It's Time We Absolve Jinnah

Partition harmed the Indian Muslims most, but to put the blame on Jinnah, or the Muslim League, is not necessarily a correct historical reading.

Whenever Mohammed Ali Jinnah is in the news, Indian Muslims tend to pander to the insecurities of their Hindu co-nationalists, and come out and criticise the founder of Pakistan for harming the nation and the community. It happened when L.K. Advani visited his tomb in 2005. Over a decade later, it is happening again in the case of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

The relation between modern Indian psyche and Jinnah is complicated, to say the least, but the overwhelming attitude, especially among Hindus, is that of anger and lamentation, especially given Jinnah’s nationalist background.

He is seen as a man who fell to the communalist camp because of his ambitions for power and was instrumental in dividing the nation. However, Indian Muslims, despite having been indoctrinated for generations now, retain some memory of Partition and Jinnah. For many of them, Jinnah is the author of Partition and yet one of the greatest leaders of “Muslim India” in the last century, who made the Muslim League into a national party by mobilising millions of Muslims across British India.

The tensions implicit in the juxtaposition of these contradictory images of Jinnah reveal themselves from time to time, as they have done again in the case of AMU. The portrait of Jinnah has been there since 1938, reminding us of the fact that Jinnah had a distinguished recognition as being one of the most important leaders of “Muslim India”. These contradictions and outbursts also point to the fact that the Indian public is not fully informed of the debates in those ten eventful years before Partition or about the movement of creation of Pakistan, and is more influenced by propaganda and the social need to pay lip service to nationalism.

Protests at AMU. Credit: PTI

In order to demystify Jinnah and to resolve such contradictions, a fuller discussion of Partition should have been a part of our educational setup. However, it has been made impossible to know such a historic figure by attributing violence of Partition to him. This as an attempt by the Congress to hide its failures to accommodate the genuine Muslim demands and aspirations for political proportional representation.

Issues between Congress and Muslim League

The Congress will, in reflexive self-defence, stick to the ‘One Nation’ catchphrase, and make any nuanced discussion on the terms ‘nation’, ‘community’ or ‘democracy’ impossible. The most important points on which there was contention between Congress and Muslim League were about Muslim representation, electorates and Centre-province relations. These were the issues around which most Muslim parties were seeking assurance from the Congress for more than two decades.

Even after Jinnah returned from London and took charge of the Muslim League in 1934, he was hopeful of reaching an agreement with the Congress on these issues. Jinnah attempted to repose his faith in the Congress leaders to come to an agreement which would have avoided disillusionment of Indian Muslims with the Congress leadership.

However, these three heads are rarely discussed in relation to Partition, and phantasms such as communalism, pan-Islamism or ‘new Medina’ are given more attention in the Indian narrative of Partition. Most Muslim parties demanded a guarantee for Muslim representation in legislature, services and military. A share in administration was sought to be fixed so that they are not left behind because of discrimination, which was a real danger in the context of repeated anti-Muslim mob violence.

Some backward Muslim parties, like Momin Conference, sought further safeguards and reservations within the Muslim space for backward communities. More importantly, Jinnah as the ML president, demanded that Congress agree to fix the Muslim share in military constitutionally, as he believed that “political rights emanate from political might”. If the two communities do not learn to ‘respect and fear each other’, then no agreement is worth more than just a piece of paper.

The third important issue was of the relative importance given to the Centre in future India. Muslim-majority provinces argued for more provincial powers, while Congress argued for a strong centralised state in Delhi. The issue of veto is linked to this Centre-province issue. If Hindus outnumbered Muslims three to one in the parliament with a strong Centre, and a bill is introduced for which all Hindus vote, and none of the Muslims votes, it will still pass with a three-fourths majority. Hence, a law could be passed affecting the whole system of this vast subcontinent even if no Muslim representatives vote for it. Jinnah believed this was not proportionally democratic, and said that this was an example of one nation ruling over another ‘through the ballot box’, and could only be avoided if the Muslim community receives a veto power in legislative assemblies as well.

All of the demands made above relate to communal rights, a word which has been vilified by Congress to such an extent that we have forgotten the older and more logical meaning of this word. Communal is something that relates to community, and this was the sense in which this term was used by many thinkers and politicians in the colonial times. It is only because of Congress’s usage of the word that we understand communal as a negative feature. ‘Communal’ need not mean harbouring hate and prejudice against the other, it means identifying with one’s community.

Minority rights

British India was inhabited by innumerable communities who did not intermarry with each other divided vertically and horizontally. Muslims and Hindus were two such vertical divisions among others, as there were horizontal caste divisions. We were and are still not a nation in the academic sense of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Jinnah argued that we would be able to become a nation only if we could make the minority community feel secure. And a party which argues on the behalf of the minority was a communal party. Congress twisted the meaning of ‘communal’ and made it into a contemptuous term. Similarly, it misappropriated and abused the term secularism and gave it a new meaning, making it a tool to deny any constitutional powers and rights to the Muslims.

