The Politics of Secularism : Jinnah and India

by Shaheryar Ali
The anniversary of Partition of India has gone, the unfortunate consequence of anti-colonial struggle of the nationalists , communists and socialists on one  side and the British and communalists on the other. MA Jinnah had a reputation of being a very secular leader but he is also the one responsible for partition of India on religious grounds. Year back the right wing communalist Indian leader LK Advani praised Jinnah as being secular. It caused a controversy, both sides have lost sense of proportion in examining Jinnah’s secular character. I have found this article interesting one as it tries to build some foundations for such a analysis. The mistake has been to examine Jinnah statically , either God or Satan, Communal or secular. Important thing is to analyze him dynamically, his evolution from Liberal to conservative etc and the factors that governed such a evolution . The writer is a secular progressive Indian.
The Politics of Secularism
By N.Vijay Sai

It is important to keep oneself well informed about the early political life of Jinnah to get a better understanding of an individual who was hailed as one of the most enigmatic figures in Indian politics.

There couldn’t have been a better synergy at the political crossroads of the on going Indo-Pak dialogue. When co-incidences are loud and clear, they should be appropriately recognised before they fade in collective memory. I encountered a book Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity, Jinnah’s Early Politics by Ian Bryant Wells, published this year, which stands out as the best in the current politics that were stroked out around the controversy over the credentials of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s secularism and L.K Advani’s version of it. While Advani’s version of secularism was clearly not acceptable to his own party members and was much criticised, it has become clear in the larger political framework how the very concept of secularism is one that is still the most mis-interpreted and misused by extremist right-wing politicians to gain political mileage. It is of common knowledge that Advani is surely not an evangelical secularist that he pretends to be, one would be interested to see how these current interpretations of secularism are understood in today’s context.

Ian wells’s partial political biography of Jinnah details out the life of a great political thinker and an extremely complex strategist. It successfully manages to confound an already mysterious political character like Jinnah. This book introduces us to that Jinnah, who was the political heir to the constitutionalism of the devout Hindu politician Gopal Krishna Gokhale and the liberalism of Morley. As a person who was born into the minority Khoja community, Jinnah converted into the Shia community before entering into aggressive politics. It is a hypothetical proposition to think that he took up this conversion to the Shia community because he could not advocate his politics from the position that he was in i.e. an evolving politician from a minority within a minority. Jinnah was relatively a late starter in Indian politics when he got into the Indian legislative council at the age of thirty-five. All through out his early politics, he was strong in advocating Hindu- Muslim unity in India. This is what led to Sarojini Naidu bestowing on him the title of ‘Ambassador of Hindu- Muslim unity’.

But one needs to introspect as to how did this ambassador of Hindu Muslim unity metamorphosise into becoming the ‘Father of Pakistan’. This seems to be a huge grey area that has never been thoroughly studied by any historian and researcher. This book is no exception. Many historians have told us ad nauseum that while leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were deeply religious individuals who were secular, Jinnah and Savarkar who were atheists turned out to be figures who endorsed communal politics. It is high time we start introspecting the entire politics of that period and contextualise it. Many concepts have never remained the way they started off.

They change from time to time and it is important to recognise this change for a better understanding of the socio – cultural functioning of the nation-state. Before 1937, if one sees the political scenario, one will say that Jinnah was undoubtedly secular. The change in his attitude happened after Gandhiji joined the Congress and he was cornered. Cornered by the Congress in the late 1920’s and criticised by his own community, an isolated Jinnah left for England to practice law.

The person who was to return in 1935 was a completely different Jinnah who came back to India in the midst of Gandhi’s non- violent movement. And this time around he was not trying to fix the gap between the Congress and the League. How did this change come about? Did he feel the exercise he was pursuing to bond the Congress and the League, futile? These are some of the complex questions to which history has no answers. But after his transformation, it was not a difficult journey for him to bring about Pakistan as a separate nation. His call to the Muslims for celebrating December 22nd as the ‘Day of deliverance and thanksgiving’ turned out to be effective. From there on till the ‘Direct action day’ in the August of 1946, one can see the complete absence of his secular politics. And unfortunately this is the Jinnah that many people in India know. This is the Jinnah over which the extremist Hindutva forces pride their awareness and spread their understanding of it among the Indian masses.

