America and India, the world’s oldest and largest democracies, are at crossroads of what it means to be a liberal and secular democracy. If liberalism as an idea is under threat in America it is the idea of secularism that is under assault in India. If an opinion is sought today in India to determine whether India should abandon secularism as a principle it might get an overwhelming support. Indians should only look across the border to learn what would await a theocratic Hindustan.
Correspondences and History
A reading, even a skimming, of the correspondences of Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad in 1947 gives very interesting perspectives of why the destinies of the two nations diverged.
This column is not a comprehensive history or the result of a detailed study by an academic historian. I’m but a wayfarer in the bylanes of history and this column is a perspective based on vignettes of history.
Correspondences provide a valuable source for constructing the past but one should be careful in treating them as facts without corroborating evidences. The letters portray an era and give us an idea of the political climate.
A culture of mistrust and blaming:
The hardcover jacket of ‘Jinnah Papers’ in its blurb claims, “the hand of friendship extended by Jinnah was spurned by an unfriendly and arrogant Indian leadership, and communal frenzy also gripped religious fanatics in India causing widespread anti-Muslim violence, which invariably triggered reprisals in Pakistan”. Such language is alarming when it comes from an academic in a State sponsored publication of its founder. The passage practically justifies the communal violence that happened on the Pakistan side as mere reaction to the violence that happened in India.
The mistrust of India and its leaders is nothing new. Jinnah had perfected scaremongering as an art to create a political space for him and later escalated it as an argument to create a situation that made Pakistan inevitable.
Lord Ismay recorded in a lengthy memo, dated 4th October 1947, his conversation with Jinnah and it provides a succinct window into the mind of Pakistan’s founder. Ismay’s memo leads with 4 points that summarizes the conversation. First, Jinnah alleges that India has “neither the wish nor the power to protect minorities or to stop the carnage”. Second, India and “Gandhi are determined on the destruction of Pakistan”. Third, war is inevitable given the previous two contentions. Finally, the British are incapable of understanding “the working of the Hindu mind”. Jinnah piles racial stereotyping on top of completely baseless conspiracy theories.
Addressing military officers on 11th October 1947 Jinnah blamed the exodus of Hindus almost entirely on panic and borne out of a desire to cripple a nascent nation. Referring to ‘some trouble in North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan’ Jinnah said that ‘some excitable elements in society were carried away by tales of woe brought by refugees from East Punjab; and sought solace in revenge’. To be sure Jinnah does, time and again, call for minorities to be treated well in Pakistan but the message is always watered down with his equivocations and constant demonizing of Indian leadership.
Jinnah’s paranoia extended to how he perceived even the Mountbattens. Mountbatten deciding to stay on as Governor General of India after August 15th irked Jinnah to no end. He charged Mountbatten of persistent anti-Muslim bias and Edwina of being power drunk. Jinnah accused the British government of treating Pakistan unfairly owing to an anti-Muslim bias.
Of course there were elements in India that mirrored Jinnah and the Muslim league but, and this is important, it is not they who were at the helm of power. One could scour the writings of Hindu Mahasabha and find utterances that would justify Jinnah’s opinions and apprehensions but that’d be dishonest because India, largely, was led by the triumvirate of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel who were resolute in taming the communal conflagration and were extremely cautious in appearing even handed in their public remarks. When Patel strayed a bit, inadvertently, Gandhi admonished him painfully that “he was not the Sardar” that he once knew. That rebuke from his Bapu was enough for Patel. Nehru, Patel and Prasad, amongst others, knew that fanning communalism could be a strategic blunder and they also saw it as moral abomination.
The 2016 American presidential election taught me a valuable lesson. It is completely useless to argue if Donald Trump was personally a racist or sexist. What mattered was the emotions he unleashed in the electorate. No one can cite any incident in Lal Krishna Advani’s life to show he was, personally, a muslim hater but what did he unleash? Subramanian Swamy’s son-in-law is a Muslim and that should not give any Muslim any comfort. Having predicated the necessity of Pakistan on the premise that a nation has to be homogenous it is inevitable that Jinnah, whatever his intentions were, unleashed the monster of religious fundamentalism and it is seen from the correspondences that were sent to him.
