[This blog turns five today. Long post]
High school. History period. Sitting in the front bench a friend said to me, a bit loudly and with barely concealed exasperation “What is the use of this stuff?” Our history teacher, in an unusually good mood, turned to him and rather than boxing his ears pointed to the book, ” Everything you see in today’s news has its origins right here. This is also where all today’s news will ultimately land up.”
Jaswant Singh’s new book on Partition and his subsequent expulsion from the party based on what was in the book confirms what our dear history teacher said, so many years ago. As if it ever needed confirming that is.
I should start out by saying I have not read Jaswant Singh’s book. What I say from now on is solely based on his interview with Karan Thapar. In other words his own words. Now I understand what he is saying may be slightly different in tone and in emphasis from what is in the book. However I think that what he says pre-release of the book would be expected to capture accurately the motivations and the thesis behind his work.
First up, what struck me was this. [Link]
Karan Thapar:Let me put it like this. Do you admire Jinnah?
Jaswant Singh:I admire certain aspects of his personality: his determination and the will to rise. He was a self-made man–Mahatma Gandhi was a son of a Dewan
Karan Thapar: Nehru was born to great wealth.
Jaswant Singh: All of them were born to wealth and position, Jinnah created for himself a position. He carved out in Bombay a position in that cosmopolitan city being what he was, poor. He was so poor he had to walk to work. He lived in a hotel called Watsons in Bombay and he told one of the biographers that there’s always room at the top but there is no lift and he never sought a lift.
I interpret this to mean that the “all” refers to Gandhi and Nehru and not Jinnah. I base this on the subsequent sentence when Jaswant Singh says that Jinnah “created his position” (as opposed to Nehru and Gandhi) and uses the word “poor” as an adjective and then emphasizes Jinnah’s poverty as having contributed to his “self-made” aura in that he worked himself up, in contrast to the others who got everything on a platter.
This totally flew in the face of what I knew about Jinnah’s father Jinnahbhai Poonja, that being that he was a rich businessman. How rich was Jinnah’s dad? A page from Pakistan.gov.pk says (it is titled as the official gateway to the government of Pakistan and hence I presume would be authentic and if anything would be expected to magnify Jinnah’s achievements rather than diminish them)
By the early 1880s’ Jinnahbhai Poonja’s trade business had prospered greatly. He handled all sorts of goods: cotton, wool, hides, oil-seeds, and grain for export. Whereas Manchester manufactured piece of goods, metals, refined sugar and used to import into the busy port. Business was good and profits were soaring high…………..
He (MA Jinnah) remained in Bombay for only six months, returned to Karachi upon his mother’s insistence and joined the Sind Madrassa. But his name was struck off as he frequently cut classes in order to ride his father’s horses. He was fascinated by the horses and lured towards them……
Karachi proved more prosperous for young Jinnah than Bombay had been. His father’s business had prospered so much by this time that he had his own stables and carriages. Jinnahbhai Poonja’s firm was closely associated with the leading British managing agency in Karachi, Douglas Graham and Company. Sir Frederick Leigh Croft, the general manager of the company, had a great influence over young Jinnah, which possibly lasted his entire life.
Jinnah looked up to the handsome, well dressed and a successful man. Sir Frederick liked Mamad, recognizing his extreme potential, he offered him an apprenticeship at his office in London. That kind of opportunity was the dream of all young boys of India, but the privilege went to only one in a million. Sir Frederick had truly picked one in a million when he chose Jinnah.
So let’s go over that once again. Jinnah used to bunk classes to ride his father’s horses. His father owned stables and carriages. I dont know about you but that sounds like he was, like Nehru, also born to great wealth and position. Now as to how self-made a man Jinnah was we see that he was picked up and sent to England by a business associate of his father, hardly what you would cite as evidence of “self-made”. It is true that during the later years of his life in England, his family’s business failed and he came back to Bombay which is the phase I presume that Jaswant Singh is referring to. But as you note by this time Jinnah had already had a British legal education, acquired by him on the dint of his family’s riches and position as opposed to any personal struggle—the same as Gandhi and Nehru.
