Jinnah thought poorly of pan-Islamism, calling it an exploded bogey. — Photo by AP
Jinnah remains shrouded in mystery, hagiographed in Pakistan and demonised in India. Born just 19 years after the end of the Mughal Empire in 1857, he studied law in Britain. Within a few years of returning to India, he had emerged as one of its most successful barristers.
But politics was to be his true calling. With his entirely secular upbringing and thoroughly British outlook on life, it was no surprise that he soon became, in Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s words, “an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”.
Never known to be a religious man, let alone an advocate of a theocratic state, Jinnah went on to establish Pakistan. Jinnah had envisaged that Pakistan would be a homeland for the Muslims of India. In less than seven years after his death, his successors had declared it to be an Islamic Republic.
This would have been anathema to Jinnah who admired Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the apostle of secularism in Turkey. Jinnah thought poorly of pan-Islamism, calling it an exploded bogey.
Much of this is well known. Indeed, major academic libraries throughout the world have devoted entire sections to the partition of India and to Jinnah’s role in that cataclysmic event. What continues to be debated is the rush to partition, its necessity to begin with, and its failure to restore harmony to Hindu-Muslim ties.
Seeking to answer these intractable questions, the Indian statesman Jaswant Singh has now put on the historian’s hat in his book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence. A former stalwart of the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Singh was at various times India’s face to the world as either its finance or external affairs minister.
In Pakistan, Singh’s book has been seen as a vindication of Jinnah’s policies and a condemnation of Nehru’s. Indeed, there is much language in the book that is critical of Nehru. He faults Nehru and other congressional leaders for lacking realism and having no foresight, purpose or will.
While Singh admires Jinnah the man, he finds much to critique in Jinnah’s politics. Jinnah’s two-nation theory comes across as “an error of profound and telling dimensions” and explains why Jinnah “got the land but failed to create a state and failed decisively in creating a nation”.
In Singh’s narrative, when it became clear to Jinnah that the major political party of the time, the Indian National Congress, was not going to accommodate the Muslim viewpoint, he began arguing for separate electoral representation for the Muslims. At some point, this demand progressed into a call for a separate state.
But Singh argues that Jinnah may have propounded his theory of nationhood simply as a negotiating ploy. Until very late in the game, he may have been thinking of Pakistan in metaphorical, not literal terms.
Singh says that a man of the world such as Jinnah could not have been oblivious to the fact that there are many states which encompass multiple nationalities. Why then did he push forward with Pakistan? And why did he accept the ‘moth-eaten’ state that Mountbatten handed him? Did he not know that partition would unleash genocide, mass migration and untold suffering on millions? And how could he allow such a state to come into being without even knowing its precise boundaries? As Singh reminds us, the Radcliffe Commission awards were not released until three days after partition.
Singh reminds us that one of three Muslims chose to stay in India and asks whether that had bothered the Quaid. He wonders whether the Quaid saw the inconsistency in using the two-nation theory to create Pakistan and then famously putting it to bed in his Aug 11, 1947 speech.
Earlier, at a press meet on Nov 14, 1946, Singh reminds us that Jinnah posed a question: once partition had separated the two warring communities, what reason would there be for the two nations to quarrel? Jinnah predicted, “The two states … will be friends and will go to each other’s rescue in case of danger and will be able to say ‘hands off’ to other nations. We shall then have a Munroe Doctrine more solid than in America … I am not fighting for Muslims, believe me, when I demand Pakistan.”
Within months of independence, war broke out in Kashmir. In doing its cover story on Jinnah, Life magazine (Jan 5, 1948) found him a distraught man who was quick to add that the war was none of his doing. Life reported that as Pakistan struggled for survival amidst religious warfare and economic chaos, Jinnah remained in “absolute seclusion”, emerging only occasionally to denounce the Hindu. The war did not end until a UN ceasefire was imposed on Jan 1, 1949, almost four months after Jinnah’s death. Two major wars and some minor ones would follow in the years to come.
Would Jinnah have regarded the unending war between Pakistan and India a repudiation of the logic of partition? We will never know.
Nehru lived long enough to tell an interviewer in 1960 that he and other Congress leaders had accepted partition because “We were tired men and we were getting on in years too. Few of us could stand the prospect of going to prison again.” He added, “None of us guessed how much the killings and the crisis in Kashmir would embitter relations.”
Both Jinnah and Nehru were long gone by the time ethnicity trumped religion in 1971. Undoubtedly, Nehru and Jinnah who agreed on just about nothing would have felt differently about the partition of Pakistan.
Singh has posed some very deep and difficult questions. While one may disagree with his answers, one has to commend him for undertaking the journey.
For revisiting history with an open mind, the BJP expelled Singh from the party. Earlier, it had forced L.K. Advani to resign from its presidency simply for visiting the Quaid’s mausoleum and saying that the Quaid was a secular man. If the BJP could be so bigoted towards its own leaders, one can only imagine how it would treat those who live as a permanent minority in India.
It was precisely that fear of Hindu dominance which had driven the Quaid to ask for partition. Was that the right decision?
While appraising the conflicting views of French scholars about Napoleon, the Dutch scholar Pieter Geyl noted that “history is an argument without end”. That comment applies a fortiori to the momentous events that shook British India in 1947.