IN LITERATURE, myth, politics and perception, the principal faultlines of Partition have always been the ones that divided Punjab and Bengal. It is easy to forget that the Great Separation of 1947 also split Sindh from Kutch and contemporary Rajasthan, drawing, almost literally, a line in the sand.
The BJP descended from a party founded by a Bengali and initially dropped anchor among Punjabi refugee communities in Delhi. It is some irony then that the two BJP veterans who have produced revisionist accounts of Partition in recent years speak from (or for) either side of the Sindh- Rajputana/Kutch frontier.
LK Advani’s June 2005 family visit to Karachi is famous. Accompanied by a team of selected journalists, advised by three adventurous confidants and disregarding the counsel of at least two senior diplomats, Advani travelled to Pakistan, to the Jinnah Memorial and to his childhood. He was so emotionally influenced as to throw off his sobriety and enter into a Sindhi folk dance routine wearing a flamboyant red cap. It was a captivating journey, but one that crippled Advani politically.
Jaswant Singh’s remembrance of Partition came in a different form. In the evocative opening chapter of his memoir, A Call to Honour (2006), he wrote movingly of his maternal grandfather, Thakur Mool Singhji of Khuri – “a tall, imposing presence, big of bone, full beard, gruff voice, an example of desert manhood, epitomising the values of this harsh, hard, desiccated, incomparably beautiful land,” patriarch of a Hindu-Muslim community that stretched well into Sindh.
Then came Partition: “What in living memory or history (for even the topography of the land was not different) had not been alien territory suddenly got labelled so. We were divided by time, by circumstance and by events and forces way beyond my grandfather’s world.” Both experiences are touching. It can be argued, of course, that a million refugee or Partition- affected families can recount two million such stories, many more tragic and emotionally wrenching.
Also, despite the melodrama, the fact is Advani and Jaswant were among the luckier ones. The refugee from Karachi came to India on a BOAC flight, not, like countless others, on foot, on a cart or on the roof of an overcrowded train. The grandson of Khuri was at Mayo College on August 15, 1947, living as sheltered a life as could be. Whether it is the relative detachment of the hour or the distance of time, Advani and Jaswant have both sought to re- imagine Partition using the same prism: the life and words of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
Whose hero? Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah
Advani’s Jinnah and Jaswant’s Jinnah are equally unacceptable to the BJP – and to a the larger body of public opinion in India, irrespective of voting preference. Yet, it is crucial to recognise the two Jinnahs are not always identical.
Advani’s Jinnah was born of a twisted reading of Indian politics. As far back as the 2004 election campaign, Advani had begun to believe – or had been so convinced by some intellectual weathercocks – that Muslim voters were flocking to the BJP. That they would not make the same mistake they did in the 1940s when they deserted the “Hindu” Congress for the Muslim League. As the inheritor of the Congress’ pan-nationalist robustness, the BJP would now win the trust of the Muslim electorate. It was engaging nonsense, good enough for the odd op-ed article but clearly far from real-life politics. The point is, Advani bought the line. A mix of political desperation, individual ambition and the addled nostalgia that inevitably accompanies anecdotage confused him.
Advani was convinced that an India-Pakistan rapprochement was essential for resolving Hindu-Muslim tensions in India and for making the BJP more acceptable to electorally hostile segments as well as reinventing himself as a moderate, Vajpayee-style leader acceptable to a broader constituency. This was not hard politics; it was a soft head at work.
The mechanism Advani chose to fulfil his complex aspiration was appropriating Jinnah. In presenting him as the mascot of Hindu-Muslim unity – which he was in the first quarter of the 20th century – and cheering his speech to the Pakistani Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, in which Jinnah foresaw a Muslim nation but a secular state, with freedom of worship for minorities, Advani felt he could use the Quaid-e-Azam’s words to persuade one section and his religious identity to court another.
As a political gambit, it was always a non-starter.
How would one classify Jaswant’s Jinnah, the subject of a new biography subtitled “India-Partition Independence”? Is this an Advani me-too? Is it contrariaism for the sake of contrarianism, an uncritical absorption of the ideas of Ayesha Jalal or the unquenched desire to be recognised as the thinking man’s politician? These elements play a part but, above all, Jaswant’s Jinnah is personal. In his book, he paints his hero as a wronged, misunderstood patrician. Is that Jaswant’s self-image?
At the height of his “nationalist” phase, Jinnah was an auxiliary of Bombay’s westernised public intellectuals – Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the Congress Moderates and the Parsi constitutionalists. These groups, along with the Banglo-Indians in Calcutta, comprised the early, pre-Gandhi Indian elites.
The Mahatma’s mass politics, his shifting of the locus of the Congress from the lawyers’ chambers of Bombay to the heat and dust of rural Gujarat, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, unnerved these elites. They lost control of the Congress and moved in other directions. Some ended up as Communists, some in the Hindu Mahasabha; Jinnah ended up with Pakistan.
Despite his long innings, Jaswant has had a similarly alien relationship with the BJP’s mobilisation techniques. As he puts it in the book: “His whole persona was of a self-contained reserved man who worked on reason, clarity of thought, and by the incisiveness of his expression. As long as politics was consultative, his position was not to be questioned. With increasing politicisation, democratisation and the trend becoming more participatory… Jinnah lost his inclusive, all-India platform.”
This left Jaswant’s protagonist with a compelling dilemma: “How to straddle the national scene without there being any province wholly behind him?” The MP from Darjeeling is writing of Jinnah; he may as well have been talking of himself.
In the end, however, Jaswant’s Jinnah and Advani’s Jinnah are united by one quest: the search for the anti-Nehru. Neither BJP senior citizen has the courage to say it trenchantly but their exploration of a non-Nehruvian source of the idea of Indian nationhood was what drove them to Jinnah.
WHO WERE THE other candidates? A Savarkar or a Golwalkar would appeal only to the initiated. A Rajaji, a constitutional conservative who advocated a free market, had his limitations for two men not intrinsically comfortable with economic policy and not seeing it as central to their identity. Patel had his uses but these were limited to attempts at borrowing his “Iron Man” armour and no-nonsense approach to internal security.
None of these was useful to win incremental supporters or applause from liberal intellectuals. That would come only from painting Jinnah in sympathetic colours and the Muslim as Partition’s victim rather than its anti-hero.
When historical interpretation is reduced to such exigencies, the upshot is downright bizarre. In his Jinnah biography, Jaswant quotes American academic Lloyd Rudolph as telling him: “A multinational state… shares sovereignty among a variety of actors. India’s federal system, particularly its linguistic states, is a manifestation of a multinational state that shares and bargains about sovereignty. Similarly, reservations for SCs, STs and even for OBCs, as well as the 73rd amendment’s creation of third tier of local government [panchayati raj] are [all] manifestations of sharing and bargaining about sovereignty in a multinational state. These developments are consistent with the kind of bargaining strategy that Jinnah adopted.”
Jaswant expects us to believe this was the sort of harmless, textbook federalism Nehru and Patel denied poor Jinnah and forced him into demanding a separate nation. Indians may buy his book, but not too many will buy Jaswant’s thesis. His Jinnah, like Advani’s, is fantasy.