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Pakistani national movement: sufficiently imagined

A brief note on Creating a New Medina by Venkat Dhulipal.

The view that “Like other countries that brought together disparate ethnicities as the colonial era came to a close, Pakistan became a state before it was a nation” is a popularly held interpretation in the intellectual history of Pakistan’s creation. What lies beneath this understanding is the idea that up until transfer of power and later, the idea of Pakistan was vague and unformed. This has been contextualised by historians in the way political elites who demanded Pakistan, only had an equivocal idea of what Pakistan was. In the words of Salman Rushdie, Pakistan was ‘’insufficiently imagined’’. Further, Farzana Shaikh, a leading Pakistani historian, contends that Pakistan’s nationalism lacked any positive content because Pakistan only imagined itself as opposed to India. It came to be believed that the idea of a Pakistani nation came into existence after the creation of certain state institutions.

In other words, the argument has been that the instruments and institutions of a state were put in place before any substantial content could occupy this political space.

However, this view, which has become orthodox among Pakistan scholars, has recently been challenged by Venkat Dhulipala in his book Creating a New Medina. The book fleshes out in length ‘’ how the idea of Pakistan was developed and debated in the public and how popular enthusiasm was generated for its successful achievement …‘’ In the case of Pakistan, as this book makes sufficiently clear: the instrument which potentially generated nationalism was expressed through politics and the arts; beginning not in the 1935, when the Government of India Act was passed, but very much since the 19th century. Further, Dhulipala argues that the existence of Pakistan being anti-India is a limited view. In the Pakistani nationalist movement there was fusion of the religious sanctioning of the Deoband with the ground-level politics of the Muslim League. Often the role for post-independent Pakistan articulated in pre-independent India was for it to be a locus of pan-Islamism in the world; to house the new caliphate after the fall of Turkey. To come to this understanding, the techniques of the global historian were used, which is reflected in one of the main tenants of the monograph: that the intellectual arguments which went into imagining Pakistan were also the frameworks that were used to understand the world.

As this book does, good historical writing lies in complicating events and processes. Venkat Dhulipala traces the historical argument for Pakistan and contextualises it not just in national identity, but also in global aspirations. These ideas were not just restricted to the elites but were also thrashed around and debated by ordinary people.

Adhip Amin is a Research Associates at Takshashila Institution. Adhip tweets @AdhipAmin1.

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