As Jinnah’s political lieutenant, Ruttie’s decision to marry Jinnah owed a lot to his politics, which is what had mesmerised her in the first place. Hence her participation in Jinnah’s political activities began from Lucknow, well before their marriage.
Despite her father’s opposition, the young Ruttie attended the joint annual sessions of the Congress and the Muslim League, held in the city in December 1916. Jinnah had joined the All India Muslim League in 1913, reportedly on Gokhale’s insistence, to bring Muslims into the fold of the mainstream nationalist struggle. Within three years, he had become important enough to be elected as the All India Muslim League president for the Lucknow session. It was in this capacity that he signed the Lucknow Pact with his friend and Congress president Tilak.
It was to witness this glory that Ruttie had come down to Lucknow from Bombay.
By early 1918, she was Jinnah’s wife. Within a year of their marriage, Mrs Jinnah proudly saw the elevation of Jinnah as the overall president of the Muslim League in 1919. Her husband’s new position meant that she would be seated with him on stage during public meetings of the Muslim League, just like she had been beside him in the Congress meetings.
Her Westernised attire would sometimes provoke the mullahs or the conservative Muslims. At the 1924 Muslim League annual session at the Globe Cinema, Bombay, for instance, some people asked the organisers who the woman was. Jinnah’s political secretary, MC Chagla, had to tell the objectors that she was the Muslim League’s president’s wife, so they would be better off keeping their observations to themselves.
The incident is indicative of the fact that Mrs Jinnah was not just a passive companion cheering from the fence, but would share the limelight as well. A contrast can also be drawn with the Congress meetings, where her dress would raise eyebrows – the Nagpur session four years earlier had shown that the Congress’s mindset was not as liberal as the Muslim League’s, at least when it came to women. But more on the Nagpur session in the following chapters.
Modern attire, both for Mr and Mrs Jinnah, was a political and not a fashion statement.
The couple was never underdressed, something they believed Gandhi had introduced in the public space. Both Jinnah and his wife staunchly opposed Gandhi’s antics of equating nationalism with minimal clothing of locally made cloth. Mrs Jinnah was frank enough about her thoughts on this, leading Kanji Dwarkadas to quote another letter that Mrs Jinnah had written to him. “I feel you had no business to be born in this world with ‘Dhoti’,” she wrote to him, adding that the “correct setting for nature of such fine sensibilities is a Sari – or a skirt – as the case may geographically require”.
One of the reasons the Muslims stood taller, politically speaking, in their interactions with the British was the dress sense the first couple had inculcated in them. For decades to come, in any meeting between the three main political powerhouses – the Congress, the Muslim League and the British government – the latter two had their fine dressing to back them up in their arguments, while the Congress representatives made political statements in homespun clothing.
In almost all formal contact with the British government, Mrs Jinnah would be with her husband as long as she lived. The visit of the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, who had to abdicate his throne in 1936 over the Mrs Simpson affair) in late 1921 provides an interesting illustration of this. His first royal tour to India was boycotted by the Congress, which the Jinnahs considered an unwise decision.
Greater still was their opposition to the Congress’s resorting to protests that put its supporters in harm’s way. By 17 November 1921, the clashes with the police had left fifty-three Congress sympathisers dead and more than five hundred injured. In contract, the Jinnahs’ commitment to always adhere to the law, engage in constructive dialogue with the government and discourage anything that might instigate violence, was very different from those of the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi.
Mrs Jinnah strongly shared her husband’s disavowal of Congress politics.
She wanted home rule but could not countenance unconstitutional means. Mr and Mrs Jinnah find honourable mention in accounts of royal historians covering the tour. As per British civil servant and historian Rushbrook Williams, “Mr Jinnah and his beautiful wife, Ruttie, met the prince on many occasions. I am sure that the prince learnt much from them.”
Mrs Jinnah used to be part of Jinnah’s contingent at political activities outside the purview of the Muslim League as well. One such incident recounted by a top Khilafat leader, Adeel Abbasi, refers to a meeting of the Khilafat Movement, where Jinnah was also invited. As the Jinnahs arrived at the venue, Mrs Jinnah might have alighted from the car first and walked towards the entrance. The volunteer at the gate asked to see her entry pass. In the meantime, Jinnah also arrived.
She said to him in English, “Jay, they are not letting me in, they want the entry pass.” Without a murmur, Jinnah gave his entry pass to her and she went in. Jinnah was left outside. When this came to the notice of the prominent Khilafat leader Hakeem Ajmal Khan, he came out, apologised and brought Jinnah in.
The presence of women in politics was so rare then that organisers had not foreseen that a leader would come accompanied by his wife. It also shows how important Mrs Jinnah’s participation in political activities was for her husband, who, when the situation arose, deferred to his wife being admitted first.
Excerpted with permission from The Woman Who Stood Defiant: Ruttie Jinnah, Saad S Khan with Sara S Khan, Penguin India.