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Islam and Politics ( 20 Apr 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Ulema in Pre-Partition Electoral Politics




By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed

April 21, 2015

Mr Yasser Latif Hamdani’s observations in his column ‘Use of religion in politics’ (Daily Times, April 13, 2015) on my review of Venkat Dhulipala’s book, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, raise interesting questions. He is of the opinion that my endorsement of Dhulipala’s findings that Islamism and its conventional experts, the Ulema, played a prominent role in the campaign to create Pakistan contradicts the main position I have taken in several of my articles, i.e. that the Lahore Resolution was the brainchild of Lord Linlithgow’s office. He remarks: “Either the Pakistan Movement was the product of conspiratorial elite politics that Dhulipala clearly rejects in his book or it was the product of a Muslim communal and cultural consciousness that had shaken up Jinnah according to Dhulipala. You cannot have it both ways.”

Mr Hamdani is seriously in error with regards to his understanding of the nature of political alliances. What is there to say that if an idea emanated from Viceroy Linlithgow’s office the ulema (clergy) would not adopt it if they perceived it as a great opportunity for them to establish an Islamic state? It is perfectly possible for conflictual ideological and political forces to join ranks against a common enemy. After all, the expression strange bedfellows was coined by no less than that great literary genius William Shakespeare to capture the fickle and opportunistic nature of such alliances. A recent example should demonstrate my point vividly and unequivocally. The so-called Afghan jihad was the brainchild of the US intelligence and military services, which co-opted their oil-rich protégé, Saudi Arabia, into a worldwide alliance to bring down the Communists in Afghanistan and to oust the Soviet Red Army from that country. The Pakistan military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) implemented it in the field. China, Egypt, UAE and even Israel played a role in that jihad. The Afghan jihad came to haunt all of them in different ways and the original mastermind, the US, suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history on 9/11 because of its patronage of extremism, fanaticism and terrorism. We have paid the heaviest price in blood for the Afghan jihad. The iron law of politics is that nurturing fanaticism and extremism always comes to haunt its patrons.

Consequently, there is no contradiction at all in my stand that while the Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940 originated in the office of Viceroy Linlithgow, the Muslim League latched on to it with fervour and, by mobilising the Ulema and Pirs of the Muslim majority provinces of north-western India, Pakistan was achieved. The Ulema had by no means supported Pakistan’s demand to create a modern nation state; for them it had to be an Islamic state subscribing to the supremacy of the Sharia encapsulated in the formula that God’s sovereignty overrides the sovereignty of the people. Moreover, Dhulipala focuses essentially on Muslim communal politics in pre-partition northern India. Dhulipala has shed important light on the origins of the Islamisation of the Pakistan idea in Uttar Pradesh (UP). My own work shows how such a process reached full consummation in the Muslim majority provinces of north-western India, especially undivided Punjab.

I do not know what the basis is for Mr Hamdani to assert that I believe one is not necessarily bound by the conclusions reached by an author. However, I fully support his right to interpret freely the evidence given by an author and convince readers that his conclusions are plausible. I agree with him that Dhulipala needed to give some attention to the consequences of Congress’ failure to include the Muslim League in a coalition government in UP after the 1937 elections. Nehru’s leftist orientation predisposed him to believe that class interests determined the political choices of people, including voters. For him, the 1937 elections, in which the Muslim League was routed on the all-India level, was an indictment of its elite politics because as a party of landlords and pro-British rajas and nawabs it represented their narrow interests, which included loyalty to the British. Therefore, he announced a Muslim mass contact to be launched to bring the poverty-stricken Muslim masses into the Congress fold and thus build a broad united front against British colonialism.

That strategy backfired because the Muslim League, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, responded with a counter-campaign that portrayed the Congress ministries as anti-Muslim. “Islam in danger” became a recurring refrain in the propaganda material it published. Thenceforth Islamist rhetoric began to figure increasingly in the Muslim League’s strategy to mobilise Muslim support to create a new Medina.

Viewed in this context, Dhulipala’s presentation of the two parties’ bid to win the support of the Muslim voters in the by-elections is most relevant. We need to remember that under the system of separate electorates, only Muslims could contest and vote for the reserved Muslim seats. Both sides deployed in the field experts on Islamic theory and law to justify their positions for and against the division of India on a religious basis. Nehru’s public participation in the election campaign does not discredit him because he was keen to win over Muslims for his vision of a united India. The only pledge he gave the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind was that Muslim personal law would not be interfered with in free India but he expected the Muslims to themselves join the mainstream and modernise personal law.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a strict constitutionalist until he embraced mass politics after the adoption of the March 23, 1940 resolution. Thereafter, there is no dearth of his speeches that emphasise the religious factor determining his nationalist commitment. He even invoked Sharia as the source of law in Pakistan on many occasions. That he could mobilise Shias, Sunnis, Ahle Hadith and Ahmedis behind the demand for Pakistan is testimony to his genius as a politician. However, this Islamic heritage has bequeathed a fascination down the ages for the pristine Islamic state of Medina established in the seventh century; its appeal by no means is limited only to the Ulema. However, the fact often ignored is that neither doctrinally nor historically were these groups ever a coherent community of believers. On the contrary, the history of munazaras (doctrinal debates) between different Muslim sects and sub-sects amply shows that they invariably ended up damning one another.

I am convinced Jinnah was never interested in Pakistan becoming a theocratic state but he won Pakistan in the name of Islam and with the help of the Ulema, some Deobandis, Ahle Hadith and Shias as well as Ahmedi spiritual leaders, but substantially with the support of the Sunni-Barelvi Ulema and Pirs of north-western India whose vast networks of mosques and shrines came into action during the 1945-1946 election campaign and enabled the Muslim League to sweep the polls. Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech was no doubt an attempt at damage control but one speech alone could not have achieved that and the fact is that it did not. However, Pakistan is a young state and there is nothing to say that we should not continue to speak up for the respect of human rights, minority rights and women’s rights. After all, even the Objectives Resolution of March 7, 1949 pledges the respect of these rights.

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: