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Jinnah’s two-nation theory was always a logically weak construct. The notion that people who had lived close together for centuries suddenly constituted two different nations because of their faith ignored the many different strands that make up the fabric of national identity. Since Pakistan came into being, the idea of a Muslim majority being a sufficient basis for nationhood has been exposed as a thoroughly bad one. Nevertheless, to advance his demand for Pakistan, Jinnah pushed his theory. The reality is, having governed much of the subcontinent for centuries until the British seized control, the Muslim upper class never reconciled to the idea of becoming a minority under Hindu rule.
But even at Partition in 1947, the two-nation theory stood exposed as a feeble justification for Pakistan’s creation when millions of Muslims were left behind in India. There is some evidence to indicate that Jinnah was appalled by the sight of traumatised refugees trekking into Pakistan in their hundreds of thousands, carrying their few possessions. He might have demanded the creation of Pakistan, but he had not bargained for the horrors of Partition. Luckily for him, he died long before the second setback to his two-nation theory came in 1971. As Pakistan’s most populous wing became Bangladesh following a bloody civil war, it became clear that religion was too thin a glue to hold the country together. Since then, Sindhi and Baloch nationalists have demanded their own states. The Mohajirs, descendants of Indian Muslims who migrated to Pakistan, have asserted their ethnic identity.
The whole notion of exclusiveness at the heart of the two-nation theory has opened a Pandora’s box. As somebody put it: “It began by saying that Muslims could not live with Hindus; then they said we could not live with Bengalis; now they are saying Sunnis can’t live with Shias. Where will it end?” Where indeed? As I survey the ongoing chaos in Pakistan, I become more and more convinced that many of our most knotty problems stem from Partition. When you create a state in the name of an ideology, then that ideology is bound to dominate the public discourse sooner or later. So the growing extremism and intolerance in Pakistan should not surprise us.
Secular Pakistanis draw comfort from Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947, made to the Constituent Assembly in which he clearly indicated the direction he wanted the new state to take—a ringing declaration of secularism. However, if one quotes the speech to most young Pakistanis today—specially those who have been through the state education system—they will be baffled. They will ask: “But if Jinnah wanted a secular state, why did he demand the partition of India?”
The reality is that Jinnah, although personally thoroughly liberal and secular, was a politician, and sent different messages to different audiences. So to his August 11 speech, mullahs can produce many others made to conservative crowds in which he spoke of an Islamic state. This ambiguity has manifested itself throughout Pakistan’s troubled history. But the rousing slogan of ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya? La Ilahah Illilah!’ still resonates louder than ever. Over time—and specially since Zia-ul-Haq’s rule in the ’80s—the outward expressions of religiosity have come to dominate every aspect of Pakistan’s existence. Indeed, Pakistani generals soon saw the effectiveness of using zealots as armed auxiliaries, first in Afghanistan, then in Kashmir. But the chickens are coming home to roost in the form of the Taliban and its offshoots.
But if the cost of Partition has been high for Pakistan, India has not escaped unscathed. I often get e-mails from Indian readers expressing satisfaction over Partition. “Just think,” they write, “how much worse our situation would have been had Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims been a part of India.” To my Pakistani readers, I say that had Partition not taken place, there would have been around 450 million Muslims in undivided India, hardly a small minority. And I tell my Indian readers that in a united India, we wouldn’t be spending the insane amounts on defence we do today.
(Irfan Husain is a columnist for the Dawn group, Pakistan.)