28 May 2022
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Book Excerpt | When Jinnah Presided Over Meeting To Welcome Gandhi’s Return From England

Mohammad Ali Jinnah's first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi has been written about, but hardly any biographer has focused on what Jinnah said in that meeting. Here’s what he had said. 

Mohammad Ali Jinnah and MK Gandhi (File Photo)
Mohammad Ali Jinnah and MK Gandhi (File Photo) Wikimedia Commons

On 18 April 1914, Mohammad Ali Jinnah sailed for England as part of the Congress deputation. After spending some time in France and the continent, the Congress deputation finally reached London in May 1914. There, during the meeting with Lord Crewe at the India Office, the discussions seemed to have centred on the amendment of the Constitution of the Council of India 1858, most likely to expand non-official Indian representation within it. The Times London reported on 12 May 1914 about a Congress Resolution in Karachi, which had prompted Lord Crewe to make an announcement to this end. The salience of this was that by 1914, the British were being forced into expanding self-government in India, slowly but surely; yet, the official British fear was of course that if such expansion did happen, Indian nationalists might ask for complete self-government and curiously, the conservative and imperialist minded officialdom was unwilling to contemplate the parliamentary form of government for Indians. They were also unwilling to expand the Council of the Secretary of State of India to ensure any representation to non-official Indian membership. On 13 May 1914, Jinnah made his appearance before the House of Commons and addressed his views on how to proceed further with reform. 

The next day, he had the opportunity to speak to a gathering of MPs, both members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, at a breakfast meeting held in the Westminster Palace Hotel. After speaking at length about how the reforms would work, Jinnah made it a point to bring up the issue of Indians in South Africa. This shows that Jinnah was at this time working in tandem with Gandhi’s efforts in South Africa.
Before we go into this personal equation between the two future founding fathers, it is interesting to read Jinnah’s press statement on the issue of Council

Reform, released on 3 June 1914, after a month of deliberation in London. It started off with this damning indictment of British rule: ‘India is perhaps the only member of the British Empire without any real representation, and the only civilized country in the world that has no real system of representative government.’ He further adds, ‘Now that the Bill to amend the laws as to the Council of India has been introduced and gone through its first reading, I cannot but say that the provisions contained therein are most disappointing, and I feel sure that is how the people of India will receive it. What hope can measures like this inspire in the people of India, who are looking forward to bigger and more substantial reforms in time to come when in matters such as the reform of the Council of the Secretary of State for India, which is, after all more advisory in character than anything else, the just proposals of the deputation appointed by the Indian National Congress have not been accepted.’ The British were not ready to give 1/3rd representation to Indians. This idea of 1/3rd representation was something Jinnah believed was sine qua non to Indian interests being properly represented in the Council. We will discover that this numerical figure, 1/3rd or 33 per cent, is central to Jinnah’s strategy of equipoise or safeguards, not just for Indians against British officialdom but also for Muslims in an independent India. Bombay Chronicle, the paper on which Jinnah exercised considerable influence, wrote a scathing editorial, calling it a friendless bill that will satisfy no one.

Two weeks later, Jinnah gave an interview to Daily Telegraph in which he further enumerated his grievances. The first grievance was related to the Press Act that the British had imposed on India. According to this Act, it was mandatory for newspaper-owning organizations to provide security before getting the permission to publish. This draconian measure also included the right of the Executive to cease the security and that no appeal would lie against it to the High Court. Jinnah called it a severe and unconscionable restriction on freedom of press and speech. Ironically, not only did the British Parliament refuse to consider any of these demands but by the second reading, there was even a motion to reject the bill with even those moderate reforms.

