The South Asian Declaration of Independence

When the founders of the Unites States decided to break away from the British rule, they put down their reasons in a document. This is the US Declaration of Independence, unanimously signed by 56 representatives of ‘the thirteen united states of America’ on July 4, 1776. Likewise, in the Indian subcontinent, some 450 elected leaders of the Muslims adopted the ‘Delhi Resolution’ in the All-India Muslim League Legislators Convention, chaired by the Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Delhi from April 7 to 9, 1946.

This resolution, then, is to Pakistan what the Declaration of Independence is to the US but the comparison does not end there, nor at the distinction of Great Britain as the master from whom both the Americans and the Indian Muslims were seeking to liberate themselves (in the latter instance, though, the bondage was two-fold as the Resolution also aimed ‘to save Muslim India from the domination of the Hindus’).

The Resolution is for the twenty-first century what the US Declaration of Independence was for the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The Declaration served as a precedent for the nations of Europe as they sought freedom from monarchies during the next hundred years or more. Those nations often idealized ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’, and the Declaration spoke in those terms.

This is not the way people speak anymore. To the nations that are now going through the teething problems of independence – situated mostly in South America, Africa and Asia, and a good many of them predominantly Muslim – the wisdom of the Delhi Resolution might be more immediately relevant with its frank and blunt expressions, which can be summarized in four main points:

  • Firstly, the Muslims of the ‘subcontinent’ of India are a nation and their faith stands for nationalism, equality, democracy and other noble ideals.
  • Secondly, these ideals are in sharp contrast to the exclusive nature of Hindu Dharma and philosophy’, especially its caste system.
  • Thirdly, due to these two reasons, ‘it is necessary to constitute a sovereign independent state’ comprising of provinces where Muslims happen to be in majority, and ‘two separate constitution-making bodies be set up by the people of Pakistan and Hindustan for the purpose of framing their respective constitutions.’
  • Fourthly, religious minorities in this new state as well as in India should be provided safeguards ‘for the protection of their religious, cultural, economic, political, administrative and other rights and interests in consultation with them.’

Each of these four points raises certain questions that seem to have become more relevant today than they were even at the time of the signing of the Resolution. The words of a Bengali delegate at the convention are truer today than they were at that time, as he said, ‘The Muslims of India are not only fighting for their own emancipation, but to establish permanent peace and tranquility in the world.’

The first question that arises in the light of the Delhi Resolution is whether the Muslims of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are still a nation. The issue underlying this question is becoming increasingly more relevant now with dual nationalities, immigrations and the diversity policies of the more developed countries. The implication of the historical ties with a parent community for the citizenship of a different state is something many nations of Europe are finding difficult to ignore anymore. The assumption of the signatories of the Delhi Resolution was that the Muslims living in separate states in South Asia would continue to be a nation, and this assumption does not seem as misplaced in the twenty-first century as the critics tried to make it appear in 1946.

According to the Resolution, the Muslims of the subcontinent had remained a nation throughout the centuries of their existence in the region. We know that during that period they were often divided into many states, and even fought wars against each other. If the Muslims of this region did not cease to be a nation when Sher Shah Suri clashed with Emperor Humayun, when Akbar invaded the kingdom of Chand Bibi, when Emperor Alamgir carried on a prolonged conflict with the Muslim rulers of Deccan, when Sultan Tipu and his father were pitted against the Nizam, or when the entire sub-continent became divided into several independent states just before the British conquest, it cannot be argued now that they have ceased to be a nation because they live in three sovereign states, or because those states have engaged in armed conflicts. As Iqbal explained even long before the Delhi Resolution, ‘the ideal nation … is not incompatible with the sovereignty of individual States.’

In an age when so many Muslim states are threatened by insurgencies carried out in the name of Islam (not to mention the threat the rest of the world presumably faces from such activities), nobody can deny the necessity of acknowledging the Delhi Resolution as the definitive statement on Islam, affirming ‘nationalism, equality, democracy and all noble ideals that Islam stands for.’ If this interpretation of Islam does not appear dominant in the Muslim world today, it is partially because of the influence of the critics and adversaries of the Pakistan Movement, otherwise the authenticity of the Delhi Resolution as a statement about Islam is unquestionable.

The signatories were approximately 450 leaders creating the largest Muslim state of modern times through this very instrument. The organization they served had been, for no less than forty years, the representative of the largest Muslim community in the world, comprising of more than a hundred million people – more than the population of all other Muslim countries of Asia put together. The leaders who signed the resolution had been formally elected by this community, just months earlier, for the specific purpose this resolution was trying to achieve. The signatories included some of the staunchest Muslims and were backed by a body of ulema as well. What other document in the entire history of Islam after the times of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions might be called more authentic than this resolution?

