THE birth of the All-India Muslim League on Dec 31, 1906 in Dhaka was the result of the biggest consensus ever achieved in Muslim history. It brought together diverse sects of Muslims under one banner.Twenty years earlier, Muslims of the subcontinent had set their goal to be “a real nation” rather than “a nation only in a name”. That goal was achieved. The League in turn offered a new goal — to win separate electorate for the Muslims of British India. Since Muslims were a minority, their newly realised nationhood could only be preserved if they were represented as an organic unity in the legislatures.
The idea had been originally presented by Syed Mahmood, the son of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, in 1896. This became the stated goal of the League, which described itself as the means through which it was going to be achieved. However, membership of the assemblies at that time was through nomination. General elections based on adult franchise had not yet been introduced in the subcontinent (this was not conceded until 1919). Hence a new ideal emerged automatically. It was 'Think long term'.
This did not mean that all details ought to be laid out in advance. Perhaps it was realised that since people have souls, hearts and minds, any consensus reached at any time could well be overridden by a future generation who could not be bound by decisions taken in the past.
Therefore, the commitment was not to any particular ideology but to the collective good of society, as also ordained by Islam. A generation should pick up a goal that everybody considers most important for conserving common ideals at that time. Temporal matters should be readjusted accordingly but it must be remembered that tomorrow would be another day. The future always exists as an open possibility, as God has ordained.
This approach can be best illustrated through a statement of Muhammad Ali Jauhar about the birth of the Muslim League itself. Jauhar said (ironically while presiding over an annual session of Congress), “In obedience, as it were, to a law of nature, once more after nearly 30 years of the foundation of the college, there came into being a political institution of Muslims.”
Curiously enough, the college mentioned was the MAO College, Aligarh, whose founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had advised his followers to stay away from politics. From the perspective of a western academic, it would appear as if either Sir Syed was not farsighted enough to foresee that his community was going to need a political institution very soon, or that his followers left his path when they founded this political institution. Yet, not only in this statement but on every other occasion, Jauhar insisted that Syed was the pioneer of Muslim political activity.
In other words, our identity is not defined by our ideas but by our ideals, goals and the means we leave behind for achieving those goals. In terms of specific ideas, Jauhar and the group of leaders represented by him were the apparent antithesis of Sir Syed's thought but in terms of ideals and goals they continued the initiative started by him. Sikhaya tha tumhin ne hum ko yeh shore-o-shaghab sara/ Jo is ki inteha hum hain to is ki ibtida tum ho
Hence Jauhar addressed Syed ecstatically in a famous poem, (“You taught us this rabble rousing/ If we are the height of it, you were its genesis”).
It seems that the demand for separate electorate fired the imagination of the Muslim public in such a manner that the ideal 'Think long term' sank into people's hearts. The tendency of seeing beyond the immediate environment also seemed to increase as the demand for separate electorate gained momentum. This could be judged from the way Muslims responded to the affairs of the Muslim people in far-off places like the Balkans, Tripoli and Gallipoli.
After Congress conceded separate electorate by signing the Lucknow Pact in 1916, Muslims went to the extent of joining them in the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s. They even went ahead to boycott the 1922 election at the behest of Indian nationalists, although direct voting had been introduced for the first time on that occasion and the voting was to be done through separate electorates. Bolen amman Muhammad Ali ki/ Jaan beta khilafat pe dey do .
'Think long term' was pursued because Muslims were part of a bigger picture, and that picture was alive and breathing. This much was understood instinctively by a Muslim — especially the unschooled, whose consciousness was less tainted by foreign ideas. It was an ideal that was epitomised and conveyed, not less effectively than through the poetry of Iqbal and the heart-to-heart journalism of Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Zafar Ali Khan; by even a ballad written by a little-known poet and sung in the streets in the days of the Khilafat Movement, ” (“Says the mother of Muhammad Ali/ Son, lay down your life for the caliphate”); again, it was 'Think long term' at work because you were part of a bigger picture.
Thus, pursuing the ideal of long-term thinking, Muslims again achieved their new goal. Election 1926 witnessed a historic turnout. The non-cooperation movement was long over. The people thronged to the polling stations to cast their votes under separate electorates. It was time to agree on the next ideal and set a new goal.
The writer is the author of Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006), and other works on the history and culture of Pakistan.