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Sense and Sensibilities on Pakistan

Ideological, identity and policy confusions have marked Pakistan from the moment of its birth till the present. Much of the country's domestic problems and its international relations can be explained through this confusion. While Jinnah was successful in wresting a state, he never invested efforts into building the nation. Therefore, there is no consensus over what Pakistan represents. Farzana Shaikh's Making Sense of Pakistan is a brave attempt to understand these confusions and can be a resource for those who want to rescue this Partition twin from its present conditions.


Sense and Sensibilities on Pakistan

T N Madan

Ideological, identity and policy confusions have marked Pakistan from the moment of its birth till the present. Much of the country’s domestic problems and its international relations can be explained through this confusion. While Jinnah was successful in wresting a state, he never invested efforts into building the nation. Therefore, there is no consensus over what Pakistan represents. Farzana Shaikh’s Making Sense of Pakistan is a brave attempt to understand these confusions and can be a resource for those who want to rescue this Partition twin from its present conditions.

T N Madan ( is honorary professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, and distinguished senior fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.


n a visit to Lahore in early 2000, the well-known sociologist Satish Saberwal informally met with a group of students of Punjab University, one of whom asked him that, in view of the fact that there is a good deal in common between the peoples of India and Pakistan, “Why then did we have the Partition?” (Saberwal 2008: ix). Taken by surprise, Saberwal responded vaguely, but felt the need for a well-considered, surer answer to the question. The exercise took him seven years, and his conclusion is that Partition “was an aggregate, very large-scale phenomenon embodying millions of discrete events, choices and initiatives”. “Spirals” of social “separativeness” and political “contention” resulted in “an unintended, unforeseeable consequence” (p 164), namely, Partition. There was no historical inevitability at work: Pakistan may well not have been born.

Pakistan was, however, born on 14 August 1947. The next morning, if I remember right (I was a young teenager), The Hindustan Times of New Delhi carried a cartoon by Ahmed. It showed a rather worriedlooking Jinnah standing at the head of a committee room table, his senior colleagues seated on either side, asking them, “Now that we have got it, what do we do with it?”. Thirteen months later Jinnah died on 11 September 1948. The same newspaper published an unsigned, full back-page obituary, which opened with the observation that Jinnah had crossed swords with the greatest man of the age (Gandhi) and won. Sixty-one years on, it seems that the scepticism of the cartoonist was far more prescient than the confident verdict of the political commentator.

These memories have been revived by my perusal of a recent, meticulously researched, boldly written, remarkable book, Making Sense of Pakistan by Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistani historian currently working at the Royal Institute of International Affairs

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in London. Shaikh is a sociologist’s historian, interested not so much in individual actors and events as in socio-political processes and the rhetorics that go with them. What follows is not a formal review, but a set of reflections on Partition and the flow of events in Pakistan, generated by

Shaikh’s thought-provoking book.

I will not go here into the issue of whether Pakistan was snatched from the unwilling hands of the leaders of the Indian National Congress or was conceded by them; whether Jinnah won Pakistan, as he once put it, with the help of a secretary and a typewriter, or whether the Congress leaders (Nehru, Patel et al) were, as Nehru told Leonard Mosley in 1960, “tired men” who were “getting on in years”, and found in Partition “a way out” and “took it” (Mosley 1961: 77). What I find extremely disconcerting about these observations – Jinnah’s and Nehru’s – is their casualness or passivity. Is it thus that Pakistan was brought into existence, almost by happenstance? Or, was it an unintended consequence of Jinnah’s crafty calculation that the best way to safeguard the interests of Muslims in a united India with a strong centre was to use, as Ayesha Jalal (1985: 57) ingeniously suggests, the Lahore resolution as “a bargaining counter”?

Maybe Jinnah said something far more sociologically insightful when, on another occasion, he reportedly observed that the seed of the idea of Pakistan was planted the day the first Hindu converted to Islam and was outcast by his community. But, then, was Jinnah conscious of the weight of this formulation? There is not much evidence in his speeches and press briefings of a deeply thoughtful person – Nehru (1961: 412) found him “hardly aware” of developments in modern political and economic thought – although there is no doubt about his dogged, lifelong pursuit of the goal of protecting Muslim secular interests, whether within a unified India and a federal structure or, after 1940, in independent Muslim homelands. Jinnah was consumed by politics, and took little interest in the socio-cultural and educational interests of the Muslims. In this regard his public life was a complete antithesis of Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s.

