Muhammad Ali Jinnah was born on Christmas – the same day as a messiah whose birth was rejoiced by angels, but whose temporal life ended on a blood-soaked cross. Jinnah, an adored liberal, died a disillusioned communalist. He was a secular butterfly, ultimately enfolded in the cocoon of communalism. It is the story of reverse metamorphosis, one of the most agonising in modern Indian history.

Historian Stanley Wolpert in his Jinnah of Pakistan says that Jinnah was greatly inspired by the liberalism of British Secretary of State for India John Morley, an ardent disciple of English philosopher and parliamentarian JS Mill. Jinnah fell in love with the theatre when he was in London studying law in the 1890s. Wolpert refers to Jinnah’s secret ambition to play the role of Romeo at the Old Vic Theatre. “Even in the days of his most active political life, when he returned home, tired and late, he would read Shakespeare, his voice resonant,” Wolpert writes, quoting his sister Fatima Jinnah.

But in real life, Jinnah played the role of Oedipus, the tragic character by Greek playwright Sophocles who suffered an immutable fate, a predestined tragedy. Despite his heroism and strength, he was powerless against external forces. He lived a life opposite to his wishes. Rajmohan Gandhi, in his Understanding Muslim Mind, underscored the contradiction of Jinnah’s life: in his initial years, Jinnah had stood for Hindu-Muslim unity, but he finally turned into an apostle of Muslim separatism.

‘Muslim Gokhale’

Jinnah was the defence counsel of freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak in a case of sedition, which he won against the British government in 1916. Jinnah’s first speech in the Imperial Legislative Assembly was in favour of MK Gandhi’s struggle for racial justice in South Africa. Congress leader and freedom fighter Gopal Krishna Gokhale had predicted that Jinnah would be an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and Jinnah had responded saying that he would like to be a “Muslim Gokhale”.

Author Yasser Latif Hamdani writes in Jinnah: A Life: “Jinnah had joined AIML [All India Muslim League] with the specific purpose to wrest it from the clutches of the landed aristocracy and men like the Aga Khan, whom he considered as a British collaborator. Jinnah at this time was entirely unsympathetic to the ideas of Muslim exceptionalism.”

Jinnah brokered the Lucknow Pact of 1916 between the All India Muslim League and the Indian National Congress aimed at Hindu-Muslim unity. He opposed the Khilafat movement – a pan-Islamic movement that began in 1919 to preserve the authority of the Ottaman sultan as the caliph of Islam – and as a liberal, he stood up for constitutional methods vis-à-vis Gandhi’s mass politics.

After the Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League in 1940 for the establishment of Pakistan, Jinnah did a volte face from his secular politics. Many historians believe that Jinnah had demanded the creation of Pakistan as a pressure tactic, but it turned into Frankenstein’s monster.

MA Jinnah and MK Gandhi. Credit: Kulwant Roy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In his famous speech to Pakistan’s Constitutional Assembly on August 11, 1947, Jinnah declared: “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…’’

At the dawn of Pakistan, non-Muslims comprised 23% of the country’s total population and non-Sunnis were a quarter of the Muslim population.

But over the years, minorities perished in Pakistan. Farahnaz Ispahani, in her Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, wrote about the history of Sunni extremism in Pakistan and how the contradictions at the heart of the Pakistani state-building project have fueled religious intolerance in the country.

Ispahani notes that General Zia-ul-Haq’s ascent to power in 1977 accelerated the pace of intolerance against non-Sunni Muslims in Pakistan. His military regime promoted Sunni Islam at the expense of other denominations. By the end of his reign, Pakistan was no longer a safe place for minorities, neither Muslim or non-Muslim. The country had betrayed Jinnah’s dream of a secular Pakistan.

MA Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru with Louis Mountbatten and other leaders, discuss the Partition of India. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Marriage that across religion

It was Jinnah who presided over the Gurjar Sabha’s event to welcome Gandhi to India on his return from South Africa on January 13, 1915. At that point, Jinnah appeared to have looked up to Gandhi as a personal hero. But eventually, Jinnah rejected the Gandhian notion of inclusive Indian nationalism and embraced Muslim nationalism that led to the Partition of India – in geo-political as well as psychological terms.

Jinnah’s chivalrous romance, cutting across religious lines, highlighted the liberal worldview he held in his personal and social life. Jinnah was 40 years old, a successful barrister and a rising star in the Indian political firmament, when he fell in love with 16-year-old Rattanbai “Ruttie” Petit, the daughter of Jinnah’s friend and client, the fabulously rich Parsi baronet Sir Dinshaw Petit.

When she turned 18, they got married in 1918 despite Sir Petit’s antipathy to the alliance. Rattanbai and Jinnah were ostracised by their communities. “He gave up Islam for the sake of a Kafirah/Is he the Quaid-e-Azam (great leader) or the Kafir-e-Azam [great kafir]?” asked his orthodox, fanatic critics. But the liberal Jinnah was unfazed. Sheela Reddy’s Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India is a praiseworthy attempt that delves deeper into the story of this progressive and ultimately tragic marriage.

Jinnah was spoiled by the primrose path of politics. He struck a Faustian bargain with communalism – an agreement that forced him to abandon his social values and moral principles for political power. This bargain marred India’s national movement as well as its potential to have grown as an Asian giant. Jinnah’s life ended in tragedy, like that of Oedipus’s. Had he been steadfast in his progressive politics, India’s destiny would have been far better.

Faisal CK is Under Secretary (Law) to the Government of Kerala. Views are personal.