For a common destiny

15 Oct 2010


THE election of 1926 was the first occasion when India’s Muslim masses voted in large numbers according to the rule of separate electorates for Muslims and non-Muslims.

However, in the assemblies that were inaugurated the following year as a result of this election, no single party had emerged as a clear leader of the entire Indian Muslim community.

It seemed as if there was no new collective ideal to achieve, no commonly agreed goal anymore, and hence no means for a collective Muslim effort. This, however, did not last very long. In 1928, Congress demanded through its Nehru Report that separate electorates be abolished. Apparently, it was impossible for an Indian nationalist to understand what a separate electorate meant to Muslims.

Unity of matter and spirit as a philosophical concept may be incomprehensible by ordinary persons but the activities of the organised Aligarh movement and its offshoots in the preceding 60 years had been sufficient for showing even the most unschooled Muslim how literature, politics, religion and education were interconnected as far as the Muslim community of the region and their destiny were concerned.

The concession of separate electorates by the colonial rulers was a recognition of the Muslim community’s effort to formalise this unity of ideals and reality for their distinct identity as a nation. Hence when the Nehru Report questioned the separate electorates in 1928, Muslim leaders, who disagreed on everything else, suddenly agreed to disagree with the Hindu majority on this issue.

Against this backdrop, Allama Iqbal, who was also a successful candidate in the election of 1926, presided over the annual session of the All-India Muslim League held in Allahabad on Dec 30-31 1930. There, he proposed a new goal. It was “a consolidated northwest Indian Muslim state”, which appeared to him to be “the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of the northwest India.”

Thus Pakistan as a Muslim homeland became the next goal to be achieved (and Iqbal left open the possibility of it being “within the British Empire, or without the British Empire”). Separate electorates then became the tool through which the new goal, Pakistan, was to be achieved.

The ideal to be pursued whilst in quest for a new Muslim homeland was ‘selflessness’, which Iqbal had been preaching since 1906. It was embodied beautifully in his verses that had become proverbial to at least two successive generations, such as the famous line from a 1912 poem, “An individual is sustained by its bonding with the nation and is nothing on one’s own, just as the wave exists in the river and is nothing on its own” (fard qayem rabt-i-millat say hai tanha kuchh nahin…).

As explained in his lectures and longer poems, selflessness or bekhudi was an experience through which an individual could annihilate his or her individual ego (khudi) and arrive at the next level, which was a nation’s or a people’s collective ego, thus giving the transformed khudi a positive meaning.

Iqbal’s emphasis on nurturing a collective khudi did not mean that one should cease to have personal opinions and renounce the freedom of thought and expression. Selflessness was not an act of the mind but an act of love, the heart. It could only be induced through highly entertaining literature (as Iqbal did in his own times) and could never be imposed through laws (in fact laws that excessively suppress individual freedoms are hindrances, since they curtail selflessness by enhancing mistrust).

The election of 1926 based on separate electorates had thus culminated in presenting a highly egotistical picture of the Indian Muslim community, and hence Iqbal’s ideal of transcending egotism was timely. “Things in India are not what they appear to be,” he said in the Allahabad address. “The meaning of this, however, will dawn upon you only when you have achieved a real collective ego to look at them.”

Selflessness, or the maxim of ‘rise above yourself’, became the new ideal as the demand for Pakistan gained momentum under the leadership of the Quaid, ‘the great leader’, whom his followers came to see as the incarnation of their ideal in flesh and blood.

How the new state came into being is a story that belongs to political history but what ought to be noted here is that the goal was achieved through the election of 1945-46 when an overwhelming majority of Muslims voted for the Muslim League and thus Pakistan, especially in the provinces where they were in a minority and were not going to be included in the proposed state.

Pakistan could not have come into being without their support but voting for Pakistan meant invoking the almost inevitable wrath of the future rulers of India. They voted, and they paid the price with their blood and tears. The recorded history of the human race may not offer another instance when such a large number of people made a common decision that required such a passionately high degree of selflessness.

Iqbal had said in the Allahabad address: “Rise above sectional interests and private ambitions, and learn to determine the value of your individual and collective action, however directed at material ends, in the light of the ideal which you are supposed to represent.” His words could not have been followed more diligently by the Muslim masses of India.

The writer is the author of Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography and other works on the history and culture of Pakistan.