August 07, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  National  » Essays  » Statesmen »  Letting Go Of The Past

Letting Go Of The Past

What is it about our historical icons that it becomes incumbent to deify or vilify them? Why not accept them for what they are, reclaim a common heritage?

Google + Linkedin Whatsapp
Follow Outlook India On News
Letting Go Of The Past
Letting Go Of The Past
For the majority of Muslims in South Asia, three heroes stand out in popular mythology over the last thousand years of history: Mahmud of Ghazni, the last great Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. For most Muslims, these three figures symbolise a triumphant and assertive Islam. For the great poet Allama Iqbal, Mahmud, Aurangzeb and Jinnah are Muslim leaders par excellence. At Jinnah's death, one of Karachi's most prominent clerics called him "the greatest Muslim after Aurangzeb".

In popular Hindu mythology, the same three figures stand out as outstanding villains: Mahmud is remembered for his raids into India from Afghanistan and breaking of idols, especially at Somnath; Aurangzeb for his harsh treatment of the Hindus; and Jinnah for splitting and dividing 'Mother India'. In the 1940s, Hindu writers sarcastically called Jinnah "another Aurangzeb". Today, Hindu rioters sometimes justify their acts by saying they are avenging the plundering of Somnath by Mahmud. Political parties like the BJP and leaders like Bal Thackeray attack these three Muslim historical figures regularly to rally their followers.

I will argue that no proper understanding is possible between Hindus and Muslims, India and Pakistan, without understanding each other's heroes and villains. Our tendency to make our heroes and villains black-and-white cardboard figures has not only distorted history but has created problems for millions on both sides who are inflamed by wrongly created perceptions of each other.

There is no more important exercise than an attempt to reassess history and re-examine its heroes and villains. In this exercise, the role of the "in-betweens"—usually squeezed off the radar screen—needs to be re-examined too. For there's a need to understand the past in order for us to navigate the coming time with more sense and goodwill than we have shown in the last half century.

Let me explain why Jinnah is such a hero to Pakistanis. He is after all so revered by the majority of Pakistanis that not only will they call him Qaid-e-Azam or "The Greatest Leader" but today add the words Rahmat-allah-alleh or 'one specially blessed by God'. They compare him to their present leaders and miss his wisdom, courage and integrity.

Islam gave the Muslims of India a sense of religious identity; the Mughal empire gave them a sense of history based in territory; poets like Iqbal gave them a sense of a special destiny. Jinnah's towering stature derives from the fact that by leading the Pakistan movement and creating the state of Pakistan he was able to give them all three. Whatever their political affiliations or ethnic background, for the majority of Pakistanis there is no one quite like their Qaid-e-Azam.

However, the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and Lady Mountbatten who was so active in helping her husband, and M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, leaders of the Congress, were determined to preserve the unity of India in 1947. For the former, the reasons sprang from history: a united India would be a great tribute and monument to the imperial British. To the Congress, a divided India meant a rejection of their vision of a modern secular state, united in spite of different religions and ethnic groups.

The British and the Congress saw one man—Jinnah— creating what became an insurmountable obstacle to the unity of India. Their personal relationship did not help matters. While Jinnah was comfortable in dealing with the older generation of political leaders like Gandhi and Motilal Nehru, the father of Jawaharlal, he was at a loss to relate to the younger generation as represented by Nehru and his friends like the Mountbattens. They, in turn, saw him as something of a political dinosaur and had contempt for him.This poisonous relationship seeped into the organisations that they headed and eventually into the state machinery itself in the summer of 1947.

Yet, is it easily forgotten by Pakistanis who see him as an ultra-nationalist hero —and Indians as a villain—that Jinnah for most of his life was the most acceptable of all the Muslim leaders on the Indian political stage. For his efforts to bring the communities together, he was called "the best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity" by Gopalkrishna Gokhale, the distinguished Brahmin. In 1906, Jinnah attended the Calcutta session of the Congress as secretary to Naoroji, the president of the Congress. When the well-known Hindu nationalist Balgangadhar Tilak wished to defend himself in a British court of law in 1908, he selected Jinnah as his lawyer. Jinnah was clearly a hero to the Hindus until he took upon himself the mantle of leadership in the Pakistan movement in the 1930s. It is because of this simplistic black-and-white nature of reading history that some of the most extraordinary figures of the 20th century were squeezed into an "in-between" category and usually written out of history.

