Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Jaswant's Jinnah, Ambassadors and Plasticine Guests

Went down to the charming Daunt’s bookstore on Marylebone High Street this week for the UK launch of “Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence”, the controversial new book by Jaswant Singh, former Defence and Foreign Minister of India under the last BJP government. It was a slightly bizarre evening; first had a quick-fire interview with the distinguished Mr Singh, thinking about all the synonyms for ‘distinguished’. Spoke with the lovely Mrs Jaswant Singh about how Jawaharlal Nehru’s toilet was sprayed with perfume so that the future Indian PM’s political meditations would not be rudely interrupted by unnecessary aromas. The guest list at the launch included a former British Ambassador to India, a BBC Radio 1 DJ and a former footballer’s wife whose face began melting halfway through the evening as the camera flashes kept going off. Well, it threatened to melt before she swiftly hopped in a taxi and scrammed.

Anyway, the book is a staggering labour of love by Mr Singh; mercifully, it’s not vast by any means but it is vastly detailed. For some strange reason, one obscure event detailed in the book stands out for me; a South Asian living in Britain. Soon after the partition of India in August 1947, a celebration took place in Karachi attended by Lord Mountbatten and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. At dinner, Mountbatten was asked why he brought the date of the transfer of power forward by nearly a year. The last Viceroy of India drew a childish metaphor, saying “The best way to teach a youngster to cycle is to take it to a top of a hill, put him on the seat and push him down the hill. By the time he arrived on the flat ground below, he would have learnt to cycle.” Deeply sensitive was Lord Mountbatten.

His decision to speed up the process of partition brought death and misery to millions; the social, cultural, political and economic ramifications of the partitioning of India continue to resonate around the world. For many in India, Mohammed Ali Jinnah has long been the demonic face of this ‘vivisection’ of their country (as Mahatma Gandhi termed it). For years, Jinnah has been maligned for fracturing India on the basis of religious belief. Mr Singh’s book is the first political biography about the ‘Quaid-e-Azam’ (Great Leader) of Pakistan by a prominent Indian political figure and challenges this widely held view of Jinnah, calling it unjustified and factually incorrect. Mr Singh explores – in considerable detail – the momentous events in the run up to partition, examining how a man once described as the ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ became a figure of such hatred in India.

“Jinnah – India…” is a fascinating study of an extraordinary but greatly misunderstood man. Singh paints Jinnah as an elegant intellectual who campaigned passionately against British rule and for a united India built on democratic principles; a liberal constitutionalist who vehemently opposed religious considerations in political discussion but one whose secular beliefs were in constant conflict with the religious diversity and aspirations of India. It’s a personality that drew the attention of the equally liberal and intellectual Jaswant Singh. “Gandhi himself called Jinnah a great Indian. Why don’t we recognize that? This was a self-made man with tremendous determination. Gandhi and others like Nehru were born to wealth and position. Jinnah created for himself a position. At one point in Bombay, he was so poor that he had to walk to work. He once told one of his biographers that there was always room at the top but no lift, and he never sought a lift. He was a great man who created something out of nothing. And he single-handedly stood up against the vast might of the Congress party,” says Mr Singh.

That monumental struggle between Jinnah and The Congress in general, and Jawaharlal Nehru in particular, is the focus of Mr Singh’s thesis; between Jinnah’s demand for greater representation for minorities and the devolution of power to the provinces and Nehru’s insistence on a strong central government; between Jinnah’s search for autonomy in decision making for Muslims and Nehru’s ‘majoritarianism’.

Significantly, the book also evokes the prejudices faced by Jinnah, portraying him as a man looked upon as a Muslim who was a nationalist rather than a patriot who happened to be a Muslim, particularly by a cynical Congress party. In addition, Mr Singh examines how Jinnah’s detached personality didn’t endear him to a public with a history of being predisposed to affable despots over men of integrity who remain cold and aloof; a problem that continues to blight countries in the region to this day.

The eloquent and melancholic Mr Singh also provides detailed insights into the personalities and their vast egos at play in the run up to 1947; toweringly patriotic figures to a man, who shaped India’s future. The sheer weight of the challenge faced by men like Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and Vallabhai Patel – the challenge of bringing out of colonial rule a country of more than 350 million people who worship hundreds of different gods, speak dozens of different dialects and have such wildly disparate aspirations – is truly staggering. Should the leaders aim for complete freedom? What about Dominion Status and Self Rule? How to go about achieving those aims? Should it be in one single step or should it be a gradual process? What about Hindu-Muslim unity? Hindsight is such a luxury for us.

“Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence” is undeniably an extremely personal journey driven by Mr Singh’s admiration for Jinnah and his deep love for his country. Jaswant Singh’s own interesting life – as a soldier in 2 Indo-Pak wars, a minister and now author – gives credibility to the book. In the modern context, “Jinnah” is also an excellent exploration of what has happened since partition; how Pakistan was left a ‘conceptual and moral orphan’ with the death of Jinnah so soon after the country’s birth; a loss from which Pakistan has never recovered.

Given the circumstances of 63 years ago, as described by Mr Singh, Partition almost seems to have been inevitable, especially considering the ethnic complexities inherent in Indian society. “Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence” is a sincere and thoroughly informed effort at explaining this tragedy and – more importantly – reconciling the resentment that resulted from it. The book was banned in Gujarat (due to its criticism of Nehru and Vallabhai Patel) and Mr Singh was expelled from the BJP. Ultimately however, it is Jaswant Singh’s triumph as he details the myriad causes that led to partition and encourages the reader to understand the context. As countries such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka continue to try and reconcile past resentments – internal and external – it is so vitally important to understand and appreciate context, rather than labelling the men and movements involved as right and wrong, black and white, because it’s never that simple.
- Vijitha Alles

“Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence”By Jaswant Singh 565 Pages
Oxford University Press, £14.95
ISBN-10: 0195479270
ISBN-13: 978-0195479270