Published:  12:43 AM, 11 October 2018

Muslim communalism and separatism as prelude to Partition

This generalization is an example of the problem that is created by using social science terminologies in history without reference to their meaning and connotation. The Muslim League did carry the name of a religious community; but how far would it be logical to suggest that communalism was spawned by the establishment of this body?

If, for some circumstantial reasons, a certain community becomes aware of its backwardness and seeks to redress the same through necessary political mobilization can they be called communal?

The relevant theoretical discussion to answer such questions is presented in the next section. It appears that prolonged harping on communalism and separatism has rendered both these terminologies into well-worn cliches.

These cliches do not only obfuscate and befuddle historical perception, they play easily into the hands of those politically motivated quarters who find their interests subserved well in keeping alive some sort of tension between these major communities in South Asia. South Asian peace, harmony and cooperation remain hostage to a number of factors, but certainly a major one is this kind a historical exercises.

The thesis that religious divide lay at the root of the eventual political divide of the subcontinent is, at best, a politically motivated improvisation crafted initially by the Hindu elite in their unimaginative handling of the Muslim problem, and then by the Muslim elite in their short-sighted reaction to the former.

Bipan Chandra, who has great deal to say by way of putting the elite leadership of both the communities in the dock, represents the fourth school. He makes this disquieting remark: "We never tell the people especially the young, that these great men, being men, had imperfect understanding and also imperfect actions." and further, "Communalism enabled them to feel nationalistic without opposing imperialism, the foreign power that was then ruling and oppressing the Indian people. It enabled them to combine personal safety with nationalistic sentiments."

As for historians know-towing to the line of these leaders he has the following advisory note: "... if the historians had dealt with imperialism and the national movement, they would have been compelled to take note of the common subjection and common interests of all Indian people in the struggle against imperialism."

It emerges that Bipan Chandra dislikes the phenomenon of communalism, but accepts it as a fait accompli growing out of leadership failure. He also suggests an alternative approach, which if taken by historians, there would have been no such pejorative characterizations of the Muslim phenomenon.

Entirely well-meaning and fully in keeping with true historical spirit, such postulation accepts communalism as a given pejorative construct, without, however, considering, as any trained social science researcher would have done, the appropriateness of the construct in relation to Muslims of British India.

Similar to this line of thinking but apparently more enterprising is the three-volume work by Bimal Prasad titled 'Pathway to India's Partition' (New Delhi: Manohar, 1999).

The author, a doyen in the realm of those seeking harmonious inter-state relations in South Asia through adequate confidence-building measures, has produced this trilogy to buttress the point that, in the context of deeper and dispassionate historical analysis Pakistan is neither an aberration nor as yet a failed state.

While demurring at those who explain the great divide of the subcontinent by superficially referring to the Hindu-Muslim contradiction, as it were, in the context Huntingtonian typology of clash of civilizations that occurred in the period preceding 1947, he opts for a deeper analysis of concatenation of historical events; and out of which emerges with his thesis of "powerful Muslim nationalism" as the catalyser for the partition; He uses the pair of words 'Muslim nationalism' as alternative to separatism; and 'community consciousness' to communalism.

In both cases, the author does away with the pejorative constructs, and replaces the same with value free normative ones. The approach is refreshingly benign in order to put history to good use in the present circumstances.

But the noble intent gets nearly lost in the shadowy mist of confusion created by something like a conceptual muddle. First, theoretically, ntionalism is not an alternative to separatism; and indeed, the latter is one step behind the former insofar as political mobilization of a community is concerned. Again, by the same token, community consciousness is the wellspring for separatism.

But the author does deserve commendation for using community consciousness for describing the Muslim phenomenon, which is more objective and scientific than the tendentiously unscientific communalism. This is not to suggest that there was no communalism in India.

On the contrary, there were instances of communalism of both Hindu and Muslim variants, but the communalism which is made to appear as pejorative as this type of communalism, is not the same - this is, as this author rightly says, community consciousness.

Anchored, as if in meliorism, this stupendous work out of painstaking labour over some years, has however, not addressed the question that this exercise is concerned with: how to make communalism and separatism value-free normative constructs in a social science perspective.

Before closing this literature survey it is pertinent to quote here a statement of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, which justifies the comment of Bipan Chandra cited above on the frailties and follies of leaders: "It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu friends fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism.

They are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are in fact, distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality."

As the discussion below shows, in putting faith in such a political philosophy Jinnah was not uniform, this is something which he had to improvise during the latter part of his career under inexorable political compulsions and certainly with ulterior political motives.

But it is undeniable that statements such as this, the spirit underlying it; and strategies and actions following therefrom, however, sporadic and intermittent initially, but concerted and concentrated especially during the period following the abortive Cabinet Mission Plan (1946), provided fuels for divisive conflagration and materials for parochial history.

The melange of literature so far surveyed leads to some generalizations, and raises a few questions demanding clarification in the context of precise conceptualization. The generalizations are the following:

a.    the communalism-separatism construct vis-a-vis Muslims of British India has suffered pejorativisation at the hands of historians with a parochial mindset;

b.    historians with a true historical spirit have tried either to put this much maligned construct in its non-pejorative and value free normative perspective or come up with alternative constructs to characterize the Muslim problem; which, however, suffer from conceptual clarity; and

c.    historians subscribing to the pejorative construct have had their whipping boys, the major one being Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

On the other hand, the following questions are raised demanding clarification and precise conceptualization:
a.    how are communalism and separatism defined?

b.    Considered in a behavioural perspective and group dynamics, could Muslims of British India be characterized with such pejoratives?

c.    Were Muslims, especially, Muhammad Ali Jinnah with his denominational political construct named the Two-Nation Theory, the real divider of the subcontinent?
Attempts are made in the section below to grapple with these questions.


This section weaves together answers to the questions thrown up by the revisitation of the literature in the form of the following questions:


A context for building an answer to this fundamental question on the basis of relevant literature is provided by K. J. Newman, once a close watcher of sub-continental politics, when he comments: "It has become traditional to deride 'communalism' and to confront it with the apparently opposing ideal of a liberal 'nationalism'.

Communalism is derived from 'community' [in a normative sense], but community and communal excesses can be as little identified as nationalism with its innumerable excesses (including the two world wars)."

"Community", as R. M. MacIver writes, "comes from having lived a life in common; it is a focus of social life; the common living of social beings... All the laws of the cosmos, physical, biological, and psychological, conspire to bring it about that beings who live together shall resemble each other. Wherever men live together they develop in some kind and degree distinctive common characteristics, manners, traditions, modes of speech, etc."

 Such a definition of community fits well with Muslims of British India, but at the same time it must be stated that, this is a case of a religions community; and MacIver's definition does not refer specifically to religion as a component of community-making. On the contrary, the fact of Muslims and Hindus "having lived a life in common" socially, culturally and politically for centuries makes more sense.

The simple intent and purport of this precise statement is that there were sufficient grounds and elements for evolving a common sub-continental nationalism and the community based pluralistic polity would have remained untampered, even better cared for, were there requisite politico-constitutional engineering.

Jinnah was right in conceptualizing the predicaments of his own community, he was wrong when he was constrained to seek a solution in a divided subcontinent.

At the same time, his detractors suffered from something like a tunnel vision when they derided community consciousness of the Muslims and crafting a political response that remained oblivious of the Muslim psyche and sentiment.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself mentions that many a colleague of his in the Congress was a communalist under a national cloak. K. B. Sayeed defines this communalism in the following words: "A communalist in the context of Indian politics during the British period was one whose loyalty was to his own community.

Hindu or Muslim, was supposed to be so intense and complete that he often ignored or underrated the existence of a common Indian nationalism which was supposed to embrace all communities, castes and creeds." (To be continued…)

The writer is Professor of Bangabandhu Chair, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)

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