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Pakistan: The Inner Sea - Dreams of a Muslim Cosmopolis

Wednesday 23 May 2018, by siawi3


Dreams of a Muslim Cosmopolis

Keerthik Sasidharan

23 May 18

The Inner Sea

[This was an essay written after reading Venkat Dhulipala’s fascinating book (’Creating a New Medina’, Cambridge University Press) on how Pakistan came to be. After sending this essay to a few editors in mainstream press, from none of who I heard back, I abandoned the idea of getting this published. Over time, from afar, while reading reviews about the book — some of them thinly veiled personal attacks on the author and some others as ideologically convenient valorizations — I realized that the reception to this book itself has a short history worth telling. More than a year had passed after my missives into editor’s email inboxes went unanswered, when yesterday, I was reminded of the book by a mention on Twitter. Thought, some of you might find of interest.]


Despite being a country of more than 200 million people, marked by a diversity of income, resources, and talents, Pakistan today is often reduced in popular media as “the most dangerous country in the world”. With that descriptor comes further qualifications which stress that it marked by a “triple threat of terrorism, a failing economy, and the fastest growing nuclear arsenal”. Irrespective of the truth of such dire assessments (usually from intelligence sources or foreign correspondents in search of a juicy story), what is agreed widely is the Islamization of its popular culture, public spaces, and political rhetoric over the past three decades. To many observers, this change can be traced back to Pakistan’s alliance with the CIA and Saudi intelligence in the 1980s, when the ISI trained thousands of Pakistanis, Afghans, and foreign volunteers to fight the USSR.

When that war ended — a war where violence, geopolitics, and messianism came together — the elaborate physical and ideological infrastructure of violent Islamism found itself other uses and proliferated. Much scholarly attention has been paid to what followed the 1980s and the changes in society that three decades of jihad culture had wrought. What is less remarked now is the ease with which the Pakistani State and its proxies were able to legitimate their use of Islam, its vocabulary, and creedal requirements to rally, organize, and sustain various factions for ‘the Great Game’. In parts, the reluctance to press harder on this question of why or how of the maneuvering by the Pakistani State is that it forces us to reach back to the promises and tensions which birthed Pakistan in 1947. This inevitably means trying to wrap one’s head around the density of originary conviction in the minds of its citizenry and political elite that saw their country as an Islamic idyll separate from British India that had an Hindu majority. This self-portrayal as a sacrosanct space for believers of Islam, which was deployed by the Pakistani State repeatedly in the 1980s as a rallying call, has a history of reception itself, particularly in fellow Muslim countries.

In 1953, merely six years after independence, Pakistan zealously projected itself as leader of the Muslim world, under the penumbra of the Suez Crises. Seeing this, the ousted King Farouk of Egypt famously quipped, “Pakistanis believe[d] that Islam was born on August 14, 1947.” Seeing this dissonance between how Pakistan’s official histories saw itself and how the rest of the world saw itself led some to introspect. A Pakistani Christian scholar Samuel Martin Burke explained the skepticism of others: “such talk (of leadership) from a country (Pakistan), the rationale of whose creation was little understood at the time, and whose capacity to survive bore a large question mark, naturally [it] was not well received by other countries, proud of their [own] heritage.”

To many like Burke, at the heart of the matter was a question to which few outside the immediate circles of British Indian politics had any answers: Why did Pakistan come to be? What conditions birthed this country? How was Pakistan to be a Muslim country when millions more Muslims still continued to live in India after 1947? To the outsider, the newness of Pakistan when juxtaposed against the seeming eternity of ‘India’ in popular imagination made the Partition of India into two countries seem like a petulant fraternal dispute that would eventually resolve itself. Echoing this, a few years before the Partition, in 1938, when told about the Hindu-Muslim divides and the idea of Pakistan, the leader of the Egyptian Wafd Party, Nahas Pasha replied incredulously, even if somewhat disingenuously: “In our country (Egypt), Zaghlul Pasha settled the minority problem (involving Copts) and now we are a nation. Why cannot you settle your problems?”.

