Young Fogeys: The Anachronism of New Scholarship on Pakistan

Is the kind of history written by young scholars like Venkat Dhulipala going to be reduced to waging old wars with equally ageing analytical equipment?

dhulipala cover

Venkat Dhulipala
Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India
Cambridge, 2015, 530pp.

Venkat Dhulipala’s book reads like a long love-letter to the Pakistani-American historian Ayesha Jalal. Like any traditional lover, Dhulipala accuses his beloved of betrayal. So he suggests Jalal’s argument about Jinnah using the demand for Pakistan as a “bargaining counter”, to arrive at a one-state solution that Congress rejected, is disingenuous at best. Yet like all such lovers Dhulipala remains faithful to his beloved, since he is unable to break free of her spell, and can only affirm what she denies or deny what she affirms. Indeed given the fact Jalal’s book no longer commands the field – for which the work of scholars like Farzana Shaikh or Christophe Jaffrelot stands as proof – Dhulipala’s interest in her appears obsessional. How else are we to account for the fact that he spends 500 pages arguing against a thesis put forward some 30 years ago? Is this a testament to Jalal’s seductive power, the poverty of Pakistani historiography or Dhulipala’s own lack of imagination?

Dhulipala’s book wears a curiously dated aspect, rehearsing as it does debates going back much further than Ayesha Jalal’s book, to the 1930s, as if to fight their battles all over again. We see this kind of thing happening on social media all the time, where quarrels about the “Aryan Invasion” or “Muslim Intolerance” are endlessly replayed, but don’t expect them to become the subject of an academic tome. Is it because Indian history writing, in the wake of Subaltern Studies, has returned to the status quo-ante, in which national, imperial and Marxist histories square off against each other? For whatever else may be said about it, Subaltern Studies had criticised all three of these historiographical traditions, though they seem to have survived it and are even enjoying a revival today. It need not be said that Creating a New Medina belongs in the camp of national or rather Congress history, and its frankly partisan character (where Muslim Leaguers are invariably described as speaking “piously” or “smugly” while Congressmen do so “sagely”) is indeed its most attractive feature.

Pakistan imagined

It is refreshing to see an author abandon the kind of mealy-mouthed narrative in which all characters end up looking equally good or bad, to make a set of strong historical arguments. But how strong are they? It is difficult to see Dhulipala’s criticism of Ayesha Jalal, with whose thesis I also disagree, as anything more than a travesty of her argument. For the “bargaining counter” theory not only pre-dates Jalal’s book, having been a favorite explanation of Jinnah’s politics among his enemies in the Congress, it is not even one she argues. Instead Jalal claims that Jinnah’s politics was defined by the effort to come to an arrangement with Congress on the communal question that included partition as one among a number of options, and indeed she ends her study by describing how he attempted to reach such an agreement even after Pakistan’s creation. Now I think the question of responsibility for partition a dull and legalistic one, not least because it reduces the history of political ideas to one of tactics, but if Dhulipala is so invested in disproving Jalal’s argument he should at least get it right.

It seems as if Dhulipala has been seduced by a formulaic summary of Jalal’s book, the kind that students often memorise to pass exams. Perhaps not accidentally, his own book is largely made up of such summaries, which are strung together to demonstrate its argument more by dint of repetition than analysis. In the ceaseless repetition of what can only be described as scoring points about the Muslim League’s desire to pose India a military threat or hold Hindu and Sikh minorities as “hostages”, Dhulipala again appears to adopt the style of polemics on social media, where endless “proofs” of varying quality are adduced to deliver one’s opponent a knockout blow. Yet despite marshalling all this evidence, he refuses to discuss the most important demonstration Ayesha Jalal provides for her argument – Jinnah’s willingness to give up his demand for Pakistan on the very eve of partition – during the Cabinet Mission talks of 1946. And while Congress was no doubt right in rejecting this offer, in view of the weak state it would have created, Jinnah’s climb-down does enough harm to Dhulipala’s thesis to merit more than the two asides he devotes to it.