Take the example of the heroic Bacha Khan (Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan or more popularly, Frontier Gandhi) of the North-West Frontier Province. Although the film Gandhi depicted him as a close and respected companion of Gandhiji, Bacha Khan in Pakistan remains a little-known figure. History has not been kind to him. He is seen—if he is seen at all—as someone who compromised on the Pakistan movement by his strong alliance with the Congress and his personal friendship with Gandhi. Pakistanis have little idea of the immense sacrifices Bacha Khan and his followers made in standing up to the British through their civil disobedience campaign. In the 1930s, their houses were burnt and crops destroyed repeatedly. The Kohat valley firing on protesters resulted in 50 deaths.

In 1947, Bacha Khan and his followers found themselves "stranded" in Pakistan. Bacha Khan felt a sense of betrayal by both Pakistan and India. His last words to Gandhi were: "You have thrown us to the wolves." Honoured in India, where the government took the unprecedented step of offering him a future resting place alongside Gandhi, and vilified in Pakistan, Bacha Khan understandably wished to be buried in the garden of his house in Jalalabad in Afghanistan. His funeral was attended by many world leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister of India.

Bacha Khan's message of non-violence and compassion which reflects his spiritual affinity with his friend Gandhi is more relevant than ever before in our post-9/11 world in which Islam is universally identified with violence and terrorism.

Bacha Khan is not the only unsung hero. There are two other extraordinary leaders: Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, the Congress president then and later education minister of India.

Liaquat came from an aristocratic background and always had an easy, affable charm about him. Unlike Jinnah, he got on with Mountbatten. But his commitment to the cause of Pakistan was deep. He was always aware that he would have to sacrifice his large landholdings in India once he migrated to Pakistan.

Liaquat was a trusted lieutenant of Jinnah and his first act as prime minister in August 1947 was to issue a formal declaration that henceforth all official correspondence would refer to Jinnah as the Qaid-e-Azam. The next day after Jinnah's death, Indian troops marched into the southern state of Hyderabad and tensions with India increased dramatically.

Liaquat now emerged as a bold and patriotic leader.On October 16, 1951, as he rose to address a large audience in Rawalpindi, an Afghan assassin shot him.As he lay dying, he spoke the Muslim declaration of faith.He left behind the equivalent of fifty pounds in his bank balance.

Nehru sent a gracious message: "The news has filled all his old friends and colleagues in the Parliament of India with the deepest sorrow, both in the personal aspect and in the larger background of the two peoples of India and Pakistan."

While Liaquat is little known in India and respected in Pakistan, the position is reversed in the case of Maulana Azad. As a young student, Azad studied Arabic and Islamic theology and edited the influential Urdu weekly Al-Hilal which was suppressed in 1914 for its anti-British writing. Azad spent many years in British jails. Earlier, he was a member of the Muslim League but in the 1920s crossed over to the Indian Congress Party and opposed Jinnah, who had in the meantime moved in the opposite direction.

Azad consistently opposed the demand for Pakistan and championed a united Indian nation. He was an indefatigable worker for the Congress. Azad was president of the Indian National Congress from 1939-1946 and conducted crucial talks with the British on behalf of the party.

Azad's scholarly contributions are most impressive, particularly his commentary on the Quran. He published his autobiography, India Wins Freedom, with the request that a missing 30 pages would be published 30 years after his death. When the pages were eventually published, they reflected the sense of sorrow at the fate of his community and loss of high ideals of his nation. Like the other great figures of South Asian history—Jinnah and Gandhi, for examples—Azad was shocked at the widespread violence and brutality in the madness of the summer of 1947.

While talking of the freedom movement and the discussion at hand, one cannot but be fascinated by the relationship between Jinnah and Gandhi. Their lives took similar twists too, both about the same age and both dying in the same year, both from similar backgrounds in Gujarat, both educated in law colleges in London, both attacked by fanatics from their own community—Gandhi losing his life to a Hindu fundamentalist who thought he was too soft on Muslims. What is not well known though is that both had a great deal of mutual respect for each other.