Bigots Correspond with Jinnah:
A girl, Miss Sufi, in her tenth grade wrote a chilling letter to Jinnah, 9th November 1947.
“The Indian government has shamefacedly admitted it would invade Junagadh tonight and you would perhaps declare jehad against the infidel and give a call to all the Muslims to muster up their energies against the Indian infidels. While doing so please do not forget the Muslim women who are burning with the fire of revenge. Jehad is an obligatory duty enjoined on all Muslims, men and women, It is a great blessing and women should not be deprived of it. Please trust God and allow us to participate in Jehad against the infidels. There are thousands of women who would, I assure you, jump at your call and gladly meet martyrdom after putting to sword at least 10 Kuffar each”.
Unfortunately the chronicler has not included a response from Jinnah, if there had been one. One wonders if any girl, barely 16, would write like that to Nehru or Gandhi or even Patel. If someone had indeed written we’d not need to guess the verbal lashing the girl would’ve received.
Bookending that blood curdling paragraph are the true yearnings of that teenage girl. She had started the letter by saying “the women in my social milieu, pass their lives under inhuman and inflexible clannish taboos and mores”. Expressing a wish for women to be part of regular army the girl pleads with Jinnah, “I beg you to take some steps to bring us into the mainstream. Most people are traditional-minded and are given to following the beaten track”.
This letter is a fertile ground for a sociologist or an imaginative historian. The letter portrays the grim reality of life for a Muslim girl chafing under orthodoxy and probably her desire for jehad and martyrdom had less to do with religious fundamentalism on her part but a misunderstood vehicle she thought she could use to convey the true desire of her heart, education and being part of ‘mainstream’.
Mohammed Ali Habib, scion of banking conglomerate Habib and Sons, was very close to Jinnah and his letter to Jinnah, 17th October 1947, underscores the climate of Pakistan that Jinnah symbolized. Habib wrote, “Hindustan’s unholy desire is to tear apart Pakistan. Hindus have no originality. They are following the same tactics as Hitler”. Then he advises that Pakistan, like Switzerland, should’ve ‘compulsory military training or conscription because it is the order of Quran’. Interestingly, Narendra Modi has recently advocated similar measures in India. The letter from Habib has a very interesting irony in the form of the address on the letterhead. The ‘from’ address is “Habib & Sons, Laxmi Building, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Karachi”. A Pakistani Muslim banker heading a firm located in a building named after a Hindu goddess dedicated to wealth and on a road named after Gandhi writing such a letter not only shows the ironies of life but gives, in one poetic moment, the tragedy of partition.
Jinnah, while assiduously promoting the idea of partition and two-nation theory, was either not at all cognizant of the scale of tragedy that would unfold or was naive or a combination of both. This is borne out by the quandary Pakistan and Jinnah faced when wholesale migration of Muslims from India into Pakistan was a distinct possibility.
Jinnah’s Advice to Indian Muslims:
Jinnah repeatedly advises Indian Muslims to give ‘unflinching loyalty to the state in which they happen to be’ and exhorts them to reorganize themselves to safeguard rights of minorities in India.
When the dream of Pakistan turned into a geographical reality Jinnah and the new state realized that Pakistan lacked the ability to be a home to all Muslims from India. Jinnah, in an interview by Reuters correspondent Duncan Hooper on 22nd October 1947, tellingly reveals, “the Muslim minority in India have played a magnificent part in the achievement and establishment of Pakistan. They were fully alive to the consequences that they would have to remain in Hindustan as minorities but not at the cost of their self-respect and honor. Nobody visualized that a powerful section in India was bent upon the ruthless extermination of Muslims”. He goes on to add that such Muslims should not “hold the Muslim League and its leadership responsible for all their tribulations”. Though he does, yet again, reiterate that he refutes a blame game and calls upon Muslims in Pakistan not to retaliate, his moral equivocation, conspiracy mongering and complete failure to mention the acts of sheer genocide within Pakistan render his positions untenable and sheer puffery.
