Jinnah today, Nehru tomorrow

Updated 08 May 2018


YOU could have spotted, as I did, Mohammad Ali Jinnah in an official portrait at the Indian Muslim League’s headquarters in Kerala in the 1990s. I’m not sure if the picture is still around after the party split down the middle, subsequently. Asked to comment on a political ally’s seemingly awkward connection in an election year, the Congress party’s phlegmatic spokesman Vitthalrao Gadgil inhaled his snuff and smiled: “They see him as the founder of their party.” That was that, as it should be.

As for the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Sir Syed Ahmad Khan founded it as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College ostensibly to improve his community’s chances after it was picked out for shabby treatment by the British following the role of Muslims in the 1857 uprising.

In 1916, at the Lucknow Pact, Sarojini Naidu applauded Jinnah as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. An unwitting point her compliment masked was it gave Jinnah the status of a Muslim leader, whereas Gandhi and Nehru were deemed Indian stalwarts, subsuming their religious identities.

It must have rankled Jinnah somewhat like the way Majaz’s comment must have irritated Salaam Machhlishahri. “Now Salaam sahib will recite his verse. He is an established poet of Machhlishahr.” Meet Gandhi the Indian leader. Meet Jinnah the Muslim leader. The description presaged a bloody chasm.

Why did Modi’s supporters suddenly find Jinnah’s portrait disagreeable in the students’ union hall of AMU?

This psychology continues to play out freely even today. Muslim presidents, Muslim movie stars and on one occasion even a Muslim home minister India has produced. That’s brilliant.

But all that the community ever needed, like anyone else, was equal rights as citizens, including jobs in the army, police and bureaucracy, but above all scientific education. A Muslim president or a Muslim movie star should not ideally be the chip in a social bargain. Justice Sachar died the other day after untiringly reminding us of the need to mainstream Muslims.

A key point of rupture between Gandhi and Jinnah came over their approach to a scientific outlook. Sir Syed as well as Jinnah had sought to keep modernity and reason upfront in their quest to retrieve Muslims from the talons of the clergy. Gandhi, with his support for the Khilafat Movement and his love of religious symbolism, did the opposite as he sought to take an entire community back to their mediaeval past and, thereby, to the clergy, the forerunners of today’s All-India Muslim Personal Board.

It’s the same clergy that every Indian party uses to its advantage in the electoral fray after having pushed a multi-million-strong community into the arms of mullahs. Jinnah’s hero, lest we forget, was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the anti-clerical liberator of his community from centuries of obscurantist hold.

So why did Prime Minister Modi’s supporters suddenly find Jinnah’s portrait disagreeable in the students’ union hall of AMU?

One day a deputy from the party wrote to the vice chancellor to remove the portrait and the next day they attacked the university, helped by the police. The portrait has been there for decades, after all, from the day Jinnah visited the students. And that was way before prime minister Vajpayee went to Lahore and finally put his seal of approval on the idea of Pakistan by visiting Minar-i-Pakistan.

That should have rankled Nathuram Godse’s spirit. His ashes were kept to be immersed in River Indus when it would be part of a Hindu rashtra. Vajpayee drowned that dream with one gesture and no Hindutva agent protested.

There’s no logic to what mindless hordes do to pander to their notions of nationhood on either side of the border. The explanation to the latest round of vandalism was, however, rooted in realpolitik. The Karnataka assembly elections are due to be held on May 12. The Congress party rules the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party sees the polls as its gateway to southern India but it is struggling to find a durable toehold anywhere in the south.

It was not possible for the BJP to communally polarise the Karnataka elections with violence — a ploy that usually works for it — in a state under Congress rule. The hoodlums were unleashed in far away Uttar Pradesh on May 1 over Jinnah’s portrait. TV channels betrothed to Hindutva transmitted the violence to middle-class drawing rooms in Karnataka dutifully.

How much traction the issue finds with the electorate will be revealed when the votes are counted on May 15 for the three-cornered contest. Suffice it to say that the BJP has thrown everything into the elections, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was also dispatched to berate Karnataka for accepting a government that allows cow slaughter and beef eating in the state.

Together with the southern states, beef eating is perfectly legal in BJP-ruled Goa and all north-eastern states. And if you think the BJP has distanced itself from Muslims to galvanise the Hindu vote you are wrong again. It has set up dozens of Muslim candidates for local elections in West Bengal where Muslims generally tend to support Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. And who were at the helm of the anti-Jinnah tirade the other day? It was Muslims loyal to the BJP.

The question is where do Indian liberals stand on the Jinnah controversy? Can the Indian left forget, and if so to what avail, that it had endorsed Jinnah’s campaign for Pakistan?

The late Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, the iconic partisan from Lahore, had told me in some detail about her visit to Jinnah on her bicycle to convey the communist party’s support to the idea of Pakistan. It’s fine if the communists disown the idea today. But denial alone will not save them from the next Hindutva assault. The target is not Jinnah, but Indian liberals. It is not surprising that those who hate Jinnah are not ardent fans of Nehru and the left either. Learn from Gadgil, with or without his addictive snuff.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2018