I am not a historian and maybe I am missing some nuance here. Neither is this really that important in the context of the wider picture. But it did make me do a double-take when I read it.
And then things got more interesting.
Jaswant Singh repeats the “Jinnah was a secular man” line we have discussed before here on the blog [Link]. Summing of what I had said before, there is nothing much to debate here. Jinnah, in person, indeed was a secular man who had no truck with Islamic religious zealots and led a life which would shock many Islamic purists. As a matter of fact, he was opposed to Gandhi’s introduction of religion into politics as part of the Khilafat andolan, ironically a pan-Islamic movement. This inherent secularism of Jinnah of course is supposed to be one of the reasons why Jaswant Singh admires him so much. However I would take a contrary position. It was the very fact that Jinnah himself was not a Muslim fanatic that made his adoption of radical Islam and Hindu-hatred such a cynical political gambit, triggered by his own marginalization in 1937 when the League won 4.8% of the Muslim vote getting wiped out in the area now known as Pakistan and the Congress under Nehru rejected his fervent appeal to ally with them, as Jinnah stipulated that the Muslim League be recognized the sole representative of the Muslims in India (yes with 4.8% of the Muslim vote !). It was after this that Jinnah’s rhetoric became stringently anti-Hindu (Jaswant Singh says Jinnah was anti-Congress but not anti-Hindu) culminating in an almost open call to massacre Hindus on Direct Action Day.
So what is Jaswant Singh’s take on Direct Action Day and the Great Calcutta killings?
Karan Thapar: So his problem was with Congress and with some Congress leaders but he had no problem with Hindus.
Jaswant Singh: No, he had no problems whatsoever with the Hindus. Because he was not in that sense, until in the later part of his years, he became exactly what he charged Mahatma Gandhi with. He had charged Mahatma Gandhi of being a demagogue.
Karan Thapar: He became one as well?
Jaswant Singh: That was the most flattering way of emulating Gandhi. I refer of course to the Calcutta killings.
Maybe I am getting this all wrong. But is Mr. Singh trying to say that Jinnah’s becoming a demagogue was his emulation of Gandhi and that his espousal of the Calcutta killings was a concomitant of him reflecting Gandhi’s demagoguery back at him? I hope I am misunderstanding this because otherwise the equivalence between Jinnah and Gandhi’s message (even his worst critics will never say Gandhi asked people to kill) as manifestations of the same kind of demagoguery is just a bit too much to bear.
Moving on, let’s look at the foundations behind Jaswant Singh’s assertion that Nehru-Patel-Gandhi and the rest of the Congress leadership were as responsible for Pakistan, if not more, than Jinnah.
The first of course is that old chestnut. Nehru refusing to share power in 1937 , Jinnah’s subsequent violent communalization and Nehru rebuffing attempts to give Jinnah the PM-ship as suggested by Gandhi to assuage the Muslims. First of all, as mentioned before, Jinnah’s demand to be accepted as the sole representative of Muslims with 4.8% of the Muslim vote was laughable. Second of all, Nehru was in his every right to refuse to ally with an opponent he had bested—would Jaswant Singh’s ex-party, the BJP, give Rahul Gandhi the Home Ministership if they came to power with a resounding majority and the Congress reduced to a 4.8% of vote share just for the sake of “national unity”? I think not. And finally considering the charged political atmosphere leading upto independence if Jinnah had been made the PM of an unified India, would Hindus have stood for it? As it is Gandhi and Nehru were being accused of having sold out (and still are) to the Muslim League, ironically by intellectuals of Jaswant Singh’s own party, would not handing the leadership of the country to a person who not so long ago was triggering communal riots be the ultimate act of betrayal for the country’s majority? [ A viewpoint here says that Nehru did not even reject Gandhi’s offer to make Jinnah the PM-ship with any kind of uncompromising virulence ]
The second foundation of his thesis is however the real crackerjack. Its not very original having been a staple of Marxist and some Pakistani academics. Karan Thapar, the interviewer summarizes it. [Link]
The critical question this biography raises is how did the man they called the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity in 1916 end up as the Quaid-e-Azam of Pakistan in 1947?
