If you could be transported back in time, whom would you rather have dinner with: Gandhi or Jinnah? The question struck me while I was reflecting on the recent controversy that’s erupted in India on the latestbook on Gandhi and on similar controversies that have dogged books on Jinnah on both sides of the border in recent years. Was Gandhi gay? Should we care? Was Jinnah secular? Was Gandhi secular, for that matter? Did each do more harm than good to the countries they helped give birth to? These questions, once heretical, still politically dangerous, could be questions one could put to these great men over dinner, if the time travel gods of science fiction cooperated.
Ironically, the founding fathers of India and Pakistan both hailed from regions peripheral to their national polities today. And, in both countries — dominated numerically by a great swathe of people who speak Hindu/Urdu and Punjabi, languages which animate our popular cultures — Gandhi and Jinnah both shared Gujarati as a mother tongue. Beyond that, though, these two men, each endlessly fascinating in his own way, were a study in contrasts. With strikingly similar backgrounds as British-trained barristers, their paths, and public personae, diverged in lockstep with the disintegration of a unified Hindu-Muslim movement to oust the British from India, a development for which each blamed the other. Gandhi embraced an (at least outwardly) austere and puritanical life, forswore alcohol, tobacco, and meat, and dressed in homespun khadhi. Jinnah donned bespoke Savile Row suits, sported an Uncle Galahad-style monocle and survived on a steady diet of whiskey and cigarettes.
As such, antipodes that they were, they represent, even today, archetypes of two different strands of the tradition we’ve inherited in the subcontinent. And both seem to be increasingly irrelevant to their respective countries, if they ever were for more than a microsecond after the Partition. When someone’s picture is plastered up in all government offices, adorns currency notes and generally shows up anywhere else official you can think of, you can be sure that they’ve been reduced to a caricature, an icon to be paid lip service to. Just ask the Chinese about Chairman Mao. In this part of the world, that’s what’s happened to Gandhi in India and Jinnah in Pakistan. Gandhi’s ideas of grassroots development, centred around the village economy, have been ditched in the headlong embrace of free markets and globalisation. And Jinnah’s idea of a secular, modern Pakistan, a Muslim-majority state that remained welcoming and tolerant of other groups as well, seems to have been all but effaced in the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism bubbling up today from the lower orders of society.
Do Gandhi and Jinnah still represent, at the very least, the aspirations of Indians and Pakistanis? Or would it be better to bury their ghosts in our past as we confront the realities of our countries today? And would moving beyond the legacy of these two founders help the two countries find common ground, or, at least, help our two peoples communicate better?
As the polities of India and Pakistan diverge, there is an enduring kinship amongst the anglicised elite in both countries, the descendants, in their different ways, of Gandhi and Jinnah. This was fully on view, recently, during the mutual lovefest on social media during the India-Pakistan cricket match at Mohali, when fans across the border were tweeting good wishes back and forth to each other and, during the final match in Mumbai, when there was much support for the Indian team from our friends in Pakistan. Now, you might say that a tiny per cent of each country’s population is on the internet, and even a smaller per cent on Facebook or Twitter, but that doesn’t gainsay the genuineness of the affection and warmth that flowed across the border.
And the symbolism of Pakistan’s prime minister coming across the border, from western into eastern Punjab, and watching the semi-final cricket match at the invitation of his Indian counterpart, resonated widely in both countries, and not just with their social and political elites. It was as if, for a brief moment, the gates at the Wagah border crossing had been thrust open.
Of course, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that goodwill inspired by cricket, or by Bollywood or bhangra, will be enough to resolve long-standing disputes between our two countries, which are political in nature. Nor, however, should we succumb to a cynicism so corroding and a nihilism so paralysing that it prevents us from pausing and taking pride in such a moment. Unfortunately, hawks on both sides of the border seem to have an unlimited fund of such ill feeling. As was said of the Bourbon kings of France, they have not forgotten anything, nor have they learned anything.
I would prefer to recall fondly that in the last few days, Indians and Pakistanis have come together in friendship and goodwill to relish our shared zest for a sport bequeathed to us, in a delicious irony, by our erstwhile coloniser, and leave the politics for another day. Bitterness and acrimony can wait. I daresay, were we able to join them at the dinner table, both the Mahatma and the Quaid-i-Azam would raise a glass, spirituous or otherwise, to that sentiment.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2011.