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Mr Ravana: Slay The Myth
It's time to rethink our cardboard theories: the creation myths of India and Pakistan. Advani's pilgrimage to the other side has opened up a territory we fear to explore.
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Political controversies confuse rather than resolve historical disputes, especially those supported by well-orchestrated national myths. But in recasting history in the light of new political exigencies, they can also provide useful insights into some of the starker contradictions in the foundational ideologies of modern nation-states. The uproar in India provoked by Lal Krishna Advani’s comments about Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s secularism is a case in point. At a time when the two regional adversaries are looking to forge a more amicable relationship, it is not too difficult to fathom why the main Hindutva hardliner in India chose the occasion of a state visit to shower praise on the founder of Pakistan. However, discussions of the motivations and intentions of the BJP president’s seeming ideological volte face have generated emotive debate without shedding much light on history. The political drama surrounding the submission and withdrawal of his resignation should not detract from Advani’s putting his finger on the key historical fault line in the national imaginaries of India and Pakistan.

 
 
Even if more sophisticated Indian scholars acknowledge Jinnah's role in the anti-colonial movement, they have shied from exonerating him for the unpardonable sin of Partition.
 
 
Secular India and Islamic Pakistan, congenital twins turned bitter, have fashioned their national identities in contradistinction to each other. Indian secularism is the antithesis of Partition and Pakistan. Islam in Pakistan signifies difference from Hindu India. Yet the self-projections of nation-states are more interesting for what they conceal than reveal. An ideological commitment to secularism has not prevented ruling parties in India from taking cynical recourse to religion to offset declining electoral support. If India has not been able to keep religion out of politics, Islamic Pakistan has had as much difficulty keeping the secular out of its politics. While neither Indian secularism nor Pakistani Islam are rigidly compartmentalized ideologies, they are vital to both nation-states’ claims to legitimacy. No party in the political fray in India can afford to discard ‘secularism’. Advani himself only claims to be opposed to ‘pseudo-secularism’. For his part, General Pervez Musharraf has had to constantly reiterate that his policy of ‘enlightened moderation’ works strictly within the parameters of Islam.

 
 
In India, Jinnah remains as the man who single-handedly brought about the division of the country, prompting his fanatical followers to drench the vivisected motherland with innocent blood.
 
 
So what does Advani’s reference to Jinnah as ‘secular’ mean? Jinnah may be the revered hero of Islamic Pakistan’s hagiography, but the BJP president of all people knows the Quaid-i-Azam’s pre-eminent place in the demonology of Indian nationalist historiography, whether of the secular or the Hindutva ilk. Even if more sophisticated Indian scholars acknowledge his role in the anti-colonial movement, they have shied from exonerating him for the unpardonable sin of Partition. What has stuck in Indian popular consciousness is the perception of Jinnah as the man who single-handedly brought about the division of the country, prompting his fanatical followers to drench the vivisected motherland with innocent blood. With such an image of Pakistan’s founding father ingrained in their national psyche, many Indians understandably took umbrage at Advani’s about turn in Karachi, seeing it as nothing short of treason and that too in enemy territory. But paying the price of not knowing one’s neighbour, this segment of public opinion has overlooked a small detail: if being secular is a badge of honour in India, it can be a veritable crown of thorns in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

There is ample historical evidence that Jinnah envisaged Pakistan as a modern, progressive and democratic state. Embittered and often incoherent exchanges between so-called Islamic fundamentalists and secular modernists have contributed to an utterly sterile debate pitting Islam against secularism, defined incorrectly as la dini or anti-religion.

To pose the problem in such terms leaves little scope for a satisfactory resolution of the central question Pakistanis face at this critical juncture in their history: what sort of a Pakistan do they want? Do they want an inward looking, religiously orthodox state or a modern, moderate, enlightened and progressive one?

 
 
Advani may have sought to flatter his hosts. But what the compliment adeptly disguised was the pot shot at the Pakistani ruling establishment - the army and mullah nexus specifically.
 
