Ambedkar, Jinnah and Muslim nationalism

There is a tendency amongst Pakistanis to rationalise the creation of Pakistan on religious grounds. Historically, there is no such correlation between Pakistan and Islam, other than the fact that Muslim identity itself had emerged from conversion of a gr

Ambedkar, Jinnah and Muslim nationalism

Dr B R Ambedkar’s classic text Annihilation of Caste has been republished with an introduction by Arundhati Roy. The introduction by Roy maps out the tense and often acrimonious relationship between Dr B R Ambedkar and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. DrAmbedkar — arguably the father of India’s constitution — was a giant in his own right and perhaps the most underrated historical figure yet. As Roy points out, this great hero of the Dalits and scheduled castes did not even get a walk-on role in the Oscar winning film Gandhi. Now Roy’s magnificent introduction to the great doctor (he was a doctor of law from Columbia University) has reignited the debate on what Gandhi and Ambedkar said and did back in the 1940s. It is a tragedy that Ambedkar’s struggle is ignored by the world at large because, in just the sheer numbers alone, his civil rights movement dwarfs that of Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela.

Yet there is a reason why Pakistan ought to celebrate this great man as well. I was first introduced to Dr Ambedkar’s writings some 15 years ago in college through his work Pakistan or Partition of India, which was first published in 1940 and then republished again in 1942 and 1944. Since then, I have marvelled at how ignorant Pakistan’s historians and authors are of this text, which to date contains the most cogent articulation of the idea behind Pakistan. This book, Pakistan or Partition of India, was recommended to Gandhi by Jinnah himself during their unsuccessful talks in 1944.

There is a tendency amongst our writers to now look back and say that the two-nation theory was the antithesis of secularism but in the 1940s at least it was forwarded by two men, Ambedkar and Jinnah, who were perhaps the most secular-minded politicians in South Asia. In the chapter ‘A nation calling for a home’, Ambedkar eloquently explains, “Thus, the things that divide are far more vital than the things which unite. In depending upon certain common features of Hindu and Mahomedan social life, in relying upon common language, common race and common country, the Hindu is mistaking what is accidental and superficial for what is essential and fundamental. The political and religious antagonisms divide the Hindus and the Musalmans far more deeply than the so-called common things are able to bind them together...The Muslims have developed a ‘will to live as a nation’. For them nature has found a territory, which they can occupy and make it a state as well as a cultural home for the new-born Muslim nation. Given these favourable conditions, there should be no wonder, if the Muslims say that they are not content to occupy the position which the French choose to occupy in Canada or the English choose to occupy in South Africa, and that they shall have a national home which they can call their own.”

Yet it would be a terrible reduction of the complexity of Ambedkar’s argument to suggest that he was suggesting an irrevocable partition of India. In Chapter 15 of the book, ‘Who can decide’, Ambedkar sets down, as the great jurist that he was, the draft of the Government of India (Preliminary Provisions) Act, which laid down the best solution to the communal question, leading to either an amicable divorce or a gradual integration of Hindus and Muslims. I do not think many historians have paid any real attention to this remarkable draft legislation because it contained within it the germs of the Cabinet Mission Plan, which ultimately the Muslim League accepted and which could have averted partition. However, Ambedkar’s plan was better. It seems therefore that Ambedkar played a great role in influencing Jinnah’s ideas on a communal settlement.

Ambedkar and Jinnah had been natural allies. As men of the law and as leaders of groups outside the upper caste milieu of Hindudom, they saw each other as the great resistance to what they felt was caste Hindu domination. When the Congress quit government in 1939, Ambedkar joined Jinnah in celebrating the day of deliverance along with Periyar E V Ramasamy Naicker of the Dravidian movement. Ambedkar, Jinnah and Naicker formed a formidable trio against what they perceived to be caste Hindu domination that Congress and its Hindu Mahasabha allies were hell bent on imposing on India. It may also be pointed out that Ambedkar was never an uncritical ally of Jinnah. He criticised Jinnah, publicly and privately, wherever and whenever he felt Jinnah was making a mistake and Jinnah took it uncharacteristically. It was a relationship of peers and very few leaders could claim that kind of relationship with the Quaid-e-Azam.

There is a tendency amongst Pakistanis to rationalise (or criticise) the creation of Pakistan on religious grounds. Historically, there is no such correlation between Pakistan and Islam, other than of course the fact that Muslim identity itself had emerged from conversion of a great mass of people in South Asia to Islam and the demarcation that it gave them. The real anxiety was economic and political — an anxiety that Jinnah shared with his Dalit and Dravidian allies. It was for this reason that Jinnah nominated Jogindranath Mandal, a follower of Ambedkar, to represent Muslims in the interim government of India and later appointed him minister of law in the Pakistan government. Unfortunately, Jinnah’s lieutenants treated Mandal shabbily after Jinnah’s demise and the man left Pakistan broken hearted. A couple of years ago, Lahore’s city district government decided to name an underpass after Pakistan’s first law minister. It seems that they have since changed their decision.

Credit must be given however to the Congress Party in India, which, after 1947, sought out Ambedkar, despite his antipathy to Gandhi, and tasked him with the making of the Indian constitution, which he did with great skill, a living testament to the brilliant mind that Ambedkar was.


The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address