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Exit Right, Advani!

by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. …I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in 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.”

–Mohammad Ali Jinnah
(inaugurating the Pakistan Constituent Assembly)

“…All perfectly true, no doubt, but not the sort of thing to spring on a lad with a morning head.”

–P. G. Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge

There is a beautiful short story by RK Narayan. A veteran thief has picked hundreds of pockets over the years. One day, for the first time, he considers the matter from the victim’s standpoint (I don’t recall what prompts this soul-searching — maybe he finds something inside a stolen wallet). Whatever the reason, he decides to return the purse to the owner. He reckons it will be least problematic if he simply slips it back into the victim’s pocket. You can guess the rest. As he is putting the purse back, he is caught, for the first ever time.

Something similar happened this week to Lal Kishan Advani. Mr. Advani, for those who don’t follow Indian politics, is not only the president of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the tallest idealogue of the Hindutva movement, but its most intelligent expositor. After a four-decade career bashing muslims, stoking the fires of divisiveness with a ‘Rath Yatra’, being very much on the scene when the Babri Masjid mosque was forcibly torn down in defiance of court orders, all capped by his chilling silence (of little account whether deliberate or impotent) as Home Minister when the Gujarat pogroms took place in 2002, Advani, now leader of the Opposition in India’s parliament, was in Pakistan for a visit last week.

Now Pakistan may be justly accused of many things by Indians, but lack of hospitality is not among them. Every Indian who has visited Pakistan, to a man (or woman), remembers being overwhelmed by the genuine warmth shown by all levels of society, particularly the ordinary citizen of Pakistan.

In Advani’s case, he was also going back home, in a sense. Born in Karachi, he spent the first 20 years of his life in that city before migrating across the new international border following the Partition. Now, at 78, he was visiting the place where his old home stood, his school, his old haunts, afloat upon an outpouring of affection which he had no cause to expect.

The trifecta of holiday spirit, hospitality and nostalgia doubtless served to infuse Mr. Advani, even amidst the worst communal horror the very picture of urbanity, with the added virtue of benevolence.

Thus it was, like Gussie Fink Nottle addressing the kids at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, that Mr. Advani laid forth some observations that both astonished his hosts in Pakistan and horrified his cohorts in India. He quoted Mohammad Ali Jinnah — bad enough, but worse was to come. He quoted Jinnah extolling secularism! Pakistan would be a secular country, Jinnah said, where the state would have nothing to do with religion. Had Advani merely said that this was what Pakistan should live up to, he would have made an intelligent debating point, no more.

But he went beyond that. He added that this should be the ideal to which India, Pakistan and Bangladesh should all aspire!

Considering that it came at the end of a holocaust which caused a million deaths and several million to migrate, Jinnah’s speech (see The House that Jinnah Built) was an exercise in pure hypocrisy, but ripe stuff nonetheless (see quote at top). Fink Nottle at least had, in Wodehouse’s words, ‘the old familiar juice … plashing up against the back of the front teeth’. Advani though, is a teetotaler, which may go to show the narcotic power of emotion.

It might well have been that Advani was trying to point out the common heritage of all three countries in the subcontinent which made up undivided India, a statesmanlike approach. On the other hand, true, Jinnah’s fine words could apply to India too, but why class India in with Pakistan, where people can be jailed for saying, “Assalam Alaikum” if they happen to belong to the wrong religion?

Besides, Mr. Advani was contradicting his own logic further, because he added that he was moved to quote Jinnah’s speech, partly because he had been called upon to lay the foundation stone of the reconstruction of an old Hindu temple in Punjab — and he was particularly gratified by the fact that the Pakistan government was carrying out this project! And isn’t this precisely the kind of ‘help’ given to Muslims by the Indian state that has got Advani’s irish up so often in India?

And then there was the matter of the guest book entry at the Jinnah mausoleum. Here, Advani praised Jinnah as a man who had changed history by creating Pakistan single-handed, as an ardent secularist, etc. etc. Now it would be one thing to recall Jinnah’s early contributions to secularism, and his beginnings as an “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. But by rendering such a judgement on Jinnah’s entire life, the last decade and half of which was almost wholly devoted to communal causes, Advani had caused a huge polemical logjam for his party.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its family of organizations (called the Sangh Family, or Sangh Parivar) had one emotional strong point. They projected the Partition of India as a yet to be remedied wound, a sentiment many in India conceptually accept, even while being aware of its practical infeasibility. Advani quickly knocked the ground from under a half-century old edifice, when he declared that Partition was an accepted fact, and no one could undo it.

So it was that Advani’s continuing reveries and revelations of heart while in Pakistan caused the saffron ayatollahs in the Sangh Parivar to reach for the chooran (the Ayurvedic Maalox). Some, like the weasel Yashwant Sinha, a BJP neophyte, took this opportunity to pounce on Advani even while the latter was still abroad. Several lesser lights used stronger language, the epithet, ‘traitor’, featuring prominently.

The morning after he reached New Delhi, Advani drove over to the home of his party’s secretary and handed him his resignation from the presidentship of the party. For some reason, he found it necessary to mention to the press that he had written his letter the previous night in Karachi itself.

For the articulate man who had attacked Pakistan daily over a period of four decades, Advani seemed strangely conciliatory right from the start of his visit. He talked of a different Musharraf. He talked of a changed atmosphere in Pakistan (for the better). He talked of ‘waging peace’.

There is much to be criticized in Mr. Advani’s career, and god knows there is enough in Jinnah’s. But we can take the wisdom of someone’s words even if the person does not himself follow that wisdom. Thus, Advani was correct in saying that Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947 provided a fine definition of secularism, which all three countries of the subcontinent would do well to follow.

There is some bitter irony in seeing a man responsible for so much misery and misunderstanding called to account when he was building bridges instead. But in inadvertantly sacrificing himself in this manner, Advani may have done more for Pakistani secularism than his half-century of attack politics.

So cheer up, Mr. Advani. As a movie critic of old, you will appreciate this paraphrase: “We’ll always have Karachi”.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

 

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/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

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