In August, 1947, when, after three hundred years in India, the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.
Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.
Nisid Hajari, in “Midnight’s Furies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), his fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”
By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. The comparison with the death camps is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence. The acclaimed Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has called Partition “the central historical event in twentieth century South Asia.” She writes, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
After the Second World War, Britain simply no longer had the resources with which to control its greatest imperial asset, and its exit from India was messy, hasty, and clumsily improvised. From the vantage point of the retreating colonizers, however, it was in one way fairly successful. Whereas British rule in India had long been marked by violent revolts and brutal suppressions, the British Army was able to march out of the country with barely a shot fired and only seven casualties. Equally unexpected was the ferocity of the ensuing bloodbath.
The question of how India’s deeply intermixed and profoundly syncretic culture unravelled so quickly has spawned a vast literature. The polarization of Hindus and Muslims occurred during just a couple of decades of the twentieth century, but by the middle of the century it was so complete that many on both sides believed that it was impossible for adherents of the two religions to live together peacefully. Recently, a spate of new work has challenged seventy years of nationalist mythmaking. There has also been a widespread attempt to record oral memories of Partition before the dwindling generation that experienced it takes its memories to the grave.
The first Islamic conquests of India happened in the eleventh century, with the capture of Lahore, in 1021. Persianized Turks from what is now central Afghanistan seized Delhi from its Hindu rulers in 1192. By 1323, they had established a sultanate as far south as Madurai, toward the tip of the peninsula, and there were other sultanates all the way from Gujarat, in the west, to Bengal, in the east.
Today, these conquests are usually perceived as having been made by “Muslims,” but medieval Sanskrit inscriptions don’t identify the Central Asian invaders by that term. Instead, the newcomers are identified by linguistic and ethnic affiliation, most typically as Turushka—Turks—which suggests that they were not seen primarily in terms of their religious identity. Similarly, although the conquests themselves were marked by carnage and by the destruction of Hindu and Buddhist sites, India soon embraced and transformed the new arrivals. Within a few centuries, a hybrid Indo-Islamic civilization emerged, along with hybrid languages—notably Deccani and Urdu—which mixed the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of India with Turkish, Persian, and Arabic words.
Eventually, around a fifth of South Asia’s population came to identify itself as Muslim. The Sufi mystics associated with the spread of Islam often regarded the Hindu scriptures as divinely inspired. Some even took on the yogic practices of Hindu sadhus, rubbing their bodies with ashes, or hanging upside down while praying. In village folk traditions, the practice of the two faiths came close to blending into one. Hindus would visit the graves of Sufi masters and Muslims would leave offerings at Hindu shrines. Sufis were especially numerous in Punjab and Bengal—the same regions that, centuries later, saw the worst of the violence—and there were mass conversions among the peasants there.
The cultural mixing took place throughout the subcontinent. In medieval Hindu texts from South India, the Sultan of Delhi is sometimes talked about as the incarnation of the god Vishnu. In the seventeenth century, the Mughal crown prince Dara Shikoh had the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the central text of Hinduism, translated into Persian, and composed a study of Hinduism and Islam, “The Mingling of Two Oceans,” which stressed the affinities of the two faiths. Not all Mughal rulers were so open-minded. The atrocities wrought by Dara’s bigoted and puritanical brother Aurangzeb have not been forgotten by Hindus. But the last Mughal emperor, enthroned in 1837, wrote that Hinduism and Islam “share the same essence,” and his court lived out this ideal at every level.
In the nineteenth century, India was still a place where traditions, languages, and cultures cut across religious groupings, and where people did not define themselves primarily through their religious faith. A Sunni Muslim weaver from Bengal would have had far more in common in his language, his outlook, and his fondness for fish with one of his Hindu colleagues than he would with a Karachi Shia or a Pashtun Sufi from the North-West Frontier.
Many writers persuasively blame the British for the gradual erosion of these shared traditions. As Alex von Tunzelmann observes in her history “Indian Summer,” when “the British started to define ‘communities’ based on religious identity and attach political representation to them, many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.” Indeed, the British scholar Yasmin Khan, in her acclaimed history “The Great Partition,” judges that Partition “stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths.”
