Thursday, August 11, 2005

On The Historical Relationship Between Muslim Religiosity and Political Separatism

[This piece originally appeared in January 2004 at:; I believe it is particularly relevant in light of the recent controversy surrounding L.K. Advani's remarks on Jinnah while in Pakistan.]

In recent years, with the notion of Muslim “backwardness” having assumed center stage in Indian political discourse, along with the notion of "Muslim" as potentially hostile "other," the ultimate manifestation of which is deemed to be the tragic partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan, it was perhaps inevitable that the two notions would become linked in the minds of many, even many who consider themselves “liberal,” “secular,” and much else that passes for “good” with the Indian intelligentsia. By linkage, what I mean is that it has become commonplace to equate Muslim religiosity with a historical Muslim separatism, so that the signs of Muslim religiosity in contemporary India-- whether madrassas, or an unwillingness to give up the Muslim Personal Law, to take two much-discussed examples-- have been re-configured into both symbols of communal “backwardness” as well as potentially subversive threats to Indian unity, and to the health of the Indian national project.
Interestingly, even many “progressive” Indian Muslims have internalized such a view, whether implicitly or explicitly (I of course do not suggest that anyone who advocates a Uniform Civil Code, or educational reform in madrassas, holds such a view, but merely that many of those who do see these measures as a solution to the “problem” discussed above). Writing in the “Daily Excelsior” of April 19, 2002,[1] for instance, M.J. Akbar, in the context of a discussion of Vajpayee vis-à-vis the BJP hardliners, opined that “[w]e have demonized Jinnah so much because of Partition, that we do not understand what his career truly represented.” Mr. Akbar then proceeds to elucidate that career, writing:
“Jinnah broke with Gandhi because -- and this will probably astonish people -- of his abhorrence for Gandhi's deliberate concoction of religion and politics. Keep the two separate, Jinnah warned Gandhi at the last Congress session he attended, in Nagpur in 1920, or this mixture will explode in your face. Jinnah did so against the tides of Muslim opinion, because he was ranged against the passions of his own community, then swept forward by the Khilafat movement. ... But the point I am making lies a little askance. Why did Muslims respond, first in bits and pieces, and then overwhelmingly, to his call for Partition in the 1940s? It is when this same Jinnah, the man who had rejected everything that Muslim fundamentalists had fought for, who had stood alone and firm against the fire of the Khilafat struggle, who was in his personal habits and convictions totally secular—when such a man finally decided that Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus needed separate nations, then those who were undecided were swayed in his direction.”

Mr. Akbar's point is, thus, that “[i]f a Muslim as non-communal as him [i.e. Jinnah] found it difficult to live in a united India then what hope was there for the others?”
What is one to make of this reasoning? Let me state at the outset that I consider the stakes to be very high here, and that this is not merely a question of a debate on what factors led to India’s partition. For if one takes seriously Mr. Akbar’s implicit message—that Muslims who were and are not as secular as Jinnah could always be expected to be sympathetic to the notion of a separate state for Muslims, and that the scales were decisively tipped in favor of the same when even secularists like Jinnah jumped on the bandwagon—then it logically follows, as it does for the Hindutvawaadis, that the appropriate response to Muslim religiosity is, at a minimum, vigilance and suspicion, for this religiosity contains within it the seeds of secessionism. So Mr. Akbar’s views can hardly be dismissed as inconsequential in this context.

In my view, Mr. Akbar’s views—as reflected in the excerpts above—reflect a questionable foundational premise. As a matter of history, Mr. Akbar has it backwards: it was precisely the Westernized Muslims (with a qualification I will address later) like Jinnah who ultimately became sympathetic to the two-nation theory; their “obscurantist” Muslim brethren were rather likely to be hostile to it. In the context of pre-1947 Indian politics, it is no coincidence that people like Maulana Abul Aala Maududi (of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and who ended up a Pakistani citizen, ironically) opposed partition just as Jinnah supported it (indeed, during the 1940's, Maududi is on record as having referred to Jinnah in speeches as “Kafir-e-Azam,” and to the idea of Pakistan as “paleedistan”).[2]

Figures like Jinnah and Iqbal were good Western-style nationalists—their views of nations and what constituted nationhood were informed by nineteenth century European thought on the subject. Thus, a common religion, and language,[3] were among the “signs” of nationhood, wholly independent of the question of one’s own religiosity. More significantly, “nationhood” could only be fully realized in the context of a territorially defined nation-state; for the late-Jinnah, therefore, Muslim nationhood could only be acknowledged or realized within the context of a separate nation-state. This sort of conception is not unique to Jinnah—Ataturk of Turkey, the pan-Arabists, the Zionists (which movement is most closely analogous to the Pakistan movement) an entire generation of “modernist” nationalists, all held similar views. In an extreme form, these views can be seen in the European fascist movements of the early twentieth century too.

Jinnah was no social bigot, nor was he at all religious, but his background/training made people like him particularly susceptible to the siren call of European-style nationalism—the epitome of political progress for the colonized mind. By contrast, for the Maulana Muhammad Alis and Shaukat Alis and Azads and Maududis of the world, although their political views diverged in most other respects, Jinnah's ideas were un-Islamic. According to Maududi, Jinnah's political vision tied the Islamic “ummah” to the modern nation-state, territorially defined; whereas, for Maududi, the “ummah” had nothing whatsoever to do with the modern nation-state, and should not be restricted to it. Even the more liberal Azad (himself a Deobandi, one of the most conservative of the Sunni Muslim schools of thought) apparently agreed with Maududi that the demand for Pakistan was simply incompatible with traditional Islam.

One can appreciate the suspicion of Maududi and Azad: perhaps the idea is that it is precisely someone who does not care much about namaaz, Quran, etc.—i.e. the signs of a “true” community of believers from the conservative religious Muslim point of view—who would resort to ideas like nationhood/nation-state, etc.—i.e. the signs of a “false” community of believers from the conservative religious Muslim point of view. For Maududi and Azad, on my reading, Jinnah was replacing “true” religious consciousness with a “false” political consciousness that peddled the illusion of safeguarding “Islam” in some abstract way, but was really in the process of constructing something quite different, really Islam as an ethnicity of sorts.

To put the whole thing another way, Mr. Akbar assumes that all other things being equal, the Jinnahs of pre-1947 India were least susceptible to the idea of Pakistan, and that the Maududis were most susceptible to the same. That reflects Mr. Akbar's prejudice and distaste for (people he sees as) fanatics more than a solid historical understanding. While I share Mr. Akbar’s distaste for people like Maududi, that should not color our attempts to interpret the historical record: fanatic or no, Maududi, and most of the other prominent Sunni ulema,[4] opposed partition (though some fled to Pakistan after the fact), whereas those who took their political cues from Germany, Italy, etc. supported it.

This touches upon the real issue here: the form in which political modernity came to India. Unfortunately, modernity came to India in the form of colonialism, and the attendant identity politics legitimated by colonialism. Jinnah was personally irreligious, but he, like the British, like Savarkar, like many others of his social class at the time, shared a view of identities as fixed, and as divided into primary and secondary identities. Thus the religious identity of a Hindu or Muslim ultimately for Jinnah trumped a linguistic identity as a Bengali or a Punjabi.[5] Jinnah was, like the British Orientalists, and like extremists of all hues, not sympathetic to the notion of overlapping identities (e.g. the idea that one can be a Dalit, non-Muslim, yet attend Muharram, and also have a linguistic identity as a Marathi-speaker that might be as important as any of the others), and perhaps this was not surprising given his limited interaction with rural Muslims, or indeed with anyone except for the super-elite of British India (many of whom would also be susceptible to these views).