On 7 July 1914, the Parliament voted 96 votes to 58 to reject it. Jinnah wrote a detailed article on the issue, which was published in the Fortnightly Review London, on 1 October 1914. He declared, ‘It seems that there are two alternatives: (1) the Council should be ended; (2) it might be mended. But it cannot last in its present form without serious danger to the good government of India. To have a Cabinet, which lays down the final decisions on matters of paramount importance, composed purely of officials forming a bureaucratic citadel, the sacred precincts of which bar the non- official view and the view of the people who are the wearers of the administration shoe, cannot survive, for India has long since grown out of such crude methods of Government.’ These appeals for change fell on deaf ears.

World War I broke out in Europe in September 1914. The position of the Congress and other Indians struggling for self-rule was that they were willing to go along with the war as long as there was a clear and definite path to self rule and that Indian soldiers could have the opportunity to serve as fully commissioned officers. Jinnah had by this time become a member of the All India Muslim League (AIML) in addition to being a member of the Congress. As the leading lawyer in Bombay, Jinnah also contributed Rs 1,000, a large sum in those days, to the Congress every month. There is no record of him having contributed any amount to AIML, however. Jinnah had joined AIML with the specific purpose to wrest it from the clutches of the landed aristocracy and men like Aga Khan, whom he considered as a British collaborator. Jinnah at this time was entirely unsympathetic to the ideas of Muslim exceptionalism. He certainly did not associate with the Muslim community in any meaningful way, beyond attending the meetings of AIML on political issues.
Gandhi, the future Mahatma, returned to India in the beginning of 1915. On 13 January 1915, Jinnah, who at this point seems to have looked up to Gandhi as a personal hero, presided over Gurjar Sabha’s event to welcome Gandhi to India. Many biographers of Jinnah have referred to this first meeting as an extremely significant one but hardly anyone has focused on what Jinnah said in the meeting. Jinnah began by speaking of his great privilege and honour to welcome Gandhi back to the motherland after the most ‘strenuous and hard labour in South Africa in cause of the Indians residing there as well as in the cause of India generally’.

After paying Gandhi tribute for his extraordinary work and sacrifice, Jinnah said that India’s gain was South Africa’s loss but it did not matter where Gandhi was and that undoubtedly Gandhi would not just become a worthy ornament but a real worker whose equals there were few. Then Jinnah proceeded to pay tribute to Kasturba, wife of Gandhi, who he described as an example, not just to womankind in India but to the womankind of the world. He continued: ‘They have drawn the attention of the whole world and the whole world admires the trials and troubles and sacrifices Mr and Mrs Gandhi underwent for the causes of their country and their countrymen.’ Jinnah then pointed out that on the issue of South Africa, Hindus and Muslims were unanimous and stood as Indians. Indeed this was the first occasion when the ‘two sister communities stood in absolute union and it had its moral and political effect of the settlement of the question’. Gandhi’s response to Jinnah’s address has been pointed out as the first sour note between the two men.

It is not entirely clear how Jinnah reacted to Gandhi’s speech but in Gandhi’s defence, it may be stated that he might just be responding to Jinnah’s assurance that Hindus and Muslims were on the same page as Indians on the issue of South Africa. Gandhi is reported to have said that when he was in South Africa, every time the word Gujarati was mentioned, it was mentioned only with respect to Hindus and that Parsis and Muslims were generally not thought of as a part of it. Thus, he said, he was glad to see a Muslim member of Gurjar Sabha presiding over its session. Many biographers of Jinnah have seized on this as being the first incident of alienation. Certainly, Gandhi could have seen that other than Jinnah’s name, there was hardly anything Muslim about him. Jinnah firmly stood with Indian nationalism and Gujarati identity at the time. Still it is perhaps too unkind to read some kind of parochialism into Gandhi’s comment here. In the same speech, Gandhi referred to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s famous quote that Hindus and Muslims were the two eyes of a beautiful bride. In any event, there is certainly no indication that Jinnah took Gandhi’s comment in a spirit as ascribed to both men posthumously about their first meeting 

Excerpted from Jinnah: A Life by Yasser Latif Hamdani, with permission from Pan Macmillan India.

(Yasser Latif Hamdani is a well-known human rights lawyer and writer based in Pakistan)