We start, though one never should, with an alternative universe: imagine if Gandhi didn’t really want freedom for India. Go further afield: imagine if Churchill didn’t want to win the war. Or if that avatar of modern evil, Adolf Hitler, was lukewarm about racial supremacy.
Now imagine if all of the above was conventional wisdom in real life. It doesn’t work, because it’s just not true — we have endless data that tells us otherwise, as well as the express words and deeds of these men, bent on doing the exact opposite.
Yet that same sense of obviousness isn’t always extended to Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Mountains of evidence are ignored, dozens of speeches forgotten, alternate universes imagined out of thin air.
But some universes merit deflating more than others — like the one where Jinnah never wanted Pakistan or Partition; where he never wanted, right to the end, a separate country at all.
Per this version, Jinnah was a poker player, with Pakistan no more than a bargaining chip — all he really wanted was a better deal for everyone in an undivided India. As explained by historian Ayesha Jalal, “Jinnah was from a province where Muslims were in a minority. He wanted to use the power of the areas where the Muslims were a majority, to create a shield of protection for where they were in a minority.”
Jalal’s theory is that the Pakistan demand was a bluff; a mere play for India as a loose federation. “The Lahore resolution should therefore be seen as a bargaining counter,” she writes, “which had the merit of being acceptable (on the face of it) to the majority-province Muslims, and of being totally unacceptable to the Congress and in the last resort to the British also. This in turn provided the best insurance that the League would not be given what it now apparently was asking for, but which Jinnah in fact did not really want.”
In sum, Jinnah didn’t want what he was saying he wanted, and wasn’t trying to do what he ended up doing. He was fighting for the rights of Muslims across India, and sought to leverage the strength of Muslim-majority areas into a kinder place for the overall minority. A string of perfect accidents later, Pakistan was born.
This idea caters to many constituencies — it strokes the conceit that Pakistan was an amputation of Mother India; it appeals to locals who believe separation a bad business from the beginning; and it denies Jinnah any responsibility for Partition.
Yet all the facts point elsewhere. It’s of course true that Jinnah desired a united India as a young man, before changing his mind. But the idea that he was secretly holding out for a better, tamer deal right up until separation is neither rich enough nor coherent enough to explain the creation of a country.
Nor is it novel: far from the daring new revisionism it’s made out to be, the theory that Pakistan was a botched trump card is very much an old British take, first muttered by the viceroy and his lieutenants after the Lahore Resolution. Thus, just a week after Jinnah made his bid for a separate state on March 23, 1940, British officials riled themselves up into an echo chamber of their own.
In his telegram to the viceroy, the chief secretary of the United Provinces huffed that the Pakistan plan was “merely put forward as a counter-demand to that of the Congress as a bargaining move.” The governor of Bombay piled on, “The best that any Muslim has said about it is that Jinnah cannot mean it and is only using it as a bargaining weapon.”
The viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, wrote back to London on 6 April with the same conclusion as his peers, “I am myself disposed to regard Jinnah’s partition scheme as very largely in the nature of bargaining … my impression is that … there is a good deal of feeling that it is bargaining in character.”
That Linlithgow’s arguments are the same as Jalal’s is unsurprising, given how much her work relies on colonial archives. “[T]he bargaining counter theory was a favourite one with British officials,” writes Indian historian Mushirul Hasan. “In fact, one is constrained to suggest that Ayesha Jalal has probably borrowed the idea from, among other sources, the British documents at the India Office Library.”
But the context should have been considered — that these were the private papers of men that had put down Jinnah as a dangerous gambler, and who felt the sun would never set on the Raj. Described by Nehru as “heavy of body and slow of mind, solid as a rock and with almost a rock’s lack of awareness,” Linlithgow thought India wouldn’t win its freedom for another fifty years, and that thanks to the wonders of air-conditioning, it was now possible for millions of Britons to settle in places like Dehra Dun.
That same sense of permanence coloured his views. “The Hindus have made the mistake of taking Jinnah seriously about Pakistan,” wrote Linlithgow, “and as a result they have given substance to a shadow.’ This was rehashed by pro-Congress papers like the Hindustan Times, caricaturing Jinnah as a lone warrior against the world.
Yet beyond the biases of British bureaucrats, long proven incorrect, the Pakistan-as-poker-chip theory fails to find much material in its support. If Jalal’s work represents any orthodoxy, it is that of empire — the Raj trying to shrug off Pakistan as ‘bargaining in character.’
After all, when was that bargaining ever in play? As Indian critics would later shake their heads, Jinnah never once changed his mind, never once backpedalled, never once bargained away the basic point in all future negotiations — that unless the parties agreed to Pakistan in principle, there could be no further talks.
Even contemporaries like the Dalit genius B.R. Ambedkar dismissed such theories as “wishful thinking” as early as 1940. “The Mussalmans are devoted to Pakistan and are determined to have nothing else,” he wrote. The Raj wasn’t so discerning; it refused to accept Lahore for what it was — the final curtain on a united India.
How highly Jinnah himself thought of this bargaining chip theory is apparent in speech after speech. “The Hindus must give up their dream of a Hindu Raj and agree to divide India into a Hindu homeland and Muslim homeland,” he said on September 21, 1940. “Today we are prepared to take only one-fourth of India and leave three-fourths to them. Pakistan was our goal today, for which the Muslims of India will live for and, if necessary, die for. It is not a counter for bargaining.”
Some months later, he warned his party again, “It would be a great mistake to be carried away by Congress propaganda that the Pakistan demand was put forward as a counter for bargaining.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, he told the Muslim Students Federation in Lahore on March 2, 1941, almost a year after the resolution, “The only solution for the Muslims of India … is that India should be partitioned so that both communities can develop freely and fully according to their own genius … the vital contest in which we are engaged is not only for material gain, but also for the very existence of the soul of the Muslim nation. Hence I have said often that it is a matter of life and death to the Mussalmans and is not a counter for bargaining.”
When another year went by, Jinnah was asked at a press conference on September 13 whether there was still room to compromise. “If you start by asking for sixteen annas, there is room for bargaining,” he replied, “… Hindu India has got three-fourths of India in its pocket and it is Hindu India which is bargaining to see if it can get the remaining one-fourth for itself and diddle us out of it.”
Year after year, Jinnah was making the same point all the way to independence — that division was necessary, and to say he was bargaining for anything else was plain wrong.
His landmark presidential address to the Muslim League in Delhi, on April 24, 1943, put such arguments to rest for good. To the question Jalal would also raise, about the Muslims that would be stuck in India even after division, he was as clear as day:
Do not forget the minority provinces. It is they who have spread the light when there was darkness in the majority provinces. It is they who were the spearheads that the Congress wanted to crush with their overwhelming majority in the Muslim minority provinces. It is they who had suffered for you in the majority provinces, for your sake, for your benefit and for your advantage. But never mind, it is all in the role of a minority to suffer. We of the minority have suffered and are ready to face any consequences if we can liberate the 75 millions of our brethren in the north-western and eastern zones.
As Jinnah saw it, Pakistan meant the greatest good for the greatest number. To liberate the majority, the minority provinces would have to suffer. Yet his opinion, stark as it was, remained unchanged — to achieve Pakistan, they were ready to face the consequences.
Though the minority Muslims were “the pioneers and first soldiers of Pakistan”, Jinnah would say elsewhere, “we are determined that, whatever happens to us, we are not going to allow our brethren to be vassalised by the Hindu majority.”
As for the second plank of Jalal’s argument — that the Quaid’s real goal was a loose federation, with protections for the overall minority — Jinnah dismissed the idea in the same speech:
We are opposed to any scheme, nor can we agree to any proposal, which has for its basis any conception or idea of a central government – federal or confederal – for it is bound to lead in the long run to the emasculation of the entire Muslim nation, economically, socially, educationally, culturally, and politically and to the establishment of the Hindu majority raj in this subcontinent.
Therefore, remove from your mind any idea of some form of such loose federation. There is no such thing as a loose federation. Where there is a central government and provincial governments they will go on tightening, tightening and tightening until you are pulverised with regard to your powers as units.
Jinnah knew this to be true years before Indian-occupied Kashmir was turned into an open prison — the idea of a loose federation would be of no help to the Muslims, who would soon be overpowered by the logic of a brute majority.
