On creating a new Medina


An interview with Prof Venkat Dhulipala on his new book Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India.

Prof Venkat Dhulipala’s new book Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India examines how the idea of Pakistan was articulated and debated in the public sphere, and how popular enthusiasm was generated for its successful achievement especially in Uttar Pradesh, in the last decade of British colonial rule in India.

Creating a New Medina shifts the narratives of partition history and argues that Pakistan was not simply a vague idea that serendipitously emerged as a nation-state, but was popularly imagined as a sovereign Islamic State, a new Medina, as some called it.

In an interview with Sarah Farooqui of Pragati, Prof Dhuliapala talks about all that his book delves into.

Pragati: Can you talk about the different historical narratives on the genesis of Pakistan and delve into what your book argues for and more importantly, why?
Prof Dhulipala: If you look at the historiography over the last 30 years on the Partition and creation of Pakistan, you can see two dominant narratives. The first focuses on “high politics” of the Partition, that is, the tactics and strategies of the dramatis personae such as Jinnah, the British, and the Congress leadership, especially during their secret negotiations over the transfer of power in the run up to the Partition. Within this genre, the seminal book was the historian Ayesha Jalal’s 1985 book The Sole Spokesman, that was based on newly declassified documents of the British government detailing these negotiations and published in twelve massive volumes. Jalal sought to show that Jinnah never really wanted Pakistan, and that he was using Pakistan as a “bargaining counter” to gain for the Muslims a position of equality with the numerically preponderant Hindus in an undivided India. Jalal argued that the Cabinet Mission Plan, which gave parity to Muslims and Hindus at the federal Centre, was what Jinnah really wanted, but it was rejected by the Congress leadership which wanted a strong centralised State, thus destroying the last chance of keeping India united. The book upended existing commonsense about Jinnah’s role in the Partition and pinned the blame for this catastrophe on the Congress leadership. An important assumption underpinning the Jalal thesis was that Pakistan was deliberately kept vague by Jinnah so as to give him the widest possible leeway during the negotiations, and that for the millions of his supporters Pakistan remained no more than a “catch-all, an undefined slogan”. Now this thesis was disputed by the historian Anita Inder Singh who in her own book two years later sought to show how Jinnah always wanted a separate sovereign Pakistan and outmanoeuvred the Congress and the British to get what he wanted. Now the thing to remember is that even as Singh and Jalal disagreed on their interpretations of elite politics that led to the Partition, both agreed that Pakistan was just a vague idea, an emotional slogan behind which tens of millions of Indian Muslims rallied without being aware of its meaning or implications.

In opposition to this focus on the “high politics” of the Partition, the second genre which can broadly be subsumed under the umbrella of Subaltern Studies, sought to capture and sensitively portray the experiences of common people, caught in the maelstrom of the partition violence – the survivors, the refugees, women, etc. What you see here is an attempt to institute the everyman – the Toba Tek Singhs of India – as the new pole in Partition studies and also offer an implicit criticism of Great Man history that dominated the field thus far. Yet even the Subaltern Studies genre which insists that the subaltern, the everyman, is a rational political actor, operates with the assumption that while millions of Indian Muslims supported Pakistan, few had any idea as to what it actually meant.

Partition by all accounts therefore seems to have happened in a fit of collective South Asian absent mindedness, the tragic end result of the transfer of power negotiations gone awry leaving the unsuspecting millions to face its brutal consequences.

My book however questions this fundamental consensus in the study of India’s Partition. If we generally agree that India is an argumentative society where despite low literacy rates, there is a high level of political awareness, a diversity of passionately held opinions, and keen popular participation in politics and political debates, surely the idea of Pakistan would have been discussed, debated, and thrashed out. I therefore asked the question – how was the idea of Pakistan articulated and debated in the public sphere and how was popular mobilisation achieved in the successful pursuit of this goal. I focused especially on the province of U.P where the idea of Pakistan arguably found the earliest, most overwhelming and sustained support. I argue that Pakistan was not a simply a vague idea that serendipitously emerged as a nation-state, but was popularly imagined as a sovereign Islamic State, a new Medina, as some called it. In this regard, it was envisaged as the harbinger of Islam’s renewal and rise in the 20th century, the new leader and protector of the global community of Muslims, and a worthy successor to the defunct Turkish Caliphate. My book specifically foregrounds the critical role played by ulama (clerics) from the influential Deoband School in articulating this imagined national community with an awareness of Pakistan’s global historical significance. It demonstrates how they collaborated with the anglicised leadership of the Muslim League, and forged a new political vocabulary fusing ideas of Islamic nationhood and modern state to fashion decisively popular arguments for creating Pakistan.

