Politics

Defending Jinnah With Half-Truths: The Dubious Logic Of Irfan Habib And His Ilk

Aakar Patel and Irfan Habib. (GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Jinnah may have helped create Pakistan, but the idea he espoused as a route to power outlived him, causing endless pain for people in the subcontinent.

    Irfan Habib and Aakar Patel need to acknowledge this, not to speak of the destructive power of Abrahamic universalism.

The issue of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s portrait at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has brought out the usual defence of the man: that he was secular before the Pakistan resolution was adopted in 1940, that even after 1947 he remained secular (as seemed to be the case in his speech to the Pakistan constituent assembly), that his demand for separate electorates for Muslims was correct, and that India has lost its “sense of balance when it comes to Muslim rights”.

The last quote is from an article by the executive director of Amnesty India, Aakar Patel, and it is worth raising for the simple reason that Amnesty is about protecting “human rights”, and not the rights of any community in particular. One has never come across Amnesty fighting for Hindu rights or Buddhist rights anywhere, so one wonders how this sentence is in consonance with the organisation’s aims. Muslims do not have rights separate from fundamental human rights in India or elsewhere. That is what needs stressing.

At the outset, let us be clear: one should not bother if the AMU students’ union wants to hang Jinnah’s portrait on its premises; nor should one be offended if some of the positive aspects of Jinnah are highlighted in some quarters. Most humans are many sided, and so some nuance in judging them is all right.

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But this cannot be a licence to indulge in half-truths, lies, and monkey-balancing.

So, let’s start with Aakar Patel’s article, titled “Why we should not hate Jinnah for the partition of India.” It is, indeed, fair to say that Jinnah was not the sole cause of Partition; in fact, Jinnah was a late convert to the idea of an Islamist Pakistan; poet Allama Iqbal got there earlier. Partition happens first in the mind and then in reality; and the partitioning of the Indian Muslim’s mind began in India – in the United Provinces, in pre-1947 India. Islam demands a black-and-white separation of believers and non-believers, and the Prophet too wanted Muslims to separate themselves from the rest after he fled Mecca for Medina. It is little surprise that this kind of mental partitioning makes all Muslims living as minorities anywhere think they must separate themselves from the rest to retain their identity.

It was this partitioning of the Muslim mind, a partitioning that goes back to the founding of the faith, that is the primary cause of the partitioning of India in 1947. Jinnah merely used this predisposition of the average Muslim to think separation to further his own political prospects as leader of all Muslims, which ultimately resulted in Pakistan.

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So, it is a bit rich for Patel to claim that “Partition happened not because India’s Muslims wanted Mother India cut up but because the Hindus (led by Congress – what a quaint thing to imagine this in 2018) could not come to an arrangement for power sharing with Muslims, led by Jinnah”.

In short, Patel is blaming Hindus more for Partition. It is one thing to say that Jinnah wasn’t the sole cause, quite another to shove the blame onto Hindus, or to claim that Indian Muslims didn’t want Mother India cut up. Patel should read Venkat Dhulipala’s book, Creating a New Medina, to disabuse himself of the idea that Indian Muslims didn’t want separation. They were the most vociferous supporters of Jinnah, and the reason they were losers in Partition was an accident of geography: they were in a minority in the United Provinces, and they were too many of them to physically opt for Pakistan. Only the upper classes left for Pakistan.

Aakar Patel then goes on to say: “if not Jinnah then someone else will raise it again in our time, I assure you. Today someone who speaks unemotionally and with pure reason and balance (Asaduddin Owaisi) is seen as some sort of communal whack job. We have lost our sense of balance when it comes to Muslim rights.”

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The first sentence is right, and politicians like Owaisi certainly cannot be faulted for seeking to become sole spokespersons of Muslims in India. But they are essentially following in Jinnah’s footsteps – leading to a partitioning of Muslim minds from India. And Patel is clearly wrong in dubbing the Owaisis as some kind of “balanced” Muslim nationalists; he should listen to Akbaruddin Owaisi’s blood-curdling rants against Hindus, and Asaduddin’s own negative positions on the Ahmaddiyas, against Jews in general, and the attack by party activists on Taslima Nasreen some years ago.

The Owaisis of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) are not a benign force seeking only the legitimate rights of Muslims. They are communal misogynists through and through, as evidenced by their open opposition to the ban on instant triple talaq.

Patel also rants against the Gandhi-Ambedkar pact (the Poona Pact of 1932) which gave the Scheduled Castes reserved seats without separate electorates. Patel has this to say: “Gandhi was able to blackmail Ambedkar into giving up separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes. Dalits are all agreed today that this was a fatal error that has ensured their perpetual political marginalisation in our prejudiced and close-minded society. Jinnah accepted the nature of tribal voting in the subcontinent and stuck to his guns. If Hindus wanted a united India they would have to accommodate Muslims politically. We chose not to then and we have not now as the numbers starkly reveal”.

