JUST three days after Pakistan observes March 23 as the Pakistan Day to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the Lahore Resolution in 1940, Bangladesh observes March 26 as its own Independence Day. The proximity of these two historic dates — March 23 and 26 — highlights the contrasting contexts through which the two countries that once together represented a single entity view them.
In 2021 there is special celebration because it marks the 50th year of that country’s independence. It was on that day in 1971, when General Yahya Khan, who was the president and the commander-in-chief of Pakistan Army at the time, committed the second catastrophic error of that year by launching Operation Searchlight.
The aim of the operation was to crush the non-violent but also violent civil disobedience movement of the Awami League that had begun on March 1 in response to the first catastrophic blunder by the same general; the last-minute postponement of the first session of the newly-elected National Assembly set for March 3.
That first error was compounded by the failure to specify a fresh date. This came five days later and set March 25 for the session. By then, however, trust had been totally shattered.
In practical terms, reality comes before theory, for a theory seeks to ‘explain’ what already exists. Like gravity which existed long before it was formulated into a theory, the two-nation status in pre-partition India was a fact of life long before it underwent theorisation.
For the record, the same General Yahya Khan took three wise, progressive actions in 1970. Two of them directly benefitted Bengali East Pakistanis. The first was the decision to hold elections on the basis of one-adult-one-vote. This would accurately reflect the fact that the majority of the country’s population lives in East Pakistan, a fact not previously electorally recognised. The second action was the conduct of the elections themselves in December 1970 on a free and fair basis which alone enabled the massive victory for the Awami League. The third positive action was the abolition of One Unit in West Pakistan and the restoration of the four provinces in what at the time was West Pakistan.
The first of the two dates, March 23, is a landmark in the continuing evolution of Muslim nationalism in South Asia and the struggle for a new nation-state in Muslim-majority regions, East and West. The Lahore Resolution was formally introduced by Fazlul Haq, a veteran leader of Bengal. The second date, March 26, is when the descent into disintegration began of the nation-state established on August 14, 1947. This occurred nine months later on December 16, 1971. That change was enforced only because India’s armed forces — hugely outnumbering the under-resourced Pakistani forces — blatantly violated the territorial sovereignty of East Pakistan on November 21, 1971.
Yet, despite that surgical separation, there remains a binding umbilical cord between the two parts that were previously together for over 24 years. That chord is the basic thematic synergy between the two dates. They have become enduring milestones to mark the predominantly Muslim national identities of both Pakistan and Bangladesh. Though there are multiple definitions of what constitutes a ‘nation’, there is also unanimity that nations certainly exist.
Even before the violent conflict of nine months, Bengali East Pakistanis had justifiably felt they were the victims of discrimination by West Pakistanis. Though significant development took place in East Pakistan after independence, the quantum was not enough to make up in only 24 years for the long neglect of Bengal for about 200 years — first by the British East India Company and then by the British government itself.
REJECTION OF STATE, NOT MUSLIM IDENTITY: On March 26 and December 16, 1971, East Pakistan rejected the state structure of the original edifice of Pakistan. However, by becoming Bangladesh, the people of what once used to be East Bengal reaffirmed with passion their abiding belief in the Two-Nation Reality; that Muslims and Hindus are two distinct, separate nations. Neither in 1971 nor today in 2021 does Bangladesh want to reunite itself with Hindu West Bengal. Nor does it want to be absorbed into India. The pride the people of Bangladesh feel about being Muslims is fully evident in Article 2A of their Constitution. While aptly recognising the equal respect owed to other religions, Article 2A begins with the categorical statement: “The state religion of the Republic is Islam …”
By dictionary-definition, a theory is a “supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something …” In practical terms, reality comes before theory. Because a theory seeks to ‘explain’ what already exists. Gravity, for instance, existed long before Newton formulated the theory.
Muslims of South Asia — notwithstanding their numerous internal diversities of languages and ethnicities — were long possessed of a sense of being a nation, coexisting with a broad Hindu nation — with its own vast internal diversities — in the same region.
HISTORIC ORIGINS: The evolution of the Two-Nation Reality has been taking place in two major dimensions and phases. The first dimension is territorial and pre-Muslim. It began about 7,000 years ago with Mehergarh in Balochistan preceding Moenjodaro in Sindh by about 2,000 years as part of the Indus Valley civilisation, which gave way to the ascent of Buddhism as seen in Taxila and Swat. Except for about 700 years (Mauryan BC — Turko-Mughal-British ) the areas that now constitute Pakistan were autonomous, locally-ruled or mostly dominated by forces from West and Central Asia.
