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What, then, was partition all about?

August 13, 2004

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As another independence day is about to be commemorated with fake sentiment and false speeches — we having fine-honed the talent of turning national holidays into the most boring events imaginable — the toughest question our history throws up can no longer be shirked: if Pakistan was to be a country dedicated to permanent dictatorship, what was the point of it all?

Did we go through the blood-drenching and mass migration accompanying partition — more than a million people killed and about 8-10 million people uprooted from their homes — so that Pakistan should be a country dedicated to the permanent usurpation of power?

Was Pakistani independence meant to be a synonym for authoritarianism?

Harsh questions? Not if you consider the mess our history has been or, more to the point, if you consider our apparently unshakeable determination to keep making a mess of it.

Pakistan was created for the people of Pakistan. This at least is the orthodox line turned into cruel myth by the steady march of authority figures on the Pakistani stage, our consistent specialty, the extra-constitutional takeover. It bears branding into our collective consciousness that not a single peaceful transition of power marks the 57 tempestuous years of our history.

Yet, and savour the paradox, the bonds of nationhood (the sense of belonging to a nation) remain strong. Not because of Pakistan’s rulers who constitute a dismal club but because of the Pakistani people, most of whom, although not all, have nowhere else to go, no place else to call home. If the flame of patriotism still burns in Pakistani breasts, and it does, it is a tribute not to blinkered and often downright stupid leadership but to the resilience and fortitude of the Pakistani people.

So, is there still something that we can call the Pakistani dream? There is but in the minds of the poor and the defenceless, not in the passions or pocketbooks of the rich and well-placed who long ago made a virtue of swimming with the tide and, in the process, exchanging the power of hope and striving for the armour of an all-weather cynicism.

But to recap the usual factors held responsible for the founding of Pakistan, Islam was not in danger in pre-1947 India. Indeed, considering the sectarian violence and religious bigotry we face today, it was in better health then. Nor was democracy the issue because even if partition had not happened, India was getting democracy once the British left. The Indian Independence Act promised that.

So what was the compelling reason for the Muslims to insist on a separate homeland especially when there was no going around the uncomfortable fact that, no matter how generously the frontiers of the new state were drawn, an uncomfortably large number of Muslims would remain in India?

The purpose of Pakistan, transcending anything to do with safeguarding Islam or promoting democracy, was to create conditions for the Muslims of India, or those who found themselves in the new state, to recreate the days of their lost glory.

For eight centuries Muslim warriors — lured by tales of India’s wealth and, I daresay, the beauty of its women, and crossing the same Hindukush passes through which, centuries before, Aryan hordes had marched — invaded, conquered and ruled India, putting the impress of their culture and thought upon the land they colonized and receiving something from that land in return.

In the process, both invader and invaded were transformed. After eight centuries of intermingling and assimilation the Muslim in India, however hard he clung to his historical memories, was no longer a Turk, a Persian or an Arab but something else: an Indian Muslim. The land was transformed too, post-Muslim India not being the same as pre-Muslim India.

With the coming of the British, however, another transformation was also underway. Muslims lost their pre-eminent status, a process beginning with the disintegration of the Mughal Empire but carried much further as the British consolidated their hold on India. Knocked off their pedestal, Muslims were now amongst the subjugated. But another discovery awaited them too. Outnumbered by the Hindu population, even amongst the subjugated they were not of the first rank. Their overall position in India was thus relegated to number three, after the British and the Hindus, this being a measure of the shift in the historical calculus.

From mid-19th Century onwards, beginning with the first stirrings of a modern Muslim consciousness as expressed by the Aligarh school, Muslims may have agitated for jobs and special safeguards, such as separate electorates, but informing and indeed fuelling their quest was a vision of the past when they were great and the whole of India, not just a part, was their happy hunting ground.

At odds with the reality of Muslim impotence, this vision, this harking back to the past, reduced the Indian Muslim leadership to fighting a rearguard action: seeking to play the new game, of which the British were now the umpires, not across the entire field, because they felt it not in their power to do so, but asking that a patch be reserved for them so that in that reserved patch they should be able to ride unchallenged.

In a crucial sense, then, the Pakistan movement signalled a retreat from the heartland of empire to its outer edges, the final evacuation from Delhi and Agra to new centres of power in Punjab and Bengal. But even then it was for the new state, Pakistan, to create a historical justification for itself by emulating and rivalling, in achievement and glory, even if on a reduced scale, the success of its historical model, the Mughal Empire (in a 20th Century setting, it goes without saying).

In other words, breaking away from India, for that’s what partition did, the justification for Pakistan lay not in merely existing but in showing the spark, vitality and vigour of a new organism, like America to the old world, Israel to its decadent surroundings, the breakaway part, in short, proving better in all that qualifies for civilized achievement than the erstwhile whole.

Against this scale of measurement how on earth do you place the kind of farce regularly staged in Pakistan: mediocre figures (no successors to Babar or Akbar, excuse me), meddling in politics when it is not their business to do so, adept neither at peace nor war, not understanding their own business or that of others, a succession of hopeless figures conspiring to make a mockery of a not-so-bad country? Mughal Empire indeed. Islamabad seems more like a replay of the last days of the Oudh dynasty.

The principal strengths of Muslim rule in the subcontinent were war, the consolidation of conquest, politics and administration. In all these fields Pakistan has not distinguished itself. Wars that should never have been fought started and then lost. About politics the less said the better.

It’s not as if Pakistan lacked promise or potential. It did not. But it has been betrayed by its stars and a succession of cardboard figures who would have received short shrift at Akbar’s court.

Is it all hopeless? Of course not. It’s not too late to turn the ship around. But we’ll have to go back to the drawing boards and, instead of taking Pakistan for granted which we often do, try to understand why this country was created. For rule by a few? To be lorded over by an oligarchy at once inept and corrupt, heedless of history and out of sync with the times? Come off it. Pakistan was meant for better things which it can still reach provided we stop making a mess of our politics.