Ian Wellses work is an extremely interesting document that is well researched on the early politics of Jinnah. And in the present context, it is important to keep oneself well informed about this phase of Jinnah’s life to get a better understanding of an individual who was hailed as one of the most intriguing, fascinating and an enigmatic figure in Indian politics. If one reads his speech of August 11, 1947, which was delivered to the Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, one can sense his act of apology and acknowledgement that communal politics were extremely divisive. Here it would be interesting to ask if Jinnah was trying to get back to his earlier politics of secularism since his dream of an independent Pakistan was achieved. But before anything else was said and done, he died the next year and that was the end of understanding his politics. It will be interesting to ask questions like what if he had been made the prime minister of Pakistan in 1947? What if he had died before the Partition? Would Pakistan have been a secular nation if Jinnah had lived on?

This is not the first time that secularism is being re-interpreted. It has been done every time communal politics has taken a forefront in India. More then seeing if Jinnah was a secularist or a communal person or just a highly confused politician, it is important to recognize the tragedy that surrounds the complete ignorance of that phase of his life when he metamorphosised from a secular individual to a communal leader.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a Culture Critic living and working from Bangalore, India. He has written and published extensively on Music, Fashion, Food, Theatre, Art, Film and more. He is a human rights activist and a research scholar and has worked with some of the world’s biggest social organizations. He may be reached at


Filed under History, Jinnah

13 responses to “The Politics of Secularism : Jinnah and India

  1. Veejay Sai


    I doubt this is a forum for you to advertise any such things. Pls try and refrain from turning this wonderful blog into such a site.

  2. A very true and rite work!!Its the actual politics which seperates us….

  3. i once read somewhere ” I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What god desires is here ”
    And same is the thing done with Jennah or any such political person..he playes with religion,in the name of religion n God and fulfills his desires 🙂 its just casual

  4. Shaheryar Ali

    Mr Sai
    i apologize on behalf of Pak Tea House. Due to work load we are not being able to edit comments. we will soon do that


  5. good effort,but the topic need a comprehenssive sudy and a collective research….
    When I was studying Ubaidullah Sindhi’s addresses after his return of the exile,in 1939,I found it very useful in analyzing the politics of the last decade…But unfotunately he was the least understood personality in the region…Am willing to bring his thoughts to the viewers regarding the politics of Seperation…

  6. Insightful article and clearly outlines in a significant problem in the history and politics of Indo-Pakistan. Although, I wish for more detailed comments on the book about Jinnah that Vijay mentioned. As well as more on the transformation (while in London) (sometimes attributed to Muhammad Iqbal) from ‘secular’ to a ‘communal’ politician

  7. Shaheryar Ali

    Ali Arqam , i think ideas of Obaid Ullah Sindhi, must come forward. Do post any thing you like from his addresses. We will surely publish it. if you are interested you can send it to the editor Raza Rumi or me , i can be reached at

    you are right. it needs a systimatic study. I am working on a project. you may see some work on it pretty soon. Muhammed Iqbal’s influence on him is complex matter. He bitterly opposed Jinnah once, even split from Jinnah to be part of a more pro British faction of the league
    Iqbal for a long part of his life opposed any rebellion from British empire , his thesis was the moslems first modernize themselves and than may be think bout self rule

  8. YLH

    Had N-Vijay Sai added to his knowledge of Jinnah by following up Ian Bryant Wells with H M Seervai’s analysis of partition of India… he would realize that Jinnah’s politics remained secular till the very end.

    Good one though Sherry.

  9. YLH

    PS: there was no evolution from liberal to conservative. Jinnah’s liberalism was there till the end… as evidenced by his 11th August speech and his efforts on behalf of minorities in Pakistan including his insistence on having a Hindu as the law minister.