Hence, these issues of sovereignty, the debate around the relation between community and nation, or whether ‘qaum’ translates to community or to nation, are at the heart of the Partition debate.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Credit: junaidrao/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Does my neighbour have the right to make laws on my behalf, without any qualification or limitation, just because he is my neighbour? Can two communities be called one nation when they do not intermarry or even inter-dine? Can the minority against whom prejudice is rampant in the majority surrender all its rights based on the false assurances of majority leaders? Can a strong Centre be allowed to be dominated by a community which outnumbers you three to one in this vast subcontinent without any provisions for veto from the minority side? Can the majority amend the constitution unilaterally because it has a three-fourths majority? Could a few provinces not decide to secede in this context, because they fear injustice and unfair treatment, like the provinces of north-west and east? On all of these questions, even the most liberal individuals turn into die-hard nationalists and start talking of unity of India, brotherhood of masses etc. However, I think these questions are just the starting point of a larger debate which will inevitably take place again and again, as the situation of Indian Muslims is made to worsen.

Jinnah and Muslim League

Coming back to Jinnah, after having taken charge of Muslim League, he led the party in two elections. Congress consolidated the Hindu electorate in 1937 by receiving more than 70% Hindu votes, but the Muslim vote was split into a number of regional parties such as Unionist Party, Muslim Independent Party and Krishak Praja Party among other.

However, the Muslim League was the only party which received votes all over India and received around 10% of Muslim votes. At this juncture, the Congress rejected any chance of an alliance with Muslim parties, and even many Congress and Jamiat Muslims have written about it. Their two-year rule in Muslim minority provinces like Bihar and UP saw a spike in anti-Muslim violence, and Muslim League’s popularity grew among Muslims.

It is also worth recalling that the Muslim League had to defeat other Muslim parties, as Congress rarely received any Muslim votes. During these years, Jinnah sought and made alliances with tribal parties such as in Jharkhand as well as with Scheduled Caste representatives such as B.R. Ambedkar.

Muslim League leaders, 1940. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By 1946, as the British were preparing to leave, the Muslim electorate had swung behind Jinnah and ML received around 80% of Muslim votes across British India. This was the possibility which Congress was afraid of, as it still claimed, despite receiving almost no Muslim votes, to represent Muslims.

Hence, in the final negotiations, Jinnah emerged as the united leader of almost all Muslim political factions and repeated the demands which had been on the table for decades. Most of these demands were not acceptable to the Congress, and they rejected Cabinet Mission Plan even after accepting it, a fact which Maulana Azad refers to in his book India Wins Freedom. In this context, it is difficult to argue that the Muslims were left with a choice except for Partition or Civil War.

Jinnah in post-Partition India

The standard tropes which have dominated discussions on Jinnah in post-Partition India revolve around: his lack of religiosity, his communalism, how he was used by the British to divide and rule policy and how he harmed Indian Muslims by further enfeebling them.

The charge of being irreligious is difficult to hold, as there is no standard scale of measuring such mentalities. It would be enough to read his speeches, and the reforms he proposed in his long legislative career to gauge his understanding of Islamic law as well the social structures that Islam engenders, or that of the geopolitical situation of Muslim nations. His colonial education is often given as the reason of his aloofness from Indian reality.

However, this charge is difficult to hold as most top politicians were educated abroad.

Jinnah’s communalism is positive communalism as discussed above, and need not be understood through the contemporary meaning of the word. He did not believe that India was a nation, as is shown by the frequent use of term ‘continent’ as well as ‘subcontinent’. He was merely representing one community in this grand ocean of communities, and in this process, he was trying to secure rights for all numerically inferior communities.

This charge is a very frequent one, and raises questions, among other things, on separate electorates. I have discussed separate electorates above. In addition, one should remember that even the Momin Conference could not survive electorally after the collapse of separate electorates, and the backward Muslim formations also collapsed after safeguards were removed.

On the other hand, Pakistan Congress won more than 30 seats in the first East Pakistan elections since separate electorates were retained there. Hence, it is true that the British were keen on dividing Muslims and Hindus, but it does not mean that separate electorates or the issues of sovereignty discussed above have no basis in reality at all, and is merely elite manipulation for power.

The Indian Muslims

Finally, the complaint by the Indian Muslim who has been further enfeebled by Partition. Firstly, it is true that Partition harmed the Indian Muslims most, but to put the blame on Jinnah, or Muslim League is not necessarily a correct historical reading. Jinnah argued that it does not matter if we are 15% or 25%, unless we receive safeguards, they have all the resources to monopolise power. In other words, the Muslim majority provinces chose to secede rather than stay in a Hindu-dominated centralised India, as they saw no other option. Hence Partition is not their responsibility, it is their compulsion by the conditions created by Congress.

Secondly, the suffering of Indian Muslim after Partition is not Jinnah’s doing. Muslims have been killed in India by right-wing Hindu forces, as well as the oppressive state, who denied them representation in every field from the very start. Even the separate electorates which Jinnah’s Pakistan had for Hindus, Muslims were denied in India. It is not Jinnah who has harmed us, it is Congress and their successors like BJP who are the oppressors.

Jinnah raised questions which are still relevant. As the largest religious minority in the world, Indian Muslims, are one of the major victims of majoritarian democracy. It is the political struggle of these hundreds of millions of besieged Muslims which will define the meaning of plural democracy for the coming centuries.

The AMU portrait of Jinnah must not go. If anything, we need thousands more.

Sharjeel Imam is currently pursuing his PhD in Modern History from JNU. He is working on Partition and Muslim Politics.