Pragati: Your book chooses to ignore all the happenings within the elite chambers of Delhi between the Congress and British, and instead focuses on the public space in UP and the political churnings within the state. How do these events – the sermons, public meetings, and conferences across UP – influence the larger and official narrative of Pakistan, pre 1947?
 Prof Dhulipala: When any of these politicians started negotiating with the British authorities, or with each other, their representative status or authority, was based on their being the leaders of large masses of people. Thus, leaders are deemed leaders only if they have masses of people supporting them. We must therefore not forget that there is an integral relationship between any leadership and its support base, that it is built as a result of leaders going to the people with a political programme and seeking popular affirmation. The public providing them with support for that political platform is what gives the leadership its authority. This process is critical and needs careful attention.

This is the reason why I was not terribly interested in looking at how negotiations were shaping up in the negotiating chambers whether in Delhi, Simla or London. I was more interested in the career of the idea of Pakistan in the public sphere – in the columns of the press, in public meetings, and political conferences, in election campaigns – because popular mobilisation happened in these arenas. 

Pragati: Why does the first alliance for Pakistan take place in Uttar Pradesh and not in any other Indian state such as Bengal or Hyderabad?
Prof Dhulipala: The Muslim League rose from the ashes out of Uttar Pradesh. Some of the dramatis personae in the partition drama, including Maulana Azad, have publicly said that the path to Partition was paved from the U.P. If you look at the 1937 elections, held under the Government of India act of 1935, the U.P is the one state where the ML did reasonably well. In Punjab the Unionists won handsomely, in Bengal the Krishak Praja party of Fazlul Haq was the largest Muslim party in the Assembly, in NWFP, the Congress was the major player thanks to Badshah Khan and Khan Sahib. Now after these provincial elections, popular governments assumed power in different British Indian provinces. In the U.P itself the Congress and the ML fought the elections on the basis of an informal understanding so as to defeat the National Agriculturalist party (NAP) a zamindar party backed by the colonial state. The hope was that victorious Congress candidates in the General constituencies along with victorious Muslim League candidates in the Muslim seats would together have a majority so as to form a government in U.P.

However, as the Congress’ stunning sweep in the General constituencies, it had a majority of its own in the new U.P Legislative Assembly and could rule U.P without the support of Muslim League MLAs. In this new scenario, the Congress and especially Nehru who basically took the decisions for U.P, put forth a clear condition to the Muslim League if it wished to share power and hold Ministerships in the U.P government. The Muslim League was basically asked to shut shop and its MLAs when made Ministers, were expected to adhere to Congress party discipline and thus become a part of the Congress movement.

Mr. Jinnah strenuously opposed the Congress demand, but in spite of it, initially some U.P Muslim League leaders were willing to play ball and come to a deal if the Congress conceded enough Ministerships. Negotiations between the top ranking UP ML leader Khaliquzzaman and the Congress collapsed over the number of Ministerships in the Cabinet. As a result of this collapse the Congress appointed Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Nehru’s lieutenant who had badly lost the elections, and a Muslim League renegade Hafiz Mohammad Ibrahim, as the Muslim Ministers in the UP cabinet. These individuals were not seen as representing the wider Muslim opinion. The Muslim League began a strident campaign describing the Congress government as “Hindu Raj” which was successful. Its candidates went on to decisively defeat Congress candidates in the by-elections to Muslim seats that were held between 1937 and 1939 thus demonstrating which party enjoyed popular Muslim support in U.P.

