- Special Reports
The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan
HISTORIC ROOTS OF DISCORD
Hinduism is polytheistic and centered around idol worship. Islam is monotheistic and
forbids graven images. Abraham started with breaking up idols, and Muhammad did the
same in Mecca. Hindus worship idols of gods and goddesses. They believe in
reincarnation, with the eternal spirit taking different physical forms in an endless cycle of
birth, death and re-birth. Muslims believe that in their afterlife they will be judged by
Allah on the Day of Judgment, known only to Allah. Caste is an integral part of
Hinduism whereas it has no sanctification in Islam.
In the Indian subcontinent, the Hindu-Muslim antagonism is grounded in eight centuries
of history. In 1192 Muhammad Ghori of Afghanistan’s army, in a surprise attack before
sunrise, defeated the formidable Rajput army of Hindu emperor Prithvi Raj near Delhi
and established the Delhi Sultanate, which went on to cover most of north India. In 1526
it fell to a siege by Muhammad Zahiruddin Babur, then ruler of Kabul, who founded the
Mughal dynasty. It gave way to the British Raj in 1807.
Unlike the previous foreign rulers of the subcontinent, the British, arriving by sea as
fixed-term contracted employees of the trading East India Company, had an island
homeland with a distinct identity to which they returned after their tour of duty. This was
not the case with their Afghan and Mughal predecessors, who settled down in the
conquered land and became an integral part of the indigenous society.
By 1807, Muslims were a quarter of the Indian population, most of them outcaste and
lower-caste Hindu converts to Islam, with a sprinkling of the original Afghan and Mughal
ruling elite settling at the top of society. In predominantly rural India, Muslims lived in
hamlets outside the main village and had their own wells. In towns and cities, Hindus and
Muslims voluntarily lived in separate neighborhoods.
Social intercourse between the two communities was minimal, with intermarriage
nonexistent. At the popular level the communal points of friction centered around
Hindus’ reverence of cows and Muslims’ religiously sanctified loathing of pigs and their
flesh. In Hindu kingdoms killing a cow was deemed a capital offense since the fourth
century CE. To retaliate against Muslims’ slaughtering of cows, die-hard Hindus resorted
to desecrating a mosque by a stealth depositing of a pig’s head or carcass at its entrance,
or by playing music or musical instruments outside a mosque during prayers.
During the British Raj, the emerging apartheid between the ruling, white Christian
minority and the large, subjugated Indian majority created widespread resentment against
foreign imperialists among locals. This sentiment came to dominate the predominantly
Hindu Indian National Congress (henceforth Congress Party) formed in 1885 in Mumbai
with a modest demand that “the Government should be widened and that the people
should have their proper and legitimate share in it.”1
On the whole, having lost their empire to the British, the Muslim elite sulked, refusing to
accept their dramatically diminished circumstances. Contrary was the case with uppercaste
Hindus. In the past they had adjusted to the reality of alien rule, learning Persian,
the court language of the Muslim dynasties for seven centuries, to administer their rule.
With the advent of the British Raj, they switched to mastering English. As such, Hindus
started to spawn an English-educated urban middle class. By contrast, Muslims remained
divided between the extremes of illiterate peasantry and richly endowed aristocratic
A minority among the Muslim nobility adapted to the new reality. Prominent among
them was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817–1898). A highly educated, pro-British, richly
bearded aristocrat, Sir Syed was a political thinker and an educationist who urged fellow
Muslims to learn English. He founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in
Aligarh in 1875. He advised his coreligionists to stay away from the Congress Party and
focused on expanding the Muhammadan Educational Conference.
He perceived the Congress Party’s demand for a wider role for Indians in the government
as the thin end of the wedge for the departure of the British from the subcontinent. “Now,
suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, taking with them
all their cannons and their splendid weapons and all else, who then would be the rulers of
India?” he asked in a speech in March 1888. “Is it possible that under these circumstances
two nations—the Mohammedans and the Hindus—could sit on the same throne and
remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should
conquer the other. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and
the inconceivable. But until one nation has conquered the other and made it obedient,
peace cannot reign in the land.” 2
Sir Syed’s statement reflected the rising friction between the two communities, which he
pointedly called “nations.” At times these tensions escalated into violence. The first
recorded communal riot occurred in the North Gujarat town of Godhra in 1854. Details of
the episode are sketchy.3 More is known about the communal riot in Bombay (later
Mumbai) in August 1893. It erupted against the background of the rise of a militant cow
protection movement—Gaorakshak Mandali—that many Muslims regarded as
provocative and was launched in Bombay province in late 1892.Muslim worshipers
leaving the Juma Masjid, a striking mosque in South Bombay, after Friday prayers
attacked a nearby temple on Hanuman Lane. In a predominantly illiterate society in a
prebroadcasting era, wild rumors spread rapidly over the next two days. The army was
drafted to restore control. All together seventy-five people lost their lives.4
In December 1906 the Muhammadan Educational Conference meeting in Dacca (later
Dhaka) decided to transform itself into a political party, the All India Muslim League.
Dominated by feudal lords with a sprinkling of religious scholars and educationalists, it
elected Adamjee Pirbhoy as its president. He was followed by Sir Ali Imam and the
twenty-three-year-old Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah—popularly known by his title of
Agha Khan (or Aga Khan)—in successive years. The League was headquartered in
Lucknow. Its primary goal was to promote loyalty to the British Crown while advancing
Muslims’ political rights.
It demanded separate electorates for Muslims when the British government decided to
introduce the concept of conferring the right to vote on Indians with the enforcement of
the 1892 India Councils Act. It turned the hitherto fully nominated central and provincial
legislative councils into partly elected chambers. Nominated municipal boards, chambers
of commerce, landowner associations, and universities were authorized to submit lists of
elected members from which the viceroy and provincial governors made a final selection
of council members. These members, forming a minority, had the right to debate the
budget but not vote on it. In popular terms it meant franchise for 2 percent of the adult
population, about a third of literate Indians.
Since the League also wanted to promote understanding between Muslims and other
Indians, it did not bar Muslim members of the Congress Party from its membership. It
soon became a common practice for the League and the Congress Party to convene
annual conferences in the same city and around the same time to enable Muslim delegates
to attend both assemblies. Among those who did so in 1913 was Muhammad Ali Jinnah
(1876–1948), an elegant but skeletal British-trained lawyer with an austere, tapering
face—an Edwardian gentleman in hand-tailored suits and starched collars—who had
joined the Congress Party seven years earlier.
Those sponsoring Jinnah’s membership in the League declared that “loyalty to the
Muslim League and the Muslim interest would in no way and at no time imply even the
shadow of disloyalty to the national cause to which his life was dedicated.”5 Jinnah was
elected to the League’s council, where he came to play a leading role.
By then, however, the India Councils Act, amended in 1909, had incorporated the
Muslim League’s demand for separate Muslim electoral constituencies with reduced
franchise qualifications. This concession was made because of the historical reluctance of
upper-crust Muslims to discard Persian and learn English, resulting in their reduced
socioeconomic standing vis-à-vis their Hindu counterparts. To qualify as voters, Hindus
were required to have a minimum taxable income of Rs 30,000, whereas the requirement
for Muslims was only Rs 3,000. On the education franchise, a Hindu had to be a
university graduate of thirty years’ standing, while the figure for a Muslim was only three
years. Qualified Muslims were entitled to vote in the general constituencies as well.6
Until 1913 the Congress Party, led by lawyers and journalists, had limited itself to
petitioning the British government in India, based in Delhi from that year onward (the
earlier capital being Calcutta), for modest administrative-political reform. It had
welcomed London’s concession of letting a minority of the provincial and central
legislative council members be elected on a franchise of a tiny 2 percent of the
population. The Party and the Muslim League backed Britain and its allies in their war,
which broke out in 1914, against Germany and Ottoman Turkey, whose sultan was also
the caliph of Muslims worldwide. Almost 1,441,000 Indians volunteered to join the
British Indian army, with 850,000 serving abroad.
They were shipped out from Bombay and Karachi, the main ports on the west coast, to
fight in the Middle East and Western Europe. While Delhi was the center of the imperial
power exercised by Britain, Bombay, the capital of the province of Bombay Presidency,
had emerged as the focal point for domestic politics in which lawyers played a vital role.
And it was to this city that Jinnah returned after studying law in London in 1896, and not
to Karachi, his birthplace.
Five years earlier, another lawyer, after having been called to the bar in London, arrived
in Bombay. He shared with Jinnah Gujarati his mother tongue but not his religion. He
was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Jinnah and Gandhi would rise to become titanic
public figures and dominate the country’s political landscape for three decades.
1 Dilip Hiro, The Timeline History of India (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006), 242.
2 R. Shayan, “Sir Syed Ahmed Khan,” Agnostic Pakistan (blog), December 14, 2008,
3 Ashish Vashi, “Gandhi-Jinnah, Hindu-Muslim: Godhra Created Many Rifts,” DNA
India, February 18, 2012, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/1651743/report-gandhi-jinnahhindu-
4 Meena Menon, “Chronicle of Communal Riots in Bombay Presidency (1893–
1945),” Economic & Political Weekly, November 20, 2010, http://www.epw.in/specialarticles/
5 Cited in Jaswant Singh, Jinnah: India–Partition–Independence (New Delhi: Rupa and
Company, 2009), 86, citing Mohammed Ali Jinnah—An Ambassador of Unity: His
Speeches and Writings, 1912–1917, with a biographical appreciation by Sarojini Naidu
(Lahore, Pakistan: Atish Fishan, 1989), 11.
6 Hiro, The Timeline History of India, 249.