Ishtiaq Ahmed’s 800-page book is no door-stopper. And it succeeds by demolishing many popular misconceptions about Jinnah: a man who redrew the map of the subcontinent to create a new country. It traces the ups and downs of a political career that began in 1916 with his famous call for ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’. Of course, it was too good to last. Barely four years down the road, it was shipwrecked on the choppy waters of the Indian National Movement, where his Saville Row suits stood out in stark contrast to Mahatma Gandhi’s simple dhoti. Miffed at being sidelined from mainstream politics, Jinnah went into a sulk. On his return from England, he shifted his focus to becoming the leader of the Muslim League and the sole representative of Indian Muslims.
Despite his oft-quoted speech in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly—“You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship... You may belong to any religion, caste or creed. It has nothing to do with the business of the state.”—Jinnah was never a liberal-democrat. All his talk of a secular state was but a veneer, or a sugar-coating on his bitter insistence that the Koran and the Sunnah were the only foundation of Pakistan. Worried that the new country would be swamped after the bloodbath that would follow Partition and he might end up dealing with the 35 million Muslim minority expelled from India, he sought to assure the religious minorities in Pakistan that they would be equal citizens and all the while hoped that India would follow suit.
Soon after we find him harping on Islam and the Sharia as the basic foundations of Pakistan. This insistence effectively shuttered all doors to establishing a liberal country with equal rights to all its people. Instead he resorted to clutching straws in the wind, like seeking safe corridors to Hyderabad, or between Bengal and Punjab that never saw the light of day.
Some find it fashionable to believe that if only Jinnah lived longer he would have laid the foundations of a more secure democracy in Pakistan. Ahmed marshals his ample evidence to show how he threw simple constitutional norms to the winds during his brief stint as Governor-General. He was an elitist, no more than a slick lawyer who assumed powers that had no resonance in a parliamentary system of governance. With a deft sledge-hammer, the author demolishes the major errors pursued by later-day historians.As a reviewer, I wish the book could shed some ‘weight’! A wee bit slimmer would have made it available to a wider readership.