This paper arises out of dissatisfaction with wholly instrumentalist explanations of Muslim separatism in India, views which have their critics but which generally prevail nowadays, reinforced by no less an influence than that of Michel Foucault. The problem is the fundamental one of what constitutes a group, and in particular of whether or not there can be objective harmonization, ‘orchestration sans chef d'orchestre qui confère regularité’, within any set of people. At an empirical level, in regard to Indian Muslims, the debate has three main elements: what was the nature of communalism, how far Muslim separatism was a process, and whether its development was a sufficient explanation for the partition of 1947. To the extent that Muslims became separatist, they obviously might have been diverted into other attitudes, and to that extent is it important to identify events which encouraged or errors which prevented that diversion.
On this occasion the discussion will begin as a review of A nationalist conscience, Mushirul Hasan's study of M. A. Ansari, and then move on to some of the issues suggested by Ansari's life and Hasan's treatment of it. The book provides an important corrective, in its emphasis and viewpoint, to the tendency to attribute the partition in India to a consistent and inevitable conflict between increasingly irreconcilable forces. The study extends and rounds out earlier work; it brings to life the alternative symbolized by Ansari, and thus casts into relief the occasions when Hindu–Muslim agreement and a common front against the British seemed possible, as in 1919–22 and 1935. The book exhibits the familiarity and maturity of understanding resulting from such an intense and long-term project of research. It is a timely contribution too, as intercommunal tensions once again mount in South Asia, and voices are heard suggesting that the secular constitution of India is inappropriate to the essential character of its people. The book's implicit thesis is that separatism did indeed evolve, with clear stages from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century; that its opponents were unable to arrest its advance; and that Ansari is significant for exemplifying these two points. Hasan thus illustrates an alternative to communalism offered during the struggles against British rule; it was an alternative which failed. The question is whether or not it could have succeeded.