The Idea Of Pakistan: Why ‘New Medina’ Is Far Removed From The Muslim State 

Riots in Calcutta preceding Partition (Keystone/GettyImages)
  • While the idea of an Indian state (Republic of India) coexists comfortably with the idea of a Hindu nation, the idea of a Muslim state (Pakistan) is way off the idea of an Islamic nation (Medina).

    In his book, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, Venkat Dhulipala, clearly brings out the paradox, says Gautam R Desiraju.

The totally transformational nature of the Partition of India in 1947 has led to a veritable ocean of literature on the subject. This ranges from popular accounts of the lives of the great men of the time to stories of pain and suffering of common people, both fictional and non-fictional, from factual descriptions written during the run-up to Partition to serious studies of Partition history. One almost needs another book to help navigate through all this information.

Venkat Dhulipala’s authoritative volume has been well appreciated and discussed. He takes up a little researched aspect of Partition, namely the fact that it was largely conceived in the arena of Deobandi theology amidst the political machinations in the United Provinces (UP) of Agra and Oudh, in the period 1937-47, and even as the Muslim minority of UP were clearly aware of the fact, right from the beginning, that they would not be a part of the new state of Pakistan for which they were pleading.

Partition is to my mind like a chemical reaction, and being a research chemist myself, I would ask the reader to grant me this licence. Reactions are reversible or irreversible, and they proceed to generate kinetic products, which are the ones obtained the most easily and quickly, or thermodynamic products, which are the ones which are the best and most stable. Only in some reactions are the kinetic and thermodynamic products one and the same! Reactions sometimes give unwanted by-products, the formation of which could hardly have been anticipated. Reactants and products may be either simple or complex, and the transformations that take reactants into products are also likewise. Simple systems are related by simple logical arguments that relate cause and effect. In complex systems, the links between causes and effects are implicit, intrinsic and inherent. These systems are also called emergent. Emergence is not mysterious but rather time dependent. Today’s complex transformations become tomorrow’s simple ones, merely because we have that much more data and the accumulated understanding of the years. No event is without a cause, however subtle and hidden it might be.


History is supposed to be all about what happened and why it happened. It would be interesting if one could also add a third attribute, namely how well one can predict what will happen in the future from knowing what happened and why it happened.

The strength of Dhulipala’s book is that it is an enormous storehouse of hard data, meticulously researched and set down with a minimum of ornamentation. Good data allows for reliable prediction. This is a book that tells you what happened in the eight chapters that constitute its core, of which I found Chapter 5 (Ulama at the Forefront of Politics) to be critical to an overall understanding of the book itself. Political, social and theological matters are nicely separated in different chapters. The author reserves most of his comments, on why it happened, for the introduction and to the epilogue and conclusion. This is being extremely considerate to the reader who is now free to draw his/her conclusions on various facets of the subject, without being unduly influenced by the author’s own inferences. What happened is not a negotiable subject if the data is collected with care, and Dhulipala has done this admirably well. Discussions as to why things happened, on the other hand, reflect the various viewpoints of historians and the author’s viewpoint is distinct from Ayesha Jalal’s thesis which holds that Muhammad Ali Jinnah tried to use the threat of Partition as a bargaining chip (or in effect that he actually didn’t want it) but that Congress called his bluff to essentially force the Muslims out of India, to Salman Rushdie’s idea that Pakistan was insufficiently imagined, from Belkacem Belmekki’s idea that it was Hindi language chauvinism in UP that drove moderate Muslims to the idea of Pakistan, to Christophe Jaffrelot’s argument that Pakistan arose as a negative imagery of India. The strength of any or all of these ideas will be demonstrated by the extent to which they were or are able to predict events in the Indian sub-continent post-1947 till the present day. For example, the one factor that just might cause a secession of south India from the north is still Hindi chauvinism!