That Pakistan cannot afford to be a home for all Muslims became a controversy and an embarrassment. Liaquat Ali Khan was quoted as having said, during a conference in Lahore on October 5th 1947, that Pakistan would not welcome non-Punjab Muslims. Khan’s office then issued a detailed rebuttal that was also sent to Jinnah as a letter dated 16th October 1947.
Khan’s rebuttal stated, “we had never contemplated the mass eviction of Muslims from Delhi or other parts of India outside East Punjab. When, however, in Sunday’s conference, the discussion turned upon the number of Indian Muslims to be evacuated into Pakistan, the Indian ministers blandly proposed to include Muslims from the Delhi Province and the western districts of the U.P. in the evacuation program”. “I made it clear that while Pakistan would not refuse shelter to any Muslim settler it must refuse in any way to facilitate abandonment by Muslims of their homes and establishment”.
A report sent to then U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall cited a editorial from Hindustan Times, dated October 9th, that gloated, quite rightfully, “Having rallied the Muslims of the whole of India in support of the demand for a Muslim homeland, it appears to be a cruel joke that Muslims other than those belonging to East Punjab are not only not welcome in Pakistan, but that its doors may be closed against them”.
To be fair to Jinnah and Pakistan, the sentiment of population exchange and making all of India’s Muslims emigrate to Pakistan was not without its supporters amongst Indian government and Congress party leadership. Even Ambedkar had argued for it in his ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’. Ambedkar’s opinion of Muslims was almost indistinguishable from that of Hindu zealot Guru Golwalkar and mirrored the opinion of Habib about Hindus. That aside the key point here is to understand that Jinnah and the Muslim League were never prepared for Pakistan becoming a home to all the Muslims of the sub-continent. They only envisaged Pakistan as an answer, using geography and demography, to creating a political entity where Muslims could, as majority, wield political power.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Liaquat Ali Khan and the Cariappa Controversy:
The precariousness of the explosive situation of those years is best illustrated by a controversy surrounding then Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Cariappa. A telegram, dated 3rd November 1947, from Liaquat Ali Khan to Nehru cited a quote of remarks made by Cariappa on October 27th at India House in London. Cariappa, Khan quoted, had said “Speaking as a soldier I firmly believe that we soldiers of India will be able to bring two parts together again perhaps in a year or a couple of years or, maybe, five years. We must have a strong army in India now. It is no use talk of non-violence now”.
Nehru replied promptly on 4th November 1947 promising a full inquiry with the High Commissioner in England. Nevertheless Nehru supported Cariappa saying that he had always stated that the two armies of India and Pakistan should ‘function together as brothers’. Nehru, for good measure, asserted, ‘there was no question of India arming as against Pakistan’.
Making good on his promise of an inquiry Nehru again telegrammed a detailed reply on 11th November 1947 with what the High Commissioner reported. The High Commissioner had reported that it was an impromptu address and that it was an informal setting and hence the words should not be interpreted literally. The High Commissioner also wrote that Cariappa did not use the words “we soldiers” and that his reference to non-violence was only to stress the ‘necessary role of soldiers in free India’.
This is akin to how legendary American general Patton found himself in hot water after impromptu remarks delivered in England at a ladies club occasion. Patton’s remarks were objected to by Soviet Union and the matter went all the way to George Marshall and threatened to impact the very alliance.
Remarks made on 3rd October in England become a matter of urgent telegrams over a week in November and that included an urgent inquiry, possibly via telegrams, between Nehru and the Indian high commissioner in England, shows how sensitive and explosive the situation was. Readers should remember that this was happening even as the sub-continent was teetering on the verge of a civil war.
