Jump to Navigation

Jinnah and the Making of Pakistan

Print this article   Email this article

The ability of Jinnah to unite a series of political expediencies with the popular appeal of Islam to demand a separate state for the Muslim people, has brought him the accolade 'the founder of Pakistan'. 

Muhammad Ali Jinnah with Mohandas Gandhi in Bombay, September 1944.The worldwide Islamic revival of the 1970s has overshadowed the attempts made by Muslims earlier in the century to unite religious and political authority. Muslims led the revolt against the colonial West throughout much of the Middle East, Africa and South and South-East Asia. In India especially, the Muslim urge to political power was clearly demonstrated. As British rule there drew to an end, many Muslims demanded, in the name of Islam, the creation of a separate Pakistan state. Its emergence in August 1947 remains one of the major political achievements of modern Muslim history. It resulted mainly from the efforts of one man, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The Muslims of British India were not a united community. They were divided by ethnic background, language and sect. The main ethnic division was between the descendants of the Arab and Turkish invaders of India and those whose ancestors had been converted from the indigenous Hindu population. There was no common Muslim language in India. Instead, Muslims shared with their Hindu neighbours the main regional languages – Bengali, Punjabi, Gujazati and Tamil. Rivalries between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam were another factor limiting Muslim unity. Many Muslims also shared economic interests with their Hindu counterparts, particularly the cultivators of the Punjab and the large landowners of the United Provinces known as the taluqdars . Finally, as the British introduced elected councils and assemblies in the twentieth century, a division of political priorities and interests emerged between the Muslims who lived in regions such as the Punjab and Bengal, where they formed a majority of the population, and those who inhabited areas such as the United Provinces, where they were outnumbered by the Hindus. In these circumstances Jinnah's uniting the Muslims behind the demand for Pakistan in the 1940s was an outstanding achievement.

Despite this remarkable accomplishment, Jinnah remains an enigmatic and controversial figure. Although he began his career as a respected leader of the Indian National Congress, he ended it as its most implacable opponent. Although he was not a devout Muslim (he drank alcohol and ate pork), he demanded in the name of Islam the creation of Pakistan. Although he could not speak most of the main Indian Muslim languages, he captivated audiences of millions during the campaign for Pakistan.

Jinnah's background and his character are almost as enigmatic as his political motivations and the reasons for his success. His family background is obscure: little is known other than that he came from a merchant family of recent converts to Islam which had settled in Karachi. There is even uncertainty about his date of birth, although he always maintained that it was on Christmas Day, 1876. Throughout his life Jinnah was a remote and inscrutable figure. He had no true friends and was rarely seen relaxed and off guard, whether in private or in public. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, felt far more at ease with the sociable Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Jinnah's leading Congress Party opponent. Jinnah's inscrutability and stubborn support for his Pakistan demand frequently frustrated Mountbatten during the series of meetings which took place between them early in April 1947. After one marathon session during which Jinnah appeared not to have been listening to any of his arguments, Mountbatten wrote in exasperation that 'Jinnah must be a psychopathic case'.

When Jinnah was sixteen, his father sent him to London to study law; He pursued his studies at Lincoln's Inn with great devotion. Whilst in London, he met several Indian politicians including Dadabhai Naoroji, MP for Central Finsbury and leading member of the Indian National Congress. It was during this period that Jinnah acquired the English manner and appearance and the belief in the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy which were to become his political hallmarks.

Jinnah returned to India in 1896 as a qualified barrister. He faced three years of uphill struggle before he established himself as Bombay's leading Muslim lawyer. It was only when his career was thus assured that he entered politics. His first appearance was at the 1906 Calcutta session of the Congress in which he acted as private secretary to its President, Dadabhai Naoroji. There he established links with several Congress leaders, most notably with the influential Gopal Krishna Gokhale, whom he accompanied on a visit to England in April 1913; by that date Jinnah had emerged as one of the leading Muslim figures in the Congress and was regarded by many as its future leader.

Until 1913 Jinnah had steered well clear of the main Muslim political organisation, the Muslim League. This had been founded in 1906 in order to safeguard Muslim political rights. Its outlook was conservative and loyal to the British and it reflected in the main the priorities of the Muslim educated elite of the United Provinces, from where it drew its leaders and its greatest support. Elsewhere in India it had little influence. In April 1913 Jinnah agreed to lead the Muslim League in the hope of bringing its views into line with the Congress. He arranged its 1915 session to coincide with the Congress' and played a leading role in the negotiations which took place between the two parties. They resulted in the famous Lucknow Pact of 1916, the only occasion in modern lndian history in which the Muslim League and the Congress came to a voluntary agreement about the political future of India. The Pact granted the Muslims many of the safeguards which they had demanded, including separate electorates and 'weightage' in the Legislative Councils of those provinces in which they formed a minority of the population. However, despite the hopes which it raised, the Lucknow Pact had only a temporary effect on Muslim-Hindu relations.