The Ismail letters
Having seen how glaring the record is over the years, we now turn to the material favouring the other side — that is to say, the idea that Pakistan was a cunning card trick.
In her book The Sole Spokesman, Jalal’s key piece of evidence is a letter from 1941 — Jinnah’s reply to a Nawab Ismail of Patna (not to be confused with the more prominent Muslim leader, Nawab Ismail Khan of Meerut). Ismail had been pestering Jinnah for weeks to send him some notes on the Pakistan demand, so that he could prep for his meeting with H.V. Hodson, the viceroy’s adviser.
Hodson was an old-school imperialist, in the middle of writing a rather dense report on the communal problem. He’d once dubbed Jinnah “a conceited person, afraid that events may lose him the power that he craves,” and that the Muslim League was “first and foremost communal, and can never be anything else.”
The report, when it did come out, was as damp about the Pakistan demand. “The most interesting point was that every Muslim Leaguer, with but one exception, interpreted Pakistan as consistent with a confederation of India,” wrote Hodson.
Hence his conclusion: “My impression was that among the Muslim Leaguers in the provinces visited there was no genuine enthusiasm for Pakistan.” Instead, the Raj needed a new vocabulary, “one which recognises that the problem is one of sharing power rather [than of] qualifying the terms on which power is exercised by a majority.”
Here were again the same bad takes, recycled from one Raj paper-pusher to another. But all that would come later — in the run-up to the report, Nawab Ismail was in a tizzy. He was excited to see Hodson (as was usual when the landed gentry met their imperial overlords), and again asked the Quaid for instructions.
Jinnah responded to Ismail that the Lahore resolution was their guide, and refused to say more. To read Ayesha Jalal, however, that reply may have been the smoking gun:
As [Jinnah] told Nawab Ismail in November 1941, he could not openly and forcibly come out with these truths “because it is likely to be misunderstood especially at present”. In a line which reveals more than a thousand pages of research and propaganda, Jinnah admitted: “I think Mr Hodson finally understands as to what our demand is.”
To sum up, since Hodson was busy pooh-poohing the idea of Pakistan, and insisting that the real problem had to do with sharing power, Jinnah’s nod to the man — that Hodson finally understood their demand — was proof that the Quaid felt the same way.
But that’s quite the reach, especially if one were to read his actual letter to Ismail. With winter setting in, Jinnah had fallen ill and taken to his bed. His reply of November 25, 1941, was cold and curt, and is set out here in full:
For starters, Jinnah had said that Hodson “fully understands” the demand, a degree less dramatic than the mistype of “finally understands” — more a passing comment than some grand admission.
At any rate, the need for such detective work disappears when one goes through his papers from that time. In late 1941, Jinnah was copying out parts of his Lahore speech to magazines: “The only course open to us all is to allow the major nations separate homelands by dividing India into autonomous national States,” he had said. (He had also sent a League paper to Linlithgow a while before, calling for the “division of the India and the creation of independent Muslim states.”)
In yet another recent letter, to a Jam who had similar apprehensions as Ismail, Jinnah had again pointed to the Lahore resolution. “You will observe from this that it does not contemplate any form of central government or legislature,” Jinnah wrote on March 21, 1941, “and has for its basic principle that Muslim zones in the northwest and the east, while being vested with full responsible government, will continue in direct relationship with the British parliament as the Indian states, and the scheme will provide for the assumption, finally, by the respective regions of all powers…”
To anyone interested, Jinnah’s outbox was making as clear a case for total separation as possible. The same was true of his public messaging — just months after Jinnah’s letter to Ismail, his working committee’s resolution of April 11, 1942, spelled it out again, “So far as the Muslim League is concerned, it has finally decided that the only solution of India’s constitutional problem is the partition of India into independent zones.”
There’s also the fact that Jinnah hadn’t even read Hodson’s report — what to say of agreeing with his views — because it didn’t exist at the time; the Quaid had written to Ismail in November, when Hodson was still conducting his interviews. Even otherwise, Hodson’s eventual report may have sniggered at Pakistan as a project, but it never once doubted the Quaid’s motives.
