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  • Understanding Jinnah

    Posted On June 9, 2005

    By Karan Thapar

    I could tell it was Pertie. Whenever he calls the phone rings insistently.

    “Tell me, Oh Knowledgeable One” he started. “How do you see Jinnah? As a secular and great leader or as a machiavellian and communal politician?”

    I was stunned. This was the last question I expected. “Why are you asking me? I’m not an expert on Jinnah.”

    1“I know” Pertie replied a shade too quickly for my liking. “But that’s never stopped you expressing an opinion. Why hold back now?”

    I could sense the challenge and was determined to face it.

    “To start with, did you know that Jinnah smoked, drank and ate pork? He also married outside his faith but never required his wife, Ruttie, to change her’s nor brought up his daughter, Dina, as a Muslim? They say his wife would visit his chambers, perch on his desk and feed him ham sandwiches. And she called him Jin!”

    “Ah” Pertie interrupted. “You make him sound like a modern, liberal man unafraid to break religious taboos?”

    “Wait, there’s more. He was also a natty dresser. His double-breasted suits and co-respondent shoes were the height of fashion. The house he built on Napean Sea Road in Bombay is one of the finest. The one he bought in Delhi is very striking.

    “Hmmm”. Pertie couldn’t restrain himself. “So he was a bit of a dandy as well!”

    “And a self-made millionaire to boot! Unlike Nehru he didn’t inherit his wealth. In fact, some people claim, in the 1930s he was one of London’s leading lawyers. No other Indian has achieved this distinction.”

    “All right”. Pertie had clearly had enough of Jinnah’s personality. “What about his politics?”

    “Well there are two aspects to that”, I replied. “To begin with there’s the early Jinnah. In 1905 he opposed the partition of Bengal. In 1906 he refused to join the Muslim League, calling its demand for separate electorates poisonous. In 1920, when Gandhi launched the Khilafat Movement, Jinnah warned of the danger of mixing politics with religion. In fact, he was the only Congress Muslim to vote against Gandhi’s resolution.”

    “So the early Jinnah was a nationalist and a secular politician? Is that what you’re saying?”

    “Yes, that’s exactly it. Although you could add he was a patrician rather than a populist leader. But Sarojini Naidu did call him the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.”

    “In that case, what went wrong? How did he become communal?” It was the obvious question. The answer wasn’t.

    “I don’t know” I replied honestly. “Somewhere in the 30s, out of frustration, disillusionment or opportunism – different people ascribe different motives – he started believing in the necessity of Pakistan. I can’t tell if this was machiavellian politics or a midlife conversion.”

    “So he ended his life at the other end of the spectrum from where he began?”

    “No, not quite. Just before partition – on the 11th of August 1947, to be precise – he delivered an address to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly which suggests that the sort of country he had in mind was a secular, liberal, modern republic and not an Islamic state. By the way, this is the speech L.K. Advani referred to when he called Jinnah’s vision secular.”

    “What’s so special about it?”

    “Let me quote and you can judge for yourself : “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 .... We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”

    To my surprise Pertie immediately put his finger on a critical issue. “Was this a return to the secular beliefs he espoused in the early 20th century or extempore comments that signify nothing?”

    Once again I didn’t have the answer. It’s true Jinnah only lived for a further thirteen months and spent much of it sick and sequestered in a sanatorium in Baluchistan. So even if he wanted there wasn’t much he could do to fulfill the promise of that speech. On the other hand his speech was too little too late. The dogs of war had been unleashed and after winning their prize, Pakistan, they were unlikely to tuck their tails between their legs and retire.

    “So how do you sum him up?” Pertie likes easy to swallow capsules.

    “You can’t. Nor should you try. Jinnah was a complex man, full of paradoxes. You have to accept him as he was. You can’t pick the bits you like or dislike and ignore the rest.”

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