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Culture, not religion

Many of Pakistan's past and ongoing troubles are intimately tied up with Jinnah's argument about why two nations -- India and Pakistan-- were needed in the first place, writes Ashutosh Varshney.
None | By Ashutosh Varshney
UPDATED ON MAY 29, 2009 11:20 PM IST

Since its birth in 1947, Islam and anti-Indianism have been the two master narratives of Pakistan's polity. Islam itself has taken two forms; as a cultural idea, and a religious one. But in both forms, Islam's power to unite Pakistan's disparate communities has fallen short. In the end, anti-Indianism, albeit suffused with a touch of ambivalence, has turned out to be a stronger uniting force.

India’s cultural life and heroes have always been a source of attraction in Pakistan, just as many Pakistani cultural icons have travelled remarkably well in India. Many personal friendships across the border have also blossomed. But these notes of social or personal warmth have never overpowered the reasons of the State. Islam could have been a binding and positive force for Pakistan, if only it had greater plausibility. Anti-Indianism, as a consequence, becomes a default option for national cohesion.

It is sometimes suggested that yet another discussion of Jinnah’s two-nation theory simply fatigues Pakistanis and reduces the possibility of a fruitful discussion about how to improve relations between India and Pakistan. The underlying logic of this assertion is that an attack on the founding principles of a State is no way to build warmth and civility.

Whatever the validity of this position from a policy perspective, it is a non-starter from an analytic perspective. It is not clear how to begin an analysis of Pakistan's political evolution without a discussion of the two-nation theory. Many of Pakistan's past and ongoing troubles are intimately tied up with Jinnah's argument about why two nations -- India and Pakistan-- were needed in the first place.

In its original formulation, South Asian Islam -- as a cultural, not a religious, idea -- was to be the core of Pakistan's national identity. Pakistan was born as a Muslim State, not as an Islamic one. With the exception of one clerical school (the Barelvis), all schools of Islamic theology in British India were opposed to the idea of Pakistan. Theologically, Islam provided the foundation for an umma, an international community, not a national one. Moreover, the cleric s found the idea of an utterly westernized leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leading the Muslims of South Asia quite preposterous.

Jinnah, indeed, had no patience for an Islamic State, or for the clerics. In the famous Lahore Resolution of 1940, which became the intellectual bedrock of Pakistan, his argument was cultural:

‘Islam and Hinduism..... are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are in fact different and distinct social orders.... They belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions .... They have different epics (and) their heroes are different... Very often, the hero of one is the foe of the other and likewise their victories and defeats overlap.’

The Muslims, according to this doctrine, could not expect fairness and justice in an independent India, where the Hindus, their adversaries, would constitute a majority. Muslims had to build a political roof over their cultural heads, and take full control of their destinies. They were not simply a religious, but a distinct cultural and national, community.

The two-nation theory, of course, did not go uncontested. Reading Indian history differently, Maulana Azad, another Muslim stalwart of the first half of the twentieth century, a scholar of religious texts, and a leader of the Congress party, vigorously argued that being a Muslim did not require denial of Indian heritage:

‘I am a Muslim and proud of that fact. Islam's splendid traditions of thirteen hundred years are my inheritance... In addition, I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian Nationality...

It was India's historic destiny that many human races and cultures and religious faiths should flow to her, and that many a caravan should find rest here... One of the last of these caravans was that of the followers of Islam...

.... Full eleven centuries have passed by since then. Islam has now as great a claim on the soil of India as Hinduism. If Hinduism has been the religion of the people here for several thousand years, Islam has also been their religion for a thousand years.....

Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. There is indeed no aspect of our life, which has escaped this stamp.’

That Jinnah's argument did not fully succeed has, in retrospect, become Pakistan's biggest structural problem as a nation.

Extract from The Great Divide edited by Ira Pande, first published by IIC Winter 2008 Spring 2009 Quarterly with HarperCollins India.

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