Rajmohan Gandhi gives insight into ‘Understanding the Muslim Mind’

Aijaz Zaka Syed

Who was really responsible for the Partition? Jinnah and his Muslim League, the Congress led by Nehru and Patel, or the retreating British? Could the catastrophic carnage that followed the violent separation have been averted if the leaders on both sides had demonstrated greater maturity and flexibility? Did the Quaid-e-Azam, as he came to be known, really want a homeland for Muslims or was the demand merely a bargaining chip to protect the future of the ‘qaum?’

These are questions that have been visited and revisited ad infinitum by scholars and historians since 1947. Yet the questions and the larger issues that they raise about the troubled legacy of the Partition and its continuing shadow over the present and future of the region remain as fascinating as ever. And when they are raised and addressed by Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, the man who successfully steered the freedom movement and had been at the heart of all the action, they lead to a book as fascinating as ‘Understanding the Muslim Mind.’

As the widely regarded author and scholar puts it, this is a personal quest to understand the Hindu-Muslim question, “which has broken hopes, hearts and India’s unity,” and an exercise undertaken with the hope that it might “inform us of times when the other side too was large-hearted, and of other times when our side also was small-minded.”

He chooses an unusual approach to explore the psyche of the South Asian Muslim and the larger question of Hindu-Muslim relations. He examines the lives of eight Muslim leaders and intellectuals who did not merely leave an indelible imprint on their followers, they have been responsible for the way things have turned out for the region, at least for its nearly 600 million Muslims.

Rajmohan Gandhi aptly begins his pen sketches with Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, perhaps the most influential of Muslim reformers in India and the pioneer of the Aligarh movement. Although a firm believer in the Hindu-Muslim unity, Sir Sayyid had opposed the Congress in its nascent stage, fearing as Jinnah and others did later that it would lead to a majoritarian polity. No wonder many in the Pakistan movement identified with Sir Sayyid.

Next in the spotlight is the legacy of the incomparable Iqbal, seen by many as the ideological architect of Pakistan although the poet philosopher did not believe in the modern concept of nation state or man-made borders. A passionate believer in pan-Islamism, the bard had died long before the idea of Pakistan acquired currency and a distinct, tangible shape. However, the bard who sang the soul-stirring ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha Hindustan Hamara’ did in 1930 talk of a single Muslim state comprising the Punjab, Northwest Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan. Gandhi devotes considerable time and space to Iqbal and rightly so. The poet’s influence on the Muslims of the subcontinent and beyond remains formidable.

Also judiciously handled are Muhammad Ali Jauhar, the champion of the Khilafat movement and Hindu-Muslim unity, Bengal tiger Fazlul Haq, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Liaqat Ali Khan, later Pakistan’s first prime ministers and Zakir Hussain, later President of India. However, it is Jinnah who remains at the centre-stage throughout the book even when other dramatis personae are being profiled. The founder of Pakistan is dealt with in exhaustive detail offering interesting insight into his strong personality, leadership and existential struggle for the idea of Pakistan that eventually became a reality against great odds and at a colossal cost.

Interestingly, what is common among the eight luminaries is the fact that they had all been great believers in India’s syncretic heritage and diversity. At least, they started out as such. Sir Sayyid, who would describe Hindus and Muslims as the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is India, had come to despair of their peaceful coexistence in his twilight years. Mohammed Ali Jauhar, who had been among the first leaders to welcome and embrace Gandhi on his return from South Africa and who travelled the length and breadth of the country with the Mahatma during the freedom struggle and Khilafat movement, died a bitter man far away from India, in Jerusalem.

Even Jinnah, the man routinely panned as the architect of the Partition, had been, in the words of Sarojini Naidu, the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. Indeed, he had been the tallest leader of the Congress before Gandhi arrived on the scene. However, with the exception of Maulana Azad and Zakir Hussain, nearly all of them abandoned their faith in the common destiny of Hindus and Muslims. The question is why. The answer, not simple or straight by any means, stares you in the face throughout the eminently readable book.

Rajmohan Gandhi blames the arrogance and partisan nature of the Congress leadership, its exploitation of religion and the increasing insecurity of the Muslims in addition to personality clashes between Gandhi and Jinnah for the conflict and eventual rift. He cites the “ungenerous” attitude of the Congress to accommodate and share power with Muslim League in provinces in 1937 and inflexibility of Jinnah as the defining turning point that paved the way for the Partition.

A liberal like Nehru, later the first prime minister of India, refused to accept even two Muslims in the coalition eventually forcing the League out and strengthening its demand for Pakistan. The Gandhi scion does not shy away from shining the light on the failings of the Congress leadership, including on his own grandfather that drove Jinnah out of the Congress and alienated a significant population of Muslims, including top leaders like Jauhar.

“In May 1937, when it was plain that Congress had scored huge victories, Jinnah sent a private verbal message to Gandhi; the communication urged Gandhi to take the lead in forging ‘Hindu-Muslim unity,” writes the Mahatma’s grandson, suggesting Jinnah had in mind a Congress-League settlement involving, among other things, power-sharing. In response, the Mahatma wrote: “I wish I could do something but I am utterly helpless. My faith in unity is bright as ever; only I see no daylight…”

He goes on to note that “it is the view of many scholars and public figures alike that the Congress’s failure in 1937 to share power with the League turned the ‘qaum’ in the direction of Pakistan. Pyarelal, Gandhi’s secretary and biographer, calls it a ‘tactical error of the first magnitude’.” He quotes journalist Frank Moraes who noted that “had the Congress handled the League more tactfully after the 1937 elections, Pakistan might never have come into being.” Penderel Moon, a British ICS officer, describes the Congress’s failure to cooperate with the League in 1937 as the “prime cause for the creation of Pakistan.”

Gandhi is equally blunt in assessing the Muslim leadership and its many flaws and narrowness of vision. He notes with amusement how Muslim leaders remained obsessed with the Ottoman Caliphate when it was being rejected by Turkey’s new leadership and people. Or how in demanding and settling for a ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan, the League leadership which claimed to speak on behalf of the subcontinent’s Muslims ignored the fate of the vast population of Muslims left behind in India, accounting for more than 40%. Indeed, as one has argued before, Indian Muslims have been the biggest losers in this battle of egos and game of one-upmanship between great men.

If the subcontinent’s tragedy can be summed up in one word, it’s selfishness. Every giant is exposed with the feet of clay. A universal tunnel vision was the zeitgeist of the time. A little magnanimity by leaders on either side would have perhaps averted the all-consuming carnage that marked the parting of ways after nearly a thousand year of coexistence. What’s more, the violent split in 1947 continues to eclipse the region even today as the nuclear neighbours remain locked in a perpetual duel.

Citing the convenient use of religion and religious discourse both by the Congress and the League that led to the split, Gandhi calls for a ‘national idiom’ to be developed in India today, to tolerate the other man’s beliefs and convictions. The same applies to the India-Pakistan equation too. Today, more than ever, the neighbours need to listen to each other and be more tolerant of each other’s perspective. They need to learn from history, not remain handcuffed to it forever. All said and done, the Partition is a reality and so is Pakistan. What really matters today is what India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can do to ensure that their future is better than their past.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former editor. Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com. Twitter: @AijazZaka

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