A Nineteenth Century Prehistory of Pakistan Saumya Dey
A Nineteenth Century Prehistory of Pakistan

Communal representation were not a brainchild of the British or the Muslim League. The Congress, in its eagerness to appease, sought to preemptively concede it to the Muslims long before the Muslim League existed and demanded communal representation for Muslims from the British.

Hostile Attitude of the Mahommedans…Pronounced and Apparent

In the year 1885, certain politically minded upper middle class urban professionals, led by an Irish civil servant called Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), formed an organization they rather grandiosely called the Indian National Congress. This was in Bombay city (now Mumbai), the capital of Bombay Presidency.[i] The maiden session of the INC was presided over by Womesh Chander Bonnerji (1844-1906), a barrister from Bengal. The Congress made it a practice to meet annually during the Christmas break, in the last week of December, in a Presidency capital or important provincial city of British India. It had been founded during one such break, on 28 December. This must have been to the convenience of the Congressmen, since a lot of them were in the legal profession – the courts closed for Christmas and they mostly lived in the big cities. Thus, the second annual session of the Congress was in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of Bengal Presidency.[ii] Its President was Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), later to become famous as the ‘grand old man’ of the freedom movement. The next year, in 1887, the Congress met in Madras city (now Chennai), the capital of Madras Presidency.[iii] It had, for the first time since its founding, a Muslim President. His name was Badruddin Tyabji (1844-1906), a lawyer from Bombay. Mr. Tyabji, while delivering his Presidential address, assured the Congress that it can count on the support of the Muslims of India –

“…so far as general political questions affecting the whole of India – such as those which alone are discussed by this Congress – are concerned, I, for one, am utterly at a loss to understand why Musalmans should not work shoulder to shoulder with their fellow countrymen of other races and creeds…”[iv]

However, it appears that once Mr. Tyabji went back to his regular life, he discovered misgivings among Indian Muslims towards the Congress. This is indicated by a letter he wrote to the Pioneer newspaper. “In the course of conversations with many of my coreligionists”, wrote Tyabji,

“in regard of the late Congress over which I had the honour of Presiding, I found that there were not few, who approved of the movement in principle…yet felt some anxiety lest at future Congresses resolutions that could not commend themselves to the Mussalmans as a body, might in virtue of the greater numerical strength of the Hindus be passed…”[v]

In plain language, Tyabji was hinting at the Muslim fear that the Congress might become an instrument of Hindu majoritarianism. Most of its members, after all, were western educated Hindu professionals.

We find Tyabji in a far more candid mood when privately corresponding with Hume. In a letter he wrote to the Irish impresario of the Congress on 27 October 1888, he frankly said that it is inspiring the “hostile attitude of the Mahommedans, which is daily becoming more pronounced and apparent…” Tyabji, as a result, concluded that “an overwhelming majority of Mahommedans are against the movement”[vi] that the Congress represents. Tyabji had his ear to the ground. A year ago, Syed Amhed Khan (1817-1898), founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (later to become the Aligarh Muslim University), mocked and berated the Congress for demanding legislative bodies and voting rights for Indians – it had done so by passing a resolution in its very first session.[vii] Speaking before a gathering at Kaisarbagh, Lucknow, on 28 December 1887, he took the Congress to task for wanting to copy the “the English House of Lords and the House of Commons” in India. Since Hindus outnumber Muslims four to one, he told his audience, introduction of the electoral principle in India “would be like a game of dice, in which one man has four dice and the other only one.”[viii]

The Congress also drew flak from the Kolkata based Central National Mohammedan Association (founded by Syed Amir Ali in 1877). Its annual report for the year 1888 chided the Congress for demanding representative bodies, since in a country like India “voting must take place by nationalities and creeds.”[ix]Hence, the CNMA, said the report, did not “believe that the introduction of representative institutions in this country in their entirety will be of advantage to the Mahommedans.”[x]

