Since the publication of her first book, The Sole Spokesman, in 1985, Ayesha Jalal has been Pakistan’s leading historian. Educated at Wellesley College in the United States, and Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, she received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1998 for showing “extraordinary originality and dedication in [her] creative pursuits…”
Jalal has taught in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard University and Columbia University, and is now working as Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University. She also delivered the Lawrence Stones Lecture Series at Princeton University in 2011. These lectures gave shape to her book The Pity of Partition – an intellectual history of the life and works of Saadat Hassan Manto, who is also closely related to her.
The Sole Spokesman is the single most influential academic work on the dynamics of the Pakistan Movement and the role played by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in it. In a follow-up book, Self and Sovereignty, Jalal meticulously worked through colonial archives and multiple other sources to trace the origins and shaping of the Muslim community and its identity in British India.
In addition to her research interests on colonial India, Jalal has also written on Pakistan’s history. Her most recent work, The Struggle for Pakistan, is an extension of her earlier book titled The State of Martial Rule. She has also written a monograph on the historical evolution of the concept of jihad in South Asia
Here are excerpts from two recent conversations with her in her home city of Lahore.
Ali Usman Qasmi. What has been your experience as a Pakistani woman working in American universities?
Ayesha Jalal. It may be easy to get into the academy but it is hard to stay in there. No matter how good you are, you have to be on your toes.
When [people at American universities] think of South Asia, they primarily think of India and that has been a problem. One had to fight with this limitation. I have never taught a course on Pakistan specifically, yet there was a sense [of curiosity] about my nationality rather than what I did.
When I started [my academic career], there weren’t really many Pakistanis in the field of South Asian studies. That field was sort of infested with Indians. To find a niche for yourself was not an easy thing.
Qasmi. There must have been biases and discrimination that you had to fight against.
Jalal. Everybody talks about accommodating differences but nobody is comfortable with differences. As far as I am concerned, I am what I am. If I wear shalwar kameez and they think that I have to be a particular woman then that is their problem.
People are also more comfortable with the notion of a fixed identity, but the problem with me is that I did not fit [into a specific category]. I might have fit visually into the stereotype of me but my thoughts did not fit in, which made people uncomfortable.
Qasmi. In an age in which the shelf life of an academic book is very short, what do you think has given The Sole Spokesman its enduring appeal?
Jalal. I did have a bit of luck in the sense that I started my research at a time when the documents [cited in the book] had just come out. Mine was among the first takes on those documents. It also went against the grain of commonplace views of Partition.
The fact that the book was well-documented has played a role in giving it the shelf life it has had. The Sole Spokesman has become a kind of academic orthodoxy – even if you don’t agree with it, you have to look at it.
Qasmi. In what ways has your stance changed or evolved since you wrote that book?
Jalal. All I can say is that every book I have written has had a particular question. In the case of The Sole Spokesman, my question was how did a Pakistan come about which satisfied the interests of its main constituents so poorly? That was in response to the narrative at the time in Pakistan, under General Ziaul Haq, which said religion was Pakistan’s sole raison d’etre.
When I wrote [The State of Martial Rule], the question was about the military dominance in Pakistan. By the time I wrote Self and Sovereignty, my question was whether religion played a major role in determining politics in Pakistan. Electorally, religious parties don’t win but they still exercise a lot of influence on the mindset. So, I switched at that stage to studying identity. I was interested in looking at the concept of communalism as well as the cultural and intellectual history of the so-called “two-nation theory”.
Qasmi. Coming back to The Sole Spokesman, people say different things about Jinnah- that he was secular even when the Pakistan Movement had strong Islamic overtones . There are others who say Jinnah himself was Islamic and he wanted to establish an Islamic state…
Jalal. It was a political movement. Whatever an Islamic state means is another debate. I mean, what kind of Islamic state are you referring to? Are you referring to one run by the mullahs? Well, that was clearly not what Jinnah had in mind. When Nawab Bahadur Yar Jung tried to force him to commit to an Islamic state in 1943, he resisted and said the Constitution of Pakistan would be what the representatives of the people wanted, what the people of Pakistan wanted.
One of the great fallacies of those wedded to seeing history purely through the ‘great men in history’ argument is that they don’t see the context. What I have said many times is that there is too much made of the history Jinnah made and too little of the context that made Jinnah. He operated within the context of Muslims in India being a [religious] category, even though they were not united or organised.
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