On the Emergence of Pakistan

A reader’s comment has raised the issue of the dynamic of Pakistan’s creation. The question posed is about the role of Mr. Jinnah’s leadership: did Mr. Jinnah’s charisma make Pakistan possible or was the yearning of Muslims for self rule the primary driver?

There have a number of other explanations for the creation of Pakistan and one can attempt to evaluate them by seeking answers to a few simple questions: (1) In which geographical areas did the demand for Pakistan emerge first? (2) Why did the demand arise when it did and not earlier? (3) Which social groups articulated the demand and lent it support?

Some of the explanations appear weak when evaluated against these questions. One of them is the religious explanation that presents the creation of Pakistan as the fulfillment of a religious desire for a state in which Islam could be practiced without hindrance. Given that religious groups were nowhere in the vanguard of the demand for Pakistan, this explanation can be rejected out of hand.

Another is the ‘cultural-geographical’ explanation that the areas that comprise Pakistan were never really a part of India and the movement was an expression of the reassertion of this separate identity. The facts are that demand for Pakistan did not emerge first and most strongly in these areas but rather in areas that remain very much a part of India. Some of the areas now in Pakistan were quite divided till very late when faced with the choice of acceding to the new country.

Then there is the explanation that portrays the origins of Pakistan as a democratic mass movement of the oppressed Muslim community against the dominant Hindu majority. However, there is no credible evidence that either the Muslim peasantry or the urban working classes were in the forefront of the demand for Pakistan. In this context, many people are unaware of the fact that elections in British India were held on the basis of a limited franchise.

There are of course explanations that focus on the role of individuals. In particular, it is often asserted that Pakistan was created by the brilliance or obduracy (depending upon your perspective) of Mr. Jinnah. Mr. Jinnah was no doubt a very able advocate for the cause when he decided to lead it but that is not conclusive proof that he was instrumental in creating the movement itself.

The officially sanctioned explanation in Pakistan is the two-nation theory that Muslims were a separate and distinct nation in relation to other religious communities in India and were therefore entitled to the right of self-determination. This is fine as a normative statement if one subscribes to the right of self-determination of communities as a principle for statehood although it is problematic because newly created states are themselves not homogenous. In the case of Pakistan, the theory boomeranged when the demand arose for the rights of the Bengali ‘nation’.

Even so, as an explanation for the emergence of the demand for Pakistan, the ‘two-nation’ theory remains unconvincing. In particular, it does not adequately answer the three questions posed earlier. The demand for Pakistan arose in those areas of British India where Muslims constituted significant minorities (e.g., UP and Bengal). It did not emerge first in Muslim-majority areas (e.g., Punjab and NWFP) or where Muslims were small minorities (e.g., areas in Southern India). And when Pakistan was created the majority of Muslims in the areas that remained in India did not move to the new homeland. Even if they felt they were members of a separate nation they did not feel they needed to be in a separate homeland.

In UP and Bengal where the population distribution had remained unchanged over time, the demand for Pakistan emerged only when the possibility became real that a key element of the status quo, the British, would withdraw from the scene. The potential disequilibrium in geographical areas with the maximum uncertainty over the future scenario triggered the jostling for relative shares of the reconfigured pie. Not surprisingly, landlords, entrepreneurs, professionals and salaried groups were in the forefront of this emerging competition for the redistribution of scarce resources. All of a sudden these groups, lacking confidence in their ability to compete or apprehensive of the motives of the competitors, concluded that Muslims were a separate nation that could not co-exist with other nations alongside whom they had been living for hundreds of years.

The actual outcome of the movement that was triggered by this self-interest was never a foregone conclusion and along the way there were many twists and turns, gambles and missed opportunities, narrow political triumphs and broad human tragedies. Our interest here is not to recount the details of who did what to whom; rather we are interested in explaining what gave rise to the big forces that changed the face of the Indian subcontinent. An examination of these forces makes it hard to conclude that the interest of the masses, of any religion, figured prominently amongst them. The fact that the interest of the masses continues to be ignored in most countries of South Asia lends credence to this belief.

