Imagining Pakistan: Religion at the Origins of Nationalism

Sohaib I. Khan on Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina

Venkat Dhulipala. Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 554 pp., $124 hardcover, $37.99 paperback, $30 eTextbook
Venkat Dhulipala. Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 554 pp., $124 hardcover, $37.99 paperback, $30 eTextbook
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Pakistan’s descent into violent forms of religious extremism has recently become the subject of best-selling books. Causal explanations for the country’s current state of crisis rely on either one or some combination of the following: incomplete modernization, persistent religious dogma and superstition as impediments to secularization, disruptions in democratic rule by a strong military juntaAmerican interventionism and surrogate warfare, etc. For those not captive to a view of the present, the roots of Pakistan’s religious predicament may even be traced to the country’s inception with the partition of British India in 1947. Nationalist autobiographies of both Pakistan and India remember partition and its attendant violence in starkly different terms. Whereas for the former partition symbolizes the glory of sacrifice that earned Indian Muslims their independence in the form of a separate homeland, for the latter it marks a disruption of irrational communalist fervor in what was to be an anti-colonial liberation struggle for a united India. India and Pakistan became nation-states in 1947, but the historical consciousness that renders them immemorial draws on the originary violence of partition: the nation is consecrated once bonds of community are forged in the glory and tragedy of bloodshed.

In Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina, Pakistan’s relationship to Islam is framed neither in terms of the security paradigm of the War on Terror nor the violent aftermath of partition. The book examines the earliest articulations of this relationship as formulated by politicians, the clergy, and journalists during the decade immediately preceding partition. Rather than anticipating the madness and chaos of partition as an inevitable outcome of the Pakistan movement, Dhulipala tries to understand the goals and aspirations of the movement’s actors without judging them for the historical validity of their conclusions. In doing so, he challenges a widely-accepted view on Pakistan’s origins, one shared among historians of modern South Asia: Pakistan came into existence owing to a premature and hastily crafted nationalist scheme by Muslim elites during the British departure from India. To the contrary, Dhulipala uses ample archival evidence to demonstrate that the prospect of Pakistan as a territorially defined sovereign state was widely debated, contested, and refined into an elaborate political ideal in the North Indian Muslim imaginary. Pakistan, Dhulipala argues, was not an obscure possibility in the minds of a few. Far from being what Salman Rushdie pithily described as an “insufficiently imagined” nation, the demand for Pakistan was stretched to its imaginative limits through a vibrant and broadly inclusive public discourse.

Dhulipala hasn’t traversed unfamiliar historical territory with his first monograph. Partition historiography in the 1980s had witnessed a sudden shift in focus from prominent nationalist figures to cultural history at the grassroots level. The purpose of this shift was to study partition and the history of the nation from the perspective of its victims and subaltern classes. Dhulipala’s work, however, does not look for silences in the nationalist archive or fragments of a non-elitist history. His subjects are mainly the Indian literati who wrote in English and the vernacular and used available forms of print and communications media—books, newspapers, radio, pamphlets, magazines, etc.—to propagate their message through poetry and prose. While it is doubtful that print capitalism in colonial India bridged the divide between elitist high politics and subaltern consciousness, Dhulipala’s methodological posture is a refreshing departure from academic histories in which the saga of partition only unfolds through the hidden motives and intrigues of nationalist elites. At the very outset of the book, he therefore rejects the famous “bargaining counter” thesis that sees Pakistan as the unintended outcome of a failed political bargain by its founder Jinnah to secure political parity for Muslims and Hindus in a united India. The alternative narrative offered in Creating a New Medina can best be read as a form of trickle-down popular Muslim nationalism that travels and expands in many directions as it gets entangled with disparate political currents—including Marxist, liberal, communalist, Pan-Islamic, and more still.

As a recent historian, Dhulipala also resists analytical binaries of secularism/communalism and hegemony/resistance that have saturated much of partition scholarship. Instead of pitting a unified nationalist spirit against communalist fervor or a rational secularism against religious dogmatism, he highlights elective affinities between groups with different ideological leanings, their internal schisms and readiness to forge alliances of compromise. In contrast to nationalist or subaltern historiography, nationalist elites in Dhulipala’s narrative appear neither as autonomous agents marching towards a promised destiny of self-determination nor as passive revolutionaries tactfully attempting a “molecular transformation” of an imperialist state. Their political maneuvers are subject to miscalculation and their ideological vision is rendered malleable by pragmatic decisions necessitated in a field of competing political actors and interests. We therefore see the All India Muslim League (AIML), the political party spearheading the Pakistan movement on grounds of the Two Nation Theory, abandon its loyal constituents in India’s Muslim minority provinces after the creation of Pakistan. We also observe the Indian National Congress, a committed secular political party, run a Muslim Mass Contact Program (MMCP) aimed at uniting Muslims on an anti-colonial platform of class consciousness. Despite their opposing nationalist agendas, both the Muslim League and Congress enlist the support of colonial India’s most dominant Sunni Muslim clerical establishment: the Deobandis.

