KARACHI Karachiites on Tuesday had the privilege of listening to the comments of A.G. Noorani at the third lecture in the 'Culture, Politics and Change in South Asia' series currently running at the Mohatta Palace Museum. Following talks by historian Ayesha Jalal and diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar, Noorani's lecture offered yet another perspective on Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Much like Jalal, Noorani calls for scholars and the public at large in both India and Pakistan to revisit Jinnah's person and political legacy in an attempt to better understand this region's history. He argues that it is important for Indians to reclaim Jinnah as a freedom fighter and integral figure in their own history, while Pakistanis need to acknowledge that the founder of their nation made some mistakes.
Noorani is an advocate of the Indian Supreme Court, a historian, and the author of 'Jinnah and Tilak Comrades in the Freedom Struggle', a new book on which his talk was loosely based. He is also, as he puts it, one of the dwindling group of individuals who saw Jinnah in the flesh.
In his talk and the following question and answer session, Noorani described the important yet forgotten relationship between Jinnah and Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a popular leader of the Indian independence movement. Noorani explains that Jinnah's commitment to Indian freedom was in many ways informed by his relations with Tilak and another Indian National Congress leader, Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
In 1916, Jinnah defended Tilak when he was charged with sedition, ultimately securing his acquittal. Initially, Noorani explained, Tilak had wanted to fight the case with a political spin, but Jinnah insisted that the defence proceed on legal grounds alone. Once the case was over, Jinnah also facilitated Tilak's reentry into the Congress party and became his partner in the signing of the historic Lucknow Pact the same year.
In the liveliest parts of his talk, Noorani described the unlikely relationship between Tilak and Jinnah — one a “man of the masses”, the other a “club goer.” The two would meet every other day in bazaars, cloth markets, and at Shantaram Chawl, where public meetings were often held. Indeed, Noorani argued that this friendship was one of the cornerstones of Hindu-Muslim unity in the pre-Partition era.
Noorani also took the opportunity to dispel many myths about Jinnah. For instance, he disagreed with the statement that Jinnah politically came into his own on March 23, 1940. He pointed out that although Jinnah was an active member of the Central Legislative Assembly and the head of a thriving legal practice, he would take time out to go to Delhi and sit in on debates on public issues such as the motor vehicles and shipping acts. Noorani also pointed out that many of the political terms such as “direct action” that Jinnah is now known for germinated in the 1920s.
The theory that Jinnah introduced religion to politics was also debunked. Noorani stated that Jinnah was a liberal social reformer who believed that “scurrilous attacks on religion are wrong, but reasonable critiques [of religion] should be protected by the law.” Interesting anecdotes peppered Noorani's answers to the audience's questions and in one instance he recalled that Jinnah refused to refer to the nationalist brothers Shaukat Ali and Muhammad Ali as 'maulanas.' At the same time, he was never acerbic towards Gandhi, who consistently inserted religion in politics.
Noorani also took issue with Jinnah's portrayal as an elitist. In addition to citing the fact that Jinnah and Tilak regularly met in spaces populated by the masses, he defended Jinnah's ability to speak Gujrati, which biographer Stanley Wolpert has written was weak. According to Noorani, it was impossible for a practising lawyer in Mumbai not to speak fluent Gujrati. He also quoted an incident in which Jinnah gave an interview to a Gujrati-language paper in which he explained that his involvement with the League was part of an effort to be closer to the masses.
Explaining Jinnah's stance on civil disobedience, Noorani added that it was more a case of concern than opposition — were the Indians prepared for [the civil disobedience movement]? Had schools and colleges been readied? When should he stop practising law? These were the questions, Noorani explained, that Jinnah grappled with at the time.
The perception that Jinnah was hell-bent on securing a separate state for Muslims from the start of his political career was also discussed. Noorani mentioned that this issue was not a main feature of the Round Table Conferences and described Jinnah as an “in house critic” for the duration of the Quit India Movement.
After defending Jinnah on several points, Noorani did point to his mistakes as well. He emphasised, for example, the fact that Jinnah did not think through Partition and its repercussions properly. “He didn't think about the territorial limits being agreed to, the exchange of populations, the fate of minorities,” Noorani asserted. He also pointed out that in the years before Partition, Jinnah's manner became increasingly “abrasive.”
Ultimately, Noorani's talk, and the thesis of his book, were received by many in the audience as an invitation to revisit Jinnah's early political career and consider how his main political demand for many years was not for a separate homeland for Muslims, but for an independent India in which the rights of Muslims were protected.