22 August 2012

Jinnah vs. Gandhi by Roderick Matthews

Twin fathers
This book brings together two of the most deified people in the world, Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Various aspects of the two have been compared, from the most obvious such as their appearance, personal habits, popularity, and leadership techniques, to the consequences of their thoughts and actions and how they shaped the countries which revere them as ‘father’.
We learn (unexpectedly) that the two did indeed have something in common. Ah – of course. Each created his own political world: "Jinnah shaped and mobilized the Muslim community into a new political entity, and Gandhi virtually invented mass politics in India." It's also true that both men died, unhappy, very soon after their countries were born.
But their differences, as we know, were many more. These are neatly drawn out here, with the events and climate of the Indian freedom movement as their backdrop.

A book like this can be controversial, and could even make people (who love these ‘fathers’) passionately angry and do crazy things. It has happened before. So how will we react to hear about Jinnah’s secretive nature, or Gandhi’s peculiar habits? Or to be reminded that Gopal Krishna Gokhale had once praised Jinnah highly, and famously dubbed him, “the best ambassador for Hindu-Muslim unity”? That his first visit to the Punjab in 1936 had been a horrible PR disaster?
But Roderick Matthews has a quite pleasant way of presenting the facts, unbiased and non-judgemental; and with an unmistakable affection and regard for Gandhi, and respect for Jinnah’s intellect.
While he says Gandhi really was a visionary he also says, “The case for Jinnah as a visionary is not strong. If he was a visionary then he was unique in never setting forth or writing down that vision.” On the other hand, Jinnah’s staunch common sense apparently prevented him from being impressed with Gandhi’s methods: he saw no benefit in Indians denying themselves education, and he saw only suffering in the spectacle of poor people burning cheap foreign garments when they were barely able to clothe themselves.
One of the best things about this book is that it demystifies these two men and presents them in an uncomplicated way, stripping away the hype. Here is an example: In 1915, soon after Gandhi returned to Bombay from South Africa, the Gujarati Society held a reception for him. Jinnah, the local dignitary presiding, made welcome address in English. Gandhi replied in Gujarati and, among other things, expressed pleasure that a Mohammedan was chairing the proceedings. This incident has been reported many times and even used as an indication of irreconcilable differences between the two men right from their very first encounter. But Roderick Matthews has taken the trouble to understand the culture of the times, and do a little research, and here is his sensible assessment:
The whole incident was not a clash of titans, but a commonplace outing in polite society. Reading manipulative psychology, power politics, and the destiny of nations in to the affair is uncalled for. Stanley Wolpert is tempted to foresee the rest of the Partition story in the encounter, detecting an early crackling of tension between the two men, a recognition that they were ‘natural enemies’. He also describes Gandhi’s reference to Jinnahs’ ‘minority identity’ in public as ‘a barb’ meaning that it was designed to wound. This is unwarranted. How calling attention to Jinnah’s religion would have helped Gandhi is not clear, nor is it obvious why Gandhi would think it worth any effort to point out to an audience of Bombayites that a man named Mohammed Ali, who was a prominent member of the Muslim League, was a Muslim.
The real story was surely much simpler. There was a friendly reception given for Gandhi and his wife that passed off well. Gandhi was pleased to speak to an audience of Gujaratis in his native land in his native tongue. Everyone was polite to each other and Gandhi took an early step in the promotion of one of his long-term concerns – the use of vernaculars. He was duly welcomed, and the local Bombayites met the celebrity. Nothing was achieved, nothing was decided; everyone went home happy.

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