Dhulipala’s argument is itself both simple and familiar, that Pakistan was fulsomely and from the very beginning imagined as a religious state with a Pan-Islamic mission. He ridicules the idea that it was, in Salman Rushdie’s memorable phrase, “insufficiently imagined”, and assumes that no historian before him was aware of the many ways in which Muslims “imagined” the country that would be created in their name. But surely the point is not that such an imagination existed, as, after all, did its “Hindu” equivalent, even at the heart of the Congress in Gandhi’s “Ram Raj”. What was insufficient about the way Pakistan was imagined, rather, was that having been created less than a decade after it was proposed, the country lacked a tradition of sustained constitutional debate and institutional practice, to say nothing of the cultural shaping of a citizen-subject. In other words the varied and luxuriant visions of an Islamic utopia Dhulipala points to derive from the absence of a strong national imagination, if that word is used to mean something more than a literary narrative—as in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Ronald Inden’s Imagining India or Sudipta Kaviraj’s The Imaginary Institution of India.

It is precisely because the “ideological” way of imagining a new society possessed so little juridical precedent or political context that Pakistan proved so difficult to mould into a nation-state.

Now to say that Pakistan was “insufficiently imagined” as a nation-state is not to claim, as Dhulipala seems to think, that it was unintended or lacked a positive character. Indeed I have argued in my own book on Muslim nationalism that for a number of historical reasons, it took an ambiguous if not contradictory form by founding a state outside the legitimising vocabulary of blood and soil, history and geography, to focus on ideas alone. And it was precisely because this “ideological” way of imagining a new society possessed so little juridical precedent or political context, that it proved so difficult to mould into a nation-state. Dhulipala, however, is not concerned with the novelty of this political vision – and in fact thinks it to be neither very original nor even political – but instead nothing more than old-fashioned religion, which, in an equally archaic notion, he imagines as filling the masses with “enthusiasm” (p. 354). He might as well have said “fanaticism”, for which enthusiasm was, after all, once a synonym, since Dhulipala considers Islam to be an irrational element that, in explaining the paradox of Muslims in UP acting against their own interests in voting for Pakistan, actually explains nothing.

Equating Muslim nationalism and Islam

The Islam that Dhulipala writes about is a stereotype, as when he describes the madah-e sahaba conflict between Shias and Sunnis in 1939 Lucknow as an example of the behaviour to be expected from the “two warring sects of Islam” (p. 117). The fact that this conflict was unprecedented and had a context-specific history and politics, as Justin Jones has demonstrated in his book Shia Islam in Colonial India: Religion, Community and Sectarianism, is of no consequence. But his focus on old-time religion also means that Dhulipala sees Muslim divines as its only representatives. At no point does he consider the fact that so many of the Muslim League’s leaders and propagandists were products of a reformed or modernist Islam, like that retailed by the Aligarh Movement, and that it was this version of the religion that defined the party’s Islamic vocabulary – to the degree of subordinating clerics and Sufis to it. This is certainly true of the way in which they used the term “Islam” to name a “complete way of life” that not coincidentally dovetailed with modern-day and totalitarian ideologies, as Marcus Daechsel has argued in The Politics of Self-Expression: The Urdu Middle-Class Milieu in Mid-Twentieth Century India and Pakistan.

Dhulipala is happy to compare the League’s ideology with Nazism but instead of taking its ideas seriously, he insists on giving them a purely religious weight – and so effectively depoliticises the Pakistan movement. This focus on the religious dimension of Muslim nationalism, of course, had been characteristic of Congress secularism’s efforts to delegitimise its rivals—while Hindu nationalism to its credit always recognised the Muslim League as its political enemy. But despite stressing the importance of the ulema and their brand of Islam, Dhulipala is unable to make a convincing case for the Muslim League subscribing to it, apart from telling us that Jinnah prayed in public once or twice – but then so did the Congress’s Hindu leaders. His chief example of a Muslim Leaguer who imagined Pakistan as an “Islamic state”, is the Raja of Mahmudabad, a Shia aristocrat who we are told was deeply troubled by the future of his sect in a Sunni-dominated country. This is not very convincing support for the ulema whose importance Dhulipala extols.

From Left to Right: Nawab Ismail Khan (President U.P. Muslim League), Syed Hussain Imam, Raja of Mahmudabad, Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, M. A. Jinnah, Saadullah Khan (behind Jinnah), M. A. H. Ispahani, and Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, 1942 Credit: National Archives of Pakistan, Islamabad

From Left to Right: Nawab Ismail Khan (President U.P. Muslim League), Syed Hussain Imam,
Raja of Mahmudabad, Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, M. A. Jinnah, Saadullah Khan (behind
Jinnah), M. A. H. Ispahani, and Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, 1942
Credit: National Archives of Pakistan, Islamabad

