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‘Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History’ review: Setting the record straight

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s book Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History is the most comprehensive political biography of the man simultaneously acclaimed for creating a state, and demonised for dividing a country. The greatest merit of the book is that Ahmed lets his subject speak for himself through his speeches and statements.


Ahmed deftly traces the multiple transformations that Jinnah underwent during his half century long political career. He also identifies seminal events that propelled Jinnah into reinventing himself. Jinnah began his political career as an Indian nationalist whose crowning act was the authorship of the Lucknow Pact between the Congress and the Muslim League in 1916 that earned him the sobriquet “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”.

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Jinnah, elitist to the core, was opposed to taking politics to the street. This explains in substantial part his disillusionment with the Congress once Gandhi became the undisputed leader of the party and adopted the strategy of mass mobilisation. Jinnah was also miffed by the importance accorded to Gandhi by the Congress leadership as he considered Gandhi an upstart compared to him. His break with the Congress came at the Nagpur session in 1920 when the audience hooted him down for his refusal to refer to Gandhi as “Mahatma”.

Jinnah’s disassociation with the Congress led to his next phase of “Muslim communitarianism” with the objective of getting the best deal for Muslims as the country moved towards self-rule. His disillusionment with the national mainstream deepened and he left for London in 1930 after he was sidelined during the drafting of the Nehru Report and his demands enshrined in the famous “Fourteen Points” were ignored. He returned in 1934 at the behest of the Muslim League leaders determined to be recognised as the “sole spokesman” of Indian Muslims.

Turning point

The refusal of the Congress to accept the Muslim League as a partner in the UP government after the 1937 elections was the turning point that led to Jinnah’s move from Muslim communitarianism to Muslim separatism. He no longer defined Muslims as an important minority within the Indian nation but a nation claiming parity with the Hindus. The Lahore resolution of 1940 that demanded the separation of Muslim majority areas from the rest of India was the culmination of Jinnah’s rejection of the idea of a single Indian nation.

Ahmed debunks the argument popularised by Ayesha Jalal that Jinnah wanted to use Pakistan as a bargaining counter to get a better deal for Muslims within India. He demonstrates, with the help of Jinnah’s own statements, that beginning in the late 1930s, Jinnah worked single-mindedly for the division of India on religious lines. The only apparent aberration was his conditional acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946. This was a result of his realisation that the Muslim League had lost much of its leverage with the British government with the end of World War II and that the British could leave India on terms that would be even less favourable to him and his party. Moreover, as the Muslim League resolution accepting the plan stated, Jinnah viewed it as an important step on the road to Pakistan given its provision that provinces could reconsider their accession after ten years. Accepting the Cabinet Mission plan was for Jinnah a tactical withdrawal not a strategic retreat.

No ‘secular’ vision

Ahmed discredits the myth that Jinnah was interested in making Pakistan a liberal-democratic, if not a secular, state. This myth has its origins in Jinnah’s speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, which included the famous quote “You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Jinnah’s apologists have argued that he was proposing what amounted to a secular state (a term he never used) but that his successors under pressure from the ulema and lay fundamentalists changed the trajectory of Pakistan’s political development.

Ahmed argues that this is a fallacy because Jinnah from the late 1930s onward constantly talked about the Koran and the Sunnah as the bases on which Pakistan was to be built. The August 11 anomaly, Ahmed contends, was a result of his apprehension that the bloodbath accompanying partition may end up with India pushing its 35 million strong Muslim minority into Pakistan and that the fledgling state would crumble before this deluge. He wanted to signal that the religious minorities in Pakistan would be treated as equal citizens so as to encourage India to follow suit and to pre-empt any Indian move to expel its Muslim citizens. This is a very plausible explanation because Jinnah soon returned to his theme that Islam and the sharia would be the cornerstones of the Pakistani state thus closing all avenues of its developing into a liberal, leave alone secular, polity guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens.

Ahmed also deflates the myth that had Jinnah lived longer he would have put democracy on a more secure footing in Pakistan. He provides evidence that Jinnah flouted constitutional norms during his short term as Governor-General by acquiring powers not permissible under a parliamentary system thus setting the precedent for the subversion of democracy in Pakistan.

Ahmed has done a commendable job of eliminating several major misconceptions about Jinnah propounded by revisionist historians. My only grouse is that he has done so at such great length that the average reader may lose sight of the wood for the trees. A paperback edition trimmed to half the length of the 800-page book would be admirably suited for a wider audience.

Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History; Ishtiaq Ahmed, Viking/Penguin, ₹999.

The reviewer is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University.

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