Book review: The Sole Spokesman by Ayesha Jalal

The Sole Spokesman by Ayesha Jalal is a book takes a strong stand against the common teleological assumption that “the end result of the … partition was the ultimate goal of Muslim politics” and Jinnah in the years leading up to 1947. Through the book, Jalal’s arguments aim to explain Jinnah’s nuanced motives at the time and the factors that led up to his Demand for Pakistan. 

One of the primary arguments that Jalal puts forward in the book is the idea that, contrary to common belief, politics founded on “communal consciousness” was uncharacteristic of Jinnah before the 1937 elections. In the initial chapters of the book, Jalal outlines the significant role that Jinnah played as a member of the INC in the early 1900s, promulgating the idea of shared representation for Indians at the all-India centre. Notably, Jalal makes it evident that during his time with the INC, Jinnah was strongly opposed to the 1909 Minto-Morley reforms, due to the fact that they granted separate electorates to Muslims. He believed that the reforms would widen the rift between Hindus and Muslims. Furthermore, in 1916 Jinnah was said to have persuaded the AIML and the INC to agree upon a common scheme of reforms making his desire for cooperation with the League evident, while stating that he was “a staunch Congressman with no love for sectarian cries”. According to Jalal, even several years later, post the 1937 elections, Jinnah’s use of communal politics was simply an method to garner more widespread support for the AIML in Muslim Majority provinces to back the League’s demand for Pakistan, as opposed to an attempt to cause communal conflict among the masses. 

Another significant argument that is put forth in the book is the idea that in the years leading up to the partition of 1947, Jinnah’s aim was to merely gain parity for Muslims in the all-India center. It was from this desire for parity that he began to promulgate what was then known as the “two-nation theory”. The theory was founded on the assertion that Indian Muslims were not a minority but a nation with a distinct identity, culture and heritage (much like Indian Hindus), that deserved to be strongly represented at an all-India centre. According to Jalal, up until the 1937 elections, “the League ground itself on the old charter of Muslim Rights” which promoted separate representation for Muslims as mandated by the GOI act of 1935. However, Jinnah’s poor performance in the elections pushed Congress to rebuff his overtures, causing the league to “adopt a new line, looking for an independent state”.  Jinnah then repudiated the minority status that separate representation entailed, making the bold assertion that Muslims were a nation- from here arose the claim that Jinnah could be the spokesperson for all Muslims. 

Through the book, the author also puts forward the argument that the Lahore resolution of 1940 was the backing that Jinnah needed to promulgate the concept of Pakistan. The resolution was essentially a landmark document that was adopted as a part of an AIML general session in 1940. Its significance arose from the fact that it was the first formal demand for “establishment of a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims”, and was a document that was adopted with vast support from Muslim Majority (notably Punjab and Bengal) and minority provinces. The Lahore declaration stood out due to the fact that it claimed to speak in the interest of all Indian Muslims (It even promised “adequate effective and mandatory safeguards” for minorities). According to Jalal, however, despite the passing of the resolution, Jinnah simply desired to use the idea of Pakistan and this widespread support as a “bargaining counter to get a better deal for Indian Muslims” at the all-India center. He believed that the resolution would promote the idea of a “loose federation” that would finally allow both Hindus and Muslims to have parity at the national level. The resolution however, was not without its flaws; Jinnah’s unwillingness to define Pakistan even during the drafting of the 1940 resolution was what enabled him to garner the support of the leaders in the Muslim Majority provinces. Jalal puts forth the idea that had the Congress or the British pointed out the evident contradictions and ambiguities in the demand for Pakistan early on, support for Jinnah would have crumbled long before the 1945-46 elections. 

The strongest and arguably most bold assertion that the author makes through the book however, was the claim that by the year 1947, “It was Congress that insisted on Partition. It was Jinnah who was against Partition”. According to Jalal, by 1947, Congress was so strongly drawn to the idea of a “centralised state power” and staunch Indian sovereignty, that stalwarts such as Patel and Nehru were willing to resign themselves to the idea that partition was the price they would have to pay for it. Jinnah on the other hand, remained strongly opposed to the idea of partition until the very end and openly declared his opposition to the partition of Bengal and Punjab. Notably, Jinnah was once heard making a declaration in 1947 that he “could not agree to the partition of Punjab and Bengal (for it would be) sowing the seeds of future serious trouble”. On another occasion (26th April 1947), Jinnah told Mountbattan that he would be “’delighted’ if Bengal could remain united even if this meant it would have to stay out of Pakistan”, only further demonstrating the extent of his unwillingness to concede to the idea of partition. 

Evidently, throughout the book, Ayesha Jalal strongly asserts that the creation of Pakistan was an unintended consequence of the Quaid-e-Azam’s attempt to gain parity for the Muslims all India center. He, however, in 1947, was a victim of circumstance, strong-armed into accepting a “”maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten Pakistan”- the very same Pakistan which he had rejected out of hand in 1946. His dilemma at the time, was further exacerbated by the fact that he had  “an uncertain hold over the politics of Muslim-Majority provinces” (by 1947, communal violence had already taken a turn for the worse) and the fact that by 1947 there was a strong “British eagerness to quit with the least possible damage to imperial interests”. 

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