Jinnah – and Jinnah House – Can Help Bring India & Pakistan Closer
In the midst of calls for the demolition of Mumbai’s Jinnah House, Modi-Nawaz should rebuild bilateral ties.
(This article was originally published on 4 April 2017.)
How history becomes heritage, and how heritage preserves history, is a fascinating subject for the students of history and practitioners of heritage conservation. However, when history gets distorted, and a historical personality comes to be demonised on account of the distortion, the heritage associated with his name either degenerates due to disuse or, worse still, is sought to be destroyed by the falsifiers of history.
For evidence, come to Jinnah House on Mumbai’s Malabar Hill, the original abode of the city’s rich and powerful. And Mohammed Ali Jinnah was certainly one of the most powerful politicians in the city, both in his earlier avatar as a staunch Congressman and an ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity’ (these being the words of his mentor Gopalkrishna Gokhale) and later as the supreme leader of the Muslim League that demanded India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan.
You will not be able to enter it because the heritage mansion, sitting on a sprawling plot of 2.5 acres, is locked under litigation. But peer through the gate, and you will be left with no doubt that the magnificent house that Jinnah built in 1936 is a victim of appalling disuse.
Should the ‘Symbol of Partition’ be Demolished?
Now it also faces the threat of destruction, if the demand of an influential leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, gains traction. Local BJP MLA Mangal Prabhat Lodha, who is also Mumbai’s most reputed builder, has demanded its demolition. His demand rests on two pillars. One, since it is “a symbol of Partition”, the place where, according to Lodha’s biased reading of history, the “conspiracy” of India’s division was hatched, the hateful symbol deserves to be erased.
To buttress this point, he has also erroneously called it an “enemy property”. For this, he has taken recourse to the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Bill, 2016, passed by Parliament recently, which empowers the government to seize properties left behind by those who migrated to Pakistan or China after wars. This legislation clearly does not apply to Jinnah House.
Two, since the government is spending a lot of money (not quantified) for the maintenance of the heritage building, Lodha says it should be pulled down and replaced by a “cultural centre”.
What About Other Symbols of Colonial Era
The second pillar of Lodha’s demand can be demolished easily. If the idea is only to establish a cultural centre, why pull down Jinnah House? The Government of India gave the building to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in 2003 precisely for this purpose.
A signboard hanging on the gate of Jinnah House reads: ‘Proposed site of SOUTH ASIA CENTRE FOR ART & CULTURE’. Had Jinnah’s daughter Dina Wadia not laid claim to the property, ICCR could have made the Centre operational by now in the same building. It can still do so, without demolishing the building, if and when the Bombay High Court dismisses Wadia’s claim.
To demolish the first pillar of Lodha’s demand, one needs to revisit certain truths about Partition and Jinnah’s role in it. However, the difficulty here is that Lodha, like many adherents of the Hindu Rashtra ideology, is an admirer of Donald Trump, and like Trump, seems to subscribe to post-truth assertions about India’s history. (Mumbai’s most iconic, 75-storey super-luxury apartment building being built by the Lodha Group was trumpeted as the ‘Trump Tower’ before the American presidential election.)
An unprejudiced look at the recorded facts of history would show that even though the Muslim League under Jinnah’s leadership was responsible for India’s division, so too was the Indian National Congress. The culpability of the British was even greater. In any case, if the demolition of Jinnah House is sought to be justified on the ground that it remains a “symbol of Partition”, why not also demand demolition of all the majestic buildings built by the British on the ground that they are “symbols of colonial enslavement”?
Jinnah’s Vision of ‘Akhand India’
Indeed, as I have shown in my new book August Voices (which makes a case for an India-Pakistan-Bangladesh confederation), facts reveal that Jinnah did not want the kind of Partition that took place in August 1947, even though, with his strident advocacy of the flawed and toxic ‘Two-Nation’ theory, he set in motion developments he could hardly control.
The demand of a separate and independent Pakistan was more a bargaining chip for him in his bid to gain the best deal for the Indian Muslim community.
