Jinnah, Nehru, and the Ironies of History

Varun Gandhi is reported to have said some strong things about Muslims in India. So, I am told, did his father.

Let me use this as a peg to say something about Varun’s venerable great-grandfather whose maturity Varun seems unlikely to emulate. But beyond that, let me speculate about some neglected dimensions of the political history of the subcontinent.

Two remarkable statements made around the time of the partition of British India continue to intrigue me:

Here is Mohammad Ali Jinnah, addressing the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in August 1947:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.

And here is Jawaharlal Nehru, writing to Chief Ministers of provinces in India in October 1947, pointing out that there remained, within India,

a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.

How can we read these two statements given the history of which they were a part?

What intrigues me about them is the following:

Here was Jinnah, who had spent the previous twenty years arguing that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations, so completely different from each other that they could not live together. And here he was, on the creation of the country based on that logic of difference, saying all of you can now live together as equal citizens with equal rights.

And here was Nehru, who had spent the same period of time arguing the secular perspective that everyone was an equal citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity, still thinking in terms of minorities as special groups who needed to be dealt with in a civilized manner and given the rights of citizens.

I would have expected Jinnah to say something along these lines: I know it is going to be very difficult but we must now find a way to live together. And I would have expected Nehru to send out an unequivocal signal: We are all Indians now; there are no more majorities and minorities here.

It is time for some political psychology and this is my very idiosyncratic explanation:

I would argue that Jinnah’s innate values were secular. He belonged to a minority trading community from Gujarat where getting along with others was essential to survival and success. It is clear that Jinnah could never have believed from the outset that Hindus and Muslims were so intrinsically different that they could not live together. Had that been the case he could not have been the leading ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity till the 1920s.

It was something in the politics of the situation that must have convinced him that Hindus and Muslims could not live together in a constitutional arrangement in British India that would be acceptable to both communities. Based on that conviction (here we are not concerned whether that conviction was right or wrong) he fought his case and won. And once he won, and walked out of the courtroom, metaphorically speaking, the political imperatives for him disappeared and he became the secular Jinnah that he always was.

Did Jinnah never see that there was a world outside the courtroom, that the forces that had been unleashed by the politics of separation would never allow the situation to go back to what it was, no matter what he wished or desired? It seems not.

Nehru, on the other hand, was a Kashmiri Pandit to whom the distinctions of caste and creed must have been second nature, a part of every act and practice. But Nehru, while not in the same league as Jinnah as a lawyer, was an intellectual steeped in Fabian socialism with the whole world as his observatory. For Nehru, secularism was not an inheritance by birth but a conviction that came from the exercise of intellect.

When framed in this perspective, one can expect that moments of stress could cause the templates of inheritance to exert some residual influence on how one sees the world. So, one can understand Nehru seeing Muslims, in the aftermath of the carnage of partition, more as minorities needing to be given equal rights and less as Indians who were entitled to them.

As we know from our own lives and times, it is not easy to overcome the prejudices and biases that one inherits at birth and to adopt radically different beliefs through an exercise of reasoned analysis. There seems little doubt that history will continue to accord Nehru the credit and stature that are his due for achieving what he did achieve given the tenor of his time.

But we can now push this psychological analysis further and note the complexity of the interplay between the beliefs inherited at birth and the convictions that are inculcated and sustained through intellectual endeavor.

Without the political imperatives that changed Jinnah’s beliefs, his descendants are avowedly secular. And without the intellectual rigor that characterized Nehru, his descendants are slipping back towards prejudice.

Contrary perspectives are welcome. For another analysis along similar lines, see The Tragedy of Jinnah by Simon Kovar. HM Seervai‘s book (Partition of India – Legend and Reality), written after the release of the Transfer of Power Papers, makes a similar argument.

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  • FenceSitter
    Posted at 11:53h, 23 March Reply

    Jinnah may have uttered the words: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State”, but the reality of Pakistan did not live up to that. The pogroms initiated against Ahamadis in the mid seventies testify that religion and state were in a constant mix.
    Moreover, since Jinnah is long since dead one can only speculate on why he switched from a one-nation to a two-nation theory. Your assertion is: “It was something in the politics of the situation that must have convinced him that Hindus and Muslims could not live together in a constitutional arrangement”. As Maulana Azad told Jinnah, all muslims and all hindus could not avoid living in a constitutional relationship. How about the following simpler explanation of Jinnah’s change of course. Somewhere along the line, Jinnah tasted the power that would come with being a Head of State, rather than the head of a muslim constituent group in a unified India. He preferred to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I believe M.K. Gandhi saw through this and told Nehru to let Jinnah be the head of state of a unified India. History shows that Gandhi’s idea was never took root. However if Occam’s razor has any relevance here, then my explanation might have merit. Of course we will never know for sure.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 15:57h, 23 March Reply

    FenceSitter, This was not the main point I wanted to make with this article. The point I wanted to make was that it is very difficult to be secular in the milieu of South Asia and it is in this context that the decline of our leadership has to be judged and the actions of the founding fathers understood.

