Does removing Jinnah’s portrait prove that India is still bitter about the Partition?

Published: May 5, 2018
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Removing the portrait would reflect an insecure, narrow nationalism that lashes out at a forgotten 70-year-old portrait. PHOTO: INDIA TIMES

In 1938, the then president of the All India Muslim League (AIML), Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was made a lifetime member of the Aligarh Muslim University’s (AMU) student union. In accordance with this honour, a portrait of him was placed on the union’s walls. The portrait is an interesting one, for it depicts Jinnah in the early days of his transition. He has his Karakul cap on, depicting the transition from Jinnah the liberal, moderate Indian nationalist, to the Quaid-e-Azam that Pakistan would know as the father of the nation.

AMU played a very important role in the history of the Pakistan movement, as many of its leaders and ideologues studied and mobilised there. When Jinnah died, he donated a third of his residuary estate to AMU, which is why through the portrait, the university was also honouring a generous benefactor and an important part of its history.

Previous governments of India did not hold this against the university, as it continued to get liberal funding and support from the central government. In fact, for 70 years, most Indians did not know such a portrait existed in the first place.

However, recently, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Lok Sabha MP, Satish Gautam, wrote a letter to the vice chancellor of AMU, requesting the removal of the portrait, and for it to be replaced with that of India’s former president, APJ Abdul Kalam. The late former president remains the right wing’s go-to ‘good Muslim’. He was India’s missile man, played the Veena, and read the Bhagavad Gita, apart from seeking the blessings of prominent Hindu saints.

Almost at the other end of the spectrum stands Jinnah. BJP leaders like Jaswant Singh and LK Advani have gotten into trouble for taking a sympathetic view of him, in a way Congress leaders in India have not. The right wing in India therefore has a somewhat complicated relationship with Jinnah. A stated antipathy exists for sure, but there is also an oft expressed retrospective gratitude amongst many for the creation of Pakistan. Doing so rid India of most of its Muslim majority regions, allowing Hindus the space to breathe in a more comfortable majority.

Thus, Jinnah is the man who dissected the hallowed Akhand Bharat idea, but Jinnah is also the man who eventually obliged India’s Hindus. Bharat was therefore never about the people – it was about the land, and the history of the land that was taken away. For taking it away, Jinnah would officially be persona non grata. But unofficially, for helping strengthen the Hindu political identity by consolidating a Muslim political identity and then creating Pakistan (a constant source of succour and refrain for the political Hindu), he would be a godsend to many.

Finally, Jinnah is considered (solely) responsible for the Partition and Direct Action Day, and for the lives lost in those two painful episodes.

Therefore, the BJP’s attempt to take down the portrait can be seen as part of a series of events in which the Hindutva has attempted to assert itself more strongly, ever since Narendra Modi came to power. Muslims have been lynched; the body of one of the killers was wrapped in the tricolour with a union minister paying his respects; attempts have also been made to strengthen beef-related laws that disproportionately affect Muslims, while the alleged Hindu rapists of a Muslim girl have been defended. The communal situation in India has undeniably worsened. In this episode of assertion, men from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) barged into the gates of AMU, demanding the portrait be removed. In the ensuing kerfuffle, students were injured.

However, this latest assertion has a special significance, because how many in India view Muslims continues to be influenced by Jinnah, the Partition and Pakistan. The narrative is that Muslims did not want to live together in a united country and have carved out their own space, then why should we continue to make space for them here, when they made their intentions clear in the past? Why should we make space for Jinnah’s portrait when he (and by extension most Muslims), by articulating the Two Nation Theory, wanted to maintain his (their) distance from us? This view continues to influence the interaction of many Hindus with Muslims in India today. Consequently, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has said the portrait must go.

In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari says,

“Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.”

He goes on to say,

“The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that angry grip from the moment we were born, so we assume it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures. Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past.”

This could be particularly appropriate in the India-Pakistan context, and in the manner with which so many in the two countries view their minorities through the prisms of the other. Hindus and Muslims in Pakistan and India continue to struggle to find acceptance as equals in their countries. We have inherited the identities and prejudices of our ancestors and they have a firm, angry grip on us. In reviewing the different narratives of our history, rather than simply internalising what the respective states or our folks tell us, it is possible to appreciate that the history of the Partition is not so straightforward as to blame the deep fissures created then on Jinnah alone.

If we are able to meaningfully re-examine the past, more of such complexities will emerge, and these complexities may help put into perspective some of the simple notions that give rise to our prejudices. We may come to the conclusion that Jinnah was one among many flawed Indian leaders who was once referred to as the best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity by Gokhale. That Jinnah raised his voice against British rule, spoke up for Bhagat Singh, left his mark as a brilliant lawyer on India’s constitutional history, and, along with his peers Gandhi and Nehru, made his share of mistakes.

By allowing the product of the errors of our leaders of the past to define us today, and allow that to limit our horizons for tomorrow, would be a travesty. Allowing the portrait to remain would represent that we are no longer prisoners of the identities shaped by prejudices of the past. That we have moved on, and we remember Jinnah in the fullness of his personality, warts and all.

Removing the portrait would reflect an insecure, narrow nationalism that lashes out at a forgotten 70-year-old portrait. If we can better appreciate the past, it can fundamentally improve relations between Muslims and Hindus not just across the border, but within India too. It could give Indian Muslims space to navigate their own identities in modern India – somewhere between a Kalam and a Jinnah. A space they have had for the last 70 years, and should continue to have in the future as well.

Let the portrait be.