Other assessments, however, emphasize that Partition, far from emerging inevitably out of a policy of divide-and-rule, was largely a contingent development. As late as 1940, it might still have been avoided. Some earlier work, such as that of the British historian Patrick French, in “Liberty or Death,” shows how much came down to a clash of personalities among the politicians of the period, particularly between Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, and Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two most prominent leaders of the Hindu-dominated Congress Party. All three men were Anglicized lawyers who had received at least part of their education in England. Jinnah and Gandhi were both Gujarati. Potentially, they could have been close allies. But by the early nineteen-forties their relationship had grown so poisonous that they could barely be persuaded to sit in the same room.
At the center of the debates lies the personality of Jinnah, the man most responsible for the creation of Pakistan. In Indian-nationalist accounts, he appears as the villain of the story; for Pakistanis, he is the Father of the Nation. As French points out, “Neither side seems especially keen to claim him as a real human being, the Pakistanis restricting him to an appearance on banknotes in demure Islamic costume.” One of the virtues of Hajari’s new history is its more balanced portrait of Jinnah. He was certainly a tough, determined negotiator and a chilly personality; the Congress Party politician Sarojini Naidu joked that she needed to put on a fur coat in his presence. Yet Jinnah was in many ways a surprising architect for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A staunch secularist, he drank whiskey, rarely went to a mosque, and was clean-shaven and stylish, favoring beautifully cut Savile Row suits and silk ties. Significantly, he chose to marry a non-Muslim woman, the glamorous daughter of a Parsi businessman. She was famous for her revealing saris and for once bringing her husband ham sandwiches on voting day.
Jinnah, far from wishing to introduce religion into South Asian politics, deeply resented the way Gandhi brought spiritual sensibilities into the political discussion, and once told him, as recorded by one colonial governor, that “it was a crime to mix up politics and religion the way he had done.” He believed that doing so emboldened religious chauvinists on all sides. Indeed, he had spent the early part of his political career, around the time of the First World War, striving to bring together the Muslim League and the Congress Party. “I say to my Musalman friends: Fear not!” he said, and he described the idea of Hindu domination as “a bogey, put before you by your enemies to frighten you, to scare you away from cooperation and unity, which are essential for the establishment of self-government.” In 1916, Jinnah, who, at the time, belonged to both parties, even succeeded in getting them to present the British with a common set of demands, the Lucknow Pact. He was hailed as “the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity.”
But Jinnah felt eclipsed by the rise of Gandhi and Nehru, after the First World War. In December, 1920, he was booed off a Congress Party stage when he insisted on calling his rival “Mr. Gandhi” rather than referring to him by his spiritual title, Mahatma—Great Soul. Throughout the nineteen-twenties and thirties, the mutual dislike grew, and by 1940 Jinnah had steered the Muslim League toward demanding a separate homeland for the Muslim minority of South Asia. This was a position that he had previously opposed, and, according to Hajari, he privately “reassured skeptical colleagues that Partition was only a bargaining chip.” Even after his demands for the creation of Pakistan were met, he insisted that his new country would guarantee freedom of religious expression. In August, 1947, in his first address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, he said, “You may belong to any religion, or caste, or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” But it was too late: by the time the speech was delivered, violence between Hindus and Muslims had spiralled beyond anyone’s ability to control it.
Hindus and Muslims had begun to turn on each other during the chaos unleashed by the Second World War. In 1942, as the Japanese seized Singapore and Rangoon and advanced rapidly through Burma toward India, the Congress Party began a campaign of civil disobedience, the Quit India Movement, and its leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru, were arrested. While they were in prison, Jinnah, who had billed himself as a loyal ally of the British, consolidated opinion behind him as the best protection of Muslim interests against Hindu dominance. By the time the war was over and the Congress Party leaders were released, Nehru thought that Jinnah represented “an obvious example of the utter lack of the civilised mind,” and Gandhi was calling him a “maniac” and “an evil genius.”
From that point on, violence on the streets between Hindus and Muslims began to escalate. People moved away from, or were forced out of, mixed neighborhoods and took refuge in increasingly polarized ghettos. Tensions were often heightened by local and regional political leaders. H. S. Suhrawardy, the ruthless Muslim League Chief Minister of Bengal, made incendiary speeches in Calcutta, provoking rioters against his own Hindu populace and writing in a newspaper that “bloodshed and disorder are not necessarily evil in themselves, if resorted to for a noble cause.”
The first series of widespread religious massacres took place in Calcutta, in 1946, partly as a result of Suhrawardy’s incitement. Von Tunzelmann’s history relays atrocities witnessed there by the writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri described a man tied to the connector box of the tramlines with a small hole drilled in his skull, so that he would bleed to death as slowly as possible. He also wrote about a Hindu mob stripping a fourteen-year-old boy naked to confirm that he was circumcised, and therefore Muslim. The boy was then thrown into a pond and held down with bamboo poles—“a Bengali engineer educated in England noting the time he took to die on his Rolex wristwatch, and wondering how tough the life of a Muslim bastard was.” Five thousand people were killed. The American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who had witnessed the opening of the gates of a Nazi concentration camp a year earlier, wrote that Calcutta’s streets “looked like Buchenwald.”
As riots spread to other cities and the number of casualties escalated, the leaders of the Congress Party, who had initially opposed Partition, began to see it as the only way to rid themselves of the troublesome Jinnah and his Muslim League. In a speech in April, 1947, Nehru said, “I want that those who stand as an obstacle in our way should go their own way.” Likewise, the British realized that they had lost any remaining vestiges of control and began to speed up their exit strategy. On the afternoon of February 20, 1947, the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, announced before Parliament that British rule would end on “a date not later than June, 1948.” If Nehru and Jinnah could be reconciled by then, power would be transferred to “some form of central Government for British India.” If not, they would hand over authority “in such other way as may seem most reasonable and in the best interests of the Indian people.”
In March, 1947, a glamorous minor royal named Lord Louis Mountbatten flew into Delhi as Britain’s final Viceroy, his mission to hand over power and get out of India as quickly as possible. A series of disastrous meetings with an intransigent Jinnah soon convinced him that the Muslim League leader was “a psychopathic case,” impervious to negotiation. Worried that, if he didn’t move rapidly, Britain might, as Hajari writes, end up “refereeing a civil war,” Mountbatten deployed his considerable charm to persuade all the parties to agree to Partition as the only remaining option.
In early June, Mountbatten stunned everyone by announcing August 15, 1947, as the date for the transfer of power—ten months earlier than expected. The reasons for this haste are still the subject of debate, but it is probable that Mountbatten wanted to shock the quarrelling parties into realizing that they were hurtling toward a sectarian precipice. However, the rush only exacerbated the chaos. Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge assigned to draw the borders of the two new states, was given barely forty days to remake the map of South Asia. The borders were finally announced two days after India’s Independence.
None of the disputants were happy with the compromise that Mountbatten had forced on them. Jinnah, who had succeeded in creating a new country, regarded the truncated state he was given—a slice of India’s eastern and western extremities, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory—as “a maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten” travesty of the land he had fought for. He warned that the partition of Punjab and Bengal “will be sowing the seeds of future serious trouble.”
On the evening of August 14, 1947, in the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, Mountbatten and his wife settled down to watch a Bob Hope movie, “My Favorite Brunette.” A short distance away, at the bottom of Raisina Hill, in India’s Constituent Assembly, Nehru rose to his feet to make his most famous speech. “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny,” he declaimed. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
But outside the well-guarded enclaves of New Delhi the horror was well under way. That same evening, as the remaining British officials in Lahore set off for the railway station, they had to pick their way through streets littered with dead bodies. On the platforms, they found the railway staff hosing down pools of blood. Hours earlier, a group of Hindus fleeing the city had been massacred by a Muslim mob as they sat waiting for a train. As the Bombay Express pulled out of Lahore and began its journey south, the officials could see that Punjab was ablaze, with flames rising from village after village.
What followed, especially in Punjab, the principal center of the violence, was one of the great human tragedies of the twentieth century. As Nisid Hajari writes, “Foot caravans of destitute refugees fleeing the violence stretched for 50 miles and more. As the peasants trudged along wearily, mounted guerrillas burst out of the tall crops that lined the road and culled them like sheep. Special refugee trains, filled to bursting when they set out, suffered repeated ambushes along the way. All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors.”
Within a few months, the landscape of South Asia had changed irrevocably. In 1941, Karachi, designated the first capital of Pakistan, was 47.6 per cent Hindu. Delhi, the capital of independent India, was one-third Muslim. By the end of the decade, almost all the Hindus of Karachi had fled, while two hundred thousand Muslims had been forced out of Delhi. The changes made in a matter of months remain indelible seventy years later.
More than twenty years ago, I visited the novelist Ahmed Ali. Ali was the author of “Twilight in Delhi,” which was published, in 1940, with the support of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, and is probably still the finest novel written about the Indian capital. Ali had grown up in the mixed world of old Delhi, but by the time I visited him he was living in exile in Karachi. “The civilization of Delhi came into being through the mingling of two different cultures, Hindu and Muslim,” he told me. Now “Delhi is dead. . . . All that made Delhi special has been uprooted and dispersed.” He lamented especially the fact that the refinement of Delhi Urdu had been destroyed: “Now the language has shrunk. So many words are lost.”
Like Ali, the Bombay-based writer Saadat Hasan Manto saw the creation of Pakistan as both a personal and a communal disaster. The tragedy of Partition, he wrote, was not that there were now two countries instead of one but the realization that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry . . . slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.” The madness he witnessed and the trauma he experienced in the process of leaving Bombay and emigrating to Lahore marked him for the rest of his life. Yet it also transformed him into the supreme master of the Urdu short story. Before Partition, Manto was an essayist, screenwriter, and journalist of varying artistic attainment. Afterward, during several years of frenzied creativity, he became an author worthy of comparison with Chekhov, Zola, and Maupassant—all of whom he translated and adopted as models. Although his work is still little known outside South Asia, a number of fine new translations—by Aatish Taseer, Matt Reeck, and Aftab Ahmad—promise to bring him a wider audience.
As recently illuminated in Ayesha Jalal’s “The Pity of Partition”—Jalal is Manto’s great-niece—he was baffled by the logic of Partition. “Despite trying,” he wrote, “I could not separate India from Pakistan, and Pakistan from India.” Who, he asked, owned the literature that had been written in undivided India? Although he faced criticism and censorship, he wrote obsessively about the sexual violence that accompanied Partition. “When I think of the recovered women, I think only of their bloated bellies—what will happen to those bellies?” he asked. Would the children so conceived “belong to Pakistan or Hindustan?”
The most extraordinary feature of Manto’s writing is that, for all his feeling, he never judges. Instead, he urges us to try to understand what is going on in the minds of all his characters, the murderers as well as the murdered, the rapists as well as the raped. In the short story “Colder Than Ice,” we enter the bedroom of Ishwar Singh, a Sikh murderer and rapist, who has suffered from impotence ever since his abduction of a beautiful Muslim girl. As he tries to explain his affliction to Kalwant Kaur, his current lover, he tells the story of discovering the girl after breaking into a house and killing her family:
“I could have slashed her throat, but I didn’t. . . . I thought she had gone into a faint, so I carried her over my shoulder all the way to the canal which runs outside the city. . . . Then I laid her down on the grass, behind some bushes and . . . first I thought I would shuffle her a bit . . . but then I decided to trump her right away. . . . ”
“What happened?” she asked.
“I threw the trump . . . but, but . . . ”
His voice sank.
Kalwant Kaur shook him violently. “What happened?”
Ishwar Singh opened his eyes. “She was dead. . . . I had carried a dead body . . . a heap of cold flesh . . . jani, [my beloved] give me your hand.”
Kalwant Kaur placed her hand on his. It was colder than ice.
Manto’s most celebrated Partition story, “Toba Tek Singh,” proceeds from a simple premise, laid out in the opening lines:
Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.
It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. However, the decision had been taken at the topmost level on both sides.
In a few thousand darkly satirical words, Manto manages to convey that the lunatics are much saner than those making the decision for their removal, and that, as Jalal puts it, “the madness of Partition was far greater than the insanity of all the inmates put together.” The tale ends with the eponymous hero stranded between the two borders: “On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”
Manto’s life after Partition forms a tragic parallel with the institutional insanity depicted in “Toba Tek Singh.” Far from being welcomed in Pakistan, he was disowned as reactionary by its Marxist-leaning literary set. After the publication of “Colder Than Ice,” he was charged with obscenity and sentenced to prison with hard labor, although he was acquitted on appeal. The need to earn a living forced Manto into a state of hyper-productivity; for a period in 1951, he was writing a book a month, at the rate of one story a day. Under this stress, he fell into a depression and became an alcoholic. His family had him committed to a mental asylum in an attempt to curb his drinking, but he died of its effects in 1955, at the age of forty-two.
For all the elements of tragic farce in Manto’s stories, and the tormented state of mind of Manto himself, the reality of Partition was no less filled with absurdity. Vazira Zamindar’s excellent recent study, “The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia,” opens with an account of Ghulam Ali, a Muslim from Lucknow, a city in central North India, who specialized in making artificial limbs. He opted to live in India, but at the moment when Partition was announced he happened to be at a military workshop on the Pakistan side of the border. Within months, the two new countries were at war over Kashmir, and Ali was pressed into service by the Pakistani Army and prevented from returning to his home, in India. In 1950, the Army discharged him on the ground that he had become a citizen of India. Yet when he got to the frontier he was not recognized as Indian, and was arrested for entering without a travel permit. In 1951, after serving a prison sentence in India, he was deported back to Pakistan. Six years later, he was still being deported back and forth, shuttling between the prisons and refugee camps of the two new states. His official file closes with the Muslim soldier under arrest in a camp for Hindu prisoners on the Pakistani side of the border.
Ever since 1947, India and Pakistan have nourished a deep-rooted mutual antipathy. They have fought two inconclusive wars over the disputed region of Kashmir—the only Muslim-majority area to remain within India. In 1971, they fought over the secession of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. In 1999, after Pakistani troops crossed into an area of Kashmir called Kargil, the two countries came alarmingly close to a nuclear exchange. Despite periodic gestures toward peace negotiations and moments of rapprochement, the Indo-Pak conflict remains the dominant geopolitical reality of the region. In Kashmir, a prolonged insurgency against Indian rule has left thousands dead and still gives rise to intermittent violence. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, where half the female population remains illiterate, defense eats up a fifth of the budget, dwarfing the money available for health, education, infrastructure, and development.
It is easy to understand why Pakistan might feel insecure: India’s population, its defense budget, and its economy are seven times as large as Pakistan’s. But the route that Pakistan has taken to defend itself against Indian demographic and military superiority has been disastrous for both countries. For more than thirty years, Pakistan’s Army and its secret service, the I.S.I., have relied on jihadi proxies to carry out their aims. These groups have been creating as much—if not more—trouble for Pakistan as they have for the neighbors the I.S.I. hopes to undermine: Afghanistan and India.
Today, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition, as politicians (particularly in India) and the military (particularly in Pakistan) continue to stoke the hatreds of 1947 for their own ends. Nisid Hajari ends his book by pointing out that the rivalry between India and Pakistan “is getting more, rather than less, dangerous: the two countries’ nuclear arsenals are growing, militant groups are becoming more capable, and rabid media outlets on both sides are shrinking the scope for moderate voices.” Moreover, Pakistan, nuclear-armed and deeply unstable, is not a threat only to India; it is now the world’s problem, the epicenter of many of today’s most alarming security risks. It was out of madrassas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged. That regime, which was then the most retrograde in modern Islamic history, provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda’s leadership even after 9/11.
It is difficult to disagree with Hajari’s conclusion: “It is well past time that the heirs to Nehru and Jinnah finally put 1947’s furies to rest.” But the current picture is not encouraging. In Delhi, a hard-line right-wing government rejects dialogue with Islamabad. Both countries find themselves more vulnerable than ever to religious extremism. In a sense, 1947 has yet to come to an end. ♦
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.
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
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.
We would do well to take Jinnah’s public speeches more seriously rather than remain transfixed by his cosmopolitan personal habits. In an ‘argumentative society’ such as India’s, the push for Pakistan was vigorously opposed from within the Muslim community
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.
Far from being vague, Jinnah’s unequivocal stance on Pakistan’s sovereignty was famously brought out in his exchange with Gandhi in 1942
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.