THAT Mohammad Ali Jinnah was secular is old hat. Two of his recently unearthed radio broadcasts that lay hidden in the archives of All India Radio testify yet again to the sometimes confusing but secular idealism which he shared with his two great rivals in the Congress party, Gandhi and Nehru.
True secularism, however, should be inclined to go beyond the Hindu-Muslim paradigm, that overwrought and smug expression of South Asian liberalism. All three architects of freedom laid stress on their respective interpretation of what they considered to be secular, though not without ultimately tragic consequences for their constituents.
It is no gainsaying that pitchers of water placed on railway platforms in pre-partition India were labelled Hindu paani and Muslim paani. There were Hindu Gymkhanas and Muslim Gymkhanas and so forth.
In fact, wayside restaurants in India still describe themselves as ‘Hindu Vaishnav Bhojanalaya’ or ‘Halal Kebabs’. You could even find a ‘Muslim Hotel’ in a small town, since Indians often label restaurants as hotels.
The question is: would the communities excluded from the Hindu-Muslim paradigm, the Dalits, for example, have been allowed to access either of the two pitchers assigned to the religious groups that would one day part ways, considering the subcontinental leaders’ notions of secularism and given their relative silence on other hidebound social segmentations?
The question is worth probing further though the answer is only too well known. This is because both Muslim and Hindu elites practised varying degrees of untouchability, which many still do. If the Dalits in India or Pakistan are in a hapless state even 66 years after independence, what is the verbal promise of secularism given by the great leaders worth anyway?
“The tolerance and goodwill that the great emperor Akbar showed to all non-Muslims is not of recent origin,” Jinnah claimed in his All India Radio broadcast of Aug 14, 1947.
He believed the virtues represented by Akbar went back 13 centuries “when our Prophet (PBUH) not only by words but by deeds treated the Jews and Christians handsomely after he conquered them. He showed to them outmost tolerance and regard and respect for their faith and beliefs. The whole history of Muslims where they ruled is replete with those humane and great principles and which should be followed and practised by us.”
Did this idea of equality for religions, in Jinnah’s case primarily between Hindus and Muslims, overlook another issue — the hidebound social inequality both the Muslim League and the Congress strove to play down if not completely ignore?
The notion of Hindus and Muslims being equal in law he helped propound in Pakistan is reminiscent of the less than perfect ideals that were circulated as pamphlets by Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh when she launched a guerrilla war against British rule in 1857 from the forests she was driven to.
Crucial source material is available to show that in many cases, quite possibly in most instances, the Dalit castes were so fed up with their Indian rulers that they were relieved when the British emerged as the victors from the bloodbath that 1857 was.
Did Jinnah discuss this with Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the towering Dalit leader who had a serious dispute with Gandhi’s attitude towards his community’s proposed rights in independent India?
Though Hazrat Mahal of Awadh played a heroic role in the battle against British rule, the content of the proclamation by her son, Birjis Qadar, promotes a different view. There is an intense bias against the lower class of Indians, even as the dethroned queen of Awadh appeals to Hindu-Muslim amity as her main asset.
The Indian Council of Historical Research has found a collection of proclamations issued by the rebel leaders. Documented by Dr Iqbal Hussain of Aligarh Muslim University, it is a must read for students of social history on both sides of the border.
Birjis Qadar (wali of Awadh) urges his subjects in the proclamation dated June 25, 1858 that his government respected the right of religion, honour, life and property, in that order, something the British ostensibly didn’t. Then he explains his claim.
“Everyone follows his own religion (in my domain). And enjoys respect according to their worth and status. Men of high extraction, be they Syed, Sheikh, Mughal or Pathan, among the Mohammedans, or Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaish or Kayasth, among the Hindoos, all these retain the respectability according to their respective ranks. And all persons of a lower order such as a Sweeper, Chamar, Dhanook, or Pasi cannot claim equality with them.”
Prince Birjis Qadar twists the knife further in his lament: “The honour and respectability of every person of high extraction are considered by (the British) equal to the honour and respectability of the lower orders.
Nay, compared with the latter, they treat the former with contempt and disrespect. Wherever they go they hang the respectable persons to death, and at the instance of the Chamar, force the attendance of a Nawab or a Rajah, and subject him to indignity.”
This reality of the partition discourse is overlooked in our textbooks as well as in higher academia. The two spools of Jinnah’s speech made public by Outlook magazine last week, and which Pakistan wants to be handed over, failed to raise the bar on the discussion of the standard Hindu-Muslim blame game though they could.
The first of the two recordings was perhaps Jinnah’s last address on the radio within the borders of what is now India. It was made on June 3, 1947, in Delhi, two months before he left for the country that had become his life’s mission.
The second, shorter but more well-known recording was his address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on the day that nation came into existence: Aug 14, 1947.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.