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Barelvi Pirs and Mashaikhs Did Create Popular Enthusiasm for Pakistan in Certain Sections during the ‘Pakistan Movement’

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

July 5, 2018

One of the persistent myths repeated by Barelvi Ulema in Pakistan is that they helped the Muslim League win the 1945-1946 elections in Punjab. This lie has been repeated so many times that it has come to be accepted as the truth. Unthinking and mediocre academics from around the world have jumped on the bandwagon presenting evidence of Barelvi literature and Barelvi mobilisation in Punjab, which they contend is the only reason why the Muslim League won Punjab in those crucial elections. However, closer scrutiny of the facts reveals this was to be the most ludicrous of all the myths perpetuated by the “Ideology of Pakistan” group that seeks to ascribe a divine purpose to the creation of this country.

It is true that a number of Barelvi Pirs and Mashaikhs did create popular enthusiasm for Pakistan in certain sections, but by no means were they the only ones to do so, nor was this a decisive factor. Communist Party’s cadres, dispatched to the help the Muslim League against the Unionists, like Daniyal Latifi and Sajjad Zaheer actually spearheaded the League’s campaign in Punjab. Barelvis had been a limited factor in politics since they were first introduced by the Unionist Party in its successful campaign in 1937. However the impact of the Pirs was extremely limited, given that no more than 14 percent of the adult Muslim population was eligible to vote and these comprised property owners and educated middle class professionals.

Jinnah refused to accept the idea that there should be public prayers at Muslim League meetings, asking very poignantly who would lead such a prayer, a Shia or a Sunni?

No doubt, the electorate had expanded since 1937 but that had not altered the essentially elitist nature of elections in British India. Consequently a small community like Ahmadis, whose votes counted as Muslim votes and who had emphasised education and self-help, was able to play a larger than proportional role in the elections. It is equally ludicrous to argue that Muslim League’s manifesto, which made no reference to an Islamic state, was no factor in the elections.

Indeed Punjab Muslim League’s secular and socialist manifesto, drafted by Daniyal Latifi a staunch secularist Leaguer, was widely read and distributed amongst the voters. When I use the word “secular” here it means that it spoke of temporal things and did not ascribe a divine purpose to politics. The word “secular” was in general seen with suspicion by most Indians then and even in 1949 when the Indian Constitution makers were debating including it in the Constitution, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Ambedkar both refused to allow it. It was not until 1976 that the word secular was included in the Indian Constitution.

The confusion of popular and constitutional politics in British India is a consequence of a profound ignorance of history, deliberately cultivated by the postcolonial states, both Pakistan and India, to justify their national projects. The Indian National Congress which began an era of constitutional struggle for self-rule for British India was originally an elite project and was consequently staunchly secular in the real sense of the word.

On December 28, 1906 when Congress tried to introduce safeguards for Muslims, it was none other than Jinnah who opposed it in these words: “I draw your attention to the fact that Mohammadan community must be treated in the same way as the Hindu community. The foundation upon which the Indian National Congress is based is that we are all equal that should be no reservation for any class or any community and my whole object is that the reservation should be deleted.” Meanwhile, the All India Muslim League was founded in the same year, much to the dismay of young Indian nationalists like Jinnah who criticised it bitterly. Jinnah saw the formation of the Muslim League as nothing but the perfidious divide and rule strategy of the British. However both Congress and the League were constitutional parties and in 1916, Jinnah was able to bring them together through the famous Lucknow Pact, a brief moment of Hindu Muslim Unity for which he earned his famous title the Best Ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity.

Gandhi introduced popular politics in the very real sense to the Subcontinent. Initially, he had remained aloof from the constitutionalists in the Congress till he managed to take it over. He made Congress a mass party by appealing to ancient Hindu idioms and religious terminology. Later he expanded the appeal to include the Islamic cause of Khilafat which helped him garner support from the religious divines of Deoband and other Muslim holy places in India. Jinnah, who believed strictly in constitutional advance and politics, was alarmed and warned Gandhi against this but Gandhi’s star was rising. Jinnah ultimately left the Congress, leading his own independent party in the Indian legislature. The very fact that the composition of the legislature was made up of constitutionalists and not popular street politicians shows the duality of constitutional politics versus popular politics in British India. Meanwhile Gandhi electrified rural India and also persuaded his comrades, like the very secular young Pandit Nehru to give up their western suits and instead wear Indian attire. It was nothing less than a revolution to get Macaulyite Indians to now abandon their British mannerisms and become native again. Jinnah however, was too much his own man to be driven by Gandhi’s pleadings and give up his western suits and lifestyle.

Contrary to the popular myth, Jinnah did not abandon his western suits after 1937. It is true that in order to compete with the Congress he wore a Karakul Cap and Sherwani on select public occasions such as mass gatherings but there are more public pictures of Jinnah in a suit than in Sherwani even in the period from 1937-1947. Significantly, he is seen wearing suit at the most important events during the Pakistan Movement, such as Gandhi-Jinnah talks, meetings with Cripps mission, meetings with the Cabinet Mission, and meetings with the Viceroys. During General Zia’s time it was popularised that Jinnah had given up all his suits after he demanded Pakistan. This is patently untrue.

Nor did he give up his penchant for cigars, scotch and a dog on his lap. He continued to travel in first class cabins on his own money and would drink openly in front of visitors. There was no hypocrisy about the man. The Khan of Kalat famously narrated an incident where Jinnah was meeting Muslim notables at his house and his valet came with him carrying a glass of whiskey. The Khan politely suggested that Jinnah should avoid drinking in front of the notables, only to be snubbed curtly in response. One wishes he was the trendsetter for our politicians today, who are given to arguing that the bottles of whiskey they transport actually contain honey.

It is true that after 1937, when converting Muslim League into a mass party, Jinnah made a few references to Islam every now and then but these were always intended to show that Islam was a positive force and not a regressive one. He spoke of women’s rights and the rights of minorities and said that Islam was completely compatible with democracy. Jinnah balked at the idea of an Islamic state, telling Raja of Mahmudabad to distance himself from the Muslim League for propagating such ideas. More pragmatically, Jinnah refused to accept the idea that there should be public prayer at Muslim League meetings, asking very poignantly who would lead such a prayer, a Shia or a Sunni?

The request had come from the breakaway faction of the pro-Congress Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind led by Ashraf Ali Thanvi and Shabbir Ahmad Usmani. Throughout this period, Jinnah was denounced as Kafir-e-Azam by the Ulema, not just because of his anglicised lifestyle, but because he refused to turn out Ahmadis from the Muslim League and because he appointed a Syrian Christian, Pothan Joseph, as the editor of Dawn. Fatwas were issued against him on a daily basis for his legislative positions such as his support for civil marriage bill which would have allowed inter-communal marriage without conversion or renunciation by either party. To say that such a man wanted an Islamic state is the most ludicrous myth of them all.

Not a single resolution or official document of the Muslim League contained any reference to a promise of an Islamic state. This is a most significant fact given that the voters who were actually going to vote for the elections were not swayed by Barelvi Pirs in remote areas of Punjab but actual literature being circulated. These voters were the men and women of the world who saw in Muslim League an opportunity to build up a strong counter-force to what they feared would be caste Hindu domination at the centre. Therefore, this idea that people voted for Pakistan because they wanted an Islamic state ignores the facts. Unfortunately facts have never been taken into account by nationalist mythologies invented post-hoc by post-colonial nation states.

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practising lawyer and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School in Cambridge MA, USA