Book Review—Creating a New Medina by Venkat Dhulipala

India’s partition history has been a contentious topic in India as well as Pakistan. Some want to project Jinnah as a freedom fighter who used Pakistan as a bargaining chip and then accidentally created the new nation. This is done in order to protect India’s minorities from harsh criticism and allow them to deify the Qaid-e-Azam (Muhammed Ali Jinnah) without coming across as religious fanatics.

A level headed, well researched book was needed to bust this politically motivated narrative. ‘Creating a New Medina’ by Venkat Dhulipala meets the requirement substantially for a reader who wants to explore this part of Indian history.

The author Venkat Dhulipala digs into newspaper cuttings,pamphlets, British records, books and speeches of various figures during the period 1937-1947. His articulation is largely neutral as far as Hindu/Muslim religions are concerned. Dhulipala avoids making any statement that could be considered as a value judgement.

creating a new medina

He avoids mentioning any serious cases of rioting by Muslims though he provides some statistics of Muslim deaths (in the epilogue) after the June 3 agreement which sealed Pakistan. This does raise eyebrows regarding attempts to brush aside the atrocities of Muslims in 1947 during the process of partition.

He writes as below in his introduction:

My study argues that far from being a vague idea that accidentally became a nation state, Pakistan was popularly imagined in UP as a sovereign Islamic State, a New Medina, as it was called by some of its proponents. In this regard, it was not just envisaged as a refuge for Indian Muslims, but as an Islamic utopia that would be the harbinger for renewal and rise of Islam in the modern world, and act as the powerful new leader and protector of the entire Islamic world and, thus, emerge as a worthy successor to the defunct Turkish Caliphate as the foremost Islamic power in the twentieth century. 

The book starts of with the 1937 elections and goes on to map the journey of the idea called ‘Pakistan’ till it materialised in 1947. The author has managed to drive home the following important points in his book :

  • Pakistan was not merely a bargaining chip for Jinnah. It was much more. He built the public opinion and the election machinery of Muslim League based on the final goal of Pakistan. Anyone who opposed the idea was sidelined in the party.
  • Though many had different conceptions of Pakistan, it was basically an Islamist project. There was no concrete plan for the future state of Pakistan, but all opinions in favour of an Islamic country agreed that they would no longer accept Hindu Raj under Congress
  • The clergy i.e. Ulema played a crucial role in influencing the electorate and the Pakistan debate. The Jamat-Ul-Hind and Jamat-Ul-Islami were two key organisations which debated for and against the creation of Islam. The JUH was an advocate of composite nationalism where Hindus and Muslims could coexist. JUI was a strong advocate of two nation theory which identified Muslims as a separate nation. While both were conservative in the religious sphere, they differed on the need for Pakistan.
  • The economic viability of Pakistan was debated widely. Both supporters and opponents debated whether Pakistan would be an economically viable/ successful state. It was conceived that the new nation would be different from both capitalist and communist economies and adopt an ‘Islamic way’.
  • Aligarh Muslim University was the nerve centre of intellectual support for the idea of Pakistan. This seems to be relevant in the light of recent controversy in Aligarh Muslim University over the portrait of Jinnah in the university.
  • Hostage theory of Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India was a very lucrative idea used to generate support for the idea of Pakistan. The proponents of this theory thought that existence of minorities in both countries would ensure that Indian Muslims would be treated well in Muslim minority provinces of Hindu India.

Dhulipala’s historical narrative is scholarly and filled with rich examples of thoughts which were exchanged in the run up to India’s partition. In my opinion history books must be written in the manner Dhulipala has written. It must be presented with minimal value judgements and maximum historical evidence from sources which belong to the period of history in question. This makes the book an interesting read, worthy of time and attention of the reader who is interested in the history of partition.  However it falls short on the crucial topic of violence engineered by Muslim League in the run up to partition.

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