Pakistan; Myths and Consequences

This was an old article i wrote for the Indian magazine Pragati in 2013. That magazine has since disappeared, but some good Samaritan found this on the intertubes and I thought I would post it here for posterity. Some elements of my thinking have changed since then, and others have shifted in intensity, but i am posting this article as originally written;

Salman Rushdie famously said that Pakistan was “insufficiently imagined”. To say that a state is insufficiently imagined is to run into thorny questions regarding the appropriate quantum of imagination needed by any state; there is no single answer and at their edges (internal or external), all states and all imaginings are contested.  But while the mythology used to justify any state is elastic and details vary in every case, it is not infinitely elastic and all options are not equally workable. I will argue that Pakistan in particular was insufficiently imagined prior to birth; that once it came into being, the mythology favored by its establishment proved to be self-destructive;  and that it must be corrected (surreptitiously if need be, openly if possible) in order to permit the emergence of workable solutions to myriad common post-colonial problems.

In state sponsored textbooks it is claimed that Pakistan was established because two separate nations lived in India — one of the Muslims and the other of the Hindus (or Muslims and non-Muslims, to be more accurate) and the Muslims needed a separate state to develop individually and collectively. That the two “nations” lived mixed up with each other in a vast subcontinent and were highly heterogeneous were considered minor details. What was important was the fact that the Muslim elite of North India (primarily Turk and Afghan in origin) entered India as conquerors from ‘Islamic’ lands. And even though they then settled in India and intermarried with locals and evolved a new Indo-Muslim identity, they remained a separate nation from the locals. More surprisingly, those locals who converted to the faith of the conquerors also became a separate nation, even as they continued to live in their ancestral lands alongside their unconverted neighbours.  Accompanying this was the belief that the last millennium of Indian history was a period of Muslim rule followed by a period of British rule. Little mention was made of the fact that the relatively unified rule of the Delhi Sultanate and the Moghul empire (both of which can be fairly characterised as “Muslim rule”, Hindu generals, satraps and ministers notwithstanding) collapsed in the 18th century to be replaced in large sections of India by the Maratha empire, and then by the Sikh Kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

During British rule the cultural goods of the North Indian Muslim elite (Urdu language, literate “high church” Islam, Islamicate social customs, a sense of separateness and a sense of superiority to the ‘natives’) became more of a model for the emerging Muslim middle class. But even as many leading lights of the North Indian Muslim community fought hard to promote what they saw as “Muslim interests”, they were also attracted by the emerging notion of a modern and democratic Indian whole. Some of these leaders (including Jinnah) simultaneously espoused elements of Muslim nationalism and secularised Indian nationalism and sometimes went back and forth between these ideals or tried to aim for a synthesis.  Some of this multi-tasking was undoubtedly the result of sophisticated political calculation by very smart people, but it must not be forgotten that a lot of it was also a reflection of the half-formed and still evolving nature of these categories.

In this confused and somewhat chaotic setting it is hard to argue that any particular outcome was inevitable or pre-ordained. But the tension between the Muslim elite’s sense of Muslim distinctiveness (a sense cultivated by the British rulers for their own purposes at every step) on the one hand and emerging Indian nationalism dominated by Hindus on the other, led some Muslims to think about various schemes of separation. Allama Iqbal, for example, imagined a separate Muslim country in the Northwest that would serve as India’s martial bulwark against central Asian marauders, while also acting as a laboratory for the development of an as yet uncreated Islamicate culture of his dreams. In this dream, Islam is not a static revealed truth; it is an evolving idea, a fire in the minds of men that drives them to endlessly create something new and heroic, yet rooted and eternal. The audience for this romantic but sophisticated fantasy was necessarily small, but less sophisticated versions of this vision played a role in exciting the minds of many young and newly-educated men during the movement for Pakistan.

Other visions of Pakistan were cruder and more literal minded and imagined a state where perfect Islamic law (already revealed and written in books, waiting to be applied as it had once been applied in the golden ages past) replaced “failed heathen systems”. Since no orthodox school of Sunni Islamic law had actually evolved beyond medieval models there was no way those blueprints could create a working modern state. But these mythical visions had played a prominent role in the propaganda of the Muslim league and they prepared the ground in which crude Salafist fantasies would find traction in the years to come.

The historian Ayesha Jalal has convincingly argued (see note at end, as my thinking has changed) that Mr. Jinnah in fact wanted to use the threat of partition as a bargaining ploy to secure more rights for the Muslim political elite within united India. In this view, Mr. Jinnah and his lieutenants had never fully answered the many objections that were raised against the partition scheme because they never really expected the scheme to be carried out, but via a complicated series of mistakes and miscalculations on all sides, partition ended up becoming a reality.

Pakistan as it was created did not really overlap the domain of the North Indian Muslim elite who had been the main drivers of this demand. One way to solve this problem was to imagine the actually existing Pakistan as a transitional phase between British India and the re-establishment of some future Delhi sultanate (this crackpot scheme being the official ideology of the Zaid Hamid faction of Paknationalism). The other was to imagine that the cultural heritage of the Delhi Sultanate has now been transferred in toto to Pakistan by the North Indian Muslim elite and would grow and prosper here as the unifying culture of Pakistan. This package frequently included conscious or unconscious disdain for the existing cultures of Bengal, Punjab, Sindh, Pakhtoonkhwa and Baluchistan, and an irrational determination to expiate any sign of ‘Indian-ness’ in the greater cause of Urdu-speaking North Indian Muslim high culture.

The Bengalis found this so hard to swallow that they opted out of the experiment altogether.  And in spite of the creation of a pan-Pakistan middle class that has been acculturated into a (necessarily shallow) version of North Indian Urdu culture, these contradictions remain potent in the West as well. Separatist movements are one consequence of this attempt to impose a shallow and partly imaginary Pakistani nationalism on existing cultures; a more insidious consequence is the accelerated decay of deeply rooted cultural frameworks and the growth of shallow Saudi or Western (or mixed-up) cultural tendencies in the resulting vacuum.

Other contradictions at the heart of the “two-nation theory” proved equally deadly in the long run. Pakistan had been created utilising the language of Muslim separatism and the millenarian excitement generated by the promise of a “Muslim state”. And even at the outset, these ideas were not just convenient tools for the elite to achieve economic objectives (a view common among leftists). The elite itself was Muslim. To varying extents, its members shared the myths of past greatness and future Islamic revival that they had just used to obtain a state for themselves. In a world where modern European institutions and ideas were taken for granted even by relatively orthodox upper class Muslims, the disruptive political possibilities hidden in orthodox Islamism were not easily appreciated and dreams of Islamic revival could take on almost any form.

Most hardcore Islamists had not supported the Pakistan movement precisely because they regarded the Muslim League leadership as Westernised modernists ignorant of orthodox Islamic thought.  But they were quick to realise that Pakistan was a natural laboratory for their Islamic experiments. The fact that fantasies of Islamic rule had been projected as models for the state made it very difficult to argue against those who claimed to speak in the name of pure Islam.  Besides, orthodox Islamists possessed the twin notions of apostasy and blasphemy that are extremely potent tools to suppress any challenge to Islamic orthodoxy. These tools create problems in all modern Muslim states, but they are especially hard to resist in a state supposedly created so that Islamic ideals could “order the collective life of Muslims in the light of the Quran and Sunnah” (to quote the Objectives Resolution). Consequently the modern Pakistani state has slowly but steadily ceded ideological ground to Islamists who can legitimately claim to be closer to the Islam described in orthodox books and taught in orthodox schools.

This rise of Islamic politics was not an overnight process. In fact Left wing slogans had far more appeal in the first 30 years of Pakistan than any Islamic slogan. But the Islamists proved far-sighted and persistent and used a succession of wedge issues to insert their agenda into national politics. From the anti-Ahmedi agitation of 1953 to the successful effort to declare them non-Muslim in 1974; and from the free-lance enforcement of blasphemy laws in British times (albeit one that prominent Muslim leaders including Allama Iqbal supported in the Ilm Deen case in the 1920s) to the powerful instrument of legal intimidation, bullying and state-sponsored murder created by General Zia in the 1980s, the Islamists have steadily tightened their grip. Having adopted Islam and irrational denial of our own Indian-ness as core elements of the state, the ‘modern’ factions of the establishment lack the vocabulary to answer the fanatics. This has allowed a relatively small number of Islamist officers to promote wildly dangerous policies (like training half a million armed Islamic fanatics in the 1990s) without saner elements being able to stop them. This unique “own-goal”, unprecedented in the history of modern states, is impossible to understand without reference to the Islamic and irrationally anti-Indian element in the self-image of the Pakistani state.

POSTSCRIPT: I no longer think Ayesha Jalal is right about Jinnah not really wanting Pakistan but only using it as a bargaining chip. This is smart propaganda from a Pakistani point of view (“blame” Hindu leaders for not accommodating the great man and thus “forcing him to ask for partition”) but it is likely not true.. I now think he seriously wanted Pakistan, but was willing to settle for halfway solutions (such as the cabinet mission plan) if that was the best that could be managed for now.

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

5 2 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Xerxes the Magian
27 days ago

Super-prescient piece – you called it. I suspect Pakistanis, well those in the Diaspora, are “reckoning” with this legacy..

26 days ago

How does one drop the irrational anti-Indianess when blasphemy and apostasy are used as tools for surpression? To be Indian is to be more than a fanatical binary moralist. Though this ails all subcontinental Ms, solution is still not evident. Sadly many Indian Hs and Ms are adopting either the critical theory or crude religious frameworks, again with the same millenarian fanatical moralism.

Brown Pundits