Travails of Writing Revisionist History

09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the man who gave birth to Pakistan on 14 August, 1947, a day before India got its own independence is a much reviled man in this part of the great divide. He is denigrated in the Indian history books as the man who worked on the fault lines demarcated by the British between the majority Hindus of the sub-continent and the minority Muslims. He is identified as the man who took advantage of the aggravated minorityism of the British imperialists and vivisected a people who could very well be imbued by the moral nationalism of a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and be forged together to be the new India or Bharat.

The last vestiges of the generation that encountered the savage sundering of the country into two ill-fated twins at the cost of millions displaced and hundreds of thousands killed, still remember those dark days. Decades spent in the act of living has not obliterated from their minds the memories of those days of what is called the Partition with a capital P just to denote the enormity of the event. Had Pakistan been a neighbor at ease with the presence of India next door, may be, some of those negative thoughts and energies would have got stymied with time. But that was not to be.

So when Bharatiya Janata Party's Jaswant Singh, a former external affairs minister and a former finance minister wrote a book on the issue, he was traversing into a minefield knowingly. For, the BJP's ideational fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Force) still had an ideological goal that called for an Akhand Bharat (Undivided India). In their books Jinnah was a despicable man as he not only pointed at a possible Hindu hegemony, but he even Partitioned the country along communal lines. Singh made news this week by declaring in his book Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence what the RSS considered a virtual heresy: that Jinnah was not responsible for the division of India. Singh was promptly expelled from the BJP, a party that he helped found 30 years ago.

Jaswant Singh is a curious amalgam of a feudal past jostling modern, contemporary thoughts. Known for his stentorian voice and a clipped British diction, he often gives an impression of being a man with more form than substance.

In his book, the main thesis that Singh produced was based on the revision of Indian history in terms of its depiction of Jinnah -- he called it 'demonization'. Singh must have thought that he would please his political and ideological masters in the BJP and the RSS by balancing this view with an interpretation of Jawaharlal Nehru - whose inheritance the ruling Congress Party is enjoying today - as a powergrabbing 'centralising' force. But in the process, like all untrained historians he got carried away.

He took on a former Congress Party totem, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India's first federal Home (Interior) Minister, who the RSS and BJP has appropriated for his reportedly hardline, Hindu hegemonistic views. Jaswant Singh apparently (I have not read the book) ridiculed him. While this was surely meant to buttress Singh's carefully cultivated liberal image in a rightwing, Hindu majoritarian party like the BJP, it backfired in terms of his continued tenure in its ranks.

Singh's problem is his self-image as a statesman. The latter got a boost when he conducted extended discussions with then US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, over what should be India's strategic positioning in the American schema, after the country exploded a series of five nuclear bombs in 1998. The BJP dominated the National Democratic Alliance government ruling India then. And Singh was their chosen interlocutor.

Singh thus considers himself to be a bit of a world statesman. He understands that being a member of the BJP, he runs a handicap in terms of acceptability in the rarefied parlors of liberal political discourse in world capitals. Hence, he seeks to overcome that by his affectations, including that of a scholar.

But scholarship and rough and tumble of politics seldom mesh. A Jawaharlal Nehru could remain astride both arenas with greatest of difficulties. Often his scholarship failed his politics, and vice versa. For lesser mortals it is a dangerous terrain.

The fact that Singh was easily expendable for the BJP even in their present hard times was evidently because he was one of those leaders who rose to leadership because there was a need for leaders. Never in the past few decades when the BJP rose to prominence and governance, was his name even mentioned as the state chief minister in his home state, Rajasthan. Nor was his name mentioned as a possible president of the state unit of the BJP.

The high moral ground that Jaswant Singh sought to straddle by the Jinnah book is now being symptomatically ceded with he tattling every day about the foibles of the BJP top leadership to the media. While that makes for great political theatre, it lacks substance.