If Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, makes an appearance in political polemics and news, then it can only mean one thing – a major election campaign is underway in India. Despite being dead for over 70 years, Jinnah periodically makes an appearance in Indian politics. Invoking him, however, has been politically expensive for those seeking public office. L.K. Advani’s public admiration for the quintessential Bombay man who decisively shaped South Asian Muslim politics arguably cost him the political crown of the Bhartiya Janata Party. While another BJP stalwart Jaswant Singh more or less lost his career by writing a book on Pakistan that centrally featured Jinnah.
So, when leader of the Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav, who is vying for the job of the most powerful chief minister of India, invokes Jinnah it only signals that the looming election in Uttar Pradesh is a high stakes contest that is pushing the opposition leader to take big risks. We can leave aside Advani and Singh’s admiration of Jinnah that sits uneasily with Hindu nationalism. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s excoriation of Yadav’s statement that uttered the name of Jinnah in the same breath as India’s founding fathers is, in fact, entirely representative of the widespread dismissal and dislike of Jinnah in the ranks of Hindu nationalism. Nothing new there, as for Yogi, all matters concerning Muslims are invitations to score points and claim mastery.
Yadav’s statement, though, is deserving of some thought. Is Jinnah still the leader of Indian Muslims? Undoubtedly, in recalling the last great leader that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent had, Yadav was but reaching out to the near 20 per cent Muslim electorate of India’s largest state. Yadav’s statement was cynical, to be sure. But it also hides in plain sight a critical problem – the total lack of leadership for Indian Muslims today. So much so, that the man who did most to harm the Muslims of independent India, Jinnah, is still invoked both by those seeking endorsement from Indian Muslims and those who have deep antipathy towards them. Both Adityanath and Yadav make the devastating error of confusing India’s Muslims with Pakistan. After all, Jinnah is synonymous with Pakistan. But Pakistan has far from exhausted its claims on Islam in the subcontinent.
Dispensing with Jinnah
This confusion, however, does originate in Uttar Pradesh. In India’s first limited elections of 1937, provincial elections in United Provinces (as UP was called then) changed the course of India’s history. Despite separate electorates, the Muslim League was routed, and the Indian National Congress handsomely won that election. Like today’s competitive context, the idea of the minority then too was reduced to its sheer numerical value.
The 1937 electoral victory emboldened Jawaharlal Nehru to claim and speak for the diversity of a unified India. The moment soon made Jinnah into a mass leader as he set about prosecuting the idea that in such a democratic union, Muslims would be condemned to minor political status. In a matter of just three years after this election, the idea of Pakistan began to be argued by Jinnah. Muslims could only be made into a political majority by creating a new territorial boundary or Pakistan. The final settlement then recognised both Nehru’s vision of diversity with central authority and Jinnah’s desire for Muslim political power in the subcontinent. Such a settlement could have been anything but peaceful because it was the realisation of two diametrically opposing political visions.
Jinnah, above all else, recognised that the majority of India’s Muslims had voted against him and his idea by not out walking over the new borders. In December 1947 and a few months after Independence and Partition, with a combination of petulance and studied superiority, Jinnah declared the Muslims of India were “unfortunately, facing bad days”. Jinnah also then decided to split the Muslim League recognising the distinct destinies of Muslims in India and Pakistan. Jinnah as founder of Pakistan, by his own volition and even admission, no longer represented, let alone led, the Muslims of independent India.
India’s new iconic leadership
It behoves little of leaders such as Akhilesh Yadav to now invoke Jinnah. Yadav’s statement shows that despite 70 years, Indian leaders are unable to think of Muslims as democratic subjects who have new aspirations and face unprecedented challenges. Indian leaders across the spectrum, from Yogi Adityanath to Akhilesh Yadav, continue to ignore the fact that Jinnah has been the greatest obstacle for free India’s Muslims even as they continue to be held responsible for the very acts of separation that Indian Muslims did not commit.
Entrapped by Jinnah’s image, political leaders continue to misrepresent the interests and realities of Muslims, be it Asaduddin Owaisi and his strong polemics that resonates with the language of pre-Independence India, or Akhilesh Yadav who has a poor understanding of his own electorate, let alone history. Where the hyperactive-if-naïve and cynical political actor has erred, the world of culture has offered a belated but much-needed corrective.
At the high-water mark of its marginalisation, India has indeed discovered a new but undeclared leader who stands for its diversity. Shah Rukh Khan, much like many of India’s Muslims today, has shown remarkable restraint in the face of aggression and vilification. He represents a reluctant if iconic leadership. SRK has been put in this position of iconic power above all by his tormentors. His supporters too had hitherto been content with his stardom and celebrity.
Unlike Jinnah then or Owaisi today, SRK represents more than Muslims. There has only been one other such figure in India’s modern history who has equally swayed Hindus and Muslims, men and women alike. While the Bollywood Badshah is no Mahatma, he has certainly ensured that India is not the monopoly of shrill sectarians. That alone has made him not only heroic but a historic necessity for India today.
The author’s new book ‘Violent Fraternity; Indian Political Thought in the Global Age’ is out next week from Penguin India. She teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)