Monday, August 24, 2009

Jaswant on Jinnah -- III

The "controversy" over Jaswant Singh's book on Jinnah underscores that the contemporary consensus in South Asian historiography is certainly not insensible of the role played by the Congress in India's partition (indeed, Jaswant Singh is very much a latecomer to a view that has become received wisdom by now in university history departments). If anything, liberal and left-of-center scholars seem almost reflexively inclined to adopt the view that Jinnah was forced into accepting partition -- a denial of agency and a determinism I find implausible. More significantly, this (essentially puerile) debate on individual responsibility for partition shows that in some ways, South Asian historiography still hasn't grown up -- far too many still seem to be thinking in terms of heroes and villains (merely the identity of these is sought to be changed). More troublingly, the role played by the colonial power is often effaced in these discussions.

Nevertheless, Sugata Bose's recent piece in the Indian Express is among the better ones to have appeared in the wake of the Jaswant Singh controversy. While Bose -- a grand-nephew of the nationalist heroes Subhash and Sarad Chandra Bose -- implicitly seems to regard the partition of Bengal as more illegitimate/tragic than the partition of India (he takes the Congress to task for adding Bengal to the March 8, 1947 resolution calling for Punjab to be partitioned; but ignores that the alternative was a Pakistan that would have included an undivided Bengal, or, less plausibly, an independent Bengal; I do not pass judgment on this notion, but merely note that Bose's piece presents the issue divorced from its proper context), and, like many contemporary historians, implicitly approaches the question of the Muslim League's Pakistan movement as purely tactical, i.e. at the expense of adequate consideration of the movement's ideology; his lucid piece is worth reading. It is more balanced and thoughtful than most commentary on the issue over the last few days; significantly, by speaking of "the Congress" rather than simply of "Nehru", Bose de-personalizes the issue, while also underscoring what the Sangh Parivar would do anything to avoid admitting, namely, that to the extent this is a question of personal responsibility, and to the extent Nehru stands in the dock, the Sangh's idol Patel stands there with him. Whatever reservations I have about the piece or the tendency among Indian historians to demonstrate their willingness to adopt a critical stance vis-a-vis the mainstream nationalist historiographical inheritance by (unwittingly) adopting a relatively uncritical stance vis-a-vis the hitherto demonized "other" of the Muslim League and the Pakistan movement, Bose's core thesis -- that "[w]hile there may still be different points of view on the relative balance of forces that led to partition, and Jinnah is by no means blameless in this regard, the role of Congress majoritarianism in shaping the final outcome of August 1947 has been well accepted in the best historical scholarship" -- seems unexceptionable to me. To the extent this is new and controversial to the public at large, whatever my reservations about Jaswant Singh's book, it will have served a valuable purpose in presenting this idea to a wide audience.

Less convincing is Bose's claim that "[t]he partition of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal at Nehru and Patel’s behest, much like the partition of the province of Ulster in Ireland, permanently skewed subcontinental politics and left a poisoned post-colonial legacy." The claim is unfair, almost suggesting that the whole thing was the brainchild of Nehru and Patel; but also ignoring that sub-continental politics would have been just as "skewed" by a partition of India that did not partition these two provinces. That partition would likely have been less bloody (although, as the grotesque violence in un-partitioned provinces demonstrates, far too bloody nonetheless), but would still have "skewed" the sub-continent's politics, albeit differently. In particular, it is highly debatable whether Pakistan could have comfortably accomodated such a large number of minorities (a larger proportion than would have existed in India) as an ideological matter. Bose presumably has an independent Bengal in mind as a solution to the 1947 deadlock, and not one that was part of Pakistan, but given the geo-political implications of such "regionalism" for both of the new nation-states, it is not surprising neither leadership was thrilled about the idea. [Indeed, the logic of Jinnah as the "sole spokesman" for India's Muslims, as Ayesha Jalal's book of the same name persuasively shows animated Jinnah's approach in the last decade of his life, should have militated against any such division].

The above notwithstanding, there can be no quarreling with Bose's conclusion:
I am not in agreement with those who say that the parties are obsessed with a non-issue, 62 years out of date. The issue which revisiting partition brings to the fore is full of contemporary relevance. It is the search for a substantive rather than procedural democracy that protects citizens from majoritarian arrogance and ensures justice in a subcontinent where people have multiple identities.

...multiple identities that the 1947 successor states have, in their own ways and to different degrees, not been able to adequately acknowledge. Sixty-two years after the tryst with destiny, that pledge is yet to be redeemed.

[Previous post HERE].


Zero said...

A very enlightening series of posts, Qalandar. Thanks!

omar ali said...

I agree, great posts. I think one positive (but underappreciated) element of this "controversy" is the fact that it has allowed the words "blame" and "partition" to fit together in Pakistan. If Jaswant Singh is right, then Jinnah is not the sole villain, but the fact that villainy occurred has been accepted at least subconsciously!
I think Jinnah was more responsible than Nehru, but the disaster has many parents, from Islamic fanaticism to Hindu fanaticism to British divide and rule policies to the rise of modern identity politics. By 1946, the genie of Muslim separatism (and its subtext of "islam is the solution") was out of the bottle (Pakistan ka matlab kya, la illa ha illalah; my father says he and his teenage brothers were going around the street shouting this day and night while my grandfather was a committed congressite and follower of Gandhi and Azad and totally opposed to partition) and I doubt if Jinnah could have stopped it even if congress had agreed to some supposed safeguards of "Muslim rights". In addition, I think enough has not been said about Jinnah's lack of intellectual depth. The man may have been a brilliant lawyer (whatever that means) but all his actions and speeches (he wrote no books) make it clear that he had absolutely no conception of how Pakistan would reconcile its various contradictions like secularism and religious state, unity on the basis of religion but without any prior common historical or geographical identity, and so on. More to the point, he seems to have had no idea that he was missing something. He seemed to believe that Pakistan would simply be a continuation of British raj without the British (same AC and DC sahibs, same courts, same laws, same 1935 govt of india act modified slightly to make a constitution). One can argue that India did not end up with too many new ideas either (though I dont think that is correct) but then India had fewer basic contradictions to resolve (secular state, succeeds secular empire, same history and geography with princely states added in).