I usually refrain from commenting on currently active stories because calm reflection yields more positive results than hot-blooded rants. However, in the case of Jaswant Singh (JS) vs. Sangh Parivar, it is of utmost importance that I speak immediately. On the surface, the halla-gulla seems to be yet another intra-Parivar squabble, perhaps the RSS asserting its power over the BJP. Politically it may be so, with some deft manoeuvring by some BJP member(s) who held a grudge against JS. The questions raised in this scuffle, however, are of paramount importance and the answers we find will set the course India takes in the future.
The gist of the matter is that JS wrote a book, Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence, that was more sympathetic to Muhammad Ali Jinnah than Indian historiography has been willing to allow. Jinnah, for most Indians, was the villan of the partition. He demanded a separate state to be carved out of the British Raj for Muslims against the wishes of Gandhi and Nehru, and he was responsible for the carnage that followed (in which over a million people died). History is never so clear, and this is what JS’ book reminded us. In a more sympathetic portrayal of Jinnah, the blame shifts somewhat to Nehru and Sardar Patel as well as Jinnah.
The critical question this biography raises is how did the man they called the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity in 1916 end up as the Qaid-e-Azam of Pakistan in 1947? The answer: he was pushed by the Congress’s repeated inability to accept that Muslims feared domination by Hindus and wanted “space” in “a re-assuring system.” The British divide-and-conquer policy added fuel to the fire, particularly with the introduction of reservations in 1909 and communal electorates through the Government of India Act in 1935. Language riots favouring Urdu over Hindi despite the 1900 declaration by Raj authorities that both languages will be given equal status further hardened the position of prominent Muslim intellectuals such as Muhammad Iqbal (author of Sare Jahan se Accha) and Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (friction between Hindi and Urdu had existed decades before the language riots and even the formation of the Muslim League). The 1937 elections shattered the aspirations of the Muslim League, and Congress concomitantly refused to share power with an organisation that sided with the British and opposed its policies (of communal electorates). This difference in vision led to Iqbal’s idea of a separate Muslim state (1930) being adopted as the policy of the League at the Lahore sitting in 1940. For JS, Nehru and Mountbatten share equal responsibility. He argues that while Gandhi, Rajagopalachari and Azad understood the Muslim fear of Congress majoritarianism, Nehru could not.Had the Congress accepted a decentralised, federal India, then a united India “was clearly ours to attain”. But “this was an anathema to Nehru’s centralising approach and policies.”
Although JS is right in that Jinnah was not the archvillain of the Partition, he was not as angelic and innocent as one may gather from the book. Jinnah was nothing if not the archopportunist. Power hungry, Jinnah used the Congress and then the League to rise to a position of prominence that his money and connections alone could not do in revolutionary India. JS does not, however, give Jinnah any agency – throughout the book, Jinnah is acted upon by either Muslim intellectuals, the Congress, the British, or the League. Jinnah needs to be ‘un-demonised’ but I am not sure this is best achieved by inducting him into the Hall of Angels. besides, that would be biased history of another kind. In any case, it is time Indians recognised that the founders of the nation were also ordinary mortals, better than some but prone to making errors nevertheless (Guilty Men Of India’s Partition, by Ram Manohar Lohia, is an excellent place to start reading on the Partition. A more common view can be found in The Tragic Story of Partition, by HV Seshadri).
JS opens up, inadvertently or not, the question of federalism. Would an American model, in which states have power in most areas but relinquish foreign affairs, defence, and a few key sectors to the centre (to put it simply), have served India better? What if Pakistan had been an autonomous part of an akhand Bharat along with Bangladesh and perhaps parts of Hyderabad? This is a counterfactual, not quite in the purview of academics. However, it does not mean that we should not consider it. However, the pitfalls must be clear – there is no evidence to cite in favour of federalism in India because it has never been tried. Furthermore, given the vast differences in language, culture, worship, and cuisine, the dangers of separatism must be considered before advocating a federal system. Especially now, what would stop Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat and Haryana from seceding to avoid having to pick up the slack from Bihar, West Bengal, and other non-performing states? India has had problems with Punjab already as well as Tamil Nadu and the problem in the North East has still not abated. An argument against federalism, however, is that stronger states tend towards centralisation. Take the American case again – as America changed from a backwater of the British Empire to the superpower it is today, Washington became stronger and stronger. The sharpest difference can be seen in pre- and post- Civil War (1861-1865) under Lincoln, the New Deal (1933-1945) under Roosevelt, and the Cold war (1945-1991). The Executive Branch became so powerful that in 1973, the US Congress passed the War Powers Resolution (did not become an Act and is hence not a law of the land even though all Presidents since have followed its guidelines – its constitutionality has been challenged but since it has not gone to the Supreme Court, there has been no decision) to restrict the President.