A Cadillac for Jinnah and Printing Pakistan’s Currency
A curious exchange of letters between Jinnah and Hassan Ispahani, Ambassador to US, was about the purchase of a Cadillac. Jinnah had sent a sample of the car he wanted and insisted that the car, since it would be for government use by the governor general, should be exempted from customs duty. Jinnah was also inquiring about the purchase of a jet for executive use. The intended model was a Beech Aircraft B-23 and the price quoted, in a letter dated 8th October 1947, was “$175,000-$200,000”. The quote said, “it will be just about the last word in executive type of planes”.
Partition created complexities of wholly different dimension in the division of assets between India and Pakistan. On 10th October 1947 Mohammed Ali Habib wrote to Jinnah raising a very important issue. Apparently it was Reserve Bank of India (RBI) that was still printing the currency of Pakistan.
While Nehru’s speech on the midnight of August 14th has entered the history books little is known of Jinnah’s speech to Pakistan. Pakistan had requested All India Radio (AIR) to record Jinnah’s speech and the speech, until it was recently unearthed by a magazine, was buried in the vaults.
The Indian Side: Rumor Mongers, Partition Enthusiasts and Genuine Concerns
Indians were no saints. Legendary historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s son was murdered by an assailant in Calcutta. Noted scientist and later an adversary for Nehru in the parliament, M.N. Saha wrote to Rajendra Prasad on May 4th 1947 detailing the incident and eagerly passing on a hearsay that Muslims in Bengal were being paid Rs 25 for every Hindu they killed. Saha expressed the hope that the “Interim Government will support the partition move, and thus save Bengal Hindus”. Prasad replied the very next day assuring “we shall do our best to secure partition of the predominantly non-Muslim areas from the Muslim areas”.
Prasad’s letter to Patel on 5th September 1947 perfectly captures the complexities that confronted the leadership. Nearly 500 Meos, a Muslim Rajput community, had reached Delhi and took to the streets for a demonstration that raised concerns for Hindus says Prasad.He further adds that most policemen in Delhi were Muslims and that most of the shops selling arms were owned by Muslims.
Patel replied to Prasad the very same day. The letter cited figures that the attacks in Delhi were all “one-sided and the aggressors have been Hindus or Sikhs” and said that that should suffice to disprove the fears that Hindus have been articulating to Prasad. The Meo refugee camps had deplorable sanitary conditions adds Patel and that in due course they would be transported back to West Punjab.
Patel does concede that the large number of Muslims amongst policemen was a real concern but given that they were salaried government employees it was difficult to do much. To offset the Muslim arms dealers Hindu dealers were given licenses to sell arms. Arms, Patel adds, were given “liberally to non-Muslim applicants”. However he expresses his concern that the policy is fraught with danger as the arms could be used against Muslims in the then prevailing “state of lawlessness”.
Rajagopalachari, governor of Bengal, wrote to Prasad that “we have not set an example in restraining communal feeling. Our private conversations and exchange of views with officials have not been free from the taint which has now reached a dangerous quality”.
Jinnah faced a similar problem with officials who continuously flouted the stated principle of not searching those who were fleeing Pakistan. On both sides the communal feeling ran very deep despite the intentions of the leadership.
Jinnah, Patel and Nehru Speeches
The speeches of Jinnah, Patel and Nehru welcoming their citizens to freedom forms an study in contrasts.
Jinnah addressed the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11th after being elected as President. The issue of partition and his role in creating Pakistan must have been foremost on Jinnah’s mind as he spoke the following words, “A division had to take place. On both sides, in Hindustan and Pakistan, there are sections of people who may not agree with it, who may not like it, but in my judgement there was no other solution and I am sure future history will record is verdict in favour of it. And what is more, it will be proved by actual experience as we go on that was the only solution of India's constitutional problem. Any idea of a united India could never have worked and in my judgement it would have led us to terrific disaster. Maybe that view is correct; maybe it is not; that remains to be seen.”
