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WHATEVER else it may have done or not done, Jaswant Singh's spirited defence of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, following L K Advani's in 2005, has certainly forced a rethink on the founder of Pakistan at a popular level. There was need for this. Generations of Indians have been taught that Jinnah was the villain- in- chief of the Independence drama, who was single- handedly responsible for the division of the subcontinent and its horrible and bloody aftermath.

While all evidence does point at Jinnah having contributed more than any other individual to Partition, the truth about the man and his motivation for demanding a separate nation for Muslims is a lot more nuanced. In that sense, Jaswant Singh's defence of Jinnah, by going to the other extreme of blaming Jawaharlal Lal and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for Partition, will form a part of revisionist literature.

While historians have known it all along -- though not all of them may have cared to state it in the public domain -- the fact that Jinnah started out as a secular politician who made great efforts for Hindu- Muslim unity in the first half of his career will perhaps become common knowledge.

This is very much for the good.


But it is the other half of Jaswant Singh's thesis that is problematic. By holding Nehru and Patel ' guilty' for Partition, Singh has not done history reading a favour, though by placing under the scanner once again the stand of the Congress Party and its leaders Nehru and Patel during the 1940s, especially the turbulent months of 1946 and 1947, his interpretation is of relevance. It is for this reason that the BJP's response of sacking Mr Singh from the party is appalling. Dissent in the intellectual domain is critical if the corpus of knowledge is to grow, if that elusive thing called truth is to be approached. To tell a man that he should not utter what he feels is the truth is also a blatant infringement of his right to free speech.

There is something very Indian about the response of the BJP and the Congress to the controversy. Perhaps the very instinct that has seen Indians hate Jinnah is behind the demi- god status that Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and other freedom struggle leaders have been conferred with.

But hagiography is not history. And history is about men of flesh and blood, with their beliefs, biases, predilections and failings, as also their sense of judgment. Gandhi, Nehru and Patel are great historical figures by all standards, but to make them holy cows that brook no criticism hardly aids the cause of scholarship or the lessons that history is supposed to impart.

Most narratives of Nehru and Patel forcing Jinnah to go all out for an independent Pakistan in the 1940s blames the two Congress leaders for their obstinacy, often even ascribing dubious motives to them. There is a certain name- calling at work when it comes to explaining Partition. But historical events are not always a product of villainy. They can be a result of the process of history, of momentum built up over decades, events, accidents, and the beliefs of the protagonists.

The last is important. Whatever he may have been early on in his career, the Jinnah that returned from England in the mid- thirties was a different man. He became convinced that Muslims in a Hindu- dominated Independent India stood to get a raw deal.

The Congress Party no doubt failed to accommodate him. It also failed to allay the fears and suspicions of Jinnah and his followers, a product of what has come to be known as Congress majoritarianism. Further, they underestimated their potential to influence the course of events in the 1940s. For this they are to blame.

But this was a failure of a different order and to explain the fast- evolving events of 1946 and 1947 in its terms is fallacious. For the situation had reached a different pass by then, with the British wanting to leave India and the Muslim League and the Congress pitted against each other as direct rivals in the settlement of the Independence question.


Much has been made of Nehru's later rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 which was followed by the Muslim League withdrawing from the formation of the interim government and resorting to direct action, leading to riots. Nehru's statement of July 10, 1946 wherein he stated that the Congress reserved the right to alter the Cabinet Mission Plan was definitely a turning point in the course of events.

But this must be seen in terms of his and the Congress's vision -- for Nehru was a leader of a democratic party and not an autocrat -- of a free India rather than as evidence of their obstinacy and intransigence. The India that Nehru, Patel and others had fought for decades was far removed from the country that would have been born had the Cabinet Mission Plan been given effect. The plan for a loose confederation of provinces with groupings based on Hindu and Muslim majority areas and a weak centre -- with the possibility of secession looming in the backdrop -- may have been acceptable to the Muslim League but it would have been a

halfindependence for the Congress. A political leadership is often called upon to take critical decisions and these must be attributed to its sense of judgment and beliefs when its commitment to the cause is certain.

Whether Nehru and Patel were right can be questioned by historians, but the fact that they took the decision they believed the best under the circumstances -- with the spectre of a civil war in the country looming large -- must not be doubted.


The admirers of Jinnah cite his acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan as proof of his willingness to remain in a united India as late as mid- 1946. While this is true, evidence that Jinnah and the Muslim League saw a loose confederation as a step in the direction of an independent Pakistan must also be considered. The Partition of this country was not unavoidable but a price would have had to be paid for keeping it united.

Rather than come up with simplistic explanations which cite Jinnah's villainy or Nehru and Patel's guilt, historians must examine whether this price was worth paying. Perhaps Nehru and Patel themselves would have rethought their stance had they foreseen the violence and bloodshed that Partition would entail, but this was in the realm of future when they took the call amidst more pressing concerns.

Those who blame Nehru and Patel must know that the India they see today -- a flourishing secular democracy which, despite its ills, is poised to emerge in the front ranks of the comity of nations -- would perhaps not have come about had they not stuck to their guns. They tried to suck the communal poison out of India's body politic, believing that even the Partition of the country that they loathed was a price worth paying for the sake of an India which kept its plurality and diversity intact, with a strong Centre that helped address its backwardness and develop a pan- Indian identity. This should not be forgotten. The perils of provinces and nations being carved out on religious considerations are all too evident in our neighbourhood, with Pakistan that was supposed to give Muslims their due, getting divided itself and being spoken of as a failing state more than sixty years after its birth.

devbrat. chaudhary@ mailtoday. in

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Aug 29, 2009

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