Beyond A Single Pakistan

Muslims Against the Muslim League acknowledges a complex Pakistani identity beyond that of Jinnah.

If you are an Indian who grew up thinking of Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a scheming politician who was hungry for power at any cost (including the bloodshed of his own people) you are not the only one. My school textbooks certainly gave me that impression. They wanted my peers and me to be angry at him for splitting the subcontinent in the name of religion and for deepening the fissures between Hindus and Muslims.

However, when I first visited Pakistan in 2012, and went there subsequently in 2013 and 2014, I encountered Jinnah as a man who seemed far removed from the caricature I had been exposed to. He was spoken of with great reverence for leading the Muslims to a land of purity and promise away from the cunning Hindus who would have enslaved them after the British left.

Jinnah’s face was printed on currency notes. I saw him on photographs that were proudly displayed in schools and universities. He was frequently invoked as a person with secular ideals who used religious identity only as a political tool to secure the freedom of his people. He was celebrated as the pork-eating, cigarette-smoking liberal who provided a counter-point to General Zia ul Haq who put the country’s feeble fate into the hands of godforsaken clerics.

I understood the need to find a hero in desolate times but, frankly, the hero worship was a bit excessive for my taste. The uneasiness I felt then was quite similar to the discomfort I experience in the company of people gushing endlessly about Gandhi, and unwilling to behold him with a critical-compassionate gaze. I prefer heroes with quirks and creases. Pedestals are not my thing.

What I love about the book Muslims against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan is that it approaches Jinnah as a leader, not as a messiah or a monster. It places him in the wider political context of his time, his community, and his sphere of influence. It shows us that Jinnah wasn’t the only person Muslims were looking up to, and that his two-nation theory did not go uncontested.

This book is a compilation of essays, edited by Ali Usman Qasmi and Megan Eaton Robb, whose aim is “not only to retrieve the polyvalence of voices claiming authority over Muslim political subjectivity in British India, but also to contest the particular reading of the Muslim qaum articulated by the Muslim League in the 1940s and popularized by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.”

If this quote gives you the feeling that it is a verbose academic volume, not sexy enough to hold the interest of a lay reader, your hunch is accurate. The book is heavily footnoted, and packed with detail. It took me a long time to read because the contributors to this volume presented me with new material that I wanted to reflect on. If you are expecting a racy political thriller, please give this a miss.

The central concern of this book is Muslim identity formation related to debates around the Partition of 1947 and the creation of Pakistan. However, it also speaks to current conversations in both Pakistan and India about the nature of citizenship, the love affair between democratic governance and religious extremism as well as the hijacking of regional autonomy by over-arching national narratives. It might be challenging for Indians to accept this but we do share a lot of common ground with Pakistanis.

Individuals and organizations had various reasons for opposing the Muslim League and Jinnah’s approach to the idea of Pakistan. It would be ambitious for me to try and summarize, through this review, all of the positions they took. It would suffice to say that the book foregrounds some key voices that sought to challenge what Jinnah had to offer. These include Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, Choudhary Rahmat Ali, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, Ashraf Ali Thanawi, Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din, Inayatullah Khan ‘al-Mashriqi’, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Allah Bakhsh Soomro, Sikander Hayat Khan, and Rezaul Karim.

Some of them were quite sharply critical of him because he was using Islam for political ends without engaging with the spiritual aspect of it that gave meaning and direction to people of faith. Others found him too engrossed in furthering his own political career. Yet others thought of democracy itself as incompatible with Islam because the rule of the people could not coexist with the will of Allah. That kind of rigorous engagement with Jinnah’s ideas is rare today. He has been reduced to a poster boy for activist movements.

My favourite part of this well-researched book is that it provides space to Pashtun, Sindhi, Baloch, Mohajir, Bengali, Shia and Marxist narratives, all of which have been eclipsed by the over-arching ideology of a Pakistan movement zealously anchored in the dream of a homeland for all the Muslims in the sub-continent. It also made me wonder why the editors did not opt for a writing style that would make this knowledge more accessible to generations of Pakistanis who have grown up with Pakistan Studies textbooks designed to, according to this United States Institute of Peace report, “forge an identity exclusively based on Islam and derived in opposition to India.”

It is important to be aware of these regional and sub-altern histories in a country where even when well-intentioned projects like this one present the idea that there are contending versions – one Indian, another Pakistani — without acknowledging that there are not two but multiple histories circulating in both contexts. On the surface, this project seems like an attempt to sensitize young people from both countries to ‘the other side’ but this false binary also ends up reinforcing the two-nation theory, which many would say is inherently flawed. Neither ‘Muslim’ nor ‘Hindu’ is a monolithic category. Each label points to a diverse range of communities, practices, beliefs and traditions. Moreover, people attach a large amount of significance to their ethnic and linguistic identities. Being Muslim matters to them but so do other things. Jinnah probably knew this, or did he?

About the author

Chintan Girish Modi

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He holds an M.Phil in English Language Education, and has worked with several academic institutions including the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange.