Why M.A. Jinnah was a man of many contradictions
A secularist who turned communal, the founder of Pakistan remains an enigma, as a new biography shows
When Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an electoral majority in 2014, Indians could still assert that, however flawed, their republic aimed to remain secular, unlike Pakistan, which had chosen to be a theocracy and acted as one. Sixty-seven years after independence, a younger generation of Indians, impatient for change and growth, sick of corruption and exhausted by what many saw as pious platitudes of secularism, experimented with a seductive leader’s call for development, even if the agenda did not conceal his party’s older ideal, promising “equality" for all and “appeasement to none".
Today, the consequences of that vote are visible: The nationalism of minorities is being questioned; attacks on them have increased; lynch mobs have targeted and killed Muslims and Dalits; and several court judgements have upheld majoritarian beliefs. India has upended its refugee policy, making it easier for non-Muslims from the neighbourhood to seek asylum, putting in place a law to fast-track the citizenship requests of only those who are not Muslim. As the late Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz, mocked India once, “tum bilkul ham jaise nikle, ab tak kahan chhupe the bhai?"—in Shabana Mir’s translation, “turned out you were just like us, where were you hiding all this time, buddy?"
If Pakistan’s founding father M.A. Jinnah, seen as Partition’s chief villain in India, were to witness this state of affairs, he would have said, “I told you so." He had warned the subcontinent’s Muslims not to trust Hindus—don’t get fooled by Gandhi’s pieties and Nehru’s charms; in the end, the Hindus will want to subjugate us, he said. A growing number of Indians now seem to want to prove him right.
The peculiarity of hindsight is that it depends on the point from which you look back at Pakistan’s and India’s trajectories. In the early 1970s and till the late 1990s, as Pakistan itself broke up into two and generals and mullahs controlled its politics, India could afford to be smug. In 1992, the destruction of the Babri Masjid changed that, and the consequences of India’s 2014 election are there for us to see. Some Pakistanis may feel triumphant, but the virtue of Pakistani lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani’s new biography, Jinnah: A Life, is that it takes a sober tone.
In clear, if not sparkling, prose, Hamdani, an admirer of Jinnah, offers a nuanced perspective of the man who began as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and ended up being instrumental in dividing India along religious lines. The book adds to the growing body of literature around Jinnah, building on the work of Stanley Wolpert, regarded as the most important biography till Ayesha Jalal’s detailed and absorbing biography, and the indifferent book by former BJP minister Jaswant Singh, which gained notoriety for all the wrong reasons.
Projecting Pakistani nationalism as if it was one man’s fantasy, no matter how powerful, is misleading. Wolpert did that with his 1984 biography, Jinnah Of Pakistan, where he said: “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Jinnah did all three." As Jalal argued in The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League And The Demand For Pakistan (1985), this is a misleading view. She meticulously built the case that Jinnah never wanted a theocracy. As a shrewd tactician, he wanted assurances of Muslim rights, to secure a loose federal structure that would keep the subcontinent together.
But Wolpert was not entirely wrong—powerful individuals do shape the destinies of nations, but the context matters. Focusing on what Jinnah made of Pakistan is one thing; more interesting is the question that examines the context that made Jinnah. Jalal brings us closer to that question. In 2009, Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence unexpectedly sold many copies after Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, decided to ban the book (a court overturned the ban) and Singh was expelled from the party. Singh’s book was tedious and didn’t tell us much that was new; it was unusual simply because it was sympathetic to Jinnah.
India may be divided today in identifying the real heroes of its freedom struggle but it is still Jinnah who gets most of the blame. He is called stubborn and difficult, intransigent even; his apparent dietary hypocrisies are recounted to question if he was a “good Muslim"; his preference for well-cut suits is mocked, and his falling in love with, and marriage to, a Parsi woman young enough to be his daughter is considered scandalous.
In Jinnah: A Life, Hamdani offers a dispassionate account of Pakistan’s founding father, which reveals the remarkable man he was,without deifying him (as many do in Pakistan), and provides arguments that make it harder to vilify him easily (as many do in India). Hamdani shows how Jinnah began his career as a leader of the Congress and also became a member of the Muslim League. He receives Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi when he returns from South Africa to India in 1915, and speaks at the public felicitation for the fellow Gujarati. Hamdani discounts the more dramatized accounts of that event (did the two have a falling out there which altered history?) and reminds us that Gandhi and Jinnah both considered Gopal Krishna Gokhale their mentor.
Hamdani compiles evidence of Jinnah’s early speeches and actions to show he was unwilling to make religion the basis for defining nationhood—he baulked at Gandhi embracing the Khilafat Movement, and, even in 1943, did not want a theocracy. Hamdani shows how circumstances, including the growing distrust and communalization among Muslims and Hindus, led him to act to secure the rights of the few he felt closer to, over the rights of those with whom he had once thought he would share his destiny. Indians find it easy to believe Jinnah led Muslims astray. It also allows Indians to ignore what made Muslims in pre-Partition India insecure.
It is a different India now, closer to the kind Jinnah warned about, where some are questioning the values Gandhi represented, and some, including the BJP parliamentarian Pragya Singh Thakur even admiring Gandhi’s assassin, and the ruling party not doing much about it. Curiously, in 2005, BJP stalwart Lal Krishna Advani called Jinnah an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and even placed a wreath at his mausoleum in Karachi.
Secular-minded Indians often like to cite Jinnah’s speech to Pakistan’s constituent assembly on 11 August 1947 to offer a more nuanced interpretation of his communal outlook. He said: “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of 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." Liberal words, almost Nehruvian, that jar with the familiar image of Jinnah.
So what was the point of carving out Pakistan if it wanted to be liberal and secular? Jinnah resented the Pakistan he got—moth-eaten, as he described it, without Junagadh, Hyderabad or Kashmir, without Calcutta, its two wings separated by nearly 2,000km—united by faith, even as many co-religionists remained in India, and divided by languages, a point Jinnah brushed aside as if of no consequence. In March 1948, he visited Dacca, as Dhaka was then known, and spoke at the race course, warning against subversion, refusing to let Bengali be an official language. That sowed the seeds of the language movement, that culminated in Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971.
Jinnah could not have foreseen it. but these contradictions make him a fascinating man—a secularist who turned communal; the architect of a religious state who spoke in a liberal tone days before the country’s independence; and who stymied regional aspirations because he feared they would end up dividing the country (as they did, eventually).
Hamdani’s book cannot provide an answer to several questions: what ultimately convinced Jinnah to demand a separate nation? Was it because he believed Gandhi’s influence had waned and he could not trust those around Gandhi? Was it vanity and ego? As we learn more about some of the leading lights of the Congress leadership of that era, it is worth exploring the depth of their commitment to Gandhian tolerance and non-violence.
Within a year of independence, a priority for Vallabhbhai Patel and Kanaiyalal Munshi was to rebuild the Somnath Temple, and Rajendra Prasad, as president, decided to go to its consecration, against Nehru’s advice, blurring the lines between state and faith,. Had Jinnah been alive at the time, he would have felt vindicated, foreseeing what would become of India.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.