India, Pakistan : re-opening the wounds of Partition

August 19, 2009

Was it necessary to divide India and Pakistan ? Was Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, really the obdurate Muslim leader who forced Partition along religious lines in 1947 or was he pushed into it by leaders of India’s Congress party, especially first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

A new book by former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh re-opens that painful, blood-soaked chapter whose price the region is still paying more than 60 years on.

Singh, a leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, challenges the widely-held belief in India that it was Jinnah’s insistence on a  separate homeland for Muslims that forced the breakup of India and the mayhem that accompanied it.

Jinnah, an impeccably secular leader, didn’t start with this, he argues in the book “Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence.”

What Jinnah said, in the tumultuous years before Britain finally left the subcontinent, was that he wanted  ”space in a reassuring system” for Muslims so that they didn’t get engulfed in a Hindu-majority India, Singh says.

A federal structure that would have given Muslims a certain amount of autonomy, a sort of a Pakistan within India, may well have worked. But Nehru shot it down, believing in a highly centralised polity , influenced as he was by the prevailing Western, European socialist thought of the time.

“”Consistently he stood in the way of a federal India until 1947 when it became a partitioned India,” Singh told CNN-IBN in an interview . If the Congress had accepted a decentralised federal state, then a “united India was clearly ours to attain,” he says.

Jinnah has too long been demonised by Indian society. “I think we misunderstood him because we needed to create a demon.  We needed a demon because in the 20th century, the most telling event in the sub-continent was the Partition of the country.”

Strong words these and especially coming from a leader on the Hindu right. Not surprisingly, members of his party have distanced themselves from Singh’s revision of history. The Congress party, of course, would have none of it , accusing Singh of denigrating the country’s first prime minister while eulogising Pakistan’s first head of state.

Pakistan has welcomed Singh’s attempt to review the role of  the  “Quaid-i-Azam or Great Leader as Jinnah is known.

The Daily Times in an editorial said the book was an important Indian revision of a highly demonised Muslim leader and held hope for the future. if India and Pakistan could agree on their history a bit more, perhaps that may be the starting point of a more lasting detente ?

[Photographs of Pakistani helicopters flying past a portrait of Jinnah 2)children lay flowers at a portrait of Nehru and 3) former foreign minister Jaswant Singh)

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