The Pakistan Jinnah would have wanted

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Over the decades so much has been written and discussed about exactly what sort of a country the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, envisioned. One of the reasons why this debate is still raging is because its founder passed away just a year after the country’s inception in 1947.

In the decades that followed Jinnah’s demise, numerous theories and claims have been aired by historians, intellectuals, politicians and dictators about what Jinnah wanted Pakistan to evolve into.

One side has insisted that he wanted a progressive Muslim-majority state where the state would devise and then infuse into the society a modern, democratic spirit of Muslim nationalism, but where matters of faith and the state would be kept separate.

The other side suggests that though the founder was largely ‘Westernised’ in habit, he eventually grew into a leader who strived for a separate Muslim country which could then be evolved through legislation into becoming an ‘Islamic state’.

The study of the meeting minutes of Pakistan’s first cabinet, and the ethnic and religious makeup of its members can help us to understand what Jinnah envisioned for the country

Both sides liberally dig out and air assorted quotes attributed to Jinnah in this regard. And the truth is, apart from certain sayings of the founder which have been clearly concocted, many quotes do strengthen the arguments of both sides! This is the other reason why this debate has continued to mushroom without reaching any consensual conclusion.

Nevertheless, the response to the question, ‘what kind of a Pakistan Jinnah was envisioning’, may more convincingly be found well outside complex intellectual debates on the issue and certainly, away from the awkward agitprop battles which, too, continue to rage between the two point of views.

For example, an answer can be extracted by simply studying the make-up and mindset of the country’s first ever federal cabinet. In her book, The Federal Cabinet of Pakistan, professor of history, Naumana Kiran Imran, provides the names of the men who constituted Pakistan’s first federal cabinet.

More interestingly, she uses the archived minutes of meetings of this cabinet to explain what these men were discussing during the very first days of the country.

She informs that Section 17 of Pakistan’s interim Constitution, which was framed and adopted by the country’s first Constituent Assembly, gave the powers of appointing the cabinet to Pakistan’s governor-general, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Thus, the country’s first cabinet (headed by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan) was entirely picked and constituted by Jinnah.

Formed on Aug 15, 1947, the cabinet initially had eight ministers. Names of two of these ministers stand out in the much polarised Pakistan of today: Zafarullah Khan (minister of foreign affairs & commonwealth relations), and Jogendra Nath Mandal (minister of law).

Khan was a member of the Ahmadiyya community which, 27 years later in 1974, and on the demands of the religious parties, was outlawed as a Muslim sect by the populist regime of Z.A. Bhutto.

A highly respected diplomat, Khan has been an often-discussed man by Pakistani historians, not only because he was from the Ahmadiyya community, but also because he was one of Jinnah’s closest colleagues.

In the early 1940s, when Jinnah was trying to form a broad-based collation to bolster the fortunes of the All India Muslim League (AIML), he was asked by some of his potential non-AIML allies to declare the Ahmadis as non-Muslim.

In May 1944, during a press conference in Kashmir, Jinnah said to the gathered pressmen, “who am I to call a person non-Muslim who calls himself a Muslim …”

It is now a well-documented fact that Jinnah insisted on Khan becoming the country’s first foreign minister.

The case of the other stand-out minister in the first cabinet has, however, largely been forgotten. Mandal was a Hindu from Bengal. He belonged to the scheduled caste of Hindus in India and had joined Jinnah’s AIML believing that in Pakistan, his caste would be able to flourish more than they would in an India dominated by higher caste Hindus.

Mandal became a member of the AIML in 1943 and mustered support for the party among East Bengal’s scheduled castes in the important 1945 general, and then the 1946 provincial elections in India.

On Aug 11, 1947, when Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly chose Jinnah as governor-general of the new country, Jinnah asked Mandal to preside over the assembly’s inaugural session.

Renowned scholar, Ayesha Jalal, and historian, Dr Mubarak Ali, have both maintained that Jinnah did this to physically manifest a portion of the speech which he (Jinnah) delivered in that session, and in which he declared: “ … you will find that in course of time [in Pakistan] Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims; not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Mandal was gradually isolated after Jinnah’s demise in 1948, and in 1950 he wrote a long letter of resignation to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. In it he bemoaned that Jinnah’s vision was being undermined by the politicians and bureaucrats, and that the scheduled caste Hindus who had followed his (Mandal’s) lead to become Pakistanis were not being treated any better than they were in India. Mandal migrated to India in 1950 and died there in 1968.