Religion, ethnicity, race and nationality remain very emotive and powerful forces in society and it is often to the advantage of self-interested groups to broaden the base of their support by appealing to these emotions. Most of the time such forces get out of control leading to outcomes that no one had actually anticipated. It is no surprise that the scale of the human tragedy that overshadowed their political successes or failures shocked all the participants in the drama of Partition.

Which explanation do you favor and why?

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11 Responses to “On the Emergence of Pakistan”

  1. Anil Kala Says:

    It is true that people react to possibilities and when independence appeared real the idea of Pakistan seemed attractive to many, must have been even to those who were not very vocal, people from majority or insignificant minority area as mentioned by you. The point is at very general level we seek all sorts of exclusivity, a nation provides a sense of exclusivity, a very special private club. Irony is that success of a nascent nation depends on the calibre of its leaders. India had a towering leader in Nehru who erected powerful democratic institutions. Nehru was such a towering leader that no military general could even think of over throwing civilian government. Similarly no military general could have dared over throwing a civilian government led by Jinnah and if he had survived long enough to erect powerful democratic institutions in Pakistan perhaps we may not have seen this regular cycle of martial law followed by election and farcical civilian governments.

    An exclusive nation in itself is no guarantee for well being of its people, Bangladesh did not achieve much for Bengalese and similarly the kind of leaders we see in Jammu and Kashmir, given freedom they are sure to make a mess of it. There is example of Hong Kong not a free country for long but very successful for its people.

    Despite this we seek exclusivity…..

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    Anil, You are right that people react to possibilities. So the real test of leadership lies in what possibilities are created and presented to people as acceptable visions of the future.

    You can note the greatness of a leader like Martin Luther King who, in his famous 1963 speech, told an audience of embittered Blacks: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ” And with that quotation from the Declaration of Independence, King made clear that his vision of the future for black Americans was for them to be part of the larger society, not embittered opponents of it.

    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/books/review/Lewis-t.html

    It was in this perspective that the pre-partition Indian leadership of all parties failed in preventing the most damaging kinds of alternatives turning into real possibilities. I feel that Gandhi was the only leader who towered above the others in this respect but on the Congress side he was over-ruled by Nehru and Patel.

    See the book: Partition of India: Legend and Reality by HM Seervai

    Nehru was a great leader for post-partition India, as you rightly mention, but he was not great enough to have prevented the immense tragedy that befell the subcontinent. I think that might be the final verdict of history.

    On exclusivity, anyone can see the infinite regress that is contained in the concept. When carried to the extreme, it ends up with the exclusivity of one. So, it was quite ironic for Jinnah to argue for Pakistan on the basis of exclusivity and then turn around and ask all Pakistanis to forget their differences. The genie had been let out of the bottle and there was no way to put it back in even if Jinnah wanted to do so himself.

  3. Anil Kala Says:

    Yes, if religion had the capacity to make a nation then we wouldn’t have Middle East dotted with scores of them. But this is something humans are not going to learn easily.

  4. Arun Gupta Says:

    Three disjointed questions:

    1. Were the people who persuaded Jinnah to return from England in 1935 mostly from Bengal and UP?

    2. Wolpert quotes Evelyn Wrench that Jinnah says he first thought of Pakistan {independent sovereign states} in 1930. Did the rather cosmopolitan Jinnah see himself as a representative of the Bengal and UP Muslims?

    3. Did Jinnah really mean things like this – notice the audience he’s speaking to – did the speeches work, why did it appeal to the class you say that was most enamoured of Pakistan yet perhaps failed to move to it?

    The Mussalmans should not be afraid of being crushed by the Hindu majority provinces. Let us in the minority provinces, Mr Jinnah said, “face our fate, but free the Muslim Majority provinces to live and form their own government in independent states in according with Islamic laws.” (A.P.)

    Speech at a public meeting
    Ahmedabad, Dec 27, 1940.

    Speaking about the fate of Muslims in the non-Pakistan zone, Mr. Jinnah said that in order to liberate 7 crores of Muslims where they were in a majority he was willing to perform the last ceremony of martyrdom if necessary and let two crores of Muslims be smashed.

