The Jinnah portrait

In 1938, Aligarh Muslim University conferred on Mohammad Ali Jinnah the life-long membership of the university’s student union, installing his portrait in the heart of the university.

Eighty years later, a BJP lawmaker demanded its removal. But before litigation – or public discourse – could ensue, the university was raided by a mob of protestors. Students, were injured, necessitating the cancellation of a scheduled event, and triggering an ad nauseam but entirely hollow social media parley, laden with affronts and devoid of conclusions.

The debacle has, however, underscored the relevance of a Jinnah portrait – hues of principle, secularism and constitutionalism that evade both India and Pakistan more than seventy years after the subcontinent’s partition. The abuse Jinnah’s person has received on Twitter is a new lesson in partition history – the disclosure that populations on either side of the border remain stranded in a void perpetuated by a dearth of facts and inundated instead with a jingo-nationalist and partisan rhetoric. This then seems to serve as license for a convolution of history and the extrapolation of the matter at hand to an India-Pakistan wrangle.

The AMU, conversely, has borne the portrait of Gandhi since 1920 as well. In this sense it has proved to be a better discriminator of merit and carrier of equity than India’s state today.

The simple feature of Jinnah’s membership of the university’s student union is being countered – after 80 years of his portrait’s innocuous presence – with Jinnah’s supposed felonies, namely his single-handed dissection of the subcontinent and the blood-bath that accompanied the process. It is concerning that the blame of partition’s horrors should be made to rest with Jinnah, when international, detached commentators have often placed it with Britain’s hasty and clumsily improvised flight from its imperial colony, along with, of-course, the endemic communal tension in the Subcontinent. Juxtaposed with this is the implication that the subcontinent’s horrific history of hate crimes should have been allowed to continue, that deadly civil discord would perhaps be whitewashed under the greater banner of a united India.

It is interesting though, how the unleashing of a xenophobic social-media bluster against Jinnah and Muslims at large serves in itself to vindicate Jinnah’s struggle for territorial autonomy for a minority community. When ethnic violence happens – as it so often does – in India, or Pakistan, or anywhere in the world, and when bigoted factions are allowed to defend sectarian hate crimes un-apprehended (Asifa?), the unsustainability of what was a syncretic India should dawn on any reasonable observer anew. What should alarm us is how the aftermath of this controversy has shown that reasonable people are being made to take a back seat. The loss of secularism – even if it was imperfect and mottled when it was there – should frighten us; academia, intelligentsia, and ordinary, peace-oriented citizens.

When monikers like ‘paedophile’ are employed to bolster the case against Jinnah’s person they implicate only the concave values of the plaintiffs. To call him a ‘Hindu hater’ is an even greater factual fallacy

Synchronously, the Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in 1946 and the ravage that it brought with it are being used as to incriminate Jinnah. It is important for the preservation of our history that this perception is dismembered. The Direct Action Day was a consequence of the failure of the Cabinet Mission Plan, when Nehru, in what even his aide Abul Kalam Azad described as an ‘unfortunate’ statement, opined that once the British had left, any Indian government would not be bound by the security provisions left in place for minorities.

Direct Action Day was the first time in Jinnah’s many years of politics that he called for public demonstration. The Bengal Muslim League had planned only one program for the day at Calcutta Maidaan, a public gathering to demonstrate support for the All India Muslim League. Lt. Gen. Sir Francis Turker has recorded that this was sabotaged: ‘At 7:30 am we heard that Hindus had erected barricades at Tala and Begalcharia bridges to prevent Muslims from entering the city and taking their procession to the middle of town … where a mammoth Muslim assembly was to be addressed by Mr. M. H. Suharwardy, the Chief Minister of Bengal.’

The point of this anecdote is not to imply that only one community pillaged, murdered or raped – even as this flawed narrative has prevailed for years on either side of the border. But to blame Jinnah for the consequences of his calling for peaceful protest – which had been a bedrock of Congress political policy for years – is as arbitrary as blaming the casualties of Amritsar in 1919 on the Sikhs that were merely asserting their right to a religious gathering. Talking to foreign press, Jinnah refuted the claims that his call was a call for violence, “I cannot give an indication of what our programme will be, but we are fully alive to the fact that any programme we put into operation must be based on peaceful means”.

When monikers like ‘paedophile’ are employed to bolster the case against Jinnah’s person they implicate only the concave values of the plaintiffs. To call him a ‘Hindu hater’ is a greater factual fallacy. Jinnah was known to berate Gandhi for attempting to suffuse politics and spirituality, saying that “it was a crime to mix up politics and religion the way he had done,” because it would vitalise religious chauvinists in either community. In his first address as governor-general, he re-iterated this, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples; free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed; that has nothing to do with the business of the state”. When minorities are persecuted and deprived in Pakistan, we fail Jinnah, his years of incessant struggle, and his vision for the state he created.

In the past days the surfacing of communal hatred and misdirected feelings of nationalism have inspired even some of the sanest parts of Indian society to an unprofessional and grossly selective manipulation of our joint history. That this has been long true of the less aware has been observed by Lawrence Ziring, a professor of political science at Western Michigan University, “… Muhammad Ali Jinnah is little understood outside the country that he was chiefly responsible for creating… (his) inner confidence and dogged perseverance (which) frustrated the intentions and purposes of the powerful must continue to bear the stings and arrows of the unreconciled mourners of Akhand Bharat.”

It is unfortunate that the fact of Jinnah’s honorary membership of the university, an institution he bequeathed a third of his legacy to, is being drowned in an ocean of grand verdicts based only on opinionation. The tendency to see facts through a myopic and convenient lens of animosity is obviously not something confined to India, but in light of the deleterious trajectory Indian society is seemingly taking, it is important that Pakistan inoculates itself against it. A celebration of our mutual heroes, like Bhagat Singh, and an objective study of the due contributions of every pre-partition politician – Muslim or Hindu – are steps on a long, winding road to endurable peace and reciprocated respect.

Jinnah’s indomitable resolve and his skill as a lawyer and a politician have been lauded even by his opponents and his critics. Hugh Tinker’s ‘Men Who Overturned Empires: Fighters, Dreamers, Schemers’ (1987) quotes Nehru as calling Jinnah “the most extra-ordinary man in history”. There is disagreement on his political stances, none on the commendable craft and will with which he carried them to their execution. The sheer distinction of what he was able to achieve in an environment where no other political stake-holders liked or supported him is not in dispute. John Biggs-Davison went so far as to say, “Although without Gandhi, Hindustan would still have gained independence and without Lenin and Mao, Russia and China would still have endured Communist revolution, without Jinnah there would have been no Pakistan in 1947.”

Jinnah, ultimately, does not need the validation of a Hindutva mob, or one community, or one country. His legacy remains as a sovereign country of 193 million people and their daily aspirations, struggles and achievements. That the need to discredit and disrespect that legacy should be so iniquitously strong in India is a chilly symptom of the scourge of societal regression that has been patently spreading in both countries for decades.

We continue to need Jinnah more than ever; his ability to divorce realities from idealism, an ability that made a great proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity see that partition was the only contingent solution to India’s sectarian problem. Society continues to crave his values of integrity, perseverance, and tolerance. These cannot, sadly, radiate from a portrait; the portrait of Jinnah’s character needs to be internalised by people, including his followers, in more ways than one. As we defend Jinnah, we must simultaneously learn from Jinnah, described by Farooq Naseem Bajwa as simply a brilliant and dedicated advocate who decided to fight – (and won) – the biggest case of his life in the most difficult court in the world.

The writer is a level student at Karachi Grammar School

Published in Daily Times, May 12th 2018.


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