So what was the country’s first federal cabinet discussing? Prof. Imran, in her book, sifts through the minutes of the cabinet meetings to inform that much was discussed about the importance of giving the governor-general (Jinnah) extraordinary powers; but also set “the ideal of developing Pakistan as a democracy based on the British model”.

Economics, too, was an important subject in the meetings and ideas were discussed to provide Pakistan a sustainable economy through the creation of industry, banks and economic boards. It was, however, well understood by the cabinet that Pakistan was an agrarian economy.

In an October 1947 meeting, cabinet members decided that Pakistan was “not bound for explanations to any other country” regarding its response to Indian accusations (regarding Kashmir). In fact, the Kashmir issue was frequently discussed by the cabinet.

Prof. Imran’s interpretation of these cabinet meetings suggests that the cabinet saw Jinnah as a benevolent figurehead who needed to be sufficiently empowered as the final decision maker.

However, cabinet members also saw Jinnah as a man who had conceived a country built on Muslim nationalism, but one that was to be driven by a pluralistic code of governance and statehood with all of its ethnicities and religious groups made part of the nation-building process.

Ironically, Prof. Imran also mentions that even the very first cabinet had divisions. There was tension between a “Punjabi group” and a “Bengal group”.

The study of the minutes of the meetings of the first cabinet, and the ethnic and religious nature of its members, can be an effective tool to understand exactly what was on the minds of the founders of Pakistan right after the country’s creation.

It can provide an interesting glimpse into the initial contradictions, as well as the nobility of purpose, behind the men who were the first to try making sense of a unique nationalistic emergence in South Asia called Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 22nd, 2016


Why Bigots, from the Sangh Parivar to Pakistan, All Hate Akbar

The composite nationalism, or muttahida qaumiyat, articulated during the anti-colonial struggle represents the organic growth of the cultural moorings and desires of the people of India, unlike political Hindutva and its Islamic counterpart, ‘Pakistan ideology’.


Shaina N.C., the articulate BJP spokesperson, made an important contribution to the national cause earlier this month when she helpfully reminded us that no country celebrates the memory of its oppressors. “Akbar Road should be renamed to Maharana Pratap Marg,” she tweeted. “Imagine Hitler Road in Israel! No country honours its oppressors like we do!!” A similar demand for renaming the road has also been made by General V.K. Singh, minister of state for overseas Indian affairs.

Though urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu was quick to curb her enthusiasm, the fact remains that Shaina’s view of Akbar accurately reflects the Sangh parivar’s wider view of history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has himself referred to “1200 saal ki ghulami“, or the ‘slavery of 1200 years’ – rather than the 200 years of British colonialism most Indians speak of – a period that covers Akbar, the Mughals and every Muslim ruler India ever had.

Can’t stop at Akbar

It is just as well that Naidu chose not to invite another bruising debate at this time for there is no telling how deep the renaming exercise will eventually have to run. Apart from oppressors, the list of collaborators is a long one and surely they cannot be honoured either. Imagine an Israeli road named after Himmler, an Eichmann or even Hjalmar Schacht – individuals without whom the oppressive and genocidal machinery of the Third Reich would not have functioned so efficiently. So why should Akbar’s lieutenants be allowed to adorn street names in Delhi? Mansingh Road would immediately have to be renamed since it was he who actually defeated our hero on behalf of our oppressor, and whose descendants continued to serve the oppressors till the end. Today, we have an entire city, Jaipur, named after Mansingh’s descendant – Sawai Jai Singh. Ideally, Jaipur must become Shivajipur or perhaps Maharana Pratap Nagar. The Rajasthan unit of the BJP will no doubt break into celebration at this righting of a historical wrong.

Akbar wrestles with Raja Man Singh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We also have Tansen Marg and Todarmal Lane (again in the heart of the city – how many unhealthy arteries this poor heart has to suffer?) and of course, Birbal Road, slightly off the heart. These treasonous Hindus are popularly recognised as the most valuable gems – part of the navaratna – of that Hitler-like oppressor, Akbar. Todarmal was born into an Agrawal family and was not only a financial genius, but also a great warrior.  He evolved a scientific system of land measurement and a sensitive, and hence effective, system of revenue assessment. So what? In fact, this Agrawal vaishya collaborated with another enemy figure, Sher Shah Suri, before Akbar picked him up.  Presumably, all the Agrawals supporting the BJP will burst fire crackers at this erasure of one of their illustrious ancestors. As for the road named after Tansen, it could be suitably renamed, perhaps in consultation with a great artist like Gajendra Chauhan.

