The Dog-Star Rages
Posted on 1-September-2009
The dog-star rages! nay 'tis past a doubt,
All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out;
Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land
Alexander Pope, An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot
On 18th August this year, towards the end of what in one tradition are called dog days, Jaswant Singh, one-time Minister of External Affairs and Minister of Finance of India, tried to launch himself as a historiographer with the publication of a book dealing with India's partition and independence in 1947 and with the role of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and of others in the period leading up to those events. Because of a self-imposed ban on reading any more books on these subjects as I find these more than dead horses over-flogged, I have not thought of reading this one either. But from what has been reported, it seems Jaswant Singh has tried to give greater praise to Mohammad Ali Jinnah for his qualities of heart and mind than is usual in India and to reapportion blame and responsibility for the partition of India among Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The book created a furore in India, inviting angry reactions from both Jaswant Singh's own political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP, which summarily expelled him, and from the Indian National Congress which claims descent from the political movement of the same name to which both Nehru and Patel belonged.
A politician of much higher status in the BJP than Jaswant Singh, Lal Krishna Advani, had, during a visit to Pakistan in June 2005, reminded audiences there and elsewhere of a 1948 speech in Pakistan's Constituent Assembly in which Jinnah had spelt out his vision of a secular Pakistani state in which people of all religious persuasions would be treated equally as citizens of the country. In doing so Advani had spoken approvingly of Jinnah's secular spirit. The message Advani sought to convey while speaking thus in the Pakistan of 2005 of the spirit of the founder of the state, was quite obvious and not all that inappropriate from the point of view of an Indian politician. And yet his remarks on Jinnah angered people in the BJP and in its progenitor organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, enough for him to be replaced as President of the BJP in December 2005. Jaswant Singh himself in an earlier book he had penned had claimed that there had been an American mole either in the Indian Council of Ministers or in another high position in Government of India in the early 1990's who had over the years leaked all secret deliberations within the Indian government to his American masters. When challenged to name the mole, Jaswant Singh tied himself in such knots of contradictions as to raise serious doubts about his respect for factual accuracy. Clearly, neither the subject matter of Jaswant Singh's new book, nor the author himself are strangers to controversy. No one should have been surprised at the reception given to this book, not even his publisher who will no doubt profit from the increased sales caused by the controversy.
Even the best devotee of Clio, ever so mindful of the veracity of his sources and constantly striving for objectivity, ends up writing history either from his personal perspective or from that of the national group to which he belongs or from that of the spirit of the times in which he lives and writes. Others feel the need to rewrite the history written by one or many people either because what is written is clearly biased or has a tenuous basis in facts, or because new facts compelling a revision have become known or because the spirit of the times have changed so much that the facts already known now look different. As with history, so with its cousin mythology. Tribes, nations and states create myths about their past, often claiming that the myths are in fact history. Some myths are harmless and do no more than create foolish delusions among the people who believe in them such as for example the claim that Sanskrit is the mother of all Indo-European languages or that the "Aryan people" originated in India from where they spread out to the rest of the world, carrying the torch of their "civilisation" or that the world was created within one week some four thousand years ago. Other myths are dangerous because they have resulted in violence or are likely to engender bloodshed and strife and they must be debunked: e.g. the "Aryan" race and their best and purest exemplars, the Teutonic races, were born to rule the world; the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya was built over an earlier Hindu temple which in its turn was built on the spot where the Hindu king Ramachandra, an incarnation of Vishnu, was born a few hundred thousand years ago; the land of Judea and Samaria was given to the Jewish people by God and therefore the State of Israel has an inalienable right over these territories; it is the sacred duty of all Muslims to strive to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate and unite the entire Islamic umma under it; the land of Bharat, stretching from Kandahar to the Brahmaputra valley and from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin was bequeathed to the people of India by King Bharata and that it is the sacred duty of all Hindus to work for the unity of that land; natural selection has endowed the white races of the world with superior intellectual capabilities or that the genes of a person determine his political choices. Thus the reinterpretation of history and debunking of myths are legitimate, even desirable intellectual activities except that there can be futile and purposeless reinterpretations of history just as debunking of all and any myths can be a pleasurable, time-absorbing intellectual activity but not always a profitable enterprise.
