Jaswant Singh: What’s All the Fuss?

It is sad that the history we are taught in our countries is so one-dimensional that even the thought that the ‘Other’ might be semi-intelligent (let alone great) makes people catatonic. The predictable reaction is either to impugn the motives of the writer or to find selective evidence to prove that the real blame rests entirely on the ‘Other.’ The alternative of sifting through the arguments on their merits remains alien, unacceptable, impossible, or just too tiresome.

The reason Jaswant Singh’s book has made such a splash is because he is a front ranking politician with a very high reputation for integrity (for which, read Strobe Talbott’s Engaging India) and belongs to the BJP, all of which make the story impossible to ignore. Otherwise, this is an argument that has been made before and forgotten.

HM Seervai was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972 and was universally acknowledged an outstanding legal mind. He wrote Partition of India: Legend and Reality in 1990 towards the end of his life when there was nothing to be gained by going against the grain. This was perhaps the first account of the Partition written after the release of the ten-volume Transfer of Power papers and given his legal background one would expect his reading of the documents to be just as, if not more, meticulous than that of Jaswant Singh.

Here is the Wikepedia description of the book:

His controversial Partition of India: Legend and Reality (1990) challenged the existing view that blamed the partition of India on the Muslim League. He argued instead that it was the latent bias on the part of Indian National Congress leadership which resulted in partition. It is a painstakingly accurate exercise of sifting through the Transfer of Power Papers, after which like a true jurist, Mr. Seervai has given his verdict and it is an interesting verdict but also a journey towards truth for Mr. Seervai who finished this book at the twilight of his own life. The journey, Mr. Seervai says, started with Rajmohan Gandhi’s fascinating inquiry into the life of Mr. Mahomed Ali Jinnah in which the author did not shy away from criticizing his famous grandfather Mohandas Gandhi for introducing religion into politics and refusing to accommodate the Muslims to share power. Rajmohan Gandhi’s analysis was a starting point for Mr. Seervai.

In The Idea of India (1997), Sunil Khilnani also took a nuanced stance towards the momentous events:

Hindu nationalism was a real mover in the agitation for Partition, both directly through the organization and action of Hindu communalists, and through its influence within Congress. Secular and Hindu nationalisms have invariably assigned primary responsibility for Partition to Muslim ‘communalism’ and separatism. Yet recent historical research has complicated the conventions of this picture…. The twists by which this came about were heavily contingent on the attitudes of the Hindu majority, as well as those of Congress….

The core of [Jinnah’s] disagreement with Congress concerned the structure of this future state. Jinnah was determined to prevent the creation of a unitary central state with procedures of political representation that threatened to put it in the hands of a numerically dominant religious community. As such, this was a perfectly secular ambition. But the contingencies of politics and the convenient availability of powerful lines of social difference pushed it in a quite contrary direction.

The Muslim insistence on a separate state crystallized only in the decade before 1947, and there is real force to the point that practical experience of Congress rule in the Indian provinces after the elections of 1937 was instrumental in encouraging Muslim political alienation. Congress governments, subject in many cases to the influence of nationalist Hindus, lost the trust of Muslims and so helped to kindle support for the Muslim League.

It was this erosion of trust that framed a desire to redescribe a ‘minority’ within British India as a separate ‘nation’, and to take it outside the boundaries of India. The political and intellectual weight of the Hindu nationalist imagination, with its desire for a clear definition of Indianness based on an exclusive sense of culture and of an historical past, was decisive in imposing an artificial cohesion to the diverse local Muslim identities on the subcontinent: indeed, Jinnah himself protested that the idea of Pakistan was foisted upon him by Hindu public opinion.

All this could be dismissed as self-serving, an attempt to gain advantage of some sort, or a misplaced apologia for Muslims. But if taken seriously as the reflection of learned individuals, it paints a picture of events that were immensely complex and that proved beyond the capacity of Indian leaders of all parties to resolve to their mutual satisfaction. It was a collective failure of tragic proportions and the desire to pin all the blame on this or that person only comes in the way of understanding why men and women of such stature failed to find a solution to the problem.

Once we get beyond the fixation of trying to find the one villain in the story, we can move on and attempt to understand the dynamic that drove the events of the first half of the twentieth century. How did the religious identities come about? What motivated the separate nationalisms? What prevented finding a mode of representation that could have reassured all parties? Why did so many individuals driven by such high ideals come up short? Why did a million people die and ten million made homeless? And what have we learnt from the failure and the tragedy?

We will engage with these issues in the second part of this series.  


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  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:26h, 25 August Reply

    If there is one thing I have realized in the last two years of my life, it is that there can be an enormous gap between the scholarly discourse and the ‘conventional truths’ of a nation. This is very true of India, when it comes to Jinnah. So the analysis of scholars notwithstanding, the real issue is the acceptance of such received knowledge among the masses and the politicians that represent such masses. By masses I dont mean the vast rural population (which couldnt care less) but the middle class, that needs its national myths.

    In the mythology of middle class India, Jinnah is a villain, it is the challenging of this idea by a person that most middle class Indians regardless of political affiliation would admire, which has set the cat among the pigeons.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:57h, 25 August

      Vikram: I understand what has set the cat among the pigeons. I am trying to point to a different problem that we need to think about. What are the implications of a situation in which the ‘conventional truths’ of nations are nothing more than lies, when their national myths have no basis in reality? Who is concocting these ‘truths’ and myths and for what purpose? Why are they not being challenged? How are they being disseminated so easily? Why are they being believed so readily?

      What is the point of scholarly analysis in countries where no one pays any attention? Why couldn’t have newspapers or TV outlets or think tanks or university departments have structured discussion round the books by HM Seervai or Sunil Khilnani? Who would have stopped them or come in their way? Is there any premium on seeking the truth and what are the consequences of not doing so?

      These issues go way beyond Mr. Jinnah. They have a bearing on the moral and intellectual health of nations. How many more ‘conventional’ truths and national myths are waiting for the Jaswant Singhs who will never materialize? Are we just living a series of big lies? Is the middle class unable to face the truth that it is being fed these lies?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 19:46h, 25 August

      I agree with you completely, was just expressing your ideas in a different way.

      As for why newspapers and TV outlets are not structuring discussions around HM Seervai or Khilnani, it is because in a ratings driven TV news market, people watch the news to be titillated and be reassured. How many people eating chicken in a restaurant think about how it was slaughtered, or the morality of consuming it ? It just has to taste good to them.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:00h, 25 August

      Vikram: Can there be a more ratings-driven news market than the US? Yet, there is PBS with someone like Bill Moyers and NPR exploring alternative versions of national myths; there are people like Oliver Stone probing into official versions of history; and all the good universities provide the training in critical analysis to those who want it. There has to be the motivation in society to not completely lose sight of the truth.

      Your mention of eating in a restaurant brought to mind Upton Sinclair who became famous for his 1906 novel The Jungle. It dealt with conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry, causing a public uproar that partly contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. People care if they are informed.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 08:23h, 26 August

      About the US meat industry, do check the documentary ‘Earthlings’ in you tube or google video. Warning: it is not for the weak hearted. Bigger Warning for vegetarians: Don’t watch it. You may faint!!

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:21h, 26 August Reply

    Why did so many individuals driven by such high ideals come up short?

    I became aware of the Pakistani story of the cause of the partition through my Pakistani friends. They held Jinnah in high esteem for his integrity. I also read a thin booklet, authored by a muslim in India – whose name I do not recall – which published the partition story in the same vein that Khilnani’s did. The muslim PoV rarely gets national publication in India. Muslims rely on their intra-community support to run poorly funded presses that print such booklets with poor quality pages that sell in remote book stores located deep within a muslim dominated area (such as Old Delhi’s Nizamuddin). Such bookstores have books that a Hindu would not even know existed in India.

    In my view, the topmost scholar of the independence movement, Allama Iqbal, was the one who I feel most disappointed by. For all his intellectual prowess and philosophical thought, as demonstrated in his erudite ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ he could not come up with a solution for the communal divide.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 07:22h, 27 August Reply

    In most issues we are handed down a decision by our mind in a split second. The process of arriving at that decision is not visible to us i.e. we are not conscious of the step by step logic of arriving at that decision. Once the decision is made we consciously use our mind to justify that decision.

    Therefore, is it alright to judge a person on the basis of his word or acts?

    My mind has handed down me this decision….

