Book Review: Ishtiaq Ahmed's "Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History" attempts to understand Partition

Print edition : June 18, 2021
This book is not a biography or even an account of what M.A. Jinnah the politician did or did not do. It is an attempt at historical reasoning by a political scientist.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah has been praised and dispraised for the partition of India. History as a record of what happened is rather rare. Many books, popularly accepted as history, have been written to suit the ideology or other interests of the writers in question, or of their masters. In short, there is a distressing shortage of genuine history written by professional historians. History is an endangered discipline.

In Pakistan, there have been at least two schools of thought. One celebrates Jinnah as the creator of Pakistan. At times some authors even give the impression that it was creation ex nihilo. The other school argues that Jinnah was using the Pakistan card as a bargaining chip, and it was Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who rejected Jinnah’s legitimate demand for a fair share of political power, who should be held responsible for the partition of India and the concomitant horrors.

Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed, born in Lahore six years and 11 months after the Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution of March 1940, and currently Professor Emeritus of political science at Stockholm University, has done deep research and used commendable historical reasoning in this book that will attract attention, and not only in the subcontinent.

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s thesis can be summed up in a quotation from Jinnah on the back cover of the book: “If the Congress wants to achieve independence, there is no other way of doing it except by the two communities agreeing to live as separate entities. ‘Pakistan’ is the only way to India’s freedom.”

The reader might be tempted to do a historical parsing of the sentence:

It is the Congress that wants independence. Jinnah does not say that he wants the British to leave.

Jinnah wants to avail of the keenness of the Congress to see the British leave as early as possible to promote his agenda of partition.

It was the struggle for Indian independence waged by the Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi that was the primary cause of the departure of the British.

Also read: Jinnah’s heirs

It follows that the struggle waged by the Congress led to the independence of undivided India and, therefore, of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Since Pakistan split in 1971, it follows that the two-nation theory of Jinnah stands rejected by history.

The book does bring out the above lessons from historical parsing in full measure, and hence it is a major contribution to contemporary history.

Genesis of the book

The story of the genesis of this book, as told by the author, is fascinating. He has had a long association with the well-known bookshop BahriSons in Delhi’s Khan Market. The owners are originally from Pakistan. During a recent visit—the author does not tell us the year—he was asked by Anuj Bahri and his wife, Aanchal Malhotra, herself a scholar on Partition, to write a book on a subject of intense interest to him.

The author chose Jinnah, and Anuj and Aanchal arranged for a publication contract with Penguin Random House India. Obviously, human friendships have prevailed over the toxic ideology behind Partition.

Unlike other works on Jinnah, “which focus on high politics and the clash of individuals with the British, we place Jinnah in the thick web of ethnocultural, religious, ideological, economic and security linkages, within which the game of politics was played out”.

The chapters are organised with commendable sense of history. For example, Chapter 1 is titled “Jinnah’s Role in History: A Scheme of Analysis”.

The author has conclusively demolished the fashionable thesis, or more accurately, impression, held in Pakistan, partly based on the historian Ayesha Jalal’s work, that Jinnah was not responsible for Partition. Jalal has argued that Jinnah sought a fair power-sharing arrangement with the Congress whose rejection of his demand resulted in Partition. In short, the Congress is responsible for Partition.

Ishtiaq Ahmed has also demolished another popular view that the British had decided during the Second World War to leave India after the war ended. He points out that in 1943, when Lord Wavell became viceroy, the expectation was that British rule would last at least another 30 years.

This book is not a biography or even a comprehensive account of what Jinnah the politician did or did not do. The book is an attempt at historical reasoning by a political scientist.

Themes of abiding interest

The author discusses themes of abiding interest. For example, the role of the individual in history and of ideas and the ideological biases of the ideas (pages 5 to 22) are themes that will be of absorbing interest to readers. Starting with Thomas Carlyle, who highlighted the roles of Prophet Mohammad, Oliver Cromwell, and Napoleon, the reader is taken to Machiavelli’s The Prince, and to Karl Marx.

In his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx says: “Men make their history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”

Core questions

After bringing in Georgi Plekhanov, the author of the book The Role of the Individual in History, Ishtiaq Ahmed lists the core questions he would be addressing:

If the Indian National Congress had categorically rejected the partition of India, would Jinnah have still been able to create Pakistan?

Equally, if the British had been opposed to the partition, would Jinnah have succeeded?

Even more crucially, had both the Congress and the British joined forces against the demand for Pakistan, did Jinnah stand any chance of getting Pakistan?

Also read: Remembering Partition

The author’s ability to think contra-factually will be admired by the reader who might have expected him to raise one more question:

After Jinnah called for Direct Action in August 1946, resulting in the Great Calcutta Killing with a grim toll of 4,400 dead, 16,000 injured, and 100,000 homeless, did the Congress have any choice but to agree reluctantly to partition as Jinnah’s clear message was that unless he got Pakistan, he would set fire to India?

Ishtiaq Ahmed divides Jinnah’s political life into four stages: first as an Indian nationalist; then as a Muslim communitarian; next as a Muslim nationalist; and finally, as the founder of Pakistan. “Each stage is historically contextualised and politically theorised.”

A word about methodology. Ishtiaq Ahmed has industriously studied Jinnah’s speeches and writings. He has also researched exhaustively the literature available. The bibliography runs into 27 pages.