Even by his own evidence, Dhulipala’s Muslim divines seem to have been more interested in circumscribing the role of the post-colonial state, whether Indian or Pakistani, than in creating an Islamic one. Thus Ashraf Ali Thanvi, one of the League’s most important clerical supporters, is described as bewailing the participation of his fellows in politics, which he thinks the Congress encouraged (pp. 113-14). Part of a tradition that includes Gandhi – whose ardent followers many of India’s ulema and even Islamists like Maudoodi had once been – these men were interested not in the state so much as a self-regulating society, which they would of course shepherd. It was the Muslim League’s leaders who were concerned with the state as a political entity. As for the Pan-Islamic vision of Pakistan as a successor to the Ottoman Empire, Dhulipala only thinks this idea a peculiarly religious one because he is unable to imagine an intellectual and political context outside India, trapped as he is in a dead debate about who or what was responsible for its partition. For Pan-Islamism, as Cemil Aydin has shown in The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought, was intimately linked to “secular” movements around the world.

Muslim nationalism in India was part of a much larger enterprise, and addressed, in particular, what was widely considered to be the crisis of the nation-state in the 1930s.

Muslim nationalism emerged from a set of debates about the possibility of democratising imperial politics that had become commonplace at the end of the 19th century, and famously included men like Gandhi within their ranks. These ideas had taken on a new, internationalist character after the First World War, and especially with the founding of the League of Nations. In addition to the League and the Pan-movements, such an internationalist politics included both British imperialism, conceived of as a future commonwealth, and Soviet communism with its Internationals. Whether Pan-Islamic or not, then, Muslim nationalism in India was part of a much larger enterprise, and addressed, in particular, what was widely considered to be the crisis of the nation-state in the 1930s. Fearing as they did the nation-state’s majoritarian politics, minorities in India and Europe tried to imagine non- or even anti-national political futures for themselves in imperial, international and other ways. Gary Wilder, in Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World, has recently written about the way in which such a project continued into the 1950s and ‘60s in the politics of Pan-Africanism and negritude. Rather than being peculiar, this was a political vision with great salience globally, and one that continues to play a role in the world today.

Waging an old war

While Dhulipala is not above suggesting that historians like Ayesha Jalal are disingenuous in their use of sources, if not entirely ignorant of them, his own narrative is full of such evasions. Correctly describing Ambedkar as the great theorist and critic of Pakistan, for instance, Dhulipala offers us one of his extended summaries of the Dalit leader’s book, Thoughts on Pakistan, which serves as an example of his mode of analysis. By having the text “speak for itself” he can report without comment those passages in which Ambedkar deploys the repertoire of colonial scholarship to paint Muslims as a religious and military threat to Hindus, whose exclusion from India can only be welcomed. Instead of accounting for such hyperbolic statements by locating them within Ambedkar’s political rhetoric, where they are arguably meant to frighten upper castes into turning to Dalits for support, Dhulipala merely declares them to be Ambedkar’s “own beliefs” (p. 135). How, then, are we to account for his good relations with Jinnah, whose statement, that Ambedkar wanted Dalits to replace Muslims as the favored subjects of quotas in a partitioned India, is passed over in silence? Or the support Ambedkar enjoyed from the Muslim League before and after his book was published? Dhulipala doesn’t mention this, just as he doesn’t tell us, when describing with horror the “Day of Deliverance” Jinnah declared to celebrate Congress’s resignation of government in 1939, that both Ambedkar and Savarkar joined in the festivities.

In the time-tested way of old-fashioned national history, Dhulipala’s book depoliticises Muslim nationalism by making it out to be a religious phenomenon at the popular level. Of course Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory manages to do the same for Gandhi’s first movement of Non-Cooperation, but without suggesting that Congress and its leaders were therefore depoliticised or in thrall to Hindu “enthusiasm”. The author of Creating a New Medina separates the Muslim League from all other parties and politics in India, as indeed the world, to stand alone as the unique but still inexplicable villain of the story of partition, which has now surely become one of the most boring subjects in Indian historical writing. Having myself written a book severely critical of the idea of Pakistan, I am not caviling at Dhulipala’s political allegiances, but find his argument to be anachronistic in its subject and scope, and therefore singularly unproductive intellectually. Is the kind of history written by young scholars like Dhulipala going to be reduced to waging old wars with equally ageing analytical equipment? Or maybe it is only in the intellectually impoverished field of Pakistani history that a book like this can be published.

Faisal Devji teaches South Asian History at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and is author of Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea