Friday, May 05, 2006

Understanding Advani's Historical Revisionism: Jinnah and the Cops and Robbers View of History


Sukumar Muralidharan
June 23, 2005

My country right or wrong may be an apt slogan for the mood of overwrought patriotism shaped in the crucible of the global war on terror. But it is not a slogan that can subsist in isolation, without the essential buttressing of history. This reading of history is marked by very sharply etched moral categories, where good is an attribute that is very clearly invested in certain political causes and entities, and bad in certain others. This variety of history often dovetails very neatly with another, which sees historical figures in stark and simple terms. The historian E.H. Carr in his classic What is History? referred to this as the “Good Queen Bess, Bad King John” school of historiography. It is a vision of history as the arena where good and bad – embodied in individuals larger than life – contend for primacy, where the triumph of good over evil is by no means assured. As Carr said: “The desire to postulate individual genius as the creative force in history is characteristic of the primitive stages of human consciousness”.

One may add here that it is also fairly integral to the early stages of nation-building. Since the aim of historical pedagogy is considered the socialisation of the individual into a sense of duty towards his country and State, there is often a powerful inducement to keep the complexities out and confine the narrative to a set of easily digestible categories. For the Congress, which was for long the custodian of official nationalism in India, the enterprise of writing history has, since independence, been dominated by the need to project Gandhi and Nehru as the good and Jinnah as the bad. The Congress in this narrative, stood for unity and for all the people of India. Jinnah stood for partition since he could never expand his horizons beyond the political interests of a narrow Muslim elite.

On the other side of the border, the reverse tendency is evident, with Mohammad Ali Jinnah occupying a lone position in the nationalist pantheon, for bravely fulfilling the historical destiny of bringing the Pakistani state into being against the obstruction and worse of the Congress.

Another version of this morality tale has gained a degree of prominence in recent years, with the BJP and its confederates succeeding, during their six years in authority, in introducing V.D. Savarkar into the Indian nationalist pantheon. Jinnah is still honoured in this narrative with the title of prime villain. But the assessment of both Gandhi and Nehru is deeply qualified. Far from being firm in their commitment to unity, they are rendered as rather weak and effete in facing down Jinnah’s provocative tactics, conceding the case for partition when unity of the sacred topography of India was far from being a lost cause. The place of honour in this rendition goes to Sardar Patel among the Congress leaders and of course, Savarkar and all the other individuals who were instrumental in crafting the political discourse of Hindutva.

It is this comfortably settled consensus within the Hindutva vision of nationalism that has been rudely disrupted by BJP president L.K. Advani’s Pakistan yatra and his effusive words of praise for Jinnah. This was a radical upending of all the practised verities of his ideological family, a rude shock to those who had cut their milk teeth in politics with incantations about the basic villainy of Jinnah and the community he claimed to speak for. The shock waves took days to abate, and then only after Advani had offered up his head as a sacrificial offering. He remained insistent though, that he was eager to join the debate his remarks had occasioned and carry it through to its logical conclusions.

The BJP would not countenance any deviation from its basic theology. In its resolution declining Advani’s resignation and sanctioning his continuance in office, it clearly signalled – after anodyne references to the great accomplishments of Advani’s visit to Pakistan – that it still holds the “two-nation” theory in utter repugnance. This was in the perception of many with a sense of historical authenticity, a spectacular own goal by the Hindutva parivar.

As President of the Hindu Mahasabha, Savarkar had the following wisdom to impart to his flock at its annual conference in 1937: “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary, there are two nations, in the main, the Hindus and the Muslims”. It bears recalling that this occurs a clear three years before the All India Muslim League, under Jinnah’s leadership, adopts the Pakistan resolution, setting the two religious communities seemingly irrevocably on the path towards partition.

Contemptuous of ritualism, Savarkar believed nonetheless that allegiance to the values of Hindu civilisation alone could ensure that the Indian nation state then in the process of creation, would be a viable and stable entity. For those who failed to meld their identities within the notion of Hindutva that he constructed, the nation could offer few rights and little solace. And with all that, the Savarkar school of thought could still claim with little seeming contradiction, that it was unshakably committed to the territorial unity of the Indian sub-continent – “Akhand Bharat” as it continues to be referred in Hindutva discourse. This was a formula for territorial unity without cultural accommodation or appreciation, for the swamping of diverse identities in a homogenising wave, for the extinction of cultures that resisted the onward march of Hindutva. To the degree that Savarkar and his disciples stood for cultural nationalism and territorial integrity, they also stood for totalitarianism rather than democracy.

