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An unlikely Indian admirer

August 17, 2009

Jaswant Singh
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When India's foreign minister Jaswant Singh was reading out a list of restrictions to be placed on travel to Pakistan together with the massive troop mobilisation, the expulsion of diplomats and so on, which followed a botched attack on the parliament building in Delhi on 13 December 2001, he allowed me to ask a question at the news conference. I sought his permission to recite an Urdu verse instead, which he hesitatingly granted.

The couplet is one of my favourite about the follies of war. The pithy lines go thus
Jang me qatl sipahi hongey
Surkh roo zille ilaahi hongey
(In war, the foot soldiers die
For the halo, for which the monarchs vie)

Jaswant Singh's hesitation in permitting a couplet to be recited at his news conference was understandable. Any notion of peace in the charged up atmosphere would be jarring for a middle class that was being prepared to tune in to the fanfare of war drums.

The foreign minister retorted brusquely, but not insensitively. He had been a soldier too, he said, and didn't need a lecture on valour. He was familiar with the sufferings of the fighting men in war. Saying that, he brought the landmark press meet to a closure.

I suspect I formed a lurking soft corner for Jaswant Singh then, something I do not have for his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party. They mostly have their roots in the obscurantist and dangerously rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). My feeling is that the RSS doesn't care too much for Jaswant Singh either.

In July 2001, when the Agra summit between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf ended without an agreement because the RSS took the view that elections in Uttar Pradesh, due in February 2002, required a continued state of hostility with Pakistan, Jaswant Singh was targeted in whisper campaigns for allegedly drafting a weak agreement from India's point of view.

The RSS, or less accurately the BJP, anyway lost the Uttar Pradesh elections. The massacre of Muslims in Gujarat happened four days later and can be seen as a panic reaction by the RSS to similar signals of looming defeat for the BJP after several preceding contests in the state. The clinically supervised pogroms turned the tide for the party.

Not comfortable with sectarian party rivals dominating politics in his native state of Rajasthan, Jaswant Singh fought the April-May Lok Sabha polls in the communist bastion of West Bengal, which he breached to become the only BJP MP to do so in decades. I still remember his reassuring voice at the post-summit news conference in Agra, when rightwing hawks were having a field day. 'The caravan of peace has stalled, but not overturned,' he cautioned famously as Gen Musharraf's plane headed for Islamabad.

Having held the portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and finance as federal minister Jaswant Singh wouldn't want to be seen as anything but an Indian patriot. It is thus that he makes for an unlikely admirer of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan. His book Jinnah India - Partition - Independence is due to be released on Monday. The following excerpts from an interview he gave to a private TV channel reveal as much about the author as about his least likely muse.

Did he subscribe to the popular demonisation of Jinnah in India?
'Of course I don't. To that I don't subscribe. I was attracted by the personality, which has resulted in a book. If I was not drawn to the personality I wouldn't have written the book. It's an intricate, complex personality, of great character, determination.'

Did he see Jinnah as a great man?
'Oh yes, because he created something out of nothing and single-handedly he stood against the might of the Congress Party and against the British who didn't really like him ... Gandhi himself called Jinnah a great Indian. Why don't we recognise that? Why don't we see (and try to understand) why he called him that?'

Did he see Jinnah as a nationalist?
'Oh yes. He fought the British for an independent India but also fought resolutely and relentlessly for the interest of the Muslims of India ... the acme of his nationalistic achievement was the 1916 Lucknow Pact of Hindu-Muslim unity.'

What did he admire about Jinnah most?
'I admire certain aspects of his personality. His determination and the will to rise. He was a self-made man. Mahatma Gandhi was the son of a Diwan. All these (people) - Nehru and others - were born to wealth and position. Jinnah created for himself a position. He carved in Bombay, a metropolitan city, a position for himself. He was so poor he had to walk to work ... he told one of his biographers there was always room at the top but there's no lift. And he never sought a lift.'

Did he believe the common Indian lore that Jinnah hated Hindus?
'Wrong. Totally wrong. That certainly he was not ... his principal disagreement was with the Congress Party. He had no problems whatsoever with Hindus. I think we have misunderstood him because we needed to create a demon ... we needed a demon because in the 20th century the most telling event in the subcontinent was the partition of the country.'

Jaswant Singh said had Congress accepted a decentralised federal country then, in that event, a united India 'was ours to attain.' The problem, he added, was Jawaharlal Nehru's 'highly centralised polity.'
He said 'Nehru believed in a high centralised policy. That's what he wanted India to be. Jinnah wanted a federal polity. That even Gandhi accepted. Nehru didn't. Consistently he stood in the way of a federal India until 1947 when it became a partitioned India.'

Was it wrong to see Jinnah as the villain of partition as Indians are taught?
'It is. It is not borne out of the facts ... we need to correct it...Muslims saw that unless they had a voice in their own economic, political and social destiny they will be obliterated. That was the beginning (of their political demands) ...For example, see the 1946 election. Jinnah's Muslim League wins all the Muslim seats and yet they don't have sufficient numbers to be in office because the Congress Party has, without even a single Muslim, enough to form a government and they are outside of the government. So it was realised that simply contesting elections was not enough... All of this was a search for some kind of autonomy of decision making in their own social and economy destiny.'

Speaking about Jinnah's call for Pakistan, Jaswant Singh said 'From what I have written, I have found it was a negotiating tactic because he (Jinnah) wanted certain provinces to be with the Muslim League, he wanted a certain per centage of (seats) in the central legislature. If he had that there would not have been partition.'

Nehru's heirs and the Congress party could find his claims unacceptable, he was told.
Jaswant Singh said 'I am not blaming anybody. I am not assigning blame. I am simply recalling what I have found as the development of issues and events of that period.'

Had Mahatma Gandhi, Rajaji or Azad -rather than Nehru - taken the final decisions a united India would have been attained?
'Yes, I believe so. We could have (attained a united India).'

On Jinnah's relationship with Mahatma Gandhi, he said 'Jinnah was essentially a logician. He believed in the strength of logic. He was a parliamentarian. He believed in the efficacy of parliamentary politics. Gandhi, after testing the water, took to the trails of India and he took politics into the dusty villages of India.'

Jaswant Singh explained that Jinnah had two fears of Gandhi's style of mass politics. First, 'if mass movement was introduced into India than the minorities in India could be threatened and we could have Hindu-Muslim riots as a consequence.' Second, 'this would result in bringing religion into Indian politics and he (Jinnah) didn't want that.'

Jaswant Singh pointed out that Jinnah's fears were shared by Annie Besant and added that events had shown that both were correct.

At the end of their lives both Jinnah and Gandhi died failed men?
'Yes, I am afraid I have to say that ... I cannot treat this (the outcome of their lives) as a success either by Gandhi or Jinnah ... the partition of India and the Hindu-Muslim divide cannot really be called Gandhiji's great success ... Jinnah got a moth-eaten Pakistan but the philosophy that Muslims are a separate nation was completely rejected within years of Pakistan coming into being.'

Not too long ago when BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani visited Jinnah's mausoleum in Karachi and scribbled something about his secularism, the RSS tore him apart.

Jaswant Singh rang me up the other day to invite me to the book launch. 'I have said objectively what I had to say in the book about Jinnah, now I am ready for the noose.'

The verse about the pitfalls of war seems equally apt for the seekers of just peace. I can't wait to read the book.