Cyclone Singh: Right-Wing Introspection in India?
A tearful, bewildered Jaswant Singh has been expelled from his party of old, the BJP, and his new book, Jinnah: India–Partition–Independence, has been banned in Gujarat. The reason? ‘Ideological deviation’, according to the BJP’s party leadership, because Mr Singh has praised Mohammad Ali Jinnah and criticised India’s first home minister and hero of the independence struggle, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
That is how an editorial in Pakistan’s Dawn summarizes what has happened to Jaswant Singh, India’s former Defense, Foreign and Finance minister, and for more than thirty years, a stalwart of the BJP, the right-wing, most would say Hindu nationalist party, that formed the government from 1998 – 2004.
Singh spent the last five years of his life researching a biography about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League and the founder of Pakistan. The book — which I have not yet acquired — apparently eviscerates the popular demonization of the man. It argues that Jinnah was a true Indian nationalist and that he was avowedly secular and did not ascribe to anti-Hindu sentiment. Singh believes that through the 20th century it was necessary for India to have a demon and Jinnah served that role. He compares Jinnah to the early Gandhi and suggests that Jinnah was just as significant/honorable. (An interview that Singh had with Karan Thapar is quite revealing). None of this is very new to those who follow this stuff closely but it is significant coming from someone of Singh’s stature.
The biography further emphasizes that the creation of Pakistan — which might have been averted had a federal system been adopted — occurred due to political failures. And that, many of those political failures should be imputed not to some ideological or religious ambition in Jinnah (as the orthodox Indian opinion holds), but to the stubbornness of one Jawaharlal Nehru, who was then President of the Congress Party and became the first Prime Minister of India. Nehru’s children and grandchildren, through the Congress Party, essentially ran India for a good part of the 20th century, until they were temporarily removed from power by the BJP’s conservative-populist-capitalist program (of which Jaswant Singh was a major component).
Singh says that Nehru, influenced by socialist political theory since a trip to Europe in the 1920’s, was dead set on creating a centralized state in India, and would not accede to Jinnah’s decentralized and federalist vision — a vision in which Muslim rights would have been protected; a vision, incidentally, that Jinnah shared with Gandhi, the leader of the Hindu masses, and Maulana Azad, the Muslim member of the Congress Party, who had opposed the creation of Pakistan. In other words, according to Singh’s reading, the original sin that is Pakistan — a view of the nation that many Indians hold but is obviously not shared by Pakistanis — is not purely one devilish Muslim figure’s fault but also implicates other Indian heroes. It is evident to see why this proposition would be incendiary in India.
Singh points out that Jinnah was animated by a desire to protect the largely poor and uneducated minority Muslim population from Hindu majoritarianism in a united India. While Singh thinks that Jinnah’s concern was more or less legitimate — which itself is a controversial position — he does believe that Jinnah ultimately failed in what he set out to do, because after the Partition, millions of Muslims were still left within India, and were “abandoned” and “bereft of a sense of kinship.” (Today India contains the third largest Muslim population in the world and many are stuck at the lowest rung of opportunity and dignity).
Incidentally, Singh is not the only one of the leading BJP figures to have praised Jinnah and then pay the price for it. A few years ago, LK Advani, who was then President of the BJP, was forced out of the party’s leadership position because on a trip to Karachi he praised the secular character of Jinnah. I did not follow that incident and do not have any more to say about it.
Singh seems somewhat shocked by the reception to his book, at least with respect to what the BJP has done to him. In his own words he believed that the biography would create a furor in Pakistan, since there are many Pakistanis who — incorrectly — think that Jinnah was some kind of charismatic religious figure intent on creating an Islamic state and would have never tried to strike a deal with Hindus. Further, it was logical to believe that the book would create a controversy within the ruling Congress Party in India, since it was their founder, Nehru, that Singh’s revisionism implicates as also being responsible for the Partition.
Yet that is not what has happened.
From what I have gleaned, the book is about to become a huge hit in Pakistan, with orders from Pakistan exceeding orders from India by 3 to 1. Further, Congress has had a fairly muted reaction, whereas it has been the BJP that has, to put it mildly, lost its head. As a consequence of his expulsion, which occurred on the phone, Singh is spilling all sorts of secrets.
One of the most significant revelations Singh has made is that that in 2002, after a gruesome massacre of nearly 2000 Muslims in Gujarat, then Home Minister, LK Advani, apparently counseled the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, against taking action against Narendra Modi, the man most people believe to be responsible for the massacre, despite that glowing profile in The Atlantic.
