Fri, Sep 14 2012. 08 57 PM IST

Both alike in dignity

An introductory recounting of modern South Asia’s formative political rivalry
Vedica Kant

Jinnah (left) and Gandhi were not just rivals but antagonists. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jinnah Vs Gandhi | Roderick Matthews
In 1915, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India from South Africa (via a brief stint in London). The Bombay Gujarati Society organized a reception on the occasion, presided over by another important dignitary, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah made his welcome speech in English. When Gandhi rose to reply, he deliberately chose to do so in Gujarati and went on to express his pleasure at a Mohammedan chairing the proceedings.
There are various versions of the event—that Gandhi interrupted Jinnah, asking him to switch to Gujarati; that Jinnah, forced to speak Gujarati, stumbled; that Jinnah felt slighted by the reference to his religion and the pointed change in language. For some historians of South Asia, this encounter set the stage for years of antipathy between Gandhi and Jinnah that would have a profound impact on the history of the Indian subcontinent.
On face value, one would expect Roderick Matthews’ book, with its suggestive title, to expand on this supposed antagonism in ideology, values, mannerisms and political aims which characterized the relationship between the two great Gujaratis. But the book does not concern itself deeply with the question of a personal rivalry. Matthews sets out to tell us the broader story of Indian politics in the first half of the 20th century, through the story of Gandhi and Jinnah’s political fortunes.
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Jinnah vs Gandhi: Hachette India, 336 pages, Rs 499
The first section of the book lays out the political and philosophical fundamentals of both men—their approach to politics (Gandhi working up from the microscopic; Jinnah from grand notions downwards), philosophy (Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, Jinnah’s embrace of the two-nation theory), and the differences in their leadership styles. The second and most substantial section of the book is titled “Interactions”, but is essentially a chronological history of Indian politics between 1900 and 1948, with all the main political events of the period checked off. Matthews delineates what seems to be a zero-sum game played out over time: When Gandhi is most on the ascendant, Jinnah is in retreat, and vice versa.
Matthews, unlike Jinnah’s biographer Stanley Wolpert, does not characterize this antithetical relationship as one based on personal hatred. He largely disagrees with Wolpert’s intriguing argument that Jinnah was obsessed with Gandhi, resented him for robbing him of the spotlight, and for his rejection from the Congress.
Actually, the Congress’ increasingly hostile attitude to any dissent—Jinnah was booed when he argued against the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements at the Congress’ 1920 Nagpur session—Jinnah’s increasing doubts about the party’s concern for Muslim minority rights, and its total rejection of any kind of cooperation with the Muslim League after the 1937 general election only served to set Jinnah and Gandhi on very divergent paths. If there was personal dislike of Gandhi, it probably only added to the imperative of charting a different course.
By default, Jinnah emerges as the more interesting figure. His politics and motivations have always been open to interpretation and analysis because there are no personal memoirs or diaries that explain them for us. Matthews builds on previous works on Jinnah to make him more accessible to non-academic readers. On the other hand, much has been written about Gandhi. His own memoirs run into thousands of pages. Though what Matthews tells us about the Mahatma is largely what we already know, the book offers a good recounting of his politics and philosophy.
In truth, by the late 1930s, Gandhi was removed from the workings of the Congress. The relationship that truly determined the future of the Indian subcontinent was the triangle of Jinnah, Nehru and Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India. Though a study of Jinnah and Gandhi alone does not offer a complete understanding of the turns in Indian politics leading up to independence, it is crucial to large chunks of it. Matthews’ rather dry book reveals no major new historical findings, but it is a solid introduction to the lives and politics of the two of South Asia’s most prominent leaders.