Akbar Zaidi and the critical re-evaluation of Jinnah

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

This morning writing in The News, Akbar Zaidi, a respected economist, called for a critical re-evaluation of Jinnah’s role in Pakistan’s history. Just to re-cap this was business as usual – Jinnah’s democratic credentials are questionable because of his streaks of authoritarianism, his claim to secularism is limited to one speech about mandirs, mosques etc, Jinnah’s Pakistan is at best a half truth and there is no critical re-evaluation of Jinnah in Pakistan which needs to be rectified and so on and so forth.  

This has now become a routine matter: If you are an intellectual and scholar you must critically re-evaluate Jinnah’s role. Of course this critical re-evaluation precludes any conclusion which may – after such critically re-evaluate- affirm any positives – few and far between- about the founding father. So say hypothetically if after critical re-evaluation you come to the conclusion that the dismissal of the Khan Ministry (which had lost majority) on Governor General’s advice on 22 August 1947 was constitutional, then it ceases to be critical re-evaluation. If one argues that political blunder as it was, there was nothing undemocratic (imagine if Punjabis want Punjabi to be the national language of Pakistan today by virtue of it being the majority’s language) or illiberal about Jinnah’s pronouncement about Urdu as the state language (he had in the same speech said that Bengali could be the provincial language) per se (especially given that the Urdu-Hindi conflict had a central place in the Hindu-Muslim differences proving yet again that religion was not the primary reason for divergence between the two communities) would be less than critical.  For critical re-evaluation the conclusion must precede the exercise and the exercise must re-affirm the conclusion already drawn – that Jinnah was authoritarian, that his claim to secularism was limited to one speech and all subsequent ills that Pakistan has faced are rooted in Jinnah’s acts and omissions. Any deviation from this conclusion makes your re-evaluation of Jinnah less than critical.

Unfortunately Akbar Zaidi and others like him miss the point. The officially sanctioned narrative is not that Jinnah was a secular liberal democrat. Instead the official narrative- national myth if you will- is Jinnah created Pakistan in the name of Islam and wanted an Islamic state based on Islamic ideology.  This is both a question of fact and interpretation- a question that cannot be answered merely by reading speeches out of context or one speech in August, though that one speech was absolutely crystal clear and there is no room for doubt.  The fact of the matter is that first and foremost a critical re-evaluation is required on the issue of what led to Jinnah demanding a division of India. No one, not even his political rivals, can deny Jinnah’s political career between 1904 to 1939 was aimed at arriving at Hindu-Muslim Unity which he saw as a vehicle for self rule for India. What happened then that led him to demand a separate state? There are of course several answers to this question, including that by Dr Ayesha Jalal, which have sought to crystallize the politics of that period.  Even within the Congress, there were men like C Rajah Gopalachari, who saw reason and sense in what Jinnah was asking for. I don’t want to go into the details of what has been discussed to death.

No matter how you look at it, Islam or an Islamic state was not the rationale or raison d’ etre for Pakistan.  It is also clear that as a parliamentarian with over four decades in the legislature, Jinnah had established his record as a politician who upheld the principle of responsible government (democracy) and equal rights for all citizens, including the right of freedom of speech, expression and movement. On numerous occasions he argued that where religion and common sense / reason were in conflict, common sense and reason must supersede. This was secularism.  He also made it very clear that the communal issue was not a religious issue but a political one which should be resolved for political advance for all of India.  But are they enough to constitute a binding ideology for Pakistanis in the 21st century. Probably not.  However Jinnah’s record is a powerful counter-argument to officially imposed narrative of the nazaria-e-Pakistan. So before we critically re-evaluate Jinnah’s shortcomings – of which I am sure one would be able to list many- let us re-evaluate the reasons as to why an earth shattering partition shook this subcontinent.  There – all critical re-evaluations notwithstanding- it becomes clear that Jinnah’s motivations had nothing to do with Islam.

Now why might this be important? Why must Jinnah still be relevant even after so many years? Perhaps Mr. Zaidi ought to read the newspaper that he writes for. Not long ago, this rag had the audacity to publish a bigoted piece about how Ahmadis were responsible for their own plight in Pakistan and that they should accept that they are non-Muslims. Compare this to Jinnah’s refusal to cave into demands by good Muslims about getting Ahmadis expelled from the Muslim League.  Critical re-evaluation of Jinnah should not come at the expense of a much more needed critical re-evaluation of us as a people. In any event, Jinnah himself did not want to impose his views on generations to come but his assumption was that those who would follow would build on his work and improve it. This assumption turned out to be wrong.  Ideally we should have moved forward every day from 11 August 1947 to realizing a state where “Muslims will cease to be Muslims, but not in a religious sense for that is personal faith of an individual, but in a political sense as citizens of one state”.  Instead some Muslims have become more Muslim and others have become less Muslim.

Coming back to critical re-evaluation of Jinnah and what not!  A critical evaluation of Jinnah requires an unbiased historian. Jinnah has been critically evaluated by several leading unbiased historians, Perry Anderson being the latest one. Historians studying the history of partition from a distance seem to have critically re-evaluated the whole popular narrative on Jinnah, a narrative that our would be critical re-evaluators want to uphold.  In my humble opinion a critical re-evaluation cannot be carried out by Akbar Zaidi or others like him who have already made up their minds about the conclusion they wish to draw (that much is clear from the special pleading that Akbar Zaidi’s article resorts to).

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