The Hanging of Jinnah

There is much to be admired about Muhammed Ali Jinnah, but should the portrait of the founder of Pakistan be hanging on the wall of an Indian university?

On May 1 Satish Gautam, a member of parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wrote to the vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh demanding an explanation for its presence. That was impetus enough for the rightwing Hindu groups to barge into the campus and post Jinnah’s photographs in the toilets. The police used teargas shells and caned the students who were protesting against the disruption by the Hindutva groups. The government suspended internet services in the campus.

The portrait has been around for 80 years. Jinnah was given a life membership of the students’ union in 1938 before his demand for a separate nation. This controversy has once again put the Muslims in India on the mat, which seems to be the agenda. Instead of rebutting with rational arguments, the moderates and liberals across communities are busy adding to the demonisation of Jinnah.

News outlets found one more enemy. The editor-anchor of a television channel screamed, “Jinnah was a terrorist”. All our indigenous crises are made invisible by using the media to create a “threat from Pakistan” scenario even if it is several decades late. Such flamboyant and facile declamations are the heritage of insecurity among Indians. They twist history and ensure that any dissent against the system is seen as terrorism.

Jinnah was a dissenter. He opposed British rule, spoke up passionately for the freedom fighters, even representing them as a lawyer. And when it was time, he opposed what constituted the Indian leadership on the question of Muslims in an independent idea. Therefore, viewing his espousal of minority rights through a religious prism is reductionist and mischievous.

It is rather disconcerting that those who oppose the rightwing ideology propagate such falsehoods too. The Muslim Mahasangh has announced a cash prize of Rs. 1 lakh for burning Jinnah’s portrait. Asaduddin Owaisi, head of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and a known minority voice, proclaimed: “What have we got to do with Jinnah…We are Indians by birth and we are Indians by choice. We had asked Jinnah to get out. We never accepted Jinnah’s two-nation theory”.

Such reactions give the issue the sort of religious colour that the Hindutva groups want.

The fact is that Jinnah wasn’t quite the good practising Muslim. That was not his case. He began attending Friday prayers only when the Muslim League plan fell into place. He dismissed the clerics as “those bearded ones”. And though he referred to Hindus as infidels in some of his speeches, he was a votary for intermarriage as a means to promote communal harmony. These were not contradictions. They were parallel roles – as demagogue taking the bull by its horns and as statesman who believed in a secular polity.

The liberal response makes no room for such complexities.

They say Jinnah was responsible for the Partition of India.

The British had done their bit with the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and separate electorates. It was the poet Allama Iqbal who floated the idea of another nation in 1929. Ironically, his poem “Saare jahaan se achcha Hindostan hamara(our Hindustan is the best in the universe)” is almost an unofficial national anthem and sung by Indians to this day as a paean to the nation.

At the Roundtable Conference in 1933, the Pakistan Declaration was circulated. Choudhary Rehmat Ali, founder of the Pakistan National Movement, had in the covering letter appealed

“on behalf of the thirty million Muslims of PAKISTAN, who live in the five Northern Units of India—Punjab, North-West Frontier (Afghan) Province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan. It embodies their demand for the recognition of their national status, as distinct from the other inhabitants of India, by the grant to Pakistan of a separate Federal Constitution on religious, social and historical grounds”.

600,000 people died during the Partition riots and 14 million were uprooted. This could not possibly have been because of one man.

They say Jinnah had more in common with rabid Hindu leaders.

There can be no comparison. Jinnah opposed colonial rule and the British disliked him (Lord Mountbatten famously referred to him as a “psychopath”). V.D. Savarkar, a lover of the Nazis, who was among the first to propagate Hindutva as an Indian identity, had begged the British government several times for clemency following his arrest.

It is important to point out that in 1937 Jawaharlal Nehru rejected Jinnah’s proposal for a Congress-Muslim League coalition saying that there were only two parties in India – the Congress and the British.

They say that the Hindu rightwing is proving Jinnah right.

Latter-day liberals seem to be justifying the Hindutva ideology as a reaction to the Partition, much as the rightwing claims its “resurgence” is a response to atrocities committed by successive Muslim colonisers. Their argument assumes that inherently the majority in India has never harboured any prejudice against the minorities. Considering that Dalits and scheduled castes and tribes within the Hindu fold have to fight for their rights and reservations even today indicates otherwise.

Historian and Islamic scholar Dr. Rafiq Zakaria had said, “From 1937 onwards, Jinnah changed his tactics and began setting the Hindus against the Muslims. Never in India’s history has even the worst Muslim ruler alienated Hindus from Muslims as Jinnah has done.”

India is a diverse country and there are many regional and linguistic issues, as the creation of Bangladesh bears out. In fact, there have been five major state divisions in India in recent years.

There were communal riots before too and most of those who chose to either leave for Pakistan or stay behind did so for practical rather than emotive reasons.

They say Indian Muslims are patriotic and will make any sacrifice for the country.

Nobody seems to realise how damaging such merit certificates can be. One portrait on a wall in a university and Muslim patriotism is being both questioned and answered for by Big Brother. The rightwing as well as the moderates expect the minorities to be subsumed into this “cultural nationalism”.

BJP’s L.K. Advani has spoken about his description of Jinnah as a secular person as being “a high point in my life”. This was the man at the forefront of the demolition of the Babri mosque movement which was antithetical to all that is secular.

After the formation of Pakistan, in a radio broadcast Jinnah had stated: “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.”

70 years later, Pakistan’s parliament has passed a resolution to replace the name of its only Nobel laureate, physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, from a department at a university named after Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam University. Dr. Salam was an Ahmadi, a Muslim sect whose members do not even have the right in Jinnah’s Pakistan to call themselves Muslim and their place of worship a masjid.

It proves that whether it is Gandhi or Jinnah, ideas do not survive; their iconography does. Portraits need not be a validation of greatness or an acknowledgement of values. They are merely markers of history. And more than the one at the centre of the debate, it is the burning of Jinnah’s effigy, the tearing of his pictures and the putting up of his posters in toilets that bear the greater burden of the past.

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections