Since the publication of her first book, The Sole Spokesman, in 1985, Ayesha Jalal has been Pakistan’s leading historian. Educated at Wellesley College in the United States, and Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, she received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1998 for showing “extraordinary originality and dedication in [her] creative pursuits…”
Jalal has taught in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard University and Columbia University, and is now working as Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University. She also delivered the Lawrence Stones Lecture Series at Princeton University in 2011. These lectures gave shape to her book The Pity of Partition - an intellectual history of the life and works of Saadat Hassan Manto, who is also closely related to her.
The Sole Spokesman is the single most influential academic work on the dynamics of the Pakistan Movement and the role played by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in it. In a follow-up book, Self and Sovereignty, Jalal meticulously worked through colonial archives and multiple other sources to trace the origins and shaping of the Muslim community and its identity in British India.
In addition to her research interests on colonial India, Jalal has also written on Pakistan’s history. Her most recent work, The Struggle for Pakistan, is an extension of her earlier book titled The State of Martial Rule. She has also written a monograph on the historical evolution of the concept of jihad in South Asia
Here are excerpts from two recent conversations with her in her home city of Lahore.
Ali Usman Qasmi. What has been your experience as a Pakistani woman working in American universities?
Ayesha Jalal. It may be easy to get into the academy but it is hard to stay in there. No matter how good you are, you have to be on your toes.
When [people at American universities] think of South Asia, they primarily think of India and that has been a problem. One had to fight with this limitation. I have never taught a course on Pakistan specifically, yet there was a sense [of curiosity] about my nationality rather than what I did.
When I started [my academic career], there weren't really many Pakistanis in the field of South Asian studies. That field was sort of infested with Indians. To find a niche for yourself was not an easy thing.
Qasmi. There must have been biases and discrimination that you had to fight against.
Jalal. Everybody talks about accommodating differences but nobody is comfortable with differences. As far as I am concerned, I am what I am. If I wear shalwar kameez and they think that I have to be a particular woman then that is their problem.
People are also more comfortable with the notion of a fixed identity, but the problem with me is that I did not fit [into a specific category]. I might have fit visually into the stereotype of me but my thoughts did not fit in, which made people uncomfortable.
Jinnah did not want Partition, in case people have forgotten that, Similarly, when the United Bengal plan was floated, Jinnah said it was better that Bengal remained united.
Qasmi. In an age in which the shelf life of an academic book is very short, what do you think has given The Sole Spokesman its enduring appeal?
Jalal. I did have a bit of luck in the sense that I started my research at a time when the documents [cited in the book] had just come out. Mine was among the first takes on those documents. It also went against the grain of commonplace views of Partition.
The fact that the book was well-documented has played a role in giving it the shelf life it has had. The Sole Spokesman has become a kind of academic orthodoxy - even if you don't agree with it, you have to look at it.
Qasmi. In what ways has your stance changed or evolved since you wrote that book?
Jalal. All I can say is that every book I have written has had a particular question. In the case of The Sole Spokesman, my question was how did a Pakistan come about which satisfied the interests of its main constituents so poorly? That was in response to the narrative at the time in Pakistan, under General Ziaul Haq, which said religion was Pakistan's sole raison d'etre.
When I wrote [The State of Martial Rule], the question was about the military dominance in Pakistan. By the time I wrote Self and Sovereignty, my question was whether religion played a major role in determining politics in Pakistan. Electorally, religious parties don't win but they still exercise a lot of influence on the mindset. So, I switched at that stage to studying identity. I was interested in looking at the concept of communalism as well as the cultural and intellectual history of the so-called "two-nation theory".
Qasmi. Coming back to The Sole Spokesman, people say different things about Jinnah- that he was secular even when the Pakistan Movement had strong Islamic overtones . There are others who say Jinnah himself was Islamic and he wanted to establish an Islamic state...
Jalal. It was a political movement. Whatever an Islamic state means is another debate. I mean, what kind of Islamic state are you referring to? Are you referring to one run by the mullahs? Well, that was clearly not what Jinnah had in mind. When Nawab Bahadur Yar Jung tried to force him to commit to an Islamic state in 1943, he resisted and said the Constitution of Pakistan would be what the representatives of the people wanted, what the people of Pakistan wanted.
One of the great fallacies of those wedded to seeing history purely through the 'great men in history' argument is that they don't see the context. What I have said many times is that there is too much made of the history Jinnah made and too little of the context that made Jinnah. He operated within the context of Muslims in India being a [religious] category, even though they were not united or organised.
Qasmi. Did he then transform a minority into a qaum, a nation?
Jalal. Well, discursively, yes. And he wanted to do much more. Jinnah was from a province where Muslims were in a minority. He wanted to use the power of the areas where the Muslims were a majority to create a shield of protection for where they were in a minority. The possibility that the areas that became Pakistan would offer a kind of protection for Muslims living in areas which have remained in India was not acceptable to the Congress. It was easier for them to partition the subcontinent and let these areas go.
