Guest Post by Yasser Latif Hamdani
As we celebrate M.A. Jinnah’s birth anniversay today, December 25, it behoves us to think deep and hard on his true legacy (also see earlier Jinnah-related ATP Posts: The Other Side of Mr. Jinnah; Watch Jinnah-The Movie; 1947 Video-1; 1947 Video-2; Aazadi Mubarak; Independence Day Greetings for India; Remembering 9.11.1948).
Those who criticize the current government for passing the Women’s Protection Bill would do well to remind themselves of the long and extremely effective legislative career of Pakistan’s founding father, Mr. Mahomed Ali Jinnah, as a member of the central legislative assembly of India.
Indeed the greatest tragedy of the subcontinent is that both India and Pakistan have chosen to selectively remember this great man, especially by choosing to ignore his politics prior to the Pakistan Movement. However if both India and Pakistan were to revisit Jinnah’s pre-1937 Indian nationalist career, we would find much to celebrate together, even if we continue to differ on his later role as the champion of Muslim separatism.
Jinnah’s legislative career spanned over close to four decades, out of which 37 years were spent serving the cause of India’s progress. Most ironic was his very first election in 1910, where Congressman Jinnah, who was to one day lead Muslim League to hilt against the Congress, defeated the Muslim Leaguer Rafiuddin Ahmad from Bombay to successfully enter into the legislative council. Who could imagine then that this young Congressman barrister would one day end up becoming Muslim League’s most famous leader.
Barely a month into the assembly, he took on Lord Minto by denouncing the “cruel and harsh treatment that is meted out to the Indians in Natal” in support of Mohandas Gandhi, who too was to become his principal foe in the future. When Lord Minto reprimanded him for using “harsh language”, he replied, “Well my Lord, I should feel inclined to use much harsher language.”
In 1912, Jinnah alienated many of his Muslim supporters by giving his wholehearted support to the Special Marriage Amendment Bill, which sought to provide mixed religion marriages legal protection. He argued that the bill would provide equality but he was opposed by many members on the grounds that the bill contravened the Koran. Undaunted Jinnah asked the law member who had opposed the bill if he “would deny that there is a certain class of educated and enlightened people who rightly think that a gravest injustice is done to them as long as liberty of conscience is held from them”.
Rubbishing the idea that Muslim sensibilities would be hurt, he asked: “Is this the first time in the history of legislation in this country that this Council has been called upon to override Musalman Law or modify it to suit the time? The Council has over ridden and modified the Musalman law in many respects.” It was the same year that he stood up to argue that universal elementary education ought to be “compulsory”. He declared unfettered by any opposition religious or otherwise:
“In no country has elementary education become universal without compulsion. Find the money; if necessary tax the people. But I shall be told that people are already taxed. I shall be told that we shall face great unpopularityÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦ My answer is that we should do all this to improve the masses of this country to whom you owe a much greater duty than anyone else. My answer is that you should remove the reproach that is leveled against the British rule, that is, the neglect of elementary education. My answer is that it is the duty of every civilised government to educate masses, and if you have to face unpopularity, if you have to face certain amount of danger, face it boldly in the name of duty.”
Later defining self government, he spoke of a government for the people and by the people unfettered and unconditionally. Here too Jinnah was at his best, a secular liberal politician who fought for what he believed in. While he opposed forces of religious reaction and espoused the cause of freedom, he did not turn his back to the legitimate demands of his community and this manifested itself in form of the Wakf Bill, which was his great legislative triumph for the Muslims. But if the Muslims thought Jinnah had changed his ways, they were sorely mistaken when he supported the Child Marriages Restraint Bill which outlawed marriages of girls below the age of 16. When questioned, Jinnah declared that religion had nothing to do with it, but that this was a question of common sense.
At other times, he pushed forward an agenda that sought to drive the British into a corner. In February 1924, he introduced a legislation that called for the Government of India to buy its stores through “Rupee tenders” instead of Pound sterling which had proved costly for India and had blatantly favored the British. In introducing this measure, he recounted 75 different British imperial purchases that had inhibited India’s economic development. His resolution passed and has been held by many historians as the single most important event in India’s pre-partition history that had stimulated indigenous Economic growth and development. Opposing a British move to introduce passports as a necessary pre-condition to enter India, Jinnah declared that “all regulations that impose passports are the biggest nuisance and the sooner they are done away with the better.”
Speaking against the deportation of Bombay Chronicle Editor, B. G. Horniman he declared:
“I do maintain, and I have drunk deep at the fountain of constitutional law, that the liberty of a man is dearest thing in the law of any constitution and it should not be taken away in this fashion.”
On Indian soldiers fighting British wars, Jinnah and Gandhi clashed publicly. Gandhi wanted to use Home Rule League to recruit soldiers for the British Empire, something which Jinnah found abhorrent and opposed. Jinnah believed that as long as Indians were not allowed to become officers or India remained in subjection, they could not be asked to fight for the empire. Jinnah said:
“We cannot ask young men to fight for principles, the application of which is denied to their own country. A subject race cannot fight for others with the heart and energy that a free race can fight with for the freedom of itself and others. If India has to make great sacrifices in the defence of the Empire, it must be as a partner in the Empire and not as its dependency. Let her feel that she is fighting for her own freedom as well as the freedom of a commonwealth of free nations under the British crown and then she will strain to stand by England to the last.”
Jinnah’s legislative career prior to his taking up the Muslim separatist case was marked by secular Indian nationalism and his desire to see India as a great and free nation of the world, inspired by constitutionalism and democracy. Jinnah stood for universal education, women’s rights, equality of Indians irrespective of religion, caste, creed or gender and against obscurantism of all forms. It is this part of his career that can not only help to bridge the gap of distrust between Pakistan and India, but can also inspire liberals in the nation that he founded to work for a modern, democratic and pluralistic Pakistan in line with Jinnah’s ideas of constitutionalism and democracy.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer in Lahore and a researcher of the history of the Pakistan Movement.