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Essay Two Nation Theory

In his article ‘Jinnah, Bhutto and the legacy of intolerance’ on these pages last week (Daily Times, December 22, 2013) Kunwar Khuldune Shahid castigated Mr Jinnah for having left behind a legacy of intolerance by espousing the two-nation theory. The creation of a new nation state, especially one on a group nationalism based on religion, was always going to be a controversial undertaking. However, Mr Shahid’s article was based on a misrepresentation of the nature of the so-called two-nation theory.

Let us for the purpose of this article disregard the theory that Jinnah was using the Pakistan demand as a bargaining counter, despite incontrovertible evidence that has been noted by almost every historian who has revisited the issue of partition since the documents regarding partition were declassified in the 1970s. Instead, let us stick to the basics: Jinnah wanted to create Pakistan and Jinnah created Pakistan.

Shahid’s argument is predicated on the misunderstanding that the two-nation theory stated that Hindus and Muslims could not coexist, which is not true. This is a common misunderstanding that has been associated with the two-nation theory but it certainly has nothing to do with the two-nation theory as Jinnah understood it. In January 1940, Jinnah wrote an article called ‘The constitutional maladies of India’ in which he first articulated the two-nation theory, which, mind you, had been articulated by others long before him. In it he argued that Hindus and Muslims were two nations and that these two nations had to work together and “share in the governance of their common motherland”, i.e. India, so that India could emerge as a “great nation”. This does not preclude coexistence by any stretch of the imagination. In his speech during the Lahore session, Jinnah argued that these two nations could not evolve a common nationality. Here was a man who had spent 30 odd years trying to bring Hindus and Muslims together who, on the face of it, had become pessimistic about this unity. The resolution that came out of this session in that fateful March 1940, though ambiguous over independence and autonomy of the state or states proposed, was thoroughly unambiguous about the fact that there would be Hindu minorities in such a state or states as there would be Muslim minorities in India. Therefore, coexistence of Hindus and Muslims was always part of the Lahore Resolution as well as Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan. Gandhi had made a point of this in their cordial but unsuccessful discussions in 1944.

Why must this have been necessary? Jinnah’s restatement of the Hindu-Muslim question in national terms came after an acute realisation that, even in areas where Muslims had a majority, they were far too backward educationally, socially, culturally, politically and economically. There were many historical reasons why Muslims were far behind economically and educationally — none of them had been invented by Jinnah. That Muslims had developed a separate consciousness also pre-dated Jinnah. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had urged Muslims not to the join Congress. When, in 1905 to 1906, the followers of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan petitioned the British government for separate electorates, Jinnah — the Congressman — had opposed it. Gandhi’s use of religious divines in the Khilafat Movement made religious identities non-negotiable. Again, Jinnah had opposed the idea. It was only after seeing that despite all the safeguards rendered to the Muslims they were excluded almost entirely from power that he began to search for a different solution. The solution in this case was the creation of a confederacy of India where Muslim majority provinces would be autonomous and sufficiently linked to ensure some form of sovereignty. This again at no point precluded coexistence. Muslim majority provinces, in any event, would have had large non-Muslim minorities.

In order to bolster the odds of his constituents in a framework where the arithmetic of electoral politics would always work against them, Jinnah argued that they were a nation and not a minority. He based his subjective idea of a Muslim nation on objective criteria — common history and experiences. That Hindus and Muslims had looked at each other antagonistically was not invented by Jinnah. Indeed, his attempt for most of his life had been to bring about a political unity between the two. Similarly, other than a superficial mixing in the educated upper classes, the Hindus and Muslims had maintained largely separate existences despite living side by side. That they did not inter-dine or intermarry was not Jinnah’s doing nor was the Hindu pani and Muslim pani, and the Hindu and Muslim gymkhanas Jinnah’s idea. Using these facts, facts that he had viewed as unfortunate and ugly realities on the ground, Jinnah constructed the case that Muslims were a nation in order to balance the odds between the more advanced and numerous Hindus and the backward and outnumbered Muslims. It was never an absolute position though. In 1947, Jinnah argued that a Punjabi or a Bengali was a Punjabi or a Bengali before he was a Hindu or a Muslim. How does that square off with the idea that Jinnah’s two-nation theory imagined water tight compartmental nations? It does not because he never intended it that way. The Hindu-Muslim conflict has continued in India contrary to Shahid’s claim. The reasons have always been non-religious. Shahid would do well to read Dr Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life; Hindus and Muslims in Modern India, published by Yale University Press, which is an analysis of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India in select flashpoints.

Nor was Bangladesh’s separation the “end of the two nation theory” as some would like to believe. Given that even the Lahore Resolution had envisaged more than one state, allowed for the possibility of an independent Bengal state. Just before partition, Jinnah had endorsed the idea of a united, independent and secular Bengal. The partition of Bengal along religious lines was forced by Nehru and Gandhi who would not countenance an independent Bengal without safeguards for Hindus. In other words, when Hindus were placed in a minority situation in a secular Bengal, Nehru and Gandhi had wanted exactly what Jinnah had asked for in India and what is more is that he was ready to concede the same. However, Nehru feared balkanisation if Bengal was allowed to go independent and preferred to have Bengal divided along religious lines. He may have been right. Had there been no partition of India along religious lines, there would be multiple partitions along ethnic, linguistic and caste lines. There would be more than a 100 states in the subcontinent today.

