How is Jinnah now seen in retrospect by historians? Claude Markovits
22 December 2002
EXCERPTS: Voice of the Muslim nation
By Claude Markovits
How is Jinnah now seen in retrospect by historians? Claude Markovits
gives an insightful analysis.
When detailed attention was paid to the question of Muslim separatism
by Indian historians, the dominant theme was that of missed
opportunities, of an outcome which had been the result of an
accumulation of human errors, rather than of structural factors. That
the use by the Congress, including by Gandhi, of Hindu symbols
facilitated the mobilization of Muslims by the Muslim League was a
point generally missed by Indian authors.
There were, however, dissenting voices, mostly outside academics:
some Marxists, taking a leaf from CPI ideologue Adikhari's synthesis
of Stalin and Jinnah, and influenced by W. Cantwell Smith's views,
believed the Pakistan movement was a genuine bourgeois nationalist
movement; on the other hand, those who were close to a Hindu
nationalist point of view saw in it the continuation of a deep-seated
Muslim conspiracy against Hinduism and Mother India.
For the left-leaning 'secular' historians who dominated the field in
India in the 1970s and 1980s, there was, however, an added element:
Muslim communalism, far from being either an authentic bourgeois
movement or the mere result of an imperialist conspiracy, was an
expression of false consciousness and basically reflected the class
hegemony exercised over the Muslim masses by a narrow elite of landed
magnates and big traders who feared that the development of a unitary
mass movement of Hindu and Muslim peasants and workers would endanger
their material interests.
Sumit Sarkar, in his authoritative Modern India, tended to take this
view and to dismiss the League's claim to represent the entire Muslim
community. But to these authors also, the Pakistan movement and
partition were a diversion from the main struggle against
imperialism. They seemed to think that it was the weakness of the
Left in India which had allowed the diversionary forces of
communalism to move in.
What I want to stress, however, is that, in spite of wide differences
of opinion between Indian and Pakistani historians, and even within
the academic communities of each country, a kind of basic consensus
could be identified, around a few key points, such as the crucial
role given to the dynamics of Muslim politics and to Jinnah's
personal intervention.In 1983, R.J. Moore, an Australian historian,
could still write: "In an age sceptical of the historic role of great
men there is universal agreement that Jinnah was central to the
Muslim League's emergence after 1937 as the voice of a Muslim nation;
to its articulation in March 1940 of the Pakistan demand for separate
statehood for the Muslim majority provinces of north-western and
eastern India; and to its achievement in August 1947 of the separate
but truncated state of Pakistan by the partition of India."
The emphasis in Pakistan on Jinnah's historical role had nothing
surprising about it, but even in Indian accounts he occupied a
prominent place. Apart from divergent appreciation on the personality
of Jinnah, there was a high degree of consensus on the fact that the
creation of Pakistan as a separate state was basically his work, even
if the idea of Pakistan was known to be somebody else's brainchild
(and here accounts diverged, some singling out Iqbal, others Chaudhri
Rahmat Ali). A Pakistani historian expressed a widely-held view when
"After March 1940, Jinnah's course became clear. The Muslim League
had adopted the conferment of independent status on contiguous Muslim
majority areas, i.e., Pakistan, as its goal, and he strove for its
achievement with the same tenacity of purpose and single-mindedness
with which, some years earlier, he had pursued his dream of
Hindu-Muslim unity. All his efforts after that day, his interviews,
his speeches, his negotiations, and his strategic moves were inspired
by one idea - to achieve this end."
By contrast with Jinnah's relentless pursuit of a definite goal, all
other actors, be they British statesmen or Congress leaders, appeared
to have been fumbling, unclear about the objectives they sought. In
particular, the role of the Congress was seen as largely reactive.
Although Pakistani indictments of Nehru's intransigent attitude
towards the Muslim League at the time of the formation of the
Congress provincial governments in 1937 were not totally without
echoes in India (and received partial confirmation from the
publication in 1988 of the expunged passages in Maulana Abul Kalam
Azad's memoirs, India wins freedom, first published in 1958), nobody
in India dared yet blame Nehru for the increasing gap which opened up
between the Congress and the League after 1937.
In Pakistan, a lot of criticism was also directed at Sardar Patel,
whose strong hostility to the Muslim League got particular notice.
Indian historians were not at ease with the attitude of the Congress
leadership in 1947, particularly with the open divide between Gandhi
on the one hand, and Nehru and Patel on the other, but by
concentrating heavily on Jinnah, they managed to largely avoid the
The part played by the British was one of the most controversial
points. Both Pakistani and Indian authors were very critical of
British attitudes and policies, but they directed their criticisms at
different aspects. Indian authors, taking a long-term view, stressed
the fateful consequences of the 'divide and rule' policy followed by
the Raj and in particular of the institution of separate electorates
in the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909. But they did not gloss much over
Mountbatten's crucial role in expediting things.
Pakistani historians, wary of recalling the Muslim League's friendly
attitude to the British between 1940 and 1946, preferred on the one
hand to evoke the role of Muslims in the 1857 uprising and on the
other hand to concentrate on the attitude of Mountbatten at the time
of partition and on his indubitable pro-Congress bias. While
Mountbatten was generally acknowledged as the midwife of the
partition (Jinnah being its putative father), he nevertheless got a
better press in India than in Pakistan.
This appears paradoxical, but can be explained in part by the
adversarial relationship he had with Jinnah during the last
negotiations which led to the actual partition of the Indian Empire.
