On December 30, 1906, a group of Muslim leaders gathered in Dhaka and proposed a political association for the Muslims of India, with three aims: to protect Muslim interests, to counter Congress influences, and to support the British administration. The first meeting of this proposed entity, named the All India Muslim League happened in Karachi on December 20th, 1907. The next decades of Muslim League in Indian nationalist politics can only be described as tumultuous – as it tried to work with, against, the All India National Congress and the British. It trained, groomed and gave a platform to generations of Muslim leaders on local, national and international arenas. But, even as the party and its ideologies gained significance in the Indian nationalist scene, it had to go through various evolutions in its struggle to unite dueling agendas and hopes for the millions of Muslims in India.
To truly understand its impact, one would have to examine the intellectual history of the Muslim League from Syed Ahmed Khan to the two partitions – the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. This history of the Muslim League is of particular relevance in today‚Äôs world. The oft-heard refrain about the lack of democracy and democratic practices in the Muslim world deserves a sustained critique through this 100 year history of charted and documented practice of Muslim democracy in India
When I went through my schooling in Lahore during the 80s, we had extensive lesson plans on the All India Muslim League; we had to memorize the various resolutions and recite the points of various planning committees. All this, in practical terms, was to answer the inevitable essay question on our state board exam: Explain the Ideology of Pakistan in light of the Two Nation Theory? Ask me now to tell you what is the Ideology of Pakistan and I will recite the mantra, Pakistan ka Matlab Kiya? La Illaha Illal Lah [What does Pakistan mean? No God but One]. The ideology of Pakistan, in Zia ul Haq‚Äôs Pakistan, was Islam. The narrative history of this ideology was in every history and social studies textbook post-1977 and part of every politician and leader‚Äôs arsenal.
This officially sanctioned ideology of Pakistan is historically, teleologically, and dare I say, divinely determined. There are no divergent paths, or counter-memories in this narrative. In this particular past, selections from the history of Muslim League exist merely to fulfill the prophecy of Pakistan. The lives and events intertwined in the history of the League appear only as counterpoints to the All India National Congress in this teleology and then only to prove the over-arching truism: Hindus and Muslims were always two nations in India. Take, for example, this quote from a social studies textbook:
For more than ten centuries since 711 A D Muslims, Hindus and followers of Jainism and Buddhism lived together but remained distinct in all imaginable ways of living, culture, religion and creed. It would be distortion of history to say that Indian subcontinent was and had been a cultural unity or its people lived according to agreed social codes. In his book ‚ÄúIndia‚Äù, (1888) Sir John Strachey observed ‚ÄúThis is the first and most essential thing to learn about India-that there is not, and never was an India‚Äù.
As early as in the beginning of the 11th century, Al-Biruni observed that Hindus differed from the Muslims in all matters and habits. The speech made by Quaid-i-Azam at Minto Park, Lahore on March 22, 1940 was very similar to Al-Biruni’s thesis in theme and tone. In this speech, he stated that Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, with different social customs and literature. The only difference between the writing of Al-Biruni and the speech of Quaid-i-Azam was that Al-Biruni made calculated predictions, while Quaid-i-Azam had history behind him to support his argument.
Note the emphatic claim to truth employed here. It may be quite easy to ‚Äúhistorically‚Äù disprove the claims in the quote – or, even in Jinnah‚Äôs Two Nation Theory – and to highlight, instead, the interdependencies and interconnectedness of Muslims and Hindus through centuries of cohabitation on the subcontinent. But the veracity of ‚Äúhistorical truths‚Äù is besides the point. To engage with the history implicit in this quote is to give in to the telos of Pakistan ‚Äì to imagine only a future with Pakistan or without Pakistan. Such a history already forecloses all other pasts, and all other futures.
We are forced to confront another overly-determined future at the moment: the clash of civilizations, the Reformation of Islam, the telos of Terror. Since it reflects our presents just as much as those pasts, how then, does one write a history of political Islam in South Asia? We can, for example, take a cue from Paul Ricoeur, who reminds us: “Knowing that people of the past formulated expectations, predictions, desires, fears, and projects is to fracture historical determinism by retrospectively reintroducing contingency into history.‚Äù Hence, for us to consider the history and legacy of All India Muslim League is to ask of ourselves: how do we conceive of this past differently. What is the legacy of the All India Muslim League outside the teleology of Pakistan? What motivations, rivalries and alliances prompted the creation, propagation and demise of the All India Muslim League around the subcontinent during the past hundred years; what has been its role in the making of the nations and polities of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; what pasts did it engender, what present did it bring into existence and what futures did it imagine? And, most importantly, what memories did it leave behind? As historians, we have to inhabit the past of 1906 ‚Äì so as to imagine the futures from 1906. To prospect, and not retrospect.
With those concerns, we held a colloquium at the University of Chicago on November 4th, 2006 to note and reflect on the creation of the Muslim League, a hundred years, thence. Invited were prominent scholars of the intellectual and political history of South Asia: David Gilmartin, David Lelyveld, I. A. Zilli, Sumit Sarkar, and Tanika Sarkar. We also invited graduate students who are currently working on aspects of the history of Islam in South Asia[and Muslim League]: Jane Menon, Venkat Dhulipala, Maya Tudor and Eric Beverley.
The colloquium brilliantly captured those alternative futures that we were hoping to stress. The presentations by I. A. Zilli on Shibli Naumani and David Gilmartin on British Common Law and the League were truly remarkable. But, for me, the keynote address by Naim Sahib, A Sentimental Essay in Three Scene, was the highlight of the whole colloquium. You can watch and listen to these sessions here.
There is hope that we will continue this examination of the history of Muslim League with the construction of a Digital Archive. I am working on the prototype and hope to have more news on that front in the new year.