This August 14th marks the 71st year of the Indian subcontinent’s division and the creation of India and Pakistan. The division of India, which most historians refer to as the Partition, divided hundreds of millions of Indian Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others into two sovereign nations: India and Pakistan. The division of India was meant to resolve the issue of religious communities in the region. Ironically, it has done the exact opposite of this for South Asia is now home to two hostile nations that are witnessing a steady rise of religious hardliners in power. What is even more worrying in this context is the fact that both countries are now armed with nuclear weapons.
The current U.S. administration’s decision to make the issue of religious freedom worldwide a cornerstone of its policies has given hope to hundreds of millions of members of ethnic and religious minorities throughout the world who are suffering persecution, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide, in their own countries. Persecuted minorities in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan, hope to see positive changes in their lives as a result of this great initiative.
The issue of religious freedom is important to pretty much all regions in the world, but it has special significance in the Indian subcontinent. It is common knowledge that the British Empire created Pakistan in 1947 as a homeland for Indian Muslims. What is relatively unknown is the fact that it was not the dominant Sunni Muslim leadership of India that was keen on seeking a separate homeland for Muslims. It was leadership from minority sects within the Muslim community who were at the forefront of this demand. These Muslim minorities — such as Shiites, Ahmadis, Sufis, and Ismailies, etc. — feared that the imminent withdrawal of the British from the region would turn them into a perpetual minority in a Hindu-majority India, and only a separate Muslim homeland could guarantee them the right to worship without any fear.
Armed with this belief that a separate Muslim homeland would be an ultimate solution to their apprehensions and fears, these Muslim minorities played a critical role in India’s partition. The first president of the All India Muslim League, the founding political party of Pakistan, was Sir Agha Khan III, an Ismaili. It was his financial support that helped the Muslim League become an important voice for Muslims in the region. The founder of Pakistan, Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a Shiite belonging to the Asnae Ashri sect of Shiite Muslims. Raja Sahab of Mahmoodabad, an ultra-rich landlord whose fortunes greatly helped Mr. Jinnah to successfully pursue his political ambitions, was also a Shiite Muslim. Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister Sir Zafarullah Khan was an Ahmadi. The list just goes on and on.
The religious leadership of Sunni Muslims, who formed the majority of the Muslim population in India, was opposed to the idea of India’s partition. Some of them were very vocal and hostile to this demand. For instance, Moulana Modudi, the founder of orthodox extremist Jamat-e-Islami, even termed Pakistan (meaning: the land of the pure) “Na-Pakistan” (impure land). Some prominent Sunni Muslim leaders from the influential Muslim religious seminary Darul-Uloom Deoband even sided with the All India National Congress and actively opposed the creation of Pakistan.
Despite fierce opposition from Indian nationalists and Sunni Muslim religious leaders, the British created Pakistan as a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. Unfortunately, they created Pakistan in areas where the demand for Pakistan.