The Indian Muslim Dilemma

Gandhi visits Mohammad Ali Jinnah at his Malabar Hill Residence in Bombay in September 1944 in an attempt to resume the aborted Congress-Muslim League dialogue. (Courtesy: National Archives)
Gandhi visits Mohammad Ali Jinnah at his Malabar Hill Residence in Bombay in September 1944 in an attempt to resume the aborted Congress-Muslim League dialogue. (Courtesy: National Archives)

SUPPOSE in the 75th year of independence the founders of Pakistan and India happened to be around. It wouldn’t be surprising if Mohammad Ali Jinnah patted himself on the back for the prescience with which he had foreseen the rise of Narendra Modi as India’s ruler. But his sense of elation at correctly calling the future would abandon him just as soon because his own country had lost its foundational purpose, too, shortly after coming into being.

What would Jawaharlal Nehru or Mahatma Gandhi have made of the anniversary? Gandhi would have seen his killers being deified in a strange new India he could not recognise, and a contrite Nehru would be searching for words to say mea culpa to his fellow pandits from Kashmir and Muslim compatriots, too, for the hell their lives have become.

It is in the logic of their evolution in the 75 years as independent sovereign entities that India is being governed by Narendra Modi, while Pakistan’s democratic destiny continues to hang by the proverbial thread. There is a consolation for Pakistan if it helps. Its masses never really elected a Modi as their leader, which is not to say that they did not have their Modi moment. After all there must be a good reason that General Ziaul Haq is seen as an inspiration for India’s Hindu right as Modi tightens control over a fabled democracy.

It needs to be placed on record that before the sharp right turn in 2014, Indian Muslims carried a swagger on a par with other Indians. They may have lacked the dapper trappings of their Pakistani cousins, as did most other Indians, but they cared little about it. Gunnar Myrdal described Pakistani diplomats as more convivial than their Indian colleagues, and said they displayed a superior ability to raise the elbow at diplomatic conclaves.

The post-1947 dilemmas present in the minds of India’s Muslims today and ironically wonders as to what Jinnah, Gandhi and Nehru would have thought of them today.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s awami suit was eons away. The nattily dressed middle classes emulated Jinnah’s picky dress code. Indians did not mind that. They did not have to go to the extreme of adopting Gandhi’s loincloth, but seemed content with Nehru’s description of the Gandhi cap as a livery of freedom. The brighter intellectuals became known as jholawalas after the cloth bag they wore with their coarsely woven cotton attire.

Conversations in Muslim families fawned over their Pakistani cousins for being more westernised. But it was also not unusual for Muslims in India to regard their cross-border aunts and uncles and cousins who visited in summer holidays as parvenu consumerists who accepted a Faustian bargain with Ayub Khan’s military rule.

A wizened lady returned from Karachi after a longish family wedding and seldom forgot to mention the ubiquitous new Lux soap bar she saw being placed on the washbasin in every home she visited. For Indians this was an invaluable insight not least as their own Spartan ways were inspired by Gandhi. It was not uncommon for Indians, for example, to use the soap bar till it disappeared in their palms. It is true their country was chaotic in its egalitarian promise. But its political culture saw the narrowest social back lanes opening into the grand vista of a singularly grand democracy. Frugality blended with morality. Food would not be left on the plate to honour the memory of India’s Bengali compatriots who had faced the world’s worst famine. Secularism was not discussed; it was taken for granted.

Babu Mistri the mechanic who repaired colonial-era old crocs in Lucknow had returned from Karachi where he found himself not fitting with the cultural mélange on offer. A kindly Hindu lawyer got him a stay order from a Lucknow court against deportation, and he lived cheerfully in India until he gave up his mortal coils in an ancestral home abutting the old quarter of Lucknow. Shyam Benegal’s Mammo would face the heat of suspicion years later while trying to extend her visa in India. Indira Gandhi would have frowned. She took particular care to open the doors to needy Pakistanis. Poetess Fahmida Riaz and dissident journalist Salamat Ali, to name two, escaped Zia’s ideological terror and Mrs Gandhi arranged for their warm welcome in Delhi.

