‘Inexplicability’ is the word attached by one historian to the communal bloodletting that accompanied the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The term suggests a certain exhaustion with an archive that paints a picture of what, in hindsight, appears to combine both political stupidity and popular barbarism.
It is easy in such circumstances to search around for a villain of the piece. For many, the character of Muhammad Ali Jinnah fits the bill perfectly: Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi depicts Jinnah as patrician, cold and distant. The ‘Mahatma’ is shown receiving almost as a physical body-blow Jinnah’s (fictitious) threat of civil war unless the demand for Pakistan is acceded to – the saint cowed by the opportunistic politician.
‘Mahattenborough’ (to use Salman Rushdie’s memorable phrase) is certainly guilty of semi-deifying a man, Gandhi, who – in his religious doctrines, abusive personal experiments and response to European fascism in the 1930s – was far from blemish-free. But he is guilty too of libeling Jinnah, one of the sole liberal voices at the high table of Indian politics. It is noteworthy that the Hindu nationalist politician L.K. Advani, an apologist for the slaughter of Indian Muslim citizens in Gujarat, chose the word ‘secular’ to describe Jinnah during a visit to Pakistan in 2005. Advani was criticised for apparently having ‘praised’ Pakistan’s founder; but the Hindu far-right is not noted for regarding the epithet ‘secular’ as a term of praise.
In fact, Jinnah fits quite closely the model of the classic liberal politician. He disdained populist politics, not least of the sectarian religious variety, and argued for constitutionalism, equality under the law and the separation of ‘church’ and state (explicitly stating that “religion should not enter politics”). It was this that lead him, in 1920, to resign from the Congress Party which had by then fallen under Gandhi’s sway. Gandhi sought to mobilise mass sentiment, both Hindu and Muslim, through a naked appeal to religious symbolism – an appeal Jinnah regarded as highly dangerous. He had no ideological commitment to separatism: instead he was focused on what he termed the “political issue” of how to safeguard minorities in the new India. While many Congress politicians had no problem with simply taking over the old unitary colonial state (in Nehru’s case in order to pursue socialistic planning policies), Jinnah argued that the whole basis of the nation had to be renegotiated in order to safeguard the rights and interests of all minorities.
It was only in 1940 that this concern was framed in terms of a demand for Muslim nationhood, for ‘Pakistan’ – but this was not a demand for partition. Jinnah’s Pakistan was envisaged as part of an all-India federation, founded on power-sharing as the basis of equality. The Muslim minorities in Hindu-majority provinces would be guaranteed protection, as they would be in the same position as the non-Muslim minorities in Bengal and Punjab. This was, in other words, a constitutional – rather than a communal or ideological – proposal.
What, then, went wrong? There is no simple answer. Jinnah found in Islam a means of uniting his disparate and divided constituency behind a common political front. Undoubtedly this played a part in stoking religious antagonism and violence to a point that was beyond any political control. Perhaps the real tragedy was the refusal of the Congress Party to concede the principle of a unitary centre, including its rejection of the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946 for a federal Indian Union, a scheme which Jinnah had endorsed. The consequence was that the Congress effectively opted for partition, against Jinnah’s wishes, and ultimately aligned with the Hindu nationalist demand for the removal of Muslim-majority regions. This, combined with the over-hasty British withdrawal, made inevitable a proposal that commanded neither public support nor fulfilled Jinnah’s ultimate concern. Jinnah played a dangerous and ultimately tragic game; but he was not alone in doing so, nor was he wrong in his critique of the dangers of an over-centralised state that carried colonial powers over into a post-colonial polity.
The unitary Indian state that emerged had a sound rationale, particularly in the hands of a benign citizen-philosopher politician like Jawaharlal Nehru. But Jinnah perhaps saw a little further, foretelling the dangers of a leader such as Indira Gandhi or the BJP governments of the 1990s. Military dictatorship, theocratic government or feudalist democracy were not his models; like Nehru, he aspired for a liberal constitutionalism respectful of India’s diversity. It is this model that continues to hold the best prospects for peace and prosperity on the Indian subcontinent.