The basic point of disagreement between the Indian Muslims and the Hindus, according to the Resolution, was the caste system and the exclusivist nature of the religious ideology that supports it. The traditional evil of the caste system (‘the degradation of 60 million human beings to the position of untouchables’) persists to this date but while it may have been restricted to the subcontinent, the system seems to have also produced a contagious disease after 1947. It is the anomaly of hereditary democracy. The lifetime premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru may have been a first for democracy (and one cannot help notice the stark contrast with his Pakistani counterpart, Liaquat Ali Khan) but the perpetual domination of the Congress party by Nehru’s descendants and family cannot be reconciled with democracy by any stretch of imagination. Thanks to the hype the global media has been giving to India as ‘the largest democracy of the world’, this disastrous anomaly has come to be accepted as a norm by other emerging democracies. The crippling effect can be seen in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines and elsewhere but the political scientists are yet to diagnose it as a mutation of the caste virus. Once this realization sinks in, the wisdom of the Delhi Resolution will become more evident.

The framers of the US Declaration were defying the most widespread form of tyranny for their age when they denounced ‘absolute Despotism’ and ‘A Prince whose character is thus marked’. We do not live in the age of kings anymore. Tyranny in our age, especially in the younger nations, is defined by civilian dictatorships and the hijacking of democracies by dynasties, and these evils are nothing but a new caste system in the making. The Delhi Resolution defies these new roots of political tyranny just as the US Declaration had defied the older ones.

The Resolution is not only the basis of Pakistan but also happens to be the only rationale history provides us for the present-day India. It was demanded in this resolution that ‘two separate constitution-making bodies be set up by the people of Pakistan and Hindustan’ and no attempt should be made ‘to impose a constitution on a united India basis’. This is the ground reality of the Republic of India as it exists on the political map of the world now, but this reality is surprisingly missing in all the resolutions passed by the Congress before the partition.

Even after accepting the partition plan of June 3, 1947, the working committee of the Congress passed its famous resolution of June 14, insisting that India was still a unity, that ‘no human agency’ could change it and that eventually ‘the false doctrine of two nations in India will be discredited and discarded by all’. Such apocalyptic ideas can hardly reflect a political reality of any kind and they certainly do not reflect the one that is called the Republic of India. The country happens to be just one of the states in the subcontinent and does not cover the whole of the subcontinent as dreamed in the Congress resolution.

It is true that one of the two Muslim zones mentioned in the Resolution has since then become an independent country, Bangladesh. This can be considered a repudiation of the Resolution only if the Resolution is deemed invalid from the very start. If it is accepted to have been valid in 1946, the further division of its ‘sovereign independent state’ into two can only be seen as a subsequent agreement among the heirs and successors of the signatories. The sovereignty of Bangladesh remains traceable to the Delhi Resolution because if this document is removed from the discourse, the leftover is a united India devoid of the sovereignties of Bangladesh as well as Pakistan. The Bengalis in any case were the largest group among the signatories of the resolution, which was also moved by none other than Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the subsequent founder of the party credited with the birth of Bangladesh.

To protect every imaginable right of the religious minorities is part of the original idea of Pakistan envisioned in the Delhi Resolution, which refers back to the Lahore Resolution of 1940 on this point. A peculiar aspect of this worldview is that the rights of the religious minorities are to be granted ‘in consultation’ with them. This is different from the secularist point of view that encourages the state to decide these matters on its own. The League’s point of view seems to be fairer and more practical considering the actual circumstances of the developing countries and the religious sentiments of the people living there. In practice too, the League under the Quaid was well-known for its willingness to share power with the minorities (sometimes to the embarrassment of the Congress). When it gained majority in Sindh in the election of 1945-46, it offered two positions in the cabinet to Hindus. It also nominated a Hindu from a ‘scheduled caste’ (the ‘untouchable’) for one of its allocated seats in the central cabinet.

This is, then, Pakistan’s Declaration of Independence. The Resolution was undoubtedly a pact the largest Muslim community of the world made with God Almighty. Its signatories also insisted that those few Muslims who did not agree with it could not claim to be speaking for the community. After the adoption of the resolution, the entire convention stood up to take an oath before God, which was read aloud for them by Liaquat Ali Khan – the one man among them who, incidentally, would eventually lay down his life in pursuance of this oath and go down in history as Shaheed-i-Millat, or the Martyr of the Nation:

I do hereby solemnly declare my firm conviction that the safety and security, the salvation and destiny of the Muslim nation inhabiting the subcontinent of India lie only in the achievement of Pakistan, which is the only equitable, honourable and just solution of the constitutional problem and which will bring peace, freedom and prosperity to the various nationalities and communities of this great subcontinent.

I most solemnly affirm that I shall willingly and unflinchingly carry out all the directions and instructions which may be issued by the All-India Muslim League in pursuance of any movement that may be launched by it for the attainment of the cherished national goal of Pakistan. Believing as I do in the righteousness and the justice of my cause, I pledge to undergo any danger, trial or sacrifice which may be demanded of me.

It is not too much to say that it is the birthright of the present-day Muslims of South Asia to create for themselves the intellectual space for remembering, sharing and enacting the pact their ancestors made with God on April 9, 1946.

2 thoughts on “The South Asian Declaration of Independence”

  1. Muahammad Zeeshan Khan

    The first question ’whether the Muslims of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are still a nation’ has been very well answered here, and in my opinion, it should be taught to the masses of Muslims of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.

  2. Thanks for writing, “South Asian Declaration Of Independence,” it helps the young generation to know some of their history and how important it is.

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