A chronic fear of being accused of writing on Jaswant Singh’s ‘Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence’ without having read it made me assiduously and, at times, somewhat unwillingly go through the book.
As a result, I can say one thing with certainty – it could not have been read in 3 days (my deadline). Not because the book is too long – as books on history go, it is not – but because it takes considerable amount of concentration to keep pace with its sudden shifts in time and tense. You will be in 1919 in one paragraph, 1913 in the next, moving to 1927 in the paragraph after that and so on.
While I have nothing against Jaswant’s phrasing, I do have a grudge against the copyeditors. Not only have they not corrected spelling mistakes, but have at times substituted one (sometimes inaccurate) word for the other (effect for affect, for example) and left sentences searching for their meanings.
The name of the book, and Jinnah’s stern visage gazing out from its jacket, makes us expect that it would be a biography of some sort. But the book hardly has any personal facts about Jinnah. We do not know what kind of a husband he was, or what kind of a father, or brother. We don’t know what mental pressures he went through when engaged in the great game of one up-manship with the Congress. We don’t know how the fact, that his time was running out, played on his mind when he was involved in the last series of negotiations with the Congress party.
It would really be a long stretch to call it a biography. But it is not even a complete picture of India in those last years of British rule. There is no attempt to join the freedom movement with the social and economic realities of the time. There is no attempt even to chart out the political and ideological thought that formed the context of the movement. That epic struggle, after all, was not just the sum of the efforts of its most prominent leaders.
The only purpose that comes clearly through the haze of dodgy chapter structure and bad copyediting is an attempt to exonerate Jinnah of the burden of Partition.
Jaswant’s central thesis in a line is this: Jinnah was not alone to blame. The great accomplice in the millennial crime of Partition was none other than (guess who) Jawaharlal Nehru, if not the actual culprit.
Jaswant takes pains to establish Nehru’s insidious intractability, his quiet obduracy, his flagrant naiveté in understanding the Muslim problem and his not cutting a deal with Jinnah.
To Jaswant’s credit, one must say that he refrains from commenting, as far as possible, and limits himself to presenting the facts for the most part. These facts add up to a picture of a Congress which is overwhelmingly Hindu and is unwilling to share power with the Muslim League. He cites the instance of the 1937 UP elections in which Congress and the Muslim league worked together with a tacit understanding of sharing power once the election was won. Congress won a majority of the non-Muslim seats, but lost the Muslim seats which were handsomely won by the League.
The twist lay in the fact that the Congress seats amounted to a majority in the province even without the League’s support. This realization made Congress set extremely hard terms for the League before they could be given a share in government. These terms amounted to a demand for the dissolution of the Muslim League and its members joining the Congress. Not surprisingly, the League refused to agree. This resulted in a situation where almost all the Muslims were left sitting on the opposition benches while those in power were overwhelmingly Hindu. This convinced the League and its leaders, including Jinnah, that even if they won all the Muslims seats they would still be excluded from government because the Congress would hold a majority on the basis of the Hindu seats alone.
It was this that first sowed the seeds of partition.
The Congress indeed made a huge tactical blunder in 1937 by not bringing the Muslim league in the UP govt, but there is nothing new recounted here. This is standard text book wisdom.
Jaswant does note, in the later parts of the book, Congress’ repeated efforts to make amends. Leader after leader tried to break the deadlock with Jinnah and the Muslim League – which by now was playing dirty communal politics – as they could clearly see the threat of a communal divide looming over the country.
Jinnah refused to discuss any proposal again and again on the sole ground that the Congress must recognize the Muslim League as the only representative organization of Muslims and him as their sole spokesperson.
It was a preposterous demand and the Congress leaders, however far they were willing to go, would not swallow this. Moreover, Muslim League’s numbers just didn’t substantiate this claim, at least until the elections in 1946. In that year, it won a decisive victory in Muslim seats, polling 90% of the total votes, mainly on the plank of a separate Pakistan demand.
The afterglow of this victory softened Jinnah, and he was willing to give up the demand for Pakistan, provided that the Congress followed the Cabinet Mission Plan in letter and spirit. But once again the Congress, notably Nehru, decided to twist the interpretation to suit its own end. Again, very shortsightedly, and as it later proved, catastrophically.
There can be no doubt that as far as the Congress leaders had already gone to accommodate Jinnah and avoid Partition, to the extent of a Congress – League parity in the national council (equivalent of today’s cabinet), going a little further would not have harmed them. This ‘little further’ had to do with giving the provinces the right to form groups. This provision was necessary to allow for the formation of a theoretical Pakistan within the Indian federation.
It was a point on which Lord Wavell, the second last Governor General of India, had a serious disagreement with Gandhi and Nehru. The impression created was that Congress did not intend to keep to the agreement and would abandon it as soon as the British were gone.
It was in this backdrop that the last act of Partition was played out. The leaders discussed partitioning the country, and indulged in give and take, bartered this region here for that region there, while in the entire country bloody riots irreparably tore apart united India.
The full horror of the event dawned upon the leaders only when they witnessed the endless stream of millions of refugees, uprooted through a farcical ‘exchange of populations’. Most, if not all, had witnessed the brutal killings during riots and had personally experienced the death of loved ones.
It was this, that in later years, made Nehru say during an interview that anything would have been better than Partition.
Jaswant has given a fair amount of detail of the happenings of those years. But given the sources he had drawn upon, they can hardly be called fresh.
Jaswant seems enamored of Jinnah’s acuity, his argumentative prowess, his integrity, his high disdain for mass politics, his hauteur, and his coats. He notes, with something like awe, Jinnah’s banishing one leader from his favour for having a mind of his own and another (Nawab of Mahmoodabad) for seeking a spiritual dimension in Muslim leaders.
He observes with approval that Jinnah seemed cold and haughty to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy. Some of the captions to the pictures are adulatory. He calls Jinnah Qaid-e-Azam in many places (as opposed to quoting someone else call him that), but gives scant reasons for such adulation.
Jinnah was no doubt a great leader. And one cannot but agree that demonization of a historical figure speaks of intellectual meanness which cannot rise above prejudices.
But, in the forge of independence struggle, many as great and greater leaders were produced. He was a great lawyer, but so was Rajagopalachari, so was Madan Mohan Malviya, so was Gandhi, so was Jawaharlal Nehru, so was Rajendra Prasad - the list can go on.
If Jinnah was a constitutional expert so was Ambedkar, if he was a good parliamentarian, so was Dadabhai Naoroji and many others. If he was an ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’, so were MA Ansari and Maulana Azad.
Let’s be clear, Jinnah would not be a remarkable figure if he had not reinvented himself as a communal leader and Jaswant Singh would not have written a book on him had he not been the central figure in the partition saga.zee
First Published: 10/19/2009 11:54:17 AM