Jinnah, having asserted that there was no option but partition on religious lines expresses a certainty that history will vindicate him and then in the very next sentence he expresses a doubt about the correctness of his lack of belief in the possibility of a unified India. “Maybe correct, maybe it is not”. And for that ‘maybe’ thousands died and millions were uprooted.
Having divided the subcontinent on religious lines and resolutely denying the possibility of a plural democracy Jinnah then hopes, in the speech, that “in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”. Thy hypocrisy would be laughable only if one forgets the epic tragedy that unfolded.
The speech delivered on August 14th, referred previously, is completely unremarkable and pedestrian. He comes across as a cheap politician. In both speeches curiously he harps on how the American government had congratulated him. The speeches are littered with ‘I’ and even a bit of hectoring.
“I want to make it quite clear that I shall never tolerate any kind of jobbery, nepotism or any influence directly of indirectly brought to bear upon me. Whenever I will find that such a practice is in vogue or is continuing anywhere, low or high, I shall certainly not countenance it”. That is not the language of a visionary or a head of state in such a momentous occasion.
Vallabhai Patel, in a speech or remarks delivered for 15th August, cited in his collected works, paid tributes to the many who had sacrificed all for achieving independence. After calling on the citizens to help forge a prosperous nation Patel gracefully remembers the partition, “our hearts naturally go out to those who were of us and with us so long but who are now to be separated”. “But let not our brethren across the border feel they are neglected or forgotten”.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech was sheer poetry.
“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity
This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell
We think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good [or] ill fortune alike.”
It is that grace that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was completely incapable of articulating. His speeches and interviews and letters that mentioned India or Indian leaders were bitter and petty.
Jinnah’s Deadly Secret and Nehru as Gandhi’s Choice:
Jinnah died on 11th September 1948 barely a year after independence. He had been ailing for a long time. The Jinnah Papers contains many letters that begin with inquiries about his health or Jinnah apologizing for being unwell and not being able to attend to something. He had tuberculosis that was kept a closely guarded secret.
Howard Donovan’s memo to George Marshall on 29th December 1947 that summarized an interview of Jinnah by BBC correspondent H.R. Stimson said that Stimson asked Jinnah about his health saying that the “British government and Mountbatten were watching Jinnah’s health very carefully. Stimson, Donovan noted, had heard that Mountbatten through sources knew of Jinnah’s ill health. Some thought it was cancer. It is possible that if this had been public knowledge the Congress might have adopted a different game plan and history might have turned different.
On a related note Patel in a speech delivered on 18th January 1948 asked with pain, “How long could we carry on this burden? I am already 73. People retire at the age of 50 and take pensions”. Nehru was 57 years old then and his relative youth, amidst other factors, made Gandhi tilt the scale in his favor. Patel died in 1950. Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. By then the furies unleashed by Jinnah had Pakistan in its vice like grip while India, blessed with a healthy and agile Nehru, kept the tide of hatred and communalism at bay.
The Nehru Difference:
It was Jawaharlal Nehru more than anyone who stood as the most unwavering voice of defense for minorities and perennial vigilant against majoritarianism.
As independence day drew nearer many Hindus in India felt that this was their moment to fashion laws that would protect what they perceived were their religious interests. Chief amongst them was the clamor for a legislation to prohibit cow slaughter. It is no wonder that those who wanted a legislation to prohibit cow slaughter did not write directly to Nehru. Prasad in a letter dated 7th August wrote to Nehru, “The Hindu sentiment in favor of cow protection is old, widespread and deep seated and it has taken no time to rouse at this moment to a pitch when it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore it”
Nehru replied to Prasad the very same days and said that while he too received telegrams in support of such legislation they were far few in number compared to what Prasad received. Nehru chooses his words carefully,
“India, in spite of its overwhelming Hindu population, is a composite country from the religious and other points of view. It is a vital problem for us to solve as to whether we are to function fundamentally in regard to our general policy as such a composite countru, or to function as a Hindu country rather ignoring the viewpoints of other groups. It is inevitable that the majority Hindu sentiment will affect our activities in a hundred ways. Nevertheless it does make a difference whether we try to think of India as composite country or as a Hindu country”.
Even the cabinets of Jinnah and Nehru reflected the divergent nature. Nehru had stitched a rainbow cabinet of an ideological spectrum that included Maulana Azad, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Ambedkar, Shanmukham Chetty, Jagjivan Ram, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur amongst others. Mukherjee was from Hindu Mahasabha, an organization that Nehru loathed. Ambedkar’s opinions of Gandhi would make Jinnah’s opinions look polite. Shanmukham Chetty belonged to the Justice Party that was opposed to Congress and Jagjivan Ram, like Ambedkar, belonged to the untouchable caste. Jinnah’s cabinet, thanks to the nature of country he had fashioned, was homogenous.
Pakistan as Caution:
Pakistan is no model for India. If anything Pakistan should serve as a caution. Jinnah who could very easily have been a Nehru instead became Narendra Modi’s precursor. In fact I’d argue that Jinnah, not a quintessential fundamentalist or a bigot, thought he was just riding a tamed tiger only to realize that the communalism was a tiger that never stays tamed.
Scratch the surface of any Modi supporter and you’d find that beneath even the most piously innocent opposition to Nehru we could easily find one who holds Nehru responsible for India becoming a secular country. Nehru is hated mostly for making India a liberal and secular democracy than for anything. It is arrant nonsense to say India has a history of secularism. It never did.
In his reply to Prasad on cow protection legislation Nehru writes a very revealing note. “there is a very strong Hindu revivalist feeling in the country at the present moment”. “I find myself in total disagreement with this revivalist feeling, and in view of this difference of opinion I am a poor representative of many of our people today”. Imagine, for a moment, a Narendra Modi at the helm of affairs then. Remember, that Golwalkar, Savarkar and S.P. Mukherjee were very much respected leaders and it was India’s good fortune that Gandhi and Nehru who bestrode the political horizon as colossuses sidelined them.
Trump and Modi teach us that the leaders at the helm normalize what can be said without compunction or hesitancy. Liberal democracy is not a destination but a continuous journey that calls upon each generation to renew the soil that nourishes it. Pakistanis felt absolutely okay to write to their founding father about wanting to start a jihad, about Hindus in racial stereotypes and even offer suggestions that Pakistan’s flag should have a sword as warning to kafirs. No one would have done all that to the Jinnah of early twentieth century but the Jinnah who shamelessly inflamed a subcontinent for political gains was a receptacle for such bigotry.
Without Nehru as Prime Minister could India have become a Pakistan? It is difficult to say but it may not have become the India that it eventually did under the tutelage of Jawaharlal Nehru.
PS: This was published earlier in the year by Thamizhini (link will be provided later). My thanks to Thamizhini.
- Jinnah Papers: Pakistan, Battling against odds (1st October 1947 - 31 December 1947) - Edited by Z. Zaidi
- Sardar Patel: In Tune with the Millions. Volume 2 - Edited by G.M. Nadurkar
- Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru: Second Seies, Volume 3. Edited by S. Gopal
- Dr. Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and select documents - Volume seven. Edited by Valmiki Choudhary
- Nehru’s Speech on August 14th Midnight https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tryst_with_Destiny
- Jinnah’s August 11th Presidential address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan http://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/legislation/constituent_address_11aug1947.html
- Jinnah’s Speech on midnight August 14th https://cbkwgl.wordpress.com/2016/12/12/jinnahs-midnight-speech-14-aug-1947/
- House of Habib https://www.hoh.net/?page_id=32