It was this rather uninviting prospect that faced the Muslim leadership as they sought a viable platform to coordinate nationalist activities on a non-sectarian and secular basis. This does not mean that the effort was completely futile. In 1916 for instance, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who had forged his entire nationalist vision on the real and imagined glories of ancient Hinduism, led his followers back into the Congress after over a decade of alienation and recrimination. He had just earned discharge in a case of sedition in Bombay, in which his defence was led by a prominent city lawyer named Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In the course of the 1916 session of the Congress, Tilak and Jinnah concluded what came to be known as the Lucknow Pact, which formalised a system of separate but roughly equal representation for the two major religious communities of British India in the constitutional order.

Retrospectively, it would appear that the principle of separate electorates was the first strain of the virus of separate nationhood. In the circumstances then prevailing though, separate electorates were a pragmatic response to the limitations imposed on Muslim representation by the franchise rules of colonial India. The high property and educational thresholds for the right to vote, it is generally agreed, tended to exclude Muslims in higher proportion. And while a universal franchise would obviously have been the right way to go from a popular democratic perspective, few of the nationalist formations then in the fray had much appetite for the mass politics this would involve.

Defending the Lucknow pact against the religious chauvinists, Tilak reminded them that unity was the paramount requirement of the times: “When we have to fight against a third party – it is a very important thing that we stand on this platform united, united in race, united in religion, united as regards all different shades of political creed”. In the years that followed, Tilak established himself as a serious champion of an inclusive nationalism, with an appeal that reached across communal, linguistic and caste barriers. He campaigned vigorously for the representation of all communities, castes and linguistic groups in the constitutional scheme then being negotiated. His close political ally, Jinnah, who had made a most effective legal defence on his behalf just a few years before, also had a vision that was no less inclusive.

Testifying before the Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament in 1919, Jinnah was asked about the perspective he brought to his deposition. He was, he said, unequivocally, speaking from the point of view of India. Did that mean that he spoke as an Indian nationalist? It did. If that indeed was his perspective, did it imply that he envisioned an early end to the system of separate electorates? Jinnah was hopeful, though perhaps not as definitive in his response: “I think so”. Did that mean, he was asked, that he wished to do away with the distinction between Hindu and Muslim in political life. Here the response was unambiguous: “Yes, nothing would please me more than when that day comes”.

Tilak did not live to see it, but there was a substantive effort by Jinnah, with the tentative backing of the Muslim League, to do away with the system of separate electorates in 1927. The proposals inherent in Jinnah’s so-called “Delhi declaration” were accepted by a committee of the “All Parties Conferences” headed by Motilal Nehru, which went on to draft a constitution for independent India, based on participative democracy and the universal franchise. The initiative was subverted and destroyed in the main by Hindu Mahasabha elements that had by then manoeuvred themselves into a position of influence within the Congress.

The directions that Jinnah wandered into after that failure, still remain to be explored in an objective historical frame, free of chauvinist intrusions. But there is little question that the progenitors of Hindutva politics – V.D. Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar, and others – whatever their other differences, were convinced that there could be no reconciliation between Hindu and Muslim in India. And these were clearly stated public postures well before Mohammad Iqbal – the author of the most stirring nationalist anthem written in colonial times, which celebrated the unity of a Hindustan that provided equal opportunities for both Hindu and Muslim – began talking rather vaguely of a Muslim homeland within the Indian nation. And as most objective accounts would testify, well after the Pakistan resolution of 1940, Jinnah in most of his political speeches, still talked of “India” as a nation that would be preserved as a unified political entity. He was distressed at the outcome of the freedom struggle, and disdainful of the “moth-eaten” nation he had brought into being -- sundered as it was from the main sources of its cultural inspiration in what were known as the “United Provinces” of British India. His dream had turned to dust; but he died well before the nation he brought into existence turned its back irrevocably on the liberal politics that he valued most deeply.

Advani’s long delayed effort to understand history not as a morality tale but as an ongoing story with no pre-determined outcomes, could be occasioned by a desire in the evening of his career to free himself from the fetters that he has bound himself in all his political life. On the other hand, it could be a concession to realpolitik, and to the need to broaden the appeal of his party beyond the constituency it has cultivated through the politics of communal provocation. Whatever his intent, he has brought a long overdue dose of reality to historical understanding. And he has perhaps, done serious damage to the notion that historical understanding is little else than a clear choice between good and evil.

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