The second phase commenced about 1,300 years ago. It added a new religious Muslim dimension to the territorial, ancestral, cultural heritages already there, later blending with mass migration from the east of the Indus post-1947. The advent came with the first Muslims moving into South Asia in the 7th and 8th centuries, be they newly-converted Arab Muslim traders setting foot on the Kerala coast of south-west Asia or, a few decades later, Muhammad Bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh. As early as the 11th century, the sharp contrasts between Muslims and Hindus in the region were noted by the formidable Persian scholar-traveller, Abu Rayhan Al Biruni, who visited South Asia in 1017 and then wrote a classical treatise. Numerosity grew through migration from Central and West Asia, permanent settlements, peaceful conversions of indigenous people by Sufi saints, transient conquests, long-term control, and minority Muslim rule over a Hindu majority. With the end of the Mughal dynasty in 1857, there began a new critical phase of about 90 years.
The masterful historian, the late K.K. Aziz — who is far less acknowledged in popular discourse than his exhaustive research and outspoken analysis deserve — maps the evolution of the second phase of the Reality and Theory with 170 stages between 1857 and 1940 in his great study: A History of The Idea of Pakistan. The first stage is on June 24, 1858, when John Bright, a Member of the House of Commons in London, proposed that “five or six large presidencies with complete autonomy, ultimately becoming independent states” should form the British response to 1857.
How prescient. Yet, as pointed out in a previous essay by this writer ‘Saving the Quaid; Dawn; Dec 25, 2020], the British government strongly opposed the creation of an independent Pakistan throughout the first six years of the 1940s.
K.K. Aziz continues to trace the path to Pakistan by naming several individuals, organisations and events that advanced the passage. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan helped empower Muslims through education. Ironically, vital contributions obliging Muslims to think of themselves as a separate nation were made by the emergence of exclusivist Hindu forums in the second half of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century. These included the Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and others.
IQBAL, REHMAT ALI, JINNAH: In his presidential address at the Muslim League’s annual session in Allahabad in December 1930, Allama Iqbal stated: “I would like to see the Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Sindh and Balochistan amalgamated into a single state. (Writer’s note: by ‘state’ he meant ‘province’). Self-government within the British empire or without the British empire the formation of a consolidated North West Indian Muslim state appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims at least of North West of India.”
Therefore, credit is rightly attributed to him for being so specific about the Muslim aspirations for autonomy on a regional basis. But there was a notable lack of clarity and consistency. For instance, about 10 months later in a rejoinder-letter published in The Times, London, on October 12, 1931, to correct a misinterpretation of his Allahabad address, Allama Iqbal wrote: “I do not put forward a demand for a Muslim State, outside the British empire, but only a guess at a possible outcome in the dim future of the mighty forces now shaping the destiny of the … subcontinent. No Indian Muslim with any pretence to sanity contemplates a Muslim state or series of states in North West India outside the British Commonwealth of nations as a plan of practical practice.” Nevertheless, Allama Iqbal continued to emphasise the need for a special status of the Muslim community.
THE NAME AND THE RATIONALE: It was Chaudhri Rehmat Ali’s invention of the word ‘Pakistan’ and his absolutist focus on a new sovereign entity by that name which makes him the first individual to set down in explicit terms the definitive foundation for the Reality and Theory. His rationale for Pakistan reflected persuasive lucidity. Even a brief excerpt from Now or Never, the pamphlet he wrote and published in 1933, is pungently correct and eloquent:
“India, constituted as it is at the present time, is not the name of one single country; nor the home of one single nation. It is, in fact, the designation of a state created for the first time in history, by the British. It includes peoples who have never previously formed part of India at any period of its history; but who have, on the other hand, from the dawn of history till the advent of the British possessed and retained distinct nationalities of their own.
“In the five Northern Provinces of India, out of a total population of about forty millions, we, the Muslims, constitute about thirty millions. Our religion, culture, history, tradition, economic system, laws of inheritance, succession and marriage are basically and fundamentally different from those of the people living in the rest of India. The ideals which move our thirty million brethren in-faith living in these Provinces to make the highest sacrifices are fundamentally different from those which inspire the Hindus. These differences are not confined to the broad basic principles – far from it. They extend to the minutest details of our lives. We do not inter-dine; we do not inter-marry. Our national customs and calendars, even our diet and dress, are different”.
Like a superb athlete charged to run — and win — the last lap in a relay race, the supreme credit for transforming the Reality and Theory into the solid form of a new nation-state goes to Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah alone.
THE QUAID’S OPEN-MINDEDNESS: It is relevant to remember that, as demonstrated by the Quaid, the Reality and Theory were accommodative and flexible — up to a point. As late as in the second half of 1946, the Muslim League accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan. This formula called for a single, confederal-type state inclusive of Muslim-majority units with the option to reconsider continued association, or secession after 10 years. Nehru and Patel sabotaged the Plan after having initially agreed. This left the Quaid with no choice but to revert to the demand for an independent, sovereign Pakistan.
Yet the Quaid remained open even to radical new options. In May 1947, when Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy proposed a sovereign, united Bengal, Mr. Jinnah fully endorsed the concept. The Congress rejected the proposal because it did not want the Hindu minority of West Bengal to be ruled by an overall Muslim majority.