Let me stay with Jinnah a little while longer. Repeatedly, he made it clear that

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the Muslim homelands must include the entire provinces of Punjab and Bengal, and also the large province of Assam as it was in 1946 – an “Absolute Pakistan” – and rejected the notion of what he famously called a “moth eaten Pakistan”. But, then, he also said to Mountbatten in 1947: “I do not care how little you give me as long as you give it to me completely” (Prasad 2009: 529). He left everybody dumbfounded when he said he would ask for a “corridor” across the breadth of India to connect the two wings of the proposed, but until then imaginary, Muslim homelands. As Salman Rushdie once put it, Pakistan was “an insufficiently imagined country”, and this was reflected in his novel Shame. In 1985, Fazlur Rahman, the distinguished Pakistani scholar (he was then professor of Islam ic thought at the university of Chicago) told me that Jinnah never applied his mind to such basic questions as the character of the Pakistani state (secular or religious) during the years he campaigned for it. If thoughtful Pakistanis today feel anguished by the irresponsible politics and quick-fix solutions that went into the founding of their country, one can fully appreciate it.


Farzana Shaikh writes about the many confusions that have characterised Pakistan from its very inception. Most notably there are the ideological, identity and policy confusions. Ideologically, was the demand for Pakistan Islamist or communal, that is for the protection of Islam in the subcontinent, or for the promotion of Muslim secular interests? If the former, what kind of Islamic values were involved, universalist/ scripturalist or Indian/pluralist? There was no “consensus” on this absolutely basic issue, and there is none today.

As for identity, if anyone naively believed that the bond of Islam, however defined, would dissolve all other identities, East Pakistanis proved them wrong when they unfurled the banner of linguistic identity even during Jinnah’s very short tenure as head of the new state; eventually they broke away in 1971. They switched identities, claiming to be Muslim Bengalis rather than Bengali Muslims (Madan 1994). What survived as Pakistan is not a melting pot but a salad bowl of ethnic and regional

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identities. Balochis, Punjabis, Pashtuns and Sindhis are linked to particular provinces, but Mohajirs (migrants) have no place to call their own. In this context, Shaikh recalls how the supporters of the idea of Pakistan were not of one mind. For those belonging to the Muslim minority provinces of central India, “the idea of a Muslim nation promised to restore their special status as Muslims”, freed of Hindu political domination; for those in Assam and Bengal, “the rhetoric of Muslim nationhood clearly offered… the prospect of economic emancipation from a dominant class of Hindu landowners”; and for those in north-western India, Pakistan was a “viable safe haven for Islam in India” (p 40). In short, Pakistan meant different things to different peoples and, perhaps to a lesser extent, still does. A new generation of Pakistanis has grown up for whom Pakistan is home, whatever their grandparents’ and parents’ conceptions of it. Nevertheless, it remains a country marked by many contradictions among which civilian governance versus military rule and liberal Islam versus Islamic fundamentalism are, perhaps, the most notable.

Programmatically, Shaikh brings out with commendable objectivity the frustrating pursuit of two illusory objectives, namely, political parity between Muslims and Hindus before 1947 and, subsequently, of equality of status between Pakistan and India as south Asian powers. From the time of Sayyid Ahmad Khan late in the 19th century, many Muslim politicians were apprehensive that the introduction of democratic institutions from the local up to the national levels would reduce Muslims to the position of a minority in a country (more precisely north India) where they had been the ruling community for more than half a millennium. This produced what Shaikh calls “the minority complex” (p 189). Maulana Azad, early in his political career, bewailed the self-image of Indian Muslims as a minority, asking them how “members of a brotherhood of four hundred million believers in the unity of god [could be] afraid of two hundred and twenty million [Hindus] of India”, urging them, therefore, to “embra ce” their “neighbours” (Douglas 1988: 144) for the pursuit of common political goals.

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Jinnah, for decades a strong votary of Hindu-Muslim unity (for an excellent account, see Wells 2005), eventually repudiated this idea of inter-community political collaboration, because, he concluded, the Congress was essentially a Hindu political organisation. In his decisive 22 March 1940 address to All-India Muslim League, he ridiculed Gandhi’s reference to him as his “brother”: “brother Gandhi has three votes and I have only one vote!”. (The phraseology was borrowed without acknowledgement from Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s seminal 1887 Lucknow speech (Prasad 1999: 261-71). Actually, Khan spoke of votes as well as dice, in each case four against one.) He went on to declare that Indian Muslims were “a nation by any definition”, and, further, propounded the thesis of clash of civilisations and the imperative of “dividing India into autonomous national states” (Prasad 2009: 612, 613, 617). As Shaikh comments, “Jinnah’s most notable success lay in attaching to Muslims the label of a modern nation” (p 39). Apparently, basing his argument on European history, he believed that nations naturally create states. Ironically, he created a state, but the state has failed to produce a nation. Moreover, modernity is too vague an idea, and its passage to Pakistan has not been any easier than in other south Asian countries; indeed, it is arguable that it has been far more difficult.