Dhulipala’s main argument is a simple one. He presents a body of evidence to show that there was intense discussion among the religious ulama of UP for and against the idea of Pakistan on the basis of theology, Islamic jurisprudence, politics (for Islam is a political religion), economics and culture. The pace of these discussions quickened after the 1940 Lahore Declaration of the Muslim League. The dominant faction initially was the pro-Congress JamiatulUlama-i-Hind who espoused a pluralistic Muttahida Qaumiyat (composite nationalism) but their views were gradually eclipsed by those of the pro-Muslim League Jamiatul Ulama-i-Islam who opted for a narrower definition of qaum and equated the Muslim state of Pakistan with an Islamic nation, at least for the interim, because co-existence with the Hindus of India would be intolerable. The crucial importance of the polarising figure, Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani in marshalling together the pro-Pakistan sentiments is an important feature of this book.


Closely linked to the theological and other discussions between various sections of the Deobandi ulama were the political calculations in the minds of the various principals of the Congress and the Muslim League, because the elections in 1937, 1939 and 1946 were in effect referendums on Partition itself. Dhulipala describes these political machinations well and in particular, the role of Jawaharlal Nehru in practically micromanaging these strategies makes one believe that he was indeed a serious supporter of undivided India. Perhaps the reputation he seems to have acquired later on as someone who allowed India to get partitioned is unfair. By 1946, all the major personalities of the Congress, Mahatma Gandhi included, seemed to have accepted the inevitability of Partition, and so it is probably incorrect to blame any of them today. Their mistakes, if these could even be called mistakes given the hurly burly of those times, could have been in resigning from the provincial ministries in 1939 and in passing the Quit India resolution in 1942, which led to most of them being jailed and leaving the field practically free and open for the Muslim League and Jinnah. An aspect of the book I found intriguing is the near absence of Gandhi and his inputs into the Partition discussions. Is it that he was not directly involved in these debates of the ulama, which is the subject of Dhulipala’s book, or did he leave most of the heavy lifting to Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Abdul Kalam Azad, or did he just sign off, when he realised that Partition was unavoidable? And on the topic of Azad, data from the book does not allow the reader to decide if Azad was merely a Congress apologist or whether he was a true proponent of MuttahidaQaumiyat.

For this reader, there is the unmistakable feeling, on reading this book, that UP has and will always be the crucible of India, its heartland. Political calculations within this giant province seem to determine major events that have had implications all across our land. The fates of people in far off Punjab and Bengal, who played little part in the run-up to Pakistan, were determined in the religious seminaries and drawing rooms of the upper class UP Muslim intelligentsia. The migration of the UP Muslims to the Congress post-1947 stands explained easily and the appeasement politics of the Congress towards them ever since follows equally easily — it is simple electoral arithmetic. The Congress was called ‘nationalistic’ by the Muslim League prior to 1947. After that it called itself ‘secular’ a term that now has derogatory implications all over India, and especially with the BJP which today calls itself ‘nationalistic’! So, what then is a nation? Is this too a time dependent definition? The socialistic movements within UP post-1967 had a major effect on caste politics throughout the country. The Hindutva reawakening in UP today, including Ayodhya, once again dominates national level events. No party may come to power in Delhi to form a stable government, unless it is able to win in the electoral battlegrounds of UP. By concentrating on UP, Dhulipala adds substantially (though admittedly implicitly) to political discourse in modern India.

This book, and indeed any work on Partition, is all about what constitutes a nation. In this context, the most important lines of the book are not the author’s own but quoted by him from Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar who said, “Nationality is a subjective psychological feeling. It is a feeling of a corporate sentiment of oneness which makes those who are charged with it feel that they are kith and kin. This national feeling is a double edged feeling. It is at once a feeling of fellowship for one’s own kith and kin and an anti-fellowship feeling for those who are not one’s own kith. It is a feeling of ‘consciousness of kind’ which on the one hand binds together those who have it so strongly that it overrides all differences arising out of economic conflicts or social gradations and on the other severs them from those who are not of their kind. It is a longing to belong to one’s own group and a longing not to belong to any other group. This is the essence of what is called a nationality and national feeling”. The Partition of India needs to be evaluated on the basis of these powerful words. The role of Ambedkar in the run-up to the Partition is not often appreciated and with his blunt words in his book Thoughts on Pakistan, he essentially told the country that an undivided India was not worth having. Ambedkar has been reduced formalistically to being the father of our Constitution and being a champion of the subaltern castes. This book does real justice to this great man and patriot, who was not afraid of disagreeing with Gandhi on many a major issue.