The Reality and Theory are sometimes misrepresented by detractors as a vision based on hatred of Hindus. At not a single point in their contributions to the process did Allama Iqbal, Chaudhri Rehmat Ali or Muhammad Ali Jinnah ever express hatred. Nor did they stoke xenophobia against Hindus or Sikhs or the followers of other faiths. They simply stressed the stark difference of identity markers between the two communities — to show that Muslims were far too numerous and separate from Hindus in fundamental ways to allow their future to be determined on the simple ‘majority’ principle of democracy. Because, to accept that principle would mean that Muslims could never hope to shape the policies, conditions and environment in which they live — as Hindus would always be in the majority.
The worsening condition of Muslims in India since 1857 under the British rule and post-Independence in 1947 under the Hindu-dominated Congress rule became increasingly visible. So obvious was the discrimination that the Sarkar Committee appointed during Congress rule in the 1990s concluded that the majority of Indian Muslims were in a more depressed condition than even the ‘untouchable’ Dalits. The slide has become faster after 2014 with the takeover of the Indian state by the fascist, extremist Hindu-majority forces of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP and RSS.
OPPOSED TO PARTITION: So inclusive and pluralist is the Two-Nation Reality and Theory that even in May 1947, just three months before independence, Mr. Jinnah strongly and urgently requested British Prime Minister Clement Atlee to reject the partition of Punjab and Bengal that was being urged by the Congress and Viceroy Mountbatten. The Quaid wanted large numbers of non-Muslims — Hindus and Sikhs — to remain in their ancestral homes and become citizens of the new state of Pakistan without facing sudden displacement and insecurity. His speech of August 11, 1947, unequivocally projected the synergestic dimension of the philosophy of Pakistan.
The Two-Nation Reality is cognisant of hard facts not oblivious to them. The larger scale of Muslim nationalism respects the loyalty of Muslims resident in the different states of South Asia to their respective countries. This is a harmony between two levels of identity. There is no contradiction in the coexistence of fealty to a particular state of which Muslims are citizens and, on the level of personal religious belief, their adherence to Islam, or their pride in their own local ancestries of tribes, clans, communities, dialects, traditions etc.
From two states to three states: From the Two-Nation-Two-State stage of evolution reached in 1947, the Reality moved to a new Two-Nation-Three-State stage in 1971 because South Asian religion-based Muslim nationalism had always encompassed streams of region-based identity. One such form is Bengali Muslim nationalism as in Bangladesh, Pakistani Muslim nationalism as in Pakistan, Indian Muslim nationalism as in India. The first of these is ethnically and linguistically homogenous. The second and third are ethnically and linguistically diverse. Muslims in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are also conscious of their exclusive Muslim identities distinct from their fellow non-Muslim citizens.
On certain occasions, the religious affinity may transcend national borders. There are both positive and negative aspects to this linkage. Pakistani Muslims will travel across the border to pay respects at the shrines of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi and Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty in Ajmer. Indian Hindus have travelled to pay homage to the historic temple in Hingol, Balochistan, and in Sadhubela, Sukkur. But when extremists in India attack Muslims in India, or when extremists in Pakistan attack temples in Pakistan, then the solidarity and sympathy crosses territorial frontiers. Governments protest that such expressions of sympathy violate principles of non-interference in internal affairs. The dilemma continues.
Like the South Asian region, there are other regions in which national identities shaped by religious faith — or vice versa — have also featured simultaneous affinities with other levels of identity. For instance, in Europe. At one end of its Western, off-shore extreme, Northern Ireland is the scene where violent conflict raged for decades in the 20th century due to conflicts between Catholic and Protestant sects — with loyalties divided between predominantly Protestant United Kingdom and the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland.
At the other extreme in south-eastern Europe, the bloodshed that erupted in the early 1990s with the disintegration of Yugoslavia into Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo prominently reflected the conflict between adherence to faith and citizenship-loyalty to old or new state entities.
CONCLUSION: As it has done over the past 1,300 years, the Two-Nation Reality will continue to evolve in the eras to come. Humanity’s willingness to accept new forms of mass organisation will be a determinative factor. But in its own parameters, the Reality will hopefully move from its first stage of concretisation — the formation of two major Muslim nation-states in South Asia and others in which Muslim nations reside in large or in small numbers — to the next stages of progress. After the acceptance of the first of 3Ds, the ‘Distinctiveness’ of Muslims, the Reality will address the challenges of the second ‘D’, which is equitable ‘Development’, an advancement that will erode disparities of gender, income, race, faith and political power. Perhaps this will take several decades. Perhaps less. The effort is well worth making – to approach the third ‘D’, a ‘Destiny’ that fulfils the aspirations of the Muslims of South Asia. The next phase will be subject to multiple factors; some within the control of states, some not so. March 23. March 26. They may be markers of convergence or divergence, buy what they represent for sure is remarkable endurance.
The writer is an author of, among other books, ‘Pakistan: Unique Origins; Unique Destiny?’