Rahmat Ali and our collective memory

November 22, 2015

A detailed account of his political vision

Rahmat Ali and our collective memory

Part I

While at the University of Cambridge for five years, among other things I had the opportunity of reading Choudhary Rahmat Ali’s write-ups which consisted of about fifteen pamphlets of varying sizes including Now or Never: Are we to live or perish for ever?

Luckily, the works of Rahmat Ali are kept at the archives of Centre of South Asian Studies (CSAS), Alison Richard Building at West Road, which is quite adjacent to the University Library. All that stuff is the part of Foster papers which are meticulously arranged by one of the best archivist Dr Kevin Greenbank. Trained as a historian of South Africa, Greenbank somehow developed a passion for historical documents. He travels the length and breadth of United Kingdom to accumulate rare documents, followed by quite an arduous process of sifting, digitalising and then cataloguing them and eventually making them a part of the CSAS archives.

His pain and passion has made these archives one of the most sought-after repositories of primary sources for historians of South Asia. Scholars from all corners of the globe come and benefit from these documents all round the year without incurring any expenditure. I have been one of countless beneficiaries of that resource centre. To my good luck, that privilege lasted for five long years.

Coming back to Rahmat Ali and his works which form the main theme of this article, it is but natural that those having received their initial education in Pakistan are supposed to be introduced to Rahmat Ali for primarily two reasons: his coining the name of Pakistan (Ali in fact spells it Pakstan instead of Pakistan); and his penning down of an eight page pamphlet Now or Never (the writers were not even bothered to give a full name of the pamphlet). Additionally his association with Cambridge, too, is mentioned at odd places in some of the course books dealing with history and Pakistan Studies.

Ever since I started teaching History approximately 28 years ago, the question about Rahmat Ali being mentioned so parsimoniously in our textbooks cropped up in my mind several times. Detailed account of his political vision seemed to have been banished. It is very rare that he is referred to in more than couple of sentences. No mention has mostly been made of the Pakistan National Movement that he established in 1933 or his vision of the Continent of Dinia.

On a few occasions, inquisitive students asked about further details about him and his political vision than what had been furnished in the course books. Despite some Urdu books and articles (Nawa-i-Waqt and Gujjar gazette) strived to highlight his role in the freedom movement, Rahmat Ali, nevertheless, remained a peripheral figure in the national narrative of Pakistan.

Then Khurshid Kamal Aziz (generally known as K. K. Aziz) took it upon himself to bring Ali into a scholarly spotlight. He wrote an extensive account of him by the title Rahmat Ali: A Biography which despite being a very well-researched and extensively documented book is apologia of our protagonist’s political stance. The writer has made his argument in such a convoluted way that Rahmat Ali’ s political vision about a separate homeland for South Asian Muslims is lost on the reader. Besides, Aziz has not only put together some of his works in an edited volume but also devoted a whole section on Rahmat Ali’s political vision in the second volume of his A History of The Idea of Pakistan.

Despite these scholarly undertakings on Rahmat Ali, he remained at the margins of our national discourse. His death anniversary comes and goes without causing any stir. The reason for the indifference which is shown towards Ali starts making sense when his works are read a bit closely.

In his work Pakistan: The Fatherland of the Pak Nation, Ali himself reveals that it was between 1909 and 1915 that the future of the Indian Muslims became "the dominating passion of my life". Extremely significant was his inaugural address to the audience of Bazm-i-Shibli (an organisation that he founded at Islamiya College Lahore in 1915) which reflected the initial delineation of the Pakistan scheme, eventually culminating into a much grander idea of the Continent of Dinia. In that address he enunciated, "North of India is Muslim and we will keep it Muslim. Not only that. We will make it a Muslim State. But this we can do only if and when we and our North cease to be Indian. For that is a pre-requisite to it. So the sooner we shed ‘Indianism’, the better for us all and for Islam."

As he points out in the same writeup, the separatism which he so passionately espoused and advocated was a reaction to the negotiation between Hindu and Muslim leaders aiming at finding some consensus "on the basis of the national unity" which subsequently culminated in Lucknow Pact of 1916. Ali called that pact as ‘perilous’. However, what were the particular reasons that had made Ali so terribly acerbic that he was absolutely averse to the idea of holding any negotiation with Hindus is a question shrouded in mystery.

Having said that, it was at this very point that Ali’s differences with Muslim League started. That separatist mode of thinking kept on solidifying with the passage of time and virtually turned into xenophobia, with no inkling of any accommodation for either Hindus or the British. Thus he took very strong exception to all those who were negotiating with the British and Congress for some sort of federal arrangement within India. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Iqbal were among those, against whom Ali has unleashed his anger.

Rahmat Ali was quite categorical about his demand of a separate federation for the Muslims as they had nothing in common with the Hindus. That is what he very eloquently articulates in Now or Never. His political stance underwent an evolution and so was his disagreement against Jinnah and Muslim League.

Read the second part: Rahmat Ali’s political imagination

Rahmat Ali and our collective memory