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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

What if Jinnah had won

The current debate over partition is radically incomplete. The debate has been framed around Jinnah’s desire for a federal but undivided India...

Written by Ashutosh Varshney
September 15, 2009 2:13:50 am

The current debate over partition is radically incomplete. The debate has been framed around Jinnah’s desire for a federal but undivided India,in which the states would have been more powerful than Delhi. In contrast,Nehru’s preference is said to be for a centralised polity,with Delhi given more powers than the states. It has been argued that the latter was responsible for India’s partition.

What is wrong about this way of framing the discussion? Contemporary political theory suggests another perspective on Jinnah. Historical research has not wrestled with a fundamental theoretical question: was Jinnah in favour of what political theorists call “consociational democracy”? It is a term I will explain in a moment. But its grave real-world implications can be stated right away: if Jinnah’s argument was indeed consociational,then partition was inevitable and Jinnah was as responsible for it as anybody else. For the Congress party to accept a consociational argument would have meant denying everything India’s freedom movement had stood for. Nehru could not have possibly agreed. Nor,incidentally,could Gandhi.

A consociational democracy opposes liberal democracy on at least three counts. First,according to consociational theory,groups — religious,linguistic or racial — are the unit of politics and political organisation,not individuals. As we know,strategising about groups is a pervasive feature of politics,whether in the US or India. The consociational theory goes far beyond that. It says that the constitution should allocate political power and offices to different religious or ethnic groups — 50 per cent of offices would go to group A,30 to group B,20 to group C,etc.

Second,each community would be represented by a political organisation of that community only,not by an organisation that claims to be multi-religious or multi-ethnic. This is the “sole spokesman” idea: that only the Muslim League would represent India’s Muslims. LTTE made similar claims about the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Third,minorities would have a veto in governmental decision-making,and consensus should be the basis for governmental functioning. If the Muslim League did not like something that others wanted Muslims to consider,the deliberation would not go any further.

The consociational theory is not simply an abstract exercise. In books after books,Arend Lijphart,a Dutch political scientist,has demonstrated that consociational democracy was used in several small European countries after World War I: Holland,Belgium,Austria and Switzerland. More controversially,he has also argued that a consociational democracy is much better for multi-ethnic,multi-religious societies,for it allows disaffected groups to develop a sense of security.

Outside Europe,too,there are examples. Consociational versus liberal democracy was a matter of serious debate during South Africa’s transition after apartheid. Lebanon after 1943 opted for consociational democracy. Malaysia today has a semi-consociational model.

A key question about Jinnah is this: was he a consociational or a liberal democrat? We don’t know the answer conclusively,for that is not the frame within which historical research has been conducted. But the hypothesis that Jinnah was consociational,not liberal,is profoundly plausible. Consider three different points in the evolution of his argument.

First,it is after the Lucknow Pact of 1916 that,in a pre-theoretical moment of political exuberance,Sarojini Naidu called Jinnah an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. One should,however,note that the Lucknow pact was fundamentally premised upon separate electorates for Muslims,and also on one-third of representation reserved for Muslims in government.

Second,the Lahore Resolution (1940) made the case that Hindus and Muslims were not simply two distinct religious groups,but two different nations that required separate political roofs over their cultural heads. In the words of Jinnah,“Hindus and Muslims belong to… two different civilisations that are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. They have different epics,different heroes and different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other,and likewise,their victories and defeats overlap. To yoke together two such nations under a single state,one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority,must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state”. In comparison,the argument of Maulana Azad,a deeply religious Muslim and a Congress leader,was dramatically different. “I am a Muslim and proud of that fact… In addition,I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality… Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievement. Our languages,our poetry,our literature,our culture,our art,our dress,our manners and customs,the innumerable happenings of our daily life,everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. There is indeed no aspect of our life which has escaped this stamp… This joint wealth is the heritage of common nationality.”

Nehru’s view of the nation and politics also departed radically from Jinnah’s. This is what he wrote in The Discovery of India: “There was a fundamental difference between the outlook of the Congress and that of religious-communal organisations. Of the latter,the chief were the Muslim League and its Hindu counterpart,the Hindu Mahasabha. These communal organisations,while in theory standing for Indian independence,were more interested in claiming protection ad special privileges for their respective groups.”

1946 is the third key point in the evolution of Jinnah’s argument. Unless future research proves me wrong,Jinnah by that time was wholly consociational. He was not only talking about a federal India with greater powers for the provinces. He was also emphatic about the Muslim League being the “sole spokesman” for India’s Muslims.

Even if the Congress had accepted the idea of a loose federal state,how could it have agreed that Congress was only a Hindu party,not different from the Hindu Mahasabha,and it could not represent Muslims at all? There were undoubtedly some Hindu nationalists in Congress,but they never took control of the commanding heights of the party. At least since Gandhi burst on the scene in 1919,the Congress was always committed to the idea of a composite nation. Agreeing with Jinnah’s consociational argument would have meant fundamentally denying the ideological commitment to the possibility of a multi-religious politics and a secular Indian nation.

Finally,would consociationalism have really brought peace to an independent India? The available comparative research is quite clear. Consociational democracies have worked well in richer European settings. In lower income postcolonial scenarios,consociationalism has actually been a recipe for endless troubles. Lebanon’s case is the best known. The fundamental problem is that a polity so exclusively group-based only deepens group identities. It does not make groups secure. In the end,it undermines national feeling.

It is hard to imagine a post-1947 India,which had separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims,which allowed only one communal party representing each religious group,which apportioned political offices strictly on the basis of religion,and which nonetheless had peace. Partition was a horrific event,but it is not clear that a consociational India after 1947 would have fared better. Nehru’s critics must confront the consociational puzzles about Jinnah’s ideology and conduct.

The writer is a professor of political science at Brown University,US. His books include ‘Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India’.

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