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Clash of civilizations up close: the case of Pakistan

Published on 13 June 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

Arguably, the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947,[1] with its concomitant massacres and massive population movements, can be used to highlight a “civilizational fault line” between the Islamic and the Hindu cultures. Unsurprisingly, the Wiki article quoted below, speaks of “Two nations theory.”

Samuel P. HUNTINGTON argues i. a. that “civilizations are mortal[2] but also long-lived; they evolve, adapt, and are the most enduring of human associations.”[3] (pg. 43) In this view, civilizational clashes are for all purposes conflicts from time out of time, and there to stay for the “extreme longue durée.” In particular, civilizations force themselves unto politicians and determine their strategy: “Yet to lead these nations to and after independence they had to indigenize. They reverted to their ancestral cultures, and in the process at times changed identities, names, dress, and beliefs.” (pg. 93)

Reordering my library about India, I’ve come across a book that sheds a more contingent view of the process leading to the 1947 partition.[4] While I would not argue that the book contains “the truth,” it has sufficient points of interest to justify a critical reading of its evidence.

While the All-India Muslim League had been in existence since well before WWI, its overall attitude had long been one of integration within an eventually independent India. So, at its meeting in Lahore in 1937, the League resolved to toward: “establishment in India of full independence in the form of a federation of free democratic States in which the rights and interests of the Muselmans and other minorities are adequately and effectively safeguarded.

More importantly, the League was a conflation of all sorts of different views about the future. Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, the governor of Punjab (a state with large Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities), favored a federal approach. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the leader in the North West Frontier Provinces, was committed to non-violence;[5] Fazal-ul-Haq of Bengal was also putting his weight behind federation. These regional rulers knew how to deal pragmatically and constructively with community relations. The eventual leader of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, however – a wealthy fully Europeanized lawyer living in posh Mumbai (and out of touch with the people) came to see an inevitable conflict between the communities. In 1937, he was far from being the undisputed Muslim leader.

Things changed in India first with the advent of WWII and then with its foreseeable outcome. It is useful here to start from the fact that the U.K came out reeling from WWII facing two challenges. On the one side, Churchill foresaw the Cold War and the need to contain Stalin’s possible “southward thrust;” on the other hand it faced US pressure to liquidate colonialism. Indeed, ever since the League of Nations, only the “white man’s burden” paradigm – not right of conquest – justified empires or their continuance.

Containing the USSR’s drive to warm waters required foremost a U.K. military presence in the Western part of India (Baluchistan, the North West Frontier Provinces abutting on Afghanistan, and the coast leading to the Arabian Sea). The India Congress had made it clear that it intended to have no part in regional defense structures. Jinnah offered Dominion status for Pakistan (the country duly became part of CENTO,[6] a Cold-War alliance). The British establishment weighed in for the partition with these considerations in mind.

Countering the US call for Indian independence, the U.K. argued that its presence was necessary to maintain peace between the communities as well as safeguarding the role of the Indian Princes: “To Churchill, India was a geographical expression, a land that was no more a single country than the equator.” (pg. 53) Unsurprisingly, the Viceroy tilted in favor of conflictual Jinnah over accommodationist leaders. (pg. 44) Blundering of Congress politicians in Delhi allowed the British establishment first to help Jinnah become the undisputed leader of the Muslim League. They then played up community conflicts until partition became inevitable.

Far from being a historical necessity, India’s partition was also the contingent result of British scheming, conflict of personalities between leaders, and ignorance of the cultural and social context by keys leaders.[7] Looking at the complex contingency of Indian partition from a distance, I would tend to argue that we can make a case that it might have been (once more) the result of Occidentalism.[8] Far from being eternal and unchanging, the cultures had been profoundly affected by colonialism with its ideologies.

Historical counterfactuals are useful because they “connect the dots” differently and show that history could have easily gone the other way. One needs to flesh them out, however. Only a deep understanding of context – rather than theory, which blinds to context – will reveal the underlying complex contingencies.


[1] The Partition of India was the partition of the British Indian Empire that led to the creation of the sovereign states of the Dominion of Pakistan (it later split into the Pakistan and the Bangladesh) and the Union of India (later Republic of India) on 15 August 1947. “Partition” here refers not only to the division of the Bengal province of British India into East Pakistan and West Bengal (India), and the similar partition of the Punjab into Punjab (West Pakistan) and Punjab, India, but also to the respective divisions of other assets, including the British Indian Army, the Indian Civil Service and other administrative services, the railways, and the central treasury.

In the riots which preceded the partition in the Punjab region, between 200,000 to 500,000 people were killed in the retributive genocide. UNHCR estimates 14 million Sikhs and Muslims were displaced during the partition; it was the largest mass migration in human history. https://bit.ly/1KVIMgc

[2] One cannot fail to note the reification of the abstraction. Though in Huntington’s words “civilizations have no clear-cut boundaries, and no precise beginnings and no endings,” (pg. 43) they are somehow endowed with (never-ending) life. WALSER goes as far as to argue by analogy that “just wars” are those for the survival of states (see: Michael WALZER (1977): Just and unjust wars. A moral argument with historical illustrations. Basic Books, New York.

[3] Samuel P. HUNTINGTON (1996): The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. Simon & Schuster, New York.

[4] Narendra Singh SARILA (2005): The untold story of India’s partition. The shadow of the Great Game. Harper & Collins, New Delhi.

[5] Rajmohan Gandhi (2004): Ghaffar Khan – Nonviolent Badshah of the Pkthuns. Viking, New Delhi.

[6] https://bit.ly/1KPu47h

[7] Gandhi’s understanding of Indian culture was idiosyncratic at best: see e.g. Kathryn TIDRICK (2008): Gandhi. A political and spiritual life. I. T. Tauris, London; also Ramachandra GUHA (2013): Gandhi before India. Penguin, New Delhi. In jail, Nehru “discovered” India: Jawaharlal NEHRU (2004): The discovery of India. Penguin, New Delhi. As for Jinnah, an avowed atheist, his understanding of Islam was to say the least sketchy: Stanley WOLPERT (1993: Jinnah of Pakistan. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[8] See Ian BURUMA – Avishai MARGALIT (2004): Occidentalism. The West in the eyes of its enemies. Penguin,

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