As an aside, and on the subject of overlapping identities, consider the Meo of Rajasthan. During the partition violence, the Meo were among the worst affected communities, and by some estimates 200,000-300,000 were driven away from their ancestral homelands (now borderlands) in India as “Muslims.” However, in many instances, when the Meo appeared on the Pakistani side they were attacked by Muslim League-led mobs too, for being “Hindus”! The Meo's biggest problem, alas, was that they didn't “fit” with the (supposedly) liberal, modern conception of what it meant to have an identity that the state—perhaps most nation-states, but a state like Pakistan even more so, given its founding ideology—simply could not acknowledge without provoking a philosophical crisis within itself. By 1957, most of the Meo had returned to India.

I repeat, the problem with the form in which political modernity came to India is that notions of the nation-state became premised on notions of identity laid down by the British, and enthusiastically subscribed to and propagated by urban, Westernized, Indians. The ultimate intellectual challenge to such notions was not and is not the “other” (Hindu vs. Muslim, for instance), because the “other” is re-assuring in the sense that he is “fixed” as a reference point, and guarantees one's own selfhood; The ultimate challenge is a community like the Meo, which is hard to “fix” without grave violence being inflicted upon it, “Meo” being traditionally an identity rationally classifiable as either Hindu or Muslim, or both. It is fitting, for instance, that during the recent Indo-Bangladeshi border incidents, the snake-charmers (praying to Saraswati, yet called “Muhammad” or “Tayyib”) were trapped in a no-man's land between the countries, presenting a claim it is even more difficult for a state like Pakistan (and increasingly, Bangladesh) to recognize than it is for India (though the Sangh Parivar seems determined to transform India into the mirror-image of its Western neighbor in this respect).

Jinnah was the very symbol of the form of political modernity discussed above as far as Indian Muslims were concerned. Those who think, simply from the two-nation theory, that the more “religious” one was, the more likely one would be to support the two-nation theory (as I think is implicit in Mr. Akbar's passage), have failed to appreciate the relation of Muslim political separatism to traditional Muslim religiosity.
Further, it should not be forgotten that Jinnah's vision was one among many competing political visions in pre-1947 India. Certainly it proved to be the most successful, though the role of the British in helping the Muslim League along should never be underestimated (obviously British support could not create something out of thin air, but the patronage of the imperial power gave the Muslim League an advantage that the Muslim leaders opposed to Jinnah and the Raj could never match); indeed the magnitude of official support for the Muslim League has only recently (after the mid-1980's) come to light, with the de-classification of various records of the Raj. But there were other visions among Muslims too: the traditional/conservative viewpoint has been discussed above; there was also the religious/ “progressive” viewpoint, as represented by the Khudai Khidmatgars, a traditionalist but “subaltern” viewpoint (represented by people like Allah Baksh Soomro and the attendees at the 1940 Azad Muslim Conference) and also the secular/”left” viewpoint, typically reflected in many in the artistic community (I'm thinking--taking Urdu-oriented intellectuals as an example-- of Jan Nisar Akhtar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, etc.). Here too Mr. Akbar only tells half the story: i.e. he implies that the secular and classically “liberal” nationalist Muslims were the epitome of modernity and progressive thinking, but utterly neglects more radical visions, visions, such as those of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, that had a better claim to "progressive" thinking than Jinnah’s did.

[1] The article is available at: (scroll down for M.J. Akbar’s Op-Ed piece).
[2] N.B. for non-Urdu speakers on the forum: “paleed” means dirt/filth.
[3] More for Iqbal than for Jinnah; Iqbal was also an advocate of a Punjabi nationalism that was not simply reducible to an exclusively Muslim nationalism, and it is intriguing to speculate what he would have made of the two-nation theory in its post-1940 political articulation.
[4] With the exception of many adhering to the Barelvi school of thought.
[5] Iqbal was more ambivalent on the latter; see fn. 2 above.

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