During the second quarter of the 20th century, the movement for the freedom of India from British colonial rule was dominated and led by the Indian National Congress. This was true also of the crucial decade between 1937 and 1947 when the demand first for a homeland for India's muslims and later for a separate state for them called Pakistan was formulated, refined and finally accepted. People who were leaders of the Indian National Congress before 1947 occupied positions of power and authority in the post-independence governments in India in the 1950's and the 1960's as leaders of the same Indian National Congress which by then had transformed itself into a political party. It was natural for the views of these people regarding the events preceding the partition and independence of India to be accepted most widely in India whether as history or as mythology. These people had seen the rise of Mohammed Ali Jinnah as the single most important leader of the Muslim League; they had witnessed how Jinnah had played on the sense of identity of Indian muslims as muslims and incited their phobias and feelings of insecurity; they had seen how Jinnah had striven and succeeded in getting the Muslim League accepted by the British as the only interlocutor for the interests of the muslims of India; these people had also engaged in negotiations with the British and the Muslim League over political arrangements for a united, independent India and had had first hand experience of Jinnah's obduracy which they came to regard as his negativism--some of the British who were involved in the negotiations over the Cabinet Mission proposals also came to view Jinnah as difficult and negative. The leaders of the Congress, suspicious of British machinations, also saw Jinnah as more interested in his own power and in promoting what he saw as the interests of the muslims of India than in independence from colonial rule. On the other side the Muslim League, pump primed to suspect the motives of the Indian National Congress came to rely on Jinnah as the most powerful voice of the muslims of India, so much so that the state of Pakistan had no difficulty in accepting him in 1947 and has no difficulty in accepting him now as the (only?) founder of that state. There is wide agreement both in India and in Pakistan, including among professional historians, about giving Mohammad Ali Jinnah the lion's share of credit for the partition of India. The BJP, emotionally wedded to the concept of Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) holds, as a corollary, an even more negative opinion of Jinnah than others.
Only Jaswant Singh can explain what prompted him to attempt a puffing up and lightening of the portrait of a dark, gaunt Jinnah fixed by history and mythology in the minds of educated Indians. No new facts--other than declassified British government documents about British manoeuvres between 1943 and 1946 aimed at detaching the north-west of the country from the rest of post-independence India--about the history of the decade of 1937-47 have emerged, nor is there any upsurge of sentiment and nostalgic feelings about the peaceful co-existence, even amity, between Hindus and Muslims in British India to warrant a revision of the widely accepted Indian view of Jinnah's single-minded pursuit of power by establishing himself as the strongest, unchallenged spokesman of the muslims of British India. If he thought that by apportioning some of the blame for partition to Nehru and Patel, he could embarrass the Indian National Congress and serve the interests of his own political party, he miscalculated badly. After his expulsion from the BJP he has ended up saying some really damaging things about its leadership. If instead he thought that by putting forward a kinder view of Jinnah than what most Indians who still remember, think of and discuss the partition and independence of India hold, he would encourage friendly feelings towards Pakitan, he was mistaken. The book does not even establish its author as a minor historian.
On the other hand, it has started discussions in Indian television and print media of long forgotten incidents of 1946-1947, evoking memories of massacres in the Punjab, in Kolkata in the wake of Jinnah's call for direct action, in Noakhali and elsewhere in British India. Many of these discussions, circling round counterfactual questions of "what if" have been vacuous, sterile, useless or all the three. Every two bit expert has had something to say, laying bare once again the obsession of India's chattering classes and other 'intellectuals' with Pakistan. There is nothing to suggest that the history of partition and independence is at the present moment in the forefront of the consciousness of ordinary, educated people in India or Pakistan. There are many other problems, worries, aspirations and dreams to occupy their minds and most would greet Jaswant Singh's book and the noise created by it with a bored yawn.
India and Pakistan emerged as independent states sixty years ago. The majority of the population of the two countries has no direct memory of those events. Very substantial numbers have not even heard second hand accounts. For them the existence of these two states living side by side in a state of uneasy peace or suppressed hostility is a given. Revisiting or revising the history of the years leading up to 1947 either opens up old wounds for those who are aware of them or makes those who have no memory of them aware of painful events of the past. Endless discussions of 1947 and all that accompanied by howsoever softened pictures of the happenings and of the main players cannot in any way serve the ends of peace and friendship between India and Pakistan. Peace and friendship between the two countries, when it comes is likely to come through one or a combination of many of the following or similar other developments: (a) India and Pakistan get economically and militarily exhausted and are no longer able to maintain the present state of armed unhostility between them, (b) people of the two countries start seeing the advantages of close economic and cultural cooperation and force their governments to change their ways, (c) the leaders of the two countries are stricken with unforeseen wisdom and start by formalising the current de facto partition of Jammu and Kashmir between them, (d) the leaders of the two countries are stricken with even greater wisdom and establish a web of overarching economic, commercial, scientific, technological and cultural relations within a supra-national structure like a South Asian Economic Union and then handle their bilateral relations under these overarching relations or , less seriously speaking, (e) the two countries fight a bloody, debilitating war and then find solutions to their bilateral problems imposed on them by an outside power. Jaswant Singh would have served the people of India and Pakistan better by presenting a vision--any coherent vision grounded in reality--of India and Pakistan living in peace and friendship with one another than he has done by travelling on the too often travelled road of the history of partition and independence of India and starting a futile, senseless debate on matters which are best forgotten. The only thing that this debate proves is that whatever contribution Mohammad Ali Jinnah might have made to the partition of India in 1947, his ghost certainly continues to stir up trouble at least in the leadership of the BJP, if not in the whole of India's political class.