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Review: A Book That Busts Many Myths Surrounding Jinnah

In 'Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History', Ishtiaq Ahmed offers fresh perspectives on the creator of Pakistan and his politics of ‘othering and polarisation’, self-obsessed personality and Muslim dogmatism.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, has been a controversial figure in the Indian sub-continent, celebrated at home as Quaid-e-Azam or great leader and vilified in India as a Muslim bigot, who perpetuated Partition on communal grounds, leading to the attendant bloodshed in which millions died. Over decades, scholars and historians in both countries have written about this taciturn, but egotist chain-smoking dapper politician, offering conflicting, but seldom convincing, explanations for his do-quami nazariya, or two-nation theory.

Shorn of convoluted explanations, this nazariya simply expounded the argument that Muslim interests could not be safeguarded in a nation with numerical Hindu superiority. Ironically, however, in his initial years, especially after the Lucknow Pact of 1916, Jinnah was an equally fervent champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, scoffing at those who argued that the Muslims would be overwhelmed by the Hindu majority in a united India. And even though Jinnah’s later belief, that provided the ideological basis for the creation of Pakistan, was rudely discredited with East Pakistan breaking away to become Bangladesh in 1971, this Islamic canon inexplicably continues to endure amongst analysts and historians in the neighbouring state he founded.

Ishtiaq Ahmed
Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History
Penguin Viking (September 2020)

But in Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History, professor Ishtiaq Ahmed offers fresh perspectives on Jinnah’s equivocal politics of ‘othering and polarisation’, his sanctimony, self-obsessed personality, and his Muslim dogmatism. Presenting some hitherto little known or published accounts Ahmed, a professor at Stockholm University, offers insights into Jinnah’s political transmogrification from a secular nationalist to that of a peeved, vituperative and ambitious Muslim separatist, and eventually the creator and head of an Islamist nation.

Ahmed’s fundamental argument is that Jinnah was a consummate tactician – with little or no long-term strategy or vision – and one who worked tirelessly to achieve his objective of creating Pakistan. But he remained deliberately ambiguous about the nature of the projected state. The author argues that any foray into this latter controversial arena would have weakened his vast support base that cut across varied Islamic sects, each with its own interpretation of its faith and, above all, the vision and outline of the nation to be created in its name. These disparate Islamic sects differed from one another as sharply as Jinnah claimed Muslims differed from Hindus. Hence, leaving the concept of Pakistan indistinct was simply a tactic that stood Jinnah in good stead in his mission of securing a Muslim state.

This argument clashes with the one presented by Ayesha Jalal, a historian at Tufts University in the US, that has held sway for over three decades. In Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman, published in 1985, that qualifies broadly as a Jinnah hagiography, Quaid-e-Azam had never wanted Pakistan, but his hand was forced by Congress leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru into acquiring it. However, Ahmed, a Punjabi from Lahore, who was born in February 1947, some six months before Pakistan came into existence, has mounted a competently researched ambush on Jalal’s theses. He clearly states that overtures from the Congress leadership – including Gandhi’s offer as late as April 1947 to hand over leadership of a united India to Jinnah alongside an all-Muslim administration if he gave up the demand for Pakistan – were haughtily dismissed by him as a guileful trap.

Also Read: How Jinnah Dismissed Congress’s Minority Rights Proposals to Justify Two-Nation Theory

Over 808 pages, Ahmed cogently busts many myths surrounding Jinnah, whilst tracing his complex political journey through four distinct phases, lasting as many decades.

These begin with the Kutch-born barrister joining the Indian National Congress or INC in 1906 as an advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity in the incipient freedom struggle. Interestingly, Jinnah joined the Congress, then at the vanguard of the independence movement, nine years before Gandhi returned from South Africa after battling apartheid and had fancied himself as one of its inevitable leaders in due course.

But within a short time, he was eclipsed by the charismatic Mahatma who became a part of the INC in 1915, and the urbane strategist Jawaharlal Nehru. In later years, the narcissistic Jinnah, with an exalted idea of his capabilities, righteousness of his cause and fallibility of the INC leadership, never forgave Gandhi and later Nehru, who too outshone him, further fostering resentments within the Muslim leader, concludes Ahmed. These antipathies also contributed to Jinnah’s subsequent communal behaviour fueling his drive for Pakistan.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah and M.K. Gandhi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The four phases

The apogee of Jinnah’s initial phase was the 1916 Lucknow Pact between the All India Muslim League (AIML) – which Jinnah had joined in 1913 while concomitantly retaining INC membership – in which the Congress, much against the wishes of the Hindu Mahasabha, conceded major political concessions for Muslims. These principally included separate electorates – that had already been introduced but opposed by the Congress – and reservation for Muslims in the Imperial Council and Provincial Assemblies.

By 1924, however, Jinnah had moved into his second phase, divorced from the constitutional arrangement envisaged in this pact by calling for its ‘radical revision’. According to Ahmed, the ‘unilateral breach of the Lucknow Pact by Jinnah’ merely ‘strengthened the hands of sceptics on both sides’ and helped launch him as a Muslim communitarian.

The third phase – 1928 onwards – has Jinnah emerging as a Muslim nationalist championing the two-nation theory of India and Pakistan. This began shortly after the AIML sought major changes in the Nehru (Motilal) report of 1928 which had argued against ‘objectifying communal identities’ and creating a loose federation of constituent units after India’s independence. In response, Jinnah sought no less than one-third representation for Muslims in the central legislature, although the community accounted for no more than 25% of united India’s population at the time. He also insisted on a loose federation with residuary powers vested in the provinces, both of which countered recommendations in the Nehru report.

Ahmed argues that the Nehru report was ‘a very reasonable and practical document for a united India’ that envisaged a power-sharing arrangement at the federal level of government, once independence had been secured. This was also the phase when Jinnah stepped up his vituperative rhetoric against the INC and the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity in a single independent unit.