    As the title indicated, the article was about the ironies of history. I quoted Jinnah’s statement not in his defense but with reference to this irony. Did Jinnah really expect the world to go back to what it had been before the advent of the two-nation theory?

    We know that Jinnah switched from being an advocate of a one-nation theory to that of a two-nation one. As you say, we will never know for sure why. I offered one hypothesis and you have offered another. If we had absolutely nothing else to go by, each would be equally plausible and we could take recourse to Occam’s razor to resolve the issue.

    But we do have other evidence available and also contemporaneous records so the simplest explanation may not necessarily be the best. For example, the most meticulous investigation of the events of those times (based on the release of the Transfer of Power papers) is by HM Seervai – the entry on Wikipedia gives a sense of Seervai’s caliber and integrity so this could be good source for more research.

    By far the best general book on these issues is Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. Reading it gives a sense of the immense complexity of the issues and how the leaders of those times struggled with them. I find this a very objective and incisive account and a useful source to push our discussion further.

  • caterpillar
    Posted at 18:58h, 21 July Reply

    the British and the Indian congress were trying to solve the so called ‘musalman problem’ of india and pushed Jinnah to pursue two-nation solution. it is very hypocritical now to mourn the partition of india when you colluded with your masters to divide the sub-continent along communal lines. even arundhati roy takes pride in the wisdom of the indian leaders to have helped in creating a buffer state to keep the mainland safe from the outfall of the great game that was to ensue.
    the fact is Jinnah accepted the proposal of confedration to keep the country together but the congress wouldn’t tolerate such a large muslim population whom they could not label as a minority. but after the partition it was easy to marginalize these people as a minority.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:17h, 22 July

      C’pillar: I am not sure who have in mind in the terms “you” and “your masters.” Could you clarify.

  • caterpillar
    Posted at 17:41h, 22 July Reply

    the majority, who else?
    congress claimed to represent all peoples of india but it was only securing the interest of the hindu majority and counting the days when the british would leave. they were so impatient that they preponed the partition by one year.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:10h, 23 July Reply

    C’pillar: Substituting “you” for “the majority” can lead to two problems: first, it personalizes the argument; second, it involves the assertion that the writer is a representative of the majority. The first is unhelpful; the second is not a given.

    No one takes partisan history ( X or Y’s version of history) seriously anymore and analysts are not obliged to speak in defense of their nationality or religion. Now that the multi-volume India Office papers have been declassified many claims that were based on assertions can be verified. For example, the claim that Congress “preponed” the partition by one year would need support to be credible. An analysis that deals with this aspect is “The Shameful Flight” by Stanley Wolpert written in 2006 and based on the declassified information.

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 15:54h, 16 September Reply


    Stop harping so feebly on one small statement made by Jinnah at the end of his life.

    What about his countless statements of incitement against Hindus?

    Give us a break.

    For us Hindus, Partition got rid of the Muslims – the majority.

    That makes us hugely thankful to Jinnah.


    We don’t want you back.

  • yasserlatifhamdani
    Posted at 10:30h, 18 September Reply

    I’d like to post this on PakTeaHouse… if there are no objections. Please respond.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:19h, 18 September

      YLH: Appreciate your request. The usual attributions and courtesies apply. I hope your readers know the orientation of The South Asian Idea. It is devoted exclusively to the process of reasoning structured around topics of common interest. It attempts to develop a skill – the outcomes are of very little interest. Thus we can argue the opposite case at another time just to test our ability to persuade. We put out speculative arguments that we don’t necessarily believe in to test them through cross-examination. The blog is not married to anyone (religion, caste, language, culture, country, leader) that it feels the need to defend at all costs. We believe that a good argument is one that can stand the test of reason and we change our prior beliefs when convinced by the logic of an argument.

    • yasserlatifhamdani
      Posted at 14:23h, 21 September

      Dear South Asian,

      Thank you for this clarification. One can only hope that such professed beliefs in “test of reason” are fully followed through on.

      Nevertheless, we are proceeding only on the basis of what is written in your article itself as it raises some very interesting points and a kind of class-caste analysis that you’ve done. Furthermore, post Jaswant Singh’s book it has also become clear that Nehru’s fabian socialism (though even Jinnah was a member of Fabian Society at one point) was also a root cause of his lack of acceptance of minority demands as being genuine. “Assessing Jinnah” by A G Noorani makes this point… so does Jaswant Singh in his own way.

      One correction ofcourse vis a vis “20 years”. The first reference to Muslims as a “nation” in Jinnah’s vocabulary was in 1940.