Abdur Rahim Khanikhana was another of  Akbar’s navratnas. In the popular imagination, this particular jewel of the ‘oppressor’, Rahim, true to his name, is remembered as an incomparably generous benefactor of the poor, and helper of the needy, and a very humble soul.  How anti-national our people and their memories can be, remembering a close ally of our oppressor in such a way, someone like Shaina N.C. or V.K. Singh will surely say.  Not only that, he also composed poems in Brajbhasha; his dohas are considered epitomes of brevity and wisdom, and form part of the syllabus of Hindi literature today. In the Hindi literary traditions, Rahim is also believed to be a friend and admirer of our own Goswami Tulsidas. Quite naturally, the admiration was mutual but the proud inheritors of Tulsidas will not want to repeat his mistakes. Not only must his tomb go from the Nizamuddin area of Delhi, we will one day be told, but his compositions too must be erased from the syllabus and literature of the Hindi language.

This is where the great ideas of worthies like Shaina N.C. and V. K. Singh will logically take us. But, these ideas themselves are far from just the outpourings of individuals totally innocent of any sense of history. They are the articulation of a certain kind of idea of India, a certain kind of nationalism. The contents and the concerns of this variety of nationalism will become clearer if we read what Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani had to say about Akbar. This Maulana was one of the leading ulema vigorously campaigning for Pakistan in the fifth decade of the last century. After partition, he was acclaimed as Pakistan’s Shaikh ul Islam. While campaigning in favour of his demand, he projected Pakistan as the first Islamic state in history that would attempt to reconstruct the utopia created by the prophet in Medina. The Maulana quite unambiguously identified Akbar as the enemy of Islam and the Islamic state.

Akbar’s real crime

Akbar’s idea of Din-i-Ilahi, and his distancing himself from “pure” Islam in his own personal life as well as in matters of state had infuriated many in his lifetime. And according to Usmani in the mid-20th century, Akbar’s ideas and practices were the forerunners of the idea of muttahida qaumiyat i.e. composite nationalism of India. And, hence, not surprisingly, just like BJP spokesperson Shaina N.C.,  he saw Akbar as a villain. To Shaina, Akbar is our Hitler; to the Maulana, Gandhism was a latter day form of Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi, and both needed to be eliminated by jihad. Addressing a gathering in Lahore, Usmani reminded his audience that it was from this city that Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi had launched a jihad against Akbar’s muttahida qaumiyat and Din-i-Ilahi. He went on, “it is possible this in his ( Sirhindi’s) revelations there may be a pointer in this direction that when in the future, muttahida qaumiyat in another form arises, when Din-i-Ilahi in the form of Gandhism comes to the fore, it will be Lahore from where the voice for breaking these new idols would issue forth, spread and flourish” (Quoted in Venkat Dhulipala, Creating A New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, Cambridge University Press, 2015).

The idea of nation as a multi-religious or multi-ethnic ‘imagined community’ is essentially an idea born of modernity. Akbar’s ideas and practices reflected the political imagination of India’s own early modernity. He was not only the most powerful ruler in the world in his times, but also had the distinction of ruling over a vast majority of the followers of a religion other than his own. He not only did rule, but tried to theorise his practices in the form of sulh-i-kul and Din-i-Ilahi. He was a visionary not only of statecraft but also in cultural and social life. Composite nationalism or muttahida qaumiyat, which so angers Usmani and his intellectual descendants of all hues, is an idea born out of India’s colonial modernity which tried with some success and some failure to incorporate elements from the early, or what I prefer to call, vernacular modernity of India.

In Akbar’s practices, we find not just one articulation of this early Indian modernity, there are others as well – in philosophy, in the Dharmashastras (matters of law, secular and sacred) and in literature. This period is marked by the emergence of the philosophical idea of the individual and consequent interrogation of given social and religious practices. This interrogation is most evocatively contained in the poetic compositions of Kabir, Tukaram, Narsi Mehta, Shankar Dev, Chaitanya, Vemmanna, Mirabai and others. The composite nationalism articulated during the anti-colonial struggle represents the organic growth of the cultural moorings and desires of the people of India, unlike political Hindutva and its Islamic counterpart, ‘Pakistan ideology’. Hence, it would be surprising if fascistic fantasies of both varieties did not propagate hatred for Akbar.

From composite to graded nationality

It is due to the inherent plurality of Indian life and the carefully articulated space of multi-vocality in this life, that we as a tradition are quite used to living with paradoxes. We have been honouring people with differing viewpoints and contesting social roles. This traditional quality was reiterated by the early, vernacular modernity of India and was made into the foundation of the political idea of India by the intellectuals and leaders in the course of the anti-colonial struggle over the 19th and 20th centuries.

But, now we have entered the 21st century. Modernity is not only suspect, it is also held to be the main culprit for society’s problems. Now, the composite community that diverse people imagined for themselves is sought to be replaced with a ‘culturally authentic’ identity of the self.  What we have been witnessing for some time in our politics these days is a well-designed and well-rehearsed attempt to replace the idea of composite nationality by a graded notion of nationality. Hindus subscribing to political Hindutva, are at the top of this gradation. Others have to earn the qualification by submitting to the dictates of the real ‘owners’ of the nation.

In this graded nationalism, someone daring to imagine beyond the given self in order to articulate a composite – and hence impure – idea of political community cannot expect anything but admonitions from both sides of the  divide. This is the lot of Akbar. In ‘Pakistan ideology’ and in political  Hindutva, he has long been identified as the arch enemy of the ‘nation’. The renewed assault on him is a natural corollary of the ascendancy of graded nationalism —which is rooted in a distorted version of historical memory and hence is bound to be antithetical to democratic nationalism.

Purushottam Agrawal is a writer, academic and political commentator. 



On the Eaton thesis

In depicting time and places historians often argue pivotal roles of religion. Regions across the planet had been defined through advent and subsequent religious conquests. Religious (and ethnic) tensions remain omnipresent as religious unrest reverberates many parts of the world.

As would politicians (like those currently vying for the US Republican presidential candidacy) campaign speeches testify, the importance of religion in politics of nations and on geopolitics continue to be significant. The Indian subcontinent – which was partitioned three ways in 1947 purely on religious majority of the respective regions – also has political forces, including the current Indian ruling party, that are capable to strike a religious chord with the electorate.  Naturally, to those studying Bangladesh, an upsurge of enthusiasm to find the root and raise of its majority religion – Islam – is palpable, specially following a series of recent attacks claimed by Islamic terrorists.

Two of our contributors reviewed a book published in 1993 by Richard M Eaton, which provided rich research on the topic: the rise of Islam in Bengal. The authors while recommended the book to anyone interested in Bengal and Bangladesh, reasons behind their suggestions are distinct. As would any two individual critiques they reflected diverse directives.

Awrup Sanyal found the relevance of the book through an Indian perspective, where a lot of recent hubbub took place on Muslims, Islam, Bangladesh based Islamic terrorism and Hindutva ideologues. He also alerts readers to an inherent revisionist tendency that often hinder constructive discourse.

Jyoti Rahman (as posted below), on the contrary, extrapolated some likely issues to which Bangladeshi readers may find the book useful. For example, the book would be useful to consider the ‘Bengali identity’ debate that often get many easily excited, or perhaps even more significant are the book’s posits to assess some of the contemporary issues – such as the relationship between Bangladesh and (North) India.

On the Eaton thesis

by Jyoti Rahman

Awrup Sanyal wants to whet your appetiteabout Richard Eaton’s seminal work.  Let me complement him on the effort.  I have noted Eaton in the past: a must read book on Bangladesh; and a book that has stayed with me. A full-fledged critical review of the Eaton thesis is well beyond my capability.  This post really is a complement to Mr Sanyal’s.

Richard Eaton is a professor of history at the University f Arizona with research interests focus on the social and cultural history of pre-modern India (1000-1800), and especially on the range of historical interactions between Iran and India, and on Islam in South Asia.  It’s been well over a quarter century that he did his research for the The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier.

