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Vol. 1 No. 1 (2021)                                                                                    



­Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History by Ishtiaq Ahmed (Review)

Soni Wadhwa


Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History by Ishtiaq Ahmed Penguin Viking, 2020.


In Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History, political scientist Ishtiaq Ahmed has attempted a hitherto impossible task of speaking truth to the powers that be – in this case, not merely power in the sense of a political establishment but also power in the sense of politically correct/conscious neo-Marxists. These two entities – the establishment and the anti-establishment – do not tend to agree on anything and most positions, if challenging to one, are likely to find an ally in the other. Ahmed manages to take both of them to task by turning to Jinnah’s life for answers to address the fact that Jinnah has been appropriated by different parties from time to time to justify and push for different, conflicting agendas in the domain of secularism and anti-secularism.


Perceptions about Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s are fraught with paradoxes. One, he was once seen as an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” and then witnessed as a fervent campaigner for the creation of Pakistan. Two, he is claimed by the Islamic hardliners as an upholder of the idea of the Islamic state while he is also claimed as a visionary of secular democracy. Three, he is assessed as being stubborn about the partition of India, but he is also known to have accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan which did not leave any scope for Pakistan. Four, some might see him as effectively playing the British to get what he wanted while others see him as being played by the British in the political games as they left India. Five, he is known to be repulsed by mass movements like the Non-Cooperation Movement and believed in constitutional methods but he is also known to have mobilised his followers towards violence on Direct Action day.


Ahmed raises these questions at the beginning and satisfyingly responds to them, even settles them in the course of the book. These paradoxes and more are answered in his analysis of Jinnah’s life. Here is a quote:


Did Jinnah succeed because he was the best among his peers and rivals, or because he represented Right against Wrong, Truth against Untruth, or because he was luckier than his rivals? Has his stand on Pakistan been vindicated, or does the evidence contradict that, or at least calls for revisiting his success story? Are there failures in his portfolio which have not been talked about, and if so, what are their consequences? (xx).


Because of the way Ahmed presents these questions, his book is four genres rolled into one: history, biography, exegesis, and political theory. Understanding history through the life of an individual has happened before. But this book undertakes the task of understanding the roots of a political theory of at least one nation – Pakistan (and former East Pakistan) – directly impacted by an individual along with opening to further examination the constitution of minorities in another state – India.


Published by a non-academic press, Jinnah is very likely to reach a far wider audience. The author’s style of writing – comprehensive in its scope of coverage – helps the readers contextualise every bit of information about every episode being examined. Ahmed begins in ancient India, goes on to explore the arrival of Islam in India, and refers to the topical events during the course of the twentieth century from the world wars to the Cold War along with clarifying terms crucial to unpack an issue (federation, confederation, nomocracy and so on).


There is no suspense in the book, that is to say, there is no build up to the conclusion. The author states his position right at the beginning:


I was never comfortable with the argument that Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a secular-democratic state. Hamza Alavi famously described the demand for Pakistan as a demand for the Muslims of India and not for Islam. Taking their cue from this simplistic formulation, the Pakistan’s vocal liberal left has been advancing a range of neo-Marxist arguments to project Jinnah as the champion of a secular Muslim nation a state. Doing so has entailed playing havoc with facts and evidence. The selective invocation of primary sources has resulted in the obfuscation of facts and the gross distortion of reality. I dare to question the received wisdom of the Pakistani liberal left and some of its other positions (xxi).


