For too long now there has been a parochial understanding of what Pakistani history as an academic discipline entails, as there is a firm assumption that it has to be accountable to the public eye.
Many are of the idea that history is perhaps, already present in the past. And that the historian’s role is only one of assorting facts and events along a chronological and byte-sized narrative; as if it were a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces were facts that fit in a fixed tapestry of national belonging.
These traditionalist frameworks become very real when narratives associated with Dr Muhammad Iqbal’s statements regarding the official demand for separation led to the public de facto assuming that Iqbal also called for a partitioned Muslim state.
The infamous Pakistan studies textbook presents Iqbal as a pious orthodox Muslim thinker with the message being that Pakistan, the homeland, can be accredited to his vision.
It is not surprising then that Iqbal has become the father of Pakistan as he was the first to call for “the Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Sind and Balochistan amalgamated into a single state” in his presidential address to the 21st session of the All-India Muslim League that was held in Allahabad on the 29th of December, 1930.
What is surprising, however, is that if one were to read Iqbal’s seminal presidential address in the historical context, it becomes clear that his vision never actually called for the partitioned Muslim state of Pakistan.
From the very onset of Iqbal’s address, it is clear that he was posing the ideological dichotomy between Islam and Western nationalism as a conflict as it had the potential to disrupt Islam as an edifice of life.
In setting the parameters of this conflict between Islam and modern nationalism within the South Asian context, the genius of Iqbal neither chose an isolationist approach, such as the one adopted by the Deobandi school of thought, nor did he want to appease the colonial powers and their separation of church and state.
Instead, Iqbal expounded the idea that Islam was not just an “ethical ideal” but also an overarching legal political “social structure” which, throughout the “life-history of the Muslims of India” had unified “scattered individuals and groups”.
For Iqbal, Western nationalism was centred on a “narrower system of ethics” which took agency of religion away from the public to the private sphere.
Iqbal countered the idea of territory arguing that Islam was a “force for freeing the outlook of man from its geographical limitations” and that religion was a power of the utmost importance in the life of individual, as well as of states.
He maintained that if democracy were to be applied there had to be recognition of the “units of Indian society” not from a territorial standpoint but rather through accounting for the diverse nature of India’s “communal groups”.
Within them, Indian Muslims were the most homogenous and united in India and were the only people who could be “fitly described as a nation in the modern sense of the word”, he argued.
But does that mean Iqbal was talking about a partitioned Muslim state?
For many the demand for Pakistan after Iqbal’s address which called for the North-West to become a single state and the added oppression under the “Hindu” Congress is enough to solidify the notion that Iqbal envisioned Pakistan.
School histories cite remote statements from Iqbal’s 1930 address contending that he can be viewed as a separatist; various communal groups could simply not “sink their respective individualities in a larger whole” are those gold lines which tickle the patriotic heart.
Yet nationalist narratives conveniently forget Iqbal stating that were communal groups entitled to the autonomous development of their cultures in their own “Indian home-lands” then they would be ready to safeguard the “freedom of India”.
The omission of Iqbal’s arbitration between Western ideals of state and the role of Islam as mentioned in his address from our school histories is unfortunate – his answer for this disruption is what makes Iqbal an unequivocal visionary for Muslim nationalism in a land as diverse as India.
“Muslim India within India”
There is also a need to contextualise the December 1930 presidential address and Iqbal’s historical situation before painting with a brush the Pakistani green of national zeal as the poet-politician's tract on autonomous states within a federation goes amiss in our mainstream narratives.
The intended audience for the address was not just Indian Muslims, but the speech was a direct rebuttal to the Nehru report of 1929 which “rejected the crucial Muslim demands for a separate electorate and weightage for minorities”.
The concept of a federation for Iqbal warranted an abolition of the Central Legislative Assembly and instead called for an assembly which would represent the federal states and thus eliminate the “communal problem”.
How can one argue for a partitioned Muslim state if Iqbal himself affirmed that “proper redistribution will make the question of joint and separate electorates automatically disappear from the constitutional controversy of India”.
A solution could not be reached until all parties understood that the argument of the Muslims in India was “international and not national” as communal groups were nations in themselves.
When Iqbal called for a consolidated Muslim state, which would be centralised in a specific territory, namely the North-West of India, let us not forget that he argued for a “Muslim India within India”.
Perhaps, what makes Iqbal’s rhetoric even more powerful was that his political proposal was adjoined and fitted neatly into his theory of the universal Muslim millat.
The consolidation of the Muslim state was a stepping stone towards the unification of the world Islamic community, as Islam was a “peoples building force” and again not just an “ideal”.
A consolidated state for Islam was an “opportunity to rid itself from the stamp of Arab imperialism” and instead to revamp its “law, culture, education and to bring them in closer context with the spirit of modern times”.
Also read: Independence, not partition
There is nothing orthodox about Iqbal and he never called for a Pakistan as a partitioned Muslim state in his December 1930 presidential address to the All-India Muslim League – an address that is recalled as the first stepping stone towards a separate homeland justified in our school histories through isolated statements of sovereign marked territory.
Instead, we need to read Iqbal’s statements closely on that day, and uphold him as a Muslim nationalist of the time, whose political proposals called for harmony between Western democracy and Islamic nationalism through an overarching concept of Islam as a cultural force within India.
It is ironic that answering a question about who spelt out the idea of Pakistan in school histories has become something of a joke because the kind of separatism Iqbal had been spelling out actually never had its desired effect on Indian Muslims.
The question put up to the Pakistan studies student about the 1930 address should not be filtered through an already present Pakistan in mind. Rather, points of study during the 1930s should flesh out how Muslim proposals projected their visions for syncretic power between religiously marked categories of “majorities” and “minorities” in a British free India.
“In the world of Islam today, we have a universal polity whose fundamentals are believed to have been revealed, but whose structure … stands today in need of renewed power by fresh adjustments. I do not know what will be the final fate of the national idea in the world of Islam,” said Iqbal.
- Pirzada, Syed Shariffuddin, Foundations of Pakistan: All-India Muslim League Documents (1906-1947) Volume 2, (National Publishing House, 1970).
- R.J. Moore, ‘Jinnah and the Pakistan Demand,’ Modern Asian Studies, XVII, 4, (1983): pp. 529-546.
- Naim, C.M, Iqbal, Jinnah, and Pakistan: The Vision of Reality, (New York, 1979).