January 25, 2021
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The Multiple Facets of Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Jinnah was certainly responsible more than most for the division of the country. He turned the Muslim League’s original brief that was to protect Muslim interests where they were most vulnerable, namely in the Muslims minority provinces, on its head by advocating that the Muslim majority areas should be separated from the rest of India.

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The Multiple Facets of Muhammad Ali Jinnah
File photo of Muhammad Ali Jinnah
The Multiple Facets of Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Vappala Balachandran’s article “Jinnah’s Role in Weakening India’s Territorial Integrity” (Outlook Website 24 September 2020) revisits Jinnah’s responsibility in the partition of India based on his reading of Pakistani-Swedish academic Ishtiaq Ahmed’s latest book Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History supplemented by his own research on the subject. Balachandran following Professor Ahmed posits that Jinnah ceased to be a “secular nationalist” beginning 1920 but he does not go into the reasons for Jinnah’s change of heart. It is true that Jinnah resigned from the Congress in 1920 but this was not because he advocated Muslim separatism at that point but because he found he was a misfit in the new Congress now led by Mahatma Gandhi.

There were two major sources of difference between him and Gandhi. One, Jinnah as a liberal constitutionalist of the old school like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who were his mentors, was uncomfortable with the Congress’s turn toward agitational politics under the Mahatma’s leadership. Two, as a confirmed secularist he was against the use of Hindu and Muslim religious terminology adopted by Gandhi to mobilize the populace. He was opposed not only to the use of references to Hindu idioms such as Ram Rajya but even more strongly to the Khilafat movement that he scorned as antediluvian. He warned Gandhi that the use of religious idioms to mobilize people against British rule would lead to perpetual division between Hindus and Muslims and jeopardize the unity of India. He refused to refer to the leader of the Khilafat movement Muhammad Ali as "Maulana" for which he was hooted down at the Nagpur session of the Congress in 1920 and left in disgust. This was the immediate reason why he resigned from the Congress.

Both his partisans and his critics tend to forget that Jinnah was opposed to separate electorates when they were first introduced because he felt they would divide Indians on religious lines. This makes his return from London in the second half of the 1930s as the undisputed leader of the Muslim League and his championing of the “Muslim” cause and exploitation of the benefits of separate electorates one of the most dramatic transformations undergone by a political leader.

Balachandran’s article taking its cue from Ishtiaq Ahmed gives a very one-dimensional portrait of Jinnah. His transformation from the "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity" as the principal author of the Lucknow Pact in 1916 to the arrogation of the role of "sole spokesman” of Indian Muslims following the Congress's refusal to form a coalition government with the Muslim League in UP in 1937, and finally to the "father of Pakistan", a role that he apparently came to regret on his deathbed, is a complex story. One cannot understand Jinnah's motivations and actions in isolation from those of other actors both British and Indian. It is true that there were some British strategists such as Olaf Caroe who preferred partition so that Pakistan could act as an ally and buffer against the USSR and protect British/Western interests in the subcontinent. But, there were also many British politicians and officials including several in the Atlee government who tried hard to keep India united, even if as a confederal polity, until the very end.

British "perfidy" in terms of creating divisions among Indians goes back much further than the Simon Commission of 1927 which Balachandran identifies as the beginning of the divide and rule policy. Divide and rule was a common practice adopted by colonial powers to perpetuate their rule. British historiography from the second half of the 19th century onward instilled into the Hindu elites the idea that Islam and Hinduism were polar opposites and that Muslim rulers invariably oppressed their Hindu subjects. Similarly, the colonial rulers created a climate of insecurity among Muslim elites that they will be totally sidelined in Hindu-majority independent India. In 1906 at the behest of the Governor-General a delegation of Muslim notables led by the Aga Khan called on him to plead for separate electorates for Muslims. These were enshrined in the 1909 Morley-Minto reforms. Maulana Muhammad Ali, the leader of the Khilafat movment, called the 1906 delegation a "command performance" undertaken on the orders of the Viceroy. However, blaming the British solely for dividing India is too simplistic an assertion. As Maulana Mummad Ali pointed out at the time “We divide, they rule.” The blame has to be shared by all parties.

The Congress's refusal to accommodate the Muslim League in the UP government in 1937 was most probably the turning point that made Jinnah choose the separatist path or at the very least to demonstrate that the Muslim League and he as the party’s leader were the sole spokesmen of the Indian Muslims. Furthermore, one should not ignore the fact that the CWC accepted Mountbatten’s partition plan in June 1947 at the behest of Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad and other leaders despite Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s desperate pleas against doing so, and Maulana Azad’s abstention (he did not vote against the plan in deference to his friend Nehru who had moved the resolution). On the morning of June 3, 1947, the day the Partition plan was announced, Gandhi told Rajendra Prasad, “I can see only evil in the plan.” Reacting to a question by a reporter whether he would undertake a fast to prevent partition, Gandhi, uncharacteristically dejected, replied: “If the Congress commits to an act of madness, does it mean I should die?”

Jinnah was certainly responsible more than most for the division of the country. He turned the Muslim League’s original brief that was to protect Muslim interests where they were most vulnerable, namely in the Muslims minority provinces, on its head by advocating that the Muslim majority areas should be separated from the rest of India. However, he was not solely responsible for this outcome. It was the result of a complex interplay of factors and personalities that in hindsight seems to have inexorably led to what was akin to a Greek tragedy. Pakistani lawyer and prolific writer on Jinnah Yasir Latif Hamdani provides a complex and richer narrative about Jinnah in a recently published book Jinnah: A Life. In the book Hamdani mentions that on his deathbed Jinnah told his doctor that he regretted dividing India and creating Pakistan and that he wanted to be friends with his nemesis Jawaharlal Nehru. This was expunged from the sanitized version put out by the Government of Pakistan

Whether Jinnah was genuinely committed to creating Pakistan or was using it primarily as a bargaining tool may be a debatable matter, but he certainly had no clue what Pakistan would look like once it was established. Given his secular life style and scant knowledge of Islam or of any other religion he failed to understand that a state defined on the basis of religion, even if religion was used merely for instrumental purposes, would inevitably come to be dominated ideologically by the most fundamentalist segments of society. He had never thought through this issue possibly because he believed that in the final analysis the division of India was improbable. Even after partition, as Hamdani points out, he referred to the two countries as Hindustan and Pakistan reserving the epithet India for the entire subcontinent including both the successor states of British India.

That Jinnah’s political life was a failure is a fact not recognized either by his fans or his critics. The erstwhile “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” failed as an Indian nationalist that was his initial persona and the “moth eaten” (Jinnah’s words) Pakistan awarded to him by the British with the concurrence of the Congress failed to live up to his dreams. Most probably at the end he realized his failure on both fronts. As his remark on his deathbed signifies he died a disillusioned man.

(Views are personal)

*Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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