Birth of the Muslim League

The author tells us how the British encouraged the formation of the Muslim League. In July 1906, Secretary of State for India Lord Morley announced plans to introduce constitutional reforms in India. Some Muslim leaders, fearing domination by Hindus, contacted Morley through A.J. Archbold, principal of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh. The Muslim leaders argued that India was not a homogeneous nation and that Muslims were a distinct community. “Morley conveyed his approval of such a plea and thus a meeting was arranged for a Muslim delegation to wait upon Viceroy Minto to present their prayers to him.”

The meeting occurred on October 1, 1906. Thus arose separate electorates, the seed of Pakistan, contained in the 1909 Morley-Minto Reforms.

British role

The above account is not correct. For the sake of younger readers, it is necessary to point out that the role of the British is much more significant. In fact, Minto, who followed George Curzon whose partition of Bengal imparted much momentum to the national movement led by the Congress, acted as the midwife, if not the mother and father, for the birth of the League. He had initially thought of mobilising the princes against the Congress, but gave it up and hit on the idea of mobilising Muslims against the Congress.

Let us go back to the narration of Ishtiaq Ahmed. Archbold got in touch with Dunlop Smith, Minto’s Private Secretary. Archbold wrote down the memorandum, got it vetted by Smith, who must have shown it to Minto. The Muslim leaders collected signatures on that memorandum. They were looking for a prestigious personality to lead the delegation, and zeroed in on Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan, 29. But, they could not locate him. The British obligingly located him in Aden, and the Royal Navy brought him to India. He was probably on his way to England.

Countess Minto wrote in her diary: “A work of statesmanship that will affect India and Indian history for many a long year…. -It is nothing less than the pulling back of sixty-two millions of people from joining the ranks of the seditious opposition.”

Ishtiaq Ahmed speaks of “the Congress’s blunders and Jinnah’s embrace of communalism” (page 705). The context is the formation of the provincial government in the United Provinces following the 1937 election in which the Congress got a clear majority. The League wanted a coalition government. Nehru asked the League to dissolve itself and merge with the Congress.

With or without the advantage of hindsight, we can say that Nehru’s demand was not realistic. However, any conclusion that Jinnah would not have become an advocate of the partition of India had Nehru behaved differently is rather far-fetched.

We need to figure out why Jinnah embraced the two-nation theory. The short answer is that with Gandhi’s unstoppable rise in the Indian political firmament, and his declaration that Nehru was his “political heir”, Jinnah reckoned that he stood no chance of becoming Prime Minister. Ergo, he decided to become the ruler of a part of India. Ishtiaq Ahmed does not say this in so many words, but the reader does get enough evidence to reach that conclusion.

Also read: Ambedkar, Gandhi & Jinnah

The author has correctly pointed out that without British support Jinnah would not have succeeded in dividing India. Once again, the reviewer is compelled to add a few facts. Winston Churchill was in cahoots with Jinnah. In order to keep his correspondence with Jinnah secret, Churchill asked him to send his letters addressed to Elizabeth Gilliat. She was Churchill’s confidential secretary.

On September 4, 1939, after the Second World War broke out, Jinnah met Viceroy Linlithgow and urged him to get rid of the Congress governments in the provinces. “They will never stand by you,” Jinnah told him. He then came to the crux of his demand: Muslim areas should be separated from “Hindu India” and run by Muslims in collaboration with the British. Why did Jinnah speak with such confidence? We do not get a full explanation from the author.

Source of Jinnah’s confidence

The explanation is that months before the war, Jinnah’s aide Khaliq-uz-Zaman had met Secretary of State Zetland and put across the idea of partition. Zetland showed keen interest, and his interlocutor made it clear that the League would be keen to seek military protection from the United Kingdom.

Eleven days before he gave his call for partition at the 1940 Lahore conference, Jinnah took Linlithgow into confidence and told him that the future Pakistan depended on British protection. Even more to the point, Jinnah said that he would support a longer British presence.

On August 14, 1940, His Majesty’s Government told the House of Commons that it “could not contemplate transfer of their present responsibilities for the peace and welfare of India to any system of government whose authority is directly denied by large and powerful elements in India’s national life”. Nor could it be a party to the “coercion of such elements into submission to such a government”. (Emphasis added.)

In retrospect, it is clear that Jinnah had only to insist on partition. The Cripps Commission (1942) and the Shimla Talks (1945) were theatrical pieces staged by the departing imperial power, whether under Churchill or Clement Attlee, to project to the world that it had no option but to divide and quit as Indians were fighting among themselves.

Ishtiaq Ahmed has drawn attention to an important fact. Jinnah argued that the provinces of Punjab and Bengal should be included in Pakistan as Muslims were in majority. The Congress insisted that only the parts of the provinces where the Muslims were in a majority should go to Pakistan. The Congress, to Jinnah’s discomfiture, was taking the two-nation theory to its logical conclusion by delivering him a “moth-eaten” Pakistan. His claim for a corridor was rejected firmly.

Much ink has been spilled over the question as to what type of nation Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s answer, with elaborate reasoning, is that Jinnah deliberately refrained from spelling out what he wanted in order to get support from as many as possible. Even if he had wanted a secular Pakistan, Ishtiaq Ahmed points out, leaders who capture power by championing an ideology cannot shed it afterwards.

As she finishes the book, the reader might entertain the hope that the author will visit the Khan Market soon, and write his next book.

K.P. Fabian, former Ambassador of India, is Distinguished Fellow at Symbiosis University, Pune.

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