Why Pakistan's Mohammed Ali Jinnah Was No Nelson Mandela
Kapil Komireddi on why we must not sully the great humanitarian Nelson Mandela by comparing him to Mohammed Ali Jinnah
Rafia Zakaria is one of Pakistan’s most readable columnists. She’s writing a book on Karachi, the port city to the south that, having once served as Pakistan’s first capital, is now paralysed by sectarian bloodletting. Anyone with an interest in Pakistan should read it when it’s released. I suspect it will, like much of Rafia’s work, be a bracing account, free of cant. Sadly, I can’t say the same about her most recent piece, a foray into history published in Dawn, in which she labours to equate the man who savagely divided India in the name of religion with the man who kept South Africa united despite its sharp racial polarities.
Rafia’s argument is this: had Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, lived longer, his creation might have matured into South Asia’s South Africa, a pluralistic state, rather than descending into what it is today: a procrustean hell.
The belief that it was Jinnah’s premature death, rather than his wilful conduct during the last years of his life, that caused Pakistan to fail is shared widely by that country’s liberals. Like so much else in Pakistan, it’s an idea sustained by self-deception.
After all, the proposition that Pakistan’s evolution into an inclusive state was curtailed by the early demise of its founder works by investing Jinnah with a catholic spirit that is fundamentally incompatible with his principal political pursuit: the creation of an exclusive state called Pakistan. “Hindus and Muslims can [n]ever evolve a common nationality,” Jinnah had declared in 1940. Could a journey fuelled by such hatred and divisiveness possibly have culminated in a peaceful and pluralistic destination?
One answer is to deny that Jinnah ever wanted Pakistan, that his factional rhetoric—the ceaseless traducing of his secular adversaries in Congress as aspiring Hindu overlords, the relentless invocation of the racialist neologism “Pakistan”—was all a ploy meant to secure for Muslims greater rights within a united India. This argument, pioneered by the formidable Ayesha Jalal, relies, once again, on a degree of deception, neglecting entirely the question of whether such brinkmanship, being directed by a man who was dying of lung disease, was going to profit the people he claimed to represent or condemn them to an uncertain future. Even if we accept Jalal’s thesis, it’s not easy to exalt a man who uncorked the genie of religious hatred as a tactic even though he knew that he wouldn’t be around to force it back into the bottle. “Through passive resistance and unarmed struggle, [South Africa’s] black majority had wrested from the hands of a white majority [sic] the reigns [sic] of a system where all advantages had been given to the whites and all costs borne by the blacks,” Rafia writes. “Mohammed Ali Jinnah,” she continues, “died barely a year after the creation of Pakistan. His was just as hard won, just as miraculous a victory. Through his masterful maneuvering and inspirational rallying, a country had been wrest from the clenched fists of the British Empire sulky about its losses.”
Some may find it rather coarse to liken the predicament of Jinnah and his sybaritic sponsors who never saw the inside of a prison cell to the calvary of South Africa’s black majority under the National Party.
But two things are especially dismaying in Rafia’s interpretation of events. The implication that Jinnah’s struggle was in any way peaceful airbrushes from history the hundreds of thousands who paid with their lives in the course of Partition. Their deaths were not an aberration, but the direct consequence of Jinnah’s dogmatic campaign. Dr. Rafiq Zakaria, the Gandhian politician who was active in the Indian freedom struggle, went along to one of Jinnah’s “inspirational” rallies. All he found, as he later recalled in his singeing biography of Jinnah, was communalist “venom,” which “aggravated the hostilities between the two communities as never before.”
How exactly was Jinnah “inspiring” people? A letter Jinnah received from the Himalayan town of Mussoorie, written by a young man called Zulfi Bhutto, gives us an idea. “Hindus,” it read, “are the deadliest enemies of our Koran and our Prophet.” Did Jinnah believe that preaching hate would beget love? By 1946, Jinnah was issuing calls of “India divided or India destroyed.” In 1946, Jinnah called for a Direct Action Day. Riots erupted in Calcutta, capital of the sole province then in control of Jinnah’s party, the Muslim League. Corpses lined the streets of that great multicultural city.