 
Quoting from Jinnah’s address to the first meeting of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly is a favourite form of defiance for the embattled secularists in that country. In fact the speech given extempore by the Quaid-i-Azam in his capacity as Governor-General has not always been easily available in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Over the long years of General Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule, Jinnah’s elegant Saville Row wardrobe was packed away and his sherwani-clad portraits displayed prominently in government buildings. Indeed, the battle over interpreting Jinnah’s political legacy assumed new potency during the heady years of Haq’s dictatorship. Progressively shorn of his ‘secular’ and liberal credentials, representations of Jinnah in the official media were in accordance with the so called jihadi mentality the regime had taken to cultivating.

 
 
Congress’s Muslim allies in the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Hind and the Majlis-i-Ahrar deployed religion with a vengeance against the All-India Muslim League’s alleged lack of commitment to Islam.
 
 
In dubbing Jinnah ‘secular’ with reference to his August 11, 1947 address and in lauding his speech as a vision for secularism in South Asia, Advani may have sought to flatter his hosts. But reactions in Pakistan are not so predictable. What the compliment adeptly disguised was the pot shot at the Pakistani ruling establishment - the army and mullah nexus specifically - for losing sight of that vision and becoming entangled instead in the nefarious web of religious extremism and terrorism. While Pakistanis might have objected to an instruction on the virtues of secularism by a man who is himself in the Indian political idiom deemed a ‘communalist’, many were relieved to find the BJP firebrand avoiding reference to Akhand Bharat - a concept they see as India’s denial of their independent existence. And then there are those Pakistanis who might think twice before celebrating the Quaid-i-Azam’s designation as secular, especially if secular means being anti-religious. What is significant in the circumstances is that Pakistan’s otherwise voluble ‘religious parties’ have not made hay out of Advani’s statements. They have been more vocal about the furore in the Sangh Pariwar, seeing it as proof that a tiger can change its habitation but not its stripes. Broadly speaking, however, while concerned about the likely fall out for the peace process, most Pakistanis are simply not engaged in the controversy even as they keenly await the political denouement of Advani’s eventful trip to their country.

 
 
An emphasis on the role of individuals obscures the critical part played by regional politics of Punjab, UP and Bengal and the Congress failure to evolve a larger power-sharing vision.
 
 
That leaves the ball squarely in India’s court. Will Advani’s apparently conciliatory gesture towards the villain of Partition force a reassessment of time-hardened historical myths in India? Unlikely, if India is going to continue viewing Pakistan through the fuzzy lens of categories like ‘secular’ and ‘communal’. For a people who take such pride in their secular world view, one would expect Indians to disabuse themselves of the common misconception that Partition was a result of the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims. It is true that Partition was avoidable. But Jinnah cannot be made to stand in the dock alone for carving up India through the misuse of religion for political gain. One cannot forget that Congress’s Muslim allies in the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Hind and the Majlis-i-Ahrar deployed religion with a vengeance against the All-India Muslim League’s alleged lack of commitment to Islam. Congress too played on religious sentiments when it furthered its cause.

 
 
It was the Congress backed by the extreme right wing Hindu Mahasabha which plumped for a partition of the two main Muslim-majority provinces of India, the Punjab and Bengal, opposed by Jinnah and the League.
 
 
Advani’s unexpected intervention in labelling Jinnah as a secularist should be seen as a welcome opportunity to reopen the debate on the causes of Partition. Neither religious differences between Hindus and Muslims, nor ideological disagreements between a ‘secular’ Congress and a ‘communal’ Muslim League explain the subcontinent’s lunge towards Partition. Instead, it may be more fruitful to take account of the interplay of politics at the regional and central levels in British India. A close study of the historical record makes plain that Partition might have been averted if Congress had arrived at a power sharing arrangement that accommodated the demands of the Muslim majority provinces as articulated by Jinnah and the Muslim League. This entailed accommodating the interests of different religious communities at the federal and the regional levels. An emphasis on the role of individuals like Jinnah and developments at the all-India level has obscured the critical part played by regions like the Punjab and Bengal in both Congress and League calculations during the final decade of British rule in India.

 
 
It was the insistence on the unity of the ‘nation’ and the corresponding refusal to countenance internal differences that paved the way for a partition of the subcontinent along ostensibly religious lines.
 
 
Once the spotlight is shifted from Jinnah to broader historical dynamics, it becomes apparent that Muslim opposition to the Congress’s methods and goals was not the brainchild of the Quaid-i-Azam alone. Nor did Jinnah switch horses mid-stream, abandoning his secular beliefs for self-serving bigoted communitarian ones. What explains the transition from Sarojini Naidu’s famous depiction of Jinnah as the ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ to the ‘evil genius’ of Mountbatten’s time was the context of politics in colonial India. The narrow British framing of the political Indian within the religious category going hand in hand with the gradual extension of limited electoral representation had monumental consequences for relations between Hindus and Muslims. This was especially true in regions like Punjab and Bengal where religiously informed cultural differences required much more imaginative political accommodations than were on offer from the colonial masters or Indian politicians with unitary visions of nationhood.

It was religion as a demarcator of difference rather than religion as faith - and certainly not the dream of an Islamic theocracy - that led to the All-India Muslim League demanding a Pakistan. Although caricatured as 'religious communalism' and the pejorative ‘Other’ of Congress’s ‘secular nationalism’, the Indian Muslim claim to nationhood was a revolt against minoritarianism.

It is true that after the League’s Lahore session of March 1940, there was no longer any question of compromising on a national status for India’s Muslims. However, the demand for a separate and sovereign state and its relationship with a Hindustan containing almost as many Muslims as in Pakistan remained open to negotiation until the late summer of 1946. The claim that Muslims constituted a 'nation' did not rule out a federal or confederal state structure covering the whole of India. With 'nations' straddling states, the boundaries between them had to be kept permeable and flexible, not impenetrable and absolute. This is why Jinnah and the League remained implacably opposed to a partition of the Punjab and Bengal along religious lines. In the event it was the Congress backed by the extreme right wing Hindu Mahasabha which plumped for a partition of the two main Muslim-majority provinces of India. The paradoxical result was a Pakistan which, both in its shape and form, had been rejected out of hand by its proclaimed architect, Jinnah - first at the time of Rajagopalachari’s offer in 1944 and then as a proposal of the Cabinet Mission of 1946.

The politics of numbers, not differences over matters of religious faith between ‘secularists’ and ‘communalists’, was the main stumbling block to evolving an India uniting religious communities at the all-India level as well as in key regions like the Punjab and Bengal.Despite a long history of creatively accommodating multiple levels of sovereignty, the renegotiation of the terms for sharing power in an independent India saw the privileging of a rigid and monolithic conception of territorial sovereignty based on a singular and homogenizing idea of the ‘nation’. It was the insistence on the unity of the ‘nation’ and the corresponding refusal to countenance internal differences that paved the way for a partition of the subcontinent along ostensibly religious lines.

 
 
The demands of domestic politics are forcing changes in democratic India while a combination of economic concerns and international pressures are pushing military-authoritarian Pakistan to rethink its policies
 
 
The same rigid and non-negotiable attitude towards sovereignty has been the principal hurdle in the elusive processes of mutual dialogue that can potentially lead to reconciliation and accommodation in the subcontinent. And yet the demands of domestic politics are forcing changes in democratic India while a combination of economic concerns and international pressures are pushing military-authoritarian Pakistan to rethink its policies in the region. The growing role of regional parties in the making or unmaking of shaky coalition governments, and the resulting irony of many diehard 'secular' parties aligning with the 'communalist' BJP, has laid bare the logic of the post-colonial Indian state’s national ideology resting on a simplistic division between the secular and the religious, and an opposition between ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’. The national ideology of Pakistan too has been beset with a host of contradictions. The brand of extremist Islam promoted by the Pakistani state in the past has become a failing asset in the aftermath of the attacks on America and the war against terror. Moreover, there is a growing recognition at a broader societal and political level in both countries that if India and Pakistan are not to be swept away by the imperatives of the new global order, they will have to give peace a chance. If as Victor Hugo once said, an idea whose time has come is greater than the tread of mighty armies, Advani’s overture to peace through a declamation on Jinnah’s secular vision could be an opportunity for both countries to begin rethinking themselves anew by abandoning ahistorical and ideologically tainted notions of their common past.


Because of constraints of space, a slightly shorter version of this article appeared in the print magazine. Ayesha Jalal is Professor of History at the Tufts University, MA, USA. She is the author of, inter alia, the widely acclaimed book, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan.

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