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Without in any way pretending that the SC/STs have got their fair share of power, or that Gandhi did indeed coerce Ambedkar to sign the pact by launching a fast unto death on the issue, one can hardly claim that reservations and other forms of preferential treatment have not helped the rise of a new Dalit middle class over the last few decades. If today Dalits cannot bargain on a national scale as one group, it is not because they lack the requisite number of MPs, but because they themselves are divided – the Dalit in UP is not linked organically to the Dalit in Tamil Nadu; even in UP, the Jatavs do not see eye-to-eye with other Dalit castes in the state; and Mayawati has not been able to find traction for a pan-Indian Dalit party despite trying hard. One wonders if separate Dalit electorates would have prevented various Dalit castes from doing tactical alliances with non-Dalit parties to get legislation done. Separate electorates with each one having a veto power over the rest would have been a cause of stagnation and legislative logjam.

The Congress leaders of pre-independence India preferred separation to separate electorates within India since it would have resulted in one religious group having a permanent veto on national decisions. One wonders if this is what Aakar Patel wants – complete political paralysis. If various castes, working without separate electorates, can somehow create coalitions to further their interests, one wonders why Dalits and Muslims can’t do the same without separate electorates. Also, if Muslims groups had a veto and power was concentrated in one person, would this not have resulted in Hindus too seeking the same veto, and preventing progress in social laws?

Maulana Azad, in his book India Wins Freedom, says that Patel and Nehru opted for Partition partly because Liaquat Ali, as finance minister in the interim government, blocked all their proposals. The Congress leaders saw no way of working constructively with the Muslim League in India, not least because it would also have meant that Congress could only represent Hindus in future.

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There is nothing even today to prevent Muslim parties from emerging and collectively seeking to bargain with the other political parties to secure their rights. Separate electorates would only have made the polarisation on religious lines complete and irreparable.

Jinnah wasn’t evil, but his ideas were. They led inevitably to a theocratic state, and permanent enmity with post-partition India.

Now, let us consider Irfan Habib’s defence of Jinnah, in an interview to The Times of India.

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He begins by pointing out that Jinnah was defence counsel for Bal Gangadhar Tilak in a sedition case, and then brings in M S Golwalkar’s views on Muslims in India. Habib said: “it surprises me that the press never asks what Modi’s ideological ancestors like M S Golwalkar did for the nation except divide it. Golwalkar said Muslims can’t be citizens of this country. He praised Hitler for suppressing the Jews. Modi may go to Israel but Golwalkar is on record praising Hitler’s treatment of Jews. These things were never brought out by the media while covering Modi’s visit to Israel.”

This is both monkey-balancing and whataboutery rolled into one.

That Jinnah defended Tilak is part of history, but that does not excuse his behaviour once he decided that he would have India divided or India destroyed. This kind of argument is no different from saying that Tipu Sultan was a nationalist because even though he acted like a bigot in his violent campaigns in Kerala and against the Kodavas, murdering and converting Hindus by the sword, he also gave donations to some Hindu temples. Does one good act absolve one of responsibility for other, more heinous ones?

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It is a pity that interviewers don’t know how to ask follow-up questions, so when Habib dragged in Golwalkar, there was no counter. There is no doubt that Golwalkar’s admiration for Hitler from a distance was wrong, and his proposed treatment of Muslims in India was unacceptable.

But one has to separate Golwalkar’s foolish fantasies on dominating Muslims in India, and his long-distance love for Hitler from what his organisation – the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) – now actually espouses. All the RSS seeks is for Muslims to acknowledge their Hindu ancestry and their indelible links with Hindu civilisation.

While this acknowledgement cannot be forced, Golwalkar’s ideas are nowhere in the picture now even with the RSS.

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On the other hand, the interviewer failed to point out the obvious source of Golwalkar’s advocacy of second-class treatment for Muslims. It is not dissimilar to how Muslims themselves treat non-Muslims in a Muslim-majority state. Where Sharia is in operation, the Quran prescribes secondary status for Dhimmis – they get protected, but have to pay jiziya and must “feel themselves subdued” and “humbled” (sura 9:29).

The interviewer also didn’t take Habib up on his totalitarian views. When asked about the relevance of Marxist ideas today, Habib had this to say: “people are relevant even after they’re gone. Plato and Aristotle are still relevant. So is Marx in many of his economic analyses. Whatever be the politics, the point is, any ideology that doesn’t think of humanity as a whole has little right to be heard. If it is confined only to one country, one community, one kind of people, then it is hardly an ideology worth following. And that also goes for the Hindutva types, Muslim communalism and the Trump type of Christianity.” (Italics mine)

Consider how illiberal this is. If your ideas are not applicable to the whole of humanity, you cannot even be heard? Is this democratic? If an idea is confined to “one country, one community, and one kind of people” it is not worth following. Should we take this to mean that Hinduism, which roughly fits the description, is not worth following?

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Now consider where universalist ideas that extend to all of mankind have led us. Marxism led to mass murders in Russia and China, among other places. Christianity massacred Hellenism and has destroyed local cultures in Africa and Asia. And Wahhabi Islam it busy destroying its own heritage in the holiest places of Saudi Arabia, leave alone the death and destruction it has caused in the wake of its triumphal march across much of Asia and Africa (read here and here).

The problem is not in Habib’s critique of extremists in any religion, but his pretence that universalist ideologies are key to progress. They have caused nothing but destruction, and Abrahamic universalism, including it logical non-theological successor, Marxism, has caused more grief than joy in the world.

Jinnah may have helped create Pakistan, but the idea he espoused as a route to power outlived him, causing endless pain for people in the sub-continent. Habib and Patel need to acknowledge this, not to speak of the destructive power of Abrahamic universalism.

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