The real Jinnah

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Srinivasan Venkataraman

If you are one of those that believe the media reports you may have come to the following conclusions, that Jaswant Singh’s new book ‘Jinnah-Partition-Indian Independence’ is a book about Jinnah, and that it eulogizes him in contrast to Patel and Nehru, that it treats him as an ‘Ambassador’ of ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity’. None of it is true. It is however puzzling to see that the famous quote by Gokhale, finessed by Sarojini Naidu adorning the back cover of the book. Probably that is all what the BJP top brass read before sacking Jaswant Singh.

Great books on History are written by two kinds of personalities. One is the participant in history, who was closely involved in making decisions, who contributed to the shaping of events or at least witnessed as a close observer, then goes on to record the past. Most of the time, this narrative happens to be fairly subjective as most of them are written to exonerate and extricate the participant from the blunders and embellish their role in what turned out to be positive outcomes. But they cannot be discarded altogether as they contain lots of clues to see what lies beneath the archives. A reader who wishes to know the ‘whole truth’ can read multiple accounts from various perspectives. Some of them turn out to be excellent reads. V.P.Menon, the last Reforms Commissioner in the British Indian Government before 1947 has written one such account, “The Transfer of Power in India”. Gandhi was consumed by the poison of partition. It is sad that we don’t have first person accounts from Jinnah, Nehru and Patel. Though Jinnah and Patel did not live long after 47, Nehru deprived us. Azad to his credit did record his perspective in ‘India wins Freedom’.

The other type is the scholarly variety. A young Ph.D student comes out of the blue, with out of the box thinking, discovers fresh material, forms a compelling argument, writes in that effusive prose which is the hallmark of a budding scholar and jolts the conventional wisdom. Ayesha Jalal’s ‘The Sole Spokesman : Jinnah, The Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan’ falls in this category. There is no hidden agenda except the scholar’s enthusiasm to share and substantiate her conclusions with a wealth of material, footnotes (not end notes as A.G.Noorani would cry) and references. Her theory is that Jinnah wanted parity in center and autonomy for Muslim Majority provinces and he tried to use the ‘Pakistan’ demand as a bargaining chip. To paraphrase her Jinnah asked something that he did not want, believing that the British would not give and hoping that Congress could not accept.

Yet the ineluctable tragedy occurred. Jaswant Singh was not a participant in that tragedy; neither has anything original and new it turns out. The book though covers a lot of ground but plods along in mostly tracks, that appear startlingly new and unconventional for a BJP politician, yet most of the trails have been blazed by V.P.Menon, H.M.Seervai, Ayesha Jalal et al. The conventional narrative familiar to us is that ‘Congress fought for an India united and free, Jinnah demanded Pakistan, The British wanted to divide India before they left’ has a simple logic to it. However one can find enough material to pick holes in each part of this triangular narrative. But can all the holes be woven into an alternative pattern is a question that is hard to answer.

This book’s value has to be judged essentially in the light of the author’s political predilections. How he views Jinnah and his demand has to be understood in the prism through which he constructs his nationalism. Though the author is not an RSS man, he is not far off from its psyche. This psyche believes in India’s oneness, arrives at it through a cultural-religious perspective. This psyche considers the culture and religion as immutable and assigns predominant roles to them in the development of Indian Nationalism. It truly believes that modern Western style democracy based on secular citizenship as unsuitable for Indian conditions. It is more at ease where the citizenship is not common, but coexists on the basis of religious-cultural identities. There is much in Jinnah that this psyche can appreciate, if not accept. However this psyche slithers in discomfort against what Nehru stood for: “an integral nationalism that was consistent with uniform citizenship and majoritarian democracy” (page 164).

Jaswant Singh is exceptionally harsh on Nehru understandably, but puzzlingly offers no real alternatives. The author starts by blaming for his father, perhaps murkily. He writes “On 7th July 1925, in the House of Lords, Lord Birkenhead ….[made] it plain that no concession could be expected until Indian leaders first cooperated in the working of the reforms. The speech eventually became a turning point for India’s politics of confrontation”( Page 164). Later the author refers to the speech as Birkenhead challenge. Could one figure why it was a turning point and what the challenge was? Perhaps, if you had the help of V.P.Menon’s “Transfer of Power in India”(page 39). “And towards the close of the long speech, he threw out the challenge. ‘But if our critics in India are of the opinion that their greater knowledge of Indian conditions qualifies them to succeed, where they tell us they have failed, let them produce a constitution which carries behind it a fair measure of general agreement among the great people of India’”. Motilal Nehru accepted this challenge and he formed a committee of 4 other men, holding wide consultations including with Jinnah. Motilal Nehru ‘Report’ 1928 was that proposed constitution, not a report of Allahabad’s sanitary conditions. It rejected Jinnah’s famous fourteen points. It is this report that the author surmises that the son had significant hand in drafting perceiving “a thought content, a style and a philosophy distinctly that of the son, Jawaharlal, not the father” (Page 143).

Then comes the UP coalition imbroglio of 1937. “Provincial elections were due”. Not a word about that seminal act of 1935, substantial portions of which have been copied to our constitution. The Congress swept the general seats 134/140. It did not contest a single Muslim urban seat of 24 based on a not so “clandestine” understanding with the Muslim League. The League got 29 seats and asked to be included in the coalition. Ex-Congressman Khaliquzzaman and Nawab Ismail Khan conducted parleys and Congress was in no mood to oblige. The author has done a great job of narrating the negotiations. It goes probably something along the lines of Ahmed Patel’s negotiations with M.Karunanidhi post 2009. Then the author does a blatantly dishonest thing, lifts a whole passage from B.R.Nanda’s essay ‘Nehru and the Partition of India’ presented in the 1967 Oxford University Seminar, published as “Partition:Policies and Perspectives”, page 155, paragraph 3 into his book page 216, paragraph 1. Apart from this subterfuge, he indulges in obfuscating what Nanda said, in page 450, he writes “B.R.Nanda ….had mentioned that Nehru and Patel were avid for power”. For Pete’s sake, B.R.Nanda does not! He defends Nehru against this charge with a prefatory clause ‘It has been suggested that…”. Again the whole passage is a lift from page 184 of para 2 and 3 from Nanda’s essay.

