Winners and Losers of Partition

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

What did Jaswant Singh expect? You can’t be in a party that thrives on the demonization of Muslims and shower fulsome praise on the founding father of Pakistan as a ‘great Indian’ and ‘freedom hero’ and get away with it.

No wonder the former soldier has been expelled from the party that he helped found a day after the release of his biography of Pakistan’s founder.  But then the former foreign minister has reached a stage in his career where he doesn’t give two hoots what his party thinks of his extraordinary book on Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the man most Indians have grown up despising as the man responsible for the country’s Partition.

The BJP has been out of power for more than five years. And after the rout in the recent elections, it looks like it is going to remain out there in the wilderness for a long time to come.

Besides, going by the incredible attention and adulation Singh and his book have been receiving at home and abroad with television networks and newspapers queuing up to interview him, his future appears more promising and secure than his former party.

One of the BJP’s founding members, Singh handled crucial responsibilities – defense, finance and external affairs – with aplomb in the government of Atal Behari Vajpayee.  He deserved better than this from his party, which is going through a serious existential crisis right now.

I haven’t had the opportunity to look at the book in question, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence (Rupa & Co) as yet.  However, Singh’s extraordinary interviews with Karan Thapar of CNN-IBN and others, discussing his biography of Jinnah and why and how he came to write it promise a rollercoaster ride ahead.

Whatever the motives behind the book and its merits and flaws, you’ve got to acknowledge the author’s intellectual audacity in taking up such a daunting project.  It takes real guts to swim against the current.  In a party that loves to hate everything Muslim and bristles at the mention of Pakistan, singing hosannas to the man considered the ultimate iconoclast of ‘Akhand Bharat’ (united India) is nothing short of heresy.

Of course, this is not the first book on the monumental tragedy of the Partition and how Hindus and Muslims turned on each other after living together in harmony for more than a thousand years. There have been far more authoritative tomes on the subject, such as Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah of Pakistan and, most recently, Prof Akbar S Ahmad’s Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin.

But what makes this book on Jinnah truly unique is its authorship — it is written by an Indian politician who is at the other extreme of ideological spectrum and farthest possible from Quaid-e-Azam and his much debated legacy.  But more than the biographer and his unusual choice of subject, it is what he sets out to do with it that makes Singh’s Jinnah seminal in every sense of the word.

By holding India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his deputy Sardar Patel as much responsible for the Partition as Jinnah, if not more, Singh has turned the received history and Indian understanding of the circumstances leading to the creation of Pakistan on its head.

He seeks to demolish the popular myth that Jinnah was a religious bigot and Hindu hater, elucidating rather persuasively how the tallest leader of Congress until Mahatma Gandhi arrived from the South Africa and a passionate champion of Hindu-Muslim unity ended up as the man who divided India to create a separate homeland for Muslims.

So how did the Gujarati lawyer, who felt slighted when a fellow Gujarati, Gandhiji, once thanked and acknowledged him as ‘a Muslim leader’ at a function that Jinnah hosted in the Mahatma’s honor end up as the man who divided India?  It was a long journey that began with his disillusionment with and isolation in the Congress after Gandhi took over the reins of independence movement.

So it was not before a long sabbatical from politics and five years of self-imposed exile in London that the brilliant lawyer returned home into the welcoming arms of the Muslim League, a party that he had strongly attacked at the time of its inception in 1906 in Dhaka. 

Singh, like so many others who have dealt with the subject before, believes it was the intransigence and rigidity of the Congress leadership, especially Nehru and Patel, that inflicted the Partition on India.

By refusing to accommodate Muslim concerns about their representation in power and decision making process in the independent India and refusing to share power with the Muslim League in provinces like Uttar Pradesh (United Provinces then) and in Delhi, the Congress leadership virtually presented Pakistan on a platter to Jinnah.

In fact, Singh concludes, Jinnah’s demand of Pakistan was a tactical gambit to extract greater role and say for Muslims in the post British India.  It was aimed at creating “space for Muslims” after the British left the country. “Jinnah wanted Pakistan inside India,” insists Singh.

I am not so sure about that.  But you get a fair idea how the man once described by Sarojini Naidu as the “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” was forced on the road to Pakistan.  Whoever was responsible for the Partition, Jinnah or Nehru, all of us – Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – have paid for it in our own ways.  But perhaps no one has suffered as much as those remaining behind in India have.  No one has paid a greater price for the Partition as India’s Muslims have. 

Sixty-three years after the creation of Pakistan, we continue to carry the heavy cross of historic guilt on our shoulders. 

Singh may be accused of resorting to hyperbole when he says, “Look into the eyes of the Muslims who live in India and if you truly see through the pain they live to which land do they belong?” But indeed India’s Muslims have been the chief victims of the catastrophe that left a million people dead on both sides and millions more displaced and scarred forever. 

It’s rather late in the day for hypothetical mind games and ‘what ifs.’ And this is not to question the existence of Pakistan or Bangladesh either.

But I often wonder what a great and giant country this would have been if it had not been split into two (later three).  Imagine the endless mass of a country, from Afghan frontier to the green expanses of Burma and from the mighty Himalayas to the Arabian Sea. 

And imagine what a crucial role Muslims with their huge numbers could have played in such a powerful country (“Muslims on both sides have paid a price in Partition. They would have been significantly stronger in a united India, effectively so much larger land, every potential is here!”). But they gave up all this, or were forced to give up, — for a ‘moth-eaten Pakistan’ (Quaid-e-Azam’s words), founding a Muslim homeland in areas that were in any case Muslim-majority regions. In doing so, they broke away with the 1000-year-old legacy of Muslim presence and struggle in the sub-continent.  I do not know who has benefited from the Partition.  At least, the people who are accused of inflicting it on the sub-continent haven’t.  They have been the real losers of this geopolitical drama. 

 – Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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