Furthermore, as Jinnah’s historic address to Pakistan’s constituent assembly on 11 August, 1947, incontrovertibly shows, he envisioned the new Muslim nation to be non-theocratic, and one in which citizens of all religions would have equal rights and opportunities. Had he been alive today, he would have been horrified by the rise of Islamist extremism and terrorism, which have shed the blood of thousands of innocent people in both Pakistan and Hindustan.
Jinnah Wanted to Return to Bombay after Partition!
What most people in India do not know, and what most Pakistanis do not wish to know, is that even after Partition had become a reality, Jinnah wanted to come back to his beloved city Bombay and live in the house he had built for himself.
In his address to the All India Muslim League Council meeting in Karachi in December 1947, he stated: “I tell you that I still consider myself to be an Indian. For the moment I have accepted the Governor-Generalship of Pakistan. But I am looking forward to a time when I would return to India and take my place as a citizen of my country.”
That Jinnah's heart was in the beautiful mansion he had built for himself in Bombay is evident from an authentic and fascinating account given by Sri Prakasa, India's first High Commissioner to Pakistan, in his memoirs Pakistan: Birth and Last Days (Meenakshi Prakashan; Meerut, 1965). In the aftermath of Partition, the governments of India and Pakistan had started acquiring evacuee properties left behind by those who migrated from one country to another.
Out of goodwill, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided not to disturb the Jinnah House in Bombay. However, since there was a shortage of accommodation for consulates of foreign countries, the government directed Sri Prakasa to consult Jinnah's wishes and the rent he wanted for letting it out.
Convincing Jinnah for Renting Out Bombay House
Jinnah, writes Sri Prakasa, was flabbergasted by the inquiry “and almost pleadingly said to me: “Sri Prakasa, don't break my heart. Tell Jawaharlal not to break my heart. I have built it brick by brick. Who can live in a house like that? What fine verandahs? It is a small house fit only for a small European family or a refined Indian prince. You do not know how I love Bombay. I still look forward to going back there.’”
“Really Mr Jinnah!” Sri Prakasa asked. “You desire to go back to Bombay. May I tell the prime minister that you want to go back there?” Jinnah replied: “Yes, you may."
The conversation does not end here. Sri Prakasa recalled this talk in a letter to Jinnah dated 30 July 1948. It deserves to be quoted in detail because the letter, and Jinnah’s reply to it, provide further proof of the latter’s desire to return to Bombay and spend time in a city and a country he still regarded as his own.
“You will perhaps remember the interview that you were good enough to grant me on 14 May, when I asked for your permission, on behalf of the Government of India, to requisition your Bombay house, in view of the acute shortage of accommodation, particularly when the house was vacant for the preceding many months.”
“Besides the consideration of sentiments which we all understand, and the Government of India appreciate, you particularly mentioned that a house like that could only be occupied by either a prince or a multi-millionaire of very refined tastes, and that if it were given to all sorts of persons they would only destroy the house. You were also pleased to add that it would be difficult for anyone to imagine how much you loved Bombay and hoped, when things were settled, to go back there some day. You asked me to help in saving the house and I promised to do my best.”
“I immediately sent a long telegram to Jawaharlal, conveying to him your sentiments and your desires. In deference to your wishes, he advised the Government of Bombay accordingly, and your house was not touched. I have now heard from him again; and I have to write to say that owing to the acute shortage of housing in Bombay, the Government of Bombay are being considerably embarrassed by permitting this big house remaining unoccupied, particularly when they have introduced a very rigorous housing control in that city. I have, therefore, once more to approach you with the request that you may be pleased to permit the Government of Bombay to allot your house to one of the principal foreign consulates stationed there...
“The Government of India also assured me that when the house is allotted to the consulate, a condition will be imposed that whenever it should be required for your personal use, it will be vacated by them on the expiry of a suitable period of notice. I may be permitted to add that it was a matter of great gratification to me when I learnt you were expecting to be able to go back to the city, which owes so much to you...