Nehru bashing does not end there, in page 493 : “Nehru, one of the principal architects, in reality, the draftsman of India’s partition”. Page 503 : “Nehru…
As the occupant of the seat of authority, and as the head of the Government of the day, was clearly guilty of failing totally in his duty of preventing the bloodshed of million of innocents”; Page 505 : “Nehru continues to be blamed for India’s drift to Parition…his totally incomprehensible tactlessness, so often childish impetuosity bordering on the naïve”. Does the author blame the deaths on the west side of Radcliffe Line? If so, the blame should go to Jinnah. Nehru heroically put his life at stake before violent mobs innumerable times in the post partition riots. He was singularly responsible for securing the Muslims who stayed behind, their life, property and rights. It is another story that the Congress got near zero support among today’s India’s Muslims before Independence, but later they stood rock solid behind him. Our survival as a nation, as a democracy with a secular fabric and a modernist outlook is singularly owed to the man who Jaswant reviles so eloquently.

The author also tries to drive an artificial wedge between Nehru, Patel on the one side and Gandhi on the other. Gandhi did not want partition, but he was not set against it in the end. As the author himself wrote, he accepted the reality of partition way back in 1942. On that basis he even held negotiations with Jinnah in 1944. In 46-47, He led the Congress from the front, micromanaging to the extent of insisting on framing the instructions to Congress delegates to the constituent assembly and selecting (and vetoing) its members in the cabinet. Nehru, Patel and Gandhi acted as one in the end game. In trying to find a wedge between them on this question, the author is chasing a chimera. Mahatma could never discard his creed that Hindus and Muslims could live together. He didn’t accept the division to happen on that account. He paid for that creed with his own life. With his blood, he cemented India’s pluralist traditions.

The comparison between Gandhi and Jinnah is pitiful and inadequate. It starts with their Kathiawari tradesmen origin. It meanders into superficiality and doesn’t travel farther from Kathiawar. Some chapters have the hallmark of badly edited prose. An argument starts with a “Here is why” (page 516, para 2), then meanders into 2 pages of diversion and apologizes to the reader before returning to the “why” (page 518, para 3). I really wonder if this is the only book you will read to know about Partition you will be able to keep the historical time line straight. Introduction to Wavell’s viceroyalty follows Gandhi Jinnah talks in 1944. Mountbatten’s shenanigans in March 47 are dealt with before he bids farewell to Wavell, who is introduced twice.

Yet the book is not without its redeeming elements. Copious end notes, references and multiple appendices support the book nicely. It offers a panoramic view of our polity in Jinnah’s time. All the major events, personalities are, for the most part, covered in sufficient detail for the reader to get a full perspective. The author rightly catches the Congress by the neck in questioning its utter failure to get substantial Muslim support in its nearly three decades of mass political activity. Gandhi-Jinnah Talks are substantially covered from his secretary Pyarelal’s account. If the narrative appears to be overly from Gandhi’s perspective, I suggest the reader to read Ambedkar’s ‘Pakistan or the Partition of India, for a lawyerly defense of Jinnah’s perspective.

Very little effort is spent on the motives behind ‘Pakistan Resolution’, that wonderful mixture of vagueness and prolixity. Of course there are not too subtle efforts to introduce conspiratorial elements in the high points of the drama. The effort to insinuate that Rahmat Ali-Khaliquzzaman drew Pakistan’s boundaries in 1940 with the help of Lord Zetland is described in a dramatic way. Perhaps too dramatically? Then the “startling” revelation that the grouping provision inserting Assam into Group “C” was done on 10th May 1946, at the instigation of the Governor of Bengal. Who cares how the sausage is prepared? The whole statement was not out until 16th May. The Congress and the League had to deal with the final product.

The author must be commended for castigating that ‘flamboyant’ grandson of Victoria and showing him up for the dubious pretender he was. Gen.Joseph Stilwell had it right about him “Enormous Staff, Endless Walla-Walla, Damn Little Fighting”. H.V.Hodson and V.P.Menon disagree though about his abilities.
H.M.Seervai , Ramachandra Guha agree.

Here is my main criticism. If this book is about Jinnah, other than the linear narrative of what stands that Jinnah took on each question post 1906, there must be substantial analysis of his motivations and his methods. Jaswant for the most part seems to agree with Jalal. But in one-third of the trees that Jaswant has cut, Jalal deals with (a plausible) motivation of each stance, his dilemmas, his troubles in building the league in Muslim majority provinces and Muslim minority provinces. The author raises many questions, but could have attempted his alternative solutions to his own rhetorical questions. To his credit Jaswant’s verdict on Jinnah’s ‘Two nation theory’ partly agrees with modern Indian consensus. But the final word has to be that the sin of injecting the dreadful poison of communal hatred into our polity must surely be laid at Jinnah’s door.

[The author is a software engineer by education and profession. His interests include History, Politics and Literature. He is fascinated by and interested in the evolution of an ancient, multi-ethnic multi-religious multi-lingual society like ours into a modern, law based constitutional democracy with justice and prosperity for all. He lives near San Francisco, California]
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