Caught Jaswant, bowled Jinnah

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s reputation for obscurantism and dogmatic intolerance received an unexpected boost in Shimla on Wednesday. The summary expulsion of the veteran Jaswant Singh for coming out with a positive re-appraisal of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and what can at most be characterised as Partition-revisionism has not just upstaged the post-election ‘chintan baitak.’ It is a blow to the BJP’s moral credibility, an advertisement of its political desperation. What is plain is that the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary board that took the decision to expel Mr. Singh has not read his recently launched book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence (Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2009, 669 pages) — or perhaps ever will. It is true that there is a considerable scholarly literature on Jinnah, with Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (Cambridge University Press, 1994) standing out as a particularly fine work of incisive historical scholarship. Mr. Singh does not claim to be a scholar, on the contrary. He begins his book by noting that, returning from a visit to the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore in 1999, he was “struck by the thought there existed no biography of Jinnah written by a political figure from India.” It took him five years, beginning 2004, to fill that gap.

It is for historians to evaluate the scholarly merit of Mr. Singh’s work. But who is to say that a political figure, especially when he or she is out of power, ought not to dabble in such sensitive areas? Did not the redoubtable Lal Krishna Advani himself publicly commend, in 2005, the “secular” vision embedded in Jinnah’s presidential address of August 11, 1947 to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan? Actually, Mr. Singh’s Jinnah is an impressive, personally attractive, intellectually brilliant, freedom-loving, politically iron-willed, tactically unstoppable figure. His flaws were major and incalculably tragic: Mr. Singh opines that both he and Mahatma Gandhi failed in the end to realise their ideals. But the flaws of the ‘sole spokesman’ arose out of the objective situation of pre-Partition India and others, especially Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress, were complicit in the tragedy of Partition — which in the author’s view is “the defining event of the twentieth century for this entire subcontinent.” You may agree or disagree with Mr. Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah-appraisal and his allocation of responsibility for Partition — and indeed for what he sees as the challenge for millions of “alienated” Muslims in post-Partition India. But his book is certainly an interesting read — made more interesting and saleable surely by the BJP’s crude display of bigotry.

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