One of the book’s significant contributions to partition studies is the attention given to the traditional religious scholars or ‘ulama in the making of Muslim nationalism. Dhulipala makes crucial archival forays into the Deobandi “republic of letters.” Through a close reading of hitherto untapped sources, he reveals the many ways in which they provided a religious vocabulary to the nationalist struggle in British India and translated it into a much wider Islamic idiom. The book’s suggestive title comes from prominent Deobandi cleric Shabbir Ahmad Usmani’s invocation of “Medina” as a paradigmatic metaphor for Pakistan. Medina was the city inhabited by Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, and his earliest followers after fleeing from persecution in their native Mecca in 622 CE. Pakistan was thus conceived as a Muslim experiment in statehood aspiring to meet a prophetic ideal. In contrast, Husain Ahmad Madani, the then Principal at the Deoband seminary and staunch Congress ally, objected to crafting nationalist divisions on religious lines and advocated Hindu-Muslim unity as a bulwark against British imperialism. Madani’s ecumenical theory of “composite nationalism” set the course for a prolonged discursive battle between pro-Congress and pro-Muslim League camps of Deobandi ‘ulama. In 1945, as a counter to Madani’s Jami‘at-i ‘Ulama-i Hind (JUH), Usmani and other pro-Muslim League Deobandis formed their own political party called the Jami‘at-i ‘Ulama-i Islam (JUI). To this day, as Indian Muslims fear encroachment from a conservative Hindutva government and state-sanctioned religious policing is on the rise in Pakistan, the JUH sees secularism as the only guarantee of religious freedom for Indian Muslims whereas Pakistan’s JUI continues to push for a more aggressive Islamization agenda.

Dhulipala is careful not to reduce the Deobandi nationalist schism to a religious vs. secular divide. However, for a book that emphasizes the role of religious piety in shaping nationalist politics, one would have expected some discussion on the category of “religion” itself. Agreeing with the Islamicist Wilfred C. Smith that Pakistan as an Islamic state cannot be understood in isolation from its religious dimension, Dhulipala claims to unpack Pakistan’s religious “symbolism” in order to access its concrete “substance.” But there is much ambiguity in what he counts as the religious symbol and its underlying substance. Is the latter a pristine form of religion itself or is it nationalist interest couched in a religious vocabulary? Dhulipala also frequently points to “religious” and “secular” arguments put forth by Deobandis both against and in favor of Pakistan. But how does one analytically demarcate the religious from the secular, especially when religion is deeply enmeshed in politics? Moreover, if invocations of Islam by nationalist actors are indeed “symbolic,” can nationalist polemics further our understanding of religion or do they simply reduce it to an ideology of legitimation? Dhulipala seems to veer towards the former option, but he doesn’t confront the many epistemological difficulties that stem from positing a symbolic conception of religion. Throughout his analysis, Islam vacillates between being a self-standing descriptive category and an epiphenomenal referent to more essential cultural and political realities.

A centerpiece of the book is a discussion of what is arguably the most critical theme of nation-formation in South Asia: the status of minorities. Dhulipala introduces the question through the towering Dalit reformer and jurist B. R. Ambedkar’s 1940 work, Thoughts on Pakistan. Ambedkar, the future architect of India’s constitution, had unquestionably favored the creation of Pakistan as a practical solution to India’s Hindu-Muslim “communal problem.” While Dhulipala justifiably praises Ambedkar’s political acumen, he overlooks the visceral sensibilities flowing through Ambedkar’s visibly “cool” and “clinical” assessment of the demand for Pakistan. For instance, despite being critical of attempts to attribute essentialist foundations to nation and race, Ambedkar harped on an irrational fear of the “Indian Musalmans” and their anti-democratic proclivities to make the case for a separate Muslim homeland. The Muslim League also argued for the benefits of partition on grounds of the so-called “hostage population” theory: if India oppressed its Muslim minority, Pakistan would take retaliatory measures against its own Hindu minority. Peace between the two countries would thus be guaranteed by the threat of communal retaliation. Ambedkar, however, rejected the theory as vindictive and suggested a transfer of populations to settle the matter once and for all. Ironically, both proposals to protect vulnerable Hindu and Muslim minorities on either side of the border not only presupposed their inherent animosity but further re-inscribed it in nationalist discourse.

Dhulipala’s meticulous coverage of propaganda literature published under Jinnah’s “Home Study Circle” further shows how the minority question was framed by colonial technologies of mapping and enumeration. With the introduction of the first population census in 1817 and the award of separate electorates for minorities through the 1909 Government of India Act, numerical strength had become a key cognitive factor in Muslim self-identification as a political community. New maps and population figures experimenting with territorial boundaries along lines of religious affiliation frequently appeared in newspapers and pamphlets for public consumption. These maps fed into a mutating communal consciousness under India’s new political economy: people understood, with varying degrees of precision, that their political fortunes and access to material resources critically depended on their demographic strength within a province or a state. A new discourse of Muslim sovereignty thus emerged whereby electoral representation became the basis of national self-determination.

Intellectual historians have recently made intriguing comparisons between the states of Pakistan and Israel, arguing that the former’s foundation may also be seen as a religiously inspired genesis without history of territorial belonging. According to this view, Pakistan, like Israel, was conceived as a homeland for an exilic Muslim community. While the Pan-Islamic rhetoric of Pakistani nationalism suggests more than an uncanny resemblance with Zionism, Dhulipala shows that arguments for Pakistan’s territorial basis were explicitly grounded in existing population demographics. Rather than relying primarily on abstract doctrine or scriptural provenance to make territorial claims, the Muslim League’s demand for sovereign nationhood hinged on colonial India’s image as an “ethnographic state.” Invoking census-figures, Jinnah was adamant that only Muslim majorities in the North-Western and North-Eastern provinces of India constituted a “nation” proper. Muslims who were numerically inferior to Hindus in other contiguous territories of India were fated to be a minority, with no right to national self-determination.

Relations of blood and soil were thus integral, and not merely adjunctive, to Pakistan’s territorially bounded conception of nationhood. These relations, however, were also articulated on the transnational plane of a global Muslim fraternity. Pakistan, both prior to and after its foundation, was cast by Jinnah as a successor to the defunct Ottoman Empire. Such an aspiration entailed more than a symbolic claim to Islamic caliphal inheritance; it envisioned Pakistan as a sovereign state whose guiding influence would extend to Muslims living beyond its borders. Dhulipala reports these grandiose nationalist ambitions without slipping into the functionalist trap of explaining invocations of a religious temporality as a stratagem for realizing essentially secular goals. He sees Pakistan’s emergence as driven by a synthesis between the abstract/universal and the concrete/particular. On the one hand, nationalist discourse gave meaning and purpose to the idea of Pakistan by relying on lofty ideals of a faith-based Islamic cosmopolitanism. On the other hand, since these ideals needed political embodiment if they were to be translated into a lived reality, arguments for Pakistan’s territoriality, its demographics, natural resources, and geostrategic significance gained salience within nationalist discourse. This synthesis is critical for Dhulipala as, later in the book, he identifies it as the root of Pakistan’s existential crises.

It would be unfair to criticize a book so thoroughly researched for omissions of historical figures or content. In fact, Dhulipala’s decision to focus on relatively obscure nationalist figures is justifiable given their lack of treatment in partition studies. One wishes, however, that the economy of choice exercised with respect to nationalist figures was extended to the content of the book itself. For instance, the book lists numerous dates and events—“Cripps Mission” and “C.R. Formula”—without any reference to their context, which could puzzle a reader with an insufficient background in modern South Asian history. Moreover, since the chapters are organized chronologically, from the 1937 Provincial Elections in British India to the immediate aftermath of partition in 1947, the author is compelled to address many themes recursively as they gain relevance in the context of a period or a major political event. Excessive repetition renders Dhulipala’s writing susceptible to misreading, whereby his citing the views of others can be taken as a sign of tacit approval. This may partly explain the ire he has received from serious historians as well as sensitive patriots on both sides of the border, compelling them to dismiss the book for its “partisan character” and, much worse, for being a “dishonest polemic.” Given the intellectual polarization that marks partition studies discourse, it is not too uncommon for critics to blur the line between historical observation and an affirmation of one’s own political commitments. However, suggesting that Dhulipala’s attribution of historical agency to Islamic piety makes him an apologist for Islamism is as absurd as citing Ambedkar’s advocacy for Pakistan as proof of his admiration for Jinnah.