A Divided Nation

Alas, Pakistan was born a divided nation, comprising mostly passive beneficiaries in the north-west, future internal victims in east Bengal, and uprooted migrants (Mohajirs) who, ironically, had campaigned the hardest for it. Not to speak of Bengalis, it was not easy for Punjabis, Sindhis, Balochis or Pushtuns to suddenly – literally overnight – think of themselves as Pakistanis. Of the seven to nine million Mohajirs, five million were Punjabis and they soon merged with the resident Punjabis. The rest, Urdu speakers, including Biharis, are even now, six decades later, aliens of a kind. If Islamisation was expected to help create a homogeneous identity, it, in fact, went hand in hand with ethnicisation, regionalisation and sectarian divisiveness (“Sunnification”). The inclusivist citizenship model, enunciated by Jinnah in his


11 August 1947 inaugural address to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, a dramatic about-turn from the two nations theory which he borrowed from Sayyid Ahmad Khan and relentlessly peddled after 1940, to a single national identity, was, of course, a non-starter. Understandably, attempts to suppress it began early – allegedly on the very day it was delivered (Khairi 1995: xviii)

– and Pakistan is by constitutional definition an Islamic (but not theocratic) state, which, however, is currently being pushed hard along the road of “shariatisation” (pp 107-09 et passim). As Shaikh describes it, Pakistan stands rather precariously between “the crescent and the sword” (chapter 5).

Explosive Situation

It is a peculiarity of Pakistan’s attempts at self-discovery and self-governance that, although politicians fought for it, they almost immediately lost ground to bureaucrats and generals. With the passage of time, religious zealots have made deep inroads into both the bureaucracy and the army. Indeed, as Shaikh notes, “a symbiosis between successive military regimes and so-called jihadi or militant Islamic groups” (p 158) has become a defining feature of the Pakistani polity. The current situation in Afghanistan makes this symbiosis an explosive phenomenon, and limits the effor ts of the civilian government to combat terrorism at home and prevent its export to India. The judiciary is, as Shaikh notes in passing (p 210), the latest entrant into the political space, but it is as yet only a vaguely defined force. What I missed in her book is a serious engagement with the media and civil society, which, by all accounts, already represent a broad spectrum of political opinion and social criticism, and are enlarging their support base and pluralising their perspectives.

In the midst of this flux, Shaikh detects one unifying force, namely “a primordial fear of India” (p 147). What Partition achieved, it seems, was the transformation of the Muslims’ distrust of the Hindus into Pakistan’s fear of India. It must require unusual intellectual honesty and great moral courage for a Pakistani scholar to draw attention to this critical flaw in the psyche of Pakistanis. All other tensions, including the conflict over Kashmir, are only expressions of this fear and the obsession with being India’s equal as a regional power. The overwhelming preponderance of Hindus in the total population (about 75% in 1941) had made the demand for parity untenable, even when mounted on the basis of a universally applicable religious notion that Muslims were born to rule and the historical role of Muslims in India during the medieval period. The territorial mass of India, its huge population, vast natural resources, large educated class and stock of scientific and technical personnel, relatively higher level of economic development, large and well equipped and disciplined armed forces, etc, have made it virtually impossible for Pakistan to match India as a regional or world power.

Hence its long history of seeking alliances with great powers, notably the United States and China, and its efforts to become a nuclear power with an arsenal superior to India’s in both size and sophistication. Needless to emphasise, these powers have their own evolving national interests as

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their primary concern, and will not, as the Bangladesh war of 1971 showed, stretch themselves over much on Pakistan’s behalf. As Shaikh puts it, “the desire to play a role that is disproportionate to its actual power has been a fundamental aspect of Pakistan’s self-perception” (p 181), and it has been self defeating. As things have turned out in the last 10 years, Pakistan has “found itself edging towards the unenviable status of a rogue state under scrutiny by America’s terrorism watch” (p 198).

Shaikh’s clinical examination of Pakistan’s ideological, identity and policy confusions is sharply focused, and the diagnosis she provides is disturbing, but she does not believe the prognosis to be hopeless. She very rightly goes back to the roots, to Pakistan’s “ambiguous” and “vexed” relationship with Islam, which has defined its identity as a nation state and deeply influenced its national agendas, including support to separatist elements in Kashmir. Obviously, a clearer articulation of this crucial relationship is an imperative: almost everything should fall into place if this is done. As a first step, she recommends a conscious effort to renounce “a type of militant Islam that is at odds with Islamic traditions indigenous to South Asia”, with their “strong syncretistic bias in favour of exploring common ground between Islam and India’s indigenous religions”. This would mean giving up Pakistan’s “perennial stance of confrontation with India”. But, then, that is perhaps the only way adherence to “Islam’s universalist message” can be reconciled with “respect for the rich diversity of [Pakistan’s] peoples” (pp 211-12).