Whether JS can sell his book and argument or not, the key issue here is freedom of expression and the value of an open debate. Other issues JS’ book has raised like history and federalism take a back seat to this. India claims to be a democratic country and I will, for now, give her the benefit of the doubt. JS’ expulsion from the BJP for his personal views he expressed in publication is nothing other than the Talibanisation of Parivar politics. The appropriate response to a book is a review, a publicised panel discussion, or better yet, another book. The book has been banned in Gujarat (held by the BJP in the May 2009 elections), a move supported by the Congress Party as well. Worse, it had been barely two or three days since the book came out that the Parivar machinery went into gear to expel JS. It is unclear how many people actually read the book and contemplated on the argument before taking such an extreme measure as expulsion. JS is – was – a senior member of the BJP having held the position of Foreign Minister and Defence Minister in the 1998 – 2004 BJP government. Moreover, given the history of the relations between Jinnah and the Parivar – remember LK Advani’s trip to Lahore in 2004 – the anti-intellectual psoition the BJP-led NDA coalition has taken is apparent.
I am not one to believe in the universality of ideas. That is not to say that no idea is universal, but the chances are fairly high that the context may render a noble idea in Europe meaningless in South Asia. In our intellectual clumsiness or for purposes of propaganda, we use words from one context, history and evolution in another entirely alien enviroment (Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe does an admirable job of explaining this point further). A quick illustration of the multiple valences of ‘progress,’ for example, comes in the form on a couple of anecdotes – in one, Ramanujan, the famous mathematician, is caught by GH Hardy consulting a horoscope, and in the other, Nobel laureate CV Raman excuses himself from his laboratory so that he could get home early and shower before a solar eclipse arrives at his location. Two unquestionably brilliant men of modernity still clinging to ancient extra-rational (I use the suffix extra- because ir- has a pejorative connotation) practices: is this progress or regress in the far reaches of the Raj?
The idea in danger here is open debate. I believe the concept holds the same meaning in its Western incarnation as it does in its Eastern trajectory – there is ample evidence of philosophical and theological debates occurring in India for at least the past three millennia. Similarly in the West, open debate has meant publications and counter-publications, speeches and counter-speeches, and the free exercise of the scientific process (hypothesis-thesis-synthesis). As such, even if one vehemently objects to JS’ interpretation of history, it must be done in open discussion. Unpalatable, unfavourable or unpopular ideas cannot be quashed by using the state machinery but must be rejected, appropriated, or allowed to modify our own views only through a process of exchange and consultation. Otherwise, there is no difference between the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and this; Narendra Modi would be no different from the anti-intellectual, obscurantist Syed Shahabuddin. Intolerance towards free expression has been more visible of late. Besides the JS case and the Satanic Verses, there was also MF Hussain’s painting of a nude Saraswati and the reaction in India to the Danish cartoons that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban. No doubt, one may find some of these more distasteful than others but the principle is still the same – should we use the powers of the State to suppress ideas we don’t like? If the answer is in the positive, the next question becomes, who is the ‘we’? And, what do ‘we’ do when ‘we’ are not in power and ‘not-we’ decides to supress an idea tha ‘we’ like but ‘not-we’ don’t?
Clearly, in a democracy, self-restraint is necessary. The best means of opposition to an idea is economic – boycott MF Hussain’s exhibition, don’t read the Satanic Verses, refuse to buy JS’ book but don’t ban them. Ideas become more dangerous when suppressed than when dismissed after due consideration. A glaring example is the Congress Party itself – putting on blinders and creating (and believing) its own myths, it did not see the rise of a viable opposition in the form of the BJP because more and more people were become tired of secularism, Congress-style. If the BJP does not accept occasional challenges to Party orthodoxy, it will be no different from the Congress Party. It will lose its distinct flavour as a party that refuses to abase itself in the cults of Mao, Marx, or the Gandhi dynasty. More importantly, as a major national party and the only viable opposition, the BJP’s actions will set a precedent and serve as an example or an excuse for future generations of not only BJP leaders but also other politicians and officials. Once it is established that the truth is what is politically correct and exigent for the national meta-narrative, people in all walks of life in India will follow the set example. Objectivity, query, and discussion would have lost their use, and any action that takes away the intrinsic property of an idea breeds instability and chaos.