The Question of Origins

It is these set of questions — the originary conditions that led to Pakistan’s creation — that Venkat Dhulipala attempts to answer in his extensively researched and fascinating new book “Creating a New Medina” . It is as meticulous in its reading of little studied archival material as it is bold in its willingness to let evidence accrete even if this means leading us into discomforting cul-de-sacs of contemporary politics. The result is that, by the end of this study, Dhulipala radically undermines — in this reader’s mind, without being didactic — many politically convenient historiographical pieties that have sought to efface the role of an Islamic vocabulary and imaginaries in the Partition of India and Pakistan. The implications of Dhulipala’s account is neither supportive of mainstream histories which flourishes in present day India and Pakistan as a thinly veiled versions of Big Man theory of historical progress (Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, et al) nor does it kowtow to a psychologizing reading wherein Pakistan is seen as a consequence of the colonized internalizing an Orientalist discourse on religious differences, which was invented and exploited by the British colonizers. In Dhulipala’s telling, the individuals are real, their actions are contingent on their historical readings, their motivations are underscored by a particular kind of anti-colonialist agency, and they are self-aware enough to parse the lineaments of their own influences. In essence, Dhulipala writes a decidedly traditional historical narrative that speaks to understand a relatively modern object of historical enquiry: the formation of mentalities in Northern India of 1930s-1940s.

What we realize by the end of the book is that the real force that dreamt up Pakistan was a set of sacerdotally inspired conceits that saw Islam as a separate epistemic, anthropological, religious, and existential category. This view was neither monolithic nor consistently held by all Muslims, nor was an idea only held by Muslims. But what we see in Dhulipala’s telling is how this view accreted in argumentative powers as a political strategy and became a means of self-definition, in parts as a response to immediate circumstances and in others thanks to the nostalgias for an Islamic past who histories were seen as unchanging and even transcendentally ordained.

Many Histories of One Past

In of itself, Dhulipala’s book would not have been out of the ordinary — after all, Pakistanis, non-Muslim and Indian scholars have been writing about Pakistan since its birth — had it not been for two separate tendencies that have dominated the history writing about Pakistan. One, the birth of Pakistan has often been reduced to the workings of great men. Elsewhere, the historian E.H. Carr called such an approach “the good queen Bess and the bad king Jack theory of history”: an overwhelming reliances on personalities to reduce the more complex linkages and negotiations into manageable metonymies for narrative purposes. So, depending on who the historian is, we have narratives of valorization or effacement. Second, in liberal, subaltern, feminist, or area studies on Pakistan — despite their diversities, there is a singular thematic thread that runs through them. For each of these approaches, Pakistan was foisted on unsuspecting masses by the elite politicians. In none of these approaches mentioned do we see a convergence of two key features that Dhulipala has successfully managed to cohere into a single framework. One, an effort to take identitatarian claims of Muslim consciousness in 1930s and 1940s among the Indian Islamic (not necessarily, Islamist) movements — who were, by no means, homogenous in goals, tactics, or even endgames — seriously as an object of scholarly investigation. And the second, to place these religious interventions within the competitive arena of democratic politics not just as a second order participant, but as a ideational fount that granted the vocabulary, imagery, and public legitimacy to any transient ideas about Pakistan. This willingness to trace the creation of Pakistan to the Islamization of democracy itself has led Dhulipala’s thesis to sit uncomfortably with present day Liberal Indian and Pakistani intellectuals, who in their struggle with their contemporary radical Islamist fellow-citizens aim to democratize Islam.

The result is Dhulipala’s book, thanks to the voluminous evidence breaches the unspoken code among academics and politicians — especially in our age of “Islamophobia” — to downplay Islam’s potential as an organizational force encoded with the conceit of revolutionary change and hermeneutic readings that see violence as a legitimate tool. Ironically, over and beyond praise for his work from historians, sociologists and intellectuals from a variety of academies such as University of Chicago to the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, the one group that has (perhaps, unsurprisingly) found agreement with the historical primacy accorded to Islamic imaginaries in Dhulipala’s narrative are the social media wings of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The LeT is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department and an active partner of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. It is this curious convergence of encomiums from the academic side for the narrative rigor, archival research, and breaking new ground and on the other end, from aggressively militant social groups for ideological reasons that one must wonder about. In a way, it points to the disconnect between mainstream historiography of Pakistan (dominated by elite, liberal historians in niche history departments, often in the US and UK) and the evolving understanding of how Pakistan came to be among the doctrinaire and religious in whose name the State had been originally bargained for. In a way, the bimodal success of Dhulipala’s work has confirmed the long standing suspicions (among the Pakistani religious Right, in particular) that the Pakistani elite who have captured the State and genuflect to Islam as and when convenient, have all but written out the religious establishment out of the official histories of their country’s birth.

If one were to unpack Dhulipala’s sophisticated and complex causal arguments and reframe them temporally (a la a Fernand Braudel), they would be thus:

Histoire événementielle (the history of events): A Muslim reactionary backlash against a zealous misapplication of “progressive” ideas on conservative Muslims by the Congress Party, in an effort to carve out a vote bank for the elections of late 1930s, created an existential anxiety among Muslim clergy which precipitated the demands for Pakistan.
Conjoncture (history that binds the deep past with the history of events): New modes of mass communication (printing, publishing et al) following the end of 800 years of Muslim dynastic rule were used by conservative and orthodox Islamic religious figures in 1930s-40s to create an ‘imagined community’ which acted as the ballast for the Pakistan movement.
Longue durée (histories that evolve over the long duration): Millennia long Islamic historical imagination, vocabulary, and rhetoric acted as a springboard for ideas of purity and utopias, while still being capacious enough to have a tactically shape-shifting framework to accommodate various forms of secular power structures in pursuit of Pakistan.

Any such narrative that straddles various temporalities which move concurrently, like geological plates, is not just ambitious also seeks (without explicitly saying so) to delineate the origins of something that is simultaneously more concrete and ephemeral: the creation of Pakistan, not just as a State in the post-colonial concert of newly born nations, but also as a creation of an identity. This is an identity that many Indians and Western pundits, browbeaten by the terror and violence emanating from contemporary Pakistani military establishment in recent decades, have resorted to defining as merely anti-Indian or anti-West. But what Dhulipala shows is that, in its original form, this was an identity that wasn’t merely reducible to homilies but was complex, self-aware, and underscored by a density of thinking and borrowings from a common Islamic past (That this past is a mental space which Arab Muslims are reluctant to share with their darker skinned South Asian co-religionists on equal terms is a different issue.)

While individual experiences in Pakistan is, like in any multi-ethnic country, a fluxion of affiliations, what is historically interesting is how the Pakistani State has grafted and grown an identity that is indistinguishable from the ideology that birthed the State. This is true of most post-colonial states, including India, Israel, or Indonesia. However unlike them, the Pakistani State was born in simultaneity with a Pakistani identity while in the case of others, their proto-identities often preceded State formation by centuries if not millennia. The consequence is that these sub-identities — Punjabi, Sindhi, Mohajirs, Seraikis et al — are catered, furthered, denied, and exploited by the State in so far it is subservient to this supra-category of affiliation called ‘Pakistan’. This is true of most states, including India in some procedural and practical sense, but what makes Pakistan interesting and difficult is the newness of this co-existence which precipitates the need to invent vocabularies and modalities that grants legitimacy to that one supervening category of affiliations. To speak of the birth of Pakistan then, is to speak of these identitarian forces — some contingent, some historic, some inevitable — that coalesced at a particular moment in an anti-colonial struggle. But unlike most anti-colonial movements, these forces refused to concede that its end goal was simply the eviction of the colonizers. Instead, these forces relied on terms of self-description borrowed from Islam and retained fealty to an idea of distinctness from their fellow anti-colonialists.

Wresting Meaning From Methods

At its simplest, Dhulipala’s narrative relies on three methodological moves that corrals the voluminous, but unwieldy, historical data from the 1930-40s into a steady narrative about causal forces in play.

The first methodological set of shortcuts is with regards to how Dhulipala treats Islam itself. As can be imagined about any social phenomenon that has existed for a millennia — the history of Islam in India is variegated, complex, generous, opportunistic, cruel, textual, orthodox, compassionate, political, and even apolitical. But such an archipelago of diversity makes for an unwieldy analytical tool to describe a political project such as Pakistan which ostensibly claimed to speak for Muslim experience in undivided India. What can a scholar do? To this end, while Dhulipala acknowledges the denominational differences within Islam, for narrative and argumentative clarity, he treats Islam much in the same manner that the politicians of the day treated it while negotiating the terms of the Partition: as an anthropological object of enquiry around which discourse of independence and political facts can be wrapped. The benefits of relying on this homogenizing short cut is that the narrative doesn’t need to constantly second guess itself. The downside however, of treating Islam thus is that the idea of Pakistan runs the risk of being reduced to and subsumed by a politically demarcated vision. To an extent, this is unavoidable and one can only empathize with Dhulipala’s effort to render a monumentally complex canvas of responses into a manageable field of causal forces.

The second methodological move involves treating subgroups as stand-ins for political ideologies in the narrative. Thus, what we have are familiar groupings in Partition studies seen elsewhere: the Hindu Right (led by the Hindu Mahasabha et al), the Centrist-Liberal-Left (led by various factions within the Congress), and the Muslim League (led by Jinnah, and assorted Muslim landlords). The advantage of relying on such a taxonomy, over and beyond the fact that they are familiar constructs, is that they also help draw sharp reliefs on intra group differences. Nowhere is this seen more vividly than the differences chronicled by Dhulipala in the chapters on how the question and viability of Pakistan divided the Muslim religious clerics and the Urdu language press themselves.

His third methodological move is the usage of chapters to speak to different constituent factors indexed over chronological time that accrete to give a sense of inevitability about Pakistan as an idea that transcended the immediate confines of political negotiations. This is in contrast to many prominent liberal historiographies that present the creation of Pakistan as a tenuous event (“sleepwalking into history”). More subtly, the unspoken implication of Dhulipala’s exegetical works is that we need to understand how the Islamist groups see themselves and anticipate their future to understand the real powers that move Pakistan’s present day polity. The Pakistani elite may have borrowed constitutional liberalism from Westminster but what Dhulipala shows is that the country itself rested on an Islamic tradition of reading, contestation, and strategically deployed orthodoxies.

A Matter of Group-Definition

A natural question that arises with any study of the Partition is what did it mean to be Muslim, politically speaking — which leads to a set of responses that ranged from quietism to militant sectarianism. This kind of self-conscious questioning, a fashion in most contemporary history writing, is not something Dhulipala focuses on, except perhaps to allude that being Muslim meant being an active member in a “community of discourse”. This community of discourse, over and beyond the religious kind, also involved newspapers that typically had small circulation but disproportionate impact in a largely illiterate society as far as political attitudes were concerned. What Dhulipala shows is that even ideologically diverse newspapers in Urdu language run by Muslim proprietors — Al-Hilal, Urdu-i-Mualla, Hamdard, Zamindar, Jinnah’s own Manshoor — that debated Pakistan often had to straddle between competing kinds of readerships: a community of co-believers who were vested in the idea of Pakistan and a community of readers who included non-Muslims. How newspaper editors arrived or evolved their particular stances is less clear. What Dhulipala has done implicitly is point to a fertile area of research for future historians who seek to study the dynamics of competing pressures — community, commerce , or both — on these Urdu newspapers. What we do learn is that the place of non-Muslims in the proposed Pakistan was often seen as a series of choices to be imposed — some outrightly exclusionary while others were governed by the calculus of demographics rather than some form of evolved idea of citizenship (notwithstanding what Jinnah himself had in mind). In essence, what Dhulipala patiently shows is that, even among secular newspapers by the very act of denying legitimacy to the idea of Pakistan as a religious space, they were implicitly granting legitimacy to it as an ontological category.

