Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A voyage round Jinnah

In some ways, August, like T S Eliot’s April, is our cruellest month, “mixing memory and desire”. It does breed, against the backdrop of ritualistic celebrations, some sombre thoughts about what we have made of our freedom and how we had envisioned this freedom in the early days of Pakistan’s existence. As another poet said, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts”.

One of our regrets, to be sure, is that in the past sixty-two years, some of our fundamental issues have not been resolved. Many of us have tirelessly invoked the Quaid’s speech on August 11, 1947 to argue that this was an obvious prescription for a modern, democratic and almost secular dispensation. Meanwhile, the religious elements, the likes of Jamaat-i-Islami, have usurped what they claim is the ideology of Pakistan. But what was their stance before and at the time of the creation of Pakistan?

The truth of the matter is that we have not been able to come to terms, objectively, with the history of our freedom struggle and the role that Jinnah and other leaders of that time had played. We have not resolved the crisis of our identity. Hence, we must be grateful for the controversy that has been created in India over the publication, on Monday, of Jaswant Singh’s laudatory biography of Jinnah. Almost immediately, the former foreign minister of India and a major leader of right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was expelled from his party and was highly censured for praising a leader who has generally been demonised in India.

Not only that, his book – “Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence” – was banned in the state of Gujarat, where BJP wields power. The reason given was that it had “defamatory references” to Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister and a political icon in Gujarat. Now, BJP is an ideology-driven party, like our religious outfits, and these parties tend to suppress free thinking and views that challenge the official line.

While discussions that portray the urgency of breaking news have continued on the electronic media as well as in newspapers in both India and Pakistan, there is little evidence that we, in Pakistan, are willing and capable of exploring that critical phase in our history and go beyond our ‘zindabad’ platitudes. At the same time, we do have a reason to celebrate the vindication of our Founder in an analysis by a Hindu nationalist leader.

But what does it all mean in the context of the creation of Pakistan and its national sense of direction? It does not make much sense that our view of Jinnah should be same as that of an Indian leader who has manifestly been opposed to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. Jaswant looks at Jinnah as a great leader because, as he told Karan Thapar in a television interview, “he created something out of nothing and single-handedly he stood up against the might of the Congress party and against the British who didn’t really like him”.

Yes, Jaswant recognises the fact that Jinnah fought for the interests of Muslims of India but his view is that for most of his political career, he was a nationalist and worked for Hindu-Muslim unity. His image as a secular leader is what endears Jinnah to many Indians. If you remember, L K Advani, of the same BJP, had submitted his resignation in June 2005, at the end of his six-day visit to Pakistan where he had praised Jinnah and this had created a huge controversy in India. He had described Jinnah as one of the “very few who actually create history”.

Incidentally, Advani was born in Sindh and had migrated to India. Irrespective of how we interpret the Hindu-Muslim conflict in the freedom movement, the great communal carnage that took place at the time of the partition and the unprecedented migration that resulted from it is something that we are yet not able to fully comprehend. Should that momentous dislocation, attended by heart-rending tragedies, call for some serious deliberations in the two countries in how they should evolve domestically and in their bilateral relations? After all, the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League were not expecting and were not ready for this surge in primitive passions.

So, was this the reason that Jinnah made that speech on August 11, 1947, that actually seemed to be a repudiation of many of his earlier assertions? Indeed, many issues are raised by that speech that we need to bear in mind on the basis of historical research and intellectual honesty. That Jinnah was an exceptional leader in history is beyond question. In fact, there can be nothing more deferential than the first sentence of Stanley Wolpert’s preface to that great biography: “Jinnah of Pakistan”.

This is it: “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Mohammad Ali Jinnah did all three”. Read it again and it would lift your spirits. Yet, how do you contend with his speech as the newly elected president of the Constituent Assembly in Karachi on August 11, 1947? This must have been the most glorious moment in his career. Pakistan was now a reality. But perhaps he was looking at the unfolding developments and considering the justification for Pakistan’s survival.

Be that it may, the speech makes great sense to at least the liberal elements in Pakistan and it has become more relevant now that the religious extremists have flourished and have caused so much trouble. Even before the eruption of the Jaswant controversy, August 11 this year underlined the Gojra incident in which religious fanatics had brutally attacked a Christian community.

I do not have the space to quote the salient passages from that speech. The gist of it, as I see it, was: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state”. Alas, the leaders who came after Jinnah, with the connivance of the ruling establishment, have subverted this basic principle of a modern state and we can see that all citizens are not equal in the eyes of the law because of so many discriminatory laws.

As I have said, we should welcome the controversy that is sparked by Jaswant Singh’s book. But not just to gloat over this appreciation of the Father of our nation and the biased reactions of Hindu communalists. Here is an incentive for us to find our own Jinnah and save our country from those of his detractors who are averse to rational thinking and who do not want to understand the historic forces that have shaped our times.

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