From Nationalism to Partition Partitionist

M.J. Akbar, [email protected]
Publication Date: 
Sun, 2005-06-12 03:00

“Well, young man. I will have nothing to do with this pseudo-religious approach to politics. I part company with Congress and Gandhi. I do not believe in working up mob hysteria.”

The young man was a journalist, Durga Das. The older man was Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The reference is from Durga Das’ classic book, India from Curzon to Nehru and After. Jinnah said this after the 1920 Nagpur session, where Gandhi’s noncooperation resolution was passed almost unanimously.

On Oct. 1, 1906, 35 Muslims of “noble birth, wealth and power” called on the IVth Earl of Minto, Curzon’s successor as viceroy of India. They were led by the Aga Khan and used for the first time a phrase that would dominate the history of the subcontinent in the 20th century: The “national interests” of Indian Muslims. They wanted help against an “unsympathetic” Hindu majority. They asked, very politely, for proportional representation in jobs and separate seats in councils, municipalities, university syndicates and high court benches. Lord Minto was happy to oblige. The Muslim League was born in December that year at Dhaka, chaired by Nawab Salimullah Khan, who had been too ill to join the 35 in October. The Aga Khan was its first president.

The Aga Khan wrote later that it was “freakishly ironic” that “our doughtiest opponent in 1906” was Jinnah, who “came out in bitter hostility toward all that I and my friends had done... He was the only well-known Muslim to take this attitude... He said that our principle of separate electorates was dividing the nation against itself”.

On precisely the same dates that the League was formed in Dhaka, Jinnah was in nearby Calcutta with 44 other Muslims and roughly 1,500 Hindus, Christians and Parsis, serving as secretary to Dadabhai Naoroji, president of the Indian National Congress. Dadabhai was too ill to give his address, which had been partially drafted by Jinnah and was read out by Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

Sarojini Naidu, who met the 30-year-old Jinnah for the first time here, remembered him as a symbol of “virile patriotism”. Her description is arguably the best there is: “Tall and stately, but thin to the point of emancipation, languid and luxurious of habit, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s attenuated form is a deceptive sheath of a spirit of exceptional vitality and endurance. Somewhat formal and fastidious, and a little aloof and imperious of manner, the calm hauteur of his accustomed reserve but masks, for those who know him, a naïve and eager humanity, an intuition quick and tender as a woman’s, a humor gay and winning as child’s ... a shy and splendid idealism which is of the very essence of the man.”

Jinnah entered the Central Legislative Council in Calcutta (the capital of British India then) on Jan. 25, 1910, along with Gokhale, Surendranath Banerjea and Motilal Nehru. Lord Minto expected the council to rubber-stamp “any measures we may deem right to introduce”. Jinnah’s maiden speech shattered such pompousness. He rose to defend another Gujarati working for his people in another colony across the seas, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Jinnah expressed “the highest pitch of indignation and horror at the harsh and cruel treatment that is meted out to Indians in South Africa”. Minto objected to a term such as “cruel treatment”. Jinnah responded at once: “My Lord! I should feel much inclined to use much stronger language.” Lord Minto kept quiet.

On March 7, 1911 Jinnah introduced what was to become the first nonofficial act in British Indian history, the Wakf Validating Bill, reversing an 1894 decision on waqf gifts. Muslims across the Indian empire were grateful.

Jinnah attended his first meeting of the League in Bankipur in 1912, but did not become a member. He was in Bankipur to attend the Congress session. When he went to Lucknow a few months later as a special guest of the League (it was not an annual session), Sarojini Naidu was on the platform with him. The bitterness that divided India did not exist then. Dr M.A. Ansari, Maulana Azad and Hakim Ajmal Khan attended the League session of 1914, and in 1915, the League tent had a truly unlikely guest list: Madan Mohan Malviya, Surendranath Banerjea, Annie Besant, B.G. Horniman, Sarojini Naidu and Mahatma Gandhi. When Jinnah did join the League in 1913, he insisted on a condition, set out in immaculate English, that his “loyalty to the Muslim League and the Muslim interest would in no way and at no time imply even the shadow of disloyalty to the larger national cause to which his life was dedicated” (Jinnah: His Speeches and Writings, 1912-1917, edited by Sarojini Naidu). Gokhale that year honored Jinnah with a phrase that has traveled through time: It is “freedom from all sectarian prejudice which will make him (Jinnah) the best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. In the spring of 1914 Jinnah chaired a Congress delegation to London to lobby Whitehall on a proposed Council of India bill.

When Gandhi landed in India in 1915, Jinnah, as president of the Gujarat Society (the mahatmas of both India and Pakistan were Gujaratis), spoke at a garden party to welcome the hero of South Africa. Jinnah was the star of 1915. At the Congress and League sessions, held in Bombay at the same time, he worked tirelessly with Congress President Satyendra Sinha and Mazharul Haque (a Congressman who presided over the Muslim League that year) for a joint platform of resolutions. Haque and Jinnah were heckled so badly at the League session by mullas that the meeting had to be adjourned. It reconvened the next day in the safer milieu of the Taj Mahal Hotel. The next year Jinnah became president of the League for the first time, at Lucknow.

Motilal Nehru, in the meantime, worked closely with Jinnah in the council. When the munificent Motilal convened a meeting of fellow-legislators to his handsome mansion in Allahabad in April, he considered Jinnah “as keen a nationalist as any of us. He is showing his community the way to Hindu-Muslim unity”. It was from this meeting in Allahabad that Jinnah went for a vacation to Darjeeling and the summer home of his friend Sir Dinshaw Manockjee Petit (French merchants had nicknamed Dinshaw’s small-built grandfather Petit and it stuck) and met 16-year-old Ruttie. I suppose a glorious view of the Everest encouraged romance. When Ruttie became 18 she eloped and on April 19, 1918 they were married. Ruttie’s Parsi family disowned her, she separated from Jinnah a decade later. (The wedding ring was a gift from the Raja of Mahmudabad.)

As president Jinnah engineered the famous Lucknow Pact with Congress President A.C. Mazumdar. In his presidential speech Jinnah rejoiced that the new spirit of patriotism had “brought Hindus and Muslims together ... for the common cause”. Mazumdar announced that all differences had been settled, and Hindus and Muslims would make a “joint demand for a Representative Government in India”.

Enter Gandhi, who never entered a legislature, and believed passionately that freedom could only be won by a nonviolent struggle for which he would have to prepare the masses.

In 1915 Gokhale advised Gandhi to keep “his ears open and his mouth shut” for a year, and see India. Gandhi stopped in Calcutta on his way to Rangoon and spoke to students. Politics, he said, should never be divorced from religion. The signal was picked by Muslims planning to marry politics with religion in their first great campaign against the British Empire, the Khilafat movement.

Over the next three years Gandhi prepared the ground for his version of the freedom struggle: A shift from the legislatures to the street; a deliberate use of religious imagery to reach the illiterate masses through symbols most familiar to them (Ram Rajya for the Hindus, Khilafat for the Muslims); and an unwavering commitment to the poor peasantry, for whom Champaran became a miracle. The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 provided a perfect opportunity; Indian anger reached critical mass. Gandhi led the Congress toward its first mass struggle, the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921.

The constitutionalist in Jinnah found mass politics ambitious, and the liberal in him rejected the invasion of religion in politics. When he rose to speak at the Nagpur session in 1920, where Gandhi moved the noncooperation resolution, Jinnah was the only delegate to dissent till the end among some 50,000 “surging” Hindus and Muslims. He had two principal objections. The resolution, he said, was a de facto declaration of swaraj, or complete independence, and although he agreed completely with Lala Lajpat Rai’s indictment of the British government he did not think the Congress had, as yet, the means to achieve this end; as he put it, “it is not the right step to take at this moment ... you are committing the Indian National Congress to a program which you will not be able to carry out”. (Gandhi, after promising swaraj within a year, withdrew the Non-Cooperation Movement in the wake of communal riots in Kerala and of course the famous Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. Congress formally adopted full independence as its goal only in 1931.) His second objection was that nonviolence would not succeed. In this Jinnah was wrong.

There is a remarkable subtext in this speech, which has never been commented upon, at least to my knowledge. When Jinnah first referred to Gandhi, he called him “Mr. Gandhi”. There were instant cries of “Mahatma Gandhi”. Without a moment’s hesitation, Jinnah switched to “Mahatma Gandhi”. Later, he referred to Mr. Mohammad Ali, the more flamboyant of the two Ali Brothers, both popularly referred to as Maulana. There were angry cries of “Maulana”. Jinnah ignored them. He referred at least five times more to Ali, but each time called him only Mr. Mohammad Ali.

Let us leave the last word to Gandhi. Writing in Harijan of June 8, 1940, Gandhi said, “Quaid-e-Azam himself was a great Congressman. It was only after the noncooperation that he, like many other Congressmen belonging to several communities, left. Their defection was purely political.” In other words, it was not communal. It could not be, for almost every Muslim was with Gandhi when Jinnah left the Congress.

History might be better understood if we did not treat it as a heroes-and-villains movie. Life is more complex than that. The heroes of our national struggle changed sometimes with circumstances. The reasons for the three instances I cite are very different; their implications radically at variance. I am not making any comparisons, but only noting that leaders change their tactics. Nonviolent Gandhi, who broke the empire three decades later, received the Kaiser-I-Hind medal on June 3, 1915 (Tagore was knighted the same day) for recruiting soldiers for the war effort. Subhash Bose, ardently Gandhian in 1920, put on uniform and led the Indian National Army with support from Fascists. Jinnah, the ambassador of unity, became a partitionist.

The question that should intrigue us is why. Ambition and frustration are two reasons commonly suggested in India, but they are not enough to create a new nation. Jinnah made the demand for Pakistan only in 1940, after repeated attempts to obtain constitutional safeguards for Muslims and attempts at power-sharing had failed. What happened, for instance, to the Constitution that the Congress was meant to draft in 1928? On the other hand, Congress leaders felt that commitments on the basis of any community would lead to extortion from every community. The only exception made was for Dalits, then called Harijans.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who remained opposed to partition even after Nehru and Patel had accepted it as inevitable, places one finger on the failed negotiations in United Provinces after the 1936-37 elections, and a second on the inexplicable collapse of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 which would have kept India united — inexplicable because both the Congress and the Muslim League had accepted it. The plan did not survive a press conference given by Nehru. Jinnah responded with the unbridled use of the communal card, and there was no turning back.

A deeply saddened Gandhi spurned Aug. 15, 1947 as a false dawn (to quote Faiz). He spent the day not in celebrations in Delhi but in fasting at Calcutta. Thanks to Gandhi — and H.S. Suhrawardy — there were no communal riots in Calcutta in 1947.

Facts are humbling. They prevent you from jumping to conclusions.

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