India, Pakistan and Competing Visions of Nationhood: Research Notes in World history

Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (attribution: Flickr; No known copyright restrictions)

Like Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a Gujarati and a London-trained barrister and a member of the Indian National Congress. Rejecting Gandhi’s methods of mass mobilization as brinkmanship, Jinnah revived the moribund Muslim League and spearheaded the successful Pakistan movement as a parallel to Indian independence in 1947. He positioned himself, according to historian Ayesha Jalal, as the “Sole Spokesman” for Muslim India in colonial times. While much debate and discussion swirls around the Gandhi-Jinnah rivalry or the Nehru-Jinnah relationship, I’ve always wondered about the Bose-Jinnah connection.

Subhas Chandra Bose was the charismatic Indian National Congress leader who famously tried to force the centrist Congress party leftward by forming the Forward Bloc faction, and in 1941 made a daring and dramatic escape from house arrest to begin an armed struggle against British rule. Bose’s story tends to focus on his mesmerizing World War II role as the Azad Hind Fauj leader, and on his tactical alliance with imperial Japan to liberate India via an armed invasion. But, Bose was also the Party President of the Indian National Congress for a brief period in the 1930s. What did he make of Jinnah? And vice versa?

Not having Urdu or Persian language skills, I rarely opine on the pre-history of Pakistan . But, English-language sources are great for studying Muhammad Ali Jinnah as he was quite the Anglophone.The following is jottings about Jinnah’s speeches between 1935 and 1941. These speeches were published in a book Some Recent Speeches and Writings of Mr. Jinnah edited by Jamil-ud-din Ahmad, first published in 1942. The book has been used as a source by historians like Ayesha Jalal and Francis Robinson, among others.

Subhas Bose and Jinnah interacted in 1938 as party leaders of their respective organizations. In October 1938, Jinnah raised the profile of a regional power tussle when he issued a statement critiquing Khan Bahadur Allah Bux, the Chief Minister of Sindh province, for reneging on a unity move with the Muslim League. Blaming the Indian National Congress (of which Subhas Chandra Bose was the Party President at the time) for machinating against Jinnah and the Muslim League’s unification attempts among Sindh Muslims, Jinnah lashed out at the Congress. “One can only draw the inference that he [Allah Bux] has been assured by the Congress High Command,” wrote Jinnah in fury, “who seem to be obsessed with one and the only idea of destroying any effort which will bring solidarity among the Muslims at the sacrifice of not only the vital interests of the country at large but also Sind where it is essential to have a stable ministry for the welfare and the progress of the people.”

Bose who represented the left wing of the Congress pushed quite hard on the Hindu-Muslim issue, urging unity and reconciliation in the name of national resolve against British imperialism. Jinnah, though, saw Bose representing the Hindu majoritarianism of the Congress:

“Mr Bose has magnanimously assured the minorities that while refusing to acknowledge the Muslim League as the one representative political organisation of the Muslims the Congress would do what was fair and just towards all minorities. Mr Bose clearly, consciously or unconsciously, identified himself with the majority community by making such a declaration.”

Could Bose, never a Hindu majoritarian, have coaxed Jinnah towards his vision of a secular, more pluralistic national agenda? Could India have remained intact at independence if Bose had swayed Jinnah? The historian Sugata Bose thinks he might have succeeded (Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire, p. 147). Based on my own readings on the slim literature available, I doubt it. Bose was committed to a plural history of India, one that he reiterated in his 1943 proclamation from Singapore (or Syanon-to as it was renamed during Japanese occupation), placing himself and his Indian National Army as heirs to a long tradition of armed anticolonial resistance:

“After their first defeat at the hands of the British in 1757 in Bengal, the Indian people fought an uninterrupted series of hard and bitter battles over a stretch of one hundred years. The history of that period teems with examples of unparalleled heroism…in the pages of that history the names Sirajuddoula and Mohanlal of Bengal; Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan and Velu Tampi of South India; Appa Sahib Bhonsle and Peshwa Baji Rao of Maharashtra; the Begums of Oudh; Sardar Shyam Singh Atariwala of Punjab and last but not least Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Tantia Tope, Maharaj Kunwar Singh of Dumraon and Nana Sahib among others, the names of all these warriors are forever engraved in letters of gold.”

(J. S. Sharma, ed, India’s Struggle for Freedom: Select Documents and Sources, vol. 2, p. 335)

In this heraldic list of diverse rebels from different religions, one sees a glimmer of the Mughal Empire’s famed diverse warrior-bureaucratic elite. In its deliberate regional diversity, one also sees traces of the insistently pan-Indian Congress tradition to which Bose belonged, a theme reflected in Tagore’s song “Jana Gana Mana” (now India’s national anthem) where the geographical contours of the big-tent motherland are referenced in the lyrics: “Punjab, Sind, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravida, Utkal, Banga.”

Jinnah was convinced, by contrast, that the Congress represented Hindu hegemony and domination. Ultimately, even Bose was not safe from Jinnah’s deeply-held anti-Congress views. Second, Bose was a socialist and a committed anti-imperialist. Neither of these two views was likely to have found lasting support from Jinnah whose anti-imperial politics was tactical rather than strategic. Jinnah was a Muslim nationalist who took his cue from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk whose death he mourned as “the greatest blow to the Muslim world.” (Ahmad, Some Recent Speeches and Writings, p. 66). What Jinnah failed to realize (and why Pakistan could not become a Kemalist Republic) was that Mustafa Kemal came to his nationalism via the route of unrelenting anti-imperialism, not as a substitute for anti-colonialism. Ataturk pursued the secularization of Turkey after having dislodged not one or two but five foreign armies from Turkish soil. He had gained the political legitimacy to pursue his vision for Turkish nationalism.

Had Bose won, I suspect he would have styled himself as India’s Mustafa Kemal. And one can only wonder what Jinnah would have made of that. In the meantime, Bose made his own miscalculations about the relative strengths of different combatant powers and the INA’s place in imperial Japanese strategy. Would Bose have been comfortable with the brutality of the Japanese occupation of East and Southeast Asia? Given his own denunciation of Japanese aggression in China in 1937, one would like to think that he would have spoken up against such horrors as the Burma-Siam Railway built by slave labor. But, he did not and in any case these are counterfactual scenarios, and speculation is all we are left with when we look back at the fluid history of colonial India in the 1930s and 1940s.

Historian, researcher, aspiring gourmand. Sometimes a raconteuse.

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