There’s also an interesting postscript — the fact that Hodson himself would come around to the contrary. As a middling Raj official, he’d played it safe, reporting to his superiors what they were used to hearing. In retirement, however, he could afford to be more relaxed. In his own account of Partition titled The Great Divide, written over a quarter-century later, he saw the Lahore resolution for what it always was: “contiguous Muslim-majority regions were … to become fully sovereign States.” A confederal India, per Hodson, “was neither the two-nation theory nor the true idea of Pakistan.”
And that is where the matter of Henry Vincent Hodson, and Ismail’s letters to the Quaid, must rest.
Cabinet Mission finale
There’s a final climax to the poker chip theory, and it happened in the summer of 1946. Even as the Raj was getting ready to bolt for the door, it made one last effort to keep India together. Charged with the impossible were three of the empire’s old boys, each with names more elaborate than the last — A.V. Alexander, Stafford Cripps, and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. They were dubbed the Cabinet Mission, a reference to the Attlee government’s hope that India could still remain whole.
So it was that the mission made their way south, if with issues of their own. (“Summer in New Delhi is not the best time and place for negotiations,” sniffed the posh Cripps.) They arrived in India, ironically enough, on March 23, and brought the natives to the table.
Long story short, the mission’s grand plan was a three-tiered wedding cake of a country — provinces at the bottom, federations in the middle, and then a union with limited powers on top. The idea was that India would stay intact, while the middle layer — smaller sub-countries of Hindus and Muslims — would enjoy total autonomy.
These would be the three federations, or groups, as the mission called them, roughly consisting of the areas that would later become Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. There was also an escape hatch — if the fear of Hindu domination hadn’t died down by then, the Muslim groups were free to secede after 10 years. Much to the shock of the mission, Jinnah accepted the plan.
But Nehru didn’t. “When India is free, India will do just what it likes,” he said at a Congress meeting on July 7. “We are not bound by a single thing.” He doubled down at a press conference the next day: “It is our problem,” he said of the minorities, “… We accept no outside interference in it, certainly not the British government’s interference in it.”
Nehru’s bombshell had the intended effect — Jinnah broke out of the plan at once, while Congress leader Abul Kalam Azad called it “one of those unfortunate events which changed the course of history … [Nehru] is at times apt to be carried away by his feelings.”
The mission failed, and would be mourned by Partition’s critics forevermore: “Arguably,” wrote one Indian scholar, “Jinnah, with his liberal, free market, pro-Western policies, would have been a far more successful Prime Minister for us than Nehru, with his socialist controls and his pro-Soviet brand of non-alignment.”
But counterfactuals are a risky business, and are best not indulged too much. We turn instead to the most popular take on the Cabinet Mission: that it was the last hurrah for a united India, as well as the final proof of the poker chip theory — since Jinnah had assented to the union, we’re told, this was clearly what he’d always wanted, not Pakistan. It was Nehru and the Congress that were to blame for Partition. Had they not behaved so badly and wiggled out of the deal, India could have come out of all this in one piece.
That, too, isn’t borne out by the facts. It’s true that Nehru did everything he could to make a mess of the plan (though Gandhi’s role as a spoiler is underrated). But to hold Nehru’s surliness, over a single summer in 1946, as one of the reasons for Partition, is to miss the forest for the trees.
First, the plan itself was some badly-drawn bureaucratese. Per one observer, “[Jinnah] sought nothing less than 50 per cent parity for 33 per cent of the populace, and a confederation of states with a weak centre. Such a heterogeneous super-state would have been unworkable in South Asia, and has never been operational in history.”
Second, the mission gave the League just about everything it wanted — parity with a far larger population (what Sardar Patel called “national suicide” for the Hindus), a button to secede, and the prospect of an undivided Punjab and Bengal to tear along with it; Jinnah had been dead set against their division, and would rue the day when they were cut in two.
Third, the poker chip theory finds no support here either — the Muslim League had always dubbed the plan a stepping stone to total separation; the text of its acceptance is grounded in “the establishment of a complete, sovereign Pakistan.” Seated before the mission’s bemused members in April, Jinnah told them that his starting point was “a Hindustan and Pakistan, each one of them a completely sovereign State.”
