x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Parting words

Books The controversy on Pakistan's founder by a leader of India's Hindu right-wing party reveals the ongoing tremors of Partition, Aman Sethi writes.

The controversy on Pakistan's founder by a leader of India's Hindu right-wing party reveals the ongoing tremors of Partition, Aman Sethi writes. On August 7, 1947 a dapper lawyer with a taste for impeccably tailored suits and Craven A cigarettes boarded a plane from Delhi to Karachi. The flight would have offered Mohammed Ali Jinnah brief respite from the chaos of the prior few months; if some versions are to be believed, he barely spoke during the four-hour trip, choosing instead to immerse himself in a bundle of newspapers. Three months earlier, on the evening of June 3, 1947, Lord Mountbatten, the last imperial Viceroy of India, made an an extraordinary announcement on All India Radio delineating a plan to carve out the eastern and western-most territories of the Indian sub-continent into a shiny new state. He was accompanied by Jinnah and Jawarharlal Nehru. Contemporary accounts suggest that their speeches referred to the impending partition in the vaguest of terms; and only Jinnah, soon to become the Governor-General of this new nation, gave any indication at all when he ended his short speech with the cry of "Pakistan zindabad!" ("Long live Pakistan") - though some listeners, apparently, thought he said "Pakistan's in the bag!"

During the six weeks that followed, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the chairman of the Boundary Commission, plotted the lines of two new nations. Three weeks after the boundaries were drawn, Jinnah bid cordial farewell to the city of Delhi with a parting wish: "The past must be buried and let us start afresh as two independent sovereign States of Hindustan and Pakistan." And then he boarded Lord Mountbatten's white Dakota aircraft and left for Pakistan.

It was on a similar flight - this time from Pakistan back to Delhi, in February 1999 - that Jaswant Singh, then India's foreign minister, decided that the time had come for a new biography of Jinnah, one written "by a political figure from India". Singh, a man with a clipped Oxford accent and a marked liking for safari suits, was a throwback to a prior era of Indian politics: an era of tea parties and cucumber sandwiches and an evening drink at the Gymkhana.

Out of deference to the many characters, and passengers, in this tale, I finished reading Singh's Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence on a flight: a cramped and uncomfortable trip that, much like the book I was reading, had too many announcements and went on for much too long. To read the book for fresh insight into Jinnah, India, Partition or Independence is to be disappointed on at least four counts: it is an unwieldy compilation of a number of more scholarly treatises. It neither draws on new material from archives or recently unearthed correspondence, nor does it offer a radical new interpretation of the events of the Partition or the men involved. Yet, despite its banality and its ponderously measured tone, the book has laid bare a schism that threatens the unity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently at the head of India's parliamentary opposition.

The core of Singh's argument is that the claim for the entirely separate nation-state of Pakistan began as merely a bargaining chip for Jinnah and the Muslim League, one intended to ensure a degree of Muslim representation in a Hindu-majority independent India. However, after several failed attempts at conciliation and a disastrous attempt at all-party government in 1946, it acquired a momentum that even Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was unable to withstand.

Thus, the "blame" for Partition, Singh argues, cannot simply be laid at the feet of Mohammed Ali Jinnah - Congress leaders like Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and even Gandhi all bear some share of responsibility. Despite the storm of controversy, however, there is nothing new about this argument, which has been presented in a series of books about Jinnah and the Partition - from biographies by Stanley Wolpert and Ayesha Jalal to histories like Vazira Fazila-Yaacoobali Zamindar's The Long Partition or Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition. Patrick French's Liberty or Death offers an erudite, accessible and better-written account of the terrain traversed by Singh, not to mention the charming "Pakistan Zindabad" anecdote.

From the moment of its publication, however, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence ceased to be a book about Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and instead became a book about Jaswant Singh. A biography of Jinnah by a senior figure within the right-wing, Hindu fundamentalist BJP was always going to make news. But the timing of its publication - in the aftermath of the BJP's second successive electoral defeat - was what landed the book and the controversy on the front pages of the newspapers and all over the 24-hour news channels.

Even before the book's launch on August 17, Singh found himself marginalised within the party he had joined more than 40 years ago.  Despite serving as foreign minister and finance minister in the BJP government that held office from 1999 to 2004, his inability to choose the right camp during the party's years in opposition had seen him lose influence to younger and more ambitious leaders. Not a single BJP leader attended the book launch, and a few newspapers carried quoted disapproving statements by "unnamed sources", but the book's release was largely unremarked upon.

Two days after its publication, however, Jaswant Singh received a call from the BJP president, Rajnath Singh, and he was expelled from the party he had helped found. "The meeting of the Parliamentary Board that decided to expel Mr Jaswant Singh only took a few minutes to come to a unanimous decision- No one spoke against the general mood, which was to expel Mr Jaswant Singh," said a source quoted by The Hindu. "I have been wounded by my own kith and kin," confessed a bewildered Singh in a television interview.

The Partition, whose enormous aftershocks are, even today, hard to measure precisely, has played a spectral role in post-independence Indian politics. Parties have never canvassed for votes on the basis of what happened in 1947, but the event has nevertheless given significant shape to political alignments in India today: the BJP, for instance, owes it's rise to fear of a second partition among a considerable section of north Indian Hindus.

The BJP's message, at its most direct, considers the creation of Pakistan as the ultimate act of "minority appeasement" and warns that further "appeasement" - such as granting special legal or religious rights to India's minorities - could lead to a further partition of the country. The other legacy of 1947, that of independence rather than Partition, is claimed by the Indian National Congress, which is still seen today - thanks largely to its own strenuous efforts - as the party that won India her independence.

