New Delhi: Was Muhammad Ali Jinnah a creation of the British to counter Mahatma Gandhi? Had the British reconciled themselves to the fact as far back as 1911 that they would, in the not too distant future, have to leave and hence shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi and constructed a variety of edifices to leave their permanent stamp on India?
Was Partition pre-ordained because of a feeling in Whitehall that had this not happened, there would have been an economic block stretching all the way from Burma, through India, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq and ending on the edge of what is now the Middle East. This would have rivalled anything that Europe and the rest of the Western world had to offer – even the modern day European Union.
Thus, were the various three-way negotiations (for want of better wording) carried out during the freedom movement between the British, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress and Muhammad Ali Jinnah a mere charade because the ultimate decision had been pre-decided?
Had the denouement not been delivered August 15, 1947 but allowed to linger, is it possible that Partition would not have happened? Jinnah died September 11, 1948 and with him might have died the idea of Pakistan, given the manner in which it driven by the man who became the Quaid-e-Azam of the new nation.
Given the machinations of the British, why did India join the Commonwealth and why does it continue to be a member?
Reading between the lines, these are some of the intriguing questions raised by a new book, ‘Gandhi’s Hinduism – The Struggle Against Jinnah’s Islam’ (Bloomsbury/pp 454/Rs 699) painstakingly researched by distinguished writer and Member of Parliament M.J. Akbar and which throws new light on the tumultuous years in the first half of the 20th century.
Gandhi, a devout Hindu, believed faith could nurture the civilisational harmony of India, a land where every religion had flourished. Jinnah, a political Muslim rather than a practicing believer, was determined to carve up a syncretic subcontinent in the name of Islam.
His confidence came from a wartime deal with Britain, termed the August Offer of 1940 promising the expansion of the Viceroy’s Executive Council to include more Indians, the establishment of an advisory war council, giving full weight to minority opinion, and the recognition of the Indians’ right to frame their own constitution (after the end of the war).
The Congress rejected this outright while Jinnah pounced on it as it give a clear assurance that a separate Pakistan would be established. From then on, there was no looking back for the next seven years as the Raj mercilessly laid out its plans to partition India.
Three factors played a major role in this. On the one hand was the one-man army of Jinnah, who constantly declared: “I am the Muslim League and you will deal with only me.”
The second was Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘historic blunder’ of July 10, 1946 when he rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan that had previously been approved by the All India Congress Committee.
“Then followed the decision that vitiated the political atmosphere beyond all hope of resolution,” Akbar writes.
Jinnah declared 19 days later that “the time has come for the Muslim nation to resort to Direct Action to achieve Pakistan to assert their just rights, to vindicate their honour and to get rid of the present British slavery and the contemplated future Caste-Hindu domination”.
But, as Akbar writes, the Direct Action, which was to begin August 16, 1946, a Friday, ;was not aimed at the British who had enslaved Indians. It had only one target: Hindus;.
The consequences of Direct Action are all too well known to bear repetition. “An infection spawned by the Muslim League on 29 July, as a consequence of a press conference on 10 July, had become viral and septic,” Akbar writes.
“No one foresaw the consequences of Nehru’s colossal blunder more clearly than his friend, Maulana Azad,” the book says and goes on to quote his own words: “I have nevertheless to say with regret that this was not the first time he did immense harm to the national cause. He had committed an almost equal blunder in 1937 when the first elections were held under the Government of India Act 1935. In these elections, the Muslim League had suffered a great setback throughout the country except in Bombay and UP [and Nehru had sabotaged a potential Congress-League coalition in UP].”
“The League revived from UP. The mistake made in 1937 was bad enough; the one in 1946 changed the destiny of modern India,” Akbar writes.
The third rather lesser known fact is the differences between Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, that the Mahatma himself commented on and which pushed him to the sidelines in the run-up to Partition.
Noting that Gandhi had begun his ‘epic marathon’ in 1919, the book says that by 1946, when the end game had begun, the Mahatma ‘was no longer the ‘dictator’ he had been in 1919. He would discover that he had been finessed out of hard decisions that would leave his life’s work broken’.
“Gandhi and his heir had differed before, often at a crossroads on the long journey to freedom: over Dominion status in the 1929 Congress resolution; over the Gandhi-Irwin pact in 1931; over Gandhi’s fast against separate electorates for Dalits in 1932; over formation of ministries after the 1937 elections; and over the timing of the Quit India movement in 1942. The divergence over partition was by far the most serious, with indelible consequences,” Akbar writes.
Gandhi himself remarked on this in a letter he wrote to Nehru June 7, 1947: “The oftener we meet, the more convinced I am becoming that the gulf between us in the thought world is deeper than I had feared.”
It was the perfect recipe for disaster – and the end of Gandhi’s dream of a united India.
A couple of days ago, I had asked parliamentarian Jairam Ramesh at a reading of his book on former Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon whether the true story of the Indian freedom movement had been written.
“In bits and pieces…not in its entirety,” he replied.
Akbar’s book is among the first in its genre. It will certainly make people think, if not rethink. Akbar has presented the events as they panned out on the ground. Now, draw your own conclusions.