Two-Nation Theory: Myths and Reality

Basis of the partition of British India in 1947 and the justification for the creation of Pakistan, the Two-Nation Theory was a time-specific, area-specific formula to find a solution for the peaceful dissolution of the vast but crumbling British Indian Empire in the 1940s. It suggested that the Hindus and Muslims of India were two separate nations based on their respective cultural markers, particularly their religious beliefs and practices. Hence, as the argument went, needed their own separate geographical space where they are in majority, in which they could govern their lives according to their distinct socio-cultural moorings and political bearings.

Indian Muslims in general and the leadership of the Indian Muslim League of the pre-partition Subcontinent in particular, have been blamed or eulogised, depending on which side of the fence you are, for crafting and popularising this Theory. Specifically, its opponents level the following allegations against the Two-Nation Theory;

1. It was the offshoot of the British policy of Divide and Rule

2. Muslim League /Muslim scholars propagated it

3. Nation-states are not created based on religion

4. It created the division of India and resulted in millions of deaths

5. Two-Nation Theory is dead; the creation of Bangla Desh nullified it

6. Pakistan Ideology and Two-Nation Theory are the same things

7. It means non-Muslims are now second-class citizens in Pakistan?

Let us discuss these allegations against the Two Nations Theory one by one

1. It was the British Policy of Divide and Rule, that resulted in the deaths of millions.

Historians, Hindus, and Muslims alike, who are opposed to the creation of Pakistan, have been criticising the Muslim League for adopting a communal philosophy that not only partitioned the Subcontinent and disrupted the centuries-old Hindu-Muslim unity in the region but also divided the Indian Muslims. They fail to understand that the Two Nations Theory was the theoretical construct of the objective conditions of the second half of the Indian socio-political scene. It was just describing the acute centuries-old communalisation of Indian society in which both the Hindu nationalists and Muslim revivalists could be blamed; blaming the British colonists for this division is putting cart before the horse.

Pannikar, the pioneer of the famous Pannikar Doctrine which advocated the domination of the Indian Ocean and its littoral states by India as inheritor of the British Indian Empire, stated that the introduction of Islam in India divided the Indian body politic and society vertically as its adherents failed to absorb themselves in the social milieu like the countless other creeds which preceded it; hence they are a separate entity.

It was, thus, just a matter of time before these centuries-old cultural, religious, economic, and social dissimilarities between the two major communities, Hindus and Muslims of the Subcontinent became instrumental in giving rise to two distinct political ideologies which were responsible for the partition of the sub-continent into two independent states.

Yes, one can argue, that even if we accept that these two communities were two distinct nations, there was no justification for the partition of the Subcontinent as there are multiple countries where two or even more nations are living under one political unit. However, a cursory glance at the history of relations between these two nations before and after the 1857 War of Independence is enough to nullify this stance. And the golden opportunity to do so was wasted by Congress during its two years of ruling several states during 1937–39. It was a glimpse of the future for a post-British Raj Subcontinent. The rejection of the Cabinet Plan by Congress was the last straw on the camel’s back; there was now no turning back.

The allegation that the two-nation theory was responsible for the death of a million people in 1947 is putting the cart before the horses. The founding fathers never envisaged the cross migration of the Hindus and the Muslims to new countries. The killing of refugees was the law of unintended consequences

2. Muslim League /Muslim scholars propagated it

Nothing can be farther than the truth. It was Nabagopal Mitra, (1840–1894) an Indian playwright, poet, and essayist and one of the founding fathers of Hindu nationalism, who started advocating Hindu religion to be the fundamental criterion of nationalism. Maintaining that the Hindus of India as a nation were better than the Muslims and the Christians, spent all his wealth establishing schools, gymnasiums, and theatres to train Hindus to emerge as a nation.

