Parting of the Ways

Parvez Mahmood lays out what exactly the Two Nation Theory was – and what it was not

Parting of the Ways
It is often stated that the Two Nation Theory is the basis of Pakistan. However, this is the result of a misunderstanding of the foundation on which our country rests – or should rest.

The Two Nation Theory was actually the reason for division of India along a religious-communal divide. It resulted in the creation of Pakistan, a Muslim state.

There is a clear difference between these two concepts. The basis of the Muslim state was to be liberty, democracy, welfare and equality. The Two Nation Theory only enunciated a reality – that Hindus and Muslims were two different people who could not live together peacefully as equal citizens in one country. Anyone who went through the mohallas and bazaars of early 20th century India knew that the two communities were like oil and water flowing in one conduit -never mixing, retaining their identities and vying for living space. A resurgent Hindu leadership had come to adopt a hegemonic and somewhat patronizing attitude, whereas Muslims believed in the superiority of their own creed and refused to be cowed down. The Two Nation Theory reflected these ground realities of life in India at that moment.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah

In demanding for these two communities to live in peace in independent states of their own, the Theory neither stated that Islam united Muslims nor that a Muslim state thus created would have an Islamic character. That was not the future envisaged for Pakistan. Its formulators were cognizant that Islam has never ever united the Muslims. The Theory did not even say that Muslims were one united block. The theory only distinguished on a communal level between Hindus and Muslims. It did not claim to integrate Muslims into one cohesive mass.

The founding fathers of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam M. A. Jinnah and his associates, would be horrified at the direction we have since taken – be it the imposition of laws like Ihteram-e-Ramazan, Hudood Ordinance, Qasas and Diyat; marginalizing of minority groups, completely delegitimizing the Ahmediyya community and a host of other such legal strictures that have shredded the fabric of our society. As far as its founders were concerned, Pakistan was not made for the recreation of a medieval society. It was supposed to be a torch-bearer for a modern, futuristic and progressive Muslim nation.

M. A. Jinnah, Periyar E. V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar at a Muslim League session

The Two Nation Theory, in its core meaning, had great merit. Whenever it was stated, whether by the British scholars, or by communal Hindu or Muslims partisans, the Two Nation Theory implied that Muslims and Hindus were two incompatible communities whose mutual interaction was limited and superficial.

When seen from a Western – or more specifically, Westphalian lens – the Theory appears in error. However, it made much sense in the context of the Indian Subcontinent. In one of its most famous formulations, provided by Mr. Jinnah himself in 1940, the theory stated in explicit terms:

The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature[s]. They neither intermarry nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions […] To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent, and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state.”
When seen from a Western – or more specifically, Westphalian lens – the Theory appears in error. However, it made much sense in the context of the Indian Subcontinent

And thus, it was concluded, they could not live together in anything that resembled peace.

This was crux of the theory, explaining the unbridgeable divide that spelled the division of the Indian Subcontinent. This truth is reinforced by the fact that even as adjacent neighbouring nations for the last 70 years, India and Pakistan have not lived in peace. How could these two religious-communal blocs live in peace in one country? They would always have reasons to fight.

It is also true that Muslims have historically exhibited something of a resistance to assimilation.

When seen from the perspective of the communal majority of pre-Partition India, the Muslim communities are unlikely to hold in high regard the religious figures of other faiths - but nothing incites them to violence more than the slighting of their own religious figures. They are perceived as wearing religion on their sleeve, demanding laws suiting their own particular beliefs, deprecating the majority community for their social practices, etc. Such perceptions are not helped by the fact that the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent are defensive and evasive about their Hindu ancestry – which is strange, given the fact that every Muslim here, barring none, has non-Muslim ancestry. A reluctance to integrate on the terms of the majority might make the Muslim communities appear similar to the historical Jewish communities of Europe and Asia. However, the latter, though having been persecuted for being “different”, were able to maintain some space for themselves due to their excellence in financial, commercial and scholarly endeavours. These, however, are fields in which Muslims have woefully lagged behind. From the communal Hindu’s perspective, therefore, the Muslims are socially very stagnant.

In short, we are confronted with the paradox which the Two Nation Theory tried to address: i.e. the two major religious groups of the Indian Subcontinent belong to the same land, have common ancestral roots, follow many of the common cultural practices, wear similar dresses, and have very similar culinary habits – and yet because of their sharp divide along religious lines, they are indeed two very different nations. Their differences were vast and unbridgeable.

It must be noted that this article is written in the context of social environment that existed a hundred years ago.

