On Tuesday evening I attended the UK book launch of Jaswant Singh’s biography of Jinnah, founder of Pakistan. The buzz around the book had been created by the reaction to it in India. One state banned it (no prizes for guessing who runs that state) and Jaswant Singh was expelled from the BJP as a result of writing it, despite being a former defence minister and a current MP.
Mr. Singh’s crime? To have absolved Jinnah from some of the blame for partition and instead criticised Nehru and Vallabhai Patel. Not that this was a one-sided book, as the British, Jinnah, and Congress rightly all come in for plenty of criticism. Mr Singh bemoans the failure of all sides to step back from the detail and take in the bigger picture, which is fair to a certain extent, but fails to take into account that at this point the devil really was in the detail.
The book was well sourced and contained some material I hadnâ€™t come across before. It calls for both India and Pakistan to have a greater understanding of one anotherâ€™s â€˜growing painsâ€™ in the immediate aftermath of partition. It is written in a nice style, but I was disappointed with his reluctance to only briefly touch on the impact Jinnah has had on Indiaâ€™s psyche today. As we have seen with the treatment of minorities in India (such as the Sikh massacres of 1984), India in some senses still hasnâ€™t come to terms with minorities who are aggressively or confidently pushing for reform or more autonomy. Somewhat of a generalisation perhaps, but with ongoing conflict in areas like Kashmir and the Naxalite heartlands, it is still an important topic.
What does the reception to the book say about free speech and enlightened debate in India? The effigy-burning mob has become somewhat of a clichÃ©, and Jaswant Singh isnâ€™t the first BJP grandee to lose his head over Jinnah, with L. K. Advani becoming a pariah after praising Pakistanâ€™s founder a few years ago. Other writers, artists and intellectuals have suffered (such as M. F. Hussain) as a result of this general atmosphere. Yet underneath the public reaction, the book just reinforces the notion of the strength in depth of Indian researchers and thinkers, given the vast numbers working in areas from history to science and the amount of research which they produce. Nor, as in most cases, does the vocal minority reflect the silent majority (at least not in actions).
It is a shame that the impact and legacy of Jinnah canâ€™t be discussed more calmly, but as the scars of partition fade over time, the material for such a debate will already be out there.
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Filed in: History,India,Media,Pakistan