Life during wartime

It was a time when Pakistan-India wars would quickly become passé for those involved in the conflicts — of which the two major ones were fought in 1965 and 1971 — and those watching casually from the ringside. The wars came and went and left behind human ironies. One such was contained in the image of Ayub Khan lending his shoulder to Lal Bahadur Shastri’s coffin in Tashkent. Another had a young Benazir Bhutto accompanying her father to Simla. Several pictures from the visit highlighted her as a modern woman in an assertive Western attire that left the Indians bewitched — both women and men equally.

There was a perceptibly successful effort by the Congress leadership to shield Indian Muslims from nationalist animus that hostilities with Pakistan always induced. The legend of Company Quarter-Master Havildar Abdul Hamid became handy in this regard. It was invoked in the Ayub-Shastri stalemate and helped create an aura of nationalism in which a Muslim soldier was projected as single-handedly thwarting Pakistani armour with goodness knows bare hands or rudimentary grenades or what. The kohl-eyed image of the fallen soldier ensured a safe passage for the country’s largest and relatively secure minority community through conflicts that otherwise came with emotional watermarks embossed by partition.

It was not uncommon for Muslims to transgress the limits of free speech, usually with light-hearted gossip without incurring costs. “Bhayya, Ayub Khan says he will offer the next Friday prayers, God willing, at Delhi’s Jama Masjid.” Nazir Khan Sahib, who shared the popular unverified reference from 1965 with my brother, was the driver of our Ford Prefect and came with a fabled attitude.

He was both an addict and author of bad Urdu poetry and was prone to carrying common canards from his perch at the Meraj Hotel, a hole-in-the-wall tea shop at old Lucknow’s Gwynn Road roundabout. On offer were delicious kebabs and tava parathas, heavily subsidised by the owner for C-grade poets and their fawning audiences that made Meraj Hotel an institution. Nazir was a celebrity of sorts at the gatherings. There was a law against tuning into Radio Pakistan, which he violated freely. When he went to jail, it was about a woman, not for falling short of his quota of nationalism.

On a larger canvas, it is thus tempting to see Pakistan and India as products of their Cartesian imagination. They thought and they became. There was little original here by way of input. A prototype was ready in colonial Middle East when a 1917 British declaration promised a legalistic framework for a new experiment in nation-building by partitioning people on the basis of religion and ethnicity, the scapegoat being Palestine.

In Ireland, too, a vivisection of its society was given legal imprimatur with a formal pact as early as 1921. The Anglo-Saxon idea of religion shoring up the new nation-state got a further boost when influential voices, like Joseph Stalin’s, for example, stepped in to give an intellectual cover to the making of Pakistan. His fulminations prompted Indian partisans to applaud Jinnah’s bold quest.

Stalin’s definition of a nation, in which he saw Pakistan fitting in snugly as a viable sovereign state, spurred Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan to ride her bicycle to the Quaid’s home with the good news that her party backed him. That Jinnah received the tidings with a smirk, which he reserved for leftists among his other quarries, made for an absorbing story among many one would hear from Tahira Apa.

Winston Churchill’s ‘sinews of peace’ speech, also known as his ‘iron curtain’ ruminations, was delivered in mid-1946, and expectedly cast a shadow on South Asia as it did elsewhere. The compulsions of Nehru’s intriguing affair with the British Commonwealth found him doing its bidding without demur. The first major enterprise was the toppling of the world’s first democratically elected communist government in Kerala.

Ayub Khan may or may not have shared Jinnah’s vision for a secular Pakistan in which Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in a religious sense but in their political lives. He, however, did show a preference for the founder’s spontaneous anti-communism, which he harnessed to the Cold War’s requirements of a sure-footed ally in Pakistan. Friends and families of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer are around to tell us more about that.

Responsibility for partition

There’s one more useful way of looking at the Pakistan and India story as they approach their important birthdays. It requires posing the key question that pops up in murder mysteries: Whodunit? Scholarly interventions by historians like Ayesha Jalal are invested significantly in the view that Jinnah never really wanted partition, but was badgered into seeking it by a clutch of Congress leaders with an agenda. Informed opinion-makers in India on their part are also beginning to be less trusting of Gandhi’s and Nehru’s alleged innocence that Indians have been largely raised on with regard to partition.

Right-wing politician-author Jaswant Singh was of this persuasion — of Jinnah’s secular worldview, which, he believed, made the Quaid a reluctant advocate for Pakistan. It would be a surprise if Singh did not expect to find himself in a spot of trouble with his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for offering the generous view on Jinnah — Hindutva’s bête noir — in a well-researched book.

