When India was partitioned in 1947 at least 500,000 people were killed in communal violence and 15 million people moved across the borders. The popular perception in India holds one man, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, responsible for the division and, in turn, the post-Partition problems, some of which continue to linger even today. In Pakistan, he is hailed as Quaid-i-Azam, or the great leader who created a nation for Muslims otherwise “doomed to live under Hindus”.
There have been innumerable analyses on the role of Jinnah by well-qualified historians, academicians and writers across the world, and their conclusions are varied. So what makes Jaswant Singh’s controversial book, Jinnah–India, Partition, Independence, different? Why has he written this book? Why was his party, the BJP, so terribly annoyed that it expelled him?
Fathers of nations: Jinnah and Gandhi were often at odds. AFP
The author, a career politician, thought of the book when he accompanied then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his historic bus journey to Lahore in 1999. They both visited Minar-e-Pakistan, a 60m-high tower that marks the place where the All India Muslim League adopted a resolution in 1940 for the creation of Pakistan. Singh was struck by the fact that no political figure in India had written a biography of Jinnah. He decided, therefore, to “fill the gap”.
And that perhaps is the novelty of the book. It is not uncommon worldwide for political leaders to write historical accounts of major personalities and events, but it is highly unusual in a country like India, and especially for a right-wing politician, to write on the founder of Pakistan. What is more striking is that he started working on the book in 2004 and continued to pursue it in 2005, even after his then party president L.K. Advani had to quit his post for praising Jinnah. The author’s well-wishers cautioned him when he began researching for the book.
The first few chapters set the historical context. Singh proceeds chronologically, starting from Indo-Islamic history to the early days of Jinnah’s political career. There are references suggesting Jinnah was a staunch nationalist and secularist and the division of India was a remote thought for him. Later, the book brings out the communal aspects, where Jinnah insists he should be regarded as the sole spokesman of all Muslims. He rejected the Congress’ attempts to portray itself as a secular party representing all sections, including Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, and said they should only represent Hindus.
Singh is clearly soft on Jinnah, and as the narration proceeds, he blames the Congress and its leaders for missing various opportunities for keeping India as one entity.
Quoting the Mountbatten papers, the author revisits Mahatma Gandhi’s proposal to let Jinnah be the prime minister and form the government of a united India. Elsewhere in 1947, when the Boundary Commission comes visiting, Nehru is portrayed as someone acting in haste.
The book, of 669 pages out of which 144 pages are for appendices, points out that the British wanted the Muslims as allies because they didn’t want both communities (Hindus and Muslims) working together against the Raj. Nehru and Sardar Patel are portrayed as accepting the Partition proposal without Gandhi knowing about it. Singh’s message is simple: Jinnah is not the villain he is made out to be. The Congress party, its leaders, especially Nehru, were responsible for decisions that went terribly wrong, resulting in the division of India. Many authors have adopted this line of reasoning in the past. But high praise for the founder of Pakistan from a senior BJP functionary could hardly have been palatable.
Despite everything, however, it is hard to digest the author’s contention that a single burst of emotion at Minar-e-Pakistan motivated him to write a book on such a complex subject. Scholars rarely go by emotion when they choose their subjects, and politicians are hardly known to be guided by their hearts.