Venkat Dhulipala’s book – Creating A New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India – demolishes the existing scholarship on Muhammad Ali Jinnah that his demand for Pakistan was a mere bargaining chip, that it was the reason why he deliberately kept the idea of Pakistan vague, and that Pakistan was merely an obsession of the Muslim political elite.

Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and Visiting Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, Dhulipala revisits the debate on Partition from a new perspective.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have demolished existing theories about Partition. Were these theories constructed because historians wanted to portray Jinnah as modern and secular?
You need to look at the context of the historians who focused on elite politics and portrayed Jinnah as wanting to create a modern secular Republic. This context included the creation of Bangladesh, the hanging of [Pakistan Prime Minister] Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and General Zia-ul-Haq’s campaign of Islamisation of Pakistan.

For Pakistani liberals, this was not the Pakistan that Jinnah wanted. They believed Jinnah was like them, a very modern figure. They started to push back against the tide of Islamisation in Zia’s Pakistan through their historiography.

Was the scholarship also influenced by the wish to convey that Muslims who stayed back in India were not keen on Pakistan?
In post-Independence India, the argument was that we are no longer imperial subjects, but citizens of a secular Constitutional Republic in which all have equal rights. It was, therefore, thought that there was no point in going into the messy things of the past.

You do think there are pitfalls in this kind of approach, don’t you?
All history-writing, to some extent, responds to the present. Their concern is understandable. But what I do in my book is to show that there was an intelligent, sophisticated, and wide-ranging debate on the Pakistan question between 1940 and 1947. Ours is an "argumentative society" in which everything is debated and thrashed out. The Pakistan question couldn’t have remained a vague idea. My book foregrounds a series of intra-Muslim debates on the idea of Pakistan.

To this, some might say that Indian Muslims overwhelmingly supported the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan with their senses fully in place. The subtext of this could be that they were anti-national.

But I also clearly show that the strongest opposition to Pakistan came from within the Muslim community. Since the top leadership of the Congress was in prison following the 1942 Quit India movement, the only people who hit the ground and rebutted the Muslim League were the nationalist ulama [Islamic scholars] and their allies. My book shows that the question of Pakistan was not merely decided on the basis of emotional slogans like "Islam in danger" but that there was a vigorous debate on and opposition to Pakistan within the Muslim community.

Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders repeatedly asked the Muslims of United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (now Uttar Pradesh) to make sacrifices for the creation of Pakistan. This formulation should in itself have conveyed to them about the bloody consequences of Partition. What blinded them to that looming reality?
There was tension between the fact that they were being asked to sacrifice themselves for Pakistan and the fact that they were not going to be part of it. They were going to be here under a bigger Hindu majority [after Partition] – and could be crushed. The hostage population theory must have been quite believable at that point in time.

Could you explain the hostage population theory?
If you looked at the map of India and its demography, you had substantial non-Muslim populations in the east and the west [which subsequently became Pakistan], just as you had substantial Muslim minority population in Hindustan.

The Muslim League put out that in case Muslims were harassed or oppressed or deprived of their rights, retributive violence could visit the non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan. Balance of terror was therefore portrayed as the best guarantee for the security of minorities in both countries.

Just as we argue about the balance of power in international relations.
It was akin to, say, the Mutually Assured Destruction theory during the Cold War. The Muslim League emphasised the hostage population theory quite a lot in UP. It also assured supporters that there would be a treaty between the two sovereign states as far as the security and rights of the minorities on both sides was concerned. And that despite Partition, life would go on as usual. As a local functionary of the League in Bareilly said, the creation of Pakistan did not mean someone in Allahabad couldn’t take the Frontier Mail to Peshawar any more.

Guess they were unable to conceive what the future could be.
They thought that the emergence of two sovereign states wouldn’t affect the normal exchanges across borders. So at one level, the hostage population theory and the idea of Pakistan seemed very practical to the Muslims in UP and Bihar. However, there was also the Muslim League propaganda that it was trying to create Pakistan as the first Islamic state in history after the Prophet’s creation of Medina 1300 years ago. Wouldn’t you want to participate in the creation of that Islamic State, the Leaguers asked their supporters.

I suppose the metaphor of Medina must have appealed to the religious sentiments of Muslims.
Yes. But the metaphor of Medina was also used by Deobandi alim [scholar] Husain Ahmad Madani to point out that just as under the Prophet there existed a community of Jews and Muslims, similarly, Muslims and Hindus could be one single nationality.

Please also remember Jinnah offered Muslims who would be left behind in places like UP, a few options. He told them that they could continue to live where they were, or they could migrate to Pakistan, or they could live as Pakistani citizens in India.

