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Fatima Jinnah: A sister’s sorrow

Updated May 04, 2014 11:40am

One of the most fascinating characters in the initial saga of the painful birth of Pakistan is Fatima Jinnah, the frail-looking, graceful but gritty sister of the founder of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. She was a passionate political worker, a determined activist for women’s rights and a qualified dental surgeon to boot.

After receiving a degree (in dentistry) from the University of Calcutta in 1914, she became a close counsellor and a trusted confidant of her brother. She enthusiastically backed her brother when (in the 1940s) he finally decided to manoeuvre his party, the All India Muslim League (AIML), towards a more polemical position on the question of the future of India’s Muslims.

The move consequently helped the AIML evolve into a mass-based party (among India’s Muslims). After the tense 1946 election in the Punjab where the party finally managed to reverse the electoral fortunes of the Indian Congress Party, certain Congress-backed confessional Muslim groups and the Unionist Party, AIML suddenly became the main engine behind what would later come to be known as the Pakistan Movement.

Miss Jinnah worked tirelessly for the movement and was able to win respect and recognition within and outside the AIML. However, after the movement was able to achieve a separate Muslim country in 1947, Miss Jinnah’s existence as a Pakistani was wrought with disappointments, disillusionment and eventual isolation.

Much has been speculated about her life as a Pakistani between 1947 and 1967 (the year she passed away).

But one of the best and most authentic accounts of her disappointments arrived in the shape of a book that she wrote in 1955 (My Brother) but which was published 32 years later in 1987!

Even though her status was immediately elevated to that of being a patriotic heroine after the creation of Pakistan, why did it take so long for her book to be available for public consumption?

The answer to this can be found in some of the contents of the book. In it she laments how her brother was quickly ‘betrayed’ by even some of his closest comrades who had worked with him during the Pakistan Movement.

Jinnah had assumed the role of Pakistan’s first Governor General in 1947. But he faced his first surprise when, after his famous Aug 11 address to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly (in which he declared his vision of Pakistan being a progressive Muslim majority state), the bureaucracy of the time (pressed by Muslim League’s leading members), asked the country’s nascent print media and radio to only publish and broadcast an edited version of Jinnah’s speech.

According to Miss Jinnah’s book, her brother, who had been suffering from tuberculosis throughout the later stages of his struggle for Pakistan, began to lose his health more rapidly after 1947. In her mind this was due to the disappointments and the sense of betrayal he felt at the hands of some of his closest comrades.

Miss Jinnah seemed particularly bitter towards Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was perhaps Jinnah’s closest colleague in the Muslim League.

She wrote that her brother told her that many of his former colleagues were coming to meet him only to determine how much life there was left in him, implying that they were most probably waiting for him to quietly perish.

In her book Miss Jinnah also laments how heartlessly her brother was picked up and put in an ambulance (to be taken to a hospital) and how the ambulance broke down in the middle of the road. Jinnah expired on Sept 11, 1948.

There might have been pressure from the government in disallowing Miss Jinnah to publish her book in 1955, but there is also ample evidence suggesting that it was Miss Jinnah herself who hesitated to get the book published. Pakistan was just eight years old and Liaquat Ali Khan had been assassinated in 1951.

Author and intellectual Khaled Ahmed, in his 2001 book, Pakistan Behind the Ideological Mask quotes celebrated lawyer, Sharifuddin Pirzada (who was a secretary to Jinnah), in saying that when Miss Jinnah appeared on Radio Pakistan to announce her brother’s death, the state-owned radio channel’s director-general, Z A. Bokhari, got a call from a government official asking him to switch off Miss Jinnah’s speech the moment she began criticising the government’s heartless attitude towards the founder of the country and how he was left to die in an old ambulance.

She became a virtual recluse after Jinnah’s death, until in 1965 when she was pulled out of her self-imposed political retirement to challenge Field Martial Ayub Khan in a Presidential election.

Khan had imposed Pakistan’s first Martial Law in 1958 and had enjoyed significant popularity during the early years of his regime.

However, by 1965 his popularity had begun to dwindle a bit and his Presidential candidature was challenged by the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) — a group made up of certain left-wing parties (that were opposed to his staunchly capitalist policies) and right-wing religious outfits (that opposed the ‘secular’ disposition of his regime).

COP sprang a surprise when it convinced Miss Jinnah to become its candidate for the election. She initially hesitated, but then agreed.

Khan was expecting to sweep the election, but not any more. Though he did go on to win, Miss Jinnah defeated him in two of Pakistan’s largest cities, Karachi and Dhaka. She also won in Hyderabad and narrowly lost in Peshawar.

COP accused the regime of electoral malpractice, but Miss Jinnah once again decided to retire to a life of a recluse.

Her last meeting with a noted politician was with Z.A. Bhutto when he was eased out (as Foreign Minister) from the Ayub regime after he had disagreed with the President on his peace pact with India after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war.

According to Stanley Wolpert (in his book Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan), soon after he was pushed into political oblivion by Ayub in 1966, Bhutto, whose house was close to Miss Jinnah’s (in Karachi), walked to her house and asked for her advice and guidance over a cup of tea.

She sounded disillusioned and told Bhutto: ‘I told you not to trust him (Ayub).’

A year later, she passed away at the age of 71 on July 9, 1967. The government announced her passing due to a heart-attack but to this day a number of politicians, and even Jinnah’s nephew Akber Pirbhai, insist that she was murdered.

She was 71 and is buried beside her brother’s grave in his impressive mausoleum in Karachi. Ironically, Liaquat Ali Khan too is buried there.