LONG YEARS AGO, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.” Imagine those famous words spoken “at the stroke of the midnight hour”, not by Jawaharlal Nehru as leader of a partitioned Indian republic, but by Muhammad Ali Jinnah as premier of a confederation of the whole subcontinent. Not such an unlikely prospect if the Congress had put true national unity before its desire for a centralised state in which minorities would be at the mercy of a Hindu majority.
To persuade Jinnah to abandon his largely tactical demand for Pakistan as an independent state carved out of India’s Muslim-majority provinces, Mahatma Gandhi would have been prepared to offer him the premiership of a coalition government at the Centre. Jinnah’s main power base, the influential Muslim minority of India’s central Hindi belt, would have been delighted with such a power-sharing deal. For them, Pakistan was always a tactical rather than a practical demand, because it would uproot them from their homes in a partitioned India. The two largest Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab would have been equally pleased to remain undivided with powerful, devolved governments of their own.
From the early years of the 20th century, the central problem which had dogged a gradual British transfer of power to elected Indian politicians was how to safeguard the interests of the Muslim minority, still rooted in its feudal past and fearful of domination by the more successful Hindu business and professional elites. The solution accepted by a reluctant Congress in 1909 was to have separate electorates for additional, reserved Muslim seats. What had still to be resolved was how to guarantee Muslim representation in newly devolved governments in the provinces and eventually at the Centre.
Matters came to a head with the new 1935 constitution, under which provincial elections were held on a greatly expanded franchise. In the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), the largest province, the Congress and Muslim League contested in alliance against the loyalist Taluqdars’ party. The logical outcome was a Congress-League coalition government, but Nehru turned down the League’s coalition offer because the Congress had unexpectedly won a comfortable majority on its own. So the Congress formed a majoritarian government, leaving the League out in the cold. This was precisely the kind of scenario that Muslims dreaded at the national level, if independence were to mean majority rule.
The UP fiasco of 1937 was a major turning point in the radicalisation of the Muslim League and its hitherto moderate, secular- minded leader, Jinnah. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely founder of a theocratic Islamic state than this whisky-drinking, pork-eating barrister, a Bombay Khoja with his London education and his immaculate suits, his love marriage to a glamorous Parsi socialite, and his disregard for Islamic rules. Way back in 1916, when the Congress and Muslim League agreed on an anti-British pact, Jinnah, as its chief architect, was hailed as ‘the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’.
So what turned this patriotic, pro-Congress Muslim into the sectarian separatist of the 1940s? Two of his recent biographers, Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani-American academic, and Jaswant Singh, a former BJP foreign minister of India, converged on the same answer: the arrogance and intransigence of Congress leaders—Nehru in particular—and the pro-Nehru bias of the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. ‘Partition was the last thing Jinnah wanted,’ says Jalal, and she agrees with Jaswant Singh that his demand for it was essentially a bargaining ploy.
The vague 1940 Muslim League resolution adopting the goal of Pakistan left wide open whether it would be a single or multiple entity, a sovereign state or an autonomous state within a state. Jalal emphasises that Jinnah’s two-nation theory was not a territorial concept, but a demand for parity between Hindus and Muslims. Most Muslims, after all, were minorities in Hindu-majority provinces, while the Muslim-majority provinces depended heavily on the commercial and professional skills of prosperous Hindu minorities.
The Quit India movement of 1942 proved a spectacular own- goal for the Congress, because it landed most of its leaders and active cadres in jail for the rest of World War II, while Jinnah filled the political vacuum, dramatically expanding his power base across India’s diverse Muslim communities. At the end of the war, constitutional negotiations resumed under the viceroy, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, a remarkable soldier-statesman with long Indian experience. His objective was to transfer power to a united India and for Britain to stay long enough to broker a workable settlement. But for Britain’s new Labour government headed by Attlee, the priority was a rapid exit, winding up an expensive empire that had long ceased to pay for its keep.
Attlee sent out the Cabinet Mission, which did its best to reconcile the Congress goal of a majoritarian, unitary state with the Muslim League demand for effective safeguards and full autonomy for Muslim-majority provinces. The outcome was an ingenious three-tier scheme in which sovereignty would be shared in a pyramid, with the provinces at its base, then above them a middle level of groups of provinces with either Hindu or Muslim majorities, and at the apex, an all-India centre for defence and foreign affairs. This would have been a unique and exciting constitutional experiment, more akin to the present European Union than a nation-state, but well suited to India’s political diversity. Both the Congress and the League reluctantly accepted the plan, but then fell out over its interpretation.
Arguably, Jinnah, with his liberal, free market, pro-Western policies, would have been a far more successful Prime Minister for us than Nehru
The coup de grace for the Cabinet Mission Plan was delivered by Nehru in July 1946, when he publicly announced that a new constituent assembly, which would obviously have a large Hindu majority, would modify the Plan as it pleased. The Muslim League promptly seized on this to back out as well, reiterating its demand for a separate Pakistan and launching ‘Direct Action’ to achieve it. Two of Nehru’s closest colleagues have laid the blame for this breakdown squarely at his door, rather than Jinnah’s. Maulana Azad called Nehru’s statement “one of those unfortunate events which changed the course of history”, lamenting the fact that “he is at times apt to be carried away by his feelings”. Sardar Patel, too, criticised Nehru for acting “with childlike innocence, which puts us all in great difficulties quite unexpectedly”.
