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From the Secession of Pakistan to the Partitioning of India

The creation of Pakistan was more a secession from India’s multicultural freedom movement than a partition of Indian territory into two states on the basis of religion. The ruling political ideology in India has now pledged allegiance to the ideals of the secession of Pakistan.

The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act is now making waves worldwide and has sparked protests across India. To those with limited knowledge of South Asian politics and history, the law might seem righteous at first glance: It seeks to expedite Indian citizenship for refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who have taken shelter in India after escaping religious persecution in the neighbourhood.

Accepting refugees is a noble humanitarian cause – one which India has championed for generations, starting with the hosting of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The problem is doing it selectively on the basis of religious tests.

As countless commentators have already pointed out, the Act fails all logical tests of humanitarianism: It leaves out Muslim sects such as the Ahmadiyyas and Shias who have long suffered persecution in Pakistan, or even rationalist bloggers who have increasingly suffered violence in Bangladesh. It also turns a blind eye to Tamil refugees from the Sri Lankan civil war who have long been at India’s doorstep. Even more tellingly, it covers up efforts from the Modi government in recent times to stereotype and vilify the stateless Rohingyas, even as they floated around in the Bay of Bengal.

Humanitarianism in refugee policy dictates that states provide an equal opportunity to all those who are persecuted, without valuing one life over another on the basis of identity. That is why the United Nations has criticised India’s new citizenship law.

Nobody is arguing that India should not take in refugees; instead, the argument is that India needs a refugee law that reflects its values as a modern democracy, with equality before the law for all. Any government that is serious about humanitarian concerns would extend asylum – and the shelter of citizenship – to individuals based on a case-by-case assessment, rather than through a law which clubs them together in clumsy groups based on their name.

Supporters of the Act, however, have argued that the law’s religious discrimination has its roots in the ‘special circumstances’ of the Partition of India. Speaking in Parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah countered the idea of including persecuted Muslim sects by arguing that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are Muslim-majority countries. “These three neighbouring countries are Muslim majority nations and Islam is enshrined in their constitutions,” he said, “Hence they cannot face religious persecution like other communities do.”

The argument that Muslims are not persecuted in these countries for their identity is demonstrably false, but it is consistent with what many in India’s Hindu nationalist right wing see as the logic of Partition: that Partition divided the subcontinent on the basis of religion, with a Muslim state of Pakistan and a Hindu state of India. This narrative forms the basis of calls for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ – a nation of, by and for the Hindus as a corollary to the Muslim state of Pakistan.

The logic of India as a Hindu corollary to Pakistan is not just an ahistorical reimagination of the Indian republic – it is also a gross violation of its founding principles. Indeed, the creation of Pakistan was more a secession from India’s freedom movement than just a partition of Indian territory into two states on the basis of religion. While the Republic of India stayed true to the decades-old multicultural values of the Indian freedom movement, the creation of an Islamic Republic of Pakistan was the result of a departure from those values by a part of the subcontinent.

For decades, the leaders of India’s freedom struggle stressed on the multicultural and universal nature of their vision. There is no dearth of quotes from no less than Mahatma Gandhi himself on the issue: He once said, “Hindus and Muslims are sons of the same soil of India; they are brothers who therefore must strive to keep India free and united.” When the Indian National Congress – the party with by far the largest reach and membership at the time – adopted its resolution of Purna Swaraj (or complete independence) in 1929, it did so in unequivocally universal terms, with no mention of religious or other conditions in its demand for human rights.

The movement for the creation of Pakistan, on the other hand, rejected these ideals of a multicultural nation and propounded instead the two-nation theory, arguing that Hindus and Muslims could not belong in the same nation. Starting from the 1920s, its ideological leaders began seceding from the larger national movement.

In 1933, as Indian and British leaders sat down to negotiate the foundations of a constitution for independent India, Choudhary Rahmat Ali circulated a pamphlet which called for the secession of a few provinces into a separate state – not unlike the secessionist demands of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. Popularly called the ‘Pakistan Declaration’, the pamphlet said, “we address this appeal to you, in the name of our common heritage, on behalf of our thirty million Muslim brethren who live in PAKSTAN — by which we mean the five Northern units of India, viz: Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afghan Province), Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan.”

The demand did not draw much popular support for several years from among the Muslim public – indeed, until the 1940s, the demand for Pakistan was no more than a fantasy of a section of the Muslim aristocratic class. Several Muslim organisations and leaders spoke out against the secessionist demand, including the All India Azad Muslim Conference and the redoubtable Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The Muslim League – the principal party of those who sought the secession of Pakistan – suffered heavy electoral losses year after year, even in the provinces whose secession it demanded: As late as in the elections of 1936-37, the Muslim League blanked out in Sind and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). In Bengal, it failed to capture even a third of the seats reserved for Muslims. In all, the Muslim League garnered fewer than 5 percent of the Muslim vote across the country.

When Pakistan was finally created, it was the result of widespread riots and fear-mongering. Secession was successfully achieved, not through the force of ballots, but through the force of violence. The dubious nature of the two-nation theory lies in the fact that Muslims were so well integrated across the entire geography of undivided India that, for several years after independence, India had more Muslims than Pakistan, despite forced mass migration of Hindus and Muslims across the border.

In the aftermath of independence, Pakistan proclaimed itself an Islamic Republic, in line with the values of religious nationalism upon which the demand for its secession were founded. Yet, India did not become the Hindu Republic of India; instead, it stayed true to the multicultural values of the larger freedom movement, which established Indian nationalism on the basis of universal principles rather than cultural or religious identity.

There was, however, some dissent in the ranks. In 1937, the proponents of Pakistan received ideological support from their direct counterparts of Hindu nationalism – the Hindu Mahasabha. That year, its president said, “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on the contrary, there are two nations in the main; the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” (Shortly thereafter, while the Indian freedom movement boycotted British state institutions and launched the ‘Quit India’ movement, the Hindu Mahasabha formed coalition governments with the Muslim League in dissent.)

The usurpation of the Indian freedom movement by the Hindu nationalist movement was, however, unsuccessful – and its leaders could not assert themselves in defining the Indian republic on religious terms. For two generations after independence – most notably including the generation that suffered Partition directly – Indians continued to reject the ideals of the secessionist religious nationalism movements at the ballot box.

Yet, that is now changing rapidly, if it hasn’t already: The ruling political ideology in India has now pledged allegiance to the ideals of the secession of Pakistan – that Hindus and Muslims belong in two separate nations, or that (as with the Citizenship Amendment Act) at the very least, India should exclude whatever identities Pakistan claims to include.

If the secession of Pakistan managed to turn one part of the subcontinent into a religious nation, the ongoing current of Hindu nationalism is turning the other part into its Hindu reflection. This would be the completion of the partition of the Indian subcontinent – and a triumph of those who spearheaded the secession of Pakistan from the Indian freedom movement.

As Shashi Tharoor put it in Project Syndicate last week, “That was a partition of India’s soil; this has become a partition of India’s soul.”

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Mohamed Zeeshan is a Founding Partner and the Editor-in-Chief of Freedom Gazette. He is the author of Flying Blind: India's Quest for Global Leadership (Penguin 2021). He is currently a foreign affairs columnist for The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Haaretz, and writes 'The Z Factor' - a monthly Sunday column in the Deccan Herald. He has previously worked at the United Nations in New York and with the global consulting firm Kearney in Dubai. He is a graduate of International Affairs from Columbia University.