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Jinnah portrait row: Another example of India’s growing intolerance?

Hindu nationalists want Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s portrait taken off wall of prestigious Muslim campus.

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Updated: May 8, 2018

Decades after the portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was hung at the campus of India’s prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Hindu nationalists want it removed.

Jinnah, then a leader of distinction in undivided India, is now revered as Qaid-e-Azam or the Father of Pakistan. India and Pakistan have gone to war twice since the Partition of India in 1947, and their relations are anything but cordial.

Jinnah, Pakistan’s first governor-general, is counted among leaders who wanted a separate nation for Muslims. However, he is also counted among the most secular leaders of the subcontinent and many lament that Pakistan has failed to live up to his ideals with its divisive politics and its mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities.

In a speech made on August 11, 1947, Jinnah famously remarked: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

AMU was founded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, whose portraits also adorn several distinguished walls across India and abroad. Khan played a crucial role in educating millions of Muslims, especially women.

Since the controversy erupted last week, Khan’s portrait has gone missing from a government office in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Hindu nationalists want both Jinnah’s and Khan’s portraits replaced by those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath Yogi, media reports said. During Modi’s reign as chief minister in the western India of Gujarat, pogroms left hundreds of Muslims dead.

Yogi was handpicked by Modi to lead Uttar Pradesh and his anti-Muslim posturing is no secret.

Strangely, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) own senior leaders have praised Jinnah, time and again, as senior journalist Karan Thapar wrote in a piece for The Tribune.

During his visit to Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi in 2005, veteran BJP leader LK Advani wrote in the visitor’s book: “There are many people who leave an inerasable stamp on history but there are very few who actually create history. Qaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah was one such rare individual…”

Jaswant Singh, another senior BJP leader and a former foreign minister, defended Jinnah during the launch of his book “Jinnah-India, Partition, Independence” in 2009. He said India had misunderstood Jinnah and made a demon out of him and that even Mahatma Gandhi, considered by India as its Father of Nation, called him a “great man”.

Jinnah, also a leading barrister of his time, was offered a life membership by the students union of Aligarh Muslim University in 1938, and his portrait has been on the campus wall since.

The controversy over his portrait erupted when Satish Gautam, the BJP’s Member of Parliament from Aligarh, wrote to the university on May 1, asking why the portrait was on display. Since then the Hindu Yuva Vahini, founded by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and ABVP, the student wing of the RSS, are making sure that the controversy does not die down.

Members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini barged into the varsity last week, shouting slogans and clashed with students, with Yogi Adityanath himself joining in the chorus for the portrait to be removed.

Exams have been postponed in the university, internet services disrupted, and section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, banning gatherings of more than four people, clamped on the campus. The varsity has become a cantonment with deployment of large contingents of paramilitary forces and police.

Many have reasoned that the Hindu right has more in common with Jinnah than the students at AMU and Indian Muslims, who chose to stay back in India and do not celebrate Jinnah as an icon. Though Jinnah was not alone in propounding the two-nation theory on the verge of India’s Partition, he is often blamed for the creation of Pakistan – something that dilutes his otherwise secular principles.

The current turmoil on the campus is not new, since this is a university favoured by Muslims, it is often targeted, and most controversies acquire a communal colour just as soon. The students at AMU are demanding “azaadi (freedom) from RSS”, India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist group, and see RSS’ demand as an attack on India’s notion of democracy.

India is becoming increasingly intolerant towards dissent, more so for its minorities. A Muslim was lynched on the suspicion of storing beef in his refrigerator. Cows are considered sacred in the country.

The main Opposition Congress party has accused the BJP of provoking sentiments and communalising the atmosphere with its “dirty politics of sensationalism, divisiveness, polarisation”.

While various reports claim that Jinnah’s photograph also adorns the walls of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla and the Bombay High Court in Mumbai, the AMU administration has asked the government to frame a policy on how institutions should deal with pictures of, or references to, controversial personalities such as Jinnah.

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Lamat R Hasan
About the Author: Lamat is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network.

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