Nehru himself maintained that he had acted out of the conviction that partition was preferable to a loose federation. He wanted to be master in his own house, free to implement his socialist policies through centralised economic planning; and the Muslim League, in control of large, autonomous provinces, would have been an unwelcome brake on all this. Most important of all was Nehru’s visceral hatred of Jinnah, recorded with brutal candour in his diaries: ‘Jinnah... offers an obvious example of an utter lack of the civilised mind. With all his cleverness and ability, he produces an impression on me of utter ignorance and lack of understanding.... Instinctively I think it is better to [have] Pakistan or almost anything, if only to keep Jinnah far away and not allow his muddled and arrogant head from interfering continually in India’s progress.’
Viceroy Wavell tried hard to bring both sides back to the negotiating table, but the new Labour Prime Minister in London, Clement Attlee, decreed otherwise and summarily replaced Wavell with another, far more glamorous soldier-statesman. Earl Mountbatten of Burma came armed with the aura of his military victories, his royal lineage and his ‘progressive’ politics. In what Churchill, then leader of the opposition, rightly called “a premature, hurried scuttle”, Attlee announced that, regardless of a political settlement, Britain would quit India by June 1948.
Both Attlee’s deadline, and his choice of the man to implement it, proved disastrous. Mountbatten’s vanity was legendary. Three months after his arrival, he suddenly announced that he was bringing forward the British departure to August 15th, 1947, and transferring power to two successor states carved out of Hindu and Muslim majority areas. Rushing through Partition before the security forces were ready for it, Mountbatten made little attempt to explore the alternatives. In a meeting with the viceroy, Gandhi suggested that the existing interim government led by Nehru be dismissed and Jinnah invited to form a new one. “What would Mr Jinnah say to such a proposal?” Mountbatten asked in surprise. The reply was: “If you tell him I’m the author, he will reply, ‘Wily Gandhi!’” The viceroy made no attempt to follow up Gandhi’s wily offer, which might have changed the course of history by offering Jinnah an honourable retreat from Partition.
Nehru was at first triumphant about the mangled Muslim state that emerged from the cutting up of Punjab and Bengal, saying, “The truncated Pakistan that remains will hardly be a gift worth having.” But a year later, he admitted, “Perhaps we acted wrongly.... The consequences of that partition have been so terrible that one is inclined to think that anything else would have been preferable....” For Jinnah, to get even a moth-eaten Pakistan was, as a leading imperial historian put it, ‘an amazing triumph, the outcome not of some ineluctable historic logic, but of the determination of a single individual’. It is sobering to consider what might have happened if Mountbatten, instead of bringing forward the date, had delayed it. Jinnah, already in the final stages of tuberculosis, died only a year after Partition.
The state he left behind was born to fail, and most Congress leaders expected that this malformed offspring would soon return, tail between its legs, to Mother India. It had virtually no industry, with the markets for its agricultural produce left behind in India; although it produced three-quarters of the world’s jute, the processing plants were all in India. The predominantly Hindu entrepreneurial classes had fled with their capital and expertise. The ruling elite of the Muslim League were mostly refugees from India and soon at odds with the predominantly Punjabi population they governed. The Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan had little in common with the western half, 2,000 km away.
Little wonder that Pakistan fell prey to a series of corrupt and repressive military and civilian regimes and that its eastern wing, after another bloody war and an estimated 3 million casualties, broke away in 1971 to become Bangladesh.
A counterfactual scenario, based on Jinnah’s preferred aims, would have been far more positive. A loose Indian federation, based on the Cabinet Mission Plan, would have had its share of friction and tensions; but, over time, the glue of shared power might have held the Congress and Muslim League together, at least on issues of external security. A decentralised union of sovereign provinces would not necessarily have been any less stable or productive than India today, with its strong regional parties. Over time, the Hindu-Muslim religious divide would have faded and been submerged into the myriad other ethnic, regional and linguistic identities that make up the Indian mosaic.
The union might also have been cemented by rapid growth, as a dynamic private sector, unshackled by Nehru’s state socialism, outstripped the mini-tiger economies of East Asia. Arguably, Jinnah, with his liberal, free market, pro-Western policies, would have been a far more successful Prime Minister for us than Nehru, with his socialist controls and his pro-Soviet brand of non-alignment.
A united subcontinent would have avoided the human and economic costs of three wars and a nuclear arms race. And India’s Muslims, now reduced to just 24 seats in the Lok Sabha, a mere 4.4 per cent, would have been guaranteed fair representation in proportion to their nearly one-third share of undivided India’s population. Hardly surprising then that many Indian Muslims believe that Jinnah deserves a place of honour in our halls of fame, alongside other non-Congress leaders like BR Ambedkar.