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Why the Hindu right wing loves Mr Jinnah

Soutik Biswas | 08:35 UK time, Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Mohammed Ali JinnahWhy are some of India's Hindu nationalist leaders in love with Mohammed Ali Jinnah? The founder of Pakistan is a much reviled man in India, treated as a minor conspiratorial figure, and considered to be the architect of the bloody partition of the country on religious lines in 1947. Even the secular Congress party abhors him.

So when leaders of the Hindu right sing praises for Mr Jinnah, they stir up a hornet's nest. Four years ago, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), LK Advani, who led a successful Hindu revivalist movement in the early 1990s, praised the founder of Pakistan during a visit to the country. This raised the hackles of Hindu fellow travellers and invited scorn from the Congress party. The BJP leader even offered to put in his papers after the kerfuffle.

Now Jaswant Singh, a doughty senior party leader and former finance and external affairs minister, who counts people like Strobe Talbott as his friends and chess, golf and polo as his pursuits, has praised Mr Jinnah as a "self made man" who "created something out of nothing and single-handedly stood up against the might of the Congress party and against the British who didn't really like him." He has expanded on his thesis in his new, unimaginatively titled 669-page book Jinnah: India-Partition- Independence, which released this week.

What is surprising is Mr Singh's defence of Mr Jinnah in a TV interview in the run-up to the book release where he is even more effusive in his praise of the Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) as Mr Jinnah is remembered as in his homeland. He demolishes the popular Indian historiography of Mr Jinnah being a Hindu-basher and a born demagogue. "That certainly he was not," says the BJP leader. "His principal disagreement was with the Congress party. Repeatedly he says and he says this even in his last statements to the press and to the constituent Assembly of Pakistan."
 
Then Mr Singh goes on to say that India misunderstood Mr Jinnah "because we needed to create a demon". He insists the Congress party's majoritarian instincts were responsible for the federalist Mr Jinnah turning away from the idea of India and asking for a separate nation for Muslims.

Yet Mr Jinnah began his political career with the Congress and until after World War I remained India's best "ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity". Biographer Stanley Wolpert says he was as "as enigmatic as Gandhi, more powerful than Nehru, and one of the most charismatic leaders and least known personalities". Historians like Patrick French believe that though Mr Jinnah "remained a secularist of sorts until his death, but also at times... willing to use communal antagonism in a strategic way."

Listen to Mr Jinnah before the formation of Pakistan, raising the spectre of Hindu majoritaranism:

"We Muslims have got everything - brains, intelligence, capacity and courage- virtues that nations must possess. But two things are lacking, and I want you to concentrate your attention on these. One thing is that foreign domination from without and Hindu domination here, particularly on our economic life that has caused a certain degeneration of these virtues in us."

Or listen to him after a meeting with Egyptian and Palestinian Arab leaders in 1946:

"I told them of the danger that a Hindu empire would represent for the Middle-East... If a Hindu empire is achieved, it will mean the end of Islam in India, and even in other Muslim countries."

At the same time, it is true that Mr Jinnah felt short changed by the Congress. On 26 July 1946, Jinnah and his working committee spoke about Muslim India having

"exhausted, without success, all efforts to find a peaceful solution of the Indian problem by compromise and constitutional means; and whereas the Congress is bent upon setting up Caste-Hindu Raj in India with the connivance of the British..."

Jaswant SinghIn Mr Singh's book, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress emerge as some of the principal architects of the partition. He writes that the Congress "overestimated its strength, its influence, and its leaders were extremely reluctant to accept Jinnah as the leader of just not the Muslim League but eventually of most Muslims in India".
 
There is some truth in all this. But in trying to say that Mr Nehru and Congress were largely responsible for partition, Mr Singh is possibly ignoring the larger political realities of the time. Mr Jinnah positioned himself as the "sole spokesman of Pakistan", but his party Muslim League which led the Pakistan movement, won the last election in 1946 in British India with the number of Muslim voters at significantly no more than 10 to 12% of the total Muslim population in that year. As many historians say, the nation of Pakistan came into being "even before its mass base was established." The fault lines have widened since.
 
But to return to the original question, why did Mr Singh write this book? Does it have to do with his wider political ambitions? He is a self-professed liberal in a party of hawks. In 1992, at the zenith of the BJP's rathyatra (motorised chariot) movement to whip up support for a temple at Ayodhya, Mr Singh did not attend a single function on the road. His induction into the cabinet in the late 1990s was vetoed once by the party's ideological fountainhead, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
 
With his mentor and BJP's only pan-Indian leader and former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee fading out and Mr Advani himself weakened by political defeat and party infighting, is Mr Singh trying to position himself as a liberal party leader-paterfamilias that Mr Vajpayee once occupied? It is difficult to say.
 
In a sense, one could argue, Mr Singh kills two birds with one stone with his revisionist take on the partition - as a senior leader of the main opposition party, he goes for the Congress's jugular by holding it responsible for the partition along with Mr Jinnah; and by heaping encomiums on Mr Jinnah, he endears himself to Indian Muslims, who have been lukewarm to the BJP's overtures. Is Mohammed Ali Jinnah a way for Mr Singh to reach out to Muslims and push his political ambitions in a party which appears to have lost its way in modern India? We will know in the days ahead.

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