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Interview with Ayesha Jalal

“It is a mistake to equate the demand for Pakistan with the partition of India”

Ayesha Jalal, Pakistani historian and author of ’The Sole Spokesman’, picks through the tangle of the Jinnah controversy with Shoma Chaudhury

by Shoma Chaudhury, 11 September 2009

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From Tehelka (September 2009)

What strikes you, personally, as the sharpest irony of the Jinnah- Jaswant Singh controversy and its fallout in India?

What strikes me as most ironic is the extent to which the ’’’secular’ Congress and the ’communal’ BJP end up subscribing to the same common idioms of Indian nationalism when it comes to Pakistan and its most potent symbol, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Jinnah of the 1916 Lucknow Pact where Sarojini Naidu hailed him as the “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”; Jinnah of the 1940 Lahore Declaration and two-nation theory; Jinnah who wanted Pakistan to be a “laboratory of Islam”; the secular Jinnah of the August 11 1947 address. And the Jinnah of the personal domain: a Parsi wife, smoking, drinking. How is one to reconcile all these? Were these all stages in the evolution of Jinnah’s political thinking, or were they expedient positions?

Like any other successful politician, Jinnah changed tactics without losing sight of his ultimate strategic objectives in response to shifting political dynamics during a career spanning several decades. Only a most superficial and politically tainted understanding of Jinnah can lead to the conclusion that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between his early career when he was hailed as the ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ and his later years when he orchestrated the demand for a Pakistan in order to win an equitable share of power for Muslims in an independent India.

As for the presumed contradiction between his personal lifestyle and championing of a Pakistan in which Islam would play a role, the problem again lies with an insufficient understanding of what Jinnah meant by Islam. The Islam he advocated was neither bigoted nor narrow-minded, but one based on principles of equity, justice and fairplay for all, regardless of caste or creed. Jinnah never abandoned his secular and liberal vision for purposes of expediency. This is amply in evidence from the speeches he gave in the aftermath of partition on the place of religion and the minorities in the Muslim state of Pakistan.

Your own book argues that Partition was a gross miscalculation and Jinnah never wanted it till the end. How is one to read his demand for two nations then? And what, according to you, did Jinnah really want?

What I argued in was that it was a mistake to equate the demand for Pakistan with the partition of India as it took place in 1947. After 1940, the demand for Pakistan was intended by Jinnah as a means to stake a claim for the Muslim share of power in India once the British quit. He argued that the unitary centre of the raj was a British construction and would stand dissolved at the moment of decolonization. Any reconstitution of the centre would have to be based on the premise that there were ‘two nations’ in India – the Muslim nation represented by the Muslim-majority provinces in the north-west and north-east (Pakistan) and the Hindu nation represented by the Hindu-majority provinces (Hindustan). Once the Congress and the British conceded the principle of a Pakistan, Jinnah left it an open question whether the two parts of India would arrive at treaty arrangements on matters of common concern as two sovereign states or enter into a confederal arrangement on the basis of equality. Jinnah always insisted that ‘Pakistan’ had to be based on undivided Punjab and Bengal and resolutely opposed the partition of these two provinces along ostensibly religious lines until the bitter end. By insisting on a wresting power at a strong center with only the most nominal concessions to the provincial autonomy demanded by the Muslim-majority provinces, by endorsing the Hindu Mahasabha’s call to partition Punjab and Bengal and, above all, by refusing to grant Muslims the share of power at the all-India level demanded by Jinnah, the Congress led by Nehru and Patel foreclosed the possibility of keeping India united. Jinnah did miscalculate in believing Gandhi’s voice was still dominant in the Congress.

Was the idea of an eminent Muslim domain within a sovereign Indian Union a tenable idea? Indian states were in any case carved along linguistic lines, would a Muslim State have been in keeping with this principle? And if so, why were the Congress stalwarts so against it?

This is a counterfactual question. However, the irony is that it was Jinnah and the Muslim League who wanted undivided Punjab and Bengal and the Mahasabha-Congress combine that insisted on their division along lines of religion. The Congress stalwarts were against such a Muslim state because it entailed diluting their control over the centre and gave far too much power to Jinnah and the Muslim League. Linguistic states in a federal union was not incompatible with Jinnah’s vision.

In your reading of history, who would you hold most culpable for the Partition, and why? (Jaswant Singh seems to suggest that Patel and Nehru were most responsible, would you agree?)

Mr Jaswant Singh has basically endorsed the main lines of my thesis in as far as apportioning responsibility for the partition of India is concerned. Patel and Nehru were more responsible because, as leaders of the larger party, they had to find the terms for an accommodation with Jinnah and the Muslim League so that the unity of India could have been preserved. In opting to seize power at British India’s unitary center rather than striking a compromise with the Muslim League based on a genuinely federal arrangement, these politicians of the Congress paved the way for partition.

In India we don’t want to acknowledge that Jinnah never really wanted Pakistan; in Pakistan it must be a kind of anathema to suggest the founder of the nation never wanted the nation. Why is Jinnah, in particular, subject to such historical ambiguity?

It is wrongly presumed that Pakistan as it emerged in 1947 is what Mr Jinnah was after all along. The demand for Pakistan, as I have explained above, was intended to renegotiate the power sharing arrangements at the all-India centre on the basis that there were two nations in India, both of which had to be treated on an equal footing regardless of their population proportions. An understanding of the difference between ‘Pakistan’ and partition, particularly the partition of the two main Muslim-majority provinces, will go some way to clearing the fog surrounding the reasons for the division of the subcontinent and, in the process, resolve the ‘historical ambiguity’.

What would you count as the real turning point that made Partition inevitable? (Is it the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946? Or do you think there was some other catalytic moment?)

The Congress’s refusal to agree to the grouping of provinces – even Gandhi called grouping worse than partition - and Nehru’s public assertions against a centre restricted to three main subjects (defence, foreign affairs and communications), made it impossible for Jinnah to stick to the Muslim League’s acceptance of the Cabinet Mission three tiered plan for a federal India instead of a fully sovereign Pakistan. The outbreak of violence in Calcutta in August 1946 and, subsequently, in other parts of India narrowed the options available to the all-India leaders and made a painful division rather than a negotiated accommodation seem more feasible. However, the partition of Punjab was not inevitable until the Congress called for it in early March 1947 and efforts continued to be made to avoid the partition of Bengal until the end of May 1947.

What would you say are the inconvenient or uncomfortable facts of history that India papers over in its construction of Jinnah? In turn, what does Pakistan paper over?

Despite the available scholarship, the nationalist self-projections of both countries have not managed to attain the requisite level of maturity. The exclusive focus on the ‘religious causes’ of partition in the public discourse on both sides of the divide obscures the powerful regional dynamics that played such a decisive role in the final denouement of 1947. The other associated reason is the insistence on writing history by focusing on the ‘great men’, whether Jinnah, Nehru, Patel or Gandhi. This makes it impossible for people to fully understand the complex historical factors that shaped the politics of these individuals. The Indian state and political elite find it hard to acknowledge that Congress leaders did not in the end stand for the unity of India. Their Pakistani counterparts are loath to accept that Jinnah was handed the maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten Pakistan in 1947 that he had categorically rejected in 1944 and 1946.

If Jinnah was indeed a secular and constitutional giant, why has Pakistan slid so easily towards a theocracy or dictatorship at different points in its history? Is it hobbled in any way by discrepancies in the life of its founding father?

Jinnah articulated a clear vision for Pakistan as a modern nation-state where all citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliations, would have equal rights of citizenship. He ruled out a theocracy at the very outset. His successors stuck to this vision when it came to keeping the religious divines in place well into the early 1970s. They were less successful in avoiding dictatorship in the context of the Cold War and chronic tensions with India over Kashmir. The emergence of the military as the dominant institution and the derailing of democratic processes after 1958 set the ball rolling in the gradual erosion of Jinnah’s vision for a moderate and democratic Pakistan. Yet, it was not until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq made the fatal decision to turn a narrowly construed brand of Islam into an instrument of state policy, both internally and externally. What plagues Pakistan today are more a result of the legacies of the Zia era than any specific discrepancies (other than partition) in the life of its founding father.