Jinnah’s response to this butchery precipitated by his own baleful stemwinders? “I’m not going to discuss ethics.”
Similarly, Rafia’s conscription of Jinnah into the anti-colonial struggle cannot stand up to scrutiny. In the last years of his life, far from being an opponent of British imperialism, Jinnah become its most vigorous agent, siding with the colonial masters against his own people, and, in the end, plotting with some of Britain’s most hidebound conservatives, who despised Indians only marginally less than the enforcers of Apartheid rule hated blacks, to partition India.
Far from sulking, Britain was actually very eager to get out of India. This is why Whitehall brought forward the date of Independence. Charged with abolishing the Empire, Britain’s last Viceroy to India, Lord Mountbatten, had no cause to object to Partition. Yet, as the only British Viceroy who did not view Indians with prejudiced eyes, Mountbatten resisted the idea and did his very best to keep India united. For all his epic incompetence, he discerned that dividing India would be disastrous. He tried to dissuade Jinnah, but failed.
Since history has so thoroughly vindicated Mountbatten’s scepticism, it’s worth recalling his verdict on Jinnah. “Until I had met [Jinnah],” Mountbatten later said, “I would not have thought it possible that a man with such a complete lack of… sense of responsibility could… hold down so powerful a position.” To the very eve of Partition, Jinnah was acquiring prime property in Karachi and Bombay. He had no idea what Pakistan was going to be. At any rate, could it ever be anything other than a monument to divisive politics?
In the name of a great religion that is as Indian as Hinduism or Jainism, one people, bound throughout history by what Nehru called “invisible threads,” were segregated, parcelled out into country-sized ghettoes: the very antithesis of everything Mandela attempted to accomplish in South Africa.“When Mandela left the presidency and eventually public life,” Rafia writes, “his shadow remained, watchful and nurturing over the newly democratic South African state.” This prompts her to conclude, neatly: “Pakistan’s loss was the untimely early death of its leader, the man with the plan… The death of one man should not mean so much, but perhaps the death of some men, leading men, doom the futures of too many to come.”
Jinnah’s death was not untimely at all: he knew that he was going to die early the moment his Bombay doctor, Jal Patel, gave his diagnosis. Yet Jinnah proceeded with his non-plan, keeping his illness secret from the people who might have been able to suppress the rage he was provoking.
Why? Jinnah’s deceit injured most of all those millions of his fiercest followers who, terrified by the fears of Hindu dominance that he and the landed nabobs of his Muslim League had conjured up, placed their fates at his feet.
Mandela, on the other hand, did have a plan. His moral authority rested in large measure on his nonviolent struggle—and his refusal to lend his imprimatur to identity politics. Once he was elected, reconciliation became his primary fixation, and no one could contest the force of his own personal example.
What of Jinnah?
Having stirred up hatred between Hindus and Muslims, he attempted to heal their wounds with a speech to the putative people’s assembly of Pakistan.
On 11 August 1947, he told the soon-to-be born nation that religion was not the determinant of Pakistani nationalism. In fact, it was immaterial. It was religious divisions, he claimed, which had hindered India’s chances of early independence. “Indeed, if you ask me, [religious disunity] has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain the freedom and independence, and but for this we would have been free people long, long ago.”
It’s odd that he should’ve perpetuated what he denounced as a bane, but the bolt from the blue was yet to come. “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State,” he declared. “We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens – and equal citizens – of one State.”
This speech has been adduced to advance the theory that Jinnah wanted an inclusive country. But it doesn’t explain why he needed to create Pakistan to achieve that when such an entity already existed: it was called I-N-D-I-A, that capacious home of Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists and Jews and Christians and people of every faith, and no faith at all. Why did he have to hack it apart?
Jinnah’s speech, far from sculpting a pluralistic future for Pakistan, plunged it into an identity crisis. If faith was indeed irrelevant in Pakistan, what exactly united West Pakistan with East Pakistan? What constituted the two “wings”, separated by a thousand miles of India, into one “nation”?
The other obvious problem was Kashmir. Pakistan’s locus standi in Kashmir rested entirely upon the fact that a majority of Kashmiris shared the faith of the Pakistani state. But if, as Jinnah said, religion was no business of the state, what was the basis of Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir? Sincere answers to these questions will negate the preposterous premise that Pakistan could ever have survived without a religious identity. Jinnah’s foundational speech, carried to its logical conclusion, emerges as the strongest possible case for the dissolution of Pakistan.
But as his subsequent actions show, Jinnah quickly realised his folly and consciously reintroduced Islam as the sustaining force of the state: in less than 2 months after the speech, he authorised a jihad in Kashmir, inaugurating the first Pakistan-India war just 60 days after Partition. The tragedy, of course, is that Pakistan couldn’t survive even with a religious identity, as the calamitous events of 1971 demonstrated.
For Indian secularists, the tragic irony of Jinnah’s struggle for Pakistan is that, far from emancipating India’s Muslims, it empowered India’s Hindu chauvinists. (It is impossible, in fact, to imagine a man who has caused greater harm to India’s Muslims than Jinnah.) It exonerated the demonization of Muslims as untrustworthy Fifth Columnists, and it legitimised the effort to turn India, once Pakistan had been carved out from it as a homeland for its Muslims, into an exclusive homeland for the Hindus who remained.
Hindu nationalists agitating for the creation of a Hindu state are in fact paying a tribute to Jinnah, the most successful proponent of majoritarian politics in modern India’s history. Narendra Modi is nothing if not the most consummate Hindu avatar of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. His dream is to complete the journey that Jinnah started us on. Jinnah said Hindus and Muslims don’t belong together: Modi agrees.
Indians who today oppose Modi are followers of Indians who opposed Jinnah in another time: pluralists, humanists, adherents of the inclusive nationalism of Nehru. It is those muzzy Indians who have tolerated or defended, in the name of politeness, the beatification of Jinnah who will have to account for the recrudescence of his ideology in Hindu garb – and it is they who, having deferentially abided Jinnah’s ethno-religious project next door, have weakened the fight against Hindu nationalists who now seek to replicate it at home.
Having perhaps sensed that the quest for a Muslim nation that the quixotic idea of Pakistan embodied had failed – or was bound to fail – Jinnah sought to bequeath the appearance of a strong state. Power, and the accoutrements of power, would fill the vacuum created by the absence of ideas. Jinnah spent the first months of his country’s painful birth in 1947 writing to Ambassador Mirza Ispahani in Washington to find a limousine and aircraft befitting the governor-general. “What about my car?” an impatient Jinnah, who had an enormous private fortune, asked Ispahani in December of that vicious year. “I want the car very badly.”
The distance between the Qaid-e-Azam’s priorities and the plight of the people he governed could not have been greater. With his cultivated aversion to human multiplicity and his contempt for the concept of unity in diversity, Jinnah sowed the seeds of the anti-Bengali genocide of 1971 when he forced the people of East Pakistan to accept Urdu as the state language. When he died, just over a year after Pakistan’s creation, Jinnah had left behind all the trappings of a state, but not even the trace of a nation. The great Mandela, heir to the Indian National Congress’s self-consciously inclusive freedom struggle, has lapsed into serious illness. He has earned our prayers, for a swift recovery or a quiet rest. But what he must be spared, after consecrating his life to bringing people together, is the disgrace of being used as a peg on which to hang a laudatory garland woven for a divisive demagogue whose legacy continues to poison the inhabitants of India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, and may yet result in a nuclear holocaust. Sorry, Rafia: but Mohammed Ali Jinnah was no Mandela. But if we must mourn, let us mourn the fact that Jinnah went as far as he did: that’s what divided us, one people, into three nations.
(Post has been updated to correct the familial ties of Dr. Rafiq Zakaria).