    Jinnah was areligious, pragmatic, self centered, ambitious and very clever person.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:57h, 27 August

      Anil, I can understand love or judgment at first sight (Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much; such men are dangerous). But you are unlikely to ever have seen Jinnah in order to arrive at a split second opinion. Most likely this characterization was passed on to you by someone who himself or herself never came across Jinnah. In such situations, I feel it is warranted to cross-check for oneself. You must be familiar with the game in which a message is whispered from one ear to another in a circle. Most of the time what comes back has little bearing with what started out. Something like “a quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” might easily morph into “a clever sly lawyer trumped over the sweet wise man.”

  • kabir
    Posted at 08:09h, 27 August Reply

    South Asian, I whole-heartedly agree with you when you state that Partition was a “collective failure of tragic proportions” and that there is no point fixing blame on one individual or organization. The only point to continued research on the politics of the era is to help interested people understand why these events occured and how we can keep them from happening again.

    The Jaswant Singh issue has triggered quite a bit of interest in Pakistan. The letters to the editor in DAWN mostly say that his book is not stating anything new and that is apalling the way that the BJP has kicked him out of the party because they don’t like the views expressed in his research work. This kind of behavior is not consistent with democratic norms and it is definetely a blot on India’s claims to be the “world’s largest democracy”. Unfortunately, in the Subcontinent, the tradition of punishing dissent and banning books goes on. In my opinion, this is the real issue that goes beyond Jaswant Singh and Jinnah.

    Vinod, I wouldn’t call Allama Iqbal a scholar of the independence movement. He was hardly unbiased or non-partisan. He definitely took sides, and focused on trying to awaken the political consciousness of the Muslims. One only has to glance through his poetry to see his use of rhetoric. This is one reason why I personally am not very fond of his poetry, it’s too political and demagogue-ish for my taste, but that’s neither here or there 🙂

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:48h, 27 August

      Oh…bad choice of words on my part…he was not a scholar of the independence movement but an accomplished scholar in Islamic thought and religious thought in general who happened to be in the independence movement.

    • kabir
      Posted at 10:43h, 27 August

      Iqbal was a very smart man, a genius in many ways, but he definitely had his blinders on when it came to Hindu-Muslim issues. I admire the Iqbal of the early patriotic phase “Saray jahan say achha hindustan hamara” and can’t help wishing he hadn’t gone all pan-Islamic “Chin o Arab hamara…”

    • Vinod
      Posted at 20:07h, 27 August

      Kabir, in my view ‘Chin o Arab Hamaara’ is no more bigoted than ‘Sare Jahaan se Achcha Hindustan Hamaara’.

      I just read two letters of Iqbal to Jinnah in 1937 on what he thought the muslim League should do. Iqbal thought that the Hindu Mahasabha was the real representative of the masses of Hindus and that the Mahasabha had openly said that there could not be a ‘Hindu-Muslim’ unified country. He believed that Nehru’s socialism was very promising for India and that it was actually a step closer to the principles of Islam!! He believed in the political empowerment of muslim dominated states of India. He believed that muslim poverty, which was far more acute than Hindu poverty, was because of ‘Hindu capitalism’ (whatever that means!!) and mondey-lending practices.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 20:25h, 27 August

      In his magnum opus, which was written at the end of his life, Javed-e-Namah revolves around his ascension to the heavens, accompanied by Rumi where he met many Muslims as well as non-Muslims in heaven, and each great personality provides him with insights into the nature and destiny of man. Some of these non-Muslims are from the West, including Europe, and others include saints of India as well as others of the East. Muslims also are seen in the fire, among them, those that were traitors to the soil of India, lending the nation to British domination.

    • kabir
      Posted at 02:44h, 28 August

      Vinod, I agree there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with “Chin o Arab Hamara”. I just wish Iqbal had not become Pan-Islamic and had remained an INDIAN poet. Then maybe, he wouldn’t have become the spiritual father of Partition.

      Also, he was too great of a poet to become mixed up in politics. Some of his earlier non-political poems are unbelievable, but the later one’s have too much rhetoric in them.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 22:29h, 27 August

      Kabir, India is probably the only country in the world where an opposition party demands a ban on book (Congress in MP). Interestingly enough, all the BJP CM’s apart from Modi have refused to ban the book. I wonder what that tells us.

    • kabir
      Posted at 02:48h, 28 August

      Isn’t the ban in Gujrat because Patel was Gujrati and a huge hero in the state?

      Anyway, don’t be too hard on India. I’m sure the same thing would happen in Pakistan and Bangladesh if someone wrote something that the establishment didn’t approve of. It’s a South Asian problem not an Indian problem:)

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