I was saddened to read the Press Trust of India’s report on its September 14 interview with Ramachandra Guha to discuss his new book, Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World, 1914-1948. Guha is a well-known historian whose early work broke new and important ground. To read that he has made a facile comparison between Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Amit Shah is disappointing.
Guha describes both men as astute politicians, both with one-point agendas and both driven by a hunger for leadership. Even if one accepts, and I do not, that Jinnah had a one-point plan, it begs the question: an agenda to do what? And by what means?
A liberal politician
Jinnah evolved as a politician after his return to India from London when he became Dadabhai Naoroji’s secretary at the Congress session of 1906. He was a liberal politician, profoundly influenced by the liberal John Morley (In 1938, Jinnah recommended Morley’s On Compromise as required reading, telling students: “I think you ought to read that book not only once but over and over again.”) For most of his political career (he died in 1948), Jinnah struggled with what liberal political theorists recognise to be a problem at the heart of the liberal project – the place of the “group rights” of minorities in a liberal democracy. His goal – and it was a complex one – was to see how group rights (and Muslim concerns) could be accommodated in an Indian constitution. Hence his involvement in the plans for the Nehru Report of 1928.
Jinnah was a close friend and key ally of Sarojini Naidu, Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das, all of whom recognised that he was perhaps the only man in India who could come up with a creative resolution to this problem. Jinnah felt that he could lead, not unreasonably, because he had shown remarkable skill in bringing different Muslim groups and sects behind a common plan during the debates about the Wakf Bill in 1913.
By constitutional means
Jinnah was a master of the art of compromise. He sought, in this spirit, to work with the Congress in the 1937 elections. It was only after this compromise failed (because the Congress would not honour it) that Jinnah adopted the Lahore Resolution of 1940. He felt betrayed by the Congress, now in the hands of a new leadership, his old friends and allies having passed on. Even so, he did not call for “Pakistan” – he always maintained it was a term that the “Hindu Press” had foisted upon him. The Pakistan movement emerged incoherently and gradually; it had a host of votaries in different parts of India who dreamt of different utopias.
Jinnah has often been held responsible for the communal violence that erupted on Direct Action Day in Calcutta in 1946. But his was not a call for violence, any more than the Congress’s calls for non-cooperation or Quit India were intended to produce violence. It was meant to put pressure on the Congress to stick to the terms of the Cabinet Mission Plan, another compromise that may have produced a united India. The violence after his call for Direct Action that erupted in Calcutta – and only in Calcutta – had more to do with the city’s tortured and shifting politics than with Jinnah himself. Those in the Muslim League who most historians agree were involved in the violence, namely Huseyn Suhrawardy’s clique, were not Jinnah’s allies in League politics. In fact, they were his harshest critics. That he grew more disillusioned with the Congress after 1945 is well known, but there were reasons for his growing frustration. Jinnah’s means, throughout, were constitutional.
As for the means, purposes and political agenda of Amit Shah, the more one hears of them, the more outrageous the comparison appears. They are in no respects those of Jinnah.
Guha next attacks the writer Arundhati Roy, who has criticised Mohandas Gandhi’s politics of caste and compared him unfavourably (on this aspect of his politics) with BR Ambedkar. Roy is not a historian but on this subject, few historians would take issue with her comparison. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar lived through the same period and had bitter debates about the caste question. This is (I speak here as a professional historian) a more tenable position than Guha’s comparison of one person alive and flourishing in the darkness of the 21st century (and whose papers are not public) with another who lived a century before him. An anachronism of this kind is not, and should not be regarded as, professional history.
Joya Chatterji is Professor of South Asian History at Cambridge University and fellow of the British Academy, Trinity College, Royal Historical Society and Royal Asiatic Society. She is also editor-in-chief of Modern Asian Studies.