They were extraordinary leaders of vision, integrity and intelligence, and sharp humour. Recall their meeting when Gandhi said to Jinnah: "You have mesmerised the Muslims." Quick as a flash, Jinnah replied, "And you have hypnotised the Hindus." There is something charmingly boyish in this bantering alliteration. I can't imagine our present leaders attempting such repartee.

Both Jinnah and Gandhi reflect the inclusivist traditions of South Asia and neither saw 1947 as the creation of two states which would remain in permanent confrontation and enmity. Jinnah's first and perhaps most important speech in Pakistan, on August 11, 1947, to the Constituent Assembly, clearly outlines his modern, democratic, open-minded and humanist vision for Pakistan. He exhorted Hindus to worship in their temples and Muslims in their mosques with freedom. Recall his story in Karachi about wanting to be the "Protector-General" of Hindus when he was the "Governor-General" of Pakistan. This side of Jinnah was written out of history in Pakistan which depicted him as a straightforward Hindu-hater and India-basher and was never mentioned in India where he was demonised.

As for Gandhi, we know that he began his prayer meetings by reading the Quran and the Bible.We know that he fasted when there were riots against Muslims in order to prevent them.And we know he was on his way to Pakistan in friendship after its creation—no doubt to the relief of some Congress leaders who were finding his presence burdensome—and Jinnah was prepared to welcome him there, when he was assassinated.

In the light of this discussion, we need to ask ourselves which is the way ahead in the 21st century.I suggest certain steps.First, we need to read and learn about each other. I find that the tragedy of South Asia is that few in Pakistan appreciate Gandhi's inclusiveness and few in India appreciate Jinnah's inclusiveness. In Pakistan, we need to know much more about figures like Gandhi. In India, people need to read and know more about Jinnah.

With this in mind I launched and completed a project on Jinnah, called the Jinnah Quartet (a feature film Jinnah; a documentary called Mr Jinnah: The Making of Pakistan; a book called Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin; and a graphic novel, The Quaid: Jinnah and the Story of Pakistan). I began to read on and discovered Jinnah, but also Gandhi. I consciously maintained Gandhi's position with dignity and honour—I did not respond to Attenborough's film Gandhi in which he had made Jinnah into a caricature as many Pakistanis wanted me to. I ignored the calls to take "revenge".

Yet the passions and prejudices are so strong in South Asia that even before the filming of Jinnah in 1997 I was attacked in India because commentators thought I would project Jinnah too favorably and Gandhi not favorably enough. Paradoxically, I was also attacked in Pakistan because some of the intelligentsia thought Jinnah was not being projected favorably enough and Gandhi too favorably. Some journalists went overboard and actually wrote that we were "Hindu agents" and had sold out to Indian interests because we had hired Shashi Kapoor to be in the film. On both sides, it became a question of izzat to support the hero and vilify the villain.

Because I am an anthropologist, I understood the importance of honour in our societies in South Asia: these extraordinary heroes had become symbols of our own identity. That's why my new book is titled Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. As an anthropologist, I underline the importance of honour in our part of the world. However, we need to appreciate that to gain honour and respect we need to show honour and respect to others. We will then be able to solve problems where politicians have failed. This is true even of Kashmir.

Indeed, if they were looking down at South Asia, I am sure both Jinnah and the Mahatma would be pained at the turn of events. Jinnah would be dismayed among other things to learn churches have been bombed and a bishop shot himself in despair in Pakistan; that a young American journalist had his throat slit and was forced to say: "I am a Jew." But not only are non-Muslims targets of hate: Muslims are too frequently killed in a mosque in Pakistan. Gandhi would be broken-hearted to confront the rape, murder and arson of Muslims in Gujarat, his own home state. Both would be broken-hearted at the endless cycle of violence in Kashmir. Both would wonder whether the famous Sufi saying of the saint of Ajmer, Moinuddin Chisti, "sulh-e-kul," (peace with all), has now been replaced with "jang-e-kul," (war with all).

Finally, I would suggest that we think of the future in a positive and upbeat manner by taking inspiration from our common history and accepting our common historical figures. We need to accept them all for what they were. We must not see them in rigid categories that have frozen them as cardboard characters and pushed history into a direction of clash and confrontation.It is time to reclaim our common heritage.

(Prof Akbar S. Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington DC. He is co-editor of After Terror: Promoting Dialogue among Civilizations, Polity Press, 2005.).
Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos