August 16, 2023
ISLAMABAD – ‘We come under the category of the fallen.’
In the years leading up to Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was hewing to his favourite theme: resurrection. ‘We have seen the worst days…we are just awake. We are just opening our eyes…You are yet a sick man; you are still an invalid; you have yet to go through the convalescent period before you can become perfectly healthy.’
But was a return to health ever possible? To his enemies, Jinnah was asking for the ashes – if a poor stretch of land covering India’s Muslim areas did indeed separate, it would just as soon wither and die. Not that the founder was swayed: after all, freedom had no price. ‘My reply to Mr Gandhi is, “I do not want to be ruled by you.”’
Such a reply also lay at the heart of freedom: of the largest Muslim mass in the world, escaping the rage of a very different majority. Yet where Western thought – sickened by the blood and gore of its own world wars – saw in Gandhi a global shaman with a healing touch, Jinnah was seen as a cold scold by contrast.
Freedom remembers the reverse: Jinnah, the pro-unity liberal, nudged offstage by a Gandhi flooding the land with hocus-pocus; a classic case of modernism versus revivalism, of reason versus fever. Nor was Jinnah the only casualty; so was the idea of India. ‘For God’s sake, Mahatma,’ said freedom fighter C.R. Das, ‘we want logic, not magic.’
Though some saw this magic for what it was – a shot in the arm for ancient hatreds – most didn’t. Because while Jinnah was a darling of non-Muslim moderates – Naoroji and Mehta and Gokhale – all three of his heroes were dead by the time Gandhi mania swept Congress in the late 1910s. And when it did, neither Jinnah’s mastery over the courtroom nor his skill in the assembly could shield him from the roar of Hindu mass politics. As has been said elsewhere, it is the present that forces men back into their past.
How he faced that tide, however, is what made the future Quaid special: he refused to be coopted like the Ali brothers, and he refused to be emasculated like Azad. He refused, in fact, to accept the terms of the new India at all, and when he broke with it in Lahore, it was for good. ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s,’ goes Blake’s Jerusalem, ‘I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.’
But creating a country, it turns out, is a tall order: to raise a fallen people, and then free them. Wrote Chaudhri Muhammad Ali (years after he was forced, unjustly, to resign as prime minister), ‘Too proud to cooperate with the victor, too sullen to adjust themselves to the new circumstances, too embittered to think objectively, too involved emotionally with the past to plan for the future, Muslim society in the decades following the events of 1857 presented a picture of desolation and decay.’
Jinnah would admit to the same, if during a low point of his own in the ‘30s: the Muslims were ‘led by either the flunkeys of the British government or the camp followers of the Congress…I felt so disappointed and so depressed, that I decided to settle down in London.’ So it was that the Quaid bought a house on West Heath Road, set up his law chambers on King’s Bench Walk, and drowned himself in practice. As he sighed to a friend over lunch at Simpson’s, ‘I seem to have reached a dead end.’
Unknown to him then, the march of history was clearing his path: in the vicious rule of the Congress, in the start of a world war that would sap empire, and in the strange passions of the human heart, some unleased by Kashmir’s favourite son.
Compared to the common sense of the Quaid, Iqbal stirred something visceral in the angry young Muslim. To one such reader, the 24-year-old Malik Ghulam Nabi, Iqbal’s masterpiece, Bal-i-Jibreel (Gabriel’s Wing), landed like thunder from the sky; a cry for freedom like none before. ‘It beat back our holy men…it knocked down the pseudo-socialists, it mocked the colonizers, it inspired the poor to stand on their own feet…those once ashamed of calling themselves Mussalmans now claimed it with heart-bursting pride.’
Ghulam Nabi knew, because he was one of them. ‘As a student, I called myself G.N. Malik…Hindu friends made this out to be Gopal Narain or, in the Sikh tarang, Guru Nanak…it was Iqbal’s ehsan that we were able to do away with this inferiority complex, and openly announce we were Muslims.’ (Malik Ghulam Nabi would go on to join the freedom movement; his daughter-in-law, Dr Yasmin Rashid, remains in prison.)
And as the anxieties of a minority became those of a civilisation, it could only fall to Iqbal – a man of extraordinary contradictions – to become its poet-saint. ‘The fate of the world has been principally decided by minorities,’ he wrote, ‘…character is the invisible force which determines the destinies of nations, and an intense character is not possible in a majority.’
That intense character showed up in odd places: the year Bal-i-Jibreel was published, seven-year-old Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was taken along by his father to visit Lord Brabourne, the governor of Bombay. When Brabourne remarked how handsome his elder brother was, Zulfikar replied, or so he would claim as an adult, ‘His Excellency the governor is handsome because he has been fed on the blood of our beautiful country.’
Accosted by his father for his rudeness on the way back, ‘it was enough to release my tension. I put both my hands on my face and sobbingly, almost shouted hysterically in Sindhi, “Eiho asa jo mulk ahe, eiho asa jo mulk ahe, eiho asa jo mulk ahe – This is our country, this is our country, this is our country.”’
As for the country that came to be, Pakistan was just too irresistible an idea. A scattered handful had already spoken up for separation: the English poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt said as early as 1883 that India be split in two; the Hindu sectarian Lala Lajpat Rai piled on with the same plan in 1924.
But it took a fierce young man at Cambridge to draw up the clearest proposal – its name included. Rahmat Ali conceived the idea of Pakistan all by himself in 1933, and not, as the textbooks tell us, Iqbal (who shook the earth for very different reasons). By the time Jinnah made that dream come true 14 years later, Rahmat had taken up the role of disillusioned romantic, and stayed one.
How Pakistan was achieved in those seven fraught years – from the resolution in 1940 to freedom in 1947 – is contested. Ayesha Jalal writes that Jinnah never wanted separation; Ishtiaq Ahmed writes, correctly, that Jinnah did, but that it was wrong; this writer feels Jinnah not only wanted separation, but that it was right.
What is beyond argument is that the Quaid began life as a nationalist Muslim, but ended it as a Muslim nationalist – a sequence of words that spelled the world of difference between Congress and the League. And yet even the nationalist Muslim would find no real berth in Congress: as much as it painted itself in secular polka dots, the party of Gandhi and Nehru was as stoutly Hindu as could be, with Muslims just three percent of its membership as late as the mid-’30s.
Regardless, the call to freedom worked its own magic. When it most mattered in 1946, the Muslim mass did not side with Samad Achakzai’s shadow Congressites in Balochistan, nor with Khizr and his obese landlords in the Punjab. It returned thumping majorities in Sindh and Bengal, and then rejected the Red Shirts boycotting the referendum in the frontier. Partition was at hand.
That it fell to British bureaucrat Cyril Radcliffe to do the carving is set forth in Auden’s shabby little poem:
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds
With their different diets and incompatible gods…
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided…
Return he would not
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
Of course, everyone now knows that Radcliffe, in cahoots with the glib Dickie Mountbatten, picked off Muslim-majority Gurdaspur for India, and handed it land access to Kashmir. The latter soon flared up, and would witness two wars and Kargil; its origins less in the Indian canard of the savage tribal than in the Dogra Raj mounting all-out massacres in Jammu. When Jinnah’s own general, Douglas Gracey, disobeyed him and committed treason, Pakistan lost its best chance. The valley is yet unfree.
Still not content, the British also shrugged off the rest of Partition. ‘Having lit the fuse,’ said leftist historian Perry Anderson, ‘Mountbatten handed over the buildings to their new owners hours before they blew up, in what has a good claim to be the most contemptible single act in the annals of the empire.’
And as the railways – that symbol of the white man’s generous heart – became littered with corpses, the Crown’s intelligence reports took on the same tone as semi-amused cricket commentary: ‘The practice of throwing Moslems from train windows is on the decline.’ But while local scholars continue to finesse such a holocaust into ‘both-sides’ madness, all sides are not equal: more Muslims were cleansed and more Muslim women abducted in the Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs combined.
Amid such terror, it fell to the founders to forge a new deal. They would do so without their moving spirt: utterly consumed by the struggle for Pakistan, Jinnah passed away a year later. (His clarity endured to the last day of his life; as his heartbroken physician Ilahi Bakhsh injected him with medicine – ‘God willing, you are going to live,’ – Jinnah’s last words to his doctor were, ‘No, I am not.’)
Though his companions carried on, freedom neither deepened, nor was it given much of a fighting chance. The new contest soon shifted to one between wings: with a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory between East and West Pakistan, this was a non-contiguous supra-state with no parallel in history. But though a peaceful parting of ways was always within reach, the centre was bent on a process that could only ensure horror and scission.
‘Pakistan was created on the basis of religion,’ wrote Ramachandra Guha, ‘but divided on the basis of language,’ a silly take by a solid historian: while Jinnah was chided for stressing that Bengali would remain a provincial language in favour of Urdu, the matter was nonetheless settled by 1956, when a new Constitution enshrined Bengali as the national language very much on par with its distant cousin from UP.