The British rulers, for their part, also thought that Muslims and Hindus were aliens to each other. Sir John Cumming (1868-1958), a British administrator in the Subcontinent, says in his book Political India (1932),

It is not only in the customs and usages which mark their external life that the two people differ; the sources of their moral and intellectual inspiration are different [...] Even their newspapers, their novels, and current literature are mutually unintelligible [...] they do in fact feel and think of themselves as separate peoples [...]”

Ian Copland, in his book Unmaking of an Empire, while discussing the end of the British rule in the Indian Subcontinent, writes,

“[…] religious polarization had been created by Hindu revivalism towards the last quarter of the 19th century, especially with the openly anti-Islamic Arya Samaj and the whole cow protection movement […] by the end of the century, Hindu-Muslim relations had become so soured by this deadly roundabout of blood-letting, grief and revenge that it would have taken a mighty concerted effort by the leaders of the two communities to repair the breach.”

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a staunch critic of Hinduism but no fan of Islam either, spelled out in detail the immutable differences between Muslims and Hindus in his book Pakistan, or Partition of India and proposed the Partition of India.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is often derided by Indian nationalists as the first prominent Muslim communalist leader. In Pakistan he is honoured as the architect of Muslim nationhood. It was he who attempted to close the trust deficit between the Muslims and the British after the bloody events of 1857. His objective was the rehabilitation of Muslims as loyal citizens of the  British Empire – even if it widened the gap between the Hindus and the Muslims.

Sir Syed’s reformist spirit did, indeed, cause a further breach between Hindus and Muslims. By promoting the Urdu language in its Arabic script, one could only further solidify the Two-Nation concept. For better or worse, before Sir Syed, there was no concept of a separate Muslim nation in the Indian Subcontinent. After him, it came to be seen as an undeniable fact.

There were other notable voices who had realized the incompatibility of the two communities. Justice Sir Abdur Rahim, who served as Chief Justice of High Court of Madras, chaired a session of Muslim League meeting in December 1925/January 1926 at Aligarh. In his address, he said that Hindus and Muslims were not two sects but two distinct communities. He added that a Muslim would find himself a social alien when he crossed the street in an Indian town to enter the Hindu neighbourhood. This proclamation was the first time that Two Nation Theory had been presented from the platform of the Muslim League.

By 1940, the time of the famous Lahore Resolution, the attitude of common people had been sufficiently modelled by the intensity of communal politics to leave them no option but the Partition of India along communal lines. No one had any idea what practical form it would take. Few could have predicted the tragic manner in which Punjab and Bengal would be divided. It was left to a lawyer to plead the Muslim case and give it a practical shape. The bitter politics of independence and half-hearted attempts at unity would continue until March 1947 but the die had been cast and most of the Congress leaders had mentally accepted a policy of letting large, “troublesome” Muslim pockets have their own state.

The Two Nation theory achieved its purpose of the division of India. However, the Muslims, as indeed the Hindus, came in multiple shades of sect, language, dress, customs and ethnicity. All these facets of social existence were just as divisive as the religion factor. Additionally, every group of human beings craves for what the Ancient Greeks called thumos or self-recognition. This stark reality was overlooked by the founding leaders of Pakistan. They failed to develop structures for keeping together disparate nationalities that were divided by history, language, customs, economy, history and geography. As such, they did not focus on the concept of a shared common future.

Nor were all the Muslim national/ethnic groups equally committed to a social and cultural antagonism with the Hindus. And so, for instance, the politically aware Bengalis and religiously moderate Sindhis didn’t see the same foe in Hindus that the many in Punjab or even the then NWFP might have.

Tragically, the people of Pakistan only had an abstract umbrella of a common religion. They were not bound by a common set of religious beliefs – divided as they were into sects that did not even allow them to pray together or follow a common set of personal laws.

Unprincipled Pakistani politics since the 1947 Partition nibbled away at whatever binding force the constituent units of the country had. The result was the dismemberment of the country in 1971.

Some people suggest that the creation of Bangladesh was also the death of the Two Nation Theory.

That is not quite true – because the Muslims of what became Bangladesh didn’t opt to join the Indian Union. They will never do so. What happened in 1971 was actually the death of the misconception that Islam by itself can hold Muslims together – an idea that was not part of the Two Nation Theory in the first place.

Sadly, a large section of Pakistani society continues to advocate religion as the basis of our unity.

This runs counter to everything that history has taught us.

Religion does not unite, except when one religious group is pitched against another. When not under duress, other worldly issues take precedence. And this is true for all religions.

The global history of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others proves that material interests, and not religion, are a unifying force. Pakistanis will have to take heed of this as they define their national interest(s).

But perhaps the greatest irony of it all is lost on many in South Asia.

As a conservative and identitarian form of religious-communal nationalism begins to dominate in India, suppressing long cherished dreams of egalitarianism, in the second and third decade of the 21st century, both nations have begun to look fairly similar!

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: