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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Why Jinnah matters

South Asian history writing has shed its statist biases. Will political discourse catch up?

Written by SUGATA BOSE |
August 25, 2009 4:53:59 am

On the death of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in September 1948 an Indian political leader paid him a rare,fulsome tribute describing him as “one who was great as a lawyer,once great as a Congressman,great as a leader of Muslims,great as a world politician and diplomat and,greatest of all,as a man of action”. Despite having serious differences with the Quaid-e-Azam,Sarat Chandra Bose recalled that Jinnah,initially along with Mahatma Gandhi,once lent support to a last-ditch attempt to prevent Bengal’s partition along religious lines.

On March 8,1947,the Congress led by Nehru and Patel passed a formal resolution calling for the partition of Punjab. It went against all the principles the Congress had stood for — at least since 1929,when in Lahore India’s premier nationalist party had demanded a united and independent India. Then-Congress president Nehru explained that even though the resolution mentioned only Punjab,Bengal too may have to be partitioned. Partition seemed to be a price worth paying for untrammelled power at a strong centre. Gandhi sought an explanation from his erstwhile lieutenants,but was elbowed aside.

As one Bengali paper put it,the Congress as much as the Hindu Mahasabha,beset by Curzon’s ghost,was ready to raise the matricidal Parashuram’s axe to slice the motherland into two. As late as May 28,Mountbatten recorded two alternative broadcasts in London. Broadcast A was to be used if it appeared probable Bengal was to be partitioned along with Punjab and broadcast B if Bengal was to remain unified. The implacable opposition of Nehru and Patel ensured that broadcast B was discarded on Mountbatten’s return to Delhi on May 30,1947. The partition of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal at Nehru and Patel’s behest,much like the partition of the province of Ulster in Ireland,permanently skewed subcontinental politics and left a poisoned post-colonial legacy. The refusal of the Congress high command to entertain a serious discussion on provincial rights also meant that the party’s Muslim supporters in the North West Frontier Province led by the Frontier Gandhi,Abdul Ghaffar Khan,were thrown to the wolves.History is a matter of interpretation and debate based on historical evidence; it is not a matter of opinion. While there may still be different points of view on the relative balance of forces that led to partition,and Jinnah is by no means blameless in this regard,the role of Congress majoritarianism in shaping the final outcome of August 1947 has been well accepted in the best historical scholarship. South Asian historical writing has shed its statist biases and reached a certain level of maturity and sophistication in the last quarter of a century. South Asian political discourse on historical figures and issues,by contrast,has remained utterly puerile six decades after independence.

India was fortunate to possess a galaxy of great political leaders in the pre-independence era with extraordinary accomplishments and all-too-human failings. Even those with magnificent contributions committed Himalayan blunders at crucial turning points of history. We do them no justice and fail to learn from their exemplary lives by replacing biography with iconography.

The reaction of the major political parties and a state government to Jaswant Singh’s healthy predilection for historical interpretation over political deification is cause for some concern about the quality of our nationalism and democracy. The apparent need of our political class to continue demonising the founding father of Pakistan reveals a sense of insecurity that sits uneasily with the self-confidence to which India could legitimately aspire. One can only hope that the political leaders are out of sync with the majority of the young population of this country.

The controversy over a book has also brought into sharp focus the strengths and weaknesses of India’s democracy. The major strength is revealed in the vigorous public discussion of the issue in the print and electronic media. The key weakness is evident in the lack of genuine inner-party democracy and an anti-intellectual attitude that refuses to tolerate any expression of dissent. A particular political party’s wish to self-destruct may to some extent be regarded as its own business. But the resort to an archaic law to ban a book affects the entire citizenry. The stance of both major parties in Gujarat is unworthy of the region which gave birth to Gandhi and Jinnah.

I am not in agreement with those who say that the parties are obsessed with a non-issue,62 years out of date. The issue which revisiting partition brings to the fore is full of contemporary relevance. It is the search for a substantive rather than procedural democracy that protects citizens from majoritarian arrogance and ensures justice in a subcontinent where people have multiple identities.

Majoritarianism,whether in secular or saffron garb,continues to be a potential threat to Indian democracy. Regional rights were once thought to be a counterpoise to the anti-democratic tendencies of an over-centralised state. Regional parties run by petty and insecure dictators are proving to be as ruthless as the all-India partiepression of internal dissent. In such a scenario freedom of speech and expression remains the best guarantee of the future of Indian democracy.

Fortunately,this freedom has deep roots in history. The political parties in pursuit of their narrow interests and short-term electoral advantages have set themselves squarely against India’s long and weighty argumentative tradition. They are,therefore,bound to lose.

The writer is the Gardiner Professor of History at Harvard University

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