What was the Congress’ response? It was one of an abject surrender to the Muslim communitarian anxiety. It did so in a manner that later proved ruinous for Indian unity. To mollify its Muslim opposition and demonstrate that its intentions are not majoritarian, the Congress became a votary of proportional representation for religious communities in legislative bodies. Yes, dear readers, communal representation were not a brainchild of the British or the Muslim League. The Congress, in its eagerness to appease, sought to preemptively concede it to the Muslims long before the Muslim League existed (it was established in 1906) and demanded communal representation for Muslims from the British. The Congress, in its 1889 annual session, adopted a “skeleton scheme” for the reform of the Imperial and Provincial Legislative Councils – they had been established in 1861 and all their members then were nominated by the British Crown and the Governor-General. Now the Congress demanded that at least half their members be elected. But this was to be done “in such wise that whenever the Parsis, Christians, Muhammedans or Hindus” are sent to these bodies, their numbers will not “bear a less proportion to the total number of…Parsis, Christians, Hindus or Muhammedans, as the case might be, in such electoral jurisdiction”[xi] that elected them (the Congress had envisaged constituencies of ten lakh people for the Imperial Legislative Council and fifty lakhs for the Provincial Legislative Councils).

The Congress, thus, legitimated the Muslim communitarian anxiety at a stroke, as also the idea that it could seek redress in the arithmetic of representation. By doing this, I suggest, it provided Muslim politics its raison d’etre – reason of existence. After all, communitarian anxiety – of the type Syed Ahmed Khan and the CNMA expressed – later turned to be a basic psychology around which exclusivist Indian Muslim politics organized, as an enclave secluded from the broader field of Indian nationalism. The Shimla Deputation, a collective of Muslim leaders that called on the Viceroy, Lord Minto, in 1906 was motivated by this very anxiety. So was the formation of the All India Muslim League (AIML) later that year. They sought and won separate electorates for Muslims from the British colonial government (granted under the Morley-Minto reforms in 1909). But the Muslim communitarian anxiety was not put paid to. It persisted in Muslim politics and on 22 March 1940, addressing the Lahore session of the AIML, Muhammad Ali Jinnah almost verbatim echoed Syed Ahmed Khan. He complained before his audience that (being a Hindu) his “brother Gandhi has three votes and…[he] only one vote.”[xii] The next day, on 23 March, the AIML passed a resolution demanding the creation of “autonomous and sovereign” Muslim states in the “North-Western and Eastern zones of India.”[xiii] It is today known as the ‘Pakistan resolution’.

The Past Glories of an Ancient Race

We find that notable Indian Muslims in the nineteenth century were not animated by communitarian anxiety alone. They, or at least some of them, had more on their minds. This was manifested by the behavior of a group of Muslims during the 1889 annual session of the Congress – it was, by any measure, an eventful one.

After it was read out to the Congressmen present, a discussion commenced on the “skeleton scheme” for council reform. A perusal of its transcript, available at the National Archives of India, makes one feel that it took a somewhat acerbic turn. More importantly, it revealed a Muslim supremacist mindset. Impassioned words were spoken by a number of Muslim delegates underneath the Congress pandal that day. They were not satisfied with what the resolution offered the Muslims in the legislative bodies. Indian Muslims, they thought, deserved more. They were too special a people to be worth representation merely commensurate to their share in the population.

Munshi Hidayat Rasul, a delegate from U.P. (then known as the North Western Provinces and Oudh), rose and demanded that, in order to win the goodwill and support of the Muslims, the Congress accept the principle of parity of representation between Muslims and non-Muslims. That is, Mr. Rasul wanted half the seats in the legislative bodies to be reserved for Muslims and the other half being apportioned between the Hindus and other religious communities of India. Mr. Rasul promised the Congress sanguine prospects among Muslims once it made this concession. “I assure that,” he said,

“if you accept the principle of equality you will have on your side ninety percent of Mussulmans from tomorrow and the remaining ten percent from the day after tomorrow.”[xiv]

A far more radical proposal came from Syed Wahid Ali Rizvi, another delegate from U.P. He demanded that

