The 61st anniversary of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s death anniversary would be a good opportunity to revisit the certain aspects of the controversy set off in Jaswant Singh’s book. As Srinivasan Venkataraman points out in his excellent review, there is little new or novel about his book. This basic thesis is indistinguishable from one propounded by Ayesha Jalal over two decades ago as as C.M Naim pointed out much of the work is based on hastily plagiarized footnotes. It speaks volumes that this book has beaten out Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice and Farzana Shaikh’s excellent Making Sense of Pakistan.
Until the early 80’s, it suited the official line in both countries to argue that the partition was the product of one man’s obstinacy. For the Pakistani’s, Jinnah was a modern Saladin who freed South Asian Muslims (atleast the ones who moved/lived in Pakistan) freedom from Hindu domination while the counter image was best personified by a grimacing and surly Aleque Padamsee in Attenborough’s Gandhi whose greed for power led him to break a nation.
The first academic revisionist note was struck by Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal over 25 years ago. Jalal questioned why partition was pursued by the Muslim League when a large section of the nation it claimed to represent remained outside the promised homeland. She argued that Jinnah’s deployment of a “two nation theory” was a strategic move to avoid the logic of demography in negotiating Muslim rights as a minority in India.
Jalal points out how after leaving the Congress, Jinnah continued to push for constitutional solutions within a single federation. In 1929, he even agreed to give up the demand for separate electorates in favor of reservation of seats for Muslims and other minorities. The demand for a separate ‘nation’ of Muslims to be recognized was made as late as 1940. Jalal suggested that the Lahore Resolution of the League that announced “the territorial imaginings of a Muslim nation” purposely did not use the term Pakistan, keeping the idea ambiguous to use it as a bargaining counter in a ‘poker game’ to ensure Muslims rights within an united India. Indeed the resolution spoke of independent Muslim states rather than a ‘state’.
Her suggestion is that Jinnah did not really want the partition but the Cabinet Mission Plan (a belief that Jaswant Singh appears to endorse). The Cabinet Mission in 1946 visualized a three tier federation. All existing provinces would be classified into three groups. Two of them would consist of Muslim majority provinces (Baluchistan, Sindh, Punjab and NWFP and the other would have Bengal and Assam). The Central government would only run foriegn affairs, defence and transport and communications, while the provinces would have all other powers. The provinces could if they wished also surrender some powers to their respective groups.
Both the ML and the INC had accepted the proposals and the Constituent Assembly of India was elected to draft a constitution of these terms (more on this in a followup post). Jalal (and thus Singh) blame Nehru’s press conference on 10th July, 1946 where he suggested that the Congress could use its majority in the Constituent Assembly to change the terms of the Cabinet Mission as the fact that forced Jinnah to withdraw.
As she described it in a recent interview,
“The Congress’s refusal to agree to the grouping of provinces – even Gandhi called grouping worse than partition – and Nehru’s public assertions against a centre restricted to three main subjects (defence, foreign affairs and communications), made it impossible for Jinnah to stick to the Muslim League’s acceptance of the Cabinet Mission three tiered plan for a federal India instead of a fully sovereign Pakistan. The outbreak of violence in Calcutta in August 1946 and, subsequently, in other parts of India narrowed the options available to the all-India leaders and made a painful division rather than a negotiated accommodation seem more feasible. However, the partition of Punjab was not inevitable until the Congress called for it in early March 1947 and efforts continued to be made to avoid the partition of Bengal until the end of May 1947.”
Jalal’s book caused a furore when it came out both in India and Pakistan, since it questioned both national narratives. Three years after Jalal’s book was published, the 30 pages of Maulana Azad’s India Wins Freedom that had been sealed for thirty years were finally published giving support to Jalal’s argument. The Maulana described Nehru’s statement as a blunder of Himalayan proportions. He wrote, “I warned Jawaharlal that history would never forgive us if we agreed to Partition. The verdict would be that India was not divided by the Muslim League but by the Congress”.
The Turning Point
The big question remains, whether the Cabinet Mission Plan would have been a working alternative. Jaitirth Rao, puts forward the position that the Plan would have never worked and would have led to further balkanization. He highlights the role played by the British, in fostering the idea of multiple nations and in trying to create a client state that would be friendly to British interests than a ‘radical’ Congress. He concludes,
“t has been wrongly argued by some that Nehru and Patel favoured centralisation while Jinnah and others preferred decentralisation. The centralisation debate was secondary. The issue was secession. Nehru and Patel were willing to live with a one-time secession but, like Lincoln, refused to countenance an ongoing “right of secession”. If the Cabinet Mission proposals had been accepted (as advocated by Seervai, Jaswant and others, who refer to it as the “last chance” for preserving a united India), one can be reasonably certain that in 1957 there would have been a partition and not just Lahore and Dacca but Jalandhar, Rohtak, Hisar as well as Calcutta, Asansol and Darjeeling would have separated from India leaving us with a husk of a country.”
Rao’s position is undoubtedly nationalist and is premised on the assumpion that centralized Indian state as we have it today is an undeniable good, and that one could sacrifice 20% of the country to the ML to preserve the other 80%.
Other scholars take a less normative position to suggest that the Plan was always unworkable. Indivar Kamtekar cautions us from making too much of the initial agreement between the Congress and the ML, since both parties had accepted the plan in a disruptive spirit. As Nehru spelt out in his incautious press meeting, he hoped to get the ML to agree to a union and then use the Congress majority to expand the powers of the centre. Jinnah saw this Plan as a step to greater autonomy. In a letter to Major Wyatt (three weeks before Nehru’s conference) he expressed hope that the plan would ultimately result in a complete sovereign state of Pakistan.
Instead of asking how was it that our founding fathers agreed to partition, perhaps one should seek to understand what they imagined partition would involve.
Join the discussion