The truth is, Gandhi is less of a draw than Jinnah
By M J Akbar
It is curious that six decades after 1947 a debate on Jinnah can pack halls in Delhi and Mumbai but a discussion on Gandhi might not fill a front row. Is this because Jinnah offers the drama of a court trial, the speakers being advocates for defense or prosecution, and the audience a silent, but ultimately decisive, jury? Jinnah, one of the great barristers of his age, would have relished the metaphor.
Has Gandhi become, in our subconscious, an irritating nuisance, a mirror before our guilty conscience? Who wants to be measured by the yardstick of a saint who was so disconcertingly honest that he turned his autobiography into a confessional? Jinnah, on the other hand, was so private, and even secretive in life that, in death, he is vulnerable to endless post-mortem dissection. Gandhi has become as ephemeral as an ideal. We can disturb the memory of Jinnah. Gandhi’s memory disturbs us.
Where would Gandhi have been on his 140th birthday, October 2, 2009, if he were not safely dead? He would have been on a fast in Maharashtra. Why? The state police has slipped into the public space a statistic made even more astonishing by the indifference with which it has been received: there has been, on an average, a riot every 20 days in Maharashtra during the last five years. Print media consigned it to a couple of statutory paragraphs inside. Television, crowded with high-decibel celebrities, ignored this completely. It seems that our innumerable guardians of secularism need familiar villains for their rage. Faceless violence is not attractive enough.
Gandhi placed the facts of violence above the politics of conflict. He would have been an inconvenient presence for those who profess to live by his creed today. As for the heroes of modern India: they would not recognize him. There is no way to reinvent Gandhi as a happy symbol of a rising sensex, checking out the value of an investment portfolio at five every evening. It makes sense on every side to convert Gandhi into a token portrait on the wall of a government office.
Jinnah’s problem, conversely, has been that he has been appropriated, or misappropriated, by a range of vested interests, each determined to resurrect him in its own image, to serve its agenda. Pakistan’s political elite, forced to compromise with the culture of theocracy, has converted the natty, lean, handsome owner of 200-odd London-tailored suits into a shalwar-and-cap chameleon. If, instead of being clean-shaven, Jinnah had sported a slight, fashionable beard, they would have extended the beard by six inches in official portraits. Most Pakistanis would be shocked today to discover that Jinnah did not know Urdu, never fasted during Ramzan, had little interest in the rituals of religion, and that his concept of spiritual sustenance was very worldly indeed. Jinnah sent out invitations for a formal lunch-banquet in honour of the visiting Mountbattens for August 14, 1947, the day the new nation was born. The meal had to be cancelled when someone realized that they were in the middle of Ramzan. Jinnah had been oblivious of the fact that observant Muslims had been fasting for three weeks.
Indian politicians have restructured Jinnah more subtly. Contemporary Congressmen needed a cardboard Jinnah as the all-purpose villain who could soak up all the guilt of Partition. An obstinate, communal hate figure was planted into Indian schoolbook history. This was then morphed into something more insidious.
When Jinnah’s utility as the father of Pakistan receded, he was transformed, surreptitiously, into the symbol of the guilt of Indian Muslims, who became the whipping boys of Indian nationalism as practiced on all sides of the spectrum. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, forerunner of the BJP, latched on to this projection with great glee, since it perpetuated the politics of isolation and accusation. Indian Muslims, in this construct, were genetically unpatriotic and therefore, deservedly condemned to the status of second-class citizens. When Jaswant Singh challenged this single-dimension mythology by lifting the record from the private domain of academic archives and flinging it into public discourse, he had to be expelled. He had spread the guilt to others, who were Hindus, and disturbed the equanimity of a half-truth.
The secular parties, whose expertise in the dynamics of electoral behaviour has always been more astute, quickly understood that fear is the easiest route to the Indian Muslim vote. Fear of the past, Partition, was compounded by fear of its future consequences. Muslims had to choose between the communal cage and the secular trap. One offered a diet of gruel, and the other a scrap of cheese. After six decades, Indian Muslims are beginning to bang on the door of both the cage and the trap.
Mahatma Gandhi would have heard the clamour.