Adeel Hussain provides a critical review of Dhulipala’s new CUP text on the formation of Pakistan, arguing that the text shows more about contemporary Indian politics than tell us what really happened.

Venkat Dhulipala, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 544pp.



Pratab Bhanu Mehta called him brilliant. Faisal Devji called him intellectually impoverished. One liberal Pakistani weekly called him dishonest. An Indian counterpart declared: finally someone narrated India’s birth pangs as-they-really-happened. To say the least, Venkat Dhulipala’s revamped 2008 doctoral thesis at the University of Minnesota, published earlier last year under the catchy title Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial India with Cambridge Press, has polarised. Big-heartedly sprinkled with sufficient primary material to fully stock his old university’s library, it comes as no surprise that the author––now teaching history in Wilmington––pondered over the manuscript for more than a decade before releasing this mammoth of astonishing length. His time thinking about the issues at stake has not quite resulted in the seismic shift he claims to have accomplished.

More still, his argument that Pakistan was widely discussed and deliberated as an Islamic State as opposed to a secular homeland for Muslims on Indian soil, strikingly resembles common chipboards from the historiographical construction market, which scholars on both sides of the border have used for decades to seal their leaking roofs. Instead of properly contextualising how well-nestled his argument is within such scholarly gestures, Dhulipala insists to have invented the wheel anew and singlehandedly rendered irrelevant the ‘orthodoxy’ in the field. That the orthodoxy he identifies pretty much came up as a response to similar arguments is not worth a mention. Far from arriving at a smooth synthesis of these divergent reverberations, Hegelian if you wish, Dhulipala brazenly shape-shifts one with the other, hoping nobody would look closely at his sleight of hand.

Pakistan’s creation has offered a hospitable resting place for historians to warm themselves in the mellow afterglow of the explosive events surrounding the first modern state where nationality was measured against religious affinity. While the second state to promote a similar political form wherein religion and nationality collapsed––Israel––purged large parts of the native population from the place they called home and undertook the awkward task of seducing a disparate global community “back” to a promised holy land, Pakistan sits uncomfortably with the assumption that there was anything particularly Islamic or sacred about its geography. Ajmer, Delhi, Agra, Deoband, all in their own way connected to some discernible materiality that may have boiled up sacred passions, came out on the wrong side of the border. Pakistan took her first breaths in the territory made up of Muslim majority regions. Sacredness of soil, as the Sikh experience with the evisceration of their gurus birth-places underlines painfully, was not the crucial determining factor for judicious bureaucrats slicing Pakistan from India with an hypnotic gaze on numbers and cartography.

This fact alone favours the straightforward supposition that cutting Pakistan out of India was more of a real-political drama than some fervent divine interlude. A thorn in the foot of historians pushing for a Muslim Sonderweg in India, such empirical facts have however not halted the flourishing art of locating the emergence of Muslim particularity way back into a nebulous past. But even if we are to generously grant these tin-soldiers their big toss and accept that over the centuries Hindus and Muslims repeatedly clashed over religious issues, such events offer little guidance in historical analyse on the subcontinents shoah, partition violence. With its modern genocidal fantasies, large-scale religious cleansing, and military precision, this theatrical manifestation of violence is perhaps better understood as a specific twentieth century ulceration. Scholars fighting against such static assumptions around the reheating of sentiments across distant temporal plains––where nothing ever changes––have convincingly argued that Indian Muslims were always too fragments to constitute a homogenous political block; there was no vessel of ideological juice from which they drank collectively; and even if we are to cede Muslims doctrinal purity derived from a singular sacred code it may have well been limited to everyday ritual conduct with little bearing on large-scale political events.

The battlegrounds of historians have not been exhausted with this quick glance over the main teams in a “continuity vs. change” game. Others have approached the study of the nationalist moment with an heightened sensitivity towards whispers from below in order to, on the one hand democratise history writing for subaltern groups and on the other, to retroactively make politics into a playing field for those scrapped from participation by a small elite which had adapted to the colonial rulebook a bit quicker. The well-trodden path of elite drawing room politics, somewhat exhausted by pulling the load of the ‘prevalent orthodoxy’, emerged in India with its own set of problems. Written largely by a cluster of Cambridge historians from their not-so-cosy arm-chairs at the British Library roughly thirty years ago, the ravages of time have faulted them for leaving no space for imagination and thought of colonised intellectual, who in their writings, more often than not, appear as anglophile mimic-men eager to inherit the emperors used clothes.

