In the summer of 2005, I picked up a copy of Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah of Pakistan from New Delhi’s Khan Market, a market located near Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s former residence, 10 Aurangzeb Road. Along with me, many others in journalistic and academic circles were buying books written on Pakistan’s founding father. Our interest in Jinnah and curiosity about his role in history had been piqued by a statement made by Lal Krishan Advani, the president of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
Paying tributes to Jinnah in Karachi, Advani described him as among the ‘very few who actually create history. Qaid-e-Azam is one such rare individual.’ Advani also referred to Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech, in which he made a forceful espousal of Pakistan as a secular state. As such, Advani’s statement caused a political storm within the BJP.
In the Indian imagination, particularly that of the BJP, Jinnah is held responsible for the Partition of India and the ensuing communal riots. Millions of Indians imbibe this notion in their early life through school and college history books. In this context, Advani had to pay the price for his reconciliatory remarks on Jinnah. He had to resign from the party president’s post. The ongoing controversy continues to haunt him, and even resurfaced during the 2009 parliamentary elections.
Jaswant Singh, in his newly released book, Jinnah – India, Partition, and Independence, goes a step further than Advani. He is the first Indian lawmaker to publicly challenge Jinnah’s vilification and question the claim that he was singlehandedly responsible for Partition. Singh apportions much of the blame for Partition on Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.
Not surprisingly, the action against Singh was swift and decisive as compared to Advani. He was expelled from the party without any notice. The reason for this drastic decision was the much bigger challenge that Singh, a self-proclaimed liberal democrat, posed to the BJP and its ideological moorings: he attacked Patel, the party’s pivotal icon in the freedom struggle. It is notable that the BJP is indifferent to Jaswant Singh’s criticism of Nehru, who it finds guilty of several other ‘wrongdoings,’ including internationalising Kashmir.
On Patel, however, the BJP remains hyper-sensitive to any criticism. He is described as the Iron Man of India, credited for the amalgamation of hundreds of princely states with the Indian union. Indeed, Patel didn’t hide his majoritarian streak of politics. He had serious political differences with his colleagues. He belonged to Gujarat, a state ruled by BJP’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is alleged to be complicit in an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. (Keeping with character, Modi took no time in banning Singh’s book and termed it as an insult to Gujarat.) Incidentally, the most revered personalities in Pakistan and India, Jinnah and Mohan Das Karam Chand Gandhi, both hailed from Gujarat as well.
By dismissing Singh, the BJP is sending a message that it will not tolerate any critical examination of national icons and question its negative portrayal of Jinnah. The BJP fears that this will impact its reputation as a nationalist political outfit. But the party calculations seem to be out of sync with empirical reality as it underestimates the maturity of the Indian masses. After all, the BJP’s over-simplistic and negative political campaign caused the second consecutive defeat of the party in the 2009 parliamentary elections.
The exposure of many Indians to the wide array of work done on Partition through various sources, including the internet and foreign scholarship, strengthens the process of revisiting political history with an open mind. The understanding of historical and social factors that resulted in Partition and the personalities that ushered in a new era is being shaped with the revelation of new facts.
In this context, I discovered an interesting nugget of post-Partition Pakistani history. It is little known that Pakistan’s first national anthem was penned by a Hindu. A few months before his death in 2004, I interviewed the writer, Professor Jagan Nath Azad. The interview shed light on some important aspects of Jinnah’s personality and the political environment prevailing at that time.
Azad, a Punjabi Hindu, was in Lahore in August 1947 and was working at Radio Lahore. ‘A friend told me that the Quaid-e-Azam wanted me to write a national anthem for Pakistan. I told him it would be difficult to pen it in five days. But my friend pleaded that as the request has come from the tallest leader of Pakistan, I should consider his request. On much persistence, I agreed,’ Azad recalled.
Azad was told by his colleagues that that the ‘Quaid-e-Azam wanted the anthem to be written by an Urdu-speaking Hindu.’ Azad believed that Jinnah wanted to sow the roots of secularism in a Pakistan where intolerance had no place. Coincidentally, two days after he asked a Hindu to write the national anthem, Jinnah made his inaugural speech in the Pakistan constituent assembly. Jinnah said: ‘You will find that in the course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.’
To view the national icons of India and Pakistan in black or white will defeat the pursuit of objective research. There is enough scholarly material on Partition, mostly published by foreign authors, which discusses the social and historical forces that influenced politics and politicians. It is regrettable if we deny the intellectual and academic space to our own researchers to find objective explanations to past events. A grand reconciliation in the history writing of both countries is only possible in an environment free of fear and demagogy.
The author is a Fulbright fellow at New York University. He previously reported for The Hindu in Jammu.