It seemed that Gandhi had learnt nothing from the failure of his experimental anti-Rowlatt agitation. The only reforms Gandhi seemed to be interested in were personal ones, including Jinnah’s. ‘I have your promise,’ Gandhi wrote in his letter, presumably in reply to Jinnah’s letter which is lost, ‘that you would take up Gujarati and Hindi as quickly as possible. May I then suggest that like Macaulay you learn at least one of these languages on your return voyage? You will not have Macaulay’s time during the voyage, i.e., six months, but then you have not the same difficulty that Macaulay had.’
In the same letter, dated 28 June 1919, Gandhi was equally bent on proselytising Ruttie: ‘Pray tell Mrs Jinnah that I shall expect her on her return to join the hand-spinning class that Mrs Banker Senior and Mrs Ramabai, a Punjabi lady, are conducting.’ Unlike his unusual stiffness with Jinnah, Gandhi was more himself with Ruttie, able to be warm and close with her in a way he failed somehow to be with Jinnah, unable to get past his defences. He had probably met Ruttie several times through Sarojini and they seem to have hit it off quite well, judging by the one letter from Gandhi to Ruttie that remains of their correspondence, and the jokes they shared at each other’s expense through Sarojini’s witticisms. Jinnah, of course, was not part of this good-humoured ragging, possibly with his sense of dignity coming in the way.
After that one letter from Gandhi while they were in England, Jinnah seems to have not bothered to get in touch with him again. In fact, it was Gandhi who next sought him out, addressing his plea to Jinnah through Ruttie. It was the same old thing again. Dated April 30, 1920, the letter said: ‘Please remember me to Mr Jinnah and do coax him to learn Hindustani or Gujarati. If I were you, I should begin to talk to him in Gujarati or Hindustani. There is not much danger of you forgetting your English or your misunderstanding each other, is there?’ ‘Will you do it?’ he went on in his insistent way. ‘Yes, I would ask this even for the love you bear me.’
But by now—Jinnah was holidaying in Ooty with Ruttie from April 19 to June 3, 1920—Gandhi was giving him much more to worry about than merely proselytising. While Jinnah had been away in England for five months the previous year, Gandhi had once again changed tack and bounced back into the political mainstream by changing the rules entirely. He used a gambit that no politician before him had ever tried: uniting Hindus and Muslims by espousing a religious cause that concerned only Muslims. This was the ‘Khilafat’ issue. After the War, Indian Muslims were concerned over the fate of defeated Turkey facing dismemberment of its Ottoman empire and with it, the threat of their holy places in Arabia slipping from the custody of the Turkish Caliph into non-Muslim hands. The matter was serious enough to make Muslims want to protest against the peace treaty that the Allies were drawing up, especially because the British government was going back on its word given before the War that the Caliphate would not be disturbed.
In Jinnah’s view, the Khilafat question was unfortunate, but not really a political issue at all. Of course, he took an interest in it, representing to the government both in India and Britain, but it was more to appease his Muslim constituency than because his heart was in it. Gandhi, on the other hand, took it up with his usual missionary zeal. While Jinnah had been away, Gandhi had befriended the more radical Muslim leaders who wanted to fight for the Khilafat cause and had been spurring them on into forming their own organisation so that he could have their backing for his non-cooperation programme. He had become such a champion of the Khilafat cause that he started writing and speaking on it wherever he went. With his help and guidance, Khilafat committees sprang up in every province of the subcontinent. And by the time Jinnah returned, with his head full of the reforms bill and what could be done with it, Gandhi had effectively shifted public attention away from the reforms to the Khilafat issue. Even worse, the movement had acquired enough momentum for them to hold a political convention in Simla that was so big that it cast the Muslim League into shade. Representatives of every sect of Muslims from across the subcontinent were expected to attend, giving the convention a pan-Indian character that undermined the Muslim League’s importance.
On the surface, Jinnah showed no alarm at the developments. He was even able to put up a show of great liberality by expressing his ‘happiness’ at the growing signs of Hindu–Muslim unity, which he called the ‘most important thing necessary for success’ in an interview to the Bombay Chronicle the day after he landed. But his pride would not let him attend the conference in Simla, although he did receive an invitation. The prospect of being overshadowed by Gandhi at a Muslim conference was hardly an incentive.
It was a mistake, though, to allow Gandhi to take the field by himself and emerge as a leader of both Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi had attended the Simla convention with prominent Hindu leaders and after that had stepped up his involvement with the Khilafat issue by writing newspaper articles and giving speeches. His call for a ‘Khilafat Day’ got a huge response from both Muslims and Hindus, enabling him to re-emerge as the tallest national leader. And by the following month in Amritsar, where the Congress and Muslim League were holding their annual sessions simultaneously, Jinnah was literally forced to take a back seat, sitting directly behind Gandhi at the Congress sessions and helping him steer a difficult resolution past his opponents in the Congress.
At the Muslim League’s convention also it was Gandhi’s protégés, the Ali brothers, who stole the limelight. They had just been freed from imprisonment and arrived midway through the session and the proceedings were interrupted as members stood up to welcome them with loud cheers of ‘Allahu Akbar!’ The older of the two brothers, Shaukat Ali, took over the stage, delivering a thundering speech that called on ‘forty lakhs of Mussalmans to come forward and die for their religion’ while the audience fell to weeping at his words. His brother, Mohammed Ali, followed with another tearful speech and on that high note of emotion, regular proceedings had to be suspended for the day.
At the Khilafat conference, which was the highlight of this Congress session, Jinnah was again sidelined. He sat on the platform squeezed between dozens of Gandhi’s supporters, both Hindu and Muslim, facing a record 16,000 Muslims who had turned up at Gandhi’s call. He listened impassively as Gandhi demonstrated the power of speaking in Urdu rather than English, outshining even the Ali brothers, who were meant to be the star attraction. Gandhi’s speech delivered in his diligently acquired Urdu was of such ‘incredible power and lucidity’, as the Bombay Chronicle reported the next day, that ‘he captured the Muslim heart and mind’.
After Amritsar, Gandhi stepped up his Khilafat campaign even further and went on an extensive tour with the Ali brothers in order to rally support for the cause among Hindus across the country. Gandhi had once again cast Jinnah into a major dilemma: he could not afford to detach himself from the Khilafat cause because of its significance to Muslims; yet he did not want to yield to pressure from Gandhi or Gandhi’s Muslim friends. His reason pulled one way while his pride pulled in the opposite direction. But he kept his troubles close to himself as was his habit.
Jinnah with sister Fatima (left) and daughter Dina
If there was something troubling him, Ruttie would have no way of divining it, so impenetrable was his silence when he wanted to be alone with his thoughts. She was clueless even about the undercurrents between him and Gandhi. She was not the sort to seek her husband’s permission for her friendships, and it had not occurred to her to take his prior permission before corresponding with Gandhi. Nor did she tell him of the cheque she had sent to Gandhi sometime before they left for their holiday. It was a generous impulse on her part, wanting to contribute to the fund that Gandhi had started for a memorial at Jallianwala Bagh to commemorate the killings. ‘The memorial would at least give us an excuse for living,’ as she must have said in her accompanying note, for Gandhi quoted her in his next newspaper column, taking care to mention how ‘Mrs Jinnah truly remarked when she gave her mite to the fund, the memorial would at least give us an excuse for living.’ The article, ‘Neither a Saint Nor a Politician’, which appeared in Gandhi’s weekly newspaper, Young India, on May. 12, 1920, would have probably escaped Jinnah’s notice—at least till he got home from his holiday in Ooty—but even had he read it, it was not in his nature to raise the subject with Ruttie, considering it strictly her business whom she chose to write to or send money to.
So, while Ruttie had been looking forward to their time alone in Ooty and thought she had ‘insured myself quite an exciting time’ by leaving the baby back at home and sending up two horses and a car ahead of them, it did not turn out as she had hoped. Instead of spending their days outdoors in the hills and going riding all day—Ooty was famous for its hunting season—Jinnah was preoccupied throughout the over forty days they spent at the Savoy Hotel with his political anxieties, for which he blamed Gandhi. He not only found himself out of his depth in this religion-tinted new politics that Gandhi had started but was also dismayed that Muslims were deserting the Muslim League and moving towards the Khilafat committees run by Gandhi’s friends—or at least those Muslim leaders who were inspired by his methods of mass mobilisation.