. He then articulated two ideas that became popular Muslim League planks. The first idea was that if “Muslim minorities in [India] were ill-treated, Pakistan would not remain a passive spectator”. As Jinnah elaborated, “If Britain in Gladstone’s time could intervene in Armenia in the name of protection of minorities, why should it not be right for us to do so in the case of our minorities in Hindustan—if they are oppressed?”Jinnah and his colleagues also drew startling parallels with the situation of Sudetan Germans under Czechoslovakia and admiringly referred to Hitler’s actions to liberate them.

A second palliative came in the form of the ‘hostage population’ theory. The Muslim League argued that in case Muslim minorities in Hindu India were oppressed, retributive violence would be inflicted upon Hindu and Sikh minorities in Pakistan. A balance of terror, as it were, would guarantee the security of minorities on both sides. The pervasive influence of this theory on the ground is underlined by a contemporary account by PW Radice, a serving ICS officer. While visiting Muslim weavers at Tanda in Faizabad district, Radice asked them what they hoped to gain from Pakistan. Their blunt reply was that ‘if the Hindus annoyed them, their brethren in Pakistan would be able to take revenge on the Hindus there.’

If these assurances were not enough, Jinnah held out further hope for the Muslim minority that would be left behind in Hindu India by declaring that they could yet belong to Pakistan since they had the option of migrating to the new nation state. As he noted soon after the Lahore resolution, “exchange of population, on the physical division of India as far as practicable, would have to be considered”. It was a theme that he repeated over the next few years. In a later interview, he spelt out three courses available to Muslim minorities in Hindu India. “They may accept the citizenship in the state in which they are. They can remain there as foreigners; or they can come to Pakistan. I will welcome them. There is plenty of room. But it is for them to decide.”

FAR FROM BEING vague, Jinnah’s unequivocal stance on Pakistan’s sovereignty was famously brought out in his exchange with Gandhi in 1942. When asked whether he saw Andhra’s bid for separation from Madras province in the same light as the Pakistan demand, Gandhi wrote ‘there can be no comparison between Pakistan and Andhra separation. The Andhra separation is a redistribution on a linguistic basis. The Andhras do not claim to be a separate nation claiming nothing in common with the rest of India. Pakistan on the other hand is a demand for carving out of India a portion to be treated as a wholly independent state. Thus, there seems to be nothing in common between the two.’ Jinnah in response declared that Gandhi ‘has himself put the Muslim demand in a nutshell’. Gandhi rather mournfully but prophetically responded: ‘I have read Quaid-i-Azam’s reply to my article in the Harijan. Pakistan according to him in a nutshell is a demand for carving out of India a portion to be wholly treated as an independent and sovereign state. This sovereign state can conceivably go to war against the one of which it was but yesterday a part. It can also equally conceivably make treaties with other States. All this can certainly be had, but surely not by the willing consent of the rest. But it seems he does not want it by consent. For he says: Pakistan is an article of faith with Muslim India and we depend on nobody except ourselves for the achievement of our goal. How is one to offer one’s services in these circumstances?’

Jinnah was not vague about Pakistan’s territoriality either. During the 1945-46 elections, he made his clearest statement on the matter. “Geographically, Pakistan will embrace all of NWFP, Baluchistan, Sind, and Punjab provinces in northwest India. On the eastern side would be the other portion of Pakistan comprised of Bengal and Assam… The provinces would have all the autonomy that you will find in the constitutions of USA, Canada, and Australia. But certain vital powers will remain vested in the Central government such as monetary system, national defence, and other federal responsibilities.” Jinnah also repeatedly quelled any talk of a Federation or Confederation between Hindu India and Pakistan. “Federation in whatever terms it is described, and in whatever terms it is put, must ultimately deprive the federating units of authority in all vital matters. The units despite themselves would be compelled to grant more and more powers to the central authority.” He therefore exhorted his followers to “remove from your mind any idea of some form of such loose federation”. He also defended Pakistan’s viability in public in response to criticism that the new state would either be still-born or collapse soon after its creation given its economic fragility, military vulnerability, financial bankruptcy, administrative weakness, political and social instability. Under him, Muslim League propaganda hailed the nation’s geo-body, listing its natural resources, infrastructural assets, strategic location and the boundless energy and drive of its population once free from both Hindu and British domination. Pakistan would not only be Hindu India’s equal but possibly be a far more powerful state. He therefore instituted a Planning Committee with technical experts to survey the mineral and natural resources of Pakistan and create a plan for developing Pakistan’s economic and industrial life. In private, Jinnah told an American diplomat that he wanted Pakistan to be developed with the help of foreign capital as had happened in the case of Turkey and the US.

Jinnah also defended Pakistan’s military viability, saying that it would be able to defend itself like “any other sovereign state”. Moreover, since 55 per cent of the British Indian Army was comprised of Muslim soldiers, who would presumably constitute the core of Pakistan’s army, he expressed confidence in Pakistan’s defence capability. In a later interview, he held out other possibilities. “Naturally, no nation stands by itself. There will be other nations whose interests will be common with those of Pakistan.” On being asked what nations, Jinnah smiled as he replied: “I will tell you when I get the government in my charge.” This brings us to Jinnah’s views regarding Pakistan’s foreign policy and it is clear that he saw Pakistan as the primary actor for bringing about Pan-Islamic unity. As he told associates during a visit to Iqbal’s grave in 1942, “Pakistan holds the key to the liberation of the entire Islamic world.” During his tour of the Middle East in 1946 where he sought to play the international figure and statesman and also build relationships with the Islamic world, Jinnah warned that if Pakistan was not established, “there will be a menace of Hindu imperialist Raj spreading its tentacles right across the Middle East.” This Hindu Empire “would be as great a menace for the future if not greater as the British imperialistic power had been in the past…. It would mean the end of Islam in India and even other Muslim countries.” Jinnah also saw Pakistan as the potential leader of the Islamic world and the base from where Muslim scientists, doctors, engineers and economists would be trained and then spread throughout the entire Middle East “to serve their co-religionists and create an awakening among them”. He also showed keen interest in the affairs of the Islamic world, particularly commenting on the issue of Palestine. During the 1945-46 elections, he publicly asked “why Palestine should become the dumping ground for such a large number of Jews.” In a subsequent meeting with Lord Ismay after independence, he averred that he would not be averse to Pakistanis fighting in their ‘individual capacity’ alongside their Arab brethren for the sake of liberation of Palestine. The use of non-state actors therefore goes back to the very beginnings of Pakistan.

Jinnah’s 11th August speech in which he reportedly stated that “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques…you may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state”, has often been touted as burnishing his secularist credentials. Yet, a few months later, he refused to open the Muslim League’s membership to all of Pakistan’s communities, saying that “time [had] not yet come for a national organisation of that kind”. During the Pakistan movement, Jinnah maintained a crafty ambivalence and could often describe Pakistan in terms of an Islamic state. A Jamaat-e-Islami functionary who met Jinnah in the days following the Lahore Resolution narrates a fascinating incident in this regard. When pressed by him to clarify the nature of Pakistan, the Qaid used a telling metaphor to articulate his position. He told his visitor, “I seek to secure the land for the mosque; once that land belongs to us, then we can decide on how to build the mosque.” Jinnah on different occasions reiterated that the Muslim League flag was given to them by their Prophet, that Sharia would be a source of law in Pakistan, that its economy would be developed not along capitalist or socialist lines, but Islamic lines. After Partition, when the American photographer Margaret Bourke White met him, Jinnah proudly referred to Pakistan as the largest Islamic state in the world. The UP Congressman Sri Prakasa noted that during Pakistan’s early days when he was India’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan, he was taken to public meetings large and small where Muslim League leaders would ask the audience: “Do you want to be ruled by the Indian Penal Code or the Qur’an? And they would reply, the Qur’an.”

