Search for the real villain of Partition divides India again

The bloody birth of Pakistan has always been blamed on its first leader Jinnah. No longer, reports Andrew Buncombe

In Pakistan he is known as Quaid-e-Azam or "Great leader". But in India, and beyond, there are those who have considered Mohammad Ali Jinnah as little more than a criminal, a man whose unyielding insistence on a separate country for Muslims led to the brutal division of a nation and the subsequent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Now, however, 62 years after the partition of India, Jinnah's legacy is receiving an overhaul from an unlikely quarter. A controversial new book by a senior politician from India's Hindu nationalist party suggests that Mr Jinnah, a secular man who drank and smoked but rarely visited the mosque, has too long been demonised by Indian society. Furthermore, it argues that he only raised the prospect of a separate Pakistan with independence leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi as a bargaining tool and that it was the inflexibility of Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who became independent India's first prime minister, that ultimately led to the division of the sub-continent.

"I think we have misunderstood him because we needed to create a demon," the book's author, Jaswant Singh, a veteran politician, told the CNN-IBN television channel. "We needed a demon because, in the 20th century, the most telling event in the sub-continent was the partition of the country."

The partition of India in August 1947, when both Pakistan and an independent India won independence from Britain, resulted in one of the largest forced migrations of people in history. As millions of Hindus travelled east into the new India and millions of Muslims travelled West into the new country of Pakistan – there were perhaps 15 million refugees in total – there was also terrible violence. Some estimates suggest that up to one million people may have lost their lives in sectarian killings.

Though the struggle for the independence of India had taken place over decades, the British authorities' decision to grant sovereignty and ultimately to divide the country was rushed through in a matter of months. A British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, headed a committee that had the unenviable task of hurriedly deciding which territories should go to the new Pakistan and which should form part of India. The eventual border – the Radcliffe Line – split communities and divided families, the ramifications of which are still strongly felt today. The urbane and cultivated Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, has most often been cast as the villain of the process, unyielding in his demand that the Muslims of the sub-continent required a separate country. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of the British Indian empire, whose task was to oversee the granting of independence and whose wife is widely believed to have had a long-running affair with Nehru, once remarked: "I tried every trick I could play to shake Jinnah's resolve. Nothing would move him from his consuming determination to realise the dream of Pakistan."

But the 71-year-old Mr Singh, a former foreign minister, says that the claim is "paralysing in its insensitivity and... [for] the sheer horror of Mountbatten's casual untruthfulness". He argues that far from being set on a separate Pakistan, Jinnah's overwhelming concern was the well-being of his fellow Muslims, who were in a minority. He wanted to ensure they would have "space in a reassuring system".

He said Jinnah envisaged that some areas of the new country would have Muslim majority areas and some Hindu majority areas and believed a federal system that kept the country as one was desirable. Nehru, by contrast, demanded a system that was centralised. "Nehru believed in a highly centralised policy. That's what he wanted India to be," Mr Singh went on. "Jinnah wanted a federal polity. That, even Gandhi accepted. Nehru didn't. Consistently he stood in the way of a federal India until 1947 when it became a partitioned India."

Mr Singh went on to say that the tragedy of Partition is still evident today in the experience of India's Muslim population of around 160 million. "Look into the eyes of the Muslims that live in India and you truly see the pain with which they live. We treat them as aliens. Without doubt Muslims have paid the price of Partition. They could have been significantly stronger in a united India."

Mr Singh, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP who represents the north-east Indian district of Darjeeling, is not the first writer to have produced a revisionist history of Jinnah. Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani-American historian, for instance, has previously argued that he had no desire to split India and that partition was, in truth, a vast error. She too, says Jinnah was merely trying to strengthen his hand.

But in India, whose relationship with the "breakaway" nation of Pakistan remains fraught, the questioning of received truths by such a leading figure has sparked a degree of controversy. In 2005, the BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani was forced to stand down as party chief after he wrote in the visitors' book at Jinnah's tomb in Karachi that Pakistan's founder was "an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity". Mr Singh says he has not written his book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, the product of five years research, on behalf of the BJP and is prepared for any controversy it creates. Yesterday, however, it was the Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and his descendants who appeared most angry. A party spokesman told local newspapers that the BJP ought to be known as the Bharatiya Jinnah Party because of its repeated praise of the Pakistani leader.

In Pakistan, where Jinnah died from the effects of tuberculosis barely a year after the country secured independence, news of this reassessment of the country's founder has been gladly seized upon. Mr Singh's book has become front page news and the subject of television talk shows and opinion columns. The book's publisher, Delhi-based Rupa and Co, said an initial order of books from Pakistan had already been tripled prior to publication.

Birth of two nations: The great carve-up

*The notion of dividing the Indian subcontinent into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas, the brainchild of Jinnah's Muslim League, went through various stages of evolution. At one stage, more than a half- dozen federated Muslim statelets were proposed, taking account of the fact that Muslims were scattered right across the country.

*Until late in negotiations Jinnah demanded a corridor linking West Pakistan (today's Pakistan) with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Jinnah complained bitterly that the final settlement agreed with the Viceroy, Mountbatten, and Nehru was "moth-eaten", and his decision to sign it remains a mystery.

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