“….if India is to be represented by her best and not by her inferior races…in accordance with…the past glories of [an]…ancient race, I call upon the Congress to rule, not that there shall be as many Mahomedans as Hindus in the councils but that there shall always be three times as many Musalman as Hindu members.”[xv]

After Mr. Rizvi finished his oration, Mr. Ali Mohamed Bhimjee from Bombay rose to speak. On behalf of Mr. Rizvi, he tabled an amendment to the resolution on proportional representation. We have no means to be sure, but it is possible that Mr. Rizvi had prepared it in consultation with Mr. Rasul. This amendment sought to ratify the principle of parity of representation between Muslims and non-Muslims by having the Congress declare that “…the number of Mahomedan members shall always be equal to that of the Hindus, in both the Imperial and Provincial Councils.”[xvi] Bhimjee assured the Congress that the “demand has not been proposed with any distrust towards the Hindu majority” but that it relies on its “spirit of tolerance.”[xvii]

There were, of course, Muslim delegates who provided saner counsel. Mr. Hamid Ali Khan from Oudh (the Awadh region of U.P.) warned his coreligionists that

“…If you disregard the population standard…why, by a parity of reason or unreason, should not the Parsees, the Jains, the Sikhs…each and all claim to have as many members in the Councils as you or the Hindus? Gentlemen, the thing is absurd.”[xviii]

Mr. Mir-uddin Ahmed Balkhi from Bihar reminded his fellow Muslim Congressmen that they have assembled “for one common object, and that object is a secular and not religious one.”[xix]

Nevertheless, despite the pleadings of Mr. Khan and Mr. Balkhi, there were still Muslim delegates who thought that demanding parity in representation is not a wholly absurd idea. Munshi Nasiruddin Ahmed, a delegate from Banaras, rose in the wake of the two gentlemen to make the same demand as Mr. Rasul, but in a significantly more moderate language:

“…we Mussalmans[xx] shall rejoice if, as a mark of your confidence in and love for us, you were to concede to us an equal number of representatives in the Councils. But none of us, at least none who are sane and in the possession of our full senses, are going to pretend that we have any right to this.”[xxi]

The amendment on parity of representation between Muslims and non-Muslims was now put to vote, first only among the Muslim delegates. Interestingly, an overwhelmingly large number of them abstained from voting. This was because, the anonymous compiler of the Detailed Report of the Proceedings of the Fifth Indian National Congress (which contains the above transcript) tells us, they “could not vote for what they felt to be unreasonable, neither did they like to oppose what was so vehemently urged by several of their co-religionists, and what was, if could be conceded, so manifestly complementary to their community.”[xxii] Eventually only thirty-nine Muslim delegates out of the two hundred and forty odd present voted and the amendment was defeated twenty-three votes to sixteen. Following this, it was unanimously defeated by the non-Muslim delegates.

This instance of high drama in the Congress is of vital import since the themes that constituted it – Muslim supremacism and a right to parity with Hindus – were very much inherent in the Pakistan idea. As Venkat Dhulipala has demonstrated in his book, Making a New Medina, the proposed Muslim state of Pakistan was intensely discussed and developed as an idea by the Muslim press, intelligentsia and theologians over the 1940s. This phenomenon generated a large body of literature in the form of pamphlets, treatises, books and articles. Their authors, not infrequently, come across as Muslim supremacists. For example, Anis al Din Ahmad Rizvi, author of the treatise Pakistan (published from Bareily in 1940), argued that it was binding upon Muslims to create an Islamic state since “it was a central tenet of Islam”, this “set it apart from other religions and indeed made it superior to them.”[xxiii] One pamphlet, produced at some point in 1945 or 46 by the Punjab Muslim Students’ Federation, was the Khilafat-i-Pakistan Scheme. It spoke a crudely supremacist language. The Pakistani-American historian Ayesha Jalal informs us that this tract “declared that the Muslim alone was a true human being” and non-Muslims were “lesser beings who had to be converted to Islam.”[xxiv] The ideological basis of Pakistan, Jinnahs’s ‘two-nation theory’, on the other hand, was an attempt at revising the Muslims’ minority status in India. Once it was conceded that the Muslims are not a minority but a ‘nation’, writes Jalal, the idea that they are “entitled to equal treatment with the Hindu ‘nation’” was to be a “non-negotiable.”[xxv] This could be in the form of their own state (as it turned out to be) or a privileged constitutional status in a united India which will make Muslims the political equals of Hindus. The ‘two-nation theory’ was a shy at the parity that the likes of Mr. Bhimjee and Mr. Rizvi, Jinnah’s political predecessors, had so earnestly sought in the year 1889.