Following his steps, several prominent intellectuals like Bhai Paramanand, one of the leading members of the Hindu reformist movement Arya Samaj, Lajpat Rai, and Savarkar described the Hindus and Muslims as being two separate nations. Similarly, Golwalker of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) described the Hindus as being India’s ‘national race’ and advised the minority communities of India to merge with the Hindu nation or perish like the German Jews who refused to adapt to the culture of the national race.

Of course, Muslim intellectuals of India also believed in and advocated the separate identity of Indian Muslims, it was adopted much later by the leaders of the Indian Muslim League as a political philosophy. And they did it after the dominant Muslim elite of united India failed to extract sufficient constitutional guarantees from their counterparts namely the dominant Hindu elite for an adequate share in the political decision-making once the British left India.

They rightly or wrongly, depending on which side of the political fence you are, feared that in the absence of these safeguards, the Muslim minority would gradually lose its cultural identity and would become a politically and economically marginalized underclass, another subservient caste, a second-class citizenry in a predominantly Hindu India.

These perceptions had been reinforced by the stepmotherly treatment the Muslim elite and the masses got during the brief Congress rule in the provincial governments which it formed after the 1937 elections-a foretaste of things to come. A quarter of a century before Punjab was divided in 1947 when Pakistan and India won independence, Lala Lajpat Rai demanded the partition of Punjab into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas.

3. Nation-states are not formed based on religion

This is the fiercest argument against the Two-nation Theory and, thus, needs a detailed examination. The first thing to remember is that, with few exceptions, most modern nation-states are artificial entities, multi-ethnic in composition inheriting the borders drawn by the colonial masters. There was no set rule for their creation except for historical events or mutual understanding among the colonising powers. Thus there is no one sacrosanct basis for the formation of a nation-state.

It is, as rightly pointed out by Benedict Anderson a nation is born out of a shared identity binding strangers from different communities together — usually based on a shared language, history, culture, religion, or ethnicity. Thus, although a nation may consist of tens of millions of people — nearly all of whom will never personally know or even meet one another — nationalism allows each individual to think of themselves as a member of a singular community with a shared identity.

K.K. Aziz has identified thirteen conditions or beliefs which seem to make up its creed such as common group feelings, love for fellow nationals, common hostility to others., common territory, common sovereign government, common moral, social-economic institutions or ideas, possession of some cultural characteristics (language, customs, traditions, manners, music) common religion, common history/origin, common national character, common pride in national achievements, devotion to the nation and last is the nation will one day be great. If language could be the basis, then why Canada is one and why all Arab countries which share everything, are not a single entity. not one/what happened to Syria-Egypt. Why did Ache get independence? Why did South Sudan separate? Why Cyprus is divided.

To succeed, every movement of this magnitude needs some sort of emotional underpinning to arouse the passions of the general public for ensuring their maximum participation. Religion, race, and language have been common battle cries throughout history in this respect. To press for their demands, they used the term Two Nations Theory which provided them a moral narrative and political justification for the geographical division of India based on the claims of the Muslims of India of being a separate nation, not a community, and hence entitled to have a separate state.

Pakistan Movement, though couched in religious terminology, was basically a movement by the downtrodden Muslim community of India to safeguard their socioeconomic interests and fulfill their dreams of improving the quality of life in a country where they could live according to their cherished dreams.

Jaswant Singh in his remarkable book on the partition of the Subcontinent has admitted that Pakistan Movement “was not an Islamic movement. It was simply for the political rights of a minority.” It was their last option, not the first choice as is evident from the acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan by the Muslim League when the last effort was made by the British to leave a united India as their legacy.

4. It created the division of India

India was never a country in the modern sense. All along it was a Sub-Continent or at the most an empire with lots of regions and nationalities living in this area for millennia. Robert Kaplan believes that Pakistan is the inheritor of the Indus Valley Civilisation while India inherited Ganges Valley Civilisation. He also maintains that the present borders between these two countries are in fact co=terminus with the boundaries of these two ancient civilisations.

Thus Pakistan came into existence as a result of the dissolution of the British Indian Empire and not of any country by the name of India. Pakistan would have come into existence even if no theory; maybe later, maybe in a different shape

The creation of Pakistan as an independent nation-state saved India from its eventual balkanization of the colonial rulers of the erstwhile British Indian Empire had left it as it was. Just before the partition, Jinnah had endorsed the idea of a united, independent, and secular Bengal. The partition of Bengal along religious lines was forced by Nehru and Gandhi who would not countenance an independent Bengal without safeguards for Hindus. In other words, when Hindus were placed in a minority situation in a secular Bengal, Nehru and Gandhi had wanted exactly what Jinnah had asked for in India and what is more is that he was ready to concede the same. However, Nehru feared balkanization if Bengal was allowed to go independent and preferred to have Bengal divided along religious lines. And he was right; had there been no partition of India along religious lines, there would be multiple partitions along ethnic, linguistic, c, and caste lines. There would be more than two dozen states in the Subcontinent today.

5. Creation of BD nullified Two Nation Theory?

The separation of former East Pakistan from its western wing and coming into existence as a separate independent country was the result of the failure of the post-independence political leadership of Pakistan, not the failure of the Two-Nation Theory. Even the Lahore Resolution had envisaged more than one state, allowing for the possibility of an independent Bengal state. As stated above, this theory lost its relevance once its objective of creating a separate nation-state for the Indian Muslims was achieved. That is why it was replaced by Pakistan Ideology. Secondly, even if Bangladesh had opted to join India as one of its provinces, which it did not, it could not be construed as a failure of the Two Nations Theory. Our mismanagement can’t nullify the basis of our existence

6. Pakistan Ideology and Two Nation Theory are the same things

After the creation of Pakistan, this battle cry lost its relevance as there were no two nations now in Pakistan as everyone, whether a Hindu or a Christian or a Muslim, was a Pakistani. However, there was a need for a political narrative for two reasons. Firstly, continuing with the two-nation theory as the cornerstone of Pakistan’s existence created problems at conceptual and practical levels. If the purpose of the Two Nations Theory was to achieve a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims, insistence on continuing with this Theory as the cornerstone of the new country’s ideology meant that the creation of Pakistan had failed to achieve its objective. At the same time, it would leave an open-ended option for any minority within Pakistan to demand separation, citing cultural, religious, or ethnic persecution as justification.

Secondly, there was a need for a new political narrative to serve as a gelling bond for the millions of people living in a state geographically divided into two wings, both of which were separated by 1000 miles of a hostile country. Accordingly, the First National Educational Conference held in November 1947 recommended the propagation of Pakistan Ideology. However, the religious lobby which had remained almost side-lined during the freedom struggle became very active to get political space and used this very neutral term Pakistan Ideology for this purpose by equating it with Two Nations Theory.

7. Does It mean non-Muslims are now second-class citizens in Pakistan?

First thing first- Minorities everywhere feel alienated whether it is a developed country or an underdeveloped one. And the causes are various-race, religion, caste, sect, and colour. Sad and bad but true. Thus, any maltreatment of minorities in Pakistan has nothing to do with Two Nation Theory. The founding fathers had a very clear stand on this issue and all the constitutions made after the creation of Pakistan had emphasised equal treatment for its citizens. The 11th August speech of Quaid was the most cogent and concise statement of his commitment to the minorities. And it was not his after-thought; Jinnah was, as Gokhale once described him, a man entirely free of bias against any community or people. Pakistan Ideology, which replaced the Two Nations Theory after the creation of Pakistan incorporates his views.


The Two-Nation Theory, a time-specific, area-specific formula, was the best option under the prevailing circumstances for the peaceful dissolution of the vast but crumbling British Indian Empire in the 1940s. The other two options namely a united Sub-continent, or its Balkanisation, were fraught with grave consequences. The Hindus and the Muslims of India were two separate nations based on their respective cultural markers, particularly their religious beliefs and practices. They, therefore, needed their respective separate geographical spaces where they could live their lives according to their distinct socio-cultural moorings and political bearings.


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