All nationalisms — based on an ostensibly religious, racial or cultural identity — are by nature exclusive in some form. However, Jinnah clearly drew the distinction between group nationalism in whatever form and the idea of citizenship. Jinnah had always argued that the state had to treat all its citizens equally. His vision of Pakistan was of an inclusive and democratic state, which did not distinguish between a citizen on the basis of his or her faith. This was a consistent commitment throughout his life and his contributions to India as a legislator from 1910 to 1946 show precisely that. The August 11 speech was no contradiction; it was a concise summary of what Jinnah had stood for all his life and, by no stretch of the imagination, can it be called “intolerance”. Jinnah was — as Gokhale once described him — a man entirely free of bias against any community or people.


The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address

Approa­ching the theory merely from the stand-point of wester­n notion­s of nation­hood is, at best, an abstra­ct exerci­se.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and former ambassador to several countries including Iran, Russia and France

In the beginning was the word –– in the lower case –– that created myths of compelling power and legends that provided the woof and warp of the culture of human communities. The world got industrialised and became modern but this substratum of civilisation was not discarded; only reinterpreted. Man did not live by bread alone.

In Pakistan the situation is different. Every element of its ancient heritage, and more recently, its history since Muhammad bin Qasim led an Arab army to Sindh and Multan, is under attack. The orthodox bigot does not want to know much about the 5,000 years before the fateful Arab expedition. On their part, some highly educated Pakistani liberals blithely sidestep causality and context and want to shake every pillar on which the state of Pakistan has rested during the last 65 years. Much too sophisticated to need a vision, they want millions of fellow Pakistanis to do so as well.

I do not intend to locate the article published in this newspaper on March 14, under the title “Founding Stories” by Feisal H Naqvi in the domain of this arrogant ‘liberalism’. But it did occur to me that it might have paid insufficient attention to the context of events between 1857 and 1947. Approaching the two-nation theory merely from the stand-point of western notions of nationhood is, at best, an abstract exercise.

South Asia’s struggle against alien rule is not without aspects that rile a modern mind. India was a not a nation state, but fragments of a collapsing empire when the wily British conquered it. Paradoxically, Great Britain’s triumph triggered off a renovation of existing belief systems. Hinduism went through an extraordinary renaissance, particularly in Bengal. Muslims were systematically weakened in the aftermath of 1857 as a religious community most likely to challenge the new empire. Once their initial shock of the retribution was contained, they began an internally contested search for salvation and rehabilitation. There was the spiritually fortified inward-looking Islamic seminary (madrassa) with a hallowed tradition of religious learning and the opposing, somewhat anglicised, open space of Aligarh.

Religious revivalism amongst Hindus and Muslims of India deeply affected Indian politics that had become possible as the paramount power developed a particular version of the western mission civilisatrice aiming at an eventual grant of limited ‘home rule’ to its Indian subjects. Mahatama Gandhi effectively sidelined secularists like Subash Chandra Bose; Nehru kept his brand of secularism alive through sheer tact in handling the ‘Bapu’; Abul Kalam Azad, a far-sighted political leader, foresaw the danger posed by the deepening of the communal divide by various contenders for power in a postcolonial era but was unable to do much even in the Congress. Documents now compiled by Lionel Carter reveal that in the first post-independence winter even Gandhi-ji, strongly supported punitive military action against Pakistan. Apparently, India considered invading Pakistan in October, as well as, in December 1947.

Amongst the Muslims, there was no clear concept of a nation as defined in western treatises; only a painful consciousness of a dispossessed and defeated ‘millat’. Iqbal was the bard par-excellence of its revival and also one of the principal exponents of a renaissance in the Arab-Islamic world. Jinnah came under his influence but retained his distinctive place as a workman-like constitutionalist who would, realistically, protect Muslim rights under an inevitable future majoritarian dispensation. A long and tortuous road wound its way through the Congress sessions, Jinnah’s Fourteen Points, the Nehru Report and the 1937 provincial governments to the articulation of the two-nation theory. It was more an attempt to create an imagined identity than a theory per se; it marked a shift to mass mobilisation of the Muslims. The last general election in undivided India gave this identity a form and substance that few had foreseen.

Jinnah understood the need to re-establish viable parameters for the two-nation theory in the postcolonial context of nation-building. He sought to do so as early as August 11, in his celebrated speech in Karachi. Public statements made by him as the first governor general of Pakistan have invited commentaries about a certain inherent ambivalence, but we also know from independent sources that he came down hard on those who demanded a theocratic state or, for that matter, talked –– like some hawkish political leaders in India –– of a complete exchange of population on communal basis. He easily remains the most eloquent defender of equal rights of religious minorities in Pakistan’s history. Jinnah’s characterisation of Hindus and Muslims as two ‘nations’ cannot be fully understood without mapping the dialectics of the politics that the Raj sanctioned and that snowballed as all stakeholders failed to build safeguards into it.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2012.