While nationality is a psychological and subjective feeling, the idea of a state is all too formal, definite and objective. The main problem in creating a new Medina is that there was and still is a total disconnect between the Muslim state (Pakistan) and the Islamic nation (Medina). Even the most vigorous champions of Pakistan recognised this well before 1947 and they were just hoping for the best. It is here that the ‘vagueness’ of Pakistan creeps in, a vagueness that Dhulipala contests. The vagueness also enters the scene in terms of the many schemes of Partition and confederation with their bewildering variety of safety clauses for the Muslims, with and without joint electorates and with and without a continuing British presence in India. These schemes have been described well by Rajendra Prasad in his book India Divided where he has also discussed the contradictions between state and nation; I would have wished for some coverage of this highly factual, data rich, account in the present work. The modern world recognises only states, which have formal, diplomatic, strategic and economic identity and not nations that are psychological constructs. The idea of a nation state has come to us gradually from the time of Metternich and there is little contradiction between the nation and the state in many smaller homogeneous countries in Europe, which are simple systems. There is a total conflict in complex systems such as undivided India, post-1947 India and Pakistan. Even the slightest of complexity as was present in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia led to disintegration of these states. Inabilities in reconciling the concepts of state and nation have resulted in most of the problems faced today by both India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, there is now the sure knowledge that their country is not the new Medina. Imran Khan in his book, Pakistan. A Personal History calls it a “gaping ethical vacuum”. In India, there is the never-ending debate on what constitutes the “idea of India”, Savarkar’s, Gandhi’s or Ambedkar’s?

A nation is not defined by territory and the idea of a physical watan is perhaps too emotional. East Prussia and Silesia can never be German again although Germans lived there for 600 years, just as Attock and Dera Ghazi Khan can never have a Hindu presence again although Hindus lived there for millennia. But the German nation still lives as does the Hindu nation. And what is this Hindu nation? Is this the same as the Indian nation? For such questions, our political parties live and die, and Dhulipala’s book allows the reader to explore and search for answers. Hinduism and Hindu thought is not explicitly covered in this book, but there is no doubt that the learned UP ulama were also quite knowledgeable about Hinduism and in this sense, how many of their ideas developed as a ‘negative image’ of Hindu society, religion and culture?

Various other interesting questions crop up when one reads this book. The pro-Pakistan elements could be grouped into those who wanted Partition of the Muslim majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal versus those who wanted these provinces to be absorbed into Pakistan undivided. The fact that so many were of the former school of thought adduces support to the idea that a new Medina was indeed being sought, for it is much easier to have an Islamic nation in which Muslims form an overwhelming majority, and this was hardly the case in undivided Punjab and undivided Bengal where the Muslim percentages were in the 55-65 per cent range. Was it ever a realistic expectation to have an undivided Punjab and Bengal in Pakistan? Not too many people like to live as dhimmis in the modern world and certainly not Hindus in a newly independent India. A look at the Muslim populations in the countries of the world makes for an interesting study: (1) In around 40 countries mostly in North Africa, West Asia and Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Muslims constitute more than 90 per cent of the population; (2) In around 110 countries, Muslims constitute less than 10 per cent of the population, in most of them less than 1 per cent; (3) In around 40 very small countries mostly in the Balkans and in sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims constitute between 15 and 90 per cent of the population. Of these, only 10 countries have between 50-70 per cent Muslims, a truly ‘forbidden’ region. Malaysia is unique in this group with 60 per cent of its total population of 20 million being Muslims. The country has a dual court system, civil and Sharia, and has recently ruled that non-Muslims can seek resolution, in Islamic matters, from civil courts. This is a country worth examining in more detail in the present context, although Naipaul clubs it with Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia in his scathing work, Beyond Belief; (4)Barring several tiny countries like Benin, Bulgaria and Israel, the ‘metastable’ region of 10-15 per cent is populated by just one large country, India with its 172 million (14.2 per cent) Muslims, second in absolute terms only to Indonesia. The conclusion is inescapable: Muslims live in countries in which they form an overwhelming majority or they reconcile themselves to being a miniscule minority. Does this mean that they display two types of behaviour in each of these very different territories? And where does this leave the metastable Muslim minority in India? Considering the progress we have made in integrating Muslims into the Indian mainstream, so much so that we may even aspire for Muttahida Qaumiyat, an Islamic theoretician may well be allowed to ask if Indian Muslims are even good Muslims! I feel these are important questions, whose answers lie in the strictly localised debates of pre-Partition UP. The viewpoint especially of the Jamiatul Ulama-i-Hind offers insights into what modern Islam might look like anywhere in the world. In this respect, Dhulipala’s book is an invaluable source work.


