The controversy sparked by BJP prez Lal Krishna Advaniís comments about Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi earlier this month raises forcefully, once more, questions of the deeply politicized nature of historical memory ñ especially when it comes to major events and figures of colonial South Asia and the nationalist movement. In an uncharacteristic sentimental moment, Advani praised Jinnah as a secular leader and echoed Sarojini Naiduís famous characterization of the man as ìan ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unityî. Responding to a firestorm of condemnations from Sangh Parivar hardliners, Advani tendered his resignation to the BJP, though it was rejected and Advani retained his post around despite refusing to retract his statements about Jinnah.
Since all of this has gone down, numerous commentators have weighed in on the situation (Jinnah is seemingly on everyoneís mind lately). In many cases, people have objected that it is absurd to dub Jinnah a secularist, thus reifying the conventional view of Jinnah in both India and Pakistan as a fervent advocate of Hindu-Muslim separatism and the sly, calculating architect of the foundation of Pakistan as a separate and sovereign nation-state at the moment of the dissolution of British India. The Congress narrative of Indian nationalism defines Jinnah as a separatist who foiled Nehruís high-minded plans to create a democratic and secular India. From this perspective Jinnah cannot possibly be secular since then the Partition would never have happened. Jinnah has been assimilated to dominant Pakistani national narratives in much the same way ñ only his alleged resistance to secularism is portrayed as a charter for a state founded on Islamic principles. So Jinnah is portrayed in both of these pervasive narratives as an Islamist (some of you may not like this term, but see my points in this debate for how and why I use it).
The major scholarly refutation of the Jinnah-as-separatist-Islamist perspective came from Ayesha Jalal in her major 1985 book The Sole Spokesman. Therein, Jalal argued that Jinnah was in fact a secularist enlisting strategic means for protecting the Muslim minority population in India, and sought to obtain this by the creation of two separate national units ñ Hindustan and Pakistan ñ within a unified nation-state of India. The casting of Jinnah as nationalist icon by a postcolonial Pakistani state increasingly emphasizing its Islamic character over and against its secular democratic origins appears, if we take Jalalís argument, as a disingenuous plundering of the past. For obvious reasons, a great number of people objected to Jalalís seditious line of argument, which is probably the fate of most thinkers who start from a healthy skepticism with regards to received and ëofficialí knowledges. (Reasonable objections have also been voiced on other grounds, most significantly perhaps her emphasis on high politics; but a thoroughgoing examination of reactions to Jalalís book is not my concern here.)
All histories in one way or another engage with the present in their rendering of the past, and to narrate a history of Pakistan in which its founder is a man deeply committed to secularism and democracy is to suggest that something is awry if Pakistan is a religious nationalist state dominated by a long succession of military dictators. As AG Noorani notes, the very speech that Advani cited in his original comments on Jinnah is one that has been a touchstone of Pakistani secularists, but also had recently been disavowed by one of the major Pakistani Islamist parties, the Jamaat-i Islami, as being a red herring. This whole episode raises a couple of compelling questions for me as a historian deeply concerned with the fate of secularism and democracy in South Asia.
Firstly, if there is some submerged critique of the Pakistani nation-state in Jalalís recasting of Jinnah (as well as those of Pakistani secularists more directly involved in party politics), then what could be the strategic intent of similar claims made by Advani? I think we can put aside the possibility that Advani is seeking to advance the cause of Pakistani secularists as totally out of character, and we can probably also put aside the ISI conspiracy claims of some Pakistani regionalists as equally unlikely. Do his statements constitute, as Praful Bidwai has suggested, a misguided attempt on the part of Advani to sanctify the use of ìethno-religious mobilization as a valid political strategyî (Bidwai obviously has a low opinion of what ësecularismí means when invoked by Advani, or Jinnah for that matter)? Or, as Bidwai also contemplates, is this an attempt to strike a new path for the BJP less given to the fear-mongering politics of Islamophobia upon which the party has depended up until now?
While there is solace to be found in the predictable unpredictability of a global mediascape in which all historical data can be spun in any direction towards any possible end, perhaps Advaniís move ñ which has done nothing but alienate him and weaken his partyís position ñ can be taken to demonstrate the limits the public sphere exerts upon politicized historical revisionism. Two major figures in Sangh Parivar history (Veer Savarkar, who coined the term ëHindutvaí, and Narendra Modi, who orchestrated the 2003 genocide in Gujarat) have made political capital out of recasting Adolf Hitler as an ally of their cause; but the historical image of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, has proven to resist positive incorporation into Indian political rhetoric. Certainly the materials at hand and their contexts are wildly different, but I wonder if this can be taken to signal the persistent centrality of the idea of the nation-state in the South Asian political imagination (notwithstanding claims of some that we have entered the ëpostnationalí stage of history). I do not wish to suggest that South Asia is locked into a historical moment that has passed in the rest of the world (on the contrary, I think a strong argument can be made for how ëpostnationalismí is an inadequate construct for describing even the new Europe), but I think there is something to be gleaned from the fact that invoking Jinnah in India (as no doubt invoking Nahru in Pakistan would be) is the political equivalent of walking face first into an electric fence.
Second, this incident provides occasion for thinking through specific ways the telling of history disfigures its object. What is lost in the process of narrating the past in the changed political contexts of the present? It is quite a significant transformation indeed to take a living, breathing human with shifting wants, needs and strategies for obtaining them into a stable and fixed icon. Jinnah is made into a pole star and unswerving standard-bearer of Muslim religious nationalism for a nation with precious few shared ideological founts beyond Islam (which of course is an extremely diverse formation to begin with). I cannot help but think of a piece by another luminary of Pakistan, Saadat Hasan Manto, about the idiosyncracies of Jinnah himself entitled Mera Sahib. Manto was a man who himself had a very ambivalent relationship with Pakistan. Often seen by outsiders as the major literary figure of Pakistan (challenged by only the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who had an equally vexed relationship to his country), Manto in fact only reluctantly departed from his beloved adoptive home of Bombay several years after Partition, was brought up on obscenity charges several times upon migrating back to what had become the Pakistani Punjab, lived a life of poverty devoid of patronage or a lucrative market for his writings, and eventually drank himself to an early death while watching with disgust as Pakistan became a client state of the US in their urge to become Indiaís military equal. In Mantoís piece (of which I was pleasantly surprised to find a decent English translation online; others too) the high politics of decolonization and loaded questions of Jinnahís ësecularismí are tangential at best, and the author effectively renders its subject from the perspective of his servants in Bombay as by turns enigmatic, charismatic, sensitive, generous, brilliant, moody, homoerotic, austere, meticulous and unapologetic man. It is hard to imagine how all of these characteristics might be assimilated into anything like a coherent national narrative, so perhaps we might treat Jinnah (or all subjects of history for that matter) to the same indulgences as Ashis Nandy prescribes for Advani, and acknowledge his capacity to live multiple lives.