The enigma of M.A. Jinnah

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Different stances: Nehru and Jinnah.
Different stances: Nehru and Jinnah.


While the political positions of M.S. Golwalkar or Nehru have always been consistent, the legacy of Jinnah is more problematic.

The man who fought for a homeland for Muslims made a late, isolated speech saying that religion had no business to be associated with the affairs of the State.

My column “Four Views on Hindus and Muslims” (The Hindu, July 20), provoked some angry mails from extremist Hindus for whom people of other faiths are somehow less-than-human. More unexpectedly, it also drew me into a debate with a Pakistani who felt I had been unfair to the founder of his nation. My column had quoted the R.S.S. leader M.S. Golwalkar as saying that Hindus and Muslims were fundamentally incompatible. To Golwalkar’s remarks, I had juxtaposed a speech by Mohammad Ali Jinnah arguing the same thing, albeit in more elegant language.

The placing of Golwalkar and Jinnah on the same footing deeply offended this Pakistani reader. “Your simplistic article”, he wrote, “is merely a case of subscribing (pandering?) to a school of Indian demonology of Jinnah, which will no doubt please many of your Indian readers.” In “a world of black and white”, he went on, “there are villains and heroes and as Jinnah is on the other side, he must be vilified. His point of view is ignored and his arguments traduced.”

Contradictory stance

Urging a more nuanced understanding of Jinnah, my correspondent referred me, among other things, to a speech made by the Quaid-e-Azam in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947. Here, Jinnah had told the citizens of the nation-about-to-be-born that “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

To be sure, there were significant differences between the two men I had quoted. Whereas Golwalkar does seem to have been, from the beginning, a bigot, Jinnah did for many years practise an inter-faith doctrine. However, he steadily abandoned his liberalism in favour of religious chauvinism. Once praised as an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”, from the late 1930s Jinnah became a leader of the movement for a separate Muslim nation.

A puzzle

To me, Jinnah’s Constituent Assembly speech presents a puzzle. Why did the man who polemicised for a decade that Muslims could not live with Hindus suddenly discover three days before the creation of Pakistan that this may not now be the case? If indeed minorities were to be made safe in Pakistan, what was the need for a separate Muslim State in the first place? Why not, as others had hoped, have a united India where all would be equal?

In the light of what Jinnah said and did in the years preceding it, his speech of August 11, 1947 seems bizarre. My own thesis about that speech is that while on the one hand it was hypocritical, on the other hand it expressed contrition. Jinnah had never anticipated the bloodshed that accompanied Partition. Now that the deed was done, he was asking for atonement for his part in it.

Some Pakistanis see Jinnah as a sagacious statesman, wronged by a series of Indians, starting with the great Gandhi and ending (most recently) with the obscure Guha. They refuse to recognise a single contradiction, ambiguity, problem or flaw in Jinnah or his legacy. On the other hand, I see Jinnah as a complex, complicated, and indeed, confused human being. He was public-spirited and patriotic, but also vain and ambitious. So, perhaps, were some of the men on the other side. The fact that he and the Congress could not work together (a failure to which both sides contributed) has had tragic consequences for the people of the sub-continent.

My Pakistani correspondent was pained at what he saw as my caricature of Jinnah. But beyond our disagreement about a person, there appeared to be a more basic disagreement about political philosophy. “For the Quaid”, wrote my correspondent, “there was no conflict between tolerance, respect for minorities, equal citizenship rights, democracy and Islam.” On the other hand, I believe that a modern, liberal State cannot rely on religious texts or the privileging of a certain community.

Enshrining principles

There are some Hindus who would likewise claim that “there is no conflict between tolerance, respect for minorities, equal citizenship rights, democracy and Hinduism”. However, if the Indian Constitution had based itself on the Laws of Manu, Hindu women would not have now had the rights to own property, and Dalits (and Muslims) would not have had the right to vote. One can always find things in the Hindu scriptures that suggest that the sages did not really believe in caste, or that they actually revered women. That search would be futile, since someone else would find passages with a contrary meaning. Thus it is that a liberal State must base its laws on first principles, not on hoary tradition.

Of the men I had quoted in that previous column, M.S. Golwalkar always wanted a “Hindu Rashtra”, while Jawaharlal Nehru stood consistently for a “secular State”. There was no contradiction or ambiguity in their position. The legacy of Jinnah is more problematic. For, the man who fought long and hard for a homeland for Muslims made a late, isolated speech saying that religion had no business to be associated with the affairs of the State. The speech, like the man himself, remains a mystery, an enigma, a riddle.



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