From this foregrounding of religious identity, any subsequent prominence in political discourse that some religious groups or their vocabulary gains comes as no surprise. This is in contrast with Leftist historiography where the prowess of religious groups are often anomalies that the explanatory frameworks struggle to explain. Religion, as Dhulipala demonstrates, had become a legitimate mode of entering the debate about the creation of the Pakistan. This analytical strategy of taking religious voices as serious discussants allows Dhulipala to highlight critical dissents and reconciliations. Nowhere is this seen more than in the case of the Deobandis — a revivalist group which is part of the Hanafi Sunni school of Islamic jurisprudence. Most historiographies in India (where its own secular politics and fears of emboldening Hindu Rightists) have usually presented the Deobandis as monolithic and against the creation of Pakistan. Dhulipala challenges this and persuasively argues that the charismatic (and forgotten) persona of Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani was singularly responsible for the transfiguration of Pakistan from a political concept into something luminous in the Muslim imagination: the Medina of the mid-20th century Muslim mind in India.

Usmani, in his 1945-46 tours made the argument that the first ‘Pakistan’ in history was set up by Prophet Muhammad himself when he emigrated from Mecca to Medina. The imagery that Usmani uses is that of willfully relocating oneself from the midst of non-believers to find a geography blessed by the possibility of unadulterated worship of Allah. For Usmani, the creation of Pakistan — the political State — was merely an early step in the act of self-purification. For him, much like in Muhammad’s time, this 20th century Medina would come about thanks to the muhajiroun (emigrants from India) and the ansar (helpers who reside in the areas of what was to be Pakistan). This force-fitting of Islamic history into 20th century post-colonial politics didn’t mean that Usmani wasn’t aware of the realities of geopolitics in 1940s. He acknowledged that while the world was indeed divided according to “watan (homeland), nasl (race), zabaan (language), or tamaddun (culture)”, in the end when all is said and done, the only taxonomy that mattered on Judgement Day was between the momin (believers) and the kufr (non-believers). This millenarian vision challenged the ideas of a composite nation (‘muttahida quamiyat’) — where Hindus and Muslims live together — that other Deobandi scholars (such as Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani) had pressed forth as an alternative conceptualization to what would follow when the British left India. This idea of composite nationality was mocked and critiqued by Islamist thinkers such as Iqbal and the pater familias of modern Pakistani Islamism, Maulana Syed Abu Ala’a Maududi as either a sign of weakness of men like Madani or as a self-evident impossibility. Usmani, who agreed with them, however also had one eye on the practicability of his ideas, and knew that the real challenger to his visions weren’t the Hindus or the British, but the Constitutional liberal instincts of Jinnah and what he sought to build. Cognizant of the realities of gamesmanship necessary for achieving Pakistan first, Usmani however didn’t seek to push his ideas in a manner that would’ve challenged Jinnah’s primacy for the time being. In this sense, compared to Jinnah and his fellow Muslim League politicians who sought to usher in Islamic versions of constitutional liberalism, Usmani was content with playing a longer and patient game. For him, this patient approach too was courtesy a more careful reading of Muhammad’s own life in Medina, where under the Prophet’s guidance an embryonic Islamic culture progressively acquired its texture, tenor and mechanisms of Muslim governmentality. Keeping these lessons in mind, Usmani became the sharp end of a theological phalanx that sought to deflect or blunt criticisms leveled against the Muslim League’s demands for Pakistan by the other Muslim religious scholars.

Lest one thinks that idea of Pakistan was entirely a Sunni Muslim creation, the lure of Pakistan also brought in fellow travelers as different as the Shia Muslims (whose leader, Raja Mahmudabad, had his own misgivings about the “sectarian color” of Muslim League) and the Communist Party of India that decided to throw in its support behind the Muslim League candidates with Party theoreticians arguing that Pakistan was to be led by a vanguard of “secular Muslim salariat”. That the Muslim League watched the Communist support warily, but for sake of electoral success was willing to go along, supplements the larger point that Dhulipala successfully makes repeatedly: under the big tent of Islamic identitarian politics, other groups including the Communists or Liberals found the requisite space to operate and negotiate in so far as they didn’t challenge the idea of Pakistan.

The Birth of a (Islamic) Nation

On August 14, 1947 — Pakistan was born. It was poor(er) in resources than its neighbor India. The grounds that it stood on was blood soaked thanks to the violence of mass migration (a New York Times journalist called it “the most complex divorce in history”). Its leaders were still untested in the very act of running a State after decades of fighting for independence or far less in thinking through what particularities would constitute the very act of governing a place larger than France and the UK combined. All of this may lead one to mistake its misshapen birth (East (eventually Bangladesh) and West Pakistan were separated by 1000 miles of India) for lack of some internally cohering logic, to see its presence as merely provisional at best or an act of cartographic dilettantism at worst by the British, to think of Pakistan as being “insufficiently imagined” as Salman Rushdie evocatively, but inaccurately, described it. What Dhulipala however shows in this magnificent rereading of well-trod histories is that those who arrive at such conclusions have been looking at the wrong places. Beneath the veneer of moth-worn constitutionalism that Jinnah left behind, there lay a vigorously argued, sectarian in nature, historical informed, and ultimately a radically non-modern conception of community. That this conception continues to struggle to make peace with the Nation-State is another matter. Thus, irrespective of what one thinks about contemporary radical Islam and its violence, the birth of Pakistan was in a major way a consequence of contestation and disagreements from below, especially within religious groups that are often seen as opaque and homogenous. It is important to note that such a tradition of contestation however needn’t mean an endorsement of Jeffersonian democracies, but rather a tradition of debate rooted in a born from a different historical parentage.

What Dhulipala leaves unsaid, but is evident, is that any society that is born out of an illiberal ancestry, even if democratic, needn’t be liberal, progressive, or capacious in its inclusiveness. The Islamism that permeated popular discourse in 1930s and 1940s maybe odious to many even then and to many liberal Pakistanis today. But Dhulipala shows that it gave the energies for the idea of Pakistan to take off and achieve escape velocity from the gravitational pull of a secular, cosmopolitan vision that Nehru, Gandhi, and even some members of the Deobandi schools had deemed necessary. This retelling is upsetting to many for it upends many favorite theories that both Indian and Pakistani liberals have found necessary to taper over to stem the righteous furies of Islamism. What Dhulipala however shows is that the Two Nations Theory — according to which Hindus and Muslims are two spheres of cultural being that can never live together — had votaries in the most unexpected of places (from Muslim theologians to the great liberal constitutionalist B. R. Ambedkar himself). Thus a pseudo-historic theory of racialist-cultural-religious uniqueness became a rallying call that upended nearly millennia of cohabitation and culture.

None of this is, of course, reassuring for the future of Pakistan, where Islamists and sectarians progressively ratchet up violence often as an effort to reclaim the patrimonial contributions of the founding Islamists in the national narrative and eventually seize control of the State (with nuclear weapons). Implicit in Dhulipala’s reading is the prognosis that weaker the Pakistani State gets, the stronger will be its willingness to adopt Islamic vocabularies, the more likely is to be coopted by political parties that seek to reduce the multidimensionality of citizenship into a single axis of religiosity. Amidst such conflicting pulls of history, the art of liberal historiography has tried to shepherd constitutional democracy as and when it has found breathing space amidst military coups by elevating liberal heroes like Jinnah over above the religious voices. What Dhulipala, in a way, has done is broken ranks and written in a part for those who are deemed as villains of our progressive, liberal age — the Islamists. Irrespective of whether such a history writing comports with the political exigencies of today or not — “the world is what it is” wrote V. S. Naipaul in ‘A Bend In The River’ — future scholars of Pakistan will find that they’ll have to either supplement or critique Dhulipala’s work if they are to say something new about the politics of Pakistan’s birth. Ignoring ‘Creating A New Medina’ is not an option. For a scholar and historian, nothing more could be rewarding