He was just as blunt to his party members; at a session of the Muslim League council on 5 June, he likened the mission plan to a ship, “we can work on the two decks, provincial and group, and blow up the topmast.” Having suffered the Congress regime of the 1930s, Jinnah knew just how important it was not to leave the ship deck open to his rivals.
Fourth, his plans to “blow up the topmast” went beyond mere lip-service. When the League finally did join India’s interim government that same year, Jinnah’s finance minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, moved to tax the industrial barons backing Congress, and frustrate the centre in any way he could. The implications of League control, especially over Punjab and Bengal, began dawning on Nehru with even greater force.
Fifth, the Muslim movement had already proven with its votes — in the election of 1946 — that it was Pakistan or bust, with the leadership actively working toward secession. Throw in Nehru, with his need for a strong centre, and the odds that a viable coalition could have emerged had already been blown to smithereens. Hence, ultimately, the mission’s return to London.
To lament that it all could have worked out, had Attlee’s boys succeeded, is to be looking at it backwards. The Cabinet Mission came to Delhi with a single goal — keeping India intact. By that metric, failure was only a matter of time; Nehru just sped up what Jinnah would have ensured.
A promised land?
Seventy-five years in, how we’ve dealt with the founding father is rather shoddy. This is quite aside from the facts of Pakistan itself – where generals win war after war against elected governments, where politicians think the country is an internship for their unemployable children, where judges bolt the doors to the assembly in less than a few paragraphs, and where civil servants are as redundant as their fax machines.
Amid so much waste, the least that could be done was to remain faithful to the founder’s memory. Instead, one school of thought puts him down as a bluff expert who got swept up in the tide; a premise that contradicts almost everything he said or did in the last decade of his life.
But there’s also the other school, Pak Studies lite, that’s equally rooted in unreality: that Pakistan was a successor state to the glorious Islamic lands of the past, populated by foreign races near and far: from the frozen steppes to the desert sands. And Jinnah was just one of many deliverers, as were Qasim, Ghori, and Babur.
That theory may be even less fair to the Quaid — Pakistan was the dream of Muslim modernists, against the backdrop of colonial rule and a world war. It was powered by messy mass politics, and brought to life by Jinnah. As noted by Penderel Moon, a British civil servant long critical of the Raj:
There is, I believe, no historical parallel for a single individual effecting such a political revolution; and his achievement is a striking refutation of the theory that in the making of history the individual is of little or no significance. It was Mr Jinnah who created Pakistan and undoubtedly made history.
And it is in that history where the story of Pakistan truly begins — the Arab invasion of Sindh no more foretold the republic than the Ghaznavids that defeated the Arabs, than the Ghorids that set up the sultanate, than the Mughals that defeated the sultans. As far as today’s Pakistan is concerned, those were a thousand battles that settled nothing.
Nor was Islam imposed on India battle by battle. Had the old Muslim kings wished to spread the faith, their seats of power, from Delhi to Mysore, would have had far larger Muslim populations. That their fellow believers were instead concentrated along India’s flanks — today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh — points to a more gradual process; one that hews toward the persuasive powers of Sufi saints, as well as hopes of a better life that came with converting.
Most important, though these rulers are painted as just and generous now, they rarely touched the lives of the natives that had actually embraced Islam. Over two-thirds of the imperial services under the Mughals were manned by foreign-born Muslims. The ruling class “did not merge with the local converts, rarely recruited them to higher posts, refused to marry into them, and generally looked down on them,” wrote the Pakistani historian K.K. Aziz. “… At the end of five hundred years of continuous Muslim rule, only a minimal number of local Muslims had managed to climb high on the ladder of preferment.”
Put another way, the old kings lived in an age that had yet to conceive even the outer limits of an idea like Pakistan. It thus wasn’t the sultans, or their Mughal successors, that presaged it. That honour belongs to the growing number of Muslims on the ground — the ones their kings were indifferent to, and had little hand in converting anyway. By the time Pakistan was formed, those converts had mushroomed into the largest body of Muslims in the entire world, and had greater claim on the country’s creation than any medieval sultan ever had.
Jinnah’s own view of the Muslim experience was as holistic. “The Mussalmans came to India as conquerors, traders, preachers, and teachers,” he said while marking Eid in 1942. “… Today, the hundred millions of Mussalmans of India represent the largest compact body of Muslim population in any single part of the world.”