The book’s only major weakness seems to be implicated in its greatest strength. Dhulipala reads the archive unsparingly, mining every relevant detail to ensure the facts are on his side. At the same time, however, one is disturbed by the apparent seamlessness of his readings. This may be seen as a scholarly virtue, since the historian is letting the archive speak for itself. But a historian’s sources do not make their meanings transparently available. Each reading of the past is at the same time an act of philological reconstitution in the historian’s present. For instance, Dhulipala translates terms in Urdu and Hindi for their colloquial as opposed to lexical meanings, an odd choice given his reliance on textual as opposed to oral sources of history. The illusion of bridging temporal gaps between oneself and one’s sources also becomes particularly strong in moments of tedious description and fact-citing, where self-erasure could allow the historian’s biases and prejudices to flow unselfconsciously into the reporting of events. Dhulipala, of course, carries no pretensions of objective certainty. However, his stylistic posture betrays a disconcerting sense of temporal proximity with historical texts and actors. One therefore finds his reading of Ambedkar and pro-Congress Deobandis as having prefigured Pakistan’s current existential crises to be problematic at the very least. Anachronism is perhaps a risk inevitably taken by any historian seeking to draw lessons from the past.

Dhulipala’s authorial presence is most strongly felt in the epilogue and conclusion of the book; here he ties together his findings from previous chapters. Recounting the tense but integral relationship between religion and politics crafted by the Muslim League and its Deobandi allies, he underscores an inherent ambiguity over the role of Islam in Pakistan’s politics. Pakistan, according to Dhulipala, was from its very inception driven by an irreconcilable “double imperative”: to be an Islamic state that enforced the Shari‘a as the law of the land and to be a democratic welfare state that guaranteed rights on the secular principle of national citizenship. It is therefore erroneous, he contends, to assign blame for Pakistan’s current crises to a betrayal of the country’s supposedly secular vision or to a deficiency of nationalist imagination. On the contrary, the roots of Pakistan’s post-colonial trajectory as an ideological state lay in its origins and in the formative phase of its collective imagination.

If Dhulipala’s conclusions are correct, Pakistan was doomed to confront its present crises, sooner or later, as these were but a natural consequence of its incongruous conflation of secular democracy and Islamic political theology. Pakistan never suffered from a deficit in nationalist imagination; it simply lacked the proper composition that marked other sufficiently imagined nations. In other words, it was the kind of imagination, and not its degree, that lies at the core of Pakistan’s present problems. These conclusions give rise to a set of counter-questions: If national identity is indeed a function of imagination, what would a nation properly imagined and rendered free of ideological ambiguity look like? Are all postcolonial nations qua nations bound by an original position to conform to a universal model of secular statehood? If so, what are the limits to which their specific historical and sociocultural circumstances can inform alternative nationalist imaginaries? While political theorists have long differentiated between “objective” and “subjective” qualities of nationalism, developing creative possibilities for partition historiography requires fracturing the conceptual unity of the nation-state itself. This may be partly done by pushing against the cognitive limits of nationalism and sovereignty within the historian’s own imagination.

For partition historiography to become a critical reflection on the foundations of nation and state, it needs to reconsider its pre-discursive point of departure: the event of partition. It is undoubtedly the most enduring myth in the cultural memory of both nations, endlessly recounted in songs, movies, and literary fiction. But it also grants a certain inscrutability to nation and state by placing their origins in catastrophic violence. In the parlance of political theology, the violent historical rupture that gives birth to the nation also serves as the legitimating foundation for its sovereignty. All nations exist in chronological time, but their sovereignty has a theological structure that is irreducible to history. In so far as partition historiography seeks to create narratives of inception for India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, it has a methodological propensity to explain the present by relying on the causal primacy of origins. Such an approach is more likely to preserve, not dismantle, myths of national sovereignty. Critical historians should therefore supplement factual descriptions of partition with a genealogical critique of the forms of sovereignty begotten from it. Creating a New Medina is certainly a step in the right direction. It has the admirable beginnings of a complex narrative of nation formation. In the end, however, the narrative coalesces into a lesson of historical inevitability: the trajectory of Pakistan’s present had already been cast by an inherent tension at its point of origin. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Dhulipala’s conclusions, Creating a New Medina stands apart in partition history for the density of its archival knowledge and the richness of its substantive historical content. It is a brave scholarly endeavor, one with disruptive potential. The potential lies, however, not in questions answered but in questions raised.

Sohaib I. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) and the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS) at Columbia University. His research lies at the intersection of Islamic legal ethics, critical theory, and the anthropology of finance. Sohaib’s ethnographic work has followed Muslim jurists straddling the domains of madrasas and Islamic banks in Pakistan. His dissertation research, supported by the Wenner-Gren foundation and the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (IRCPL), seeks to understand how religious piety and ordinary ethics are shaped in cultural and institutional milieus penetrated by finance. More specifically, he studies textual and mimetic practices of Muslim jurists seeking to authorize “Shari’a Compliant” alternatives to debt-based finance.