Not satisfied with that revelation, Singh has further said that he covered up for Advani during the so called Kandahar crisis, an incident where terrorists took 166 hostages and demanded the release from Indian prison of two of their most notorious comrades — and the Indian government capitulated. The BJP, which had long taken a hard line towards terrorists, with Advani serving as Home Minister, had pretended that they didn’t know about the deal and at the time Singh had reaffirmed that position. Now that the BJP has soured on him, he is saying that at the time he was “economical” with the truth. We’ll have to wait and see what else comes out.
The international media — along with many liberals who want to utilize the book as a means to advance India-Pakistan rapprochement — will be pushing the line that this is entire fiasco is all caused by the fact that Singh has essentially praised a Muslim, and not just any Muslim, but the man who founded Pakistan. I am most definitely not an expert in Indian politics but this claims strikes me as only as partly true. I think it is a little childish to think that Indian reservation cum antagonism towards Pakistan has solely to do with the figure of Jinnah or the fact that Partition occurred. There is the matter of all the subsequent wars, the water issue, the Kashmir issue, the nuclear arms race, and so forth. Sure, the Partition antagonized the Indians, but if Pakistan and India had become like the U.S. and Canada, it would have been praised. In other words: I don’t think the Partition — by which I mean the political chess match that led to the Partition — is the touchstone of Pakistan-India relations.
I think the real issue in Singh’s expulsion is his implicit suggestion that Sardar Vallabhai Patel, a Gujarati contemporary of Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi, who was responsible for uniting the princely states of India — Wikipedia compares him to Otto von Bismark — was also responsible for the Partition. This is what has gotten Singh in hot water, as evidenced by the fact that Gujarat is the place where his book has been banned, largely because Patel’s followers believe that it defames Patel. A columnist at The Asian Age named Anand Sahay agrees with me and writes: “Jaswant ’sin’ is wondering why BJP should idolise Patel.” Further, after their electoral defeat to Congress earlier this year, the BJP had been trying to appropriate Patel as someone who represented their core values. By Singh coming in an undermining Patel you suddenly have the “ideological deviation” that, I think, really led Singh to get exiled.
Another thesis, advanced by Soutik Biswas at BBC, is that the BJP is in political wilderness, and that this book was an attempt by a senior member to try and bring some Muslim voters into their fold after a crushing defeat. This is not implausible. I can imagine that perhaps a few years ago some senior members decided that the best way to bring Muslim voters in would be to try and appeal to the secular ones — the ones that could make a political compromise with the Hindu nationalism of their party. On this particular issue I have only speculation.
Before I stop with all this rambling genuflection, I do want to point out how this book is likely to be received in Pakistan. There are going to be two responses. One I have already identified: a sense of hope that the truth about the Partition is finally coming out and by virtue of the realization that were no saints in 1947, only fallible politicians making botched compromises, some kind of emotional truce might be imminent. But there is a second darker response as well: some Pakistanis are undoubtedly going to argue that if “those Hindus” could make a power-play against “us Muslims” back in 1947, they can and are doing it ever since, and it was a great idea that the Partition occurred and it would be a mistake to ever trust an Indian again.
I think that the latter position is intellectually bankrupt. Just as Jinnah was not inherently anti-Hindu — something Singh has painstakingly made evident — men like Gandhi and Nehru were not inherently anti-Muslim and it is high-time that Pakistani academics begin evaluating the Hindu actors of history with an honest eye. After all, at one point Gandhi was ready to give the Prime Ministership of a united India to Jinnah. Further, it was due to a freak error on the part of a Muslim leader of Congress that Nehru even got to the position where he had the ability to influence the decision-making to such a large extent. I am referring to Maulana Azad, the Muslim leader of Congress, who gave up the presidency of the party to Nehru in 1946. Azad was for a united India and opposed to the idea of Pakistan, but more or less shared the federal understanding that Jinnah had. Had he been in power a compromise would have been more likely. In his memoirs he calls giving up the presidency to Nehru a “blunder” of “Himalayan dimensions.”
I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then has made me realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. I have regretted no action of mine so much as the decision to withdraw from the Presidentship of the Congress at this critical juncture. It was a mistake which I can describe in Gandhiji’s words as one of himalayan dimension.
Had Azad kept the highest post in Congress, it is conceivable that the Partition might not have happened or if it would have happened perhaps not so suddenly or haphazardly.
I think, ultimately, the pain of the Partition of 1947 does not have to do with the political disagreements that led to it, but to the aftermath, to the trains of blood, to the organized rape, to the communal violence, the refugee camps and the dispossession. Those were things that could have been prevented — that should have been prevented! — and the failure to take care of them is what haunts the subcontinent. The specter of a million lives lost. That is the discussion that must happen today. I don’t think it will be career politicians who will lead us to that.
My other hope is that in the coming days people who have spent their lives studying these issues will chime in on the debate that is brewing and help out of depth hacks like me.