Posted by: Vikram | September 12, 2013

Jinnah’s lesson for India

Few words are abhorred more by the Indian mainstream than this statement by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, delivered during his presidential address to the Muslim League in 1940,

It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu friends fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism. They are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, litterateurs. They neither intermarry nor interdine together and, indeed, they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspect on life and of life are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, different heroes, and different episodes.

Although exaggerated, any dispassionate analyst will clearly see some truth in this statement. But such differences can be present between any two communities, even from the same religion. However what is eminently contestable is Jinnah’s conclusion,

To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built for the government of such a state.

Jinnah was wrong about this in 1940, and he remains wrong about it in 2013. Modern India, with all its communal problems and right-wing fanatics has not come anywhere close to final destruction. Indeed, the greatest security threat identified by the Indian Prime Minister is the Maoist rebellion, a secular, class-based struggle, not Hindu-Muslim conflict.

But we must recognize that this statement was not the basis of Jinnah’s politics with the Muslim League. The path towards Pakistan was not started on the idea of irreconcilable cultural differences between any two sets of people. Jinnah faced the issue of a Muslim minority in a Hindu majority country, and an active, extremist Hindu right wing. The Congress party, which claimed to speak for all Indians, had managed to keep this extremist section on the fringes. The stalwarts of the Indian Independence movement, Nehru, Patel, Tagore, were either dismissive of this extremist section or mildly indulgent of it. Ambedkar, scathing as he was on Hindu orthodoxy, was unsympathetic to Jinnah’s cause. Only Gandhi remained steadfast in his vision of Hindu-Muslim unity. But politics for the Mahatma was based in moral and ethical example, not the technical Constitutional arrangements sought by Jinnah.

So Jinnah did not utter those words out of a belief in everlasting Hindu-Muslim conflict. He had a political objective and was employing cultural items to bolster his case before his constituents. It was a strategy that would backfire disastrously in the years to come, but that is a separate matter.

Had the leaders of independent India not agreed to linguistic states, one would not have been surprised to see similar statements contrasting Tamils with other Indians. Such sentiments also come up in the Kashmir and North-Eastern debates, where cultural, and even physiological differences are used to buttress what really are political disputes. On account of its tremendous diversity, and its highly centralized government, the Indian Union will continue to face such issues. Today, ‘national’ parties gather less than 50 % of the votes at the polls. The Delhi-Bombay-Bangalore crowd laments this ‘regionalism’ and equates it with ‘corruption’ and ‘misgovernance’. However, whatever one’s feelings towards Jinnah, we can take lessons from his role during the final stages of the freedom struggle. India’s success depends on due recognition of federal issues and flexibility in handling them; democracy does not end with one-person, one-vote.

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