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July 9th, 2015 | 941 Comments
Raza Habib Raja
Somehow or the other the debate surrounding the Two Nation Theory (TNT) does not seem to die. We claim that we are no longer interested and yet keep on debating it. We claim that India and Pakistan are a reality and yet some continue to argue whether it was a right or wrong decision. Our interest in TNT springs from the fact that partition in 1947 was a highly contentious as well as a bloody affair, which continues to cast its shadow till this date.
This article does not try to address the validity of TNT but merely tries to offer my two cents as to how it could have arisen and also lay down some sort of criteria for its evaluation. I am NOT trying to prove or disprove TNT but merely giving my opinion as to why it may have gained currency and what should we be looking at in terms of its evaluation.
Are Hindus and Muslims two different nations ? And if yes, then did that difference justify creation of a separate nation state? In my opinion the central question is not merely whether Hindus and Muslims are different but whether the differences merited a separate state. TNT cannot be separated from the issue of a separate state.
Presently the way, it is often interpreted in certain quarters is that Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nations who would have found it impossible to live together and therefore Muslims who were the minority at that time would need a separate politically autonomous state. I think that this version is highly debatable. If being a Muslim is the sole criteria of a separate state then why stop at India? Why not also include all the Muslims of the world and merge them into one nation state?
We know such a thing is not possible and is in fact laughable. The TNT would perhaps start making sense if only we understand the fleeting concept of identity within the context of British India. We are not just Muslims, but are also have ethno linguistic identities which at times may be competing with each other and at times complimenting each other. Everything revolves around a complex phenomenon known as identity and in politics that is often the most important factor in mobilization. Identity itself may be constructed or at times may simply be something you are born with. Moreover, identity may be dormant and can become active. It is when an identity becomes active, political expression follows.
How a particular identity becomes active often depends on the perceived benefits as well as drawbacks associated with it. It also becomes active, if there is a perception that you are being victimized on the basis of that particular identity. Once an identity is activated, it can form various political expressions which range from political mobilization to demand greater rights to outright demands for a separate nation state. What determines the exact form of political expression depends on many things. For example gender identity can form a political expression but it is not possible ( at least has not happened ever) for women to demand a separate country! Demand for equal pay and improved civil rights are expressed largely through civil society and do not aim to change the geographical and administrative structure of a particular country.
On the other hand ethnic identity can form various political expressions ranging from formation of political parties on ethnic lines to demands for a separate state. Here I would like to emphasize that nationalism is largely modern phenomenon.
Ethnic nationalists can demand a separate state particularly when an ethnicity views that it is possible to secede and the secession will lead to better standard of living and greater rights. The demand for a separate nation state is also hugely dependent on actual geographical dispersion of the population belonging to that ethnicity. If there are geographical concentrations then the demand for secession is more likely compared to a situation where the ethnicity is evenly dispersed all over the country.
Religion like ethnicity is an identity though compared to ethnic identity is less "rigid". It is generally said that religion is merely set of believes, but at least in political literature, it has always been considered much more than that. In fact, some have gone to the extent of calling religion of birth as a form of ethnic identity. Yes theoretically speaking it could be changed, but religious identity is a powerful identity particularly in circumstances where discrimination or perceived discrimination is conducted on religious lines.
Put simply religion can also be an effective political identity provided certain conditions are there. And like other identities, it can form a political expression of demanding a separate state.
Demand for Pakistan ( whether we consider it as an actual demand or as bargaining ploy by Jinnah) was a consequence of an activated political identity. There were incidences which activated the Muslim identity and led to demand for Pakistan.
Like ethnicity, religion can be a politically potent factor leading to possible demands of a nation state. In Pakistan's case Muslims were also concentrated in two geographical zones (present day Pakistan and Bangladesh). While a substantial number was also dispersed all over the country there is no denying of the fact that areas forming West Pakistan ( Present day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) were Muslim majority areas.
It is true that ethnic identity on its own is often a stronger motivating factor though at the time of independence there were no mass movements demanding independence on ethnic lines. In fact if demand for a nation state is only justified on ethnic lines then India itself should have been divided into many parts as there are so many languages spoken there.
So there were in reality various identities emerging out of Indian subcontinent. There was a broader Indian identity, religious identities, and ethnic linguistic identities. In other words there have always been nations within a nation. So while the TNT may be "correct" in the sense that Hindus and Muslims can be called as two different nations but frankly we can also call Tamils, Punjabis, Sindhis, Biharis also separate nations within their own right. In fact I can go ahead and convincingly argue that Punjabi Muslims are a separate nation from Pakthun Muslims and also from Non Muslim Punjabis.
And then there is a concept of hybrid identity. It is not important for many to be just Muslims but rather they want their religious freedom as well as their ethnic and cultural independence. So I may be Muslim but at the same time I would prefer that my Punjabi cultural freedom is also safeguarded.
When Bengali and Sindhi Muslims voted for Pakistan (after all let's not forget that these two provinces clearly voted for Pakistan), the idea was not merely preservation of their religious freedom but a combination of both religious as well ethnic/cultural freedoms. Thus when Bengali Muslims (who were also geographically concentrated) voted for creation of Pakistan, it was also for the preservation of their Bengali identity along with religious identity.
The choice was to join Indian federation or join Pakistan. Those who voted for Pakistan joined Pakistan with the view that perhaps their ethnic and cultural freedom would be better safeguarded in Pakistan rather than India.
So what should be the criteria for evaluation of TNT?
In my opinion the debate should not focus whether Hindus and Muslim are one nation or two nations. In fact I can very convincingly argue that within Muslim nation, there are several nations.
Eventually the way to judge TNT would not be to say that Hindus and Muslims are separate nations but whether the differences merit creation of a separate nation state. Here the costs associated with such a creation have to be taken into account and not only short run costs but also the long run. Short run costs would include huge costs of displacement of literally millions and long run costs would include the way creation of a separate state has led to animosity between the political states of India and Pakistan and the way partition has impacted the communal harmony in both the countries individually.
Assessment of benefits would include addressing the questions such as : Are really Muslims better off? One way would be to compare the condition of average Indian Muslim with Pakistani Muslim. But assessment should go beyond this comparison. We also need to evaluate whether Pakistani Muslims who belong to the minority sects such as Shiites and Ahmedis are also better off compared to their counterparts in India.
Moreover, the TNT also needs to examined more in historical context. Even if Muslims and Hindus are assumed to be separate nations, the validity (or lack thereof ) comes more from comparing it with the other options present at that time.
Finally we should not be using the creation of Bangladesh as a litmus test for proving or disproving TNT.
The reason why Bangladesh came into being is less to do with fallacy of TNT but more with how actually West Pakistan treated East Pakistanis. It is not the idea itself but the way Pakistan tried to over centralize and negate Bengali culture and their ethnic identity. Pakistan superimposed Urdu over Bengali and adopted a policy of sustained repression. Bengalis seceded mainly because of the way we treated them. The discrimination activated the Bengali nationalism and led to secession. But once again it was the hybrid identity of both Islam and Bengali ethnicity which dictated the choice of independence rather than merger with India. What had earlier prompted them to opt for Pakistan, once again led them to become an independent state.