September Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

Literary criticism can take many forms. Where some use pens to express their disappointment, for others the preferred tools of the trade are bonfires, court orders and threats. Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, is a victim of its notoriety like other books that generate controversy. The meme that Jaswant has written a pro-Jinnah book is now accepted wisdom, thereby leading to a situation where a right-wing Hindu politician has become the toast of Pakistan and vilified in his own country. As is often the case, the accepted wisdom is not particularly wise.

Jaswant Singh says that he spent the last four years researching his book — and it shows. He has immersed himself in the history of British India and produced a dense, scholarly study that should be not be reduced to caricature. As such, it is futile to label the book as either pro- or anti-Jinnah.

Jinnah’s political career, as interpreted by Jaswant, can be divided into three parts. At first, he was a loyal Congress foot soldier, intractably opposed to separate electorates for Muslims and bestowed with the moniker “ambassador for Hindu-Muslim unity.” It is this Jinnah — the constitutionalist who was willing to bargain with the British to kickstart the process that would eventually lead to self-rule for a united India — that, unsurprisingly, most appeals to Jaswant. The high point of Jinnah’s career, says the author, was his pivotal role in negotiating the Lucknow Pact of 1916 and resolving differences between the Congress and Muslim League.
Gradually, Jinnah began to drift away from Congress, supposedly because they were ignoring Muslim interests, and became a leader of the Muslim League. Jaswant sees a bit of political opportunism on the part of Jinnah, speculating that he joined the League because that would allow him to become, in historian Ayesha Jalal’s phrasing, the “sole spokesman” for Muslims in India. At the same time, the author does concede that it was well nigh impossible at that time for a Muslim to become the leader of Congress, and a man with Jinnah’s ambition would never be satisfied playing second fiddle to Nehru and Gandhi.
The third, and what Jaswant considers to be the most destructive phase of Jinnah’s career is traced to the Congress’s rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan, which called for provincial autonomy in India. This rejection triggered Jinnah’s call for a Day of Action, a day that was marked by massive bloodshed. Jaswant argues that at this point Jinnah became the kind of politician he most despised: demagogic, irrational and willing to suspend his constitutionalism for political gain.

What seems to have upset Indians so much about the book, apart from its phantom elevation of Jinnah to sainthood, is Jaswant Singh’s analysis that Nehru and Vallabhai Patel must share some of the blame — and blame is the correct word since Jaswant considers the partition of India to be an abomination — for the creation of Pakistan. It is Jaswant’s view that Jinnah used the threat of Pakistan as a bluff to get what he truly desired: an independent India with provincial autonomy. Such a set-up would have given Jinnah considerable power without necessitating the division of India. The Cabinet Mission Plan did propose this solution to the Congress-Muslim League dispute but it was rejected by the Congress. Nehru and Patel, in essence, believes Jaswant, fell for Jinnah’s bluff.

This same thesis was advanced by Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal in her book The Sole Spokesman and she was roundly criticised in Pakistan for daring to suggest that Jinnah did not necessarily want to establish a separate homeland for the Muslims. Now that an Indian politician has made the same argument, he has been kicked out of his political party while being celebrated in Pakistan. Only in the excessively jingoistic, irrational world of subcontinental politics does this make any sense. Jaswant also takes a somewhat longer view when casting blame for the partition of India. Muslims, he believes, have always had problems assimilating in India, mostly because they identify so strongly with their religion. He also disapproves of the classification of Afghans, Arabs and Uzbeks who came to India, as Muslims. The British, Jaswant argues, were never called Christian invaders. Why then should Muslims be identified primarily by religion rather than nationality or ethnicity? Jaswant believes that this created a culture of separation that played a role in the eventual partition of India.

Lost amid the hubbub surrounding what Jaswant Singh may or may not have said about Jinnah is the fact that the author has produced a work of lasting historical significance. His impeccably-researched volume has filled a void in Indian scholarship, as Jaswant Singh may be one of the first Indians to present an objective look at the circumstances that led to the creation of Pakistan. That such a work has been produced by a politician — not a breed known for its intellect, at least in the subcontinent — is all the more remarkable. And if Jaswant’s critics — and fans — take the time to read what he has actually written, they may find their prejudices, against both Jaswant and Jinnah, were completely unfounded.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.