Jaswant's Jinnah: Dividing India To Save It

By M J Akbar, 26 August 2009
Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah has certainly provoked much ado about something, but what is that something? Would this biography have made news if the
author had not been a senior leader of the BJP? The world of books requires some chintan, but fortunately no chintan baithak. Who or what, then, is the story: Jinnah or the BJP? The two are not entirely unrelated, for the BJP was formed as a direct consequence of the creation of Pakistan. The umbilical cord still sends spasms up its central nerve.

Two questions frame the Jaswant-Jinnah controversy. Was Jinnah secular? Do Nehru and Patel share the “guilt” for Partition?

Neither question is new, but both have an amazing capacity for reinvention. Jawaharlal’s great socialist contemporary, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, fired the first broadside in “The Guilty Men of Partition”: the title implied that responsibility extended beyond Jinnah. But since his purpose was polemical, the frisson was lost in forgotten corners of libraries. Jaswant Singh had little to gain from searching for some good interred with Jinnah’s bones, and a bit to lose.

For most of his life, Jinnah was the epitome of European secularism, in contrast to Gandhi’s Indian secularism. Jinnah admired Kemal Ataturk, who separated religion from state. Gandhi believed that politics without religion was immoral; advocated equality of all religions, and even pandered to the Indian’s need for a religious identity. He never publicly disavowed the ‘Mahatma’ attached to his name, even when privately critical, and understood the importance of ‘Pandit’ before Nehru, although Jawaharlal was not particularly religious. Azad had a legitimate right to call himself a Maulana, for he was a scholar of the Holy Book.

Jinnah was not an agnostic. He was born an Ismaili Khoja, and consciously decided to shift, under the influence of an early mentor, Badruddin Tyabji, from the “Sevener” sect, which required obedience to the Aga Khan, to the Twelvers, who recognized no leader. But his faith did not include ritual. He might have posed in a sherwani to demand Pakistan, but he would have considered ‘Maulana Jinnah’ an absurdity. In the end, Jinnah and Gandhi were not as far apart as the record might suggest. Jinnah wanted a secular nation with a Muslim majority; Gandhi desired a secular nation with a Hindu majority. The difference was the geographical arc. Gandhi had an inclusive dream, Jinnah an exclusive one.

The Indian elite tends to measure secularism in pegs: Hindus who do not drink are abstemious, and Muslims who do not are puritan. Jinnah was content with a British lifestyle. He anglicized his name from Jinnahbhai to Jinnah, and dropped an extra ‘l’ from Alli. His monocle was styled on Joseph Chamberlain’s, and he even had a PG Wodehouse moment during a visit to Oxford, when he was arrested for frolics on boat race day (he was let off with a caution; he would never spend a day in jail). His secret student dream was to play Romeo at Old Vic, and only an anguished letter from his father (“Do not be a traitor to your family”) stopped him from becoming a professional actor. He relaxed after a tiring day by reading Shakespeare in a loud resonant voice.

His politics was nationalist and liberal. His early heroes were Phirozeshah Mehta and Dadabhai Naoroji (known as “Mr Narrow-Majority” because he was elected to the House of Commons in 1892 by only three votes). After he met Gopal Krishna Gokhale at his first Congress session in 1904, his “fond ambition”, in Sarojini Naidu’s words, was to become “the Muslim Gokhale”. No one could have hoped for higher praise than what Jinnah received from Ms Naidu: “...the obvious sanity and serenity of his worldly wisdom effectually disguise a shy and splendid idealism which is of the very essence of the man”. Jinnah was only 28.

He scoffed at Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s two-nation theory, and wrote an angry letter to The Times of India challenging the legitimacy of the famous Muslim delegation to Lord Minto on October 1, 1906, which built the separatist Muslim platform. (The Times did not print it.) He ignored the convention in Dhaka on December 30, 1906 where the Muslim League was born. Perhaps the best glimpse of Jinnah’s idealism, in my view, is from the memoirs of his friends. The cool Jinnah broke down and cried thrice in public: after sitting, frozen, for five hours at the Khoja cemetery on the day his young wife, Ruttie, was buried; when he was taking the train back from Calcutta in 1928 after the failure of the talks on the (Motilal) Nehru Report; and when he visited a Hindu refugee camp in Karachi in January 1948.

The Times of India


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