It is not difficult to imagine that Making Sense of Pakistan must already have received a hostile reception at home. Reactions will perhaps vary from criticising Shaikh for allegedly exaggerating the role of religion in the destiny of Pakistan to doubting her patriotism. Her attention to the religious dimension of south Asian Muslim politics is a consistent stand, firmly and openly argued here, as it was in her earlier, important study, Community and Consensus in Islam (1989), in which she had provided an incisive analysis of “parity”, arguing its logic was religious rather than secular. In fact, the present book is a sequel to the earlier study, and the two books should be read together to appreciate Shaikh’s approach.

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As for her deep concern for her country’s future, it is there on every page of the book. In treading the path that her approach opened up for her, Shaikh has been true to her scholarly calling and knowingly run the risk of criticism from ultra-nationalistic elements. One can imagine the emotional toll of having to write about one’s country the way Farzana Shaikh has – with honest passion, respecting the facts as one sees them, and not shying away from the conclusions they lead to, whatever the personal cost.


How should we in India read Making Sense of Pakistan? One could be condescendingly smug and say that since Partition was a gigantic folly – even Jinnah, lying on his death bed, is said to have called it “the biggest blunder” of his life (Tunzelmann 2007: 289) – its negative consequences for Pakistan should cause no surprise. We may do worse, but I hope we will not, and gloat over the sorry state of Pakistan, for although it is plagued by anxieties of all kinds, it is clear that our destinies are inextricably linked, and if only for that, we need to reach out to one another. As Shaikh writes about Pakistan so may we about India: “[the] future can no longer be guaranteed without the support and cooperation of [our] neighbours, including erstwhile foes” (p 210).

The reasons why we need each other are many. For one thing, having eventually agreed to Partition, the nationalist, political leadership of the 1940s bequeathed to its Indian successors the burden of the consequences, including I ndia-Pakistan hostility and the problem of Muslims as a minority that is very large in numbers. As a leading Indian politician recently observed very perceptively, although it is difficult to make sense of Pakistan because it was not inevitable, “we have all been born of Partition” (Singh 2009: 483), Indians no less than Pakistanis. Moreover, India today faces many serious challenges to its political unity, most notably from Maoists in the eastern and central states, and from Kashmiri separatists, who sometimes refer to themselves as “the third nation” of the subcontinent. Besides, there are the widespread demands for empowerment from formerly

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marginalised but currently assertive categories of people, such as the dalits. And there are the threats of religious extremism and terrorism.

Shaikh’s book points to, first, the practical wisdom of the politics of accommodation rather than top-down integration, affirming cultural pluralism as a value, and secondly, to the imperative of the balancing of powers and sharing of resources between the Union, on the one hand, and the states and the local bodies, on the other. The objective, obviously, is to protect national interest and simultaneously allow the legitimate aspirations of common people to find expression within a secular democratic polity. Fortunately, democracy has put its roots deep into India’s political soil, the principle of absolute civilian control of the armed forces is firmly established, and no political organisation of any significance has ever repudiated the imperative of the secular state in India. But we cannot let our guard slip. Farzana Shaikh’s story of Pakistan is, I think, best read in India as a cautionary tale.


Douglas, Ian Handerson (1988): Abul Kalam Azad: An Intellectual and Religious Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Jalal, Ayesha (1985): The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Khairi, Saad R (1995): Jinnah Reinterpreted: The Journey from Indian Nationalism to Muslim Statehood

(Karachi: Oxford University Press).

Madan, T N (1994): “Two Faces of Bengali Ethnicity: Bengali Muslim or Muslim Bengali” in T N Madan,

Pathways: Approaches to the Study of Society in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Mosley, Leonard (1961): The Last Days of the British Raj (London: Widenfeld & Nicolson).

Nehru, Jawaharlal (1964, 1961): The Discovery of India (Bombay: Asia Publishing House).

Prasad, Bimal (1999, 2009): Pathway to India’s Partition, Vol I; The Formations of Muslim Nationalism, Vol III; The March to Pakistan 1937-1947 (New Delhi: Manohar).

Saberwal, Satish (2008): Spirals of Contention: Why India Was Partitioned in 1947 (New Delhi: Routledge).

Shaikh, Farzana (1989): Community and Consensus in Islam: Muslim Representation in Colonial India, 1860-1947 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

– (2009): Making Sense of Pakistan (New Delhi: Foundation Books). Singh, Jaswant (2009): Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence (New Delhi: Rupa).

Tunzelmann, Alex von (2007): Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (New York. Henry Holt).

Wells, Ian Bryant (2005): Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity: Jinnah’s Early Politics (Delhi: Permanent Black).

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