Heroes & villains of old

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Cow, namaz, historical monuments, Jinnah — we are back to cultural issues in the prelude to Partition


By: Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Partition was a traumatic event. It created two entities aspiring to be nation states out of a complex civilisation. Partition still drives the mutual insecurities of both India and Pakistan. Although the two states have been in existence for more than 70 years, Partition is still a source of psychological insecurity. It is not just that the historiography of Partition is contested. The legitimacy or incompleteness of the successor states is often open to question. Both states are still in a quasi-war. Many in India, particularly Hindu nationalists, see in Partition a defeat, a violation of sacred territory that needs to be avenged. And by seeing Partition thus, they continually deny the legitimacy of Pakistan. Pakistan, in turn, sees Kashmir as part of the unfinished business of Partition.

Meanwhile, the core problem that Partition was meant to solve remains festering. South Asia is not the zone of freedom it was meant to be; instead, its politics is marked by simmering resentments over identity. In Pakistan, this insecurity has fed the legitimacy of a self-destructive militarisation and orthodoxy. In India, too, the view that India can avenge Partition by establishing majoritarian domination and marginalising minorities has gained ascendancy since the BJP came to power. Unless there is a political backlash to the BJP, the Subcontinent stands poised on the brink of another communal explosion, fuelled by majoritarian forces.

This familiar context is necessary to understand the significance of the Jinnah controversy in AMU. It is important to understand that this controversy is not about the appropriateness of Jinnah’s picture in AMU. It is about creating a context where an assortment of organisations that now carry the mantle of Hindu nationalism are looking for any excuse to create communal trouble. As I write this, the city I live in, Gurgaon, is experiencing protracted tensions over a place to offer namaz, as if the whole country were back to the cultural issues of the 1930s which were a prelude to Partition. The cow, namaz, historical monuments, an irrelevant picture of Jinnah, are all a series of pretexts; they have no bearing on genuine concerns for India’s well-being.

Second, let us say Jinnah was guilty of Partition. But what is the significance of raking up that political issue now? How do we move forward from replaying the same script we have since 1947? The fact is that two nation states were created. If there is going to be any rapprochement in South Asia it will be through recognising this fact, rather than denying it.

Both India and Pakistan will need to stop impugning each other’s legitimacy before there is a possibility of transcending differences and imagining a new future together. Pakistan does it through Kashmir. But in a way, India, in its Hindu nationalist form, does it ideologically and structurally by denying the facticity of Partition. How stuck we are can be gauged by one simple confusion all of us are prone to. The “two nation” theory is something that should be critiqued (as can one or three nation theories). That theory was the origin of the idea of Pakistan. But a critique of that theory unthinkingly shades over into saying Pakistan is illegitimate. As much as we love saying this, such a claim feeds the cycle of mutual insecurity that we need to transcend.

This is where Jinnah comes in. In their own strange ways, both L K Advani and Jaswant Singh realised one truth. If South Asia is to have a new shared future, it cannot be achieved by denying Pakistan legitimacy. Contrary to Indian fantasies, Pakistan will, despite its levels of violence, not implode any more than the doom and gloom about India will make India implode. We first need to reach a stage where India and Pakistan can treat each other with a kind of facticity, not where each conversation ends either in reality-denying emotionalism or impugning the legitimacy of what was created. In that context recognising Jinnah, not as just an arch villain, but as a founder who created a state from a messy complex process, made sense. It makes no sense for India to now keep harping on Jinnah just as it makes no sense for any Pakistani to hate Gandhi or anyone else who opposed Partition and thereby stood in the way of Pakistan. In that sense, Jaswant Singh and Advani’s call for the acceptance of Jinnah was part of the process of moving on. It was perhaps an ineffective gesture. But it was a way of saying: Can we change the terms of the debate?

Whether or not we should have Jinnah’s pictures in an odd place or two can be debated. But those using Jinnah as a pretext are determined that the region does not overcome the vicious cycle of resentment. If you sincerely thought Partition was a mistake, the proper thing to do would be to create conditions of individual freedom where no one is targeted for their identity. Instead, the “mistake” of Partition is being used as a pretext to further its logic. Jinnah is a prop in that debate.

A lot of public debates in historiography suffer from two sins. The first is a community partisanship that reinforces the two-nation theory: “I look for Hindu villains, you look for Muslim villains.” The fact is that Partition, and the barbarity that accompanied it, could not have happened without violence being distributed amongst Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Jinnah bears responsibility for the violence by abandoning constitutional methods; but organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha have their share of complicity too. Second, we need to get out of over-simplistic views of how Partition came about. We need to overcome the personification of one villain who can explain the outcome. Like so many major events, Partition was a result of the mistakes and misjudgements of many people. Sometimes the road to hell was paved with good intentions. Perhaps in the final analysis, deep currents of history proved too much for individuals. All our leaders, trying to master history, were defeated by it.

If we claim to be a genuinely post-colonial power it is time to move on from this morality play of heroes and villains of the 1940s. The question for India and Pakistan is, rather, what kinds of societies they want to be, and what terms of freedom and equality they can give to all citizens. Pakistan has already given a disappointing answer. The Hindu nationalists, using a forgotten photo of Jinnah as a pretext, now want to take us down the same path. In obsessing about Jinnah’s photo they will ensure that Jinnah has the last laugh.

Courtesy The Indian Express

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