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Ethical India: The Political Thought of Abdul Ghaffar Khan
Dr. Amar Sohal
University of Cambridge

About the talk

Prior to Partition in 1947, the anticolonial leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan believed that Muslim self-statement at the regional level could produce an inclusive, secular nationalism in India. Universalizing his Pashtun inheritance for India and the world, Ghaffar Khan made a politics of honour and obligation the foundation for an ethical reciprocity between Muslim Pashtuns and Hindu Hindustanis. His endorsement of Nehruvian socialism enhanced this contemporary, civic orientation of his Indian nationalism. Moreover, the presence of neighbouring Afghanistan, with its large Pashtun population, meant that historical inheritance was unable to decisively award modern Indian nationality to Pashtuns. And yet, this did not prevent Ghaffar Khan from indulging in ancient history and making his Frontier the origin of India. This only reinforced his counterintuitive argument that this periphery was, in fact, the centre of a non-violent, progressive India. He strengthened this claim further by cutting through colonial India’s sectarian politics to frame his national question not in religious but in explicitly secular terms: were Pashtuns Indians or Afghans? Ultimately, only the tumultuous event of Partition could undo their secular exceptionalism.

About the speaker

Amar Sohal is an Early-Career Research Fellow in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. As an intellectual historian of modern India and Pakistan, he is interested in those ideas that continue to shape contemporary politics in both countries. His research focuses on anti-colonial nationalism, religious politics, and the secular state. Amar’s work contributes to an emerging scholarship committed to understanding figures from India’s anti-colonial struggle as political thinkers. It seeks, therefore, to not only fill a historiographical void, but to use this neglected thought to participate in a present-day discussion about the political in South Asia. Amar read History at University College London before going to Balliol College, Oxford for a MSt in South Asian History and Hindi Literature. In 2019, he completed his DPhil in History at Merton College, Oxford under the supervision of Professor Faisal Devji. He has since revised his dissertation for a monograph, The Muslim Secular: Parity and the Politics of India’s Partition (OUP, 2023). It examines the political thought of three eminent Indian Muslim nationalists of the twentieth century—Abul Kalam Azad, Sheikh Abdullah, and Abdul Ghaffar. Khan. Amar argues for the presence of a distinct Muslim secularity within the grander intellectual family of secular Indian nationalism.