As hooks for controversy, personalities are more tempting than amorphous ideas. As such, much of the debate following Jaswant Singh’s new book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, has focused on the writer’s appraisal of key individuals. Singh’s book is sympathetic towards Muhammad Ali Jinnah, seeing him as a tragic hero. While not calling them villains, it pins equal, maybe greater, blame for Partition upon Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.
This ‘Jinnah good, Patel bad, Nehru very bad’ theatre is convenient for the media and for politicians who either support or oppose Singh. Yet, it takes away from the central underpinning of the book.
Depending on how you look at it, that central thesis is piquant, provocative or downright dangerous. If nothing else, it challenges the idea of India that is Nehru’s legacy. This leads to the question: have the many so-called latter-day Nehruvians who jumped to Singh’s defence even read the book?
In his biography of Jinnah, Singh approvingly quotes the well-regarded American academics and Indophiles Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph as writing: “The doctrine and practice of the Indian State preserved subordinate jurisdictions. It included, rather than eliminated, layered and segmented social and political power, and created a socially constrained negotiated order. This order was not merely a concession to the contingent and layered distribution of power among the regional kingdoms and local chiefs that prevailed through much of Indian history, or a consequence of limited technical means of control. It was also a principle of State formation and maintenance.”
In Singh’s view, India is a “multinational State”, rather than a sovereign nation as is commonly understood. Singh suggests such a conceptualisation of India is consistent with the vast autonomy that Jinnah demanded for Muslim provinces within a loosely connected Indian Union. This was in keeping with the traditional political organisation of India. However, it was not adequately appreciated by Patel or by Nehru who, as Singh told a television interviewer, wanted “a highly centralised polity”. The Darjeeling MP’s reading of federalism is severely flawed. Even so, it’s important to understand why he embraces it. An analogy would help.
Belgium comprises largely two linguistic groups — the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. Today, it is possible to be a Walloon nationalist, a Belgian passport-holder and a citizen of the European Union (EU) all at the same time. The equation is not always simple. In recent years the Walloons and Flemish have been bitterly divided and considered partitioning Belgium. The two new nations would, however, have remained part of the EU.
This is the culmination of the European project — an evolution from tribes to kingdoms, nation-States and then a continental entity. In India’s case, Singh sees it as a beginning to have been made in 1947, the building block of modern state formation: a menagerie of kingdoms, provinces, religious and ethnic territorial communities that would become an EU-type confederation and completely bypass nation-Statehood.
Singh is intrinsically comfortable with the idea of multiple sovereignties. Why does this appeal to him? His background may offer a clue. He was born to a family that was a vassal of an ally of the British Raj. As he pointed out in his 2006 memoir, A Call to Honour, his father served in the Jodhpur State Forces and was part of the Jodhpur Lancers contingent that, during World War II, accompanied the British Indian Army and fought with the Allies in Iraq.
Did such a soldier owe allegiance to a feudatory of Jodhpur, to the Maharaja of Jodhpur or to the King-Emperor as represented by the government in New Delhi? That question is at the root of Singh’s argument.
In contrast, an Indian descended from a family in the old presidency towns (Calcutta, Bombay, Madras) or in the big urban centres of British India (Allahabad, Lahore) would be secure with only one sovereignty. In the 1940s, these cities threw up the middle class, intelligentsia and political leadership — which saw the independent Indian government as the sole successor to the Raj, with a nation-welding mission as its primary mandate.
Was another course possible? Partition could have been avoided by creating six Muslim-governed provinces — as the Muslim League demanded — over which the federal government would have near-zero control. States and provinces would have had extreme autonomy, going way beyond Article 370 and including the right to form sub-national collectives and constitutional structures as well as secede. In addition, 600-odd princely kingdoms would have demanded supremacy in their internal jurisdictions.
Does this sound like a recipe for “layered and segmented social and political power” and “a socially constrained negotiated order”? It is more likely India would have cracked within a decade. In the absence of a cohesive force, large parts of the young country would have become vulnerable to meddling by external powers. The north and northwest would inevitably have got enmeshed in the unending conflict of the Greater Middle East.
Far from being cussed and greedy for office, Nehru and Patel were visionaries. They saw a problem coming, and concluded a truncated India was better than the unviable chaos of a notionally united subcontinent. We can never thank them enough. Rather than weep over counterfactuals and imagined alternatives, let Jaswant Singh cherish the India that is. It’s not perfect, but it’s the only one we have.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer