A case of mistaken paternity?

Nobody, including Jinnah, Nehru, Patel, or Lord Mountbatten, had any idea of what Partition would entail. Would they, with the benefit of hindsight, have chosen a different course?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:46 pm IST

Published - September 11, 2009 01:31 am IST

Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah: There can be little doubt that it is Jinnah ? rather than Nehru or Patel ? who ought to have known that the country he left behind 61 years ago was not destined for secularity.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah: There can be little doubt that it is Jinnah ? rather than Nehru or Patel ? who ought to have known that the country he left behind 61 years ago was not destined for secularity.

Success has many fathers, as the familiar proverb puts it, while failure is an orphan. In the event, conjecture about Pakistan’s possible progenitors comes across as a decidedly odd phenomenon.

The one striking feature about former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s political biography of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, relentlessly cited in reports about the controversy spawned by the book, is the author’s supposed contention that Pakistan would not have been born but for the supportive stance adopted by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

Given the broadly positive reception accorded to the book in Pakistan, does it follow that Pakistanis are happy to acknowledge the Pandit and the Sardar’s pro-creative role in the birth of their nation? Or is their enthusiasm based chiefly on the childish ire generated by Jaswant Singh’s version of history on the Indian side of the border?

As far as I am concerned, it’s entirely a question of blame rather than credit. He is by no means the first person, or even the first Indian, to point out that Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan was primarily a bargaining ploy and that the leaders of the Indian Congress could have thwarted Partition had they agreed, for instance, to a federation based on a weak centre.

Their intransigence effectively blocked feasible alternatives and propelled the two-nation theory towards its illogical conclusion.

This hardly qualifies as a novel thesis, and there can be little question that Jaswant Singh’s petulant expulsion from the Bharatiya Janata Party reflects poorly on the latter’s viability as a political force in a secular country. The Congress, too, has reacted importunately to the book, possibly because of its reluctance to countenance criticism of India’s first Prime Minister by a prominent opposition figure (notwithstanding the party’s own drift away from what is regularly derided as “Nehruvian socialism”).

The fact is that more than six decades after independence, the blame game is still being played in the subcontinent. Barring honourable exceptions, the general impression in India seems to be that Partition was a fulfilment of Jinnah’s dream; a perhaps inevitable corollary of this view is that he was a closet Islamic fundamentalist.

The Pakistani equivalent of this phenomenon is the inability to make a distinction between the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s endeavours to forge communal harmony seldom find mention in Pakistani history books. Nor is there any mention of the fact that in the charged atmosphere of 1947, Nehru routinely risked his life to protect Muslim refugees — as did the great love of his life, Edwina Mountbatten, whose empathy with the victims of violence, regardless of their caste or creed, contrasted with her vain husband’s obsession with his own place in history.

Jaswant Singh dwells time and again on the mutual antipathy between Nehru and Jinnah, implying that the former was ill served by his rancour. Both leaders were secular Indian nationalists before Jinnah dedicated himself to communal leadership. Nehru was able to prevent India from lapsing into an identity focused on religion. “As long as I am at the helm of affairs,” he declared, “India will not become a Hindu state. The very idea of a theocratic state is not only medieval but also stupid.”

In his oft-quoted speech to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly in the run-up to Partition, Jinnah offered the impression that a citizen’s faith would bear no relation to his or her status. But did he wonder whether it could indeed be so, given that Pakistan had been founded on an unequivocally communal basis? And would it not have made infinitely more sense to strive for such an undertaking in an undivided India?

To his credit, Jaswant Singh concedes that, after the event, Nehru regretted Partition and held out the hope that it may be reversed. Based on a perusal, rather than a complete reading, of his book, he does not cite indications, insufficiently corroborated though they may be, that Jinnah was similarly inclined.

“According to his doctor,” writes Alex von Tunzelmann in Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, “Jinnah [in his last days] saw Liaquat [Ali Khan] and told him that Pakistan was ‘the biggest blunder of my life’. Further yet, he declared: ‘If now I get an opportunity, I will go to Delhi and tell Jawaharlal to forget about the follies of the past and become friends again.’”

The evidence, admittedly, is circumstantial, but it complements the impression Jinnah created when, during a Pakistan Times-sponsored flight to survey the extent of the refugee crisis in the Punjab, he held his head in his hands and reputedly remarked, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

Nobody, including Jinnah, had any idea of what Partition would entail. Would he, with the benefit of hindsight, have chosen a different course? Almost certainly. So would have Nehru and Lord Mountbatten. And Patel, notwithstanding his pro-Hindu slant. Radcliffe’s boundaries tend to be derided, and not without cause. But no possible division of India could have been entirely satisfactory to anyone.

That view does not, however, solve the problem of Pakistan’s antecedents. There is even an unexpected intruder. “There can be no doubt,” writes von Tunzelmann, “that his public championing of the Muslim League’s cause in the House of Commons throughout 1946 and 1947, and of Pakistan’s thereafter, was crucial both to the creation of Pakistan and to the British government’s support for its interests over the years to come. If Jinnah is regarded as the father of Pakistan, [Winston] Churchill must qualify as its uncle; and, therefore, as a pivotal figure in the resurgence of political Islam.”

That last bit is, arguably, a bit of a stretch. In 1947, hardly anyone could have suspected that a nation carved out on a confessional basis would lead to a country obsessed with jihad. However, there can be little doubt that it is Jinnah — rather than Nehru or Patel — who ought to have known that the country he left behind 61 years ago was not destined for secularity.

(Email: mahir.dawn@gmail.com)

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