    There are no dynamics here. Unlike the many other leaders of the subcontinent, Jinnah had no interest in brownie points. He was clear that he had to get his clients the best deal possible and that is what he worked towards …

  10. YLH

    PPS; I have read Ian Bryant Wells’ book. It is a fine book which argues against the “transformation” argument.

    Like I said above H M Seervai’s book partition of India legend and reality blew the myth of Jinnah being responsible for partition along communal lines into a million pieces. One may even consider Azad’s book “india wins freedom” a reluctant belated confession for all of Congress.

  11. YLH

    “And this time he was not trying to fix the gap between Congress and the Muslim League”

    Another misconception. Jinnah had on the contrary re-organized the league and brought its manifesto in line with the Congress in 1936…infact pro-Congress Hindu industrialists funded the Muslim League in UP and Bombay (read From Curzon to Nehru) because of Jinnah’s efforts to bring league closer to the Congress.

    The league won 29 out of 35 seats contested in UP. Congress won 1 muslim seat and one more in bye election. Logically Jinnah asked for a coalition government in UP which was spurned by the Congress who opted instead to encourage defections from the League. All these are facts of history.

    It was Nehru who wrote to Jinnah in 1937 asking him to depend on Muslim League’s “inherent strength” as a way of taunting him. Jinnah responded that in the future he would only depend on the League’s inherent strength and so he set about making League a truly representative body. Lahore resolution was adopted in this spirit. The League went from being a debating society to a mass party.

  12. YLH

    Romilla thapar summed up this parting of the ways beautifully in her second volume of history of India.

  13. YLH

    Hamza Alavi’s point of view on Jinnah’s supposed “conversion”:

    “Most of the salariat in fact, implicitly or explicitly, espoused a secular conception of being part of a Muslim nation. Jinnah their spokesman, was always quite explicit about it and on this issue he put his position quite unambiguously. In recent years there has been a systematic attempt by Pakistan’s captive media to misrepresent Jinnah on this point and they are trying hard to build up an image of the Father of the Nation as a religious bigot. The reality was very different. Jinnah was a member of cosmopolitan Bombay society, a close colleague and friend of Sir Pheroze Shah Mehta, a Parsi Indian nationalist and, along with M.K. Gandhi, a protégé and close friend of G.K. Gokhale, the great Indian liberal leader. Jinnah began as an active member of the Congress Party. He was not among the founders of the League. Ironically the basis of that growing unity was destroyed by a decision to pander to Muslim bigotry not by the League but by the Congress, much to the disgust and resentment of the League leadership. That was by virtue of Gandhi’s decision to back fanatical Muslim Ulema in launching the Khilafat movement, (1919-23). If there had been any intention to drive a wedge between the secular minded Muslim salariat and the Muslim masses and to shift leadership in the direction of the obscurantist Ulema, the Congress could not have taken up a more potent issue.

    It is true that it was Muslim notables, so-called ‘feudals’, who presided over the birth of the Muslim League in December 1906 at Dacca. This has misled too many historians about the character of the Muslim League. The fact of the matter is that the Muslim League, soon after its initiation by Muslim notables, was taken over by the Muslim salariat. At the initial meeting at Dacca two leading lights of Aligarh, Mohsin-ul Mulk and Viqar-ul Mulk were appointed as joint secretaries and two-fifths of the Provisional Committee were from the UP. These were as yet ‘men of property and influence’ although quite committed to the salariat cause. Later, by 1910, the leadership and control of the Muslim League passed into the hands of men from a relatively more modest background who have been described as ‘men of progressive tendencies’, under the leadership of Wazir Hassan and others like him, who were based at Lucknow. They pushed the Muslim League in a new direction and sought co-operation with the larger Indian nationalist movement and the Congress, provided Muslim salariat rights were protected.

    Jinnah himself was to be brought into the Muslim League by these elements three years later. It would be a mistake to think that the Muslim League was dominated and controlled by the so-called feudals’ during the four decades after its inception. That is the nub of a complicated story, of which a most perceptive account will be found in Robinson’s excellent study of the early Muslim Movement in the UP.26 Naturally, like all great political and social movements there are many different strands that are interwoven in the tapestry of Muslim history in India during the 19th and 20th centuries. But its leitmotif was engraved on the map of Indian politics by the aspirations and anxieties of the Muslim salariat, the force behind Muslim nationalism.

    A number of factors contributed to a new turn in the development of Muslim politics in India by the first decade of this century. The Muslim salariat was by now detached from its total reliance on the goodwill and patronage of the colonial regime. It turned towards its own self-reliant political organisation for which it looked to Muslim professionals to provide political leadership. That was prompted above all by the prospective constitutional changes that offered an opportunity and need for representation in the state apparatus. It is not an accident that Muslim salariat’s political organisation took shape in that decade. Nawab Salimullah Khan’s initiative and invitation to Dacca had merely provided an opportunity and an occasion for that.

    The Muslim salariat had begun to crystallise its political identity. Its key objectives were, again, defined by the narrow perspectives of the privileged UP Muslim salariat, not least its sharply deteriorating position relative to Hindus. Its demands corresponded to the problems of a beleaguered group in a Muslim minority province. They do not make too much sense when viewed in the context of Muslim majority provinces. Their central demand was for separate electorate for Muslims so that they may not be outvoted by the overwhelming Hindu majority in the UP. Robinson sums up developments in the first decade of the century as follows: ‘By 1909 a Muslim identity was firmly established in Indian politics … (by virtue of ) the creation of a Muslim political organisation … (and) the winning of separate Muslim electorate. … The creation of a protected share of power for Muslims … stimulated the further development of Muslim politics.’ 27 Jinnah who was brought into the Muslim League in 1913 reassessed the situation and recognised a role for himself as a spokesman for Muslims in the Nationalist movement on the strength of their independent organisation in the Muslim League. Robinson comments ‘He brought to the League leadership important connections with all India Congress circles and the distinction of having been a close friend of Gokhale.’
    Jinnah eventually began to get disillusioned with the Congress Party, from the 1920s not because he was a Muslim communalist but quite the reverse. It was the Congress, rather, which embarked on a course that encouraged Muslim fanaticism under the leadership of the Ulema, by instigating and backing the Khilafat movement. Jinnah was quite outraged by this. No greater disservice could have been done to the cause of inter-communal harmony in India. Nothing that the Muslim League ever did or wanted to do could have done more to excite Muslim communalist passions and to evoke corresponding responses from Hindus.

    Increasingly Jinnah was disenchanted with the leadership of the Indian National Congress. The failure to reach an accommodation with the Congress after the 1937 elections finally forced him to reconsider his strategy. So far the Muslim League’s influence was limited to the salariat; hence its ineffectiveness in elections in a society in which landlords controlled the mainly rural vote. Jinnah decided now to secure Muslim landlord support at any price and he soon set about making deals with those of them who were in power in Muslim majority Provinces, persuading them to accept the Muslim League label, even if it was to be only nominally. In return he gave them carte blanche, and in effect surrendered the local Muslim League organisations to them. Jinnah’s objective in this was to secure at least the formal position of the Muslim League as the nominally ‘ruling Party’ in Muslim majority provinces. That would legitimise his claim that the Muslim League was the sole and legitimate spokesman of Muslims of India.

    Jinnah looked upon the landed magnates, the political bosses of the Muslim majority provinces, with contempt and dislike quite as much as they in turn showed little inclination to allow him and the central Muslim League leader ship to encroach on their domains of power. In Punjab the Jinnah-Sikandar Pact of 1936 was the first of these one-sided arrangements between the Unionist Party and the Muslim League. The Unionist Party was an alliance of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh landowners. In return for Muslim Unionists’ nominal allegiance to the League it delivered the Punjab League into the hands of the Unionists leader, Sir Sikandar Hayat. The political cleavage in the Punjab was urban-rural and the rural magnates had always shown contempt for the urban salariat, which was the Muslim League’s mainstay”