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Thursday, August 20, 2009

India’s obsession with Jinnah

India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has expelled Jaswant Singh, its veteran leader and India’s former minister for external affairs. Singh played a key role in shaping India's relations with the United States in the 1990s.

The party is upset with Singh because he wrote a scholarly treatise on Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah is a taboo subject for the BJP and also for the Indian establishment.

LK Advani had to relinquish the part chief's post after he said what everyone knows to be true – Jinnah was at one time a secular politician and a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity in India.

Jaswant Singh’s point of view that the Congress leaders, especially Nehru and Patel, were as responsible for the vivisection of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan as Jinnah, has unleashed a storm within his party and the Congress.

Singh’s views don’t constitute a new interpretation of history. Eminent historians of Pakistani origins – notably Ayesha Jalal (The Sole Spokesman) and Akbar S. Ahmed (Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic identity: The Search for Saladin) – have consistently maintained that had the Congress leaders been more accommodative of Jinnah’s justifiable demands, the history of the subcontinent would’ve been different.

Pakistan may have largely forgotten Jinnah and his secular legacy rather expeditiously after his demise, but he remains a potent force in India. Indians cannot forget Jinnah. More than six decades after the Partition and the creation of Pakistan, Jinnah continues to divide Indians.

Jaswant Singh isn’t the first and definitely not the last to write about Jinnah. In the last six decades, tomes have been written about Pakistan’s creator in India. Most of them have been polemical (and very readable) opinions that hold Jinnah responsible for the Partition – for instance, Arun Shourie’s famous three-part series for The Illustrated Weekly of India, and Rafiq Zakaria’s The Man Who Divided India.

Some (as polemical) argue the other view. HM Seervai's Partition of India – Legend and Reality is a brilliant example. Seervai argues as a solicitor and tries to prove that the Congress was responsbile for the Partition.

I still remember Rajdeep Sardesai’s anguished review of Seervai’s book in the Sunday Times of India. The main argument of Singh’s book cannot be too different from Seervai’s book that was written about two decades ago.

I must confess, I haven’t read Singh’s book (an unfortunate aspect of immigration is not be able to access books published in India). But if it has riled Narendra Modi enough to ban it in Gujarat, it has to be good.

Also, the hysteria in India over Jinnah reveals a mentality that shuns historical inquiry and a preference for blind prejudice.

Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah, incidentally, is a brief, readable (non-partisan, non-polemical) biography of the creator of Pakistan.

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