The U.P thus was the province from which the Muslim League emerged from the ashes. It was in Lucknow in 1937 that the all India session of the Muslim League was held. And it was at this session that Muslim parties from across the country, including unionists from Punjab, Krishak Praja party from Bengal etc. came and congregated under the banner of the ML. UP thus holds a special significance in the Pakistan story. 

Pragati: Your book delves into Ambedkar’s writing on defining the public debate in Pakistan. Can you explain Ambedkar’s position and how his 1941 book helped shaped the narrative at that time in particular?
Prof Dhulipala: It is surprising that in Partition studies Ambedkar’s seminal role in inaugurating the public debate on Pakistan has been almost completely ignored. In the few footnotes or paragraphs in which he appears in monographs on the Partition, Ambedkar is portrayed as either an eloquent supporter of Pakistan or as maintaining a lofty Socratic neutrality on the question of Pakistan. Neither of these positions is tenable.

Ambedkar saw himself as a clear eyed hard headed realist who sought to persuade the Hindus and the Congress to concede Pakistan arguing that it would be good riddance for India. If Pakistan was not conceded, India could be reduced to a sick man of Asia – just as Turkey had been reduced to the sick man of Europe.

At the outset, Ambedkar dismissed as wishful thinking, hopes that Jinnah was using Pakistan as a bargaining counter and went on to clarify what he understood by the Lahore Resolution – namely that the ML wanted to create independent state in provinces where the Muslims were in a majority without any common Centre with Hindu India. Demolishing sentimental Hindu reasons on this issue, Ambedkar went on to provide the rationale for why the Hindus and the Congress needed to let go of Pakistan. The most important question that Ambedkar wanted the Hindus to consider was that of India’s defence. Here he pointed out that the Indian army was predominantly Muslim and here too most of the Muslims in it were from Punjab and NWFP. How would these soldiers react if India was attacked by Afghanistan? Ambedkar felt that Muslim soldiers imbued with Pan-Islamic sentiments would rather join their Afghan brethren than defend India and would certainly disobey orders if India ever decided to launch an invasion of Afghanistan. For Ambedkar a safe army was of paramount concern and such a safe army could not be had till Pakistan was conceded.

Secondly, Ambedkar saw Partition as the best answer to what he called “Muslim political aggression”. After all the ML were demanding a 50 percent share in everything for the Muslims reducing the Hindus to a minority in India and also cutting into the political rights of other minorities. He accused the Muslim League of speaking the language of the Nazis for their demand for 50 percent was nothing but a counterpart of German claims to Deutschland Uber Alles and Lebensraum. As part of this communal aggression Ambedkar noted that the Muslims slaughtered cow when it was not enjoined by Islamic law. They objected to music before mosques by Hindus when in Afghanistan music was allowed before mosques.

Ambedkar further pointed to the ML’s regressive politics in view of Islam’s importance to ML politicians. Muslim politics, he claimed, took no note of secular categories of life namely the differences between the rich and the poor, capital and labor priest and laymen, reason and superstition. Muslim politics was essentially clerical and recognised only one difference between Hindus and Muslims. By conceding the Pakistan demand, India would be getting rid of such retrograde politics.

Partition was the best remedy since the communal problem in India would be resolved to the greatest possible extent. And here Ambedkar wanted Punjab and Bengal to be partitioned on the basis of Hindu and Muslim majorities at the level of the districts. He further called for a transfer of populations between the two sides for the sake of national homogeneity arguing that countries if countries like Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria had managed it, the same could be managed between India and Pakistan.

We generally don’t ever hear about these ideas that Ambedkar expressed on the question of Partition and Pakistan. Again in 1955, in his Thoughts on Linguistic States, Ambedkar made the astounding statement that he was glad Pakistan was created, or else in an undivided India the Muslims would have been the ruling race notwithstanding the Hindu majority or the presence of the Jana Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha. I was quite stunned when I read this statement.

This is the first of a two part interview with Dr Venkat Dhulipala. The second part will be published next week.