December 2021

An error and a tragedy

MJ Akbar recalls how Pakistan’s founding father, contrary to his avowed mission, drove an enduring wedge between the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent

Did the partition of an India ranging from Iran to Burma, the obsessive achievement of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, save the subcontinent’s Muslims or destroy them?

Jinnah, always so publicly insistent that Partition was synonymous with Muslim salvation, was never privately sure about what Pakistan would mean in real terms, which is why he never defined the geography or ideology of his imagined country, the two essential parameters of a nation-state. His motto was set in granite: never explain, always complain.

Both Lord Wavell, the penultimate viceroy, and his successor Lord Mountbatten tried repeatedly to pin Jinnah to specifics, and he consistently spun his way out of a cogent answer, provoking a frustrated Mountbatten to call him a ‘psychopathic case’. As Mountbatten pointed out more than once to Jinnah in April 1947, a united India would be ‘the most progressive single entity’ and ‘immensely powerful and in the front rank of world powers’. But, as Mountbatten records on April 11th, 1947, Jinnah ‘offered no counter arguments. He gave the impression he was not listening. He was impossible to argue with… Mr Jinnah was a psychopathic case. He was, whatever was said, intent on his Pakistan – which could surely only result in doing the Muslims irreparable damage’.

Mountbatten was totally right. Muslims suffered irreparable damage because of the creation of Pakistan. Jinnah’s only achievement was to divide Indian Muslims into three countries, destroying their potential role as a dynamic catalyst in a powerful, democratic, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and united India.

Jinnah’s greatest success was also his biggest failure.

Given the title of his book (Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History, Viking), it is a pity that Ishtiaq Ahmed downplays this theme of the tripartite debate in his otherwise excellent, comprehensive narrative. He does, however, leave more than one tantalising hint of post facto doubt. He cites quotations which indicate that Jinnah suffered from winner’s remorse, even to the point of describing Pakistan as his ‘biggest blunder’.

Muslims suffered irreparable damage because of the creation of Pakistan

Jinnah’s inflexible argument, that Muslims could not live with Hindus in one nation, had no basis in either the history or the geography of the subcontinent. Jinnah did not delineate the borders of his proposed Pakistan because his central argument was flawed. There was no way in which the various communities of Indian Muslims, spread across nearly every language and zone of the subcontinent, could be accommodated into one contiguous space. Ironically, Punjab, governed by the Unionist Party between 1936 and 1946, was living contemporary proof that Jinnah’s thesis was flawed. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs not only lived together but also demonstrated how a composite alliance could govern with equity and balance.

Jinnah’s Pakistan was a strange phenomenon, its two wings on either side of India, like two bodies with no head. As the Bengalis of what is now Bangladesh realised soon enough, Pakistan had no heart either. MC Chagla, the eminent jurist who worked in Jinnah’s chambers as a young man, once described Jinnah as a brilliant advocate but a poor lawyer. What he meant was that Jinnah could argue a case superbly with little consideration of its basis.

Jinnah’s life was a thesaurus of contradictions. Religion was a marginal fact; he was a believer in the nominal rather than normative sense. He prayed only occasionally, for politic instead of spiritual reasons. He never fasted during Ramzan, or obeyed Islam’s dietary laws. Although he travelled widely, he never ever thought of going on a pilgrimage to Mecca for Haj.

Born in a conventional Gujarati Shia Muslim family, Jinnah developed a very distinct Western sheen as a young man. His manners were British; his behaviour was patrician – he even disliked touching people below his acquired class, which is a startling phobia for a politician. But his grasp on politics was firm, and his assessment of an opponent’s fallibility acute. His natural self-confidence was amplified, in the last and most dramatic years of his life, by the obstinacy of a person who knows that time is running out quickly.

Since at least 1940, Jinnah was aware that his life was being eaten away by lung disease, aggravated if not caused by his chain-smoking. For the last seven years of his life, Jinnah knew what his doctors knew: that tuberculosis was preying on his dream to enter the history books. It must have hurt to watch his bête noire Mohandas Gandhi become the Mahatma of India and a cynosure of the world.

The last dance of Jinnah’s life began in March 1940, with a pirouette in Delhi en route to Lahore for the League session, at which he first raised the demand for Pakistan. He was severely ill on the train from Bombay but the appointment in Delhi was too important to miss. He was scheduled to meet the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow. Jinnah knew what the British wanted, and he was ready to offer a grand bargain.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah (pictured) was described by the jurist MC Chagla as ‘a brilliant advocate but a poor lawyer’

Congress, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, had taken a hard line since the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Gandhi was ready to assist the British in the war but wanted immediate independence as his price. Jinnah, in contrast, promised Linlithgow wholehearted support at a time when Britain was floundering in its ‘darkest hour’. In return, he obtained a succinct British commitment: Jinnah, as the acknowledged leader of the Muslim League, would have the right of a veto in whatever constitutional arrangement was made for India after the end of the war. This became known as the ‘August Offer’ because it was made publicly by Linlithgow in August 1940. Jinnah backed the British and waited for them to win the war.

As Ahmed confirms, Jinnah had no need for a mole in the British Raj; he kept in direct touch with Churchill. This goes a long way to explain his unusual confidence during the difficult negotiations with the Cripps Mission of 1942 and the Cabinet Mission of 1946. Jinnah was certain that London would honour its assurance. Jinnah was right when he commented, after 1947, that he and his stenographer had created Pakistan. The Muslim League was an instrument of convenience, not a material political force.

As events panned out, by 1945 and 1946 Jinnah’s decision boiled down to one of two options: if he accepted Muslim integration into the framework of a united India, India would remain a single nation; if he insisted on a separate homeland, Pakistan would be granted. A few well-meaning British leaders tried to persuade Jinnah out of his obsession. They failed. Britain washed its hands of any guilt. The decision on Pakistan had been made by the political high priest of Muslims and endorsed by the results of the 1946 elections.

This justification was a fallacy that has been left largely unchallenged. There was no adult franchise in British-Indian democracy. The vote was restricted to a privileged class of between 10 and 11 per cent of the population, demarcated by the ability to pay ‘rates’ or taxes. Nine-tenths of Indian Muslims did not get a chance to vote on Pakistan. Moreover, the franchise was communalised through separate electorates, in that only Muslims could vote for Muslim candidates, thereby creating impetus for divisive and unsubstantiated emotionalism.

Jinnah had no need for a mole in the British Raj; he kept in direct touch with Churchill

Ahmed describes the Raj strategy: ‘British encouragement and support to Jinnah allowed him to broach populist rhetoric promising a Muslim paradise on earth to Indian Muslims. The core and supplementary arguments and political tactics and strategies he devised were aimed at bringing about the division of India. Jinnah’s demand was granted by the British but on their terms.’ Whenever their protégé slipped, the British were there to steady Jinnah on the slippery road from resolution to reality.

There was only one point at which Jinnah seemed to falter, when in June 1946 the Cabinet Mission declared a plan for British departure which would leave India united. Jinnah, apprehensive that its terms were the best he would get from his British mentors, announced acceptance. For a brief while there was nationwide jubilation. And then something startling occurred. Jawaharlal Nehru, just named Congress president, gave a press conference in Bombay at which he diluted Congress’ acceptance of the plan.

Jinnah, under pressure from League hardliners for abandoning the Pakistan demand, condemned Nehru’s statement as typical Congress chicanery. If this, he noted tartly, was how quickly Congress could renege on a commitment when the British were still around, how could they be trusted after the British left? Jinnah called for ‘direct action’, which led to communal riots that destroyed all hope of any amicable solution. The worst violence was witnessed in Calcutta between August 16th and 18th, 1946 during which at least 3,000 people were killed and over 17,000 injured.

Ahmed makes a telling point about what became known as the Great Calcutta Killing: ‘The interesting thing is that no legal proceedings were initiated [by the British government] against him [Jinnah] or Suhrawardy or any other prominent Muslim League leader, whereas Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, Patel, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and others had, on several occasions in the past, been arrested for giving calls of Direct Action and civil disobedience. Stern action from the British could have nipped the evil in the bud, which spread quickly from Calcutta to other parts of India’.

As Ahmed accepts, violence played a transformative role in the evolution of Pakistan: ‘The toxic rivalry between the INC and the AIML and the years of bickering was pivotal to the political impasse which had created an explosive situation, but the full significance and shattering impact of communal riots on mass psychology needs to be put into perspective. It set in motion processes of action-reaction compounded by intended and unintended reactions, which brutalised relations between the Hindus and Sikhs, on the one hand, and Muslims on the other. The demonisation and dehumanisation of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs existed from the 1920s, at least when religious revivals, the munazaras (polemics) between religious figures over belief and faith had resulted in a number of communal conflicts. However, it was not until now that it burst out in the form of large-scale communal frenzy. Such processes culminated in the partition of India, Bengal and the Punjab in mid-August 1947, which inflicted unprecedented loss of life, home and poverty. Although the violence included spontaneous revenge attacks, organised and planned attacks on the “enemy” had already begun in the second half of 1946, and, after the transfer of power in mid-August, were carried out with the full involvement of partisan administrations that came to power on both sides of the divided Punjab. A pall of death lay everywhere. It resulted in the first case of ethnic cleansing in the divided Punjab after World War II.’

The true political culture of Pakistan was apparent in the song sung at the Muslim League conference at Sultankot in 1945:

Let there be in Pakistan, the separate centre of Islam,

We shall not in Pakistan have to look at faces of non-Muslims.

The abode of the Muslim nation will brighten up only

When in Pakistan there remain no idolatrous thorns.

Ironically, if Jinnah germinated Pakistan from the magic sprout of an illusory paradise fertilised by violence, he also sowed the seeds for the destruction of Pakistan by denying Bengali Muslims their legitimate rights. The liberation struggle of Bangladesh is rooted in Jinnah’s categorical denial of Bengali as a national language.

In his book Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History (Viking), Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed’s impressive scholarship abjures partisanship

Jinnah, always conscious of the fragility of the Pakistan idea, was convinced that the co-option of Bengali into the national ethos would weaken Pakistan. Jinnah, an Anglophile, did not have any clue about the deep emotional and cultural commitment of Indians to their various languages. He launched a vigorous campaign against ‘provincialism’, telling the Bar Association of Karachi: ‘I want the Muslims to get rid of the disease of provincialism.’ His bugbear was Bengal.

Jinnah and his successors, including the cocktail-drinking, cosmopolitan Nawab, Liaquat Ali Khan, also thought that the deficiencies of the Pakistan idea would be resolved by turning Islam into a cohesive cement. This, as was pointed out by those who understood the faith, like the scholar-politician Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, or the pre-eminent cleric of Deoband, Maulana Syed Hussain Madani, was naive. Islam is a universal, revealed faith; Allah is Rabb-ul aal amin, or the Lord of all the worlds. Islam cannot be subsumed into the foundational architecture of nationalism. Nations are built on principles very different from those applied to a mosque.

The kindest thing one can say about Jinnah and ‘Islamism’ is that he was confused, a dilemma which his school of admirers have tried to resolve by sanitising his personal life and some of his public utterances. A case in point is the famous, or infamous, speech Jinnah delivered on August 11th, 1947.

He certainly left his new country a bit bewildered when he said that it was left to the future to judge whether the final verdict on Pakistan would be favourable or unfavourable. He then accepted that his second premise, that Islam was the basis of a single identity, was erroneous. He admitted divisions between ‘Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on’. He then demolished his third reason for a separate ‘homeland’ while telling Muslims that ‘nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued [their] hold on you for any length of time’. This directly contradicted his previous assertion that Islam would be obliterated on the subcontinent without the emergence of Pakistan.

The most controversial, and for his followers even traumatic, assertion was Jinnah’s secular argument in this speech that ‘in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State’.

In plain words, the advocacy of Pakistan had been a fraud. Ahmed believes Jinnah was telling a ‘noble lie’ in this speech to calm tensions and prevent a two-way exodus of minorities, but that is not very convincing. It is far more likely that the inherent paradox within Jinnah was becoming manifest in the comfort zone of success.

Jinnah’s personal life reflects the many dimensions of this paradox. Ishtiaq Ahmed repeats Chagla’s famous story about Ruttie Jinnah bringing her husband ham sandwiches but ignores the rather more telling incident of Jinnah ordering pork sausages in a Bombay restaurant in the company of Chagla.

Jinnah was honest enough to eat and drink what he liked through his life. Ahmed records a story told by Syed Munir Husain, a renowned civil servant, which he heard from the Khan of Kalat. Jinnah had scheduled a meeting with 16 leading Baloch sardars in 1945. When he emerged from the dressing room, he was followed by a valet carrying his drink on a tray. It was politely suggested that it might be unwise to carry the drink to the meeting. Jinnah flared up, put on his monocle, and said angrily: ‘Whatever I am inside, I am the same outside. What business have you to advise me?’ [The text in Ahmed’s book says ‘businesses’ but that would be idiomatically wrong. Jinnah spoke correct English.] Jinnah offered drinks when he met leaders of the Sikh community in Delhi in mid-May 1947.

More remarkably, he proposed a toast to the health of His Majesty King George VI at a banquet on the evening of August 13th, 1947, thereby celebrating Pakistan’s birth with alcohol. He was undeterred by the fact that August 13th happened to fall in the last week of the holy month of Ramzan.

Ishtiaq Ahmed, perhaps out of abundant caution, attributes stories about Jinnah wanting to return to Bombay as ‘rumour’ but nevertheless chooses to place these ‘rumours’ on record. As an academic he would not have done so had he not given some weightage to such ‘rumours’.

When Jinnah heard that the Government of India was thinking of requisitioning his home in Malabar Hill, he ‘pleaded’ with Sri Prakasa, the first Indian high commissioner to Karachi: ‘Tell Jawaharlal Nehru not to break my heart. I have built it brick by brick. Who can live in a house like that?… You do not know how I love Bombay. I still look forward to going back there.’ An amazed Sri Prakasa asked if he could convey this to Nehru. Jinnah replied: ‘Yes, you may.’

There is another ‘alleged’ statement of Jinnah: ‘I have committed the biggest blunder in creating Pakistan and would like to go to Delhi and tell Nehru to forget the follies of the past and become friends again.’ We can be quite certain that if he were alive after the first military coup in Pakistan, he would have decided to return to Bombay. But there remains a nagging question: Would the Government of India have given him a visa in 1958?

For most of his life, Jinnah remained reserved, taciturn and secretive. He wrote his will in May 1939, but it was only after his death that Liaquat Ali Khan, his close associate and the first prime minister of Pakistan, came to know that he was its trustee and executor. He left only 2,00,000 rupees in his will for his only child, Dina Wadia, because she married a Parsi man against his wishes.

So many questions, not enough answers. Hence, so many books. Ahmed’s impressive scholarship abjures partisanship. We are used to books being called a doorstopper – at 808 pages of text, this tome could stop an oak door – as monumental. That it is, but with multi-storeyed height rather than palatial spread. Ahmed sets the perspective of his mammoth study of a complex life with a quotation from the fertile oeuvre of Karl Marx, who wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: ‘Men make their history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past’.

Jinnah was an exception. He created Pakistan just as he pleased, with help from the special circumstances of British rule. The price is being paid by succeeding generations.

MJ Akbar is an MP and the author of, most recently, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle against Jinnah’s Islam