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Cover Story: Essay

Who’s Afraid of Muhammad Ali Jinnah?

TCA Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Singapore and Pakistan. He is the author of Attendant Lords: Abdur Rahim and Bairam Khan, Courtiers and Poets in Mughal India and The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan
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Let him not divide India further

AT ONE TIME in Islamabad, the joke amongst diplomats used to be that you could judge the political persuasion of a civil servant by the Quaid-e- Azam’s portrait hung in his office. An austere Muhammad Ali Jinnah, immaculate in a white or black sherwani, could suggest that the incumbent was of an Islamic bent. If the Quaid was in a Western suit, then a liberal approach was underlined. Between these two polarities, there were other possibilities. If the portrait in sherwani also included his sister Fatima Jinnah, then the hint was of disapproval of the role that the military had played in Pakistan politics. A Quaid smoking, laughing, playing with dogs or as a dashing moustached young man all pushed the present occupant of the office further down the liberal spectrum. The fact is that while Jinnah is near universally revered in Pakistan, the image of him that is so passionately admired varies a great deal from person to person.

The reverence and admiration come from the acknowledgement that if one person and one person alone has to be given credit for the creation of Pakistan, then no one can come close to Jinnah. His death just over a year after August 1947 silenced most contrarian views about him, and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 removed what remained. As West Pakistan became the only Pakistan, this iconic status crystallised, although personal convictions on what exactly the icon stood for and represented have varied a great deal. During his lifetime, on the other hand, even after the creation of Pakistan, there were powerful dissenting voices. Rahmat Ali, who coined the term ‘Pakistan’, came to Lahore from England, and, disillusioned with what he saw as Pakistan, denounced its creator as ‘Kafir-e- Azam’. This was a critique not of the idea of Pakistan, but that Partition was not comprehensive and deep enough: what about Kashmir, Hyderabad, Muslims in India, etcetera? To Bengalis in East Pakistan, the Quaid’s insistence that Urdu and Urdu alone could be Pakistan’s national language was unacceptable. He insisted on it in a speech at Dacca University in March 1948, a moment that was to become the earliest of several usually traced in the history of the making of Bangladesh. Jinnah’s death in September 1948 and the turbulent politics of Pakistan through the 1950s and thereafter, however, removed him from all contention and placed him above the cut and thrust of the polemics that have ruled Pakistan since.

How the creator of Pakistan actually envisaged his creation has, however, remained problematic. A fierce historian’s debate has raged on two fronts. Firstly, was the demand for a Muslim homeland a real political objective or a bargaining chip? Secondly, once established, what was Pakistan to be? A secular homeland for Muslims? Or a state in which life would be governed and conducted according to principles enunciated in the Qur’an or those believed to have been laid down by Prophet Muhammad? That there are ambiguities and multiple readings possible of these, of course, adds to the complexity of the debate, but its origins lie in the contours of Jinnah’s life—both before and after he became the Quaid-e-Azam.

In the first and second decade of the 20th century, Jinnah was one of the poster boys of Indian nationalism. This was largely the age of Indian nationalism before Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. An associate of Gokhale and Tilak, an acknowledged leader in the Indian National Congress, his reputation at the time is captured by the superlatives Sarojini Naidu employed in a short write-up about him in 1918 and published in the then famous Nateson’s Builders of the Nation Service. This essay begins with Sarojini Naidu quoting Jinnah: “It is my ambition to become the Muslim Gokhale.” Thereafter she quotes Gokhale on Jinnah: “He has true stuff in him, and that freedom from all sectarian prejudice which will make him the best ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity.” Naidu’s own descriptions of Jinnah bear recall: ‘Few figures of the Indian renaissance are so striking or so significant’ and ‘the paradox of a rare and complex temperament of strange limitations and subtle possibilities, that hides the secret of its own greatness like a pearl within a shell’. In the aftermath of the Lucknow Pact between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, for Sarojini Naidu he ‘stood approved and confirmed by his countrymen not merely as an ambassador, but as an embodied symbol of the Hindu Muslim Unity’. Jinnah’s lifestyle, his marriage and, above all, that he was personally free from any sectarian prejudice both widely confirmed and consolidated such views.

Notwithstanding such sentiments, Naidu also introduced in this essay a note that can be described as one almost of caution: ‘Like others of our generation, he suffers from a system of education so widely separated from the familiar traditions and culture of our race, and lacking the magic of a common medium, he may never perhaps hope to establish between himself and his people that instinctive and inviolable kinship that makes the interned Mohamed Ali for instance, a living hero of the Mussalmans and Mahatma Gandhi a living idol of the masses.’ Earlier she had also noted ‘he has the cogent force of a brilliant advocate rather than the glowing fervour of a brilliant orator. And it is not on a public platform but at a round table conference that he finds full scope for his unusual powers of persuasion…’ So Sarojini Naidu ended her brief biographical study with an evocation to the hidden forces that ‘build our destiny higher than our dream’ with the hope ‘that he whose fair ambition is to become the Muslim Gokhale may in some glorious and terrible crisis of our national struggle pass into immortality as the Mazzini of the Indian Liberation’.

Sarojini Naidu quotes Gokhale on Jinnah in a short write-up “He has true stuff in him, and that freedom from all sectarian prejudice which will make him the best ambassador of Hindu Muslim unity”

POSSIBLY EVEN AS that essay was being written, Indian nationalism was changing. A series of politically charged mass movements not only transformed Indian politics and the hegemonic hold of the British Empire in India, but also meant that his lack of the ‘magic of a common medium’ left Jinnah as an outsider in a new India, personally bewildered by the politics of Khilafat, Khadi and Satyagraha. The deaths of Gokhale (1915) and Tilak (1920) meant that he stood largely isolated and alone as a protagonist for a politics whose day had gone. The story of the next quarter century has been told from different perspectives— Jinnah’s insistence that he was the ‘sole spokesperson’ of Indian Muslims, Congress intransigence and arrogance vis-à-vis the Muslim League and Jinnah, imperial divide-and-rule or the structural problem of Indian federalism as it failed in finding answers to balance the interests of different communities that were simultaneously majorities and minorities in different provinces.

The crisis of our national struggle certainly came, but it was different in character from what Sarojini Naidu had anticipated and Jinnah stood finally enshrined as a Mazzini not of Indian independence, but of its division and of the creation of Pakistan. The end game was amidst a bloodbath that began with the call for Direct Action by Jinnah on August 16th, 1946. In retrospect, it perhaps matters less now than it did earlier that this call came at the end of a protracted negotiation between the Congress and the League—a negotiation that could have been a success but which failed. The fact is that here was the leading constitutionalist of his age now proclaiming ‘goodbye to constitutions and constitutional methods’. It has been argued that Jinnah proposed ‘Direct Action’ as ‘a metaphor and not a fact’, but the great Calcutta killings that followed have sullied his reputation forever in India. A year later, there was to be an even greater bloodbath in Punjab at the other end of the Subcontinent. In that zero-sum atmosphere, India and Pakistan took shape and it is hardly surprising that Pakistan’s principal protagonist arouses such strong feelings in India today. For a public figure to claim to have been unaware of the potential consequences of his actions is as weak a defence as would be for a lawyer to claim ignorance of the law after being booked. It is also hardly surprising that the failure of the parties to agree in the 1930s and 1940s meant that the legacy of Partition has extended to our own times and a communal representational and federal issue between Hindus and Muslims stood transformed into a structural confrontation between India and Pakistan. If this aspect of Jinnah’s legacy overshadows his record in the first two decades of the 20th century, it is again hardly surprising.

Jinnah’s death soon after the creation of Pakistan may have removed him from contestations over what Pakistan was intended to be, but he would have been hard pressed to manage the contradictions created by his insistence on an indivisible and homogeneous Muslim identity that needed its own territorial space. Alongside his legacy as the creator of Pakistan are therefore more complex bequeathals. The trajectory unleashed by the Urdu-Bengali debate during the Quaid’s visit to Dacca in March 1948 ended in 1971. This was in some ways closure to the process initiated in 1947 of a province where the Muslim League had historically been weak becoming part of Pakistan. Punjab too falls in that category, and here the problem resolved itself in a different way—by the province itself dominating the country. Other contradictions remain, of course, and no more so than the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs of Sindh. This was the constituency that unquestionably embraced the demand for Pakistan as the only way to address their minority status in Hindu majority provinces, but they have ended up as an even more embattled minority. Whether the unitary Islam Jinnah used as a slogan to consolidate the demand for Pakistan will in future be more successful than so far remains to be seen in Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and with respect to Shias and other sects within Islam.

Can all of Pakistan’s problems—the ethnic and sectarian strife, the long years of martial law, the revisionism that drives policy towards India, the sense of entitlement vis-a-vis Afghanistan—be traced back to the Quaid-e-Azam? Obviously not. But someone whose temperament and personal beliefs were so totally at odds with the political trajectory he launched himself on from the 1930s would inevitably leave a troubled legacy.

Someone whose temperament and personal beliefs were so totally at odds with the political trajectory he launched himself on from the 1930s would inevitably leave a troubled legacy

There will of course never be closure to the debate whether Pakistan was the consequence of a political negotiating strategy that failed or the outcome of a deeply held conviction of many Muslims that a separate political space was essential for their community. Equally, Jinnah will remain at the centre of this debate: was he the leader who willed a new country into existence to secure rights for his community, one who envisaged Pakistan as a liberal and democratic space in which minorities would enjoy equal rights with the Muslim majority, or was he the power player who divided an ancient land without any real care for the consequences? For the past quarter century, this has been a historian’s debate, but it is equally the case that no historian will ever be able to settle it adequately. The Jinnah debate merges into the Partition debate, which in turn phases into an Indian history debate.

This wider debate began in 1947 itself and has continued since. In 1951, GS Sardesai, the greatest of the historians of the Marathas, spoke from the podium of the Presidency of the Indian History Congress: “Every sensible man feels that partition is no lasting solution of India’s problems of problems… Destiny has brought the two communities together on the same soil for nearly ten centuries: they must either endure each other or both perish.” Even more powerful was the voice of Mohammad Habib, giving the Presidential address to this body in December 1947. His own family divided, and with the violence and ethnic cleansing of Partition still continuing, Habib was to say: “It is absolutely necessary to state that so far as the historian of India is concerned, the country has always been one and indivisible, and will always continue to be so. The unity of India is one of the fundamental postulates of Indian moral consciousness, and the longing for a centralised administration has been one of the most visible and persistent demands of the political spirit of the Indians through the ages. All the greatest achievements of our past have somehow gone with the establishment of a central administration at Pataliputra, Kannauj, Ujjain or Delhi. The breaking up of India into two separate States, or law-making organisations with exclusive citizenship, which creates a spirit of hostility, and in any case of independence and separateness, not only between the governments but also between the people, and the establishment of one of these States on a purely religious and communal basis—this sort of monstrosity has never been known to the history of our land.”

For Sardesai and Habib, Partition was a tragedy and doubly so because it was against the very logic of the history they had researched and written through their lives. Across the Radcliffe Line, it was not just this view of Partition but this reading of history that was contested. For Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, earlier a much-loved history teacher in St Stephen’s College in Delhi and after 1947 one of Pakistan’s leading historians and public figures: ‘there has been no sense of a common history; instead there are two views of such historical happenings as are capable of creating any emotion: the heroes of the Muslim conquest and the rebels against Muslim domination inspire contradictory feelings among the Muslims and the Hindus…. The attitude of the Muslim community towards the idea of Pakistan was, therefore the logical consequence of its history.’

Debates about Partition and about Jinnah’s role in it are thus inevitably tied to our views about the present and the past. If there is a takeaway, it can only be that we cannot reconcile different, even rival, readings of the same history but can only try and understand better the version we do not agree with. By the same token, the divisions of the past can hardly be a guide for the future. But most of all, Jinnah’s role and personality cannot be allowed to become the basis of fresh divisions. It is often forgotten that the strongest critiques of Jinnah came not from the Congress or the Hindu Mahasabha, but from his co-religionists. The success of the demand for Pakistan pushed these voices into the background, but revisiting them shows the wide range and depth of the Muslim critique of separatism and the demand for Pakistan. Some rejected this demand because it was in direct opposition to the Ganga-Jamuna synthesis that had emerged in north India over a millennium of shared spaces and a close interface. This synthesis, for the many who held this view, was the basis on which a modern composite nationalism had to be constructed. For others, and in particular the more conservative sections, the idea of Pakistan was unacceptable because it went against a fundamental tenet of Islam—that of universalism: therefore, how could Islam be circumscribed territorially into one state? For others, like the Pashtun leader Abdul Ghafar Khan, the Muslim League was an ally of the British, but more fundamentally, Jinnah’s insistence on being the sole representative of a homogeneous community was at odds with Pashtun demands of the time. There were other voices of dissidence amongst Muslims. For us in India, recovering and strengthening these appears a more fruitful debate than the rights and wrongs of Jinnah.

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