In his fourth and final post-independence phase – the shortest of his tempestuous career – Jinnah emerged as the omnipotent head of the Muslim state of Pakistan. He flouted established democratic norms by presiding over cabinet meetings in the newly formed state, even though as governor general of Pakistan, he was only its titular head. A victorious Jinnah – who at one time claimed to have established Pakistan singlehandedly with the help of just one typist and had arrogantly told a delegation of Sikhs that his word would be equivalent to God’s in Pakistan – made no bones about strengthening the central government vis-à-vis the federating units.

In a bid to make Pakistan a unitary polity and contrary to his earlier stand, he inexplicably declared Urdu to be the national language. This defied the demographics of newly created Pakistan, as Urdu was not the native language of any of its provinces, especially Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, which took great pride in its cultural heritage. Similar linguistic chauvinism applied to all other regions in West Pakistan, whose four provinces included – and still do – Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier, recently re-named Pakhtunkhwa.

Ahmed questions the narrative that Jinnah never wanted India to be partitioned by pointing out that in his foundational two-nation presidential address at the 27th session of the AIML on March 22, 1940, he had vociferously torn into the idea of the Muslim and Hindu communities being one nation. He had warned that 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’. Addressing the Delhi Muslim Students’ Federation, the same year he, once again, angrily dismissed any suggestion that he or the AIML were using the demand for Pakistan as a tactic to secure greater power for Muslims. He categorically stated that this was not a ‘bargaining counter’, firmly establishing his intent of founding a theocracy.

Ishtiaq Ahmed. Photo: Ishtiaq Ahmed/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gandhi and Jinnah

Countering another popular narrative on exploitation of religion for achieving political ends, Ahmed argues that ‘it is a revisionist distortion and a mere myth’ that it was Gandhi ‘who began using religion politically’ while ‘Jinnah was a secular opponent of it’. He states that religion was already rampant in politics as ‘religious revivals’ were underway in both communities at the turn of the 20th century. Where Jinnah outsmarted his opponents, however, was in drumming up support for his ‘exclusivist’ vision of Islam and poking fun at Muslim leaders who did not support him. He even went as far as to dub Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as ‘the poster boy of Congress’.

In reality, Ahmed states, Jinnah wanted the INC to accept that it represented only upper-caste Hindus and him as the sole spokesman of Indian Muslims. But tactically, Jinnah had no qualms about wooing Sikhs, Dravidians from southern India, Scheduled Castes, and the princely states to further his agenda. At the height of his struggle for Pakistan, Jinnah yet again displayed remarkable tactical chutzpah by keeping channels of communications open with the colonial authorities and playing cunningly on their insecurities and pandering to their aspirations to achieve his aims.

One of the most widely discussed events in the last phase of Jinnah’s political life is his August 11, 1947 speech in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, delivered three days before the creation of the new state. In this address, he famously said that “in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state”.

Also Read: Muhammad Ali Jinnah Got Full Support for His Pakistan Project From the British

Ahmed questions Jinnah’s inherent secularity in this address, stating matter-of-factly that in reality the discourse ‘was meant to prevent the exodus (from India) of millions of Muslims towards Pakistan’. Jinnah believed, according to Ahmed, that such an inflow of Muslim refugees would further strain the already over-stretched resources of Pakistan. Once again, the tactician Jinnah at work.

Ahmed also debunks the narrative popular in Pakistan that the March 1949 Objectives Resolution adopted by Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, which proclaimed that the country’s constitution would be modelled on the ideology of the Islamic faith was a betrayal of Jinnah’s vision. He argues that, in fact, ‘it was a manifestation of the overwhelming majority view that Jinnah promised them a Pakistan which would embody Islamic principles in letter and spirit’. Unfortunately, Quaid-e-Azam did not live long enough thereafter – dying 13 months after independence in September 1948 – to influence its outcome. But in any case, it was too late, as the die had already been cast by Jinnah’s incessant rhetoric on the need to establish a homeland for Muslims.

File picture of Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah. Photo: Wikipedia Commons, public domain

The K-word

No book on Jinnah or Pakistan can ever be complete without reference to the K-word. In popular Pakistani narrative, India is responsible for illegally annexing Muslim-majority Kashmir that was ruled at the time of independence by a Hindu maharaja. Ahmed, however, reveals an instructive fact about Jinnah’s attitude to Kashmir featuring the Khilafat leader Chaudhuri Muhammad Ali. The author claims that in an interview to Jinnah’s private secretary (1944-47) K.H. Khurshid, Ali admitted that ‘Jinnah spurned an offer from Patel to let Pakistan keep Kashmir if it (Pakistan) did not support the Nizam of Hyderabad’s resolve to declare his state independent’. But according to Ali, Jinnah appeared to be playing ‘for some higher stake’ and was reportedly in talks with the Jodhpur maharaja to provide road access to Hyderabad.

Ahmed’s book will, doubtlessly, ruffle many feathers in Pakistan and has already generated some angry responses with local scholars like Muhammad Reza Kazimi criticising Ahmed’s research methodology and findings on YouTube. But the facts relied upon in the book incontrovertibly establish that the spectre of a dominant Hindu ‘Raj’ was a fig leaf for Jinnah’s intransigence on creating Pakistan, which the INC leadership tried hard to prevent. This diligently researched work also brings out the absurdity of the notions of communitarian nationalism and communal superiority. As Ahmed rightly concludes, Jinnah’s argument that separating Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan would usher in peace in the subcontinent was a flawed idea and his own success was only a ‘half-success’ as ‘he was rewarded with a moth eaten Pakistan’ which is today anything but the El Dorado Jinnah might have thought it would be.