The BJP, founded well after Partition, lacked any leaders to call its own among the generation who fought for India's independence. So they looked to the past in search of a Congress figure to claim as their own and chose Vallabhbhai Patel - a Bismarck-like figure who forged an independent India out of a collection of provinces and princely states through a mixture of coercion and counsel. The reason for Singh's expulsion was not that he called Jinnah "secular" or "an ambassador for Hindu-Muslim unity": according to the party, his crime was suggesting that Patel had a role to play in the Partition.  By denigrating Patel, the BJP alleged, Singh had gone against the Party's "core ideology", and the repercussions, it appears, were severe.

But what "core ideology" had he violated? And why should the BJP care so deeply about the reputation of a Congressman who, in his tenure as home minister, actually banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - the BJP's ideological parent? Patel is one of the enigmas of the Indian Independence movement. A fierce nationalist, his greatest legacy - one that endears him to a formation like the BJP - was the often ruthless negotiations that brought the northeast and princely states like Hyderabad into the Indian Union. In hindsight, he appears as a robust, pragmatic and macho nationalist, particularly in contrast to Nehru - who the right regards as Gandhi's spoilt child, and the man who engineered the Partition, gave Kashmir special constitutional privileges and appeared more concerned with theoretical debates in Europe than to the messy realities back home in India.

LK Advani, the former deputy prime minister and the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in the 2009 elections, consciously models himself on Patel, calling himself "Lauh Purush" - a literal Hindi translation of the "Ironman" moniker bestowed upon Patel; while Gujarat's current chief minister, Narendra Modi frequently pays homage to Patel, his fellow Gujarati. By offering a hearing of Jinnah's case for Partition, one where the representation of Muslims in a Hindu majority India was a very real concern, and pointing out that early proposals revolved around an admittedly unwieldy form of federalism, Singh destroys the BJP's claim that the vivisection of the sub-continent was the handiwork of a group of scheming Muslims. Further, by alluding to Patel's involvement in the Partition, he unwittingly fractures their fondest fantasy: that had Patel been alive when the BJP was formed, he would most certainly have joined it. Expelling Jaswant Singh was a "painful but necessary step" said Advani, "Jaswant Singh tried to denigrate Patel."

Advani's pious utterances must have come as a shock to Singh, particularly in light of the former's own brush with near-explusion. On June 5 2005, LK Advani spoke at a function organised by the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations, Economic Affairs and Law, where he made the near-fatal mistake of praising Jinnah's August 11, 1947 speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly as a "classic exposition of a secular state".  In the speech, delivered to those assigned the task of drawing up Pakistan's constitution, Jinnah laid out his vision of Pakistan, not as a religious or theocratic Muslim state, but as a state of Muslims. Addressing the minorities in Pakistan in the speech, he said: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State."

As the Indian scholar Aditya Nigam has noted, Jinnah's brand of secularism - which provides for individual religious freedom within the context of a nation defined by religious homogeneity - is surprisingly compatible with the views of the BJP cadres who blame Jinnah for the Partition. "Jinnah and Advani," Nigam writes, "fundamentally united in their quest for a nation that would be internally homogeneous, such that the state would recognize only the individual citizen as the legitimate bearer of rights."

After Advani's remarks, the BJP found itself dealing with the prickliest of dilemmas: after a life-time of raging against "Muslim appeasement" and "minoritism", how could the party's senior-most leader call Jinnah, the driving force behind Pakistan, "secular"? In the back-pedalling and side-stepping that followed, Advani was let off the hook, but not before the party drafted the "core-ideology" resolution that threatened anyone who went against the party line with expulsion. The Advani debacle made it impossible to censure Singh for praising Jinnah; and yet the post-election chaos in the party made it impossible to let him escape unpunished. Heads had to roll, examples had to be set and so the legacy of Patel was invoked and Singh had to go.

Singh's expulsion marks a new nadir for the BJP, a decade after it took power as the primary partner in a broad coalition. Under Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee (the BJP's "Vikas Purus", literally "Progress Man" ) the party conducted itself with exemplary discipline: Advani served as deputy prime minister and home minister (just like Patel) and Singh held the external affairs portfolio. In five long years, India established herself as nuclear-armed state, went to war with Pakistan, and established herself as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It would have been a fine legacy for a Government that defined itself by its "hard on terror" policies and its determination to make India a global superpower. By the time the 2004 elections came around, the BJP felt comfortable enough to jettison Muslim-bashing as their primary electoral plank and launch the "India Shining" campaign: a slickly produced series of television spots suffused with a sense of manifest destiny. 

The shock loss of 2004 left the party rudderless: a moderate faction, led by the former hardliner Advani, urged the BJP to move toward the centre, while extremists like Narendra Modi, who stands accused of orchestrating the anti-Muslim pogroms in his state in 2002, argued for a return to the confrontational politics of the early 1990s that led to riots across the country. As a result, the party's 2009 campaign was a hodge-podge of "soft-Hindutva", respectable "bijli-paani-sadak" (electric-water-roads) campaigning and brazen anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the BJP appeared to voters as a party confused about its own identity.

The battle over Singh's book is part of a longer and more complex leadership struggle in the BJP; a battle between the moderates and the extremists, hard-line Hindu nationalism and soft Hindutva, the old guard and the young Turks. In the meantime, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence has sold over 49,000 copies in India and another 13,000 in Pakistan. If news reports are to be believed, Singh may soon even be flying to Karachi to promote it.

Aman Sethi is a Delhi-based journalist for The Hindustan Times.