A chronicle of contrasts retold - The New Indian Express

A chronicle of contrasts retold

Published: 14th October 2012 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 13th October 2012 01:52 PM

The effect of individuals in historical developments can be debatable, but the fact of one free India and Pakistan is difficult to imagine without understanding the roles of Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. There have been several recent efforts in Pakistan and India to reinterpret and reassess the role of Jinnah in the Partition and creation of Pakistan; some of these efforts evoked passionate reactions. British historian Roderick Matthews sets out these two very different personalities in his book, Jinnah Vs Gandhi, with several analytical insights and vignettes nicely set out to make comparisons, and show contrasts.

Jinnah shaped the final settlement by consistently demanding Pakistan; and Gandhi defined the largely non-violent nature of the campaign. Each made their contribution by taking over and refashioning a national political party that they came to personify. Theirs would seem, therefore, to be a story of success; yet for each of them, the story ended in a kind of failure.

Matthews does not believe Jinnah was driven by the desire for personal power; had that been the case, he could have easily cut a deal with the Congress. The primary concern of Matthews — whose first book, The Flaws in the Jewel: Challenging the Myths of British India, seeks to debunk common myths about the British Raj — does not seem to portray Jinnah as “bad” or Gandhi as “good”, or the other way round. He has tried to balance their strengths and weaknesses.

Matthews critiques various books on Jinnah and comes down hard on Rafiq Zakaria who espoused the “nationalist” Muslim point of view; and on Stanley Wolpert, the American scholar, who was astonished by Jinnah’s “historic” inaugural speech to his constituent assembly on August 11, 1947.

According to him, Jinnah had wanted a particular kind of secular Pakistan — not dominated either by the Hindus or the British and filled with Muslims, though he made no attempt to define what a ‘Muslim nation’ could be. Gandhi, on the other hand, wanted a spiritually pure country full of married celibates, no capitalist ventures, spinning wheels in every house and everyone meditating on the oneness of the universe.

As a leader, social critic and oppositional figure, Gandhi’s main achievement, surprisingly, was political. He transformed the Indian National Congress, an organisation founded on Western concept, into an unmistakably Indian institution. Its indigenous culture of inclusiveness and collective leadership enabled Indians to pick out the best of the ideals that Gandhi had to offer. In contrast, despite garnering the widest possible support base, Jinnah’s was a leadership of momentum, not of foresight. Mathew is of the view that he sacrificed one essential element of nation-building — the laying down of a common ground for future.

The book juxtaposes contemporary facets of Jinnah and Gandhi’s political life; and dwells on contentious issues, such as the two-nation theory, politics and religion, to conclude that Gandhi had the right kind of virtues to found a nation. Jinnah, ultimately did not.

Matthews does not share the views of Indian historians like Chandrashekhar Dasgupta and Narendra Singh Sarila who blame the British in general, and the last Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten in particular, for the Partition. According to him, Mountbatten was merely acting as a soldier who did his best to accomplish the task given him by his political masters in Britain: Get out of India as fast and as best as you can.

In any case, this is not the primary concern of the book which is essentially a study of the contrasting role of Gandhi and Jinnah in the process of nation-building in the backdrop of the decline of colonialism. His conclusion is evocative: “At the end of the day I feel that Pakistan got the worst of Jinnah and India got the best of Gandhi.”

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