    Address to the Cawnpore Muslim Students Federation Conference
    Cawnpore (Kanpur) March 30, 1941

  5. Arun Gupta Says:

    The Raja of Mahmudabad’s address to the Bombay Provincial Muslim League, May 24, 1940 is presented here:


    It is shown that the reconstruction given in the Dawn of the famous event where Jinnah reprimanded the Raja for talking about an Islamic state cannot be correct. (Of course, it leaves room for alternative reconstructions.)

  6. SouthAsian Says:

    Arun: This post was written a while back and the details are not fresh in my mind. I will refer to the texts again in order to answer points 1 and 2. In particular I want to consult a PhD thesis that I have not yet read. It is now available as a book: Jinnah’s Early Politics: Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity by Ian Bryant Wells, Permanent Black 2005.

    Re point 3, many people see Jinnah more as a lawyer than as a statesman and lawyers are not expected to mean what they say or say what they mean. They are expected to succeed in whatever briefs they have accepted.

    The speeches certainly had an impact on critical sections of the audience (e.g., the students of Aligarh University). And much of the sections that had to gain from Pakistan did move from the Muslim minority provinces – Hamza Alavi has called them the ‘salariat.’ The ones who were left behind/abandoned were primarily the uneducated and the already marginalized. No one ever cares about them anyway despite all the rhetoric.

  7. Arun Gupta Says:

    The Sind Muslim League passed a resolution in 1938, anticipating the All-India Muslim League by two years, asking for independent states in the east and northwest; the resolution driven by Sir Abdullah Haroon, a native of Sind – not UP, CP or Bihar.


    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: This is an interesting factoid but how significant is it? I wish there were PhD programs where students would work on such issues so that we could have access to the context as well as the facts. As it is there are a number of hypotheses that come to mind but cannot be verified for lack of easily accessible research:

      The All India Muslim League was a formal organization and would have had local branches everywhere even in places where it had little popular support. How large was the Sind Muslim League? Was it just a bunch of office holders and no more? How representative was it of Muslims in Sind? What was the trajectory of its evolution? Was there the kind of early popular momentum for separation in Sind as there was in the UP? Was there an institution like the Aligarh University in Sind that represented the nucleus of a demand for Pakistan?

      Without answers to these kinds of questions the factoid could very well be at the level of saying that since Rahmat Ali announced his declaration for Pakistan in Cambridge in 1933, anticipating the All-India Muslim League by seven years, the nucleus of the Pakistan movement was in Cambridge and not in the UP. Clearly no one would take that claim seriously although the factoid is no doubt of interest.

      • Arun Gupta Says:

        My apologies, I should have just presented it as a factoid, with no implications. I will be trying to gather such primary material (in English) and put on my blog. Eventually some hypotheses may be possible. Yes, probably some of the most significant material (Urdu, etc.) will not be there and we won’t be able to go much beyond hypothesis-building.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Arun: I believe that understanding begins with questioning and the formulation of hypotheses. The same facts can fit many different explanations but only some will stand the tests of logic. One person cannot do everything; this has to be a collective social enterprise. Society has to create the incentives for some of its members to pursue such hypotheses. This presumes that a society is invested in the pursuit of truth, however unpalatable.

  8. SouthAsian Says:

    Arun Gupta: I am still travelling but I have managed to acquire and read the 2005 book (based on a PhD dissertation) that I had mentioned (Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity: Jinnah’s Early Politics by Ian Bryant Wells). It is an excellent analysis that has altered my perspective in significant ways and I recommend it strongly to all who are interested in this period of Indian history.

    The premise of the book is very intelligent: “Some historical events are of such magnitude that their repercussions flow not only into the future but also back into the past: such repercussions affect study of the events themselves as well as the personalities involved. Indeed, it is at times difficult to divorce certain personalities from particular events when attempting to understand an earlier period.”

    To redress this imbalance in assessments of Jinnah, Wells examines his political career from 1910 to 1934. And he does succeed in his objective while also showing very well the reasons for the trajectory of Jinnah’s thinking.

    I will write about my own reappraisal later. For the moment, I will link a two-part review by AG Noorani (Jinnah in India’s History and Assessing Jinnah) that appeared in Frontline in 2005 after the publication of Wells’ book. It reflects the gist of the argument very well although I feel there is whole new dimension that remains to be explored. See also his Jinnah’s Secularism which repeats some of the arguments.

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