The answer: he was pushed by Congress’ repeated inability to accept that Muslims feared domination by Hindus and wanted “space” in “a re-assuring system”. Jaswant Singh’s account of how Congress refused to form a government with the Muslim League in UP in 1937, after fighting the election in alliance, except on terms that would have amounted to it’s dissolution, suggests Jinnah’s fears were real and substantial.
The biography does not depict Jinnah as the only or even the principal force behind Partition. Nehru and Mountbatten share equal responsibility. While the book reveals that Gandhi, Rajagopalachari and Azad understood the Muslim fear of Congress majoritarianism, Nehru could not. If there is a conclusion, it is that had Congress accepted a decentralised, federal India, a united India “was clearly ours to attain”. The problem: “this was an anathema to Nehru’s centralising approach and policies”.
So what Jaswant Singh is saying that all Jinnah wanted was a little “space” and Nehru with his Western European ideal of a “nation state” with strong notions of centralization refused to give him that leeway and this is what led to partition. The logical conclusion that Jaswant Singh makes is that a decentralized federal India based on religion would have been a “solution” (a Pakistan within an India as he says), something that Nehru refused to accept. If only he had.
This I believe raises serious questions. Is Mr Singh’s espousal of denominational decentralization a tacit acceptance of Kashmir’s right to secede from India on the basis of their need for “reassuring space” ? Simultaneously is his criticism of Nehru’s insistence on a strong centralized state based on principles of secularism (as in not a homeland for Hindus or for Muslims but for all peoples) as a West European ideal (he makes the point in his interview) a rejection of the concept of India as it is today?
And thats not all. Jaswant Singh then drives home the fact that it was Jinnah’s fear of Muslim marginalization that has been validated in today’s India, in essence repeating a talking point straight from Pakistan.
Jaswant Singh: Yes, indeed why? I cannot yet find the answer. Look into the eyes of the Muslims who live in India and if you truly see through the pain they live–to which land do they belong?
We treat them as aliens, somewhere inside, because we continue to ask even after Partition you still want something? These are citizens of India–it was Jinnah’s failure because he never advised Muslims who stayed back.
It may be argued, and with some justification, that the Muslims who stayed back in India did not want advise from Jinnah. But Jaswant Singh seems to want us to accept Jinnah’s fundamental claim. That being that he was the sole representative of South Asian Muslims. And it is because of that that Indian Muslims, treated as aliens inside the land they chose, are still searching for his advise, six decades after he is gone.
There raises another question. Whose vision was the solution, albeit an imperfect one? Jinnah’s or Nehru’s? What does sixty three years of history tell us ?
First let us look at Jinnah’s “space”—Pakistan, founded on the basis of religion and decentralization. Today it is a rump of a state, torn asunder by internecine feuds within the same religion (even the fact that they are all of the same religion has not solved their problem) with the principal challenge to the existence of Pakistan coming most ironically from the most “decentralized” parts of the country—-the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It is these areas which are allowed to have a Jinnah-ian “state within a state” existence where tribal laws (essentially no laws) and the writ of tribal leaders ran supreme (till recently since now Taliban calls the shots). The result? This area is one of the most dangerous and the most backward areas of the world.
And then let us look at Nehru’s legacy of the strong centralized nation-state founded on Western ideals and based fundamentally on the equality of all religion. Nehruvianism brought in its wake many problems, many serious problems. People can argue that states should have more power. And that’s a debate for another day.
However there were two things Nehru’s concept of India did. It kept the country united. It made democratic institutions so strong that even Nehru’s daughter could not subvert it.
In conclusion, one can say that India’s emergence as a stable economic and political power over the years has been the ultimate historical validation of Nehru’s obstinate non-negotiable insistence on a state founded on secular principles and with a strong central authority, a place where a “Pakistan inside India” idea would not be tolerated.
Given this, blaming Nehru for his vision of India as Jaswant has done (after all he claims that it was Nehru’s vision that alienated Jinnah) is putting the baggage of history on the wrong person’s shoulders.
In the second part of this post (now online here), I hope to cover the BJP reaction (overkill or justified?) and other things.
Keep comments according to TOS. Moderation will be used otherwise.