“Pakistani nationalism is a broad church with multiple meanings”

November 26, 2023

A conversation with British academic, Prof Yunas Samad

“Pakistani nationalism is a broad church with multiple meanings”

Prof Yunas Samad is a prominent British academic. His expertise lies in sociology, politics and history with a particular focus on South Asia and its diaspora. He has been a professor of South Asian studies and is the director of the Ethnicity and Social Policy Research Centre at the University of Bradford. Prof Samad has authored numerous books on Pakistani nationalism, ethnicity, Islam and the War on Terror. He is a respected commentator on Pakistan’s Muslim diaspora, politics and security issues, contributing to the BBC and Dawn.

Prof Samad was born in Lahore. His family migrated to the United Kingdom during his childhood. He was raised and educated in South Merton, London. He obtained a BA Hons in history from the University of North London and pursued a DPhil in modern history at St Antony’s College, Oxford University. He has a rich academic background, having taught at Sussex University and served as a Research Fellow at Warwick University.

Prof Samad has been involved in several funded projects, collaborating with institutions like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Economic Social Research Council, the European Commission and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He has held various leadership positions in academic organisations, including vice-chairman of the British Association for South Asian Studies and deputy director of the South Asia Research Centre, Geneva. He has been an advisor to the European Commission on research programmes and served as a Charles Wallace Pakistan Trust trustee.

In this exclusive interview with The News on Sunday, Prof Yunas Samad talks about his important book, Nation in Turmoil, of which an Urdu translation, Pakistani Qaumiyat aur Riyasat ka Nazariyati Buhran (1937-1958), has been published recently by Danyal, Karachi.

“Pakistani nationalism is a broad church with multiple meanings”


he News on Sunday: Why have you opted to work on the period between 1937 and 1958? Is this due to structural reasons, i.e., the administrative structures remained unaltered until 1958? How important is the structural continuity before and after independence?

Prof Yunas Samad: The literature on Pakistan is divided into two broad categories: one that focuses on the formation of Muslim nationalism and the rise of the Muslim League, and other that focuses on its post-independence problems and failure to establish a viable political regime. However, there are elements of continuity that transcend the 1947 Partition, such as the strong colonial character of the state and the politics of regional identity and autonomy. My focus is on exploring these continuities rather than the discontinuities. Some of the politicians who were declared heroes for helping create Pakistan were later vilified as people who had undermined the project. This paradox is worth exploring in more detail.

TNS: After losing the 1937 elections, the Muslim League won all the by-elections and secured a resounding victory in 1946. What are the plausible reasons for that turnaround in the political fate of the party?

YS: In modern political parlance, Muslim nationalism would be considered a populist movement. It was a political journey of enormous magnitude, and it was quite remarkable that a party on the verge of extinction in 1937 could become the indisputable leader of Muslims in India just ten years later.

If you explore Muslim nationalism, you will find that it was based on simple binaries such as Muslims versus Hindus, us versus them and good versus evil. Very little thought was given to actually sketching out the details of what the notion of Muslim nationalism, or Pakistan, was actually to be in substance. Greater effort was expended in defining what they were not. This agency-based understanding of the Muslim League’s enormous victory and emergence of a popular movement is a partial explanation.

The other variable was some fortuitous events such as the World War II. The war suddenly made Muslim leadership much more important in Indian politics, providing an opportunity for Jinnah to exploit and turn around the fate of the Muslim League. Muslim League ministries became important for the British as they needed a democratic facade to legitimize the war effort as a struggle for democracy to win the support of the United States.

TNS: In your opinion, was there religious motivation behind the Muslim League’s movement for a separate homeland? If so, why did Jinnah make a speech on August 11, 1947, that was quite contrary to the religiously grounded Muslim League narrative?

YS: Muslim nationalism was a broad church that was constructed on the simple binaries of Muslims versus Hindus and us versus them. It was never actually defined in detail. As long as you had allegiance to the Muslim League, it didn’t matter whether you belonged to a sect that was subsequently declared non-Muslim, such as the Ahmadiyya, or whether you were from Islamic orientation, or represented princely states, or represented secular ethnic leadership from the various provinces. If you gave allegiance to Jinnah and the Muslim League, the rest was irrelevant.

Religion was implicitly part of the narrative because it was critical in the construction of the ‘other.’ However, the people who constructed this narrative, the dominant element, were not clerics; they were secular elites. So, while in name, they talked about Islam, in practice, they were talking about very secular politics. This contradiction was exposed when they started talking about constitution building. The issues that came up showed that, on the one hand, they were talking about religious differences, but they were not really concerned about religion itself, an ambivalence that was reflected in Jinnah’s famous speech on citizenship.

