Devji Probes Intellectual Views on Partition

By Rebecca Egli - On April 19, 2016 Dr. Faisal Devji of the University of Oxford spoke about the relations between Hindus and Muslims within the context of twentieth century British colonialism in India. His presentation, "Fatal Attraction: Interest, Intimacy, and Violence in Indian Political Thought," examined the work of several prominent figures writing around the time of the partition that led, in 1947, to the creation of the nation of Pakistan as a separate sovereign nation from India.

Devji spoke about the relationships between Hindus and Muslims that existed under British rule outside of the political and legal language of contract and interest. British officials, Devji explained, claimed that India contained no legitimate political interests capable of representing themselves institutionally. The idea pervaded that India was composed of clashing groups or “primordial divisions” that could not come together except through the third party leadership of British rule over the Hindu and Muslim population. Thus, intellectual discussions over which groups constituted legitimate political and economic interests served as a powerful forum for larger debates about nationalism, independence, and the status of minorities.

Reconciliation and self-sacrifice

According to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a lawyer and politician central to the founding of the Pakistani state, religion was the determining factor that defined nationality. Religious difference bound Indian Hindus and Muslims together in complicated, intimate, and sometimes violent ways. Because of the prominence of religious differences, Jinnah believed Hindus and Muslims functioned more like quarreling brothers than distinct political interest groups. Reconciliation was only possible through contractual means: the partition to creation of a distinct home for Muslims. Only then could “legitimate” political interests emerge.

For Gandhi, political and economic interests hindered freedom from British rule. In order to defeat colonialism, he argued, self-interests must be rejected for the larger goal of independence. Rather than become agents of the colonial state, Indians ought to embrace self-sacrifice. In contrast to Jinnah, Gandhi believed that independence could not be achieved by legal contract; rather, it must be claimed by individuals.

Faisal Devji is university reader in modern South Asian history and director of the St. Antony’s Asian Studies Center at the University of Oxford. He has published several books on political thought, intellectual history, and global politics. His most recent works include Muslim Zion, which examines the founding of Pakistan and the notion of a Muslim homeland, drawing parallels to Zionism and the state of Israel; and The Impossible Indian, a reappraisal of Gandhi and his role as a central political figure in the twentieth century. Learn more about Dr. Devji at his St. Antony's College faculty webpage.

Dr. Devji spoke at UC Davis as part of the Middle East/South Asia Studies program's India/South Asia Speaker Series.