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Journalism of Courage

The Jinnah Question

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s new book on Jinnah is an opportunity for both India and Pakistan to understand their past in order to make sense of their present.

Jinnah announcing the creation of Pakistan over All India Radio in June 1947. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I can say with some confidence that this book on Mohammad Ali Jinnah is one of the most important books to have come out in the recent past. Ishtiaq Ahmed is known for his extensive work on Partition history but Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History is a bold attempt to look at Jinnah’s profile afresh and it raises some uncomfortable questions. It’s a daunting book, running into over 800 pages, yet a very engaging one.

The book is pertinent for both Pakistan and India, particularly in the times we are living in. In India, especially, many of us often bend over backwards to comprehend our present and do that to justify our present political actions and needs. We tend to read history very expediently, many of us telescope our present into the past and imagine an India which conforms to the present political, social and cultural concerns. In the process, historical facts are the first casualty, which are obscenely twisted and vandalised.

Jinnah had frequent differences of opinion with Mahatma Gandhi. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It has been said by many scholars and even laypersons that the Indian National Congress shoulders a lot of responsibility for the tragedy of the Partition. It could have handled Jinnah and the Muslim League better to avoid the gruesome violence and division of India. Ahmed reiterates through facts that Jinnah and the League were committed to the two-nation theory and the British actively collaborated to keep them strong against the composite nationalism espoused by the Congress.

He talks about Jinnah’s secular phase when he was known as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. However, during the ’20s, particularly after the arrival of Gandhi from South Africa in 1915, his politics began to change. Jinnah left the Congress party in 1920; even the Lucknow pact of 1916, of which he was the main architect, was behind him. The author describes, in great detail, the ego problems Jinnah had with Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad. There are many pertinent quotes in the book to show how condescending Jinnah was towards all three leaders, while they remained always measured and civil in their exchanges with him.

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Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History written by Ishtiaq Ahmed

Ahmed stresses the point that “Jinnah’s principal adversaries wrote prolifically, Gandhi and Nehru in English and Abul Kalam Azad in Urdu. Jinnah never wrote a book, not even an extended article”. They engaged with him in detail on the issue of nationalism and identity while Jinnah’s responses were mostly polemical and “in the typical form of the briefs lawyers prepare to argue their case”.
The book also questions the popular belief in Pakistan and India that Jinnah was not treated well by the Congress leadership and Nehru was in a hurry to be the prime minister. In India, particularly, this narrative is peddled ad nauseum these days to run down Nehru, even if it exonerates Jinnah, to some extent, for the Partition tragedy. However, Ahmed stresses with facts that Mohammad Ali Jinnah “set forth the two-nation theory dichotomising Hindus and Muslims as two discrete, hostile nations. Muslim nationalism became the hallmark of his separatist politics, and he resorted to all sorts of populist arguments and political manoeuvres to win the case for Pakistan in the face of stiff opposition from a host of opponents, among whom the most inveterate opponent was the Indian National Congress, while the final arbiter over the future of India was the British.”

The author questions the narrative that Jinnah was really the sole spokesperson for all Muslims, as he relentlessly claimed through the 1930s and ’40s. There were many popular Muslim leaders within the Congress and there were several Muslim organisations, with a wide support base, which never stood with the League and Jinnah’s divisive politics. Maulana Azad did not fight a lone battle against the Muslim League, as Jinnah wanted the British and the Muslims to believe. He was hated and derided as a show boy of the Congress party to show that most other Muslim leaders were with the idea of Pakistan, which is actually a fallacy.

A very large number of Muslims remained united against the two-nation rhetoric but the League, with the open patronage of the British, continued to pursue its divisive agenda. Ahmed underlines repeatedly, through documentary sources, that the nexus between Jinnah and the British was like an umbilical cord — there was no way it could be detached.


The book is neatly based on four stages of Jinnah’s political career: first as an Indian nationalist, then as a Muslim communitarian, next as a Muslim nationalist, and, finally, as the founder of Pakistan. Of the fourth stage, when Jinnah succeeded in dividing India and establishing Pakistan, realising his lifelong ambition to be the supreme leader, the author says that he had no clear or consistent policies to offer. As there was no single core argument around which to conduct his politics, the fear of the perceived Congress-Hindu-India conspiracy against him and Pakistan remained the constant referent.

This foundational malaise continues to ail Pakistan and its leadership, which suits the political concerns of many political groups in India as well. Ishtiaq Ahmed has succeeded to a great extent in making us understand the enigmatic Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It should be read by all Pakistanis and Indians to understand their present better.

S Irfan Habib is a historian and former  Maulana Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi

First published on: 25-10-2020 at 07:00 IST
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