TNS: Jinnah as governor general placed greater faith in the likes of Chaudhary Muhammad Ali and Malik Ghulam Muhammad than his political colleagues such as Liaqat Ali Khan and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. In your opinion, why was Jinnah averse to his political colleagues following the creation of Pakistan?

YS: Once Jinnah became the governor general he was insulated by the bureaucracy. The isolation increased due to his poor health. He confided in those who had physical access to him. People like Liaquat Ali Khan were seen as staunch allies of Jinnah. I don’t think Jinnah was averse to him or his supporters in the Muslim League. The issue was that there were people within the state, within the executive, who were against Liaquat Ali Khan and the political leadership.

This is because Liaquat was considered the heir to Jinnah and a real threat to the rise of the executive in Pakistan. If you look at the papers on Liaquat’s assassination, it becomes clear that there was an internal dimension to his murder. The assassin was someone who had been hired by the state to work for the Pakistan government on the Afghan border. He had even visited Liaquat Ali Khan before his death. So, there is no doubt that there were elements within the state who were happy to see Liaquat Ali Khan go.

TNS: What was the basis of discrimination against East Pakistan – was it due to political power or some class-based dynamic? Did East Pakistan suffer from a lack of local representation that was taken over by migrant leadership in West Pakistan?

YS: There is a class dynamic operating here, but the political dynamic was more of an issue. The Muslim League in East Pakistan had a more plebian character. Some of its leadership came from a different class background than those who inhabited the higher levels of the executive. This was a problem in dealing with Maulana Bashani but not with Mohammad Ali Borga, Suhrawardy or Khwaja Nazimuddin who had elite backgrounds.

The executive in the Pakistani state was more concerned about majoritarianism. They feared that the Bengali political elite would translate its numerical superiority in the electorate into political domination of the legislature and then use that to consolidate its hold on the executive and take Pakistan in a direction they didn’t want to go.

For example, Nazimuddin was lukewarm on all things that Ghulam Mohammad and his colleagues were keen on. He didn’t want a centralised state; he was more Islamic and wanted to defer to the Islamic opposition on the role of Islam; he was less hostile and hawkish on India and preferred improved relations and tilt foreign policy towards Pakistan’s Islamic neighbours rather than the United States. Politically, this would have been fatal for the executive who wanted to take control.

TNS: What do you think about the vision of Pakistan’s founding fathers with respect to democracy, since there is much ambivalence about it even today?

YS: When you talk about the founding fathers, you have to ask who you are referring to. Different sections among the founding fathers had different views. The executive was not interested in democracy, and they had supporters in the political elite, such as Mumtaz Daultana. They were interested in consolidating their position through the establishment of a centralised state. If it meant getting rid of democracy, they were happy to do so.

For a section of the political elite democracy was more problematic. It required a popular mandate but many of them would struggle to win an election. The core of the Muslim League leadership constituency was now in India, whether they were Punjabi members of the Muslim League or from UP. They did not have a political base in Pakistan and therefore would struggle in a democratic setup. However Liaquat did not choose to become governor general on Jinnah’s death. By remaining prime minister, he was looking for a political solution to his personal and Muslim League’s predicament.

There was going to be some kind of winnowing out of the political leadership through the democratic process, where those whose political base was now in India would struggle in Pakistan. Not all, but some. Suhrawardy, for example, was from Kolkata, but he was able to transfer and establish himself in East Pakistan and along with Qayyum Khan they were the main candidates that were expected to do well in the elections. They were also the foundational figures of Muslim nationalism who if allowed would have consolidated democracy in Pakistan.

TNS: How do you define Pakistan as a nation-state throughout its 75-year existence? In a classical sense, nation states are differently defined from what we see in Pakistan, which is embedded in a two-nation theory?

YS: In academic terms, Pakistan doesn’t conform to classical notions of a nation-state. All nation-states ultimately depend on whether citizens feel they belong and that they can participate and influence the governance of the country. As I have said before, Pakistani nationalism is a broad church with multiple meanings. I believe that rather than debating what it means, we should focus after 75 years on what it can deliver for its citizens. The public debate should be about delivery and how citizens’ lives can be improved. If we can create a democratically devolved policy that is inclusive for all citizens and protects their rights and freedoms, many of the divisive issues will become non-issues. If Pakistan is free and prosperous, people will see that they get certain benefits from belonging to this polity, regardless of who they are and where they come from. For me the question isn’t where we are coming from but where are we going.

The interviewer is a professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

“Pakistani nationalism is a broad church with multiple meanings”