Saturday, September 05, 2009
Qatil-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah
[Review article on Jaswant Singh’s book, Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence. It appears as a full-page in Sunday Pioneer. Photos are of Jinnah's Direct Action Day, Calcutta, 16 August, 1946.]
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, we are told, cried in public only thrice in his life. The first occasion was at the grave of his wife, Ruttie, the day she died. The next time he was spotted weeping was on the train from Calcutta after Congress refused to countenance the Muslim League’s objections to Motilal Nehru’s 1928 report (known as the ‘Nehru Report’) proposing dominion status for India with a Constitution that provided for a unitary system of governance and equal rights for all citizens. The last time Jinnah was seen shedding tears, or so his friends recall in their memoirs, was during a visit to a Hindu refugee camp in Karachi in January 1948. Moved by the plight of the refugees, he is believed to have hoarsely whispered, “They used to call me Quaid-e-Azam; now they call me Qatil-e-Azam.”
It is possible that Jinnah, who is not known to have ever smiled, grieved over Ruttie’s grave. It is also believable that he wept bitter tears of rage after being given the short shrift by the Congress over the Nehru Report (he was to later come up with what is known as ‘Jinnah’s 14 Points’ which, under the guise of proposing that the “future Constitution should be federal with residuary powers vested in the provinces,” demanded that “in the Central Legislative Assembly, Muslim representation shall not be less than one-third”). But it’s rather hard to believe that the man who was unmoved by the blood-letting that followed his call for ‘Direct Action’ in August 1946 and continued till he had attained his “moth-eaten Pakistan” a year later would be moved by the sight of wailing women and orphaned children at a Hindu refugee camp in January 1948. If at all Jinnah was distressed it was because his vanity had been hurt — the ‘Quaid’ was being spat upon as a ‘Qatil’.
Like Jaswant Singh, I am neither a scholar nor a historian. But unlike him, I am the child of parents who suffered the horrors of Partition; my father arrived in India from East Pakistan with his widowed mother and four younger siblings, penniless and virtually with nothing more than the clothes on his back. He didn’t have the privilege of growing up in princely Jodhpur, nor did life afford him the luxury of pondering over the minutiae of the politics of Partition in the amiable surroundings of Nehru Memorial Library. Yet, I do not recall him ever expressing either rancour or regret. Even if he wanted to, my mother wouldn’t have let him. The struggle for survival rode rough-shod over any emotional struggle that might have peeked hesitantly in their minds.
And unlike Jaswant Singh, as well as many others who believe that Partition was a blunder, that India would have been one large happy family had the Radcliffe line not been drawn, that the Congress should not have persisted with its idea of India as one nation with a unitary system in which power would be concentrated at the Centre, that the Muslim League had a case when it argued for proportionate representation if not more for Muslims to compensate them for the loss of the power they wielded before the British took charge of India’s affairs, I belong to the minority which believes that Partition was the second best thing to have happened to us. The first was the failure of the ghazis to prop up a dissolute badshah in 1857. In his literally weighty tome Jinnah: India - Partition - Independence, Jaswant Singh obviously disagrees with this contention: “It was here in the middle of the 19th century that the symbol of our sovereignty was finally seized and trampled underfoot by British India.” Not everybody mourned that event, just as Hindus in Bengal were not terribly upset when Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah was given the boot in 1757.
But that defeat of presumed Muslim supremacy in 1857 was not without significance. Rudely stripped of their status as a minuscule minority ruling over India’s vast majority, Muslims discovered salvation in separatism in the subsequent decades — first in terms of faith and culture, and later with the formation of the Muslim League in 1906, in Muslim identity politics. Jinnah did not gravitate towards the League then, but it was his natural home and he couldn’t possibly stay away for long. The “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” thought he could bargain for a slice of power through exclusivist constitutionalist politics, which he thought was his forte, but when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi steered the Congress to mass politics, Jinnah, clad in Savile Row suits, scoffing whisky and munching on ham sandwiches, couldn’t quite see himself mingling with the unwashed masses.
Ironically, this is the man, who had little knowledge of Islam and even lesser respect for its core beliefs, who would emerge as the ‘sole spokesman’ of undivided India’s Muslims, or so he would insist on being known as; that was a platform he found convenient so as not to get pushed out from national politics by the Congress and its stalwarts, namely Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Yet, for all his rancid denunciation of Hindu majoritarianism, of Congress’s emphasis on centralisation of power, of everything that together shaped India and the Indian identity, he could never command cross-country Muslim support. Or else the Muslim League would not have to look for proportionate representation.
Much of Jaswant Singh’s book covers territory that has long been charted by scholars and historians, although its documentation is truly rich: Potted history is useful for non-historians and as a ready-reckoner for dates and events. Nor is there anything startlingly new about Jaswant Singh’s thesis spun around the idea of Jinnah as the ‘sole spokesman’ of India’s Muslims. Ayesha Jalal expounded this theory many years ago in her book, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan which, in a sense, provides the most comprehensive explanation for Jinnah’s politics. True, Ayesha Jalal’s is a Pakistani’s perspective; but is Jaswant Singh’s the Indian perspective? If yes, then which India is he speaking for? That which revels in lighting candles at Wagah border even as more lives are laid to waste to satiate the lust ignited by Jinnah’s rhetoric that became the recurrent theme of Muslim League politics after the Lahore Resolution of 1940? Would Jinnah have ever recanted had Nehru toed the line of least resistance? Jaswant Singh writes about the Cabinet Mission Plan, of the divergence in the responses of the Congress and the Muslim League, but that alone cannot be evidence of ‘majoritarian’ perfidy.
Nehru talked of conditional participation in the Constituent Assembly, of reserving the right to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan. Jinnah spoke a sharply different and sinister language: He recalled the Lahore Resolution and reiterated the demand for Pakistan; he threatened “direct action”. Thus was conceived, in the dark labyrinths of his mind, and given shape to in consultation with his Faustian colleagues, ‘Direct Action Day’ to be observed on August 16, 1946. “We shall have India divided or we shall have India destroyed,” Jinnah thundered. Did the Quaid-e-Azam feel any sense of remorse when he saw vultures feasting on the dead after the Great Calcutta Killing? He didn’t. That is the Jinnah which Jinnah: India - Partition - Independence white-washes and presents as a man who was deeply wronged by Nehru and Patel.
Jaswant Singh’s book revolves around the contention that if only Nehru had been farsighted, had he and Patel not colluded to pass the March 8, 1947 Congress resolution asking for the partition of Punjab (and keeping the option of partitioning Bengal open), had they been more accommodative towards Jinnah, there would have been no Pakistan, no Bangladesh today, but a “magnificent edifice of a united India”. Jinnah’s opposition, Jaswant Singh argues, “was not against the Hindus or Hinduism, it was the Congress that he considered as the true political rival of the Muslim League, and the League he considered as being just an extension of himself”. Jaswant Singh oversimplifies the case for the Quaid-e-Azam when he says, “The Muslim community for Jinnah became an electoral body; his call for a Muslim nation his political platform; the battles he fought were entirely political — between the Muslim League and the Congress; Pakistan was his political demand over which he and the Muslim League could rule.” The recrimination is equally sweeping: Nehru was “one of the principal architects, in reality the draftsman of India’s partition” who “began questioning himself, his actions, his thoughts soon enough”. Does Jaswant Singh really believe that had the Congress accepted Jinnah’s conditions and created within an undivided India six separate ‘Pakistans’ — what the Muslim League called the “six Muslim provinces” (the Punjab, the NWFP, Sindh, Balochistan, Bengal and Assam) with near-total autonomy — there would have been a “magnificent edifice of a united India” today?
Jaswant Singh regrets that Jinnah died too soon “to re-examine what he had done… but he too had begun to recognise the enormity of this partition… His pre-1947 statements and the often quoted 11 August 1947 speech are in reality but indicators of his thoughts, not any definition”. This by no means detracts from the fact that Jinnah, who died 13 months after ensconcing himself as the Governor-General of Pakistan, sowed the seeds of his country’s break-up before he discovered that even ‘sole spokesmen’ are but mere mortals. On his first and only visit to Dhaka, he pompously declared that Urdu would be the state language; the Bengalis could either like it or lump it.
Bangladesh chose to lump it. So much for Jinnah’s ‘Muslims first’ identity politics.