How was the third going to happen?
They could supposedly choose their nationality – but Jinnah did not elaborate on it any further.

Did Jinnah play a cynical game as far as Muslims in UP and Bihar were concerned?
Jinnah was upfront and made speeches in UP that he would not mind the Muslims of the minority provinces being crushed for the sake of liberating their majority provinces brethren. He made it clear that they would be sub-nationals in India, that they could only get minority rights in India. I think no one anticipated the scale of Partition violence. Also, the British cut their losses and left – they simply let India go to hell.

I don’t believe Jinnah was being cynical. He wanted to create Pakistan and did have high hopes of it.

Did the intense communal riotings between 1937 and 1939 influence the Muslims of UP to support the Muslim League?
It was definitely a factor.

Could this be a reason why the Muslims of UP believed the hostage population theory of the Muslim League?
Yes. But I also think the Muslim League was successful in projecting that there was Hindu Raj in UP and that would be replicated on an all India basis. The Congress made terrible mistakes. Many wonder why the Congress didn’t make a coalition government with the Muslim League in UP. In hindsight, it was a bad move. What was worse, the Congress caused defections from the League. Five or six League MLAs crossed over to the Congress. One of them, Hafiz Mohammad Ibrahim, was made a minister. But it must be remembered that he resigned his seat won on the Muslim League ticket, contested again on the Congress ticket and won.

This didn’t go down well with the Muslims. Remember all the Muslim Congress candidates lost in the 1937 elections. [There was a separate Muslim electorate then and only Muslims could stand in Muslim constituencies.] It seemed rich on the part of the Congress to now claim that it had Muslim support. The defectors were seen as quislings. Also, the Muslim Mass Contact Programme – MMCP – of the Congress in UP failed and…

Why did it fail?
The MMCP propaganda claimed that religious identity did not really matter. Class interests were what mattered. To say that religion does not matter, that people need to understand their true class interests and grow out of false consciousness as it were, was counter-productive. My book quotes a person asking, “Bhai, you say the workers of the world unite. So, what is wrong in saying, Muslims of the world unite?” I think these "progressive" ideas simply did not gel with the sensibilities of that period.

Could this have made Muslims think that there was a conspiracy afoot?
The Muslim Leaguers did say that this was an attempt to sow divisions within the community on the basis of class and that it was also a surreptitious attempt by the Congress to slot Muslims in the Hindu caste hierarchy and try to change their religion. They pointed out that the Hindus were violently opposed to Untouchables being recognised as a community separate from the Hindus, but the same Hindus were happy to poach on Muslim turf and sow dissensions in the Muslim community.

What was the size of the Muslim electorate?
In 1937, it was about 10% of the population. In 1945-1946, it was close to 15%. It was defined by income, property, educational qualifications, service in the Army, etc.

Given that the electorate was limited and defined by property, and the Muslim League was dominated by landed and urban interests, could it have been an important factor behind Muslims voting overwhelmingly for the League because of class convergence?|
Yes. If you look at the numbers, the Congress got around 30% of the votes and the Muslim League the remaining 70%. So they did win hands down.

The debates over Pakistan took place in the Urdu media which must have been owned by the rich and read by the literate middle class. It must have made it easier for the Muslim League to influence the Muslims.
It must have been definitely a factor. But remember, the Madina, a widely respected nationalist Muslim newspaper from Bijnor vigorously attacked the idea of Pakistan and the League. So arguments from both sides were available.

Could it also have been the reason why the ulama backing the Congress failed to wean away Muslims from the League?
Possibly, there is a commonality between the class interests of the electorate and the Muslim League. But remember it was also a very polarised moment in Indian history. Both the Muslim League and Congress ulama were going at each other in the Urdu press. It must have been read by literate Muslims.

To what extent this would have filtered downward is debatable. [Historian] Chris Bayly, for instance, says that while India has fairly low levels of literacy, there exist fairly high levels of political awareness and intelligence. And that this does not in any way correspond to the socio-economic status of the people. Even now, the poor and the illiterate in India are very aware and vote in maximum numbers.

Precisely this fact made me wonder while I was reading your book whether Muslims would have voted overwhelmingly for the League had there been a universal adult franchise in 1945-1946.
It is a good question, but difficult to answer. I wonder what, if a general plebiscite under universal adult franchise had been held in Bengal and Punjab and people had been asked [whether they wanted Partition], the result would have been. I am not a specialist on Punjab or Bengal, but it could have gone either way. After all, nearly 85% of the population was excluded from the 1945-46 election.