It only represented the agreement of the tiny political elite of the two communities and was therefore vulnerable to the emergence into politics of new social groups and classes. Jinnah and many others who believed in a liberal constitutional approach to the communal and national issues, felt ill at ease when Gandhi launched his first Civil Disobedience Campaigns against the British in the aftermath of the First World War. Jinnah refused to abandon his traditional approach to politics and resigned from the Indian National Congress shortly after Gandhi had gained control of it at the December 1920 Nagpur session.

The new political environment created by the British constitutional reforms of 1919 represented, however, a far greater setback to Jinnah's career than Gandhi's temporary radicalisation of Indian politics. As a result of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, such subjects of provincial administration as education, local self-government and public works were transferred to the control of ministers responsible to elected assembly members. This system, known as dyarchy, offered great opportunities for politicians with strong local support. For those like Jinnah, who had no landed or tribal powerbase, it spelt disaster: throughout his career he had operated at the All-India level of politics; under dyarchy, however, real power and influence lay at the local level. For a time he attempted to soldier on as leader of an independent group in the Central Assembly and as a broker between the powerful local Muslim politicians and the Congress during constitutional negotiations. Even this role was denied him after the rejection of his proposals by the Congress and the all-party scheme produced by Motilal Nehru in 1928. His mediatory role was increasingly taken over by Mian Fazl-i-Husain, the Punj abi Muslim leadez whose strong provincial powerbase and membership of the Viceroy's Executive Council gave him much greater authority in negotiating on behalf of the Muslims.

Jinnah settled once more in London in 1931, determined to retire from politics and to concentrate on his legal career. He was only left in peace, however, until 1933 when Nawab Liaqat Ali Khan, his future right-hand man and Premier of Pakistan, visited him in his Hampstead house. Liaqat stressed the Indian Muslims' need for Jinnah's experienced leadership. Jinnah was given a further indication of the importance which was attached to this in October 1934, when the Muslims of Bombay elected him in his absence as their representative for the Central Legislative Assembly. However, it was not these entreaties which decided Jinnah to return but rather that the 1935 Government of India Act presented him with an opportunity to regain his former influence. Jinnah arrived back in Bombay in October 1935. Within twelve years he was to become the Governor-General of an independent state of Pakistan.

Numerous questions arise concerning Jinnah's role in the Pakistan movement. How did he make the transition from being an able debater in the refined atmosphere of the Central Legislative Council to that of the Quaid-i-Azam , the great leader beloved throughout the thousands of villages of Muslim India? Did he create the desire for Pakistan within the Muslim community or merely guide it, using his legal talents to plead its case before the British and the Indian National Congress? Did he really believe in the possibility of achieving Pakistan at all, or was his demand for it merely a bargaining counter which he adopted to safeguard Muslim rights as British rule drew to its close? Finally, was he in control of events or was he merely swept along by the tide of an Islamic revolution?

The opening of government and private archives in India, Pakistan and Britain has enabled historians to answer at least some of these questions which so perplexed Jinnah's contemporaries. The picture which emerges of him is not that of a charismatic leader guiding his people to the promised land, but rather that of an able, single-minded political tactician who took full advantage of the dramatic political changes which occurred after India's entry into the Second World War.

In 1937 elections were held throughout India for control of the autonomous provincial assemblies which had been created by the 1935 Government of India Act. Despite its reorganisation by Jinnah, the Muslim League won only 109 out of the 482 Muslim seats. This stemmed from its poor showing in the two major centres of Muslim population, the Punjab and Bengal. It had fared dismally in the former province, losing all but one of the eighty-six Muslim constituencies to the Unionist Party. The Unionist Party owed its success to the support of the large landowners who controlled the votes of the overwhelmingly rural electorate. Sikander Hayat Khan had succeeded Mian Fazl-i-Husain as its leader in 1936. Like his late predecessor he used his strong provincial powerbase to dominate All-India Muslim politics. Jinnah wisely recognised his own dependence on the Punjabi leader by allowing him to control the Muslim League organisation in his province from October 1937 onwards, in return for his support in national politics.