Why the Anxiety and Supremacism?

We see that the bases of a Muslim exclusivist politics – whose ultimate manifestation was the Islamic state of Pakistan in 1947 – were already in place in the late nineteenth century, sixty years before the partition of India. Prominent Muslims were anxious lest the nascent beginnings of political agitation come to be weighed upon by the religious majority of the country. Some of them also nurtured a sense of superiority over it. Even one of these two psychologies would have been sufficient to generate Muslim political exclusivism. The two together did a sufficiently fine job of it to eventually destroy the unity of India. However, one can legitimately ask, how could several important Muslims in Indian public life bear two seemingly contradictory states of mind? How could they be both anxious of the majority and yet feel superior to it? Let me try and provide an answer.

In an earlier article, Islam and ‘Syncretism’ in Indian History, I had dwelt on the political and cultural history of Indian Islam to make a couple of points. Firstly, I sought to argue that the Mughal imperial system that had preceded the establishment of British colonial rule in India was of an ‘Islamicate’[xxvi] character. It had enforced a broad political and cultural hegemony of Islam which granted Hindus limited room for cultural self-assertion. [xxvii] If by ‘syncretism’ we mean a conscious liberality towards, and acceptance of, cultural difference, then the Mughal state was not ‘syncretic’. Shahjahan banned the construction of new temples, while Aurangzeb demolished temples in Varanasi.  Even Akbar, according to the late Cambridge historian C.A. Bayly, had sought to build a “specifically Indian imperial patriotism in the context of the broader sovereignty of Islam”[xxviii] (italics mine). Secondly, I tried to demonstrate, with the example of medieval Bengal, that even a population of converted Muslims which expressed its piety in an Indian language (Bengali) sought social and religious individuality – its attitude, like that of the Mughal state, was not ‘syncretic’. Textual evidence suggests that elements in this population of converts (ironically) held the Bengali language in contempt as a Hindu tongue. They also had contempt for the Hindu deities.

In my opinion, the supremacism that the political psychology of certain Muslims exhibited in the nineteenth century issued from cultural memories of the ‘Islamicate’ hegemony that once prevailed in the Mughal imperial system. This is since, these Muslims were the sharif, or ashraf, and stood at the apex of Indo-Muslim society. The sharif, literally the ‘exalted’ ones,[xxix] were Muslims who boasted of an honorable, generally foreign, ancestry. Those who prefixed ‘Syed’ to their names claimed descent from the Prophet himself.  Please note that you can count three Syeds among the Muslim protagonists I mentioned above. A prefix such as Munshi (literally ‘scribe’) also appears to indicate sharif status. The sharif, being the literate elite, were closely connected with the functioning of the Mughal imperium, the “Mughal administrative system rested on an ability to move such people around from place to place.”[xxx] That is, the sharif made up the transferrable bureaucracy of the Mughal domains. Thus, it sounds plausible when Richard Kurin says that being sharif, or ashraf, associated one with a history of the “conquest of and rule over South Asia and its native born locals.”[xxxi] There is, as a result, a strong likelihood that individuals such as Syed Ahmed Khan, Syed Amir Ali, Munshi Hidayat Rasul, Syed Wahid Ali Rizvi and Munshi Nasiruddin Ahmed regarded themselves a cut above the great ‘polytheist’ population that surrounded them.

