Strange Bedfellows

With the rise and coming into power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, a new kind of historical scholarship is emerging. Professor of South Asian History at the University of Oxford, and author, Faisal Devji, calls this scholarship an anachronistic exercise in which a section of Indian historians are echoing theories on the creation of Pakistan and its founder which were first developed in Pakistan by religious parties and ‘right-leaning’ historians. 


Observers believe that this is being done to justify Hindu nationalism’s rationale which sees Pakistan as a ‘dangerous theological state’ and looks at India’s Muslim minority with suspicion. This new scholarship in India consciously bypasses the historical narrative (about Pakistan and Jinnah) which was developed during decades in which the Congress Party was in power.

In November 1982, veteran British film director, Richard Attenborough, released his historical epic, Gandhi. Based on the life of Indian nationalist and spiritual figurehead of the Indian National Congress, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the film was a box-office hit.

In April 1983, when the film won eight Oscars at Hollywood’s 55th Academy Awards ceremony, the Pakistan government (which, at the time, was being headed by President Zia-ul-Haq), complained that the movie had undermined the role of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and had even distorted his image.


The film depicts Jinnah (played by Alyque Padamsee) as a snooty figure given to appeasing communal urges not because he believed in them, but because he was envious of Gandhi’s populist appeal.

Certainly the film’s writer, John Briley, and director, Attenborough, seemed to have largely based the characters of both Gandhi and Jinnah on how (till then) the state-backed Indian history had perceived these two men to be. Much of this history had been authored during the various Congress regimes that had come to power between 1947 and the early 1980s.

In this version of history, and, consequently the film, the Mahatma is portrayed as being a man who, if he wanted to, could have even walked on water; whereas Jinnah was painted as being a character more passionate about his expensive suits than about Indian nationalism; and ultimately the man who used communal tensions to create a separate Muslim country just because he was resentful of Gandhi’s fame.
Myths (both positive and negative) about important people are usually created after their demise to suit the agendas of those who want to gain mileage from the legacies of the departed.

In the film, a scene shows Gandhi being ejected from a first-class railway carriage in racist South Africa after a white passenger objects to sharing space with a ‘coloured’ man (Gandhi). This is a myth which suited the Congress regime and its sympathisers in the Western press. The fact is, Gandhi’s demand to be allowed to travel in first-class (with white South Africans) was actually accepted!

The culture editor of The Telegraph, Martin Chilton, wrote: ‘(This incident) rather than marking the start of a campaign against racial oppression, as legend has it, was the start of a campaign to actually extend racial segregation in South Africa. (The truth is) Gandhi was adamant that respectable Indians should not be obliged to use the same facilities as the blacks….’

Historian and film critic, Alex von Tunzelmann, writing in The Guardian noticed that the film also steers well clear of exploring Gandhi’s thoughts on the Axis powers (headed by Nazi Germany), ‘some of which might have made a Western audience choke on its popcorn!’

Myths have tailed Jinnah for quite a while as well, especially after he, like Gandhi, passed away just a year after partition. To most official historians, Jinnah too, would have been able to walk on water. Till the early 1980s, Jinnah was largely presented in Pakistan as someone big but distant, important but elusive. He was never explored as a personality as such.

President Zia regime after reacting to the way Jinnah was portrayed in the film Gandhi, decided to bankroll a high-budgeted epic on Jinnah. But nothing much became of the project because initial research and the resultant scripts kept portraying a Jinnah who was quite different from the version of him that had begun to be sketched and propagated by the President Zia regime.
From the impersonal, impalpable but almost numinous character drawn by the state before President Zia, Jinnah had become (under President Zia), a reactive ideologue who had worked tirelessly to construct an entirely theological state in South Asia.

As a response, in 1985, renowned scholar and historian, Ayesha Jalal, published the seminal, The Sole Spokesman. In it she cut to pieces the images of Jinnah popularised by the Congress regimes in India; the film Gandhi; and as well as the image of the founder of Pakistan being concocted and proliferated in 1980s.
Using sources that (till then) had been largely overlooked or even suppressed by most historians of India and those associated with the state of Pakistan, Jalal came up with a Jinnah who was rational, modern, compassionate and only willing to create Pakistan due to certain compelling historical circumstances, such as the receding of British colonialism, the rise of communal tensions between India’s Hindus and Muslims, and Jinnah’s growing suspicion of the Congress becoming an expression of Hindu majoritarianism.

Jalal also attempted to produce evidence that suggested Jinnah wanted a modern Muslim-majority state as opposed to a theological one. Jalal’s thesis became the cornerstone upon which those scholars in Pakistan opposed to President Zia’s and that of the religious parties’ idea of Jinnah, constructed a powerful alternative narrative of the founder and the movement that he led (to create Pakistan).

As these alternative theories have slowly but surely become a tad stronger in a Pakistan ruptured by disastrous post-Jinnah political and ideological experiments, these ideas are not being so effectively tackled anymore by the so-called ‘conservative’ narrative.

Instead (and ironically), they are being challenged by the emergence of a new kind of Indian historical scholarship that is substantiating the narrative of Pakistan’s creation first propagated by Pakistan’s religious groups and then particularly during President Zia’s tenure.

Recently, Cambridge University Press published Creating A New Medina by Indian historian, Venkat Dhulipala. A hefty study on the politics of Muslim India before the creation of Pakistan, Dhulipala tries to prove that the creation of Pakistan was an entirely theological idea and (politically) even akin to Nazism in Germany!

Author and professor of South Asian history at University of Oxford, Faisal Devji, lambasted Dhulipala’s book for using obscure and unauthentic sources in his obsession to negate the thesis triggered by Ayesha Jalal’s book 1985.
Interestingly, Devji himself doesn’t entirely adhere to Jalal’s thesis. But in his long review of Dhulipala’s book, he scathingly rips into him for treating Muslim political thought (in pre-partition India) as being entirely driven by, what Devji says is, Dhulipala’s narrow, clichéd and simplistic understanding of Muslim nationalism.

Personally, I have no idea where Dhulipala stands politically. But his book certainly seems to echo (consciously or otherwise) how Pakistan is seen by Hindu nationalists, especially the current breed that is experiencing an upsurge under Prime Minister Modi.
Unlike the Congress, which saw Pakistan as a ‘natural part of India’ that was supposedly broken away by an ‘egotistical’ and ‘envious’ Jinnah, the Modi-led BJP and radical Hindu nationalists are trying to explain Pakistan’s so-called inclination towards terrorism as an outcome of the country’s creation being inherently based on aggressive religious notions.

Ironically, if one is to ignore the anti-Pakistan Hindu nationalist aspects in the book (put there deliberately or in a more de facto manner), then Dhulipala’s thesis is also more than likely to be enthusiastically flaunted and propagated by the religious right of Pakistan!
Through this book, Pakistan’s national and religious conservatives can actually negate the damage done to their intransigent narrative about the country’s creation and his founder by the likes of Jalal. Curious notion, but entirely possible.

The writer is a journalist, cultural critic and satirist. He is the author of a detailed book on Pakistan’s ideological, political & social history, called ‘End of the Past.’

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