He persisted with this bottom-up view of the Pakistan idea, centring it not on the first conqueror, but the first convert. Dawn reports from a speech he gave at Aligarh Muslim University in 1944:
Tracing the history of the beginning of Islam in India, [Mr Jinnah] proved that Pakistan started the moment the first non-Muslim was converted to Islam in India, long before the Muslims established their rule. As soon as a Hindu embraced Islam, he was outcast not only religiously but also socially, culturally, and economically … Throughout the ages, Hindus had remained Hindus and Muslims had remained Muslims, and they had not merged their entities — that was the basis for Pakistan. In a gathering of high European and American officials, he was asked as to who was the author of Pakistan. Mr Jinnah’s reply was “Every Mussalman.”
Two years later, Jinnah told the Cabinet Mission trio “that he readily admitted that 70 per cent of Muslims were converts from Hindus. A large body were converted before any Muslim conqueror arrived.”
As for the old kings, Jinnah had little patience for their lessons. When Westminster’s Leo Amery revealed he was studying the reign of Akbar, Jinnah mocked him at length, “The British government in India, too, is constituted like Akbar’s government. Akbar had Hindu ministers and Muslim ministers. Akbar knew he had to rule over both. He was eminently concerned with his own autocratic rule, and that was no rule at all.”
He would also disdain advice offered by foes as different as Lord Mountbatten and C. Rajagopalachari — that he emulate Akbar, Aurangzeb, and other Muslim icons. “These great men might have differed from one another in many respects,” said Rajagopalachari, “but they agreed in looking upon this precious land and this great nation as one and essentially indivisible.”
“Yes,” Jinnah replied, “naturally, they did so as conquerors and parental rulers. Is this the kind of government Mr Rajagopalachari does still envisage? And did the Hindus of those days willingly accept the rule of the “great men”? I may or may not be suffering from a diseased mentality, but the statement of Mr. Rajagopalachari … indicates that in him there is no mind left at all.”
Each time he was confronted with the kings of the past, Jinnah centred the Muslim in the street. In a rapidly changing India, yesterday’s rulers were no longer the yardstick; in some cases, like Akbar’s, they were self-serving autocrats.
Besides, it was the absence of Muslim kings, rather than their long-ago presence, that was in play. At the Muslim League’s inaugural session in Dhaka, its first chairman, Viqar-ul-Mulk, had said, “Woe betide the time when we become the subjects of our neighbours, and answer them for the sins, real and imaginary, of Aurangzeb, who lived and died two centuries ago, and other Mussalman conquerors and rulers who went before him.”
That Mulk’s words marked the birth of the party that created Pakistan was no coincidence — it was rooted in anxiety for the future, of an India where the locus of power had shifted dramatically from a Muslim elite to a Hindu majority. While most native Muslims fell in neither category, they could now be expected to answer to the Hindus for the sins of the past (one in which they’d been dressed up as temple-sacking jackals by British authors).
Hence, also, Jinnah’s own evolution. Though easy to forget now, India’s pre-eminent young nationalist in the 1910s wasn’t Gandhi; it was Jinnah, the apostle of unity. By injecting religion into the freedom movement, Gandhi stole the stage and rooted it in religious tropes — satya, ahimsa, dharma, and the majoritarian flood that came with it. Jinnah’s calls for sanity were shouted down by a populist beast he could no longer recognise. After much heartbreak, public and private, he realised there was no way out but a separate state.
And who better than the reformed Hodson to explain that voyage of discovery: “One thing is certain. It was not for any venal motive that he changed. He could be bought by no one, and for no price … He was a steadfast idealist as well as a man of scrupulous honour. The fact to be explained is that in middle life he supplanted one ideal by another, and having embraced it, clung to it with a fanatic’s grasp to the end of his days.”
This also ties in with one of the most popular myths about the Quaid, if from the other end of the spectrum — that India was an ageless union where Hindus and Muslims made merry together, until the British divided them, incited them, and abandoned them. The imperial hand, in cahoots with Muslim collaborators like Jinnah, tore the union asunder.