Before the genie could be cajoled back into the bottle so as not to embarrass the Indian nationalist discourse, the uncanny praise for the Quaid’s secular ideals from the Hindu right set off repercussions. In one fell swoop, it torpedoed L.K. Advani’s dream of becoming prime minister, a job he thought he deserved, not unjustifiably, for all the hard work he did rousing sectarian passions among a largely inert community. His protégé during the Ayodhya march is currently reaping the harvest of Advani’s miscued praise for Jinnah. The former strongman of the Hindu right was cancelled from the race like an athlete failing a drug test.

While the ‘who’ of partition has been excavated and studied by scholars and commented on by early Congress critics like Ram Manohar Lohia, the ‘why’ of it has remained tricky. Was it a clash of egos between Nehru and Jinnah, as the wags believe? Or was it a Hindu revivalist streak Jinnah spotted in the Congress, or could it be the party’s populist appeasement of unlettered Muslim masses with Gandhi’s strange support for the Khilafat Movement, which became the proverbial last straw for the secular Quaid and his foundations in Dadabhai Naoroji’s Congress?

Had there been an alternative way of thinking to rally the masses — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, everyone — one wonders whether the result would not be pleasantly different. It is always tempting to speculate, mostly lazily but also occasionally with academic rigour and archival insights, whether the partition was not a brilliant way of subverting Bhagat Singh’s and Hasrat Mohani’s egalitarian mission from succeeding.

Others would see in it the torpedoing of Subhas Bose’s religiously and culturally inclusive vision of militant opposition to colonialism. Had his Indian National Army struck roots across the subcontinent, and possibly beyond, wouldn’t the story of India or of Pakistan, or both, be different? These, however, are areas of counterfactual history. Had Jalaluddin Khilji seen through the murder plot by his nephew, of which he had an inkling, where would Allauddin be in history? Newspaper headlines would lose their sheen for sure, and Malik Mohammed Jayasi would have to find another villain as a counterpoint in his mystical composition, ‘Padmavat’.

The Gandhi-Jinnah approach to colonialism is also seen, not without a grain of truth, as being collaborative and legalistic with the European rulers, and combative with each other. One incident of raw violence could bring Gandhi’s entire pacifist movement against British rule to a grinding halt.

In a world before Westphalia, societies and empires negotiated, constantly shifting borders that shrank and expanded and shrank again. This was just as true of ancient India, before the Congress and Muslim League agreed to freeze the idea of India and imagined a map as theirs. And thus began their quarrel over a myopically created land mass, but in a religious binary. Gandhi believed Hindus and Muslims could live as equals in an India dominated by Hindus. Jinnah thought there was just as good a chance of that ideal being sustained under Muslim hegemony. History tends to flirt with ironies. Gandhi would become a figure of hate and calumny in his country, and while Jinnah fared much better in his, he did have many interpreters of what he thought, wanted and articulated.

Both can be accused of error of judgment in hindsight, for neither the elitist League nor the upper-caste Congress leadership was prepared to see the complex society that India was since time immemorial. Historian B.D. Chattopadhyaya passed away recently, and was not around when the Congress was jostling with the League without consulting Ambedkar and others who saw the idea of nationhood as being separate from religion. The result was that the leaders whipped history and geography into a batter to cook up a delicious falsehood that has been served to the masses.

Chattopadhyaya taught ancient history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) but kept a lower profile than the giants that strode the faculty, led by Romila Thapar, S. Gopal, Bipan Chandra and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. He would have disabused the Congress of the ahistorical notion of a Unitarian India it began to see in the colonially constructed past. He would have also given a rest to the League’s construction of a monolithic religious majority in India.

Professor Mujib, who was vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia in the 1920s and whose book Indian Muslims is a seminal study of the caste system running through the community, would have enlightened Gandhi and Jinnah about the fact that just as Hindus are not a monolithic community, neither are Indian Muslims.

Chattopadhyaya’s research pours cold water on the concept of an ancient and vast Bharatavarsha, an idea that he posited was illusory and mythical. There was along with Ambedkar’s caste-based challenge to the idea of a Hindu India, the Sikhs, the Christians and large and varied swathes of tribespeople from Balochistan to Assam that were never taken into confidence about the mainstream discourse dominated by the Hindu-Muslim binary that decided the fate of what happened to be an intensely complex South Asia.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.



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