If I may suggest, it would, indeed, be gracious on your part if you could yourself offer the house, in view of the conditions in Bombay, for the use of a foreign consulate. This will eliminate the fear that you expressed that the requisitioning of your house would create bitterness in the mind of Indian Muslims who may interpret the action of [the] government in a very different light; when they know that you are voluntarily making the offer in order to meet legitimate requirements, no hostile feeling will be roused, and the act will naturally and rightly be regarded as a most gracious gesture on your part.Sri Prakasa, India’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan
Jinnah’s Wish to Return to His Roots
Jinnah’s reply on 16 August 1948 is no less revealing:
Thank you for your letter dated 30th of July and for all the trouble that you have taken, and to Jawaharlal for giving careful considerations to this case. I am quite willing, as suggested by him, to let this house on the terms mentioned in your letter to a foreign consulate, not because of any racial feeling but (because) the house is built entirely in European style and for the use of a small European family.Muhammad Ali Jinnah
“As regards the rent, I was offered some time ago Rs 3,000 per month, but it does not lie in my mouth to fix the rent. As it is requisitioned by [the] government, I leave it to the government to make fullest inquiries and fix such rent as they may think reasonable.
I would prefer the American Consulate to occupy it because they would be really in a position to keep the amenities, and the very large and pretty garden which is very essential, in good condition. Thanking you for all that you have done, and looking forward to meeting you when I return to Karachi.Muhammad Ali Jinnah
That was not to be. Jinnah was then in Quetta, a sick man living the last days of his life. He breathed his last after his arrival to Karachi on 11 September 1948. However, the above correspondence reveals a startling fact: Jinnah was amenable to renting out his house in Bombay until he returned to occupy it himself. And the government of India, at the very highest level, was working to make his wish come true!
Obviously, neither Jinnah in Pakistan nor Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru in India thought that Partition would bar free cross-border movement of people. When, and why, have our two countries abandoned that ideal? Can we not, and should we not, embrace it again? A beginning must be made by both Indians and Pakistanis accepting the truths of history.
Appeal to Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif
Jinnah House can be a symbol of India-Pakistan friendship.
But do the advocates of Hindu Rashtra (some of whom tried to ‘Hinduise’ Jinnah House by hoisting ‘Gudi’, a Hindu flag-symbol, on Gudi Padwa last month) care to know the above facts and acknowledge what they mean?
If the complex history of Partition and Jinnah’s equally complex role in it are studied without communal bias, he comes across as someone who, despite his grave mistakes, can still serve as a bridge connecting Pakistan and India. He was in some ways a patriot of both countries.
I would like to end this article with an appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even though Lodha and many in the BJP hold India’s first prime minister guilty of not seizing Jinnah House as an evacuee property after 1947, Nehru’s magnanimity showed him as a statesman and earned him enormous goodwill in Pakistan. For the people and government of Pakistan, Jinnah House has a very special significance because of its association with the Father of their Nation. They are aghast at the demand that it be demolished.
Against this backdrop, Modi has an opportunity to act like Nehru. He should assure that Jinnah House is preserved and developed into a South Asian Centre for Art and Culture, with a special focus on India-Pakistan friendship.
Additionally, he should invite Pakistan to establish its consulate on the same plot, provided Nawaz Sharif’s government allows India to re-establish its consulate at an equally historic location in Karachi. The fact that our two countries do not even have consulates in these two cities (which were so close in so many ways before 1947) – or for that matter, in any city – is one of the many shaming realities of our bilateral relations.
It is time the two prime ministers showed the courage to change history – and made a beginning to refashion India-Pakistan ties on the principles of peace and good-neighbourliness. Jinnah House can symbolise their reconciliatory resolve. After all, it is in this historic building that, Mahatma Gandhi, in the course of his 18-day talks with Jinnah in 1944, had told the latter: Let us live like brothers, belonging to one family.
(The author, who was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is chairman of the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. His new book August Voices was launched at the Karachi Literature Festival in February 2017. He can be reached @SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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