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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Jinnah Episode: Searching for Relevance

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Uttam Sen


The multitude being led to its deliverance by a brilliant individual tends to live on as evocative memory. But if The Hindu’s otherwise empathetic editorial, written on Jinnah’s death in 1948, can be remotely taken as read, Jinnah’s metamor-phosis from a closet parliamentarian to a mass leader had a disturbing aspect. Apart from allaying his own fears of being outmanoeuvred by majoritarian politicians, he had also seized the moment of a divide-and-rule colonial policy to set up a communal platform. He was no longer the same man who had earlier dismissed from his thoughts the Ali brothers’ Khilafat movement because it had seemed to him that they were playing with fire. He was at the time still

deeply suspicious of the unrestrained passions of the mob and he was too good a student of history not to realise that once the dormant fires of fanaticism were stoked there was no knowing where it might end.

Jinnah avoided the Gandhian Congress because of the “same nervousness about the consequences of arousing mass enthusiasm”. But he

came to see that a backward community like the Muslims could be roused to action only by an appeal, simplified almost to the point of crudeness, to what touched it most deeply, its religious faith. And a close study of the arts by which the European dictators, Mussolini, Hitler and a host of lesser men, rose to power led him to perfect a technique of propaganda and mass instigation to which ‘atrocity’-mongering was central. But Mr Jinnah could not have been entirely happy over the Frankenstein monster that he had invoked, especially when the stark horrors of the Punjab issued with all the inevitability of Attic tragedy from the contention and strife that he had sown.

There are takers for the hypothesis that Jinnah was not entirely wise to the enormity of the savagery that would follow his radically divisive rhetoric, or that he had merely served a professional riposte to his adversaries’ tactics on a competitive political chessboard. His role in the narrative of calamitous events did not prevent misery and unhappiness on a mass scale and the meaningfulness at the end is subject to qualification. Many Indian Muslims, arguably fed up with being a minority community, found their own exclusive homeland. But many more were left behind. Neither the politics nor the economics of the subcontinent improved qualitatively because of Partition. Jinnah’s attitude (and perhaps that of quite a few others) also contrasts sharply with that of the poet and his ilk who were willing to discard the romance of Swadeshi when it hurt Muslims and the poor, because to them patriotism had to benefit everyone. But even if by contemporary standards of analysis all the blame for that political interlude cannot be laid squarely at one particular door, there are others who continue to harbour misgivings. It would take some doing to dispel them. Perceptions matter in politics and if the airing of Jaswant Singh’s opinions were designed in any way to gauge them, the writing is on the wall.

The Jinnah episode has another dimension. The proceedings during and after the subcontinental vivisection demonstrated the hazards of mass mobilisation without a constructive welfarist agenda. The chain of happenings also showed up the whole impulsive political action could blow into the fate of the common man. Gandhi had never lost sight of the ordinary person as his frame of reference, however simplistic his rural development-based people’s movement might appear today, or did to planners of his time. The call for “Direct Action” exposed the dangerous vulnerability of economically challenged communities to the violent politicisation of faith before the acquisition of the essentials that keep body and mind together.

Almost equally pernicious was the single-minded propaganda technique and mass instigation playing to the insecurities of the marginalised. If the European Fascists were often extensions of the social and economic residuum left behind by the Continent’s humanistic movement, their emulation in the Subcontinent invariably made “atrocity-mongering” a central plank. Informed dialogue and debate, to which the likes of Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had privileged access, held out the potential of leveling the misinterpretation and vulgarisation of the apparently commonplace, for example, food and insecurity, but its diversion into personality and community-bashing was a route that enlightened opinion continues to grapple with. What if political leaders, whose social development equipment could be the envy of their latter-day counterparts, had mustered the unanimity to focus on the common weal? The clash of their respective interests, and their manipulation by the colonial principal, eliminated the possibility. In a pluralist world, it also bears recalling that opinion in the colonial nerve-centre across the seas was also divided between realpolitik and reform.


Responses from the public sphere in India sometimes displayed the objectivity with which the past could be reviewed, with the exception of political persuasions that found any appreciation of Jinnah unacceptable and inexpedient (ill-advisedly, according to the author, Jaswant Singh, who was expelled after a TV interview on his book on the subject; Singh doubted that the volume, subsequently released, had been read). A particular political party had a person on board who had been critical in print of its past icons. The fact did not disqualify him from holding an important position in government and a spokesman thought it was fine as long as the member did not betray indiscretion or intemperance to disturb organisational functionality. The possibility that an endorsement of Jinnah’s role in Partition could open a can of worms of that period and damage the party was taken in stride with the usual semantic fencing.

Jinnah was an advocate of a loose federation with residuary powers devolving to the State units. If it was recognition of subcontinental diversity, from another perspective it was a stratagem for diluting the Hindu majoritarian bias. The subsequent workings of the Constitution in India have been watering down that predisposition in many ways and the Hindu monolithic image has shed considerable weight with the gradual acknowledgment of the many shades contained in it. The case had also been made that an event like the 2009 election showed how an overwhelmingly poor, illiterate, diverse but wise electorate had displayed the imagination and foresight to maintain the political balance necessary for survival and growth. Despite being a much smaller nation-state Pakistan had come a relative cropper in dealing with heterogeneity. Jinnah’s post-Independence pluralism signified a return to earlier principles, ironically repudiated by his compatriots.

In Attic tragedy the heroes are silent and solitary. The silence is taken to be an expression of defiance and the solitude unrelatedness to the world, that is, they are each a unique self. The most edifying aspect of discourse is that it is searching for relevance of the apparent solitude that has been misinterpreted as defiance.

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