By Yasser Latif Hamdani
The number one issue in the subcontinent which threatens the fabric of every nation state that exists today in the region, is that of the inability of the central state structure to harmonise contending notions of identity. In no small way is this attributable to the events of the British Raj. Consider this: Before the British colonised the subcontinent, the people of this region existed in overlapping sets of multiple identities, where contending sovereignty of identity groups was negotiated and power was shared at several levels.
When the British came along, they brought with them the then in vogue European notions of nation and nation state. Differences between homogenous European nation states and the heterogeneous nature of India were glossed over when applying the same model here. Later enthusiastic young Indian nationalists, including Muslims like Badruddin Tyabji and Mahomed Ali Jinnah, bought into this thesis of one Indian nation and remained committed to it for a very long time. It was only the fear of Hindu majoritarianism within this one Indian nation that forced Jinnah to revert to the thesis they had rejected hitherto i.e. India was not one nation but at least two or even more. Though for the most part the two major leaders of the Indian Nationalist Movement post-1920, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were well aware of the various contending identities within the fold of the umbrella the Indian Nationalist Movement, the centralised Indian identity proved itself to be intolerant of smaller communal and ethnic identities. In fact Congress spent much of its time demonising them as the “other”, the exact opposite of the one Indian identity.
Instead of relying on the pre-colonial paradigm of multiple identities and shared sovereignty, the folly of South Asian leadership, including Jinnah till at least 1937, was that they sought the national conception prevalent in the industrialised world which was generally limited to a few million people at a time in one nation state and tried to apply it to India which was one of the most populous and diverse countries of the world. It was the failure of the Congress leadership to move beyond this idea of the nation state that made it impossible for them to come to an arrangement with the Muslim League on the basis of the Cabinet Mission Plan, a plan that would have preserved both Indian unity, the good that British had done, and which would have restored to India its original concept of shared sovereignty, thoroughly structured on modern lines. Critics of this scheme allege that this would have been a negation of a “one-man one-vote” democracy. In reality the Cabinet Mission Plan would have been a very reasonable and logical negation of the centralised nation state but not one person one vote democracy. The one person one vote democracy would have been perfectly served within individual nations that co-existed in one India.
The failure to conceptualise such a situation in 1947 on the part of the Congress Party is forgivable; given that they were not witness to the increasing trend world over of voluntarily ceding sovereignty to larger multi-national groups i.e. the European Union. Failure to envisage communities as nations, a nationhood which at least one party had already claimed in 1940, on part of the Congress rendered its own political discourse useless. For all its claims of being inclusive and representative, by failing to accommodate an alternative understanding of the national discourse in India, the Congress ultimately laid the seeds of partition. While post-partition continuity of a “Secular Democratic India” has masked many of the problems that exist on the ground level, even today the majority of smaller regional and communal groups remain marginalised from the mainstream.
Being officially secular with uninterrupted democracy no doubt has given India an edge but it remains for the most part a Hindu-dominated nation state. Nevertheless the erosion of the Congress Party however and the rise of smaller regional and other ideological alliances has made it possible for smaller groups to play a greater role in the destiny of their homeland. In comparison Pakistan’s dilemma has been even more pronounced. Even though in pre-1947 the theory of South Asian or Indian Muslim nationalism was much more accommodating of various multiple identities (as evidenced by Muslim League’s willingness to accommodate an independent and united Bengal as well as its concerted opposition to Punjab), since 1947 the official discourse has become increasingly hostile to any alternative notion to it. Furthermore outside the all-India situation, the vague conception of South Asian Muslim nationalism has proved to be an inadequate unifier.
Pakistan’s inability to learn from the mistakes made by the Congress Party led to the ultimate dissolution of the erstwhile Union which included the Eastern wing. Given that after 1971, there were many more South Asian Muslims outside Pakistani borders (as in Bangladesh and India) than inside it, has forced the Pakistani establishment to seek Islamic ideology as a possible replacement for South Asian Muslim nationalism as the basis of the state. Instead had Pakistanis focused on understanding the complex nature of events that had resulted in the creation of Pakistan, it would have been much easier to understand and appreciate the vision laid down by Mahomed Ali Jinnah on August 11, 1947.
Contrary to suggestions, Jinnah was not reversing or retiring the conception of identity that had resulted into partition but rather was expounding the secular principle of citizenship which should be the essential feature of any modern state. His hope that religious and ethnic political identities would lose importance in Pakistan was not a denial of their importance but rather an appeal to work towards an inclusive and pluralistic future mindful of the multiple identities that existed within Pakistan. The clearest example of this is that having considered the idea of converting the Muslim League into a Pakistan League open to all citizens of Pakistan and realising that public opinion was not ready for it at that point in time, Jinnah resigned from the Muslim League on 17th December, 1947 declaring that as governor general he could not remain the head of a self avowed communal organisation. This was an indication of his conception of the state above identity, community and nation. Nor did Jinnah close the door on the idea of re-establishing Muslim League as a non-communal party. He told Roger Stimson that the decision to have a purely Muslim organisation was not irrevocable and that it all depended on progress Pakistan would make. He was hoping that Pakistan would gradually integrate and move beyond politics of identity to politics of issues. Having been lost forever between militarist statism and pseudo-democratic centrism, it is about time that Pakistan re-imagined, re-cast, re-drew and re-organised as a state along these lines.
It is not enough to state this however and not give a solution. First and foremost it would require Pakistan and Pakistanis to accept that Pakistan is a multicultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and even a multi-national state, that a Pakistani citizen has multiple identities encompassing multiple situations and multiple classes, that there is no hard and fast distinction between majority and minority but rather an accommodation between the various identities and classes that contribute to making Pakistan one whole.