Some also stressed the crucial role played by V.P. Menon, Patel's
close adviser, in framing the actual partition plan.
But beyond the endless squabbles about precise responsibilities,
there was a deeper consensus between Indian and Pakistani historians
about the fact that the division of British India was the result of
the growth of a specific political movement amongst the Muslims of
the subcontinent. Whether labelled as Muslim 'nationalism' by
Pakistani authors, or by Indian authors as 'communalism',
'separatism' being interestingly used both by supporters and
adversaries of the movement, the fact is that Muslim political self
assertion was seen as the key factor in the whole chain of events.
Divergences existed as to the causes but not as to the fact.
Pakistani historians, trying to give substance to the 'two nation
theory' formulated by Jinnah, sought to muster all possible evidence
on the existence over a long period of a sense of cultural and
political separateness among India's Muslims. Indian historians, less
preoccupied with cultural arguments beyond general statements about
the existence of a 'composite' culture in the subcontinent, preferred
to locate the origins of Muslim 'separatism' in the machinations of a
Raj on the decline, a position which was supported by a lot of the
Outside the subcontinent, the few historians who dared tackle the
Pakistan movement and the partition, being less preoccupied with
matters of state and of political legitimacy, focused particularly on
the role played by religion.
Some, of whom Paul Brass was the most outspoken, stressed how
religion had been instrumentalized by elites, both Hindu and Muslim;
to give legitimation to a fight over positions and power, especially
in the context of Northern India. Others, while taking more seriously
the claim of a struggle for Islam raised by the Muslim League,
stressed the existence of a complex combination of factor.
* * * * *
Paradoxically, it was from within this elitist historiography that
the most effective challenge came. Although (Ayesha) Jalal's
preoccupations were strictly with the haute politique of the
partition, her iconoclastic study of Jinnah helped nail the coffin on
the elitist historiographical project. Jalal located herself firmly
in the camp of those who took the view that, in the story of the
Pakistan movement, religion had been instrumentalized.
She concentrated entirely on Jinnah's political activities, paying
little attention to his attitude towards religion, which remains a
very controversial subject, particularly in Pakistan, and more
generally to the question of his 'Muslimness'. Her considerable
critical faculties, supported by a great deal of research in still
partly closed archives, helped her make hash, in particular, of the
widely held and somewhat self-evident notion that Partition was
Jinnah's original goal.
Jalal argued that Jinnah was actually aiming at a federal India in
which the League would have shared power with the Congress, and that
it was the frustration of that aim which led him to accept partition
as the only way to avoid Hindu domination over the whole of undivided
India. Jalal put the onus of partition squarely on the refusal by the
Congress, with British implicit support, to make the concessions
which could have satisfied Jinnah's demands.
Jalal's book got a mixed critical response, but it undoubtedly helped
change the terms of the debate. Both Pakistani and Indian historians
saw some of their most cherished myths challenged. Jinnah, although
portrayed rather sympathetically, was shown as having had feet of
clay. He had often miscalculated, had relied too much on the British
remaining as arbiters, and when faced with the evidence of their
decision to depart quickly, had seen his weakness exposed.
This had led him, the most constitutionalist of all Indian
politicians, to go for 'mass action', an exercise for which he had no
skill, and in which he was outmanoeuvred by the wily Suhrawardy,
whose intervention at the time of the great Calcutta killings had had
disastrous consequences. Eventually, he had been forced to accept in
1947 the 'moth-eaten' Pakistan, from which East Punjab and West
Bengal had been carved out, that he had so contemptuously rejected in
July 1944 on the eve of his inconclusive conversations with
Gandhi.Jalal's Jinnah was not the supreme politician of earlier
accounts, but a man who had gambled and partly failed and had no
choice but to collect his gains to avoid complete defeat. He had to
constantly battle on three fronts, against regional Muslim leaders
pursuing their own agendas, against the Congress leadership, and
against the British, in particular the last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten,
and in spite of his considerable intellectual powers, had not always
proved equal to the task.
But, if Jinnah came out somewhat diminished from Jalal's account, as
a tragic and pathetic figure, the Congress leaders, including Gandhi,
emerged in a frankly unfavourable light. Jalal's view was that they
were the ones who had actually chosen partition by their refusal to
accept the prospect of a diminished centre, which alone could have
been the basis of a compromise with the Muslim League. By lashing out
equally at all the major actors (Mountbatten was not better treated
by her), Jalal helped discredit the approach 'from above' which had
dominated the field in the previous period.
Claude Markovits is senior fellow, Centre for the Study of India and
South Asia, Paris.
Soofia Mumtaz is chief of research, Pakistan Institute of Development
Jean-Luc Racine is senior fellow, Centre for the Study of India and
South Asia, Paris.
Imran Anwar Ali is Dean, Lahore University of Management Sciences.
The Preface, a lengthy Introduction and 13 papers in this volume were
prepared for a Pakistan-French seminar in Paris. They focus on
diverse issues pertaining to Pakistan. These include the
historiography of partition, the ongoing sectarian and ethnic strife,
the constricted role of political parties, the women's movement,
economic strategies, and relations with Afghanistan and India.
Excerpted with permission from Pakistan: the contours of state and
Edited by Soofia Mumtaz, Jean-Luc Racine and Imran Anwar Ali
Oxford University Press, 5 Bangalore Town, Sharae Faisal, Karachi-