The same line would be rehashed by liberal nostalgics, even onscreen. “My passport is Pakistani, my roots are in India,” says a teary-eyed grandmother in the superhero series Ms Marvel. “And in between all of this, there is a border … marked with blood and pain. People are claiming their identity based on an idea some old Englishmen had when they were fleeing the country.”
That myth, too, falls away fast. It’s true that the British enjoyed demonising the Muslim rulers they had torn down and replaced. And it’s also true that colonial power in India rested on the art of divide and rule. (“Strict supervision, and play them off against the other,” goes one of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories. “That is the secret of our government.”)
But tensions between Hindus and Muslims weren’t the Raj’s main means of control by the nineteenth century — if only because that risked exploding far larger religious blocs. The Raj preferred safer subdivisions, ever more fragmented along ethnic, linguistic, and political lines. Per leftist historian Perry Anderson:
For the British, the ideal arrangement was rather to be found in Punjab, the apple of the imperial eye: interconfessional unity around a strong regional identity, loyal to the Raj, against which neither Congress nor Muslim League made any headway in the interwar years. During the Second World War, when Congress came out against participation in the conflict, the League was favoured. But once the war was over, Britain sought to preserve the unity of the subcontinent as its historic creation, and when it could not, tilted towards Congress far more decisively than it ever had to the League. Popular conceptions in India blaming the creation of Pakistan on a British plot are legends.
When it came down to it, most British mandarins did everything they could to keep India in one piece — the ultimate drivers of the split were “indigenous, not imperial.”
To then argue that Pakistan was the result of butchering Mother India is equally faulty: as per the Quaid, no such realm even existed before the British showed up. “India of modern conception, with its so-called geographical unity, is entirely the creation of the British,” Jinnah would say, “… whose ultimate sanction is the sword.”
Indian nationalists rebut this with an ancient pedigree; of a Hindustan as old as the hills. But one can cut Jinnah some slack, seeing as India’s varied Hindu populations had never formed a subcontinental state of such dimensions. Jinnah put it more plainly, “When did the Hindus rule India last and what part of it? It is a historical fact that for nearly one thousand years, the Hindus have not ruled any part of India worth mentioning.”
The same can be said for coexistence — as wrong as the trope of the foreign Muslim oppressor was the rival fantasy that all was peace and love between the faiths at the local level. While hard to admit, the Hindu-Muslim problem was in evidence well before the colonisers wrote tall tales about it, and well before Jinnah arrived at the same, unmistakable conclusion.
That the subcontinent was becoming the theatre of two major, incompatible faiths finds mention over the course of a millennium. For the celebrated Persian polymath al-Biruni, writing in 1030, the real-life interaction between the two was like fire and ice. “First,” al-Biruni said of the Hindus, “they differ from us in everything which other nations have in common.”
… Secondly, they totally differ from us in religion, as we believe in nothing in which they believe, and vice versa … They … forbid having any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them, because thereby, they think, they would be polluted.
… In the third place, in all manners and usages they differ from us to such a degree as to frighten their children with us, with our dress, and our ways and customs, and as to declare us to be devil’s breed, and our doings as the very opposite of all that is good and proper.
Well before the predations of the East India Company, before Hindu sectarians like the Arya Samaj, before Muslim reactionaries boiled over with resentment, the idea of a single Indian nation — unreal at any time before 1947 — was being rebutted by the lived experience of two communities with two very different confessions.
That such deep legacies of conflict could be wished away as British intrigues or, alternatively, as Jinnah’s bargaining counters, in a secular paradise that had never once existed, soothed those denying the logic of Partition — that is, until they became willing parties to the same outcome.
In any event, the poker chip school spends most of its time on Delhi’s parlour games, and none at all on the groundswell in the distance — the ideologues of UP, the progressives of Dhaka, the vanguard of Sindh, the rebel scouts of Gilgit, and millions more. In short, it ignores the men and women who gave their heart and soul over to the idea of Pakistan.
Most importantly, it does a disservice to that movement’s core. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s last years were so consumed by his pursuit of a new nation-state, he destroyed his lungs and lost his life. Seventy-five years later, it is unjust to continue attributing this country to a sleight of hand, rather than his supreme will.
Header illustration: PakistanZindabad/ Shutterstock.com