It is a slim volume — the one on my shelf, published by OUP (India), is less than 350 pages including reference.  There are two parts, one covering Bengal under the Sultans and the other the Mughals.  First part begins with a chapter on Bengal before the Turkish conquest.  Then there are chapters on: how political authority was conceptualised and articulated by the Sultans of Delhi and Bengal; the arrival of the Sufis to the Bengal delta; and the evolving economy, society and culture of the delta during the early centuries of Muslim rule.

As we can see, Eaton’s is not merely a history of kings and battles and one damned-event-after-other.  Rather, he wants to answer a major historical puzzle, which he poses in the fifth chapter — how did the Bengal delta come to be home to the second largest Muslim ethnic population in the world?  It’s all the more striking that this is the only major Muslim population that is not contiguous with the rest of the Muslim world.

How this easternmost tip of the Ganges delta came to be Muslim majority is an interesting historical puzzle.  Further, the political ramifications of the Muslim majority nature of the  delta have been profound, and are self-evident.  One doesn’t have to believe in any variation of the two-nation theory, any kind of historical inevitability or any particular brand of nationalism to acknowledge that had this region not been a Muslim-majority land, what is now Bangladesh would have either been a state in the Indian federation or there would have been a Bengali republic.

Prior to Eaton’s, there had been four major theories to explain the puzzle:

  • Immigration — the bulk of South Asian Muslims are descended from Muslim settlers from West Asia (two-nation theorists like this theory);
  • Religion of the Sword — imposition of Islam through conquests, a function of military or political force (the Hindutva types’ favourite);
  • Patronage — non-Muslims converted to receive political patronage (this is one of the more dominant theories among the non-Bangladeshi academia);
  • Social Liberation — mass conversion to escape the discriminatory Hindu caste system (the most dominant theory among the Bangladeshi academia, with particular slants depending on the given academic’s political bent).

The problem with all of these theories is geography.  Why would the Arabs/Turks/Persians travel all the way to this corner of the subcontinent instead of settling in, say, Gujrat?  Why was the sword and/or patronage more effective in the Hindustani heartland around Agra and Lucknow, given those regions were the centre of Indo-Muslim political order and were under Muslim rule for much longer than Bengal delta?  Why didn’t the Bihari dalits convert to Islam?

Eaton presents a fascinating thesis through chapters covering the rise of Mughal power the diffusion of Mughal culture, before supporting his argument in chapters on: the changing agrarian order in the delta and the role of Islam; mosques and shrines in Mughal Bengal countryside; and Islamisation of Bengal.

According to him, much of today’s Bangladesh was forest until the advent of the Mughal rule in the 16th century.  It was around that time, an earthquake changed the flow of Ganges and Brahmaputra to Padma and Jamuna respectively, opening up the land for agrarian settlement.  In this telling, there was a very South Asian drang nach osten to the golden land of Bhati.

Is this story right?  In social science, it’s impossible to have the final word.  And as I said upfront, I am not qualified to critically judge the Eaton thesis.  However, it is a sad reflection of our intelligentsia that not only has there been little critical assessment of the thesis in the past couple of decades, but that the thesis itself is so poorly known.

While Mr Sanyal has to be commended for drawing attention to Eaton, I did find it curious that he puts contemporary relevance of this work in ‘India reels under the yoke of the militant and supremacist Hindutva regime’.  I would have thought that for a Bangladeshi audience, a much more important contemporary relevance would be the dangerous upsurge in chauvinistic Bengali nationalism, militant Islamism, and the re-emergence of the identity dilemma of the Bengali Muslims — the debates around the existence of a millennia old Bengali identity upon which foreign Islam has been imposed and/or the need for the Islam of the delta to shred its pagan past.

The identity debate is important because we cannot even begin building a democratic polity and egalitarian social order in Bangladesh until the Bengali Muslims are comfortable in their own skin. However, if Eaton is right, then we can bypass the identity debates altogether — Bengal delta became Bengali Muslim simultaneously, and only a few centuries ago, much like the settler countries of the New World.

Moving beyond the identity debates, the Eaton thesis allows us to see Bangladesh and its contemporary issues in a new light.  For example, what does history tell us about the relationship between Bangladesh /the Bengal delta and India / North India based empires?  In Eaton’s telling, the Bengal Sultanate was far more in defiance of Delhi than was the case under the Mughals, even though what is now Bangladesh became home to the people now called Bengali Muslims only under the Mughal Indian empire.

If there is one book you read in 2016, let it be Richard M Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760.

On the Eaton thesis