Dhulipala butchers away some nuance and complexity of bygone scholarship, with his eyes squarely fixed on certain clerics and political journalists who had migrated, only to find themselves out of suitable employment in Pakistan, turning to bad history writing instead. These public men––and they are all men; the few times nameless women appear it is in the context of ‘abduction’, ‘getting slapped’, ‘purdah’, ‘conversion’, ‘poor’, old’, and men ‘educating them’––constitute the luminaries of what Dhulipala colloquially refers to as a ‘public sphere’ in early to mid-twentieth century India. However, Dhulipala throws in the public sphere without expanding his methodological foundations at any length, and almost in a hit and run fashion, simply points to the late Cambridge historian C.A. Bayly’s findings to make sense of information flows in overwhelmingly illiterate societies. Illiteracy, Bayly famously held, was not an insurmountable barrier to acquire information for colonised people––rendering them ignorant of current political events and thus exclude them from the discursive framework of politics––but rather, information could quickly spread through longstanding oral networks. Stirring Bayly together with Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere, who, I was stumped, was entirely absent from the short methodological framing, and a dash of Amartya Sen’s weirdly boastful anthropological insights that Indian’s are (and have always been) intrinsically ‘argumentative’, more so than the Greeks in their upstart attempts with the Iliad and the Odyssey, does not translate easily into all chewed up leaflet in the Lucknow archives magically acquiring historical significance. Most of the stuff was probably just marginal and perhaps only meticulously collected due to a phobic relationship the colonial state had developed with India’s Muslims. Dhulipala’s usage of the public sphere as a catchall solution to overcome the conceptual hurdles inherent in his argument is a bitter pill to swallow.

While Dhulipala maintains in the introduction that his essential task was to instil some ideological current into Pakistan’s national project, which at times has been said to lack any sustained imagination, he ends up going back to a systematic pigeonholing of Indian Muslims reminiscent of nineteenth century colonial administrators. Given that from the outset his approach may appear laudable, Dhulipala reserves all rational and progressive impetus to the political actors of the All India National Congress and his great rediscovery, the reluctant constitutional father of the Indian Republic, B.R. Ambedkar. Celebrating the Untouchable leader’s 1940 book on Pakistan for finally bringing ‘sanity, semblance and order’ into an otherwise messy ideological affair, Dhulipala leaves out that Ambedkar’s book was written to counterweigh his own frustration to unite Indian minorities––Muslims, Dalits and Sikhs––against the Congress party. This may be why Ambedkar was exceptionally brash towards Muslims, openly questioning their mental capability to participate in modern pluralist democratic structures.

Muslim loyalties, we learn from Ambedkar, were always already predisposed to some holy land well outside India. All this could have come verbatim from the notorious anti-Semitic journal Der Stürmer, but most scholars would hesitate to cite from these pages as insightful descriptions of German Jewry. That Dhulipala posits Ambedkar’s book as the most important authoritative framework for his further study into the nationalist moment remains at best questionable. Most of the ideas around the creation of Pakistan, as my own work has revealed, had been in circulation some years before Ambedkar crudely straightjacketed them together in Thoughts on Pakistan.

Dhulipala further claims that particularly the learned imams, clustered together in educational camps financially depended on the Crown, rallied enthusiastically and in large numbers behind Pakistan’s demand, eventually ironing out the liberal idealism of her founding fathers. Think only of the most audible slogan during Muslim League conferences, ‘pakistan ka matlab kiya? lailahaillalah!’ (What is the meaning of Pakistan? …). For far too long we have readily shoved these clerics into the Gandhian camp, when in fact, Dhulipala asserts, many outspokenly favoured the creation of an Islamic state propelled by the “sharia”. Looking at Pakistan today, one is hard pressed not to close the book with a self-righteous grin that in-time Muslim nationalists would get banged.

Certainly, it does not require a genius to unpack such religious slogans with the toolkit of conventional history methodology: when people say religion what they really mean is something else. This-is-really-that. Religion just steps in as an insignificant placeholder––a smokescreen of sorts––masking darker processes and objectives any leftist with brahmanical right-thinking would firmly fix in a materialist landscape. Jobs, political power, the neighbour’s wife. Muslim protesters shouting religious slogans in hot zeal in the 40s––from the perspective of this universal truth––were no different from supporters of Donald Trump; while both rallied under the banner of an impressively amateurish leadership their ideological position can hardly be pinned down to the cheers and jingoes’ made in public. The deeper problems, as bread-and-butter history would have it, are to be found in precarious economic conditions or in more heady accounts in a Heideggerian up-rootedness of the human subject in late capitalism. For the Muslim farm hand in rural Punjab shouting Muslim League’s slogans may have nurtured the promise for a better future and economic relief from the strong hand of the Hindu moneylender. For the landed elite of the United Provinces religion may have been an instrument to acquire the novel currency of political capital and probe the limits of pushing a largely illiterate community to act against their own self interest. So far, so Marx.

However, to emphasise ideology beyond enlightenment reasons and self-interest, an approach that I applaud in principle, as a driving factor for colonised communities can hardly result in taking such war cries entirely at face value. When Shabir Ahmed Usmani, a renegade cleric who owed much of his fame to revolting against his master’s directive to throw in his weight with the All India Congress Party, used the terms “Pakistan” and “Medina” interchangeably, Dhulipala ecstatically jumps to the conclusion that Muslim had finally revealed their true colours. Essentially a theological state from its inception, Dhulipala aims to stabilise this claim by peppering in political leaflets, countless letters from common men (the ‘aam aadmi’) and as a crown witness, the only person with a decent political clout, the young Raja of Mahmudabad. A princeling with deep pockets and vague political ambitions the Raja had been groomed as Jinnah’s successor well into the early 40s.


Dhulipala goes to pains to highlight the ways in which the Raja dreamt of––and actively endorsed––the creation of a Muslim theocracy. Conveniently, he leaves out that the Raja’s religious leanings were the sole reason that Jinnah dropped him from the higher echelons of the League’s leadership without blinking twice. And even after the Raja publically recanted his boyish flirtations with the sharia––some years before Pakistan was founded––he could not tie knots with Jinnah again. As the Raja repeatedly reminded his friends and family members, his reasons for staying back in India after the split had nothing to do with Pakistan’s political theology. Rather his decision to remain was baked into the conventional cookie-concerns that most migrants face: swapping transparent and intimate places they feel a strong sense of loyalty to for a distant and alien environment however much connecting ideological paint stroked on its facade. Even the most ardent fighters propagating a theological state that Dhulipala casts for this humdrum theatre, at close inspection, reveal cracks and resist an easy folding into his conceptual script.

There was no deep archival digging necessary for any of this. A quick google search would have done the trick, or the consultation of published articles the Raja penned outlining the reasons behind the froth in his relationship with Jinnah and the League. Google would have also assisted Dhulipala in finding out about many obscure men who haunt his work and about whom apparently ‘nothing is know’. A stepmotherly treatment of archival material––revealing only as much as best suits one’s argument––is a professional disease amongst many historian, but one wishes that Dhulipala had engaged more seriously with the counter-positions. Introducing the Medina newspaper on which much of his argument rests, Dhulipala claims that it was the ‘most important’ organ for propagating the nationalist message, when in fact, it barely had a circulation of 6000 as a regional bi-weekly, if the surveillance machinery of the colonial state is to be trusted. Most other Muslim papers easily could easily make these numbers look pale in comparison.

To be sure, for some clerics the historicist revival of a golden Muslim past rooted in the Arabian desert may have dawned as a belated fantasy. But Dhulipala deliberately underplays the fact that Medina had become something of a hip buzzword in wider policy and theological circles. Everybody wanted to have one. The Deobandi teacher Usmani had rebelled against, for instance, continued to refer to a united India as Medina. Like most hip buzzwords Medina seemed to have lost an instance of its nineteenth century rigidity.

We are confronted with unrecognisable spectres of positions, which––some well past their zenith––are broken down to crude metaphors like “bargaining-chips”, “insufficient imagination”, “hostage population”. But little of substantial value is fleshed out in a meaningful Begriffsgeschichte, as Reinhard Koselleck would have it, on the significance of the concept “religion”, which after all ought to have served as the driving force behind these hysteric colonial subjects. Recent works on intellectuals in late colonial India suggest that nineteenth century allures of going back to a golden past, in what C.A. Bayly, who first introduced me to some of these debates, playfully referred to as the ‘global idealist moment’, were flushed out for more radical engagements with historical time. It is no secret that the twentieth century was dotted with ruptures; ripe with expressions of leaving the past behind and capturing novel futures outside colonial domination through radical political action––a truly Nietzschian century as the historian Shruti Kapila has pointedly called it.

There certainly was continuity too. Perhaps the most impactful Muslim thinker of the subcontinent, Muhammad Iqbal, demoted in Dhulipala’s book to a single ‘rousing’ footnote, devastated acres of woodlands to arrive at a workable equilibrium of the burdensome past with the galloping alienation of the present. But Dhulipala seems content with pointing out the radical activism of troubled divines alone and shuts his eyes to anything that may increase his works complexity for the reader.

Further, Dhulipala views nationalism as a distinct and almost necessary temporal stage through which the ‘discovered people’ need to mature in order to reach a ‘sufficiently imagined’ stage that could then in turn legitimate their claims to statehood. This imperative pedagogical demand to which Dhulipala adheres seems untimely; instead it might have been more fruitful to delink the pedagogical from what the Harvard literature theorist Homi Bhabha would call the ‘performative aspects’ of political agency. To me, one of the most interesting facets about the creation of Pakistan remains that it entailed a critique and a conceptual reworking of the nineteenth century idea of nationality and religion, basing itself almost entirely on the crystallization of an idea. In focusing upon the question of ‘sufficient imagination’, measured against a matrix of nineteenth century Europe, Dhulipala runs danger of eroding precisely the exceptionality and novelty with which the future of the political project was envisioned and practiced.

Roughly a decade ago, in two articles published in the journals Modern Asian Studies and the Indian Economic and Social History Review, Dhulipala had proposed his thesis before, resulting in a frosty to lukewarm response. With the decimation of the Indian National Congress––a big-tent represent all party––in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the meteoric rise of the Hindu strongman Narendra Modi, things took a sudden turn. Liberal media outlets in desperate need to whitewash the blood-tainted historical legacy of Congress rule, found a willing participant in Dhulipala to promote their lopsided political project. It is quite telling, therefore, that when interviewed by the Indian journalist Karan Thapar for a special Independence Day edition of ‘Nothing But the Truth’, Dhulipala felt nationalistically emboldened to warn the Indian public outright: “Pakistan should be a cautionary tale for us, especially for those who want to make India into a Hindu Pakistan”. In this way, it seems to me that Dhulipala narrative has to be seen just as much in light of contemporary Indian politics, and not just a naive scholarly attempt to reconstruct ‘what really happened’ (to paraphrase Leopold von Ranke’s famous proclamation). To be sure, Pakistan’s sovereignty is neither dependent on its imagination as a religious state nor linked, in any straightforward way, to a contemporary association with the Indian national.

Jinnah may or may not have been a liberal but it takes more than associating him with opaque clerics that he evidently cared very little about to transform him into a religious zealot. As long as Dhulipala remains committed to lengthy summaries of primary material, some of these pages read well enough and contain novel details about lesser-known historical actors. The problems only begin when he starts to become thoughtful and strings together an argument that paints them collectively with the same brush. While Dhulipala’s offers us insights into Muslim thinking in the United Provinces, the idea of Pakistan––for him––signifies but an anachronistic desire of shrill (and easily excitable) colonial subjects marching for an obscure religious glory, a line of reasoning that remains glaringly detached from the Indian political spirit, the political language of the twentieth century, and current academic debate.

Adeel Hussain has recently submitted his PhD in legal history and political thought at the University of Cambridge and is currently clerking for the higher district court at Frankfurt/Germany. He tweets @adeel_hussain7

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