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Book review: The Promised Land

The depth, texture and brilliance of Dhulipala’s argument are hard to convey in a short review.

muslim-league-l Congress and Muslim League leaders with Lord Mountbatten (centre) discussing the Partition of India at a meeting in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru is to the left of Lord Mountbatten and Mohammed Ali Jinnah to the right.

Book: Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Colonial North India
Author: Venkat Dhulipala
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Price: Rs 995

The ideological origins of the idea of Pakistan, and the political momentum that led to its creation, still remain deeply perplexing. Creating a New Medina will not resolve all perplexities. But it is arguably among the most important studies of the ideological origins of Pakistan published to date. It decisively demolishes Ayesha Jalal’s idea that Pakistan arose in a fit of ideological absentmindedness, a stratagem in a bargaining game gone awry. Within the context of UP politics, it demolishes Paul R Brass’s thesis that imagining Pakistan was merely instrumental to the goal of power, and it shows the insufficiency of the idea that Pakistan emerged merely in response to developments in representative politics after 1935. It argues, quite convincingly, that the idea of a new Medina, an Islamic state that is both a homeland for Muslims and the vehicle for a new regeneration in Islam, had deep roots in political, theological and literary debates. In some ways, this study is closer in spirit to Farzana Shaikh’s book, Community and Consensus in Islam, which suggests that the idea of a political form that would be the vehicle for an umma was central to the prehistory of politics.

The depth, texture and brilliance of Dhulipala’s argument are hard to convey in a short review. This book is attentive to a range of positions on Pakistan in UP politics beginning with the quasi- Marxist positions of KM Ashraf, who tried to replace questions of religion with questions of class. But that project seemed almost doomed from the start. Dhulipala shows the range of forces arrayed against it and argues against the conventional idea that the Deobandi ulema were uniformly against Partition. He wades through an impressive array of polemics, pamphlets, treatises, theological tracts and poetry to establish the central thesis that the yearning for a new Medina was widespread despite the sociological dislocations it might cause.

In some ways, the book tries to do what the single best thing ever written on Partition, BR Ambedkar’s tract on the demand for Pakistan, tried to do: explore the logic behind this range of positions, without sentimentality, wishful thinking, political correctness or cant. Not the least of the book’s virtues is that it provides one of the best readings of Ambedkar’s Thoughts on Pakistan. Not since Edmund Burke on the American colonists, had anyone produced such a forensic piece of political analysis, absolutely clear-eyed about the premise behind every position. The tract is hard to read because it has an “if this, then this” quality to it. Every party from Jinnah to Hindu nationalists have used it for their purposes. In a sense, the tract laid out the tragedy of each position — if there was Partition, the price was going to be homogenous nation states; if there was no Partition, the price was going to be perpetual tension. It urged the Congress to give up the delusion that Muslims did not have a separate sense of identity; it pointed out to Hindus that they overestimated their own capacity to live with difference. It relentlessly worked through every argument, cultural, strategic, economic, and political, to come to the fateful conclusion that Partition might even be good for Hindus.

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But Dhulipala’s achievement is to show that the Congress could not accommodate the yearnings for a new Medina. Attempts like Maulana Hussain Madani’s to fashion a composite religious nationality were flawed because they were, in a sense, premised on the idea of two separate legal and social orders within a single nation state; a claim that would immediately run up against the modernising pretensions of the nation state. In fact, so fixated have we been on the idea that the bad guys were the ones who wanted territorial Partition that we often forget that the cost of territorial unity was always going to be religious conservatism. Territorial unity required the partitioning of social orders; not the modern ideas of citizenship. Dhulipala could have done more with this tension had he dealt with the ideas of someone like Maulana Azad, whose absence in this book is rather striking.

The other striking absence in this magnificent book is that of Iqbal, whose The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam most strikingly lays the argument for a political vehicle that could be the locus of a regenerated Islam. Arguably, Iqbal’s text still remains the most incomparable guide to the philosophical tensions underpinning the idea of Pakistan: a state trying to be at once the locus of pan-Islamic, modern and South Asian identity, a trilemma it cannot solve; or rather, it can solve it the only way Iqbal did: by excluding the Ahamadiyyas and Sufis.

In Indian intellectual history, there is still a tendency to treat “Islamic” and “Hindu” intellectuals as two separate streams. In some ways, this mirrors the most striking fact about Indian intellectual thinking during the 20th century. They did develop in parallel, with only rare references to each other or mentioned them as external problems to be tackled. This Partition of the mind, even if unstated, was deep. It is hard to see what would have resisted the allure of the new Medina, except perhaps as Ashraf alluded, the substantial attenuation of religion itself.


The writer is president & chief executive, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

First published on: 31-01-2015 at 03:29:13 am
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