By 1939 the Muslim League had considerably increased its influence, thanks to the blunders of the Congress, whose success in the 1937 elections had enabled it to form ministries in seven of India's eleven provinces. For the first time large numbers of Muslims came under Hindu rule. The provincial Congress governments made no effort to understand and respect their Muslim populations' cultural and religious sensibilities. The Muslim League's claims that it alone could safeguard Muslim interests thus received a major boost. Significantly it was only after this period of Congress rule that it took up the demand for a Pakistan state, although the idea of a separate Muslim homeland in north-west India had been aired by the poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal as early as 1930 and the actual word 'Pakistan' had been coined in 1933 by Rahmat Ali, a Cambridge undergraduate. (The word 'Pakistan' is made up of the initial letters of Punjab Asghania – the North-West frontier province – Kashmir and Sind, and the ending stan – land. Pak , an Urdu word, also means 'spiritually pure, or clean.)

The outbreak of the Second World War transformed this undergraduate dream into an issue of practical politics: the war not only accelerated the British departure from India but built up the Muslim League into a position of equality with the Congress. Just one day after the declaration of war, Jinnah was invited to see the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, on an equal footing with Gandhi. When Linlithgow made his statement on war aims on October 18th, 1939, he dubbed the Congress a Hindu organisation, whilst implicitly accepting the Muslim League's claim that it spoke for all India's Muslims. The Viceroy's famous 1940 August Offer declared that the British could not contemplate the transfer of their present responsibility for the peace and welfare of India to any system of Government whose authority is directly denied by large and powerful elements in India's national life.

The Cripps Mission which arrived in India in March 1942 to offer India self-government in return for wartime support went even further to meet Jinnah's demands and conceded in theory the future partition of India.

The Muslim League's rise in importance stemmed not only from the British Govemment's genuine desire to secure communal co-operation before it embarked on further constitutional reform, but also from its need to create a counterweight to the Indian National Congress which refused to co-operate with the war effort. Jinnah adroitly exploited to the full the fortuitous circumstances in which the Muslim League now found itself: it grew in importance following the resignation of the Congress Ministries in October 1939 and the growing wartime confrontation between the Congress movement and the British. Their repression of the Quit India movement which Gandhi had launched in 1942 shattered the Congress' organisation and resulted in most of its leaders spending the final three years of the war in jail.

Jinnah was thus free to concentrate on consolidating the Muslim League's position and, most important of all, to move against his rivals in the Punjab who stood in the way of Pakistan. Despite the impatience of many of his supporters there, Jinnah waited until April 1944 before moving against the Unionist Party. By biding his time he was able to take maximum advantage of the divisions which Sikander's sudden death in December 1942 had created within it. He was also able to fully exploit the Unionist Government's increasing wartime unpopularity. Large numbers of its traditional rural supporters transferred their loyalty to the Muslim League from 1944 onwards. Their exodus was hastened by Jinnah's political success at the expense of Gandhi in September 1944 and the Viceroy Lord Wavell in July 1945: he manoeuvred Gandhi during their negotiations in Bombay into accepting the Partition of India in theory; at the July 1945 Simla Conference he successfully resisted all Lord Wavell's efforts to include a Unionist in the proposed Interim Government.

The Muslim League thus approached the crucial 1946 elections in the Punjab in a greatly strengthened position. By the end of 1945 it had captured the support of a third of the Unionist Party's Assembly members. It included in its ranks most of the leading landlords and rural religious leaders. They all controlled large numbers of votes which, for the first time in 1946, were placed at the Muslim League's disposal. The League was thus able to secure victory in all but a handful of the rural constituencies, and it repeated this success throughout the subcontinent. Although more research is required before it can be fully explained, particularly in the other major centre of Muslim population in Bengal, at the time Jinnah maintained in 1946 that the Muslim community's support for Pakistan had been affirmed.

In fact many of those who had voted for the Muslim League had done so more out of personal loyalty to its candidates than out of support for Pakistan. Indeed, what Pakistan stood for in 1946 was by no means clear. Many of the Muslim League's recent converts from the Punjab, for example, hoped that the concession of Pakistan in name would be the means of approximating most nearly to a united India in fact. Jinnah had deliberately said little about where Pakistan's boundaries would lie, or about the form of government it would have. He was perceptive enough to realise that only if the Pakistan scheme was kept vague could it appeal to all sections of the Muslim community. He thus concentrated almost solely on winning the acceptance of Pakistan in principle.

Although the Muslim League's victories in 1946 owed as much to local discontents and loyalties as the widespread support for the Pakistan demand, Jinnah succeeded in convincing both the Congress and the British that he had been given a mandate on this issue. This 'confidence trick' must rank as one of his greatest political achievements. In the constitutional negotiations which followed the elections Jinnah made full use of his strengthened position. His success was greatly assisted by the continued blunders of the Congress leaders. Their greatest mistake occurred in June 1946, when they rejected the Cabinet Mission's proposals for a federal solution to India's communal problem, after Jinnah and the Muslim League had already reluctantly accepted it. Although Jinnah seemed prepared to agree to less than a fully sovereign Pakistan, provided Muslim interests were safeguarded, the Congress leadership appeared intent on hastening its emergence through its own errors. Once the Cabinet Mission had failed, the partition of India became virtually inevitable.

