Will a democracy with one vote for every citizen eventually, inevitably, put the minority at the mercy of the majority?
Pakistani-American academic Akbar Ahmed says he wrote the 1998 film Jinnah because, among other reasons, he had seen Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and felt that it had reduced Pakistan’s creator to a “villianous caricature”. He wanted to set the record straight, to retell history — for the popular record — from the point of view of the man he saw as the “quintessential modern Muslim democrat”.
Starring Christopher Lee in the titular role, the film begins with Jinnah’s arrival at the crossroads between heaven and hell. The gatekeeper, played by Shashi Kapoor, takes Jinnah on a walk down memory lane as he tries to decide where he deserves to live out his afterlife. As he relives the key moments of his life, the recently-deceased Jinnah offers defences to the litany of charges levelled against him by the world. They range from mundane, such as digs about his dour and humourless personality, to quite serious, like his inability to express or reciprocate love. Overshadowing these personal grouses though is the epoch-defining allegation that looms large over the man: that his arrogance, stubbornness, and perhaps even his greed for power cleaved a nation, leaving left tens of thousands dead, millions displaced, and the fates of over a billion people irrevocably altered.
The partition of India was influenced as much by the personalities of a few powerful people and their relationships with each other, as it was by political and religious considerations. The movie takes pains to make this point by showing us that Mountbatten was an insecure aristocrat, that he and his wife Edwina loved Nehru, that Nehru loved power, and that Gandhi was a wily old man. Jinnah’s own personality is presented in very human detail, with all the imperfections that belie his honorific title ‘Quaid-e-azam’ (great leader).
Jinnah is almost certainly more complex and multifaceted than his brief depiction in Attenborough’s film suggests. Minor supporting characters rarely capture the full range and depth of any human, let alone a man of contradictions such as Jinnah. Despite the role he plays in the Indian popular imagination as a puritan religious zealot, Jinnah, by all accounts, advocated freedom of religion and minority rights. He also drank alcohol, married outside his religion, and spoke of women’s rights.
But many of these details are tenuous and arguable, and their interpretation depends, to a great extent, on lens and context. It is possible that we will never fully untangle the personal motives of Jinnah or any of the other historical figures who decided India’s fate. Which is why it is important to set human machinations aside and consider the question on a purely theoretical level: does Jinnah’s argument for Pakistan — that a democracy with one vote for every citizen would eventually, inevitably, put the minority at the mercy of the majority — hold true?
The film ends abruptly; without a verdict on the question and with Jinnah’s eternal resting place undecided. However, with the benefit of 70 years worth of hindsight, it is impossible not to concede that Jinnah’s fears were not entirely unfounded.
Despite its much-touted plurality, India has never quite succeeded at keeping the state separate from the religious identity of its Hindu majority. And the result is a nation that is inhospitable to Muslims. The evidence of the Sachar Committee’s findings — and multiple governments’ refusal to act on its recommendations — bare this out.
Looking back from 2018, the Nehruvian conception of India as a secular state appears to have been a mere precursor to Hindu revivalism, only serving to sharpen the majority’s sense of injustice at being denied supremacy. Half a century of simmering discontent finally coalesced into a very visible flexing of majoritarian muscle with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, permanently tipping the historical scales in Jinnah’s favour. Since then, the Hindu Right has found political power much easier to come by and in the current Prime Minister, it has a leader who seems to have the energy and will to deliver on its dreams.
But long before Modi or even Babri, there was Gandhi. While it is well-known that he stood for Hindu-Muslim unity, it is often forgotten that he did so from a platform that was very Hindu in its vocabulary and practice. Gandhi was no Kabir — he sought to appeal to the minority, but from within a citadel that was built by the majority. An example of this attitude can be found in Gandhi’s approach to the daily prayer, which sought to include other religions but required them to embrace a Hindu framework in order to be eligible:
At the morning prayer we first recite the shlokas (verses) printed in Ashram Bhajanavali (hymnal), and then sing one bhajan (hymn) followed by Ramadhun (repetition of the Gita). There is history attached to almost every shloka and every slected bhajan. The Bhajanavali contains, among others, bhajans from Muslim Sufis and fakirs, from Guru Nanak, and from the Christian hymnary. Every religion seems to have found a natural setting in the prayer book. In the evening we have recitation of the last 19 verses of the second chapter of the Gita, one bhajan and Ramadhun and then read a portion of a sacred book.
And then there was the Congress party, a political entity dominated by upper caste Hindu interests. It has historically peddled a soft Hindutva that allowed the majority religion to seep into and become embedded in the country’s public sphere while maintaining a facade of irreligiosity.
Considering Gandhi’s influence on India’s independence movement, the Congress’ near-total control over its formative years, and now, the Hindu Right’s ever-strengthening grip on the nation’s future, with each passing year, it appears Jinnah is only vindicated further.
“By invoking spirit, Gandhi is unleashing dark forces. If the Hindus succeed in kicking the British out, won’t they turn their attentions to the Muslims next? After all, we conquered India before them. And we have no England to go back to.”