Qasmi. But why would majority provinces where Muslims were already ruling, especially Punjab and Bengal, agree to a plan?
Jalal If you argue that Punjab and Bengal wanted to become a separate country, then Islam as the basis for Pakistan does not make sense. [Their reason to opt out of India] would be provincialism or regianalism, not religion. Any Islamic explanation for the new country would have to explain how Muslims cohere across India. Why should Punjab and Bengal bother about that? That is exactly what politicians in Punjab and Bengal said.
There were two steps in Jinnah's strategy. The first was the consolidation of Muslim majority areas behind the All-India Muslim League and then to use undivided Punjab and Bengal as a weight to negotiate an arrangement for all the Muslims at an all– India level. But the Congress had Punjab and Bengal partitioned [to frustrate the first element of his strategy].
Jinnah did not want Partition, in case people have forgotten that, Similarly, when the United Bengal plan was floated, Jinnah said it was better that Bengal remained united. He said what was Bengal without Calcutta? It was like asking a man to live without his heart So, we ended up with a mutilated Pakistan that Jinnah had rejected out of hand.
Qasmi. Let us assume that there was no division of Bengal and Punjab. Even in that case, Musl.ims in Indian provinces where they were a minority would still remain a minority. The effort to protect their rights through the presence of minority populations of Hindus and Sikhs in Muslim majority provinces seems like hostage theory.
Jalal. Well. hostage theory is one way of putting it. It was reciprocity of rights - the rights non-Muslims will have in Pakistan will be guaranteed if the rights of Muslims in Hindustan were protected. And the idea was that there will be porous borders between the two countries. The borders that emerged were not what Jinnah was thinking of.
Qasmi. You have talked about the limitations that Jinnah had. In the same way, don't you think that the Congress also had its limitations?
Jalal. Absolutely. All politicians and parties are limited and restricted by their rank and file in some ways. One very important limitation that led to the acceptance of Partition by the Congress can be identified in the interim government's so-called 'poor man's budget' [in 1946] which we all know was not the brain child of Liaquat Ali Khan, but of the finance department The Congress supporters in business wouldn't tolerate that. They thought the budget was untenable. The other limitation was the scale of communal violence. Increase in violence decreased room for the Congress leadership to negotiate a compromise. Every out break of violence hardened the Congress position.
Qasmi. What are the historic aspects of what you point out as the "Muslim Question" in India?Does it have to do with the fact that Muslims would not live as a minority under Hindu rule after having ruled India for centuries?
Jalal. That played a role at the discursive level to a large extent in the formulation of the Muslim Question but, apart from the discursive level, you need to look at the political framework provided by the British decision to grant the Muslims separate electorate. That made Muslims an all-India religious category and Jinnah said that they, therefore, needed to be given a share in power at the all-India level once the British had left. He took the argument further by saying the unitary centre [for India] was a British construct. Any centre for independent India would have to be decided upon by the Muslim majority provinces, the princely states and the Hindu majority provinces on the basis that Muslims are a nation entitled to equal treatment along with Hindus.
I feel the only man who could have been more revelatory than he proved to be was Azad because he knew what was being discussed among the Congress high command.
The discursive force of the past did play a role but it was the concrete politics of the situation that pushed the question forward. There was no contradiction in it. The only contradiction l see is that the regional aspect was not given enough thought even though the regions were very important. If you look at the Cripps Mission, it practically exposed the whole problem in Jinnah's strategy because it gave Punjab, Bengal and other provinces the right to opt out of the Indian federation. If Jinnah wanted a Pakistan, then he would have allowed this, but he did not allow this because he wanted to ensure that Muslims from those provinces where they were in a minority also got something.
Qasmi. Can we say the Muslim Question existed because of a complete failure on part of the Congress to appreciate that Muslims had concerns?
Jalal. The Congress lacked imagination as far as mass contact with Muslims was concerned. Secondly, even men like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were saying until the end that the Muslim Question was a psychological one rather than a political one. When Jawaharlal Nehru made the plea for Partition as opposed to sharing power, Azad was still arguing that the Congress should make some concessions to keep the Muslims within India. But then he was sidelined by Gandhi and others.
I feel the only man who could have been more revelatory than he proved to be was Azad because he knew what was being discussed among the Congress high command. He however, never came out in the open. In a sense, it is still an incomplete story. The 30 pages he had withheld from his autobiography raised hopes that they may contain the whole story but their eventual release was a disappointment. He came closer to blaming it on Nehru but there was much more that we needed out of those 30 pages.
On what grounds did the Congress high command justify the division of Punjab and Bengal? We know it led to about 60 years of Nehruvian dynasty. This dynasty would never have come about if Punjab and Bengal were not divided. Uttar Pradesh would never have dominated Indian politics. Punjab and Bengal would have called the shots. Where would Nehru be in that case?
The Congress basically cut the Muslim problem down to size through Partition. But, in the process, it threw us out of India. Our cultural heritage is all there. Jinnah never gave up on that heritage. He fought tooth and nail that the name "India" should not be allotted to the Congress. He called the place Hindustan until he lost.
Qasmi. Would you say the genesis of Pakistan is based on exclusion, on difference?
Jalal. All nations are founded on exclusion. Nationalism that leads to exclusionary results harps on the idioms of your own community. Even in the case of Indian nationalism espoused by the Congress, the idioms deployed were Hindu idioms - whether it was Vande Mataram or the Wardha Scheme of Education. The failure of that nationalism is not adequately acknowledged. People keep talking about Pakistan and its exclusionary nationalism but what came first- communalism or nationalism? The sense of exclusion was created by the dominant idioms that the Congress employed despite its rhetoric of inclusionary nationalism.
Qasmi. Such as insisting on banning cow slaughter and having Vande Mataram. as India's national anthem even when it went against Muslim sensibilities...
Jalal. And just the general attitude towards Muslims. Take, for instance, the career of the Ali brothers. They were with Gandhi during the Khilafat Movement, but then they just could not get along with him because of how Gandhi changed his position on the Khilafat Movement, under pressure from the Hindu right wing.
Qasmi. I wanted to talk about your book on the origins of martial rule in Pakistan. As Hamza Alavi has said, military is an overdeveloped institution because of the colonial structures it became successor to. In the presence of such structural problems, what can be the prospects for stable democratic institutions in Pakistan?
Jalal. Alavi's argument was made for South Asia and not just for Pakistan. He talked about military as an "overdeveloped" institution in the colonial context. The military was an overdeveloped institution even in India. How do you then explain democracy in India and its lack in Pakistan?
Historical evidence suggests there was nothing overdeveloped about Pakistan's military in the immediate aftermath of Partition. The flurry and chaos that would be there within bureaucracy, within the army in any new country was very much in evidence. In other words, there was nothing preordained about the military's rise to dominance. You cannot explain the rise of the military in Pakistan without the context of Cold War and, obviously, the India factor. Pakistani governments developed the military because of the India factor and because the Americans were more than happy to give us funds.
Qasmi. You have used the term “intellectual wasteland" for Pakistan. How do you propose to change that?
Jalal. The most important way to do that - and where we are losing the battle in terms of our intellectual tradition- is improving our education system. Intellectually, we are not on par with anyone. We are outnumbered.
If you look at the way people think in this country, that is what makes it a wasteland. People don't even know there is a need for decolonisation of the mind. Even the type of Islam we keep fighting for is a colonial concept. We haven't really begun to understand that. Only when we begin to take decisions in our own interest [is when] we will truly be intellectually decolonised and able to turn this wasteland into a land of thousand flowers, blooming.
Qasmi. Do you think there will be a subaltern movement in Pakistan’s historiography?
Jalal. The prognosis of the subaltern school was very good but their actual work showed very poor results. The movement started off as a study of class, moved on to gender studies and now it is about subalternity of thought. But, what is subalternity?
Qasmi. Let us rephrase it as “people's history".
Jalal. History is all about perspective. People's history can be written when you have some broad agreement on the narrative of your history. If I wanted to write a people's history, I wouldn't be able to explain any of the key moments. Can you explain Partition by a focus on people's history? Can you explain, through people's history, the mistakes we made in 1971? This is all romanticism with people.
What I am trying to do is turn the gaze inward, to see how people were writing during the colonial period.
If we have to understand the extraordinary developments in Pakistan's history, sadly, we have to look at the people with the power to make decisions. Why am I studying those few people? Precisely because they have made a mess of our lives. I shall be happy writing about culture and wonderful intellectual stuff, such as mushairas, but will it give me a perspective on where Pakistan is today? History is about perspective and balance.
Qasmi. But you are moving towards literacy, cultural history, aren't you?
Jalal. I have been moving in that direction for a long time. There is a whole world of scholarship in Urdu. I read a lot more Urdu sources now than I did in the past and they give me a very different view of things which colonial sources cannot.
Qasmi. The first thing that strikes a reader in your recent work, The Pity of Partition: Manto's Life, Tunes, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, is its title. What do you think is the pity of Partition?
Jalal. The pity of partition is that human beings are still slaves to bigotry. That is Manto's point of view. The pity that Manto talks about is how human nature in the context of conflict is reduced to criminality and animal behaviour. The other thing that I try to point out is the pity of Manto's life and what Partition did to him.
Qasmi. In one way, Partition made Manto what he is but, in another way, Partition killed Manto…
Jalal. It is an interesting point. Whether Manto would have been as big a writer as he is now if Partition hadn’t happened is a big question for me. There is no doubt that Partition provided him the opportunity to write about things that, perhaps, he would not have written about. What made him internationally known are primarily his Partition stories.
Did Partition also kill him? What killed him was not Partition. It was the heartlessness of his closest friends, such as Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, for ideological reasons. What killed him was the treatment meted out to him in this country. He had left India, in large part, when his stories were overlooked [by filmmakers] in favour of Kamal Amrohi's story and even his best friend Ismat Chughtai's stories. He did not understand or approve of Partition but he slowly came to terms with it.
Qasmi. You have mentioned how Islam and our understanding of it have been created through an interface of Islam and modernity or Islam and liberalism. In what ways do you think modernity has led to our understanding of Islam?
Jalal. This tendency to say that Islam is somehow incompatible with modernity or liberalism is really very much a construct of the West and its antagonistic views of Islam. What I am trying to do is turn the gaze inward, to see how people were writing during the colonial period. Muslims from across the board - from all spectrums, religious and Western - responded to the colonial experience. It was by no means a closed experience; it was a much more creative interaction. There were Muslims who accepted the purely Western standards but there were many other variants - such as anti-colonialists who were moved by socialist-communist ideas or by Islamic ideas.
Qasmi. Then there is also the important factor of codification which has made Islam into a closed system.
Jalal. When it comes to the legal domain, you are absolutely right. Sharia was a moral precept but the question of precedence in colonial case law codified those precepts. What we call Sharia is Anglo-Muhammadan Law. I am not saying its solely colonial judges who created this - it was also the Muslim elite. Let me give you one example. We assume that there has been a struggle between modernity and tradition but, in fact, what we call tradition is at the heart of modernity.
When the colonial state began intervening in the legal domain, it was not as if modern colonial laws were all against tradition. In fact, tradition defined those laws because the colonial state had to navigate the tradition with the elite's help. This way, many traditional things became entrenched in the name of modernity, including patriarchy.
Qasmi. You have written about jihad's 200-year history in India, starting with Syed Ahmad Shaheed. You have also distinguished between jihad which is an internal striving and jihad that endorses militaristic activities. How do you explain these different notions?
Jalal. I have argued that both internal and external jihad have coexisted and internal jihad was considered the greater jihad than the external one.
What has happened in recent times is that the militaristic jihad has become the greater jihad. The prevalent view is that you can be the most sinful human being, even a murderer, but your sins will all be washed if you have made jihad for Allah. There is also a complete inversion of the concept that only the state or the ulema can declare jihad. Call it democratisation of jihad - as Faisal Devji does - but this has completely gone out of hand.
Qasmi. Abul A'la Maududi [the founder of Jamaat-e– Islami] had to take back his views on jihad in 1948 when the war in Kashmir started and the Pakistani state put pressure on him to declare that war as jihad.
Jalal. Maududi said the war in Kashmir was not jihad. He said if Pakistan wanted to do a jihad in Kashmir then, first of all, it must break all diplomatic relations with India. What Hafiz Saeed and others like him are saying about jihad is quite different. Their concept of jihad is a function of disappointments with the postcolonial state and the desire to win sovereignty. It is also a function of the fact that the post-colonial state and its elites are seen to be in cahoots with the West.
There is a real alliance between the Western paradigm and these people. Like them, the West also insists that jihad is militaristic. Wherever there is a mention of jihad in traditional Islamic literature, it is not always militaristic. The insistence on this kills the complexity of the Muslim tradition.
Qasmi. How do you think Edward Said's Orientalism has changed things in American academia as well as in American media?
Jalal. I think sound bites are still winning the game. In the academy, however, there is much more nuance. Some excellent scholarship is coming out of the West on Islam, in fields such as Islamic legal studies.
When I started teaching at the Fletcher School in 2003, all the books on Islam in the library there denoted a real thirst to know, a genuine curiosity. After the Iraq War, with American boots on the ground, the sense of war diluted the way we discussed books such as Said's Orientalism and Bernard Lewis' attack on him. People began to read these books through the prism of their modern predicament of being at war with the Muslim world. That made a very crucial difference.
Qasmi. What is your opinion on the nexus between knowledge and power, and the ways it has been exemplified in the American academia?
Jalai. I think Said got it right. In his book Covering Islam he talks about the nexus between the academy, the multinationals, the media and the White House. The amazing thing about the American academy, however, is that, while this knowledge-power nexus exists, there are people who are producing genuine knowledge, though they are not invited to contribute to policy. If you look at the media, some of the best scholars who are producing excellent work don't get invited to speak on the media. Why? Because America has been at war.
When we criticise the West in broad terms, we must also realise that there are still spaces in the same West where people are arguing against their own government's policy. That, I think, cannot be said easily about some other parts of the world.
This article was published in the Herald's June 2015 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is an assistant professor of history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.