In 1976, on the birth centenary of the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, one paper submitted at a seminar in Islamabad probed the reason behind Czechoslovakia’s abstention at the vote admitting Pakistan into the United Nations. (There was only one negative vote, from Afghanistan.) The reason given much later by historians was — the “Sudeten question”.
A great recent book, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India by Venkat Dhulipala, assistant professor of history, University of North Carolina, US, explains the pre-1940 opinion of the All-India Muslim League about a community of Germans living in Czechoslovakia. The Muslim leadership had decided, probably after watching the trend in Europe and the September 1938 Munich Agreement, to side with the British position appeasing Adolf Hitler.
In October 1938, writes Dhulipala, “The Sind ML leader Abdullah Haroon drew a parallel with the situation of Sudeten Germans under Czechoslovakia and admiringly referred to Hitler’s actions to liberate them. Jinnah himself noted that ‘if Britain in Gladstone’s time could intervene in Armenia in the name of protection of minorities, why should it not be right for us to do so in the case of our minorities in Hindustan if they are oppressed?’” A “national” parallel was thus created.
Hector Bolitho, in his 1954 book Jinnah: Creator of Pakistan, actually quoted from the proceedings of a Muslim League session of 1938 — a condemnation of how Czechoslovakia was treating the German minority living inside it. On October 8, 1938, in his presidential address at the Sindh Muslim League conference, Karachi, Jinnah said: “…In India I may draw attention of His Majesty’s Government and the British statesmen who, I am sure, are not under any delusion that the Congress represents the people of India or [the] Indian nation, for there are 90 million of Mussalmans. And I would draw their attention and here also of the Congress high command and ask them to mark, learn and inwardly digest the recent upheaval and its consequent developments which threatened the World War. It was because the Sudeten Germans who were forced under the heel of the majority of Czechoslovakia who oppressed them, suppressed them, maltreated them and showed a brutal and callous disregard for their rights and interests for two decades, hence the inevitable result that the Republic of Czechoslovakia is now broken up and a new map will have to be drawn. Just as the Sudeten Germans were not defenceless and survived the oppression and persecution for two decades, so also the Mussalmans are not defenceless and cannot give you their national entity and aspirations in this great continent…”
Not much was known in India about the Sudeten question. What is obvious today was the growing Congress-Muslim League disagreement over Muslim separatism, which was to reach its climax in 1940, with the Lahore Resolution, known today in Pakistan as the Pakistan Resolution. The communal situation did not improve after the Congress government came to power after the 1937 election, and the Muslims were more and more inclined to favour the League. The League clearly saw its rival at cross-purposes with the British government on Hitler and his exploitation of the Sudeten issue. There were more incidents that the League’s leadership had probably misinterpreted. The Congress government finally resigned in 1939, causing the League to celebrate it as the “Day of Deliverance”.
Visits by Jawaharlal Nehru to Czechoslovakia in those days of British appeasement couldn’t have registered well with London. He, along with his daughter Indira, had visited Prague and “subsequently influenced the strong condemnation of the 1938 Munich Pact by the Indian nationalist movement”, noted the Czech Indologist, Miloslav Krasa.
Today, the Munich agreement of September 30, 1938 doesn’t have any admirers. The conference in which Britain, France and Italy capitulated to Hitler was out of bounds for the Czechoslovakian government and the Sudetens, who formed 23 per cent of the population, as against the Czech majority of over 50 per cent, claimed the status of a “nation”. The agreement gave in to Hitler’s demand “for the unconditional cession of Sudeten German majority regions to Germany”.
Dhulipala has carefully examined the contents of B.R. Ambedkar’s book Thoughts on Pakistan (1941), which must stand as the intellectual mainstay of the book. Certainly not inclined to favour the Pakistan movement, Ambedkar’s book nevertheless appealed to the League leaders, who welcomed it and asked everyone to read it to legitimise the League campaign for Pakistan.
The crux of the argument deployed by Ambedkar was that Muslims indeed were a nation — and he was convincing as he gave examples from recent European history of how communities had separated as nations and formed new states. Ambedkar’s knowledge of world affairs was probably unmatched by anyone in India. He was focused on the planned exchanges of populations that had taken place between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, under the Treaties of Neuilly and Lausanne in 1919 and 1923. What the League was prepared to ignore was his approval of Pakistan as “good riddance” for India, provided all Muslims migrated from India
Dhulipala writes: “The initial part of the book evaluates arguments in favour of Pakistan that are primarily based on affect, considering the tremendous sentimental value that the overwhelming majority of Muslims attached to the two-nation theory. Ambedkar conceded these arguments clearly demonstrated that the Muslims were a nation and he, therefore, unambiguously supported the Pakistan demand. While this may have been music to the ears of the League’s supporters, Ambedkar subsequently presented to the Hindus a series of arguments to convince them to concede Pakistan, arguments which could only have dampened Pakistani supporters’ enthusiasm for the man as well as for his message.”
Ambedkar, in his Pakistan or the Partition of India, Lessons from Abroad (1946), elaborates his position on what happened in Europe: “Czechoslovakia proved to be a very shortlived state. It lived exactly for two decades. On the 15th March 1939 it perished or rather was destroyed as an independent state. It became a protectorate of Germany… By signing the Munich Pact on 30th September 1938 — of which the protectorate was an inevitable consequence — Great Britain, France and Italy assisted Germany, their former enemy of the Great War, to conquer Czechoslovakia, their former ally. All the work of the Czechs of the past century to gain freedom was wiped off. They were once more to be the slaves of their former German overlords.”
The conundrum of how “nations” come into being and how they attain statehood has not unravelled fully in our times. Pakistan became a state because the Muslims became a “nation”. Then, out of Pakistan, Bangladesh was created because the Muslims of East Pakistan became a nation. Sudan, which was bifurcated recently after its Christians became a nation, is once again torn by civil war. In India, the separatist feeling doesn’t die down in certain regions, just as in Balochistan, Pakistan faces a Baloch movement of “liberation”. And people like me, who hope to realise the dream of Saarc in South Asia, see with alarm the European Union fraying at its southern edges.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’