In the end, Pakistan was divided not on the basis of language, but on the basis of autonomy – and the dark intentions of those suppressing it. As the muscle behind One Unit, Ayub Khan huffed that East Bengalis ‘have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races, and have not yet found it possible to adjust psychologically to the requirements of freedom’. Freedom remembers otherwise: Pakistan was born in Dhaka, just as most Pakistanis were Bengali.
But the curtain call came on March 1, 1971: when Yahya turned the knife on his own people and cancelled the first session of the Dhaka assembly, ensuring it would never open again in a land called Pakistan.
While conservatives rightly point to the recent confessions of Agartala co-conspirators as well as Indian diplomats – that Mujib was working toward separation long before 1971 – it is cold comfort: the people had voted for him, as they had prior for his late leader Fatima Jinnah, and it was for him to decide their future; those that did end up deciding all landed in the pages of the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report.
Which is why ‘71 marked freedom’s turning point: few understood what had been lost more than Mahmud Husain. Removed from the cabinet as part of the ‘Bengal group’ (along with Nazimuddin and Nishtar) in Pakistan’s first coup in 1953, then locked out of parliament when Ghulam Muhammad wrecked the assembly a year later, he had returned to his old sanctuary as Dhaka University’s vice-chancellor; he was made to resign yet again, Dawn reports, by the Ayub regime, after refusing to stop anti-government protests.
If Pakistan’s two halves were to part, Mahmud Husain said, he hoped it would be with the quiet closure of brothers at their father’s funeral. Instead, a living nightmare ensued, as Bangladesh tore itself away. Mahmud Husain was overcome, as was Ghulam Nabi, who, per his son’s memory, wept and wept; two of the old guard that had been present at the creation.
Yet here again was a chance, if one helmed by Yahya’s junior partner. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would lend the thrilled poor a voice for the first time; ripping off his shirt in Peshawar, he said, ‘The people have no place in government…the military rules here…It is a government of cannibals. It ate up Khawaja Nazimuddin and Suhrawardy – I do not want to name Madar-i-Millat – and still it feels hungry. But it will not be able to eat me.’
It did indeed eat him. ‘I was born to make a nation, to serve a people, to overcome an impending doom,’ he wrote from prison a decade later, papers balanced on his knee. ‘I was not born to wither away in a death cell…’ Overthrown by General Zia, he was denied a floor of appeal, then denied commutation of sentence, and then hanged (though similar sympathy must also be extended to the souls of his opponents Dr Nazir Ahmad, Nawab Ahmad Khan, and the six Hurs of Sanghar, all of whom were assassinated one by one during the Bhutto years).
When freedom did return to the conversation, it was in the colours of jihad, as the Zia regime busied itself in fighting the Russian bear next door. The state’s social fabric imploded, even as the fact of the Soviet armies doing in Afghanistan what they had always done – losing their sanity, razing villages – was oddly scrubbed out of both Western commentaries as well as the lore of Pashtun irredentism. Democracy would be restored on rather qualified terms: the morning Gen Zia’s C-130 crashed, Mirza Aslam Beg circled over the wreckage, sauntered over to Islamabad, scuppered the investigation, and declared civilian rule; he was handed a Tamgha-i-Jamhuriat, the first and last, by Benazir, before proceeding to rig an election against her party.
This would be coupled, again, with geography’s most tragic crossroads: not long after the Russians withdrew, the Americans invaded, as an entire generation of Pakistanis fought a brand-new insurgency: their names include Safwat Ghayur, Bilal Omer, Bashir Bilour, Shuja Khanzada, Aitzaz Hasan, and Tahira Qazi. Militancy, beaten back for a time, should have thrown the stakes in sharp relief; of a nation back from the abyss.
Instead, Pakistan carries on without a political compact, without a bipartisan claim on civilian supremacy, without even keeping to a defined electoral process – its throne guaranteeing death or despair.
Benazir Bhutto was murdered 16 years ago. Nawaz Sharif remains in exile in London. Imran Khan is in prison over a joke of a judgement — 20 kilometres from where Akbar would send empire’s most dangerous castoffs.
Seventy-six years later, freedom remains very much in the arena, battling on and on and on. This, then, is song of Pakistan – in the words of another writer: that which must happen, cannot; and, conversely, that which cannot happen, must.