Jinnah was one of those who argued for undivided Muslim majority provinces in Pakistan all the way till 1946.From the above discussion, did this mean that he was essentially secularist? Was his famous 11 August 1947 speech where he declared that Hindus could freely worship in temples in Pakistan a sincere call? Or was he just being another cynical politician? If he was truly secular, how did he have any truck with Usmani and the Muslim League hardliners? Jalal speaks about Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan as a bargaining chip to secure rights for all Muslims in an undivided India. On the face of it, this appears to be a reasonable position. Indians (and by this I mean all inhabitants of undivided India and their descendants) are notoriously self-centred and will rarely take up strong positions for the benefit of others. Why did the UP Muslims take up cudgels on behalf of their brethren in the Muslim majority provinces, people whom they freely termed as uncultured? Did they understand Jinnah instinctively and desire an undivided India where the rights of all Muslims (namely themselves) were guaranteed? The data in Dhulipala’s book led me to a different conclusion, namely that Jinnah being the consummate lawyer that he was, did have a goal but this wasn’t an undivided India (he distrusted the Congress and the British too much for this) but rather an undivided Punjab and Bengal in a divided India. This would have allowed him his secular propensities and in this sense his famous speech on the eve of independence was probably just hoping against hope since the basis of that speech had already collapsed: the division of the two Muslim majority provinces was already decided by June 1947 and he had to settle for the very unsatisfactory fall back option of a “maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten” Pakistan. This also perhaps explains his utter shock on witnessing the mass migrations from both sides of the border, something he had invoked back in 1940 at the time of the Lahore Declaration but only as an extreme possibility if everything else failed.

The migration of 5 million people each way during Partition, and the attendant killings, is something that no responsible person, Hindu or Muslim, might have anticipated even as late as mid-1947. This single event gives lie to the brutish ‘hostage’ theory that was invoked by Muslims both in favour of and against Partition when confronted with the problem of the minorities in each of the daughter states. Dhulipala refers to this theory many times, and the various statements made that Muslims in India could feel safe because if the Hindus persecuted them, a corresponding retaliatory action would be taken on Hindus in Pakistan. A faulty analogy with the Sudeten Germans was invoked during those days, and might have led to this line of reasoning. Historians often say that knowledge of an event does not presume foreknowledge of subsequent events.

I have mentioned earlier in this review (and may I add as a practising scientist) that this need not be the case and that failure to anticipate a forthcoming event could simply mean that one has not observed the right event (and carefully enough) from the past. But, in any case, Partition proved many people false in this matter of mass migrations. Almost all the Hindus in Pakistan left for India practically immediately after Independence or were forcibly ejected, while most Muslims in the Hindu majority provinces of undivided India stayed at home — so much for the hostage theory! Again, in keeping with the observation that Muslims are comfortable in countries in which they are in an overwhelming majority, the percentage of Hindus in Bangladesh has been declining steadily and inexorably, from 22 per cent in 1947 to just 9 per cent today.


While the Pakistan demand struck at the heart of Hindu India’s claim to sovereignty and state power in an undivided country, Bangladesh was the death knell of the two-nation theory. More than anything else, this showed that Pakistan was a failed Medina rather than its more common current epithet, a failed state! This book might well have been called “Failing to Create a New Medina” because of the inherent contradictions, right from 1937 or even 1930, between the political Islamic state called Pakistan and the idealised Islamic nation called Medina. Bangladesh has always had good relations with India, and while Bengalis on both sides of the border continue to live comfortably in their respective countries, the Bengali nation straddles both of them with Tagore’s lyrics constituting the national anthems of both countries. So much for nation states!