MORE IMPORTANTLY, Jinnah allied with a significant section of the ulema, especially from Deoband, to first build up the Muslim League as the ‘sole authoritative representative organisation of the Indian Muslims’ and later to gain theological support for the two-nation theory. Thus, the legendary Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi attacked the theory of muttahidaqaumiyat (composite nationalism) of all Indians propagated by Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani (an alim or Islamic scholar who closely identified with the Congress and its ideology) and decreed that joining the Congress party was haraam for Muslims. Later, his student Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani triumphantly hailed Pakistan as an Islamic state, the New Medina that would recreate the Islamic utopia first established under the Prophet 1,300 years earlier, by breaking down barriers of race, tribe, class, sect, language and region among Muslims.

Usmani argued that just as the Prophet did not create an Islamic state in his native Mecca, given the hostility to his message, and instead moved to Medina for that purpose, Pakistan too needed to be established only in Muslim-majority areas of the Subcontinent as a sovereign state where Muslims would be free from both Hindu and British domination. Usmani saw parallels between the birth of the Prophet’s Medina and the creation of Pakistan. Just as Medina had been established as a result of cooperation between the muhajireen (migrants) who along with the Prophet had left Mecca, and the local inhabitants of Medina, the ansaar (‘helpers’), Pakistan too was coming into existence as a result of closest possible cooperation between the muhajireen of the minority provinces such as UP and Bihar, and the ansaar living in the Pakistan provinces. He fondly prophesised that just as Medina had provided the base for Islam’s victories over Mecca, Arabia and the wide world around, making it a global power, Pakistan would provide the base for Islam’s rise and return as a ruling power in the Indian Subcontinent and as a global power in the 20th century world.

Usmani is unknown in the English language historiography on Partition. But this is a figure who, besides providing theological justifications for Pakistan, subsequently became Pakistan’s first and last Shaikhul Islam and was also the pivotal figure behind the Objectives Resolution passed by the Pakistan Constituent Assembly and included in its Preamble. Usmani is also the man who presided over Jinnah’s state burial, which was done according to Sunni rites after the private ceremonies at the Qaid’s residence had been conducted according to Shia custom. When Jinnah died, Usmani exhorted Pakistanis to work hard to fulfill Jinnah’s dream “to create a solid bloc of all Muslim states from Karachi to Ankara, from Pakistan to Morocco. [Jinnah] wanted to see the Muslims of the world united under the banner of Islam as an effective check against the aggressive designs of their enemies. This is the hour of trial for Muslims. Those who face it with courage and determination will reign supreme.”

To conclude, firstly, Jinnah and the ML leadership were not vague about Pakistan and sold it to their followers as an ideal Islamic State and not merely as a Muslim majority State. They also collaborated with the ulema in this drive towards an Islamic Pakistan under God’s law, which they said would emerge gradually through a process of mutual deliberations and negotiations. I would argue that it is partly the lack of their resolution that explains the cohabitation, collaboration, as well as ongoing struggles between Islamic groups and the political establishment over the definition of Pakistan’s identity, as well as its evolving domestic and foreign policy imperatives.

Secondly, the ML leadership was eloquent on Pakistan in the public sphere and their words were amplified by newspapers, books, pamphlets, as well as by ML functionaries in public meetings, political conferences and election campaigns in the cities, towns and qasbahs of north India. We would therefore do well to take Jinnah’s public speeches and statements more seriously rather than remain transfixed by his clothes or cosmopolitan personal habits. Thirdly, in an ‘argumentative society’ such as India’s, the push for Pakistan was vigorously opposed by a whole range of figures from within the Muslim community. These included Nationalist Muslims in the Congress and an important section of the Deobandi ulema. All these I have highlighted in my book.

Finally, I would argue that the origins of the ideological state in Pakistan lie not just in its post-independent insecurities, but at the very core of its nationalist ideology that developed in the run-up to 1947. Pakistan was not insufficiently imagined, but plentifully and with ambition. It is this fact, coupled with the failures (and successes) of the state in fulfilling the expectation of a new Medina, which accounts for the crises that confront Pakistan today.


This article was originally published in Open Magazine.