Your book also punctures the popular notion that all Deobandi scholars constituted a monolith and opposed Pakistan. Why do you think this myth was perpetuated?
There was a convenient congruence of interests between Indian nationalist historians and liberal historians in Pakistan. The Congress could claim that the Deobandi ulama opposed whole-scale the idea of Pakistan and stood up heroically for the idea of muttahida qaumiyat [composite nationalism] in India. For them Pakistan was a fraud committed by a communal League leadership in connivance with the British.

Liberal Pakistani historians on the other hand could claim that Pakistan was meant to be a secular state since the ulama, men of religion, were its biggest opponents.

What were the points of differences between the ulama on the Congress side and those backing the Muslim League?
The ulama aligned with the Congress – for example, Husain Ahmad Madani, who was the principal alim [scholar] of this side – came up with sophisticated and wide-ranging critiques of the idea of Pakistan. Madani is well known. So in my book, I have tried to foreground others who are either relatively less known or forgotten.

For instance, take Maulana Syed Muhammad Sajjad Bihari, the founder of the Imarat-i-Shariah in Patna. Within a few weeks of the Lahore Resolution’s adoption in 1940, Maulana Sajjad severely criticised this thing called Muslim India – which came to be known as Pakistan very, very quickly.

Sajjad pointed out that the hostage population theory was a mad one and had no precedent in world history. Moreover, the Shariah couldn’t in anyway justify violence against the innocent in the name of justice.

He further argued that in an Islamic state, laws had to be based on the Quran and the Hadith [the traditions of the Prophet]. But Jinnah, Sajjad pointed out, wanted a European style Parliament to create laws. Jinnah had also spoken of giving political rights to Hindus, which wasn’t possible in a truly Islamic state. He called Jinnah Kafir-i-Azam. Could such a man create an Islamic Republic? Sajjad saw Pakistan as a conspiracy of the British, and Jinnah as their lackey helping them in their divide and rule policy.

Your book also described the role played by Maulvi Tufail Ahmad Manglori and Maulana Hifzur Rahman Seoharvi.
Manglori raised some of the same points as Sajjad. He finally conceded that if the Muslim League wanted to create Pakistan, let them. But he wanted the separate electorates to be abandoned. He favoured joint electorate so that there could be dependency between communities, and politicians would try to build cross-community bases.

Maulana Hifzur Rahman Seoharvi’s critique of Pakistan was the most wide-ranging. He pointed out that Muslims would have only a slender majority in Pakistan over a very potent, substantial non-Muslim minority. In India, by contrast, the Hindus would have a substantial majority over a very feeble minuscule Muslim minority. The hostage population theory could never work in Pakistan as its minority was educated, wealthy, and powerful. Pakistan couldn’t retaliate against them. He also ridiculed the idea of Pakistan becoming an Islamic State and was convinced that Pakistan wasn’t economically viable. It didn’t have the resources. It would have to depend on Britain or the US for its survival. He foresaw the future.

His argument was that if Pakistan couldn’t stand on its own, it would collapse and return to India. And if it took assistance of the British or Americans to remain standing, it would be letting in imperialism through the backdoor.

Wasn’t Maulana Sajjad and his family butchered in the Partition riots?
Maulana Sajjad died before Partition, but his family was butchered in the Partition riots. That was what the current Nazim of Patna’s Imarat-i- Shariah told me. In that sense, the nationalist Muslims lost out on both sides – they were abused and derided by those supporting Pakistan, and they suffered post-Partition as well.

What were the arguments of the ulama of the Muslim League?
Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani – the man who was responsible for the Objectives Resolution’s passage in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly and was Pakistan’s first and last Sheikhul Islam – and who also presided over Jinnah’s funeral ceremony – hailed Pakistan as the first Islamic State after the Prophet’s Medina, and indeed used the phrase new Medina to describe Pakistan.

Usmani asked: Why didn’t the Prophet create the Islamic state in Mecca, which was his home? He explained that there was significant opposition to the Prophet in Mecca and to create an ideal Islamic state, the Prophet and his followers migrated to Medina and established their base there. Medina became the focal point for Islam’s rise as a great global power. Usmani said the same will happen with the Islamic state of Pakistan, which would be the leader of the Islamic world in the 20th century picking up the baton that had been dropped by the Turks at the end of World War I. Usmani endorsed the hostage population theory. He also provided a range of non-religious arguments he borrowed from the League to make his case for Pakistan. There was a close relationship between the Muslim League leadership and these ulama, something that has not been acknowledged thus far in historiography.

Did Jinnah explicitly endorse the idea of Medina?
I haven’t come across evidence of Jinnah using the Medina metaphor. But he did use other Islamic metaphors. A Jamaat-i-Islami functionary once asked Jinnah to describe his idea of Pakistan. Jinnah said that currently they were agitating for a piece of land. Once the Muslims had acquired it, they were free to build their mosque on it. That gladdened the Jamaat functionary. But important Muslim League leaders did use the metaphor of Medina.

How do we explain Jinnah’s speech of Aug 11, 1947, in which he said, “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan.” That was quite a turnaround, wasn’t it?
My take is that Jinnah’s statement was made primarily keeping in mind the tremendous violence that was going on. It was, therefore, a statement directed at protecting Muslims from even greater violence in areas where they were vulnerable. It was pragmatism. After all, a few months later, when asked to open the doors of the Muslim League to all Pakistanis irrespective of their religion or creed, the same Jinnah refused saying that Pakistan was not ready for it.

Was Jinnah ever racked by guilt or repented the decision which sparked horrific violence?
I saw this very intriguing letter in the Hector Bolitho files. Bolitho was commissioned by the Pakistan government to write Jinnah’s biography. Francis Mudie, the governor of West Punjab, in a letter to Bolitho described an incident in which he quoted Jinnah saying, “This [Partition] is tragic – but very thrilling.” The American journalist Margaret Bourke-White, noted that Jinnah’s “deep sunken eyes were points of excitement” when he described Pakistan as the largest Islamic State in the world. He uses the word Islamic, not Muslim.

In the same speech, Jinnah said, “A division had to take place… Any idea of a united India could never have worked and in my judgement it would have led us to terrific disaster.” Doesn’t this observation, in many ways, echo Ambedkar’s in his book, Thoughts on Pakistan?
On the Partition issue, Jinnah and Ambedkar were on the same page. Both thought it was a good remedy to resolve the communal problem in India. Both also agreed that transfer or exchanges of populations was inevitable and necessary. They don’t seem to have considered the horrific consequences of uprooting people from their hearths and homes, or pondered over how people have a deep sense of belonging to a place and couldn’t just be transferred or exchanged like objects. Most historians of Partition have ignored this critical aspect of their ideas on Pakistan. We need to also remember that Mahatma Gandhi stood steadfastly against transfers or exchanges of population.

Where did Ambedkar’s formulations on Partition come from?
My reading of Ambedkar is that he believed the creation of Pakistan was good riddance. He cited several reasons. The main one was that communal virus had entered the Army, of which Muslims comprised a substantial section. He said their number was in excess of their percentage of the total population. Since most of these Muslims came from the NWFP and Punjab, Ambedkar thought their loyalty couldn’t be depended upon to protect India if it were to go to war with, say, Afghanistan.

So here we have Ambedkar thinking like a conservative Hindu.
Yes, but also as a hardheaded realist. He believed the Muslim League wanted to convert the minority status of Muslims into equivalence with the majority. After all the League demanded equal share with the majority Hindus in the executive, legislatures, the judiciary, services etc. Ambedkar thought these extravagant demands adversely affected the interests of other minorities as well the Depressed Classes. Ambedkar took a similarly hardline on Kashmir and Hyderabad.

Ambedkar was furious when Dalits in Pakistan were not being allowed to cross over into India. When India’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan, the UP Congressman Sriprakasa, suggested that these people be allowed to visit their families in India, [Pakistan’s first Prime Minister] Liaquat Ali Khan is reported to have said: Who will clean the streets and latrines of Karachi if we let them go?

Could we say Ambedkar favoured the Partition because he saw in it an opportunity for the depressed classes?
He may have seen it so. But primarily Ambedkar was a very modern figure. He believed that the Muslim League’s communal propaganda would militate against the rise of secular, interest-based politics in India. He, therefore, thought it was better to concede the demand for Pakistan.

But by 1956 he realised that a modern style of politics wasn’t about to emerge in India and decided to cut himself off from the Hindus and converted to Buddhism.
Frankly, I haven’t examined closely the process leading Ambedkar to convert to Buddhism. From 1935, Ambedkar was talking to all groups in an attempt to find out what kind of space Dalits could carve out. People like [Hindu Mahasabha leader] BS Moonje, in fact, told him it was best for Dalits to get out and convert to Sikhism.

In your book you quote one Dalit leader demanding Achhutistan [land for the untouchables].
Even Ambedkar briefly toyed with that idea. I am not sure what Achhutistan was going to look like or where it was to be located, but I have seen documents in which he is reported to have briefly supported it.

Even as I was reading the book, I couldn’t help think that India under the BJP seems hell-bent on taking the same trajectory that the Muslim League did between 1937 and 1947.

There is an attempt to create a pan-India Hindu political constituency. What has happened in our neighbourhood – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka – should be a warning to us that we ought not to create some version of Hindu rashtra.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.