Conversations with Jinnah’s djinn

Once upon a time, there was a Muslim who loved his ham and pork; seldom prayed; had raven hair and was a dandy as a movie star; took his daughter to theatres, who quoted her father as ridiculing Muslims, saying, ‘a Muslim with Rs 10 will buy a headscarf and eat biryani, but a Hindu will save it’; but who ultimately settled for a Muslim nation.

Nationalist poet Sarojini Naidu paints this picture of him:

“Tall and stately, but thin to the point of emaciation, languid and luxurious of habit, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s attenuated form is a deceptive sheath of a spirit of exceptional vitality and endurance. Somewhat formal and fastidious, and a little aloof and imperious of manner, the calm hauteur of his accustomed reserve but masks, for those who know him, a naive and eager humanity, an intuition quick and tender as a woman’s, a humour gay and winning as a child’s. Pre-eminently rational and practical, discreet and dispassionate in his estimate and acceptance of life, 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, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, 1997, Akbar S. Ahmed, Routledge, ISBN: 0-415-14965-7)

That Jinnah, for whom religious identity was the preoccupation of jejune janabs and whose immaculate wardrobe of 200 silk ties was rivaled only by Motilal Nehru’s. That unmentionable name, one that still gives collective anathema and goes on to show how free thought is never a package deal. It does not come free with a free democracy.

Great leaders, as we know, have been men of blatant inconsistencies. Jinnah, not man enough to resist a tenderly fall at the feet of a ravishing Rattanbai (Ruttie) Petit’s feet but the lanky joist who would hold a community up.

On that side of the inevitable border, there is still nobody quite like him; on this side, he continues to be a favourite whipping boy.

As we bicker over Jinnah, we have seldom asked the most vital question. It is not what Jinnah is credited with creating that matters any more, but that what he has left — a state so weak that it would begin to crumble 60 years or so after his death. Qiad-e-Azam (Jinnah’s well-known Urdu-Arabic epithet meaning “great leader”) could not have been aware of the mess he would leave.

One thing about Jinnah and Muslims that ought to be cleared up: post-Independence Indian Muslims have largely ignored him though he strongly upheld the rights of minorities.

Birth pangs are inevitable, but here are a set of my own beliefs: that Partition could have been avoided. That Jinnah did not always have a Muslim state in mind. And as it ought to be, even now, he did look to reconcile Muslim interests in the context of Indian nationalism. And for this view, I too may have to pay a price. It is alright, as long as it is not the label of a ‘Pakistani’, without any prejudice to that country.

But regardless of all this and the price paid, it is a good thing that India was partitioned. Has anybody thought of this yet? Had it not happened, we would have ended up taking the Taliban head on, facing the world’s fiercest insurgency and possibly the ignominy of being Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s adopted home.

It is not difficult to guess where I would have chosen to be, had I been born then. On this side. Heartland Muslims, Punjabis and Sindhis included, and tribal Afghans and Pashtuns, without any prejudice to them, have very different DNA-makes. I have never believed that turning towards Mecca for namaz makes for a Muslim monolith.

The Partition could not have been so surgical. Our roots lie strewn across the border. BJP leader L.K. Advani was born in Lahore, erstwhile Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf in Delhi.

India and Pakistan have come far and fanned out into divergent political directions, though aspirations of the common man on either side may be the same: a good life or at least two square meals a day.

Jinnah may have had pulled off the great idea of a separate state but history proves that the idea of India has proved to be more viable, tenable, secure and bigger than the idea of Pakistan.

There is a problem with the study of history. Unless you are a historian yourself, you inevitably have to choose one. Having read her, met her and then interviewed her, I have relied, without any compunction, partly on history professor at Tufts University, Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani who teaches Indian history, and partly on Harvard historian Sugata Bose.

Between them, the duo has co-authored Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy.  Jalal, along with Bose and Amartya Sen, are also the main movers of Harvard University’s prestigious “South Asia Without Borders Collaborative Research Program”.

History is seldom black and white, has ample shades of grey, and ironically though cast in stone, it never makes full sense until its threads are extrapolated.

Jalal mainly emphasizes two points: Jinnah’s original intentions were not to have a separate state and two, when a separate state became inevitable, he wanted a secular Pakistan.

Jinnah’s crusade for a separate state was not merely the result of a singular need for a separate Muslim homeland. How many kinds of Muslims was he to unite? Dravidians, northeasterners, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Bengalis too. Jinnah never represented all Muslims, of this there is sufficient historical evidence.

Jalal’s book, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and Demand for Pakistan, is a definitive work that traces the circumstances leading to Pakistan’s creation.

From being a champion of “Hindu-Muslim unity” (in Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s words) to his later-life separatist epiphanies, Jinnah did undergo a massive change of heart. What was the trigger? It was his view of Muslim political representation and the way he wanted power for minorities and his deepening suspicion of being marginalized.

Jinnah may have had his pound of flesh, but it is in India that Muslims could unite, flourish and find true cultural and political representation, despite threats from a Hindu Right. In Pakistan, the Balochis, Pashtuns, Turwalis, Kalashis, Burushos, Hindkowans, Brahuis, Kashmiris, Khowars, Ahmediyas and Shinas, and many more, are no more united than North and South Koreans.

According to Jalal, it was during the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 to discuss the transfer of power from the British to Indians that Jinnah’s resolve for a separate state steeled. Sugata Bose too has toed this line. (Modern South Asia, Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Routledge, 2003).

For better part of his life, Jinnah’s quest was a united India as long as he saw it capable of guaranteeing equal rights to Muslims.

The Muslim majority provinces of the northwest and northeast were to be leveraged for negotiating power. Bose and Jalal’s view is that, during discussions on the Cabinet Mission Plan, the Congress rooted for more central powers while Jinnah rooted for federalism based on grouping of states.

There was to be a three-tier arrangement: a Centre, the groups of provinces and the provinces themselves as the lowest tier. (Modern South Asia, Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Routledge, 2003).

The Congress was against this grouping and that was the ultimate trigger. For Jinnah, this was evidence that Congress was against sharing of power. This is what Jaswant Singh seems to have pointed out in his uproarious book (going by media reports, since I have not read the book yet).

Nehru was right in rooting for a more authoritarian centre. A new-born nation had to coalesce. My wishful thinking is that Jinnah ought to have looked after Muslim interests from the perspective of greater Indian nationalism. It was already a great civilizational cauldron. He got West and East Pakistan. But he got the crumbs. Limbs that are bleeding and trembling, severed from an organic whole. As we know now, it was not worth the fight.

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