One Myth, Many Pakistans

Cross Post from The New York Times


Published: June 11, 2010


FOR many Pakistanis, the deaths of more than 80 members of the Ahmadi religious sect in mosque attacks two weeks ago raised questions of the nation’s future. For me, it recalled a command from my schoolboy past: “Write a Note on the Two-Nation Theory.”

It was a way of scoring easy points on the history exam, and of using new emotions and impressive-sounding words. I began my answer like this:

The Two-Nation Theory is the Theory that holds that the Hindus and Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent are Two Distinct and Separate Nations. It is a Theory that is supported by Numerous Facts and Figures. During the War of Independence of 1857 the Muslim rulers of India were defeated by the British. Suddenly the Hindus, who had always held a grudge against the Muslims for conquering them, began to collaborate with the new British rulers. They joined British schools, worked in British offices and began to make large amounts of money, while the Muslims, who were Discriminated Against, became poorer and poorer. It was now Undisputable that the Hindus and the Muslims were Two Distinct and Separate Nations, and it was becoming necessary for the Muslims to demand a Distinct and Separate Homeland for themselves in the Indian Subcontinent.

To that point, my “note” had only built up the atmosphere of mistrust and hostility between Hindus and Muslims. It had yet to give examples of the Distinctness and Separateness of the two communities (such as that Hindus worshipped the cow but Muslims ate it), of Hindu betrayals and conspiracies (they wanted Hindi, not Urdu, to be the national language). And it had still to name and praise the saddened Muslim clerics, reformers and poets who had first noted these “undisputable” differences.

I got points for every mini-note that I stretched into a full page, which was valid if it gave one important date and one important name, each highlighted for the benefit of the teacher. This was because the teacher couldn’t really read English, and could award points only to answers that carefully showcased their Facts and Figures.

After the exam I would go home. Here the Two-Nation Theory fell apart. I was part-Shiite (my mother’s family), part-Sunni (my father’s family) and part-nothing (neither of my parents was sectarian). There were other things: the dark-skinned man who swabbed the floors of the house was a Christian; the jovial, foul-mouthed, red-haired old woman who visited my grandmother every few months was rumored to be an Ahmadi. (It was a small group, I had been told, that considered itself Muslim but had been outlawed by the government.)

But even more than these visible religious variations, I was more aware of things like caste and money: my mother’s family was upper caste, claiming a magical blood bond with the Prophet Muhammad, and owned large tracts of land in the countryside. My father’s relatives, however, were undisguised converts from Hinduism who had fled their villages long ago and now lived in the city, where they were always running out of money, working in government offices and selling homemade furniture and gambling (and losing) on the stock market.

The Two-Nation Theory allowed only for the simple categories of Hindu and Muslim, one for India and the other for Pakistan; it had no room for inner complications like Shiite and Sunni and Christian and Ahmadi. (I had yet to learn that more than a million Hindus still lived in Pakistan.) It also required the abolition of magical blood claims and landholdings and stock markets, so that our personalities and situations could be determined purely by our religious beliefs.

But I knew that things weren’t really like that. And this was something I knew from the beginning, and lived with quite comfortably: the history in my textbook was Distinct and Separate from the histories of real people.

Some years later, in a secluded college library in Massachusetts, I read a very different account of the Two-Nation Theory. Here I learned that it was devised in the 1930s by a group of desperate Muslim politicians who wanted to extract some constitutional concessions from the British before they left India.

The Muslims of India, these politicians were saying in their political way, were a “distinct group” with their own “history and culture.” But really, the book told me, all they wanted was special protection for the poor Muslim minorities in soon-to-be-independent, mostly Hindu India.

But the politicians’ gamble failed; they were taken up on their bluff and were given a separate country, abruptly and violently cut-up, two far-apart chunks of Muslim-majority areas (but what about the poor Muslim minorities that were still stuck in Hindu-majority areas!) that its founders (but it was a mistake!) now had to justify with the subtleties of their theory.

