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The idea of Pakistan

A state sufficiently imagined

The idea of Pakistan

Khalid Bin Sayeed once termed the creation of Pakistan as an “aberration from the norm”. Similarly, in 2011, Venkat Dhulipala raised the question that Pakistan was perhaps a nation-state “insufficiently imagined”. As a historian, one spends a lifetime trying to objectively contextualise and justify this statement. The answer that I feel to be most accurate is that in many ways, the creation of Pakistan 70 years ago was a novel and creative exercise of imaginative and enterprising statecraft on the part of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his aides and followers.

The question of Pakistan being conceived in violation of established principles is the hard-set principle that a nation-state cannot possibly be predicated on an ideology drawn from a religious experience. Strict adherence to this belief implies that Pakistan is, indeed, an “aberration from the norm”. However, when one analyses the peculiar circumstances in which Pakistan was created, it seems nothing less than a miraculous achievement that the state of Pakistan was even rendered possible. It took great perseverance and creative negotiation on the part of the All India Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for the state to materialise.

Jinnah’s greatest strength as a leader was his vision for the future. It is often represented as a negative trait that under him, the Muslim League did not rely on past experiences only, and had an ahistorical approach towards its politics of separatism.

The truth, however, is that as a statesman, he was uncannily astute in understanding the twists and turns of international politics. He was fully cognizant that the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) had redefined the notion of nationalism. European conception of the nation-state derived from this treaty. The various wars and political events of the nineteenth century, and the two world wars in the twentieth century proved and persuaded him that this particular notion of nationalism was no longer universally sustainable.

This political model therefore cannot be analysed in isolation from the historical currents of the time. The British model, of course, had very little space for politicians.

Jinnah was quite disenchanted by the jolts to the concepts of nationhood that resulted from the European wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus he had a futuristic vision, and his models for the new nation-state were the USA and Canada, which do not derive their concepts of nationhood from notions of the (European) past, but rather from a forward-looking national ethos.

One may argue that the Muslim notion of nationalism in the subcontinent was historically derived from the Turko-Persian tradition of the Mughal empire and its preceding dispensations. Of course, the influence of modernity must not be discounted either. Nowhere was this blend of various influences, more manifested than in the poetry and lectures of Allama Muhammad Iqbal. The Muslim League presidential address delivered by Iqbal in 1930 at Allahabad reflects the Turkish and Persian roots of Indian Muslim nationalism.

On the other hand, Jinnah’s training had been in the Western models of nationhood and democracy, derived from the political philosophies of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham. Given this diversity if not outright clash of ideas, what should have resulted in a dissembling of the Muslim League’s ideology ended up strengthening the party because Jinnah was able to creatively craft a synthesis of the opposing worldviews in the political vision that the Muslim League followed after its historic resolution of 1940.

One of the major contradictions that Jinnah had to reconcile was that the Turko-Persian roots of Indian Muslim identity were inclusive in their ethos, while the Muslim separatism predominant in post-1857 Muslim thought (starting with Aligarh and culminating in Iqbal’s 1930 address) that resulted in the creation of Pakistan was predicated on exclusionism.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the predominant Sufi tradition — Chishtiya and Qadriya — was being gradually replaced by an exclusionary version of Islam which impacted Sufism too in quite a tangible manner.

While this historical trend of exclusionary politics had started with the start of the decline of Muslim empire in India, this exclusionism was ironically hastened by the introduction of colonial conception of modernity. Chishtiya Sufis such as Noor Muhammad Mohaarwi and Salman Taunsvi were the pivotal influences in introducing exclusionism into the Indian Muslim Sufi ethos. The Sufi influences derived from the Turkish and Persian models were instrumental in lending a pluralistic approach to Sufi tradition. However, as Arab influence began to creep in, from the eighteenth century onward, more rigid conceptions of religions took root.

Colonial technology of control along with several other tools like census, ethnographic surveys, and the gazetteer — which glorified the tribes supporting the British colonial enterprise while ridiculing those resisting British empire — legitimised the narratives of exclusionism.

It is also important to consider the fact that the political model designed by the British administrators of colonial India placed overarching reliance on the military and bureaucracy. Both Jinnah and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sagaciously revised the British political model, and introduced an indigenous colouring in politics conceived by the British.

This political model therefore cannot be analysed in isolation from the historical currents of the time. The British model, of course, had very little space for politicians. As the post-colonial theorists argue, the British went on to re-define all including politics, culture and social attitudes of the Indian subjects through instruction and various methods of colonial control.

When this model was bequeathed to the newly created nation-state of Pakistan, Jinnah realised that it could not be entirely replaced. Using his penetrative insight, considerable personal influence as a statesman, and immeasurable charisma, Jinnah negotiated space for the political sphere to progressively acquire greater space in the process with the passage of time.

Today, 70 years down the lane, the British colonial administrative setup is still the structural model which the state emulates, but the political class is gradually increasing its influence, and winning far more room for asserting its will in state-craft than was possible during the colonial era. It must again be underscored that this was possible due to Jinnah’s sagacity and his vision of what the nation-state needed to do to survive, grow, and eventually prosper.

To be continued

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.


  • Pakistan will forever carry the burden of being seen as a back stabber, of being disloyal to its mother land by separating itself under the pretext of religious majoritism, it’s new rulers barely hiding their lust for power. This article is an attempt to negate the general popular perception about Pakistan. Alas, it doesn’t succeed.

    • Jamil Soomro, New York City

      Then why did you have RSS,Shiv Sena and BJP to stab Muslims in the back?

      • Spirituality and the culture full of rituals originate organically and naturally in every land. Importing it from distant desert lands is criminal. They were imposed on natives by barbaric looters, rapists and killers. Christianity and Islam cut roots of native converts by wiping out their native spirituality, culture and languages. The effects are visible in AfPak and depressed Central and south America. Rootless parasites become easy cannon fodder in the wars of enslaver imperialists.

  • Interesting discussion, but it overlooks the point that Jinnah was most probably looking for a confederation with India and also accepted Cabinet mission plan, which was undone by Nehru and that ultimately Patel and Mountbaten convinced Nehru to agree to the idea of Pakisan (Reference: India Wins Freedom by Moulana Azad)

    • As it is Muslims within India are drag on Indian economic, spiritual and social progress. Muslims within India bring down economic growth rate by at least 2%. Not sure if Pakistan and Bangladesh were not separated then India did not have to suffer thousand cuts of terrorism. Right now India can keep the evil hands and brains outside its border.

  • Jamil Soomro, New York City

    Mr.Tahir Kamran I just noticed a very important error in your article.You have named your article
    “Idea of Pakistan”You totally forgot the most important personality who first had the “idea of Pakistan”
    Sir Syed Ahmad Khan for Muslims.In my opinion you should correct this serious error as you are planning
    to further continue your article.

  • Jamil Soomro, New York City

    It is so obvious that you are not a Muslim.Your continuous use of diatribe against the Muslims is the solid
    proof.What religion was in India before Hinduism? Your anti-Pakistani attitude will get you nowhere.

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