Wednesday, August 26, 2009


After being in the BJP for more than three decades, Jaswant Singh has begun to talk of the virtues of the "federalism" that Jinnah espoused and that Nehru was opposed to. He now says that India needs federalism and not the centralising that the RSS believes in and that led Nehru and the Congress to reject the Cabinet Mission Plan and agree to the Partition of India.

To briefly recapitulate, the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 envisaged the grouping of India into three main parts: Group "A" - Hindustan, Group "B" - Kashmir, Punjab, Sarhad, Sindh, Baluchistan, and Group "C" - Bengal, Orissa, Assam. Each of these groups were to have 11 members in the Centre in a kind of a senate. You may notice that Muslims were in overall majority in areas included in Groups B and C. So, effectively, the senate would have had 22 out of 33 members from here even though non-Muslim majority Group "A" had a much bigger area and population.

As is evident from this Plan and the maps of the Pakistan that was proposed by the Muslim League, one of which is shown above, the party led by Jinnah saw India in only two dimensions: majority and minority, Hindu and Muslim. There was no space in it for ethnicity. So, the "federalism" that Jinnah spoke about and that has so impressed Jaswant Singh, was, to my uncluttered mind, something that applied only along religious lines.

There is little evidence to show, notwithstanding Jinnah's famous secular speech to Pakistan's Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1946, that the Muslim League had any intention of granting the same federal freedom to religious and ethnic groups belonging to and living in Muslim majority areas that is sought for those areas as one entity. It never saw the federal government of Pakistan limiting its role to defence, finance and foreign affairs.

The happenings in Pakistan after Partition bear this out. First, almost all non-Muslims were systematically driven out from there, even long after Partition. Then, although Bengalis of East Pakistan constituted the single largest ethnic group in that country, real power remained in the hands of the Punjabis and the Mohajirs who had left India. The federalism that Jinnah wanted for Muslims in a united India was not put in place in Pakistan because it was viewed as a unitary whole solely on a communal basis. That is why East Pakistan eventually broke the chains of religion by which it had been bound to the artificially created new country.

It would be fair to say that the concept of Pakistan could easily have been buried at the time of Partition itself. Ethnic Punjabis and Sindhis would have undoubtedly revolted and rejected Pakistan had they found themselves getting outnumbered in their land by Muslims from other parts of India who chose not to go to Pakistan. That is the real trick that Indian leaders missed at that time.

It also needs to be mentioned here that Pakistan is the only multi-language, multi-ethnic state in the world created from nowhere on the basis of Islam. Even the Arabs, the race to which the Prophet belonged, have not ever been able to form one nation state with the glue of the religion that they have taken almost all over the world. One race, one language, one religion, 22 countries. The glue of Islam has worked only in West Pakistan so far, and that too primarily because the military, that has a huge stake in its continuance as one country, has ruthlessly put down movements for separation based on ethnicity.

Coming back to the concept of federalism, India was divided on the basis of the communal argument put forth by Jinnah and the Muslim League. That having happened, does federalism necessarily have to be viewed still only in terms of devolution of greater power to the states created after Independence on a linguistic basis?

Is not federalism at work at the Centre itself?

China is a country that is dominated and run almost exclusively by the Hans. Minorities have little stake and are often suppressed ruthlessly. Han Chinese are also being consciously settled in non-Han areas to change the demographic profile for good. The USSR called itself a federation alright but power rested primarily in the hands of the Russians, before that super power broke up along ethnic fault lines. In Pakistan too, it is Punjabis, comprising half the population, who enjoy a disproportionately large share of power.

In India, however, no ethnic group enjoys a dominant position. If we look at the present Central government, for example, we see real federalism. The most powerful national leader is a Catholic lady who was born in Italy, the Prime Minister is a Punjabi Sikh and the Defence Minister is a Christian from Kerala. The Home Minister hails from Tamil Nadu, the Foreign Minister from Karnataka and the Finance Minister from West Bengal.

In India, thus, the Centre does not represent the domination of any ethnic group. In fact, in the democratic model that we are following presently, it is possible for a small regional or ideological party to exert disproportionate influence in decision making. The holding up of economic reforms by the communists in the previous government and the stalling of the disinvestment of Neyvelli Lignite by the DMK are two visible examples that readily come to mind. Of course, there continue to be some ethnic groups who still do not feel empowered and connected to the nation like most others are. This sore point needs to be addressed. India belongs to all equally.

Looking at this picture from the point of view of religion does not show an accurate image at all. That is why, attempts being made by some leaders to perpetuate the Jinnah concept of looking at all Indians following Islam as one block, irrespective of their ethnicity, must be discouraged in every manner possible. Unfortunately, despite the examples of Bangladesh and the Arab world in front of us, we are fanning this communal practice in the name of secularism. Those demonising Jinnah are, ironically, keeping his flawed legacy alive. The outcome cannot be good.

Had Jinnah foreseen that after Independence, the Congress would cease to be the force that it was then, and that after half a century, regional political parties with barely a dozen MPs would be in a position to veto decisions of the Central government, he would have been able to look beyond the very limited and communal Hindu-Muslim dimension that he allowed himself to get stuck in, in his quest for an immediate and disproportionate share of the power pie.

As subsequent developments have shown, "Hindus" would not have been in any position whatsoever to deprive "Muslims" of their rightful share of power, had India remained united. And, India would have actually become a truly federal country, not by taking power away from the Centre, but because of the fact that power would have been shared there by leaders representing Indians from all communities and from all parts of the country. Arun Shourie, however, feels that a united India would have been bullied, thrashed and swamped by Islamic fundamentalists.

Jinnah-struck Jaswant Singh is now re-discovering the virtues of federalism. Unless he is saying it only to spite the parivar that he was with for a long time, it seems that like the man he now admires, he is also not able to see federalism in full flow at the Centre. His view has also been coloured by that single hue of religion beyond which Jinnah could never look in his later years. That is why he is unable to see that in a diverse nation like India, as long as there is democracy, centralisation and federalism cannot not mutually exclusive, and that the latter can actually thrive in the former.
Readers may also read: Jinnah claims Jaswant: Hanuman becomes Ravan