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A requiem for a dissenter

Chaudhry Rahmat Ali deserved a better deal than what he got

A requiem for a dissenter

This February marks the sixty-third anniversary of Chaudhry Rahmat Ali (1897-1951) the man who coined the name of our country, Pakistan, yet who is only tangentially mentioned in the history books in Pakistan. Textbooks normally only refer to him as a student at Cambridge (Emmanuel College) who coined the name of Pakistan in the pamphlet ‘Now or Never’ in 1933, which seems more like a parenthesis in a narrative otherwise solely reserved for the All-India Muslim League.

In the singularly linear trajectory that the history of the Freedom Movement has come to embrace, any voice that ventures to digress from the official version is relentlessly stifled; Chaudhry Rahmat Ali and his Pakistan National Movement, established in January 1933, being a case in point. Dr Khursheed Kamal Aziz, by writing a detailed and extremely rich biography of Rahmat Ali, Rahmat Ali: A Biography, has tried to break the shackles of the linearity and has thus rendered us a great service.

Unlike many who prefer to play safe by saying nothing about a figure who is disapproved officially, Aziz has opted to provide us with an alternative perspective to the entrenched discourse of ‘the freedom movement.’ In a bid to do so, he also brings to light the factual errors about Ali furnished in widely circulated historical texts, which are commissions borne out wilfully.

Thus in this article I intend to do what Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in 1906, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (this most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is incorrectly attributed to him).

In the text that follows, I will try to do precisely that even though I have strong disagreement with the vision of the state and its anchoring ideology that Rahmat Ali came to advocate so vociferously. Nevertheless, he must not be a victim of the erasure that is applied with impunity.

His trenchant opposition to the idea of a separate state named Pakistan that transpired in 1947, which led him to deride the founder of Pakistan as the Quisling-e-Azam instead of Quaid-e-Azam, made him into an outcast in Pakistani social and public spheres. Besides, he termed the partition of August 1947 as a ‘Great Betrayal’. Thus he was perceived as a persona non grata by the state and went into exile in 1948.

He was bereaved that his work had not been acknowledged. He was quite cross with Jinnah and thought that he “took over the name (Pakistan) and basic framework of the idea” and did not bother to mention his name.

His book Pakistan: The Fatherland of the Pak Nation carries his main argument in which he propounds his very own notion of the ‘Continent of Dinia’ which he also called Pakasia comprising various federating units like Pakistan, Osmanistan, Haideristan, Siddiqstan, Faruqistan, Muinistan, Maplistan, Safiistan and Nasaristan, separate from India.

He does not stop at balkanisation of the landmass only; he goes on to suggest new names for the seas like Bang-i-Islam Sea for the Bay of Bengal and Pakistanian Sea for the part of the Arabian Sea that touches Karachi. His vision of Pakistan, too, was substantially different from what Jinnah felt content with under the June 3 Plan. Rahmat Ali did not envisage Pakistan without Delhi, Agra and Kashmir. To him, Delhi and Agra were great repositories of Muslim civilisation. Yumna river could be the natural frontier between ‘Hindoostan’ and Pakistan. Similarly Pakistan was never complete without Kashmir. The nomenclature accorded to Pakistan devoid of Kashmir should be ‘Pastan’, which signifies the absence of ‘ki’ that stood for Kashmir.

Such geographical re-configuration of the subcontinent in fact stemmed from the Pan-Islamism of Jamal ud Din Afghani whose sagacity and tenability were doubtful to the mainstream leadership of the Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The overarching category that he continuously employed in his various pamphlets was that of a ‘Millat’ instead of a nation in the sense of Western political theory. This scheme, which he pursued with extraordinary zeal while at Cambridge, speaks out loud about the idealism with which he was imbued. The brief period that he visited Pakistan was spent on the campaign to bring the plight of the Indian Muslim into the international gaze.

As Aziz notes, “only the sensitive, or the most scrupulous, have high ambitions – it depends on the kind of ambition.” In view of his scheme of Dinia, he is compelled to call him unscrupulous and paranoid. In his writings, Hindus and India or Indian-ness are mentioned with antipathetic derision. The principal objective of The Pakistan National Movement, as he mentions in one of his pamphlets What Does The Pakistan National Movement Stand for?, was “the creation of a new order of ‘Asianism’ to take the place of the old order of ‘Indianism’ in South Asia”. His overall ideology was anti-Hindu, and his weariness with Hindu majority rule was at the heart of his vision and political action. If explored afresh, Rahmat Ali can easily fit into the cast of a hero for Islamists in Pakistan with a Pan-Islamist agenda.

A few details of his personal life gleaned from the Frost Papers preserved at the Cambridge archives will be of interest to the readers.

Rahmat Ali was endowed with many qualities of head and heart. He was demanding and not easily satisfied either with his own work or that of other people. His papers were revised and re-revised for countless times. His English was excellent but he never tired of trying to improve it. He was a devout Muslim with an absolute faith in his religion; his copy of the Quran always with him. But he respected other religions. He lived simply but seemed to feel it absolutely necessary to appear before ‘lesser’ folk as though he had money. In fact he seemed to be short of money most of the time.

Rahmat Ali was a heavy smoker, though every now and then he would burn his whole stock of cigarettes and give it up — only to start again. His few clothes had to be good and well-fitted. His finickiness over detail exasperated printers, bookbinders, tailors — anyone who came up against it. He couldn’t tolerate any kind of noise that might interfere with his concentration, but he had that “oriental charm of manner” which inveigled people into doing the impossible.

He indeed was, as Thelma Frost puts it in her account of Rahmat Ali, a fanatic with a brilliantly creative mind and an unbreakable persistence. Rahmat Ali died in a nursing home at Cambridge on February 3, 1951 with no one at his bedside. He was destitute, forlorn and lonely when he breathed his last. The master of Emmanuel College arranged for his last rites and burial at New Market Road cemetery. Despite his ideas which were quixotic to the core, Chaudhry Rahmat Ali deserved a better deal than what he got.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is the Iqbal Fellow at the University of Cambridge as professor in the Centre of South Asian Studies

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