On August 8, Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar, while making a speech in Quetta to commemorate the first anniversary of the terror attack on a city hospital that killed 70 people, most of them lawyers, made a reference to the two-nation theory. “Sir Syed Ahmed was perhaps the first to conceive that there were two nations, one was Muslim and the other...I don’t even want to name,” Nisar said.

While Nisar’s comment received some backlash from a minuscule and shrinking liberal section of the country, the comment has failed to spark a major discussion. But the fact that Pakistan’s largest religious minority community of Hindus can be dismissed so casually, without much protest, highlights the sad state of affairs.

After 70 years of the creation of Pakistan, the two-nation theory continues to be the country’s raison d’être. The separation of Muslim Pakistan from a Hindu India is justified as the backbone of Pakistani nationalism.

In popular imagination, the theory is understood to be a reflection on the contradictory cultures of Muslims and Hindus, because of which there was ostensibly a need to separate them. To justify this, popular discourses on the theory focus on the polytheism within Hinduism and the monotheism of Islam, or the sacredness of cow in the Hindu tradition and its sacrifice on Eid-ul-Azha in the Islamic tradition. The logic goes that since the cultural traditions of Hindus and Muslims in South Asia are so distinct, there was no way they could live together, hence the creation of Pakistan.

Common ground

But are we really that different culturally? Through my work on folk Islamic religious traditions in Pakistan, it is has become increasingly clear to me that it is impossible to pull apart the Hindu and the Muslim cultures of South Asia. Perhaps this point could be clearly demonstrated by referring to the Sufi shrine culture within the country, which, even today, is the most dominant form of religious and cultural expression for a majority of the Muslims in the country.

For example, outside most Sufi shrines are makeshift shops selling pieces of cloth with Quranic verses written on them, to be presented to the grave of the saint. During the annual fair at the shrine – the Urs or the death anniversary celebrations of its patron saint – pilgrims from far off places travel to the shrine carrying their own special pieces of cloth to be offered at the grave. To make their experience more spiritually rewarding, some pilgrim groups often make their journey arduous by choosing to walk long distances to the shrine, at times barefoot, instead of using a vehicle.

This has several similarities with a Hindu tradition that is widely observed especially in India’s North. During the nine-day Navratri festival, pilgrim groups head to a temple of goddess Durga. Instead of a chadar, the pilgrims offer a chunri to the Devi as a sign of their devotion. In the outskirts of Lahore at a Christian shrine in the village of Maryabad, Christian devotees of Mother Mary undertake similar spiritual journeys and present a scarf to Mary upon reaching the shrine.

Then, the qawwali at the Sufi shrine, first introduced by the Chistian Sufi order that was headed by saints such as Moinuddin Chisti, Baba Farid and Nizamuddin Auliya, was the Muslim equivalent of the Hindu bhajan. The Chistian order remains one of the most popular Sufi orders in the Indian peninsula. The qawwali today has become an integral part of indigenous Pakistani identity. At a time when most of the world looks at us through the lens of religious extremism, we have fallen back on this devotional music to present an alternative version of our identity, which has resulted in a boom in qawwali and other forms of Sufi music in the recent years.

Inter-religious connections can be seen in the dervish at Sufi shrines too. Many, like Hindu sadhus, let their hair grow long to harness the spiritual energy. Consumption of hashish is an essential part of their culture, which is also the case with some Indian sadhu groups. Similarly dhammal performed at many Sufi shrines finds its origin in the dance of destruction of Hindu God Shiva.

In some shrines, the overlaps are even more obvious. For example, Shrine of Lal Shabaz Qalanda has been an essential part of the Sindh province’s identity, so much so that it is visited by Hindus and Muslims alike. Same is the case at the shrine of Udero Lal in Sindh.

In rural Punjab in Pakistan, where I have done most of my field work, there are remnants of several such shrines that make it impossible to distinguish between these two purported “nations”. For example, in the outskirts of Lahore I came across a Sufi shrine where a herd of cow, believed to be reared by the shrine’s patron saint, are still considered blessed by his devotees, who come to them with supplications. Also in the outskirts of Lahore is the shrine of Ram Thamman, a Hindu saint from the 15th century. Every year on the occasion of Baisakhi, hundreds of Muslim devotees of the saint gather at the shrine to celebrate the harvest festival.

Political essence

But does that mean the Two-Nation Theory does not hold true at all? Far from it. The theory was a product of its time, espoused to by a Muslim minority in a Hindu-majority country. But while even back then, cultural differences were sometimes highlighted to promote the theory, the concept was premised on politics rather than culture. The theory was put forward to view Hindus and Muslims as two distinct nations politically, so that a separate political entity could be developed for Muslims.

This meant that with the creation of Pakistan, there wasn’t much need to revisit the theory in the cultural arena, but that was not meant to be. Particularly after Bangladesh split to become an independent country (it was earlier called East Pakistan) in 1971, the Pakistani State felt increasingly insecure and hence clung onto the theory much more ardently. Through political rhetoric and state sanctioned textbooks, the theory was given a civilisational tinge as a need was felt to separate the cultures of these two religious groups. Due to these manoeuvrings of the State, the theory remains alive, evoked from time to time by different politicians and holders of power, needlessly.

A few years ago, when former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at a South Asian journalist forum expressed that India and Pakistan share the same culture, he was vehemently criticised for challenging the “Two-Nation Theory”.

Seventy years after Pakistan was born there is a desperate need to revisit the theory and understand it for the political essence that it was meant to have in pre-Partition India, instead of what it has become today. Over and over again, it has been evoked to criminalise the indigenous cultural and religious traditions of this part of the world. It is due to a misappropriation of this theory that Pakistan today finds itself without much cultural bearing, desperately trying to define what its culture is – and failing miserably.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books: Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.