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Byline by M.J.Akbar: Man of Irony
Could President Pervez Musharraf ever have imagined, when he asked us to think out of the box, that a BJP leader like Lal Krishna Advani would leap out of the box and land at the doorstep of Mohammad Ali Jinnah? Peace has its compulsions no less dramatic than war.
When irony invites paradox for dinner, you can be certain it will be a riotous feast. We underestimate the subtlety of irony if we see no further than the obvious. L.K. Advani’s epiphany on the road to Pakistan is not ironic. It is an evolutionary, well-conceived step designed to serve more than one purpose.
An immediate objective is evident. By going to Pakistan, and praising Jinnah’s famous speech at the Constituent Assembly, Advani stimulated the bipartisan peace process. It was proof that you do not have to be in power to contribute to policy. As Advani notes, peace is built on trust, and you cannot gain a Pakistani’s trust by demonising the father of that nation. But the episode is much more than a diplomatic gesture. Consciously or otherwise, Advani has also sought to exorcise demons from a discourse that has punished the subcontinent with war, and condemned Indian Muslims to trauma and riots.
The reaction within the BJP, which has milked belligerence against both Pakistan and Indian Muslims, confirms the power of the Advani swivel. Advani is not a traitor to his cause. He believes that it is time his cause grew up and acquired a more mature rationale for existence. The dialectic of conflict can take you only so far, and the BJP has reached that point. It must now seek a dialectic of inclusion. This fits in with a larger conviction that the only way forward for the subcontinent is within the secular space. He was also reminding Pakistan of the Jinnah that many Pakistanis prefer to forget, the Jinnah who wanted a democratic, secular Republic of Pakistan.
The irony lies not in the action, but in the reaction.
Let us examine the worst. Praveen Togadia, whose face boils over with hatred at less provocation, decided that Advani had become a "traitor". Acharya Giriraj Kishore, whose beard camouflages his feelings but whose eyes are a giveaway, was livid that Jinnah had been called secular.
Ours is a free country. We even allow the freedom to hate, though not the freedom to be violent. Such reactions from these eminences were predictable. What was interesting was how the term "secular" had become, almost surreptitiously, a positive word in their terminology. How? They hated the thought that Advani had praised Jinnah as secular; ergo, "secular" was a positive attribute which they wanted to deny Jinnah.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that the one thing that the Togadias and Kishores hated was "secularism", that Gandhian concoction under which Muslims had been made free and equal citizens of a Hindu-majority India. "Secularism", a sort of Leftist-Congress disease, was, in their lexicon, a synonym for hypocrisy, anti-Indian and anti-Hindu behaviour. It was reassuring therefore to learn that Togadia and Kishore considered secularism a virtue, and did not want to extend the compliment to their favourite bogey, Jinnah.
Their compatriot in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Mahant Avichaldasji, has decided to launch a movement demanding the resignation of Advani from the Lok Sabha because he has "deceived" the Hindus. He is also upset that Advani called the day of the destruction of the Babri Masjid the saddest day of his life, and claims that the voters do not want Advani anymore.
Advani was elected from Gandhinagar, capital of Gujarat. What greater irony could there be than the fact that a city named after Gandhi, a Gujarati, should seek to reject Advani because he spoke a language that Gandhi would have understood? Gandhinagar has become a measure of Gujarat’s betrayal of Gandhi. The parallel irony of course is that Advani helped create such a voter, and now is being asked to pay the price of his own past.
Which, neatly, brings us to the next irony: Advani, who sparked the revival of the BJP in the second half of the Eighties with the Ram Mandir movement, had become to Pakistanis what Jinnah was to Indians, the object of a hate-cult. The role reversal has a particular piquancy. One can sense the depth of shock within the BJP. They had barely managed to digest the liberalism of Atal Behari Vajpayee, and now they were being confronted with a recast Advani. Who can remain stable when the world totters at both the North Pole and the South Pole?
The poles shook similarly when Jinnah made his speech on 11 August 1947: after having created a nation for Muslims, he rejected the idea of a Muslim nation in the sense of a theocratic state. Pakistan, he said, would become a great nation only if every citizen had "equal rights, privileges and obligations". He continued: "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… We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State…"
But of course the debate that Advani has started over Jinnah, is not a debate about Pakistan but a debate about India, which takes irony to unprecedented heights. It is a debate with many contours around a central question: was Jinnah solely responsible for the partition of India? Who destroyed the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946, often called the last chance for Indian unity? How much did newly-elected Congress president Jawaharlal Nehru’s press conference in Mumbai on 10 July 1946, where he withdrew from the Congress commitment, affect the unity of India? (Azad was deeply upset by Nehru’s remarks and Sardar Patel wrote to D.P. Mishra on 29 July that Jawaharlal’s "emotional insanity" had wrecked everything.) How justified was Nehru in his conviction that to provide guarantees to one community would open a Pandora’s box from which India might never recover. Was the Plan itself too fragile to last? These might seem, after all these years, questions of detail, the trees preventing us from seeing the wood. But there is a basic question we cannot escape: how did a man who never believed in communal politics deliver a nation for a community? Did he change? Was he driven into that corner? Such questions will never be answered satisfactorily as long as the politics of bias shapes our "facts".
A politician with an inclusive attitude often rejects certain facts for the larger good. Dr B.R. Ambedkar has become an icon to Dalits. Will any leader of an Indian political party, with any sense, seek to hurt the Dalits by picking on some elements of Ambedkar’s politics, like cooperation with the British, or will he woo Dalit sentiment by recalling the extraordinary contribution Ambedkar made to the psychological uplift of his people?
The debate has a second hinge: is our future best protected by a secular, inclusive spirit, or by separatist urges? This question is relevant internally, for all nations of the subcontinent are divided by competing identities, as well as externally, for only a common commitment to a secular spirit will enable India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to cooperate as politically sovereign and economically inter-dependent nations. So far, the separatist urge has controlled our fortunes, literally: "fortune" is a word of economics.
It is a question that Advani has addressed to his own party much more than to others, and legitimately so. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, predecessor of the BJP, belongs to the third phase of the Hindutva movement. The first phase was a search for renaissance and reform, and came to an end with the death of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. The second saw the institutionalisation of this search. In 1907, a year after the Muslim League was created, the United Bengal Hindu Movement and the Punjab Hindu Sabha were born. At the Lahore Congress session of 1909 the Hindu Sabha was formally recognised as a Congress forum. The RSS replaced the Sabha as the institutional force after its formation in 1926. The third phase began after the tears of partition, with the birth of the Jana Sangh in 1952. It was a mirror-image of the Pakistan demand, for it sought power for Hindus in India in the way that Muslims had established their base in Pakistan. Five decades later the president of the BJP is telling his party to move away from the 20th century and into the 21st.
It is a debate that will be welcomed by Indian Muslims, who have long been burdened by the "guilt" of partition. The Congress, paradoxically rather than ironically, has been as insistent upon demanding this price as the Hindutva parties, creating a tribe of "Congress Muslims" whose rise to power has often been in direct proportion to their ability to pour venom upon Jinnah. Once again, it is time to move on.
I have been wondering which is the greater irony: that both Jinnah and Gandhi were Gujaratis, or that both Jinnah and Advani were from Karachi. Whatever the answer, of this I am certain. The BJP’s Man of Iron has become India’s Man of Irony.