(17 Dec 2011)
It was on a pavement near Bombay’s Flora Fountain, some fifteen years ago, that I discovered Hamid Dalwai. On the hard dark stone the title of his book leapt out for attention: Muslim Politics in India. I bought it (for something like twenty rupees), and took it home to Bangalore. I have since read it at least half-a-dozen times.
Although little known today, Hamid Dalwai was perhaps the most courageous thinker to come from the ranks of Indian Muslims. Born in the Konkan, he moved to Bombay as a young man and threw himself into left-wing politics. He wrote some fine short stories, and also some superb political essays, these translated by his friend and fellow writer Dilip Chitre and published in book form as Muslim Politics in India. The book excoriates both Muslim reactionaries and Hindu obscurantists, and calls for liberals of all shades and faiths to come together on a common platform to build a secular, plural, and modern India.
When I included Hamid Dalwai’s work in an anthology of Indian political thought, some critics were puzzled. Others were enraged. The source of the puzzlement (and anger) was two-fold—first, that I had included a man the critics had never heard of; second, that I had excluded Maulana Azad. It is true that Dalwai is now largely forgotten. This is in part because he died in his early forties. As for choosing him over Azad, the fact is that while the Maulana was a great scholar and nationalist, his writings do not really speak to the problems of the present.
My admiration of Dalwai was confirmed by a later essay of his that I recently read. This is a reassessment of the life and legacy of Mohamed Ali Jinnah, translated by Dilip Chitre, and published in 1973 in the literary journal Quest. That journal is now defunct, but Dalwai’s essay is included in an excellent recent anthology called The Best of Quest.
Dalwai begins by noting that ‘the emergence of Bangladesh was the final blow to Mohamed Ali Jinnah’s grand political dream’. He then debunks the notion that Jinnah was a secular and modern-minded liberal who was forced by the intransigence of Hindus in general and Gandhi and Nehru in particular to advocate a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. Dalwai thus re-examines two key events: the Lucknow Pact of 1916 and the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946. He points out that if Jinnah’s intention, as his apologists claim, was to make common cause with the Hindus against the colonial rulers, then after the Lucknow Pact he should have been ‘right in the centre of the battlefield fighting the British. On the contrary, it appears that during this intervening period, Jinnah was making an assessment of what the British were likely to concede and what share of these concessions the Muslims should demand.’
Turning to the Cabinet Mission Plan, Dalwai argues that Jinnah accepted this because it ‘not only enabled the Muslims to enjoy political power in the Muslim-majority provinces but also to get a fifty per cent representation at the Centre, thus allowing them to rule over the Hindu majority’. Jinnah further ’welcomed the plan because it left the Princely States as they were, and he thought he could use “Muslim India’ and “Princely India’ as counterweights against “Hindu India”’. Jinnah upheld the rights of sundry Nawabs and Maharajas, while, as Dalwai notes, ‘persistently oppos[ing] the demands of the subjects of the Princely States for more rights for themselves.’
Revisionist or nostalgic historians blame Gandhi and Nehru for not agreeing to the Cabinet Mission plan; had they done so, there might still have been a united India. Dalwai agrees that ‘in a sense it is true that if Gandhi and Nehru had satisfied Jinnah’s demands, partition would have been avoided’. However, as he tellingly adds, ‘it was not the prime objective of Gandhi and Nehru to avoid partition at any cost. If any cost were paid for avoiding partition, every Indian would have been converted to either Islam or Hinduism to achieve such a goal’.
Dalwai turns next to the historical legacies, c. 1973, of those great contemporaries and rivals, Gandhi and Jinnah. He prefaces his comparison by noting that progressive intellectuals have tended to see Gandhi as a revivalist and Jinnah as a modernist. And yet, as Dalwai points out, ‘in Gandhi’s “revivalist” India the minorities can at least survive, and the country has a secular Constitution. It has launched a great experiment to build a modern nation. In spite of sixteen languages—all equal—and nearly eight hundred dialects, this multi-racial and multi-religious nation is still integrated. The women of this nation have the franchise without having to struggle for it.’
On the other hand, continues Dalwai, Jinnah created ‘a Pakistan which has moved in an anti-secular and anti-democratic direction. Within barely two months of its creation, fifty per cent of the Hindus in that country were forced to leave it. The narrow and rigid traditions of Islam were increasingly strengthened; the state itself became Islamic with no trace of democracy and can still not find its national identity’. If Jinnah was indeed ‘a modern secular democrat’, asks Dalwai, ‘why did his Pakistan become a country which could not have adult franchise and whose politics had all along been founded solely on blind hatred of the Hindus?’
Dalwai ends his devastating portrait of Jinnah’s career with a brief analysis of his personal frailties in the face of the violence at Partition. Gandhi, as we know, spent his last years working heroically to stem the violence, succeeding in Calcutta, before being martyred in Delhi. On the other hand, during the winter of 1947-8, when communal riots raged across India and Pakistan, Jinnah ‘refused to sign a joint appeal with Gandhi which would have helped to create a climate conducive to the protection of the minorities.’ In fact, during the riots,
‘not once did [Jinnah] step out of the Governor-General’s residence. On the contrary, as soon as he learnt about Gandhi’s assassination, he was so much worried about the possibility of a similar fate overtaking him that he ordered a strong wall to be built in the backyard of his mansion’. These facts, writes Dalwai, ‘suggest that he was either a moral coward or a political hypocrite, if not both. In either case, it is clear that Jinnah’s concern for human values was rather weak’.
Perhaps this verdict is excessively harsh. In the winter of 1947-8, Jinnah was an old, sick, dying man. Likewise, since 1973 the Republic of India has witnessed a period of Emergency rule and the rise of Hindutva. That said, for all their anxieties and difficulties, Muslims in India are still better off—culturally and economically—than Hindus in Pakistan. The contrast is even sharper when it comes to linguistic pluralism—Pakistan was divided because of the suppression of Bengali and Bengalis, whereas in India multiple languages and linguistic communities have been allowed by the state to flourish. Compared to the West, women in India are grossly victimized; on the other hand, compared to Pakistan they are moderately (and perhaps even substantially) empowered. Finally, in contrast to Pakistan, the military has virtually no role in Indian politics.
With regard to whether free India would be united or divided, Gandhi lost the argument. History however, has vindicated him. For, as Hamid Dalwai pointed out all those years ago, the legacy of the allegedly ‘revivalist’ Gandhi has proved somewhat more humane than that of the professedly ‘modernist’ Jinnah. The contrast becomes even sharper when we move beyond the sub-continent to consider the world as a whole. In North America, in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, in South Africa, Tibet and Burma, and as we speak in the Middle East and North Africa—in all these lands where the name of Jinnah is unknown, the example of Gandhi still animates—sixty years after his death—struggles for democracy, social justice, religious pluralism, and the like.