  • Hayyer
    Posted at 14:14h, 18 September Reply

    Ganpat Ram
    You seem to have some deep seated resentments. Would discussion help?

  • Iqbal akhund
    Posted at 12:58h, 21 September Reply

    Some one has said that World War I broke out because of a group of ill-tempered aging politicians. One could perhaps say the same about Partition. The movement owed a lot to UP politics and the Hindu revivalist movement.
    Anyway it happened and cant be undone but one can go forward towards a relationship that was envisaged in the confederation plan that everyone had accepted in the beginning

  • Neelam
    Posted at 14:36h, 07 December Reply

    The same old cliched Indian explanation of Jinnah as “power hungry” lol. And I say this as an Indian myself, as someone who’se great-grandfather was a Gandhian.
    If Jinnah really wanted power, he would have accepted that position.
    Its hard for some to accept that Gandhi and Nehru made some serious miscalculations and had blindspots in their thinking on the minority situation.
    And for the record, Jinnah conceded a United India on several occasions during the late 30’s and early to mid 40’s. The last of which was the Cabinet Mission Plan.
    Read Ayesha Jalal’s great book “The Sole Spokesman”.
    Of course he was not perfect and prone to naivete’s of his own. But he was not the power hungry cold hearted bastard that is often caricatured in mainstream media.
    His problem was like the OP said: constitutional idealism.

  • Neelam
    Posted at 14:41h, 07 December Reply

    Jinnah himself was never particularly happy with Pakistan as it turned out.
    He found it to be a moth eaten, disjointed geographical aberration. In part because of the post-partition Congress entity taking up the name “India” instead of “Hindustan” or another name (denying Pakistan of its share of the “Indian regional identity”) and because it was utterly cut off from the center in Delhi and politically distinct to the point where he couldn’t go to his own house in Bombay.
    For a more detailed explanation of “why Jinnah possibly changed” read about the events in the 20’s, particularly Gandhi’s backing of the Khilafat movement (which ended up brining many Islamist politicians and thinkers to the fore, including Maududi, one of the inspirations for Al Qaeda). Jinnah opposed this movement strongly btw. I think it was well intentioned and useful but its understandable why Jinnah thought about it the way he did. But yes, just one example of many of the problems in the 20’s that alienated Jinnah.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:16h, 07 December

      Neelam: There is a more detailed account of the 1920s and 1930s on the blog (The Road to Partition) which discusses some of the points you have made (including the one about the Khilafat movement). I would appreciate if you read it and add to the discussion. The post on which you have commented had a very limited scope and was more in the nature of psychological speculation. If you read the objectives of the blog, you will note that the purpose of a post on this blog is not to be the last word but to start a discussion.

      It is useful to reiterate that blogs with original content (excluding those focused on entertainment, news, and information) can be classified into two groups. There are blogs that are closer to public lectures by expert authorities in their fields, e.g., Ayesah Jalal’s or Paul Krugman’s blogs. There are also blogs that are closer to coffee house conversations among non-experts – the discussion evolves from a random remark and hopefully at the end everyone has added something of value to it. The South Asian Idea falls into the latter category – we have no claim to expertise but we are eager to learn from each other.

  • Manoj
    Posted at 22:33h, 05 February Reply

    I think the psychological profile you built of both the leaders fits their socio-economics well – western educated, aristocrats, aloof – the population loved only Gandhi – the Bapu and Mahatma.

    Both were idealists, enthusiastic to the cause of freedom, and I suspect weak negotiators (remember it was Gandhi, MAK and Patel who attended most important meetings in UK), insecure about their lack of popularity within their own parties, AND people they were to lead.

    I doubt whether either of them thought much about a plan post freedom. Hence Jinnah ‘go where you will, do as you wish…”, while Nehru, the centrally planned economy (blew up), the non aligned movement (still born) and the China conflict (would’nt believe it till too late).

    Thanks to a pragmatic, right-winger Patel in India, who handled tricky integration of 560 princely states, created language driven states, took charge of Hyderabad, Kashmir and Goa conquests, India settled down faster

    Jinnah, on the contrary, was not so ably supported. Pakistan, though it got the richest part of India, got off to a rocky start…

    I wonder if it is just a coincidence that both Gandhi and Jinnah met their ends at the hands of some from the same populations they chose to serve?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:38h, 10 July Reply

    SA, how does your analysis here square against the perspective of Professor Ralph Russell that has been discussed elsewhere in this blog ? If the pragmatism that comes with being born in a trading community was part of Jinnah’s upbringing, why did he react so strongly to Congress’s refusal to accept the Cabinet Mission Plan ? Why did he not consider alternatives other than the Direct Action Day ? After such a long tenure as a political leader, did he not have an inkling as to the results of the Direct Action Day ?

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