Archive for August 28th, 2009

No one puts Jaswant in the corner.
No one puts Jaswant in the corner.

Indian politician Jaswant Singh‘s recently released book, Jinnah: India – Partition Independence has garnered much media attention and criticism, ultimately leading to his expulsion from his political party last week. This past week, Singh challenged the ban, filing a case in the Indian Supreme Court and telling reporters, “The day we start banning books, we are banning thinking.” Below, Rakesh Mani, a 2009 Teach for India fellow, discusses the controversy, delving into both the Indian and Pakistani reactions and the overarching ramifications for the greater debate on Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah:

For the third time in ten years, Jaswant Singh finds himself in the proverbial eye of the storm. This time he’s created a furor with a new book, Jinnah: India – Partition Independence that discusses the legacy of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Singh, a former foreign minister of India and a prolific writer, challenges the widely-held Indian belief that it was Jinnah’s insistence on a separate Muslim homeland that forced a violent breakup of British India over sixty years ago. Instead, he argues that it was Jawaharlal Nehru’s centralized polity that was responsible.

A founding member of India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Singh’s stance seems ironic considering that the BJP have for decades painted Jinnah as India’s greatest villain. Both India’s political spectrum and its mainstream population have always blamed Jinnah for Partition – that violent, bloody vivisection through which Pakistanis felt they gained a country, and Indians struggled to accept that they lost a third of theirs.

Reactions from the BJP have verged on intolerance of intellectual inquiry. Singh was expelled from the party’s ranks and the BJP-ruled government in the state of Gujarat banned his book for allegedly ‘defamatory references’ to Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister and a Gujarati political icon. Even the Congress Party has censored him for his views, for once united in opinion with their political rivals.

Ironically, Singh’s ideological tussle with the BJP is somewhat similar to Jinnah’s own battle with the Congress Party of yore. Both were active proponents of party ideology, and both disengaged after intellectual disagreements. The only difference is that while Singh has shifted ground from supporting a nationalist right-wing party to intellectual liberalism, Jinnah moved from pursuing secular, liberal policies to rallying the masses with hard, communal appeals.

In Pakistan, where Singh said he expected harsh criticism, reactions seem to be mixed. Among Pakistanis, the book’s controversial claims on Jinnah’s political leanings are nothing new. This is a debate that has been raging for many years in Pakistan, as governments over the years have consistently made selective use of Jinnah’s ideals to suit their political needs. But Pakistanis are using the opportunity to confirm their negative views of India’s Hindutva parties.

Jaswant Singh also seems to have caused India’s leading political parties much grief. His comparisons of Jinnah’s policies with those of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s charismatic first Prime Minister, have suddenly placed the Congress and the BJP on the same ideological plane.

The BJP is furious that one of their own could have the audacity to acquit Jinnah of treason, while the Congress is livid that the author has denigrated Nehru, that doyen of the Congress Party. And so Indians find themselves in the unusual position of seeing the two arch-rivals of Indian politics standing united in their criticism of Jaswant Singh.

But the real trouble is that the book upsets the clearly established communal bifurcations which the establishments of India and Pakistan have worked so hard to make de rigeur over the last several decades.

But how has all this state-sponsored brainwashing worked?

In Islamic Pakistan, Muslims are busy plotting against and killing their religious compatriots. And in Hindu-majority India, the secularism record is not much better at all. While the Indian elite stand alone in a self-congratulatory mode, more than three-fourths of the country remains marginalized. Just a few days ago, a government-sponsored study estimated that 40% of India is still living in extreme poverty.

In this context, any fresh look at history that challenges old prejudices should be welcomed. Especially in the case of Jinnah, whose elevation to saintly status in Pakistan has made it impossible to evaluate his political and social persona in that country. One hopes that Jaswant Singh’s academic effort will succeed in forcing both India and Pakistan to rationalize their equally distorted views of Jinnah – a man whose true character and disposition has become hazy after years of hagiography and demonization. Now that Singh has told it like it is to the Indians, perhaps Pakistanis too will find it easier to explore a truer, more realistic Jinnah for their national reference and identity.

This will be important because it has repercussions not just for regional peace, but also for the most fundamental questions about Pakistan’s own identity. Identity in today’s Pakistan is shaped largely by the negation of a Hindu-Indian identity and the convenient classification of India as the enemy. Singh’s book will hopefully remind Pakistanis that Jinnah was no enemy of India. Jaswant Singh’s book is a long overdue academic exercise, and a timely one at that. And any serious political party that hopes to run the government should allow for that.

But in expelling Jaswant Singh for his views, the BJP is expelling both freedom and thought, confirming that its entire ideology thrives on resentment.

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