The real reason for attacking the Aligarh Muslim University was not Jinnah’s portrait.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has found another opportunity to encourage hooliganism by Hindutva goons in university campuses. This time, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is the target. The so-called controversy revolves around a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that has been on display at the university since 1938. Sangh Parivar members affiliated to the Hindu Yuva Vahini and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad barged into the AMU campus on 2 May 2018 demanding the portrait’s removal. Instead of bringing the troublemakers to book, the police attacked AMU students on their way to register a complaint with canes and tear gas.
This fabricated controversy around Jinnah’s portrait has brought into public debate, once again, the old and sterile question of Jinnah’s culpability in British India’s partition. It is not a question that professional historians care very much about any more. It is understood that partition was a complex process for which no single individual can be held responsible. Yet, interest around “great men” dies hard; both Pakistan and India continue to use Jinnah for their national hagiographies and demonologies respectively.
The fact that there is still ambiguity about Jinnah’s culpability for partitioning the subcontinent is reflected in how the BJP leaders reacted to the AMU episode. While most of them, including Uttar Pradesh (UP) Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, endorsed the validity of the miscreants’ “concerns,” UP Labour Minister Swami Prasad Maurya condemned the attack and described Jinnah as a mahapurush, provoking demands for his expulsion from the party. It will be recalled that this is precisely what happened to the BJP veteran Jaswant Singh in 2009 and also cost Lal Krishna Advani the presidentship of the party in 2005. These repeated fiascos, however, are symptomatic of the failure of the BJP to successfully repress inconvenient chapters of its own history, especially those that record the ideological affinities and cosy relations between the Muslim League and the BJP’s predecessor, the Hindu Mahasabha.
Indeed, the two-nation theory upon which the League’s Pakistan demand was based was not an original contribution of Indian Muslims. It is undeniably a product of Hindu genius, first propounded in 1923 by the Mahasabha leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Both the League and the Mahasabha cooperated with the British throughout World War II, even forming coalition ministries in provinces like Bengal. In fact, the BJP might have a grudge against the League for stealing the idea of their ideological gurus and taking it to its logical conclusion by securing a sovereign state for Muslims. The BJP, the true inheritor of the Mahasabha’s legacy, continues to struggle to transform India into a Hindu rashtra.
Portraying Jinnah as being the sole culprit for partitioning the subcontinent has a long legacy in Indian political discourse and is certainly not restricted to Hindutva narratives. Congress ideologues, including Congress-leaning historians who had ruled the roost for decades in Indian academia, have stabilised Jinnah’s image as a villain. The historical record contains several facets that remain incompatible with this description. For instance, that Jinnah was an ardent Congressman for most of his early political career. He had been mentored by Dadabhai Naoroji; he deeply admired Gopal Krishna Gokhale all his life; and he had defended Bal Gangadhar Tilak in a sedition case, a close colleague with whom he had worked on the Lucknow Pact in 1916, bringing the Congress and the League closer. It also remains a fact of history that Jinnah did not join the League for years after it was founded in 1906. He only acquired its membership in 1913, becoming its president three years later.
There is solid historical evidence to suggest that till the very end Jinnah bargained for a united India where power would be shared between Hindus and Muslims. Under Jinnah’s leadership, the League adopted achievement of Pakistan as its ultimate goal only in 1940. Even then, there was considerable ambiguity about whether the demand was, in fact, for one sovereign Muslim state. In 1946, Jinnah had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan that envisaged a federal India with power-sharing arrangements between Hindus and Muslims. It was the Congress that walked out of such a commitment, wrecking the entire negotiation process. Finally, when partition of British India became inevitable, the Congress and the Mahasabha worked hand in hand to ensure that Punjab and Bengal were simultaneously bifurcated. This was, in effect, an endorsement of the two-nation theory, with the Congress and the Mahasabha arguing that if Muslims could not live with Hindus in a united India, then by the same principle, it was impossible for Hindus (and Sikhs) in Punjab and Bengal to live with Muslims in Pakistan. Such historical details have, for long, been dismissed and even vilified by Indian nationalist historians as facets of Congress-bashing “neo-imperialist” historiography. It is high time that we foreground these in public discourse.
At the same time, we must remember that what caused violence in AMU last week was not any dispute about historical interpretations. We need to see it as what it really was: a continuation of the BJP’s attempts at decimating centres of critical thought. Given that AMU is a university that still dares to retain the word “Muslim” in its name, its choice as an object of attack in Modi’s India and Adityanath’s UP is not surprising at all. Clearly, the attack on AMU has been reserved for the last phase of this government’s term, so that its impact lingers on till the 2019 elections.
(This Editorial was published in Economic & Political Weekly on 17th May 2018)