By Karan Thapar
There’s a book published tomorrow that deserves to be widely read. It’s Jaswant Singh’s biography of Jinnah. Read on and you’ll discover why.
Singh’s view of Jinnah is markedly different to the accepted Indian image. He sees him as a nationalist, even accepting that Jinnah was a great Indian. I’ll even add he admires Jinnah and I’m confident he won’t disagree when I interview him tonight on CNN-IBN.
The critical question this biography raises is how did the man they called the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity in 1916 end up as the Qaid-e-Azam of Pakistan in 1947? The answer: he was pushed by the Congress’s repeated inability to accept that Muslims feared domination by Hindus and wanted “space” in “a re-assuring system”. Singh’s account of how the Congress refused to form a government with the Muslim League in UP in 1937, after fighting the election in alliance, except on terms that would have amounted to its dissolution, suggests Jinnah’s fears were real and substantial.
The biography does not depict Jinnah as the only or even the principal villain of Partition. Nehru and Mountbatten share equal responsibility. While the book reveals that Gandhi, Rajagopalachari and Azad understood the Muslim fear of Congress majoritarianism, Nehru could not. If there is a conclusion, it is that had the Congress accepted a decentralised, federal India, then a united India “was clearly ours to attain”. The problem: “this was an anathema to Nehru’s centralising approach and policies”.
Singh’s assessment of Partition is striking. After asserting that it “multiplied our problems without solving any communal issue,” he asks “if the communal, the principal issue, remains…. in an even more exacerbated form than before… then why did we divide at all?” The hinted answer is that no real purpose was served.
But Singh goes further. He accepts that because of Partition, the Muslims who stayed on in India are “abandoned”, “bereft of a sense of real kinship” and “not… one in their entirety with the rest… This robs them of the essence of psychological security.”
But that’s not all. He does not rule out further partitions: “In India… having once accepted this principle of reservation (1909)… then of partition, how can we now deny it to others…?”
Where the book compares the early Jinnah and Gandhi, the language and the analysis tilt in the former’s favour. At their first meeting in 1915, Gandhi’s response to Jinnah’s “warm welcome” was “ungracious”. Gandhi insisted on seeing Jinnah in Muslim terms and the implication is he was narrow-minded. Of their leadership, the book says Gandhi’s “had almost an entirely religious provincial flavour” while Jinnah’s was “doubtless imbued by a non-sectarian nationalistic zeal”.
Finally, “Jinnah… successfully kept the Indian political forces together, simultaneously exerting pressure on the government.” In Gandhi’s case “that pressure dissipated and the British Raj remained for three more decades.”
Unfortunately, I can’t assess the reliability of Singh’s viewpoint. I’m not an historian. But I can assert that it’s courageous and probably a valuable corrective. We need to see Jinnah without the prejudice of the past. It may be uncomfortable to accept suppressed truths but we can’t keep denying them.
This book will stir a storm of protest, perhaps most from Jaswant Singh’s own party. He realises that. But it did not deter him.