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Role of Two Nation Theory in the Partition

"Once a monolithic identity is constructed that takes into account only one dimension, ignoring or suppressing others, it is unlikely to lead to a stable or long-term creation"
The two nation theory is arguably the foundation upon which the demand for the division of India was based. It was used as a rallying cry as well as the justification for the demand for Pakistan. It continues to serve some of these purposes in Pakistan today. On the other hand, it has also been used as a justification for introducing Islamic laws in Pakistan, and transforming Pakistan in an 'Islamic Republic'. Whether one agrees with this interpretation or not, it certainly tells us about the importance of understanding the 'two nation theory' if we want to understand our own history and identity. It will also help us in understanding what we are today, and what needs to be done in order to move into the future. This is what is attempted in the following pages.

Simply put, the two nation theory says that Hindus and Muslims of India are two separate and distinct nations. What is important to understand is the motivation behind this declaration, and the ideological implication. The Muslim leadership had felt that the rights of the Muslim population could not be safeguarded within the post-British India, unless it was accepted that the Muslims were a separate and distinct nation. This separate and distinct status would allow the Muslims to be represented at all talks concerning the future, in negotiations about the future constitutions of India, protection of minorities, powers of the various legislating bodies, division of powers between a center and the regions, and the construction of a constitution. This participation as 'representatives of a nation' rather than as a minority was considered necessary before the Muslim leadership could really become an effective negotiator. Jinnah was adamant that the British accept that the Muslims were a nation within India.

The Muslim leadership must also have felt that the only way of making the British and Hindu leadership accept this fact would be by showing how different the Muslims and Hindus were in their culture, ways of living, their demands and expectations. The Muslims of India were not a distinct race nor they were tied to one region; they did not have a distinct language nor a distinct history. Therefore the only difference between the two nations was their religion. And this difference was played up.

But what got glossed over were the other real differences amongst the people. Each one of us is a member of an ethnic community, race, language group clan or tribe, regional grouping and many other group identifications. Some of these cut across each other, and some overlap. This creates a very complex web of 'identity' for an individual. Once a monolithic identity is constructed that takes into account only one dimension, ignoring or suppressing others, it is unlikely to lead to a stable or long-term creation. The other dimensions create tensions for the construction, and unless it is enforced by an increasing ideological blindness, it is likely to weaken over time. I think this did happen to the two nation theory too.

We have to look at how the meaning and significance of the 'two nation theory' changed over time. It started out as a movement for recognition as equal for negotiation purposes, but very soon it moved towards a political movement based on that notion. The complexity of the negotiation process, the games that the communities were playing with each other, the role of the British, the personalities of the leaders, their stubbornness, or intransigence, all played a role in the shift. In a matter of years, the 'two nation theory' became a foundation stone upon which the demands of the Muslims came to rest. Given the lack of progress towards developing a constitution that could keep the two nations satisfied within a larger unified structure, the demands, based on the two nation theory, shifted towards a call for separation and creation of distinct countries. It is not surprising that the Muslim League, not a grass roots party, had problems selling the idea of the two nations to the regions, as well as to the masses. The regions had an interest in devolution of power to the regions, but not in creation of a state for the Muslims. The people had to be inflamed and cajoled into the movement. Religion was used blatantly for that by all sides, with ugly side effects like Hindu-Muslim riots. But the people did get involved, and we did see the two nation theory finally leading to the creation of two countries in 1947.

The riots and massacres that took place around the time of partition, as well as the contentious issues left unresolved then have further widened the gulf between the two nations. The Kashmir issue continues to bring out the worst in both countries. They are locked into fixed positions while the people of Kashmir continue to struggle and suffer. The atmosphere of suspicion in the two countries, where every disaster in one is seen as a conspiracy by the other and the secret services of the two countries are blamed for everything, continues unabated. The two wars that we have fought, and the almost incessant border skirmishes that continue have contributed towards entrenching negative views of the communities towards each other. Though these events do not support the two nation theory in a philosophical sense, they do create and entrench negative stereotypes in the two populations which give added credence to the two nation theory.

At the same time a lot has happened that challenges the power of the theory. Fifty years after independence and partition, when we have lived through the sprouting of nationalistic movements based on language, ethnicity, race, and religion, it is hard to see how one could argue about 'two nations' in India. The movements for 'freedom' within India, the struggle of Bengal is leading to Bangladesh, and nationalistic tones of the various regional parties in India as well as Pakistan, all make belief in 'only two nations' hard to sustain. Of course, it is anachronistic to apply present standards on a theory created 50 years ago for specific purpose. What is harder to understand is the continued use of the theory as a part of the 'ideology' of the State in Pakistan. Pakistan does not need that justification. It is there now, it is loved by most of the people who live there, that in and by itself is enough of a justification. But the theory can not be used to discourage or suppress nationalistic movements in the various parts of the country. India of course has done the same repeatedly within its borders, and that is an equally blatant and wrong use of ideology by the State.

In the theoretical sense as well, the concept of 'nation' has become more illusive and confused. Increasingly it seems that any group that finds itself in opposition to another, or is in economic or territorial competition with another, defines nation very tightly, and as a means of excluding others from the group. In potentially violent conditions such definitions have to take into account the fact that groups have to fight the dangers of the free rider problem very often. Hence, the use of rhetoric, patriotic or community based sentiments, and a debasing of the 'other' can be an important tool for fighting complacency. But this also has the negative impact of actually igniting many potential conflicts. Some of the emerging states in Eastern Europe exemplify the effect of nationalistic rhetoric very graphically and tragically.

At the same time there is an increasing realization and consensus in the Western Liberal theoretical tradition that a lot of the rights that were being derived by virtue of claiming membership within a community are actually not tied to any such requirement. They have increasingly been termed as basic human rights, that should be accorded to all human beings. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is but a shortened version of it. Religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of association, protection against arbitrariness of all sorts, equality before the law, and rights regarding the welfare state are all part of the 'citizen' package now. Jim Kymlicka, a Canadian political theorist, calls this a 'thin' version of the liberal state. The state is responsible for ensuring that these rights are given to all within its bounds, but allows all the communities and peoples within its jurisdiction to continue and pursue their life and ends as they wish, as long as the different communities and their practices do not conflict with the thin version of the state. Clearly there are no lines drawn around what a 'thin' state is or what is a 'challenge' to the state, but the framework does furnish us with concepts that would allow a number of 'nations', defined whichever way one wants, to co-exist and flourish within the same geographical area, and within the same State.

This becomes important because today where we are seeing a sprouting of nationalistic movements all over the world, we are also seeing a more global world. People are migrating across borders and creating new and more complex societies. Britain, the bastion of conservatism and monolithic mainstream culture now has about two million people from the subcontinent. Canada is mostly made up of immigrants from all corners of the globe as is the USA. In this context the two nation theory can not mean much for people who decide to move away from their countries, or who live in communities having many groups represented in the mainstream.

The immigrants have to forge a new identity for themselves, for their family and community. It will be tied to their religion, and cultural roots, but it will not be the same thing as what it was in the 'home' countries. It will have to address the new community directly, and to situate itself within the 'thin' state that we have mentioned above. Look at the literature and music that is coming from the sub-continental immigrants in England, Canada and the States. Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureshi, and the modern Bhangra and rap are some representations of a new identity, within the new context. Identity does not and cannot rest on religion alone. But it is obviously not the same as that of the people from England either. But then, that is the beauty of new identities. They mix old ones to create complex new ones that can stand on their own feet. The two nation theory would be too inadequate for creating these new identities.

Even 'back home', now that the struggle for independence is over, the two nation theory can not be of much help in sustaining an identity within India and Pakistan. Memory of the riots and the struggle survives and shapes us today, but the modern problems need new perspectives. The problems in Karachi, Kashmir, the Punjab, Sind, Naga or Meso land can not be resolved within the narrow confines of the two nation theory. Furthermore, the Indian Muslims can not base their identity on the the two nation theory. They are Indians, (and what ever the internal dynamics of Indian politics) they have to take that fact into account, as the rest of India has to take into account the fact that a substantial number of their citizens are Muslims. The situation is too complex to be neatly packaged by something as static as the two nation theory.

The identity of an individual is hard to define. Changes at the periphery are going on at all times. Sometimes the changes are profound enough to alter the core of the individual's identity too. The changes depend on the stability of the environment and the experience set of the individual. With the world changing as fast as it is, and with all the human, capital and information mobility that is present, it is hard to see how an individual can have a settled notion of identity, far less a collective like a 'nation'. The 'two nation' theory was a result of the need of the times, and a construction to serve a particular purpose. It served that with the creation of the two countries. But it is hard to see how that can be useful for people from the subcontinent now. It has been utilized to quash ethnic/nationalistic movements in the region, and it certainly was not supposed to do that. More controversially, it has been used to impose Islam in Pakistan, and reconstruct history in the region. That too can hardly been seen as a positive feature. It is time to deconstruct the theory and look for modern alternatives to define identity.

- Faisal Bari

Faisal Bari, from Pakistan, is a research scholar at McGill University in Montreal.

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