Ayush Khanna

Ayush Khanna

The author is an Environmental Engineer from Bengaluru, India. He writes on history, economics and socio-political issues. He tweets @AyushyaKhanna (twitter.com/AyushyaKhanna)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    An enlightened piece of writing …… makes good sense.Recommend

  • Arunanshu M

    MAJ was the only freedom fighter among the gang that became the founding fathers of Pakistan. His portrait should be there for this reason alone.Recommend

  • Waqar

    Nicely written article. ThanksRecommend

  • Rasool

    Whose leader was Jinnah ? Is there any portrait of Indian leaders in Pakistan offices or colleges. Majority Muslims stayed back in India disowning Jinnah during partition.Recommend

  • ammarmateen

    And yet these muslims are living like slaves in india pity their soulRecommend

  • Mo

    Word hypocrisy hardly suffices when Pakistani protest about Indians protesting about Jiannah’s portrait in publically funded Indian Insitution. Would Pakistan allow portrait of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman? Or of Gandhi, Bose, Patel, Nehru or Savarkar in their University? Recommend

  • SHAMIMUL HASAN

    Excellent article. The way forward for both India and Pakistan. Give Jinnah credit of respecting the unity of India as late as in 1946 by agreeing to the Cabinet Mission Plan. Who sabotaged it on a flimsy excuse? Ask history.Recommend

  • Shivam Vishnu

    I have always felt that it is Indian Muslims who should feel betrayed by Jinnah. Muslim League had convinced them that creation of Pakistan is in their best interest and betrayed them at the end. Jinnah is a hero for many older BJP folks because they understood that he was instrumental in dividing Muslim political power in 3 and consolidating Hindu political power. A large section of the population on either side has not moved on from partition especially the communal campaign of Muslim League in 1946 and the resulting violence. BJP may move on from the portrait after elections but the bitterness and prejudices will still be around. Perhaps better bilateral relationship may help overcome these prejudices.Recommend

  • Ravi Blr

    Indians are not bitter about partition. Indians are bitter about the fact that even after partition so many Muslims live in India!Recommend

  • Shakeel Ahmed

    I think everyday that Jinnah probably could find another way but I am proven wrong each time by looking at the events in the subcontinent. He knew well that by leading muslims on his chosen path will render absolute majority to hindus leaving other minorities including pro congress muslims at the mercy of Hindu rule whether Congressional or BJP. But it was their choice. I am equally amazed everyday by Jinnah,s sheer clear thinking and sharp sightedness of what it was then and what it would be what it is today. He had no time for nonsense and impractical options. Gave it a try and led the campaign himself by accepting a British plan, only to be dismayed by the rejection of it by hindus. He moved on and did what was best not just for the majority of the muslims but hindus as well. You may take away the portrait of the greatman but will come back again and again and bow your head before him accepting being wrong. When brothers can’t live together, “The Father” part their ways. They all realize in their lives later that He was correct each time you differed with him. Wish you could live a bit longer but then again his lesson from it “move on”.Recommend

  • Sunil

    Well why don’t you take all of them? Pakistan should open its doors to the oppressed Muslims of India and China.Recommend

  • Lord Kirby

    ammarmateen, I agree with you 100%. Pakistan was created for Muslims, as such Muslims have no place in India. I agree with you that they should be made to leave India and settle in Pakistan, all 180 million of them. Peacefully, of course. They will be happy there.Recommend

  • Ayush

    Thank youRecommend

  • Patwari

    Don’t change the subject. This is about a university. Aligarh Muslim University.
    Jinnah donated part of his estate to this university.
    Did Nehru, Gandhiji, Bose, Patel, et al, donate anything to a university in the region
    that is now Pakistan? If they had, who is to say that their portrait would be removed?
    As it was done by rampaging religious fanatics like the RSS, Shiv Sena, Mharashtra Navnirman Sena, or any of the multitude of extremist/terrorists outfits in Bharat.
    Time for you to realize that Hindustan has become a very religiously radicalized extremist
    country. It is no longer a good good good karma nation. Since Modi Sarkar took over.Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    Jinnah divided Muslims into 3 equal parts. For this Hindus will be ever grateful to him.Recommend

  • Sane

    You truly say about the mindset and hatred with Muslims of India. Your and views like yours would be instrumental in making another Pakistan in leftover part of India. In 1947 Hindus were in majority, but Pakistan was created. Going to happen again.Recommend

  • Sane

    Hindus in India are not majority. There are many such religions in India who you call Hindu, but they are not. What is the ratio of Dalit population. Added with Muslims, Sikhs and other religions, Hindus are in minority. Therefore, they are Hindus who must quit India.Recommend

  • Shakir Lakhani

    There used to be a statue of Gandhi adjacent to the present Sindh High Court (in those days it was the Federal Chief Court, equivalent to the Supreme Court of today, as Karachi was the federal capital). After the Indian invasion of Hyderabad Deccan in 1948, refugees from there demanded that the statue be removed. I’m not sure if the refugees themselves tore down the statue or whether it was removed by the government (like other statues of British rulers in Karachi).Recommend

  • Ayush

    Thank youRecommend

  • Sharmeen Aziz

    Removing his portrait cannot write him off from the history pages, he was initially supportive of HIndu muslim unity. Whatever you feel or believe he did change the course of history.Recommend

  • Ayush

    Thank youRecommend

  • Navaid Qureshi
  • Ram Dargad

    Indian Muslims too are Indians. You are making such absurd claim on behalf of all Indians, forgetting that you dont represent them, not even all the Hindu Indians.Recommend

  • Ram Dargad

    You are commenting as if you represent all Indians, forgetting that Indian Muslims too are a subset of the Indians. You dont even represent all Hindu Indians.Recommend

  • Ram Dargad

    Ayush, I have read a few of your articles today & impressed by their honesty & clarity. Keep up the good work.Recommend

  • Ayush

    Thank you, sirRecommend