Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book review: Imagining Pakistan: Religion at the Origins of Nationalism

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

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 super-stition 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 pro-minent Deobandi cleric Shabbir Ahmad Usmani’s invocation of “Medina” as a paradigmatic metaphor for Pakistan… read more:

Other recent reviews and references

Also see
B.R. Ambedkar's Pakistan or the Partition of India (Bombay, 1940,1945)