Gopal Krishna Gokhale had called him “an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” in 1916, as he was the man responsible for the Lucknow Pact between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. The pact brought the two organisations together to present a united front to the British.
The same man was hailed as Quaid-e-Azam (great leader) as he took charge in 1947 of Pakistan, while many in India credit him to a great extent with the bloodbath of Partition. For some, he is a messiah and for others a monster.
What happened in these three decades to Mohammad Ali Jinnah? A distinguished panel looked for answers, found some and came up with a few more questions at a discussion presented by The Telegraph at Town Hall on Thursday evening — “Did Jinnah want a secular Pakistan?”
Jaswant Singh’s controversial book Jinnah — India, Partition, Independence, which got him expelled from the BJP, had triggered the talk. Singh was one of the speakers, with former journalist and BJP member Arun Shourie; Hamid Haroon, the CEO of Dawn, Karachi, veteran journalist and former Congressman M.J. Akbar and Congressman and former diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Singh was expelled from his party because the BJP, with its pro-Hindu tilt, thought that the book eulogised Jinnah as a secular man.
So was Jinnah one? The question does not have an easy answer, but the speakers showed the founder-father of Pakistan in fascinating light. It was not the figure of a demon. It looked surprisingly human, complex and full of contradictions.
Aiyar, the moderator, felt the question of what Jinnah wanted was a “misplaced one”. What mattered was what he did.
Jinnah, whose family from the Khoja community of converted Hindus hailed from Kathiawar but settled in Karachi (his father’s name was Jinnabhai Poonja), was a brilliant barrister who came to practise in Mumbai at the turn of the new century and was a follower of Dadabhai Naoroji. Till the 1920s — after initial reservations, he had become a member of the Muslim League in 1913 — he worked passionately for the idea of a free India that was a composite of the Hindu and Muslim communities.
In 1927, Jinnah put forth demands on behalf of the Muslim League for separate electorates, which the Congress rejected. For Jinnah, this was a turning point, when he realised that he could not get the desired space for Muslims in the scheme of things.
He left politics for a while and went back to England. “All Jinnah wanted was political space for the Muslim community,” said Akbar. In 1920, at the height of the Khilafat movement, the same man had warned the Congress of the consequences of the danger of mixing religion and politics.
But he returned, to become the “sole spokesperson” for the Muslim community in India. It was a remarkable journey for someone who had written as a young man to his father from London that he was happy that he would not have to find work as a barrister; he had found a job as a Shakespeare actor, as Akbar pointed out. Jinnah would continue to read Shakespeare all his life.
On August 14, 1947, Jinnah had to cancel a lunch with the Mountbattens because he was unaware that it was the month of the Ramazan fast.
To become the “sole spokesperson”, Jinnah would have to say a lot. He did. And much of it was the articulation of the idea of Pakistan as a Muslim state. Once such things are said, there’s no stopping a course of events. “Pakistan could be nothing but a theocratic state,” said Akbar.
Hamid Haroon felt that Singh’s book had shocked India by showing that Jinnah was not a crook but a man of integrity, and shocked Pakistan by showing that a situation would prevail one day when it would seem that Pakistan for Jinnah was a “fall-back”, that he thought of Pakistan as an entity within a greater India.
Arun Shourie said he had strongly opposed the BJP expulsion of Singh and was part of the team that wrote to the court opposing the ban sought on the book.
He questioned how a man, who spoke of Pakistan as an Islamic state where the Sharia would rule, even if he added that the state would not be theocratic and run by priests, could be advocating a secular state.
As Singh said, Jinnah was a complex, self-made man, not from a rich family, not from society, who climbed an astounding height.
The discussion was preceded by the launch of the Bengali and Urdu translations of Singh’s book.
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