It was like a punishment.

One by one, the founders died — the most important, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, just a year after Pakistan’s birth. Their theory could have died with them. What was the use now of the idea of Muslim specialness — the distinctiveness and separateness of Indian Muslims — in an independent, Muslim-majority country?

But the idea was kept alive and made useful: first by a set of unelected bureaucrats, then by generals, then by landowners, and then by generals again. And, always, to blackmail the people (still indistinct and unspecial). An Islamic dance was danced: sovereignty rested with “Allah alone”; the country would be called an Islamic republic; alcohol and gambling were banned; the Ahmadi sect was outlawed (to please the fringe mullahs) for violating, with their beliefs and practices, Muhammad’s position in “the principle of the finality of [Muhammad’s] prophethood.”

It peaked with the government takeover in 1977 by Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who announced that his great wish in life was to “Islamize” the people of Pakistan. The Two-Nation Theory, confined so far to political slogans and clauses in the Constitution, now went everywhere: it was injected into textbook passages (the ones I would reproduce, with new words and emotions, in my exam) and radio shows and programs on the one state-run TV channel. And it branched out, becoming anti-Communist (to attract American money), anti-Shiite (to attract Arab money, given for cutting Iran’s influence in the continent), anti-woman (to please the mullahs) and still more anti-Ahmadi (to enhance the pleasure and power of the mullahs).

The Two-Nation Theory was dynamic, useful, lucrative.

And it still is lucrative. Its best rewards are nowadays found in the high ratings (and correspondingly high advertising revenue) of Pakistan’s newly independent TV channels. Dozens of them are competing to sell the fastest-burning conspiracy theories (India and Israel and America are behind the latest suicide bombings) and the most punishing religious advice (don’t wear nail polish, don’t celebrate birthdays, kill blasphemers wherever you find them), that a semi-urban, semi-Islamized population, raised on years of government textbooks and radio shows and TV sermons (themselves confirmed and elucidated by the sermons of mullahs in neighborhood mosques) finds hard to shut out.

So the coordinated gun and bomb attacks during services at two Ahmadi mosques here on May 28 surprised no one. Some were saddened. But most took it as a matter of course. On the TV channels news of the assaults was reported and displayed (all those eyeballs, all those ads) but not explained. And in Lahore’s Main Market, near rickshaw stands and fruit stalls — the rickshaw drivers and fruit sellers standing in the heat outside the window display of an electronics shop, watching the muted carnage on an imported flat-screen TV — the incident was mulled over and attributed in the end to the larger madness that was overtaking the country.

IT was, they agreed, in some ways like the burning last year of a Christian village outside Lahore, and in other ways like the sporadic killings of Shiites in the years before that. But they also likened it to the televised killings of armed clerics in Islamabad’s Red Mosque — carried out three years ago by the military itself — and the unadmitted, unexplained attacks by American drones still falling on the people in the western mountains.

In the drawing rooms of Lahore, among the children of bureaucrats, landlords and military men (amazingly practical and un-Islamic in their drawing rooms), it was said that the Ahmadi attacks, though tragic, were not a sign of doom. After all, the Punjabi Taliban, who had claimed responsibility, were just another network — easily disrupted (when the time came) by a combination of on-the-ground raids and abductions, long and unexplained detentions, and perhaps strikes on mountainside training centers by the Predator drones that we don’t admit to knowing anything about.

That was their idea of the war on terrorism: the physical removal of a nuisance, something rare and extreme and isolatable.

A few days later, I read in the newspaper that the police had made an arrest in the Ahmadi attacks. The suspect’s name was Abdullah and he was 17 years old. When asked for his motives, he said that he had learned that Ahmadis were drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, “so their bloodshed was a great service to Islam.”

It was a simple enough statement. But I wondered about his ideas. Had he taken them from the Constitution? Or was he inspired by the court order days earlier banning Facebook for holding a contest of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad?

Did he hear it in a mosque, or see it on a TV screen in the window display of an electronics shop? Did he read about blasphemy and its punishments in a textbook? Or was he one of those boys (Twenty million? Thirty million?) who don’t go to school and can’t read textbooks?

Was he taught about the Ahmadis in the mountains of Waziristan, where the police say he trained for his mission? Did he witness an American drone attack there? Did he think it was carried out by Ahmadis? Was it confirmed for him by a popular talk show host that the Ahmadis were America’s agents in Pakistan? And, in Waziristan, was he trained by the good Taliban, the ones the Pakistani military is trying to protect, or the bad Taliban, the ones it is trying to kill?

Or was he told about the Ahmadis after he had come all the way to the vast, grassy compound on the outskirts of Lahore where doctors and professors and businessmen — and even, it is said, some bureaucrats and landowners and military men — converge now and then to hang out with the masses and talk about the ways and woes of Islam?

Several theories now, with several competing culprits. It’s hard to pick just one.

Ali Sethi is the author of “The Wish Maker,” a novel.


Filed under Army, Democracy, FATA, Identity, India, Islam, Islamabad, Jinnah, minorities, Pakistan, Religion, The New York Times, Writers

30 responses to “One Myth, Many Pakistans

  1. Vijay D

    “they wanted Hindi, not Urdu, to be the national language” Mr. Sethi evidently is unaware that the overwhelming majority of Indians in the south have no desire to learn Hindi much less “want” it but are Indians nevertheless.

  2. Hayyer

    Hindi was a demand of North Indian Hindus. The Urdu Hindi conflict among North Indians has a long history. North Indian Muslims (excluding Kashmir, the Frontier, and just possibly Punjab but not any more) equated Indianness with Urdu and North Indian Hindus equated (as many still do) Indianness with Hindi.
    Decades ago an RSS worker who had lived long in Ladakh was transferred out. His parting advice to a Buddhist acquaintance of mine was, ‘ma Hindi ko kabhi nahin bhulna’.
    Ladakhis have begun to speak Hindi/ Urdu only in the last couple of generations. My acquaintance was bemused by the reference to Hindi as the mother.
    East Pakistanis had the same problem with Urdu that South Indians had with Hindi.

  3. We know most of this, but I’ve seldom read it in more simple, elegant language.

  4. Arjun

    This fighting over religion is so pointless and such a waste of time.

    The subcontinent is blessed — it’s blessed with the ingenuity of its people, rich fertile land, and an ancient and rich culture. We could do so much together. An alternative vision for the future would be one where the countries of the subcontinent come together as one, with free trade and movement of people, and light borders. Not unlike Canada and the US — they remain separate countries with friendly relations. We could aim to be one of the most productive, prosperous and creative parts of the world. Of course, for this to happen, extremists need to be de-empowered by the moderate majority.

    It’s just baffling what anyone is gaining by forcing his or her version of personal belief system down anyone else’s throat, and fighting and killing for it.

  5. PGB

    BTW, Hindi is NOT a national language in India. There is no such thing as “national language” in India.
    There are 22 “official” languages in India, which include Hindi and Urdu.

  6. Bin Ismail

    The jihad against Hindi and yudh against Urdu is just another holy war waged by the holy ones. In fact this reminds me: once a Hindu friend asked Sir Zafrulla Khan “Urdu aur Hindi mein kia farq hai? [what is the difference between Urdu and Hindi?]. Zafrulla Khan replied “Wohi jo Zafrulla aur Japphrulla mein hai.” [the same as between Zafrulla and Japprulla].

    The presently propagated and publicized Two Nation Theory has as much to do with reality as the myth that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam. The Two Nation Theory germinated as a defensive, rather preservative measure to secure the “political and social”- not religious – identity of the somewhat “politically” insecure Muslim community of undivided India. From this germination-point, the theory evolved into a “Muslim-majority states & Hindu-majority states” equation. From this equation, the theory evolved into the concept of three sub-federations within an undivided India, as proposed in the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. From the concept of the “3 sub-federations”, it took the final shape of Pakistan and India” – with the Muslim-majority states clumping together “politically” to form an separate country.

    Throughout this metamorphosis, never was the 2-nation theory perceived and promoted by its proponents as an “Islam vs Sanatan Dharm” thoery. Post-partition, rather “post-Jinnah” to be precise, there was an impressive influx of rightists into the Muslim League, and the party thinking changed tracks. Facts were systematically replaced with myths at every possible level of information-dissipation, an “ideology” suddenly cropped up from nowhere, secret back-doors for any possible latter advent of the clergy, were flung open and assuredly kept open. What we now have is a brand new 2-nation theory.

  7. Hayyer


    Actually PGB you can count the number of national languages by reading off a banknote.
    The Union has two official languages, Hindi and English. There is an entire department set up, called Department of Official Language to take care of Hindi.
    State governments have their own official languages. Hindi is the official language of nine states at least. Bengali prevails in two I think including Tripura.
    The language situation is now quite diffused. Many states including Delhi have multiple second languages such as Urdu and Punjabi, which means that official forms and such like can be submitted in those languages.

  8. ali arqam

    The above quote given by the author has not his genuine ideas for today, he just had referred it that these ideas were part of our education,
    as in Urdu we say, “ab pulon k neeche boht sa pani guzar chuka hei”

  9. Maryanne Khan

    Ali Sethi

    This is very well said.

    Didn’t even bother to read the comments. They tend to be rather . . . partisan, divisive, non-constructive as far as dialogue goes . . .


  10. Nusrat Pasha

    @ Bin Ismail (June 14, 2010 at 8:39 am)

    “…….never was the 2-nation theory perceived and promoted by its proponents as an “Islam vs Sanatan Dharm” theory…….”

    Well said. The Two Nation Theory did not in any way imply an “Islam vs Hinduism” or even a “Muslim vs Hindu” scenario, on the plane of religion. The perspective of the Two Nation Theory was a political one, that culminated in the Muslim-majority states emerging as one nation and the Hindu-majority states as the other.

    Jinnah had envisioned Pakistan and India as two friendly, neighbouring and secular countries – a vision that his successors brought to naught.

  11. skyview

    To Nusrat

    Jinnah failed to make his vision (if he had one) concrete and long-term-exemplary through political actions.

    He wrote no book but wasted his time doing a lowly and very inefficient and weak GG job, even as his health deteriorated. He wrote down no powerful will to restore the hindus to their rightful homelands with full human rights, nor did he undo the rebellion in Northern Territories against the Maharaja of Kashmir nor the invasion of Kashmir by the pak army in Oct. 1947. Events gave him so many opportunities to demonstrate his “vision” (e.g. peaceful friendly fair relations with India), he lost them all.

    He may have been the most brilliant (as told and retold in the pak mythology) before Aug 1947 – but after that he was a failure.

    As they say: Success is very often more difficult to manage than failure.

  12. Nusrat Pasha

    @ skyview (June 14, 2010 at 8:05 pm)

    In my opinion, Jinnah’s 11th August 1947 presidential address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan was very much his “will”. You have the right to not endorse it as so, but I am indeed of the opinion that it was a powerful will.

    I’m afraid I do not recognize your credentials, with reference to being able to judge Jinnah. Evidently more able and more impartial minds have judged him, placing him admirably high.

    The destinies of nations, are not determined entirely at their stages of inception. Latter courses taken, contribute as much, if not more to the latter scenarios.

  13. skyview

    to nusrat

    Jinnah was a lawyer. He could not have thought that a speech is a legally binding will. Why do you obfuscate the issue?

    A will is writen and deposited with notarial legitimation and preserved in the courts of law and eventually also published. It has a legally binding character.

    A book and a testament have a very different quality than speeches, letters and blogs. Jinnah was a barrister at law – not some simpleton. He should have known.

  14. Nusrat Pasha

    A true statesmen is not expected, by any standards to leave a will for his nation – specially if he happens to be the founder of that nation – in the form of a legal document. His words are his will. Even a casual glance at history will establish that. And may I add that even a simpleton ought to know that much.

  15. shiv

    The justification for the creation of Pakistan may be debated, but the fact remains that Pakistan “is”. It exists today as an (almost) independent entity.

    But frankly many actions from Pakistanis appear like they want to change Pakistan from “is” to “isn’t”. Somehow this reminds me of your exalted President, the Right Honourable Asif Ali Zardari, esq, etc when he spoke those immortal words “Pakistan na khappay

    I look at opinion polls in Pakistan and it looks like most people dislike the US and hate India. The Taliban too dislike the US and hate India. The Taliban are Muslims. 97% of Pakistanis are Muslims.

    It appears to me that a Taliban government could conceivably come to power in Pakistan. Pakistan was violent even before the Taliban came, so what is new about the Taliban? More violence? But that is what freedom fighters will always do. Pakistanis are no strangers to fighting for freedom, having provided “moral and diplomatic” support to freedom fighters in Kashmir and other parts of the world. Surely the cake of freedom from Hindu majority India could be topped with an icing of freedom from the US too?

    I am told that polls indicate only a small percentage of Pakistanis support Islamic parties. This and the fact that the Pakistan army is valiantly pushing aside the Taliban in Orkazai and Waziristan are held up as clear examples of Pakistani moderation and hatred for the purely Islamic Taliban.

    But there is a problem here. Polls can be held again, and must be held again and again. The Islamists may win the polls next time, and the army may suffer setbacks. The Taliban could still come to power in Pakistan.

    Should Pakistanis really try to “prevent” the Taliban from coming to power if they have popular support? How will you know that they do not have popular support unless you hold polls again and again.

  16. OMLK


    A person’s will as a legal document is a statement pertaining to the managment of his personal material affairs after his death; and not a vision for a country! To establish his vision for Pakistan, Jinnah gave a speech on the floor of the house, and there can be no more forceful articulation of his thoughts for the future of the nation than to officially state it to the political managers of the same.

  17. OMLK


    A person’s will as a legal document is a statement pertaining to the managment of his personal material affairs after his death; and not a vision for an entire country! To establish his vision for Pakistan, Jinnah gave a speech on the floor of the house, and there can be no more forceful articulation of his thoughts for the future of the nation than to officialy state it to the political managers of the same.

  18. skyview

    to OMLK

    If the thing with the will/testament is not corrrct then the question why Jinnah wasted his time doing GG duties instead of writing a book and giving training to the next GG by actually appointing a younger hindu into that position and teaching him to how do things?

    And why he (if he was a law and order man and a constitutionalist) did not undo the rebellion in Gilgit and also order the pak army to vacate the Kashmir portion (which was later the pre-requisite for holding a refendum in Kashmir).

    Why should the founder of a new nation waste his time on being a president or GG?

    This is what I mean when I say: it is often more difficult to manage success than to manage failure.

    Wisdom is more important than mere intelligence – Jinnah (and jinnahists) boasted of his being more intelligent, but wisdom he lacked.

    To shiv

    Islamist parties in Pakistan get less votes because the main parties have programs that are islamic enough. Support for islamism cannot be judged on how many vote for an explicitly islamic(ist) party. About 60% of the population of Pakistan is staunchly islamist after 60 years of indoctrination into how to humiliate, devilize, denigrate and ridicule hindus and hindu ancestors.

  19. Hi, nice post! I really like your post about One Myth, Many Pakistans
    Keep the good work!

  20. bciv


    How will you know that they do not have popular support unless you hold polls again and again

    an opinion based on the results of a current poll is slightly more reliable than a prediction about the possible outcome of a future one.

    of course, polls have a sell-by date.. be they opinion polls or democratic elections.

    this reminds me of your exalted President, the Right Honourable Asif Ali Zardari, esq, etc when he spoke those immortal words “Pakistan na khappay”

    and i thought that your facts were good regardless of your analysis and the reasons for it being bad. but to get your facts this wrong! this is worse than a schoolboy error. shockingly worse.

  21. Jamal

    This article ‘One Myth, Many Pakistans’ has been censored in the International Herald Tribune distributed in Pakistan;

    Story here;

  22. Kaalket

    Wait a Minute , Are Pakistani now claiming that islam has nothing to with laying the foundation of curent entity known as Pakistan to the civilized world ? How shocking that Pakistanis are denying the sovereigny of Allah over them for the sake of expediency and mundane benefits. If true, this exhibit the natural historical weakness in face of adversity. So what is the identity of Pakistan, Pakistaniat and Pakistani people?

  23. Bin Ismail

    @Kaalket (June 16, 2010 at 4:45 am)

    “…..How shocking that Pakistanis are denying the sovereignty of Allah over them for the sake of expediency and mundane benefits…..”

    Cheap satire aside, this comment also exhibits a profound lack of understanding of both, Divine Sovereignty and Human Statecraft.

    Unquestionably, Pakistan was not made in the name of Islam. This fact, however unpleasant it may sound to your ears, has nothing to do with acceptance or denial of Divine Sovereignty. God is sovereign over the entire cosmos. That’s what being God is all about. That has nothing to do with how a certain geo-political entity made its appearance on the map of the world.

    Denying this myth, dear to some, that Pakistan was made in the name of Islam is not equivalent to denying the sovereignty of God. Belief in God’s sovereignty is a personal religious belief, which is entirely independent of one’s study of political history.

  24. OMLK


    If you are trying to make the point that Jinnah lacked Wisdom based on what he did and did not do post-partition, then you are entitled to that opinion. I, would say, however, that neither you nor I are in a position to “know” what it may have been like to be in Jinnah’s shoes at that point in time. In hindsight it is very easy to discover shortcomings in any person’s conduct done in the past and then ofcoruse different people may pass judgement’s on the “wisdom” of that person based on the same; but remember hind sight is always 20/20 and such judgements will always be subjective and open to debate. My point was simply that your contention of Jinnah not writing his vision for the country into his will being a refelction of his wisdom is not valid.

  25. skyview

    to omlk

    Basically I agree with your counterpoint.

    But Jinnah is being called a law-and-order man and a supreme constitutionalist in Pakistan. But he failed to lay the foundation of this attitude in his last 13 months. He had several chances to do it. Gilgit rebellion against the Maharaja of Kashmir, pak militarist invasion of Kashmir, hindus exterminated in West Pakistan, urdu language problem and many such crucial situation where he could have demonstarated in words, writing and deeds what it mean to be a law-and-order man and constitutionalist and secularist. He lost all opportunities. If he had made use of them then Pakistan would have been a very different nation today and the relationship to India would have been that of a friend and islamic fascism would not have raised its ugly head and horns.

  26. Kaalket

    Bin Ismael,
    Then can u please tell us what is Non Islamic about Pakistan , its people, state, government, various educational, social institutions and how they relate to kaffirs still existing in Pakistan. There is lot to learn about the kaffir charachter of Pakistan by rest of the world , please do the necessary and enlighten us so we may understand.

  27. Bin Ismail

    @Kaalket (June 19, 2010 at 3:25 am)

    Tujhe kyoon fikr hai aye gul, dil-e sad chaak-e bulbul ki
    Tu apnay pairhan kay chaak to pehlay rafoo karlay

    Translation: Why are you concerned O flower, with the fragmented heart of the nightingale. First stitch your own tattered apparel.