Myth and History
By Ayesha Jalal
impeccable record in commemorating the landmarks
in its national struggle has not always been matched
by an ability to coherently explain their historical
Sixty-five years since its adoption by the All-India
Muslim League, the Lahore Resolution remains mired
in contentious debates among historians of South
Asia as well as the protagonists of provincial versus
central rights in Pakistan.
Not surprisingly, most Pakistanis are no nearer
understanding how the would-be Magna Carta of their
territorial statehood relates to their citizenship
rights, far less squares the circle of the multiple
conceptions of nationhood articulated by Muslims
in the pre-independence period.
The Resolution’s claim that Indian Muslims
were not a minority but a nation was raised on behalf
of all the Muslims of the subcontinent. Yet the
territorial contours of the newly created homeland
for India’s Muslims in 1947 left almost as
many Muslim non-citizens outside as there were Muslim
Even after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 administered
a rude shock to the official narratives of national
identity, the contradiction between claims of nationhood
and the achievement of statehood was never addressed,
far less resolved.
The silence has been a major stumbling block in
Pakistan’s quest for an identity which is
consistent with the appeal of Islamic universalism
as well as the requirements of territorial nationalism.
Instead of treating the Lahore Resolution as an
issue of meta historical significance, an analytically
nuanced history of the circumstances surrounding
its passage can make for a stronger and more coherent
sense of national identity.
Discussions about the historical significance of
the Resolution have concentrated more on the political
implications of the transformation of the Muslim
minority community in India into a ‘nation’
rather than on the ambiguities surrounding the demand
for Muslim ‘statehood’.
A close analysis of the historical context and actual
content of the Resolution, however, suggests that
there was no neat progression from an assertion
of Muslim nationhood to the winning of separate
My book The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League
and the Demand for Pakistan (Cambridge, 1985) delineated
the uneasy fit between the claim of Muslim ‘nationhood’
and the uncertainties and indeterminacies of politics
in the late colonial era that led to the attainment
of sovereign ‘statehood’.
Instead of grasping the salience of the argument,
some historians and publicists on both sides of
the 1947 divide have interpreted this as implying
that the demand for a Pakistan was a mere ‘bargaining
In so far as politics is the art of the possible,
bargaining is an intrinsic part of that art. To
suggest, as some have glibly done, that Mohammed
Ali Jinnah used Pakistan as a mere ruse against
the Congress is a gross distortion of not only my
argument but of the actual history.
My argument in The Sole Spokesman, and one that
I confirmed in Self and Sovereignty: Individual
and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850s (Routledge
and Sang-i-Meel, 2000-1), was that while the insistence
on national status for Indian Muslims became a non-negotiable
issue after 1940, the demand for a wholly separate
and sovereign state of ‘Pakistan’ remained
open to negotiation as late as the summer of 1946.
A refusal to acknowledge this is a result of the
failure to draw an analytical distinction between
‘nation’ and ‘state’. More
problematic has been a flawed historical methodology
that takes the fact of partition as the point of
departure for interpreting the historical evolution
of the demand for a ‘Pakistan’.
The historical backdrop of the Lahore Resolution
makes plain why a claim to nationhood did not necessarily
mean a complete severance of ties with the rest
of India. Beginning with Mohammad Iqbal’s
presidential address to the All-India Muslim League
at Allahabad in December 1930, a succession of Muslims
put forward imaginative schemes in the 1930s about
how power might be shared between religiously enumerated
‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’
in an independent India.
In staking a claim for a share of power for Muslims
on grounds of cultural difference, these schemes
in their different ways challenged Congress’s
right to indivisible sovereignty without rejecting
any sort of identification with India.
Describing India as “the greatest Muslim country
in the world”, Iqbal called for the establishment
of a Muslim state in north-western India which would
remain part of the sub-continental whole.
If even Iqbal was thinking in terms of an all-India
whole, outright secession was simply not an option
for Muslims hailing from provinces where they were
in a minority.
Virtually all the schemes put forward by Muslims
living in minority provinces considered themselves
as ‘a nation in minority’ that was part
of ‘a larger nation inhabiting Pakistan and
If Muslims in Hindustan were seen as belonging to
a larger nation in north-western India, religious
minorities in ‘Pakistan’ and Bengal
were expected to derive security from sharing a
common nationality with co-religionists dominating
the non-Muslim state.
For the notion of reciprocal safeguards to work,
Muslims and non-Muslims had to remain part of a
larger Indian whole, albeit one that was to be dramatically
reconceptualized in form and substance by practically
independent self-governing parts.
Even schemes with secessionist overtones, most notably
that of Chaudhary Rahmat Ali, wanted to carve out
half a dozen Muslim states in India and consolidate
them into a “Pakistan Commonwealth of Nations.’
What all these schemes led to was the claim that
Muslims constituted a nation which could not be
subjugated to a Hindu majority represented by the
Congress. Taking this as its point of departure
and avoiding mention of ‘partition’
or ‘Pakistan’, the League’s draft
resolution called for the grouping of the Muslim-majority
provinces in north-western and north-eastern India
into ‘Independent States’ in which the
constituent units would be ‘autonomous and
There was no reference to a center even though the
fourth paragraph spoke of ‘the constitution’
to safeguard the interests of both sets of minorities,
Muslim and non-Muslim. The claim that Muslims constituted
a ‘nation’ was perfectly compatible
with a federal or confederal state structure covering
the whole of India.
With ‘nations’ straddling states, the
boundaries between states had to be permeable and
flexible. This is why years after the adoption of
the resolution, Jinnah and the League remained implacably
opposed to the division of the Punjab and Bengal
along religious lines.
Historians and publicists in India have seized on
the contradiction in the demand for a Pakistan based
on the Muslim right of self-determination and the
apparent unwillingness to grant the same right to
non-Muslims living in Punjab and Bengal.
Much like their counterparts in Pakistan, they have
conveniently glossed over the difference between
a purely secessionist demand and one aimed at providing
the building block for an equitable power sharing
arrangement at the sub-continental level between
two essentially sovereign states - ‘Pakistan’
based on the Muslim-majority provinces and Hindustan
based on the Hindu-majority provinces.
With their singular focus on a monolithic and indivisible
concept of sovereignty borrowed from the erstwhile
colonial rulers, scholars and students of history
on both sides of the 1947 divide have been unable
to envisage a political arrangement based on a measure
of shared sovereignty which might have satisfied
the demands of ‘majorities’ as well
as safeguarded the interests of religious minorities
in predominantly Muslim and Hindu areas.
In 1944 and then again at the time of the Cabinet
Mission Plan, the All-India Muslim League at the
behest of Mohammad Ali Jinnah refused to accept
a ‘Pakistan’ based on the division of
the Punjab and Bengal.
It was Congress’s unwillingness to countenance
an equitable power sharing arrangement with the
Muslim League which resulted in the creation of
a sovereign Pakistan based on the partition of Punjab
and Bengal along ostensibly religious lines.
Cast against its will in the role of a state seceding
from a hostile Indian union, Pakistan has tried
securing its independent existence by espousing
an ideology of Muslim ‘nationhood’ which
has entailed riding roughshod over the provincial
rights promised in the Lahore Resolution and dispensing
with democracy for the better part of its history.
It is no wonder that the claims of Muslim nationhood
have been so poorly served by the achievement of
Such historical insights may not appeal to the authors
of the contending narratives of a Pakistani or an
Indian identity. But even national myths require
some resemblance to history.
Charting a linear course to the winning of Muslim
statehood cannot even begin to grasp the vexed nature
of the problems which faced a geographically dispersed
and heterogeneous community in its bid to be considered
Nor can it explain why there are more sub-continental
Muslims living outside Pakistan, the much vaunted
Muslim homeland, in India and Bangladesh. Instead
of being weighed under by opposing national reconstructions
informed by the teleology of 1947, Pakistanis and
Indians could craft a more accommodative future
for the subcontinent by acknowledging the domain
of political contingency, containing possibilities
for different outcomes that lay between the adoption
of the Lahore Resolution and partition seven years
(The writer is Professor of History, Tufts University,
Massachusetts, US. - Courtesy Dawn)