Through a close reading of Jinnah’s statements and speeches, Ahmed demonstrates the words used by Jinnah all the while clarifying the context in which they need to be read. A case in point is the speech delivered on 11 August 1947; it happens to be one of the most controversial speeches made by Jinnah. It has been noted to be a paradigm shift in his conception of Pakistan. Since 1940 Lahore Resolution in which he first declared his commitment to the idea of Pakistan and began campaigning for the creation of Pakistan, Jinnah consistently spoke about Hindus and Muslims as separate nations. His idea of Pakistan was brought to life by his countless references to the Quran, Prophet Muhammad and sharia in his process of appealing to the masses. However, on 11 August 1947, he declared that non-Muslims were equal citizens of Pakistan too. The statement has been used to claim that Jinnah was a secularist. Ahmed takes very serious issues with that conclusion. He argues that this speech was made amidst news of bloodbath in the Punjab1. By assuring people all over the world that the non-Muslims were safe in Pakistan, he was only being cautious unless India would begin to expel Muslims out of its territory. He knew that Pakistan would not be able to handle any major influx of people from the unpartitioned provinces of India that were under the Congress rule as the interim arrangement India. In his detailed analysis of the speech, Ahmed points not only points out the words and fears present in the speech but also considers the various things absent from the speech. For example, that pre-Independence speech is an isolated piece: Jinnah did not make any speech affirming the protection of non-Muslims in Pakistan. Ahmed also argues that the world did have a precedent of an Islam-secular state in Turkey under Kemal Pasha Ataturk. Had Jinnah thought along the lines of designing a state that was and Islamic democracy, he would have expressed that vision in many words because the case of Turkey did provide a vocabulary for the same.


Ahmed explores several other issues in the process of investigating Jinnah’s position and behaviour. One, while he eagerly looked forward to the founding of Pakistan, he did not have any clear vision for what kind of state Pakistan should be. Ahmed goes on to demonstrate the consequences this lack of vision and direction has produced for Pakistan.


Readers would appreciate Ahmed’s insights into Jinnah as a person. Towards the end of the book, Ahmed reiterates: “Jinnah was not the type of leader who would subordinate his assertions and arguments to the objective evidence. He held a deep grudge against Gandhi and contempt for Nehru, his chief rivals” (738). However, on certain occasions, he tends to incorporate the thoughts and views of Jinnah’s contemporaries as well. Here is one instance of Lord Wavell’s thoughts on Jinnah:


I have much sympathy for Jinnah, who is straighter, more positive and more sincere than most of the Congress leaders; but he overcalled his hand in the end, and thereby, I think missed the opportunity of having a more favourable share in the Interim Government than he is likely to get again . . . He is a curious character, a lonely, unhappy, arbitrary, self-centred man, fighting with much resolution what I fear is a losing battle (364).


The way Jinnah was once heckled by Gandhi’s supporters left a lasting impression on Jinnah and further pushed him away from mass movements. Ahmed notes the way Jinnah’s religious background was referred to in an awkward way by Gandhi. All these glimpses into Jinnah provide a glimpse into the person he was. Jinnah, thus, turns out to be a detailed study in all senses of the term – sensitive to both the personal and the political contexts around its subject of inquiry.


The book ought to be read in the context of recent studies that seek to question the liberal and secularist modes of thinking in Pakistan as well as India for Ahmed takes to task not just Ayesha Jalal but also Jaswant Sinha who portray Jinnah in a positive and not-so-negative lights respectively vis-à-vis his stand on secularism. The book ought to reopen several other conversations. For instance, Ahmed’s claim that Jinnah wanted Pakistan but had not thought about what kind of nation-state it would be is quite compelling for scholars and other stakeholders in Pakistan specifically to liberate them from conjecturing what Jinnah had in mind as they think about the current state of affairs. Another conversation is that of relooking at the two-nation theory itself: Ahmed demonstrates that the Pakistan it generated was more a ploy to divide the Muslims of India into places with majority Muslim population and minority Muslim population than an attempt to divide the two Indias – that of Hindus and of Muslims. There is a lot to tease out from the book – from best kept secrets regarding Kashmir to the idea that Jinnah fashioned his role as a Governor General, a king-maker, out of imitating Gandhi who could take decisions in the Indian National Congress without being a part of the hierarchy and the party.


The key takeaway from the book for South Asians and scholars working on South Asia is the exposition of the roots of South Asia in times as recent as the last 70 years. Jinnah and his work will continue to be controversial (as Ahmed also notes) but Ahmed’s argument has set a strong benchmark for future contributions to the debate.



1. According to official colonial sources, less than 10 thousand people had been killed till the evening of 14 August 1947 – as Ahmed mentions in his book Punjab Partitioned, Bloodied and Cleansed – and the real bloodbath which claimed around 800,000 lived in Punjab alone was still in the future.