An aspect of Ambedkar’s arguments in favour of Partition was that the composition of the Indian Army in undivided India was so strongly dominated by (Punjabi) Muslims, as a consequence of the questionable British theory of ‘martial races’, that an independent undivided India could not rely on the loyalty of its Muslim dominated army to defend the country if it was attacked by another Muslim country, say Afghanistan. When confronted with the fact that a divided Punjab would not have defendable natural borders for India, he wisely held that it was always better for a country to have a safe army rather than to have a safe border. These discussions are captured well in Dhulipala’s book and allowed me to rationalise two phenomena in the post-Partition scenario: (1) The domination by Muslims in the army of undivided India continued as a general domination of the army in many aspects of political and civil life in Pakistan after 1947. The army was simply too powerful and too large for a small country like Pakistan and its aggressive nature has led to many of Pakistan’s present day problems including an unnatural influence of Punjabis in several aspects of life in that country; (2) India had a chance to establish its army by including in it people from all across the country and because its army had to be set up literally anew, it fortuitously became a functionary of the Indian State, subject to its political and executive branches. This directly led to the establishment of a stable democracy, where it is essential that the army be subordinate to the political class.

Kashmir, the unanticipated by-product of the Partition ‘reaction’ may also be rationalised with a titbit of information given in this book. After 1939, all the involved parties were agreed that the basis of any region to be included in Pakistan was that there should be a Muslim majority there and that it should be contiguous to other such regions. But these discussions were centred only on British India. No one really worried about what the princely states would do in the event of Partition and there was not even enough clarity as to whether or not there would be any British presence in the country after independence. Some of these states were even toying with the idea of sovereignty or a direct linkage with the British Crown. I do not believe that the issue of Kashmir was seriously thought about before early 1947. Rahmat Ali’s 1930 Pakistan included Kashmir but there were other Muslims who were ambivalent about it. The question of the princely states opting for either India or Pakistan came up only shortly before independence itself. The fact that both Patel and Nehru, albeit somewhat reluctantly, agreed to Kashmir going to Pakistan in the stormy days just after Independence, had probably to do with the fact that it fulfilled both the above mentioned criteria of Muslim majority and contiguity. However, the non-linearity arose from the attitude of Maharaja Hari Singh who was not in favour of going over to Pakistan. It is very hard now to know why he took this line but Dhulipala’s book does present a pertinent fact: some Muslim groups proposed giving the Maharaja a new Hindu majority territory in the Central Provinces to compensate for the loss of his kingdom. This crazy idea perhaps irked Hari Singh enough so that he did not accede to Pakistan immediately, and the rest is history. A state is also watan and it was not a question of giving a Hindu maharaja, a Hindu majority kingdom in some unconnected region. Was he going to take his Hindu subjects with him? Herein lies the essential fault of the two-nation theory. Hyderabad was different and even if the emotions of the Nizam veered towards Pakistan, Hyderabad did not follow either the Muslim majority criterion or the contiguity criterionb—band no one seriously thought of three Pakistans in 1947. Two were enough.


In summary, the author has admirably demonstrated his thesis that huge, cataclysmic events find their origins in deep considered thought at the grassroots level. Partition was neither as vague, nor as emotional or unpredictable as is sometimes imagined. It happened because of certain definite events and presaged other events that occurred in both India and Pakistan after 1947 till the present day. M J Akbar in his book, Tinderbox:The Past and Future of Pakistan writes: “The idea of India is stronger than the Indian. The idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani”. After reading Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina, I am tempted to say that the idea of a Muslim state (Pakistan) is weaker than the idea of an Islamic nation (Medina). The idea of an Indian state (Republic of India) coexists comfortably with the idea of a Hindu nation (Sanatana Dharma). The intersection of the Indian state with the Hindu nation is not zero, as is held by our left wing, ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ elements and it is not conterminous, as is maintained by our (equally unrealistic) right wing extremists. It is probably more accurate to say that it is this glorious intersection that defines the Indian nation.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this informative book and recommend it warmly to others, not in the least, because of its moderate price.

Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India; By Venkat Dhulipala, Cambridge University Press, 2015, First South Asia edition, 2016, 530 pp


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