Understanding the Two-Nation Theory

The general understanding of two nation theory is that Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nations, indeed two different civilisations, that are unique, as Jinnah put it, in their “culture and civilisation, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of value and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions, aptitudes and ambitions…outlook on life and of life.” The co-existence of two such foundationally different, almost antithetical, peoples is not possible. Therefore, it was necessary for Muslims of India to have a separate homeland—which eventually became Pakistan.

The rationale for the creation of Pakistan, a claim to nationhood on the basis of religion, is still questioned to this date. If, for example, Hindus and Muslims were so incompatibly distinct, how was it possible that so many Muslims—almost 35 million at the time of partition—stayed back in India? In the opinion of many, the secession of East Bengal, the frontline state in the Pakistan Movement, brought forth the inherent inadequacy of the Two-Nation Theory. Were Muslims really a “nation”—given that apart from ‘Islam in danger’ providing a source of mutual worry, the Muslims of India were conspicuously diverse people and had hardly anything beyond religion that united them? Furthermore, the fact that so many Hindus were part of Pakistan after partition necessitated an exegesis of two-nation theory that could accommodate them in Pakistan as equal citizens of state. Such an interpretation of Two-Nation Theory would have posed a question mark on Pakistan’s very raison d’etre: how could people who till yesterday were fundamentally incompatible now be told that they could co-exist in the new state?

A simple explanation based on incompatibility of faiths and therefore of peoples was way too simplistic. Ayesha Jalal’s ‘The Sole Spokesman’ rejected that proposition 35 years ago. Over the years, many authoritative historians on South Asia have said the same in one way or another. Being ‘simplistic’ did not mean it was wrong; it was simply insufficient. A more wholesome explanation was, therefore, essential. This article argues that there is another side of the Two-Nation Theory, which when neglected renders the meaning of the thesis inadequate.

Two-Nation Theory is analogous to a coin that like every other coin has two sides. One side is ‘Islam in danger’: that Muslims of Muslim-minority provinces of subcontinent felt that Islam was in danger and therefore demanded a separate space or homeland in order to prosper without being subjugated or suppressed. The question arises: if Islam was in danger, what was endangering it? The answer to this question is the other side of the Two-Nation coin: Islam was endangered by the majoritarianism of Congress.

A complete statement of two-nation theory would make a case for a separate homeland not just on the basis cultural or civilisational uniqueness of Islam, but also on the basis of the legitimate fears of subjugation of numerically weak Muslims of India vis-à-vis numerically strong Congress and Hindu nationalists.

It is true that two nation theory espoused the incompatibility of two nations of Muslims and Hindus. But to read it exclusively as religious/cultural incompatibility is a partial reading of the idea. It leaves out or ignores a very significant argument that was extended throughout the history of the Pakistan Movement: the fear of majoritarianism. Notwithstanding the ‘Islam in danger’ paradigm, the fear of being subjugated to Hindu rule for perpetuity given the numerical weakness of Muslims in subcontinent was the bedrock of the case that All India Muslim League built for the necessity of having a separate homeland.

The aversion towards majoritarianism can help us understand why Jinnah was reluctant to describe Pakistan as a theological state. Why, one wonders, would a leader who was so clear about the distinctive character of Muslims as to declare them to be a “nation” shy away from describing Pakistan as an Islamic state when the entire case for Pakistan was apparently based on religious nationalism? That is the whole point. The rationale for the creation of Pakistan was not hatred for Hindus or Hinduism. It was anti-majoritarianism—in the Subcontinent’s case, religious majoritarianism. Since Jinnah had fought against the religious majoritarianism of Congress, he was not ready to impose the same on Hindus (or minorities of Pakistan) by declaring Pakistan an Islamic state. To a liberal constitutionalist like Jinnah, doing so would have simply meant repeating the principle of religious majoritarianism of Congress in Pakistan. If Jinnah had built a case exclusively on the basis of religious distinctiveness, he would not have felt any qualms in declaring Pakistan what the logic demanded it to be—a nation-state for Muslims or an Islamic state. His reluctance to do so is proof that anti-majoritarianism, not hatred towards Hindus, was the basis of Two-Nation Theory, or at least formed a very significant part of it.

Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan was a lofty one then. It was to be a heaven for those against majoritarianism in all its manifestations, and not just people who believed in Islam. The minorities of Pakistan were to be part of Pakistani fabric as thoroughly as Muslims were. The dislike for majoritarianism was something that Pakistanis were to pride themselves in. It was to be a counter-model, a state where, unlike in Congress-led India, exclusionary anti-majoritarianism would not be practiced. Pakistan was to provide a better, higher, version of state governance that would show Congress how to run a country democratically and inclusively.

All these ideals were lost, forgotten, erased from national memory after Jinnah departed and religious right began to claim the monopoly of interpreting the Two Nation Theory.

It is imperative that in order to create a democratic, forward-looking, twenty-first century Pakistan, we revisit our roots and reinterpret them, rather reclaim them, in light of modern knowledge and as per the necessities of the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

Reading the Two-Nation Theory as a verdict against anti-majoritarianism can help us build a thoroughly democratic narrative. The struggle against majoritarianism was a struggle for defending the rights of Muslims who were in numerical minority as compared to Hindus. From this historical fact, a case can be built that accommodating the rights of all, regardless of class, creed, religion, on anything else, is antithetical to history of Muslims of India—as it is to Islam. Therefore, Pakistan would be a state that would accommodate everyone. Wishful as this may sound, such an inclusive narrative can help Pakistani state reinstate democratic culture and initiate a process of social change by rethinking and reinterpreting history. If our nation can learn to pride itself in their struggle against majoritarianism, they can also come to see that authoritarianism or any kind of model of governance that disregards widespread consensus in making decisions is irreconcilable with their history.

If materialised, such an interpretation will certainly facilitate our long-pending desire for national integration. The distinct cultures, ethnicities, religions that call Pakistan their home can come together and identify that Pakistan is not a land exclusively reserved for Muslims of India; rather, it is a home for all those who rejected majoritarianism in favour of pluralism and respect for minority voices by associating themselves with the Muslim League. The anti-majoritarian ethos of Pakistan Movement can be seen in the fact that of the five seats reserved for Muslims on Viceroy’s Executive Council in 1946, Muslim League gave one to Jogendra Nath Mandal, a leader of the Scheduled Castes (Dalits).

It is about time that we recast our national narrative and reframe it in democratic terms. Otherwise, as democracy entrenches itself, future generations would find it difficult to buy the exclusionary narrative of incompatibility of Muslims and Hindus given their long history of co-existence prior to British advent in India and given the increasingly negative connotations attached to identity politics.



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