As about the broad Muslim masses, there is evidence that they too could act in an unabashedly supremacist fashion and seek to stamp the hegemonic authority of Islam upon the cultural ambience of a place. They could do this by actively hindering Hindu religiosity. We should not be surprised at this since we have seen how certain Muslims in medieval Bengal, though they were indigenous converts, displayed a disregard for things they identified with the Hindu ‘cultural enclosure’[xxxii] – it could be the deities or a language. So, we have this anecdote related by Gyanendra Pandey in his book, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, about how some Muslims in a small town in U.P. sought to keep a moneylender from constructing a temple. In 1877, the Muslims of Mubarakpur discovered that Manohardas has built a shivalaya in the compound of his house. They were much angry at this and reported the matter to the police. When produced before the magistrate, poor Manohardas argued that

“…the Muslims of Mubarakpur built mosques and other places of worship wherever they lived, without objection from any source; that no more than five or seven months ago, Faqir Kunjra had erected a masjid close to a place that was sacred to the Hind and ‘we did not object’. Yet the Muslims wished to destroy the small shivalaya that he had built inside his own house: this was nothing but ‘a show of power and tyranny’. To this, Muslim leaders replied that Faqir Kunjra had built his masjid with the permission of ‘us zamindars’: all the zamindars of Mubarakpur were Muslims, none Hindu – so ‘what right had the Hindus to object or allow’?”[xxxiii]

Why did the Mubarakpur Muslims behave in such fashion? We see that they naturally assumed that Islamic piety has a right to precedence in their town since Muslims were temporally dominant in it – all the zamindars of Mubarakpur were Muslim. Was Mughal sovereignty, and the ‘Islamicate’ hegemony it had enforced, a part of the cultural memories of these Muslims too? This is definitely likely since, as David Lelyveld writes, “the reality of British power” in “the Gangetic plain, only dropped the Mughal disguise after 1857.” And Muslims had definitely identified with Mughal rule with many of them believing that “being Muslim entailed a special relationship with ruling power.”[xxxiv] Since the above incident occurred just two decades after the formal extinction of Mughal authority, it is very possible that the Muslim actors involved in it nurtured a vivid memory of looking up to a Muslim sovereign and cherishing the ‘special relationship’ that they shared with him.

Now, having taken note of the historical logic of Muslim supremacism, we are ready to understand the anxiety that was afflicting prominent Muslims in Indian public life. If the British devolved any authority to the Indians through the medium of democracy (however limited), there was the possibility of an aggressive cultural reassertion by the majority. About two years before Syed Ahmed Khan had delivered his Kaisarbagh speech, his institution’s publication, the Aligarh Institute Gazette, had expressed this fear quite frankly. An unsigned article published in it on 23 November 1886 had warned that if representative institutions are introduced in India “probably the uneducated Hindu majority will forbid the killing of cow… and employ public money in building temples…”[xxxv] As a matter of fact, the ‘Islamicate’ hegemony that had for long determined the public culture of north India was already under attack. Advocates of Hindi were challenging the elite status of Urdu – that ‘Islamicate’ cultural artifact par excellence – in both U.P. and the Punjab. Unsurprisingly, against this backdrop, a lot of Muslim elite adopted an exclusivist politics that drew its cultural logic from a hegemonic supremacy they had once enjoyed and the anxiety that its visible erosion was causing them. It eventually resulted in them creating, with the enthusiastic assistance of a large portion of the Indian Muslim masses, a sovereign political enclosure wherein the supremacy of a once imperial Indian Islam will be secure – the Islamic state of Pakistan.


[i] It then included the present day states of Maharashtra and Gujarat and the Sind province of Pakistan.

[ii] It then included all of West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar and Odisha.

[iii] It comprised of entire Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and included portions of Kerala and Karnataka.

[iv] Detailed Report of the Proceedings of the Third Indian National Congress Held at Madras on the 27th, 28th, 29th and 30th of December, 1887, p.72. National Archives of India, New Delhi, Indian National Congress Proceedings’ Microfilm Roll No. 1433.

[v]Badruddin Tyabji Papers, National Archives of India, Microfilm Roll No. 1333. No date was mentioned in the text. But, presumably, the letter was written in early 1888, soon after the 1887 Congress session over which Tyabji presided.

[vi]Badruddin Tyabji Papers, National Archives of India, Microfilm Roll No. 1334.

[vii] The following is the text of that resolution:

That this Congress considers the reform and expansion of the Supreme and existing Local Legislative Councils, by the admission of a considerable number of elected members and the creation of similar Councils for the North Western Provinces and Oudh, and also for the Punjab essential; and holds that all Budgets should be referred to these Councils for consideration, their members being, moreover, empowered to interpellate the Executive in regard to all branches of the administration; and that a standing committee of the House of Commons should be constituted to receive and consider any formal protests that may be recorded by majorities of such Councils against the executive of the power, which would be vested in it, of overruling the decision of such majorities. (Detailed report of the Proceedings of the Fourth Indian National Congress held at Allahabad on the 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th of December, 1888, ‘Appendix II, Summary of the Resolutions Passed at the First, Second and Third Congresses’, p.203. National Archives of India, Indian National Congress Proceedings’ Microfilm Roll No. 1433.)

[viii]Political Profile of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. A Documentary Record, Adam Publishers & Distributors, 2006, p. 348.

[ix] See Ram Gopal, Indian Musalmans. A Political History (1885-1947), Asia Publishing House, Delhi, 1964, p. 76.

[x] Ibid.

[xi]Detailed Report of the Proceedings of the Fifth Indian National Congress Held at Bombay on the 26th, 27th and 28th of December, 1889, p.12. National Archives of India, Indian National Congress Proceedings’ Microfilm Roll No. 1433.

[xii]Stanley Wolpert, Jinnah of Pakistan, OUP, New Delhi, 1984, p.181.

[xiii] Ibid., p.185.

[xiv]Detailed Report of the Proceedings of the Fifth Indian National Congress, p.28.

[xv]Ibid., p.29.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.


[xx]‘Mahommedan’, ‘Muhammadan’, ‘Muhammedan’, ‘Mahomedan’, ‘Mussalman’, ‘Musalman’ were all spellings current in the nineteenth century. I have reproduced them as and when they appear in the primary texts that I have quoted from.

[xxi] Detailed Report of the Proceedings of the Fifth Indian National Congress, p.29.

[xxii]Ibid., p.32.

[xxiii] Creating a New Medina. State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, CUP, New Delhi, 2015, p.196.

[xxiv]Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850, OUP, New Delhi, 2001, p.475.

[xxv] Ibid., p.399.

[xxvi] I have borrowed this expression from Marshall G. S. Hodgson. He is the author of a three volume political and cultural history of Islam called The Venture of Islam.

[xxvii] This idea is better and more elaborately developed by historians Shashi Joshi and Bhagwan Josh in their book Struggle for Hegemony in India. Culture, Community and Power. Volume III. 1941-47, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1994.

[xxviii]Origins of Nationality in South Asia: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India, OUP, New Delhi, 2001, p.38.

[xxix] David Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generation. Muslim Solidarity in British India, OUP, New Delhi, 1996, p.28.

[xxx] Ibid., p.30.

[xxxi] ‘The Culture of Ethnicity in Pakistan’, in Katherine P. Ewing (ed.), Shariat and Ambiguity in South Asian Islam, New Delhi, 1988, p.20.

[xxxii] I owe this phrase to Shashi Joshi and Bhagwan Josh.

[xxxiii] The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, OUP, New Delhi, 2006 (Third Edition), p.132.

[xxxiv] Aligarh’s First Generation, p.33.

[xxxv] See Shan Mohammad (ed.), The Aligarh Movement: Basic Documents. 1864-1898, Meenakshi Prakashan, Meerut, 1978, p. 997.

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