The final year of British rule was not a happy one for Jinnah: he believed that the new Labour Government and the new Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, favoured the Congress Party. His anger at the British invitation to Nehru in August 1946 to form an Interim Government led him to abandon his strictly constitutional approach to politics. His calling for direct action by the Muslim League resulted in horrific communal riots in Calcutta on August16th. The violence quickly spread to other areas and by the end of the summer India appeared on the brink of civil war. In the tense months of negotiations which followed Jinnah appeared even grimmer and more determined than usual. Agreement was not finally reached until June 3rd, 1947: the Pakistan which emerged from it was not the big Pakistan of Jinnah's dreams but a 'moth-eaten Pakistan' shorn of the rich agricultural districts of the East Punjab and of Calcutta and West Bengal. Although he could not have realistically expected to achieve more, Jinnah was so bitterly disappointed that he would not record his acceptance in writing but merely nodded his assent in the presence of the Hindu and Sikh leaders.

Once the plan for June 3rd had been agreed, Lord Mountbatten carried out the final complex arrangements with lightning speed. India and Pakistan received their freedom at midnight on August 14th, 1947. That same day violent communal clashes broke out in the Punjab. They continued until November by which time at a conservative estimate 200,000 people had died and five-and-a-half million had been made homeless.

The massive influx of refugees added to the problems which faced the Pakistan Constituent Assembly as it attempted to secure agreements with India over the division of the subcontinent's assets and administrative services and as it negotiated for the accession of the surrounding Princely States. Most of this burden fell on Jinnah who, besides being Governor-General, acted as President of the Constituent Assembly and final authority in Muslim League matters. He also assumed responsibility for the newly created ministry of State and Tribal Affairs. He was by now seventy and appeared frailer and more emaciated than ever. In June 1948 his doctors ordered him to leave Karachi for the healthier climate of Ziarat in Baluchistan. He insisted however on returning to Karachi to take part in the opening of the State Bank of Pakistan. The summer heat proved too much for him and he was forced to return almost immediately to Quetta. There he showed signs of improvement, but following an attack of influenza and bronchitis, complications set in. On September 12th, 1948, Pakistan awoke to the news that its founding father had died peacefully the previous evening.

Many writers have argued that if Jinnah had lived longer, Pakistan would not have suffered from the political instability which has dogged it since independence. Jinnah certainly stood head and shoulders above his successors as a national leader. Nevertheless, Pakistan's political weakness had its roots in the way in which the Muslim League had won power in the main centres of Muslim population. It had mainly functioned there as a grand coalition of the leading landlord factions. Once Pakistan had been achieved, their traditional rivalries surfaced once more. This led to the Muslim League's rapid decline as it was also handicapped by the lack of popular powerbase in these areas. The disintegration of the Muslim League was accompanied by a general decline in Pakistani political life which soon became sunk in corruption and factionalism. Even if Jinnah had lived longer it is unlikely that he could have done more than delay its onset.

Despite Pakistan's post-independence problems, Jinnah's place in history is assured because of his supreme contribution to its creation. He is still revered in Pakistan as the Quaidi-Azem whose charismatic leadership enabled the Muslim community to achieve its goal of an independent homeland. His achievement in fact was far greater than such Pakistani propaganda can easily admit. For the Muslims of British India were not a nation awaiting only Jinnah's leadership to assert this fact. Nor was Pakistan swept into existence by the tide of an Islamic revolution. Rather, Jinnah manipulated the popular appeal of Islam and the political conditions created by the Second World War and the British departure from India in order temporarily to unite most Muslims behind the demand for Pakistan. In reality, however, this remained the priority only of a small Muslim elite.

Ian A. Talbot is a lecturer in history at Royal Holloway College, University of London.

Further reading: 
  • F.C.R. Robinson, Separatism Among Indian Muslims (Cambridge University Press, 1974)
  • P. Hardy, The Muslims of British India (Cambridge University Press, 1972)
  • H.V. Hodson, The Great Divide (Hutchinson, 1969)
  • A. Seal & A. Jalal, 'AIternative to Partition: Muslim Politics between the Wars', Modern Asian Studies , 15, 3 (1981)
  • I.A. Talbot 'The 1946 Punjab Elections'Modern Asian Studies , 14, 1 (1980)
  • 'The Growth of the Muslim League in the Punjab, 1937-1946', The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics , XX, 1 (1982).


About Us | Contact Us | Advertising | Subscriptions | Newsletter | RSS Feeds | Ebooks | Podcast
Copyright 2012 History Today Ltd. All rights reserved.