Unending politics of portraits

Whatever be MA Jinnah's connection with Aligarh Muslim University, penniless refugees who came to India post-Partition deserve better than to once again be faced with religious zealots who are keen on putting Jinnah on a pedestal that he is most undeserving of

 AMU

MA Jinnah’s recent appearance, albeit in a portrait ‘discovered’ after more than 70 years, has not only created turbulence at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), but has raised some fundamental questions that needs to be confronted. The sudden discovery and calls for its removal reek of the worst kind of politics and could well be either an attempt to influence the voters of Karnataka, or be meant to lay the foundation for creating a divisive issue to be exploited during the general election.

That said, those against its removal are displaying an identical proclivity for mayhem and may have similar agenda which makes them equally culpable. We are, therefore, likely to see this needless confrontation gaining traction over the time and becoming an highly inflammable issue bereft of reason. Finally, there are those, with a liberal bent of mind, who are keen to avoid giving the issue a communal colour. They make the argument that it is only a portrait from a bygone era and a part of our historical heritage that cannot be wished away and, therefore, must not be tampered with.

But history is a strange beast since  it’s not just a simple recounting of facts but their interpretation immensely complicated by circumstance, perception and ideological baggage of who is telling the story and why. Take the example of the British conquest of the subcontinent and the hundreds of thousands, known and unknown, who opposed them, many making the ultimate sacrifice in this quest for freedom.

Surely, in the three entities that emerged finally from this struggle, there must have been those, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, whose valour, sacrifice and contribution must have been worthy of recognition by each of the three States. Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose immediately come to mind, though there would be numerous others worthy of such honour.

Surprisingly, however, there was but only one family, the Suhrawady’s, which received such universal accolades from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Thus, we have the Suhrawardy Avenue in Kolkata, the Khayaban-e-Suhrawardy in Islamabad and the Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka. What is truly ironic, of course, is the uncontestable fact that only a handful from our subcontinent would have ever heard of them; and even less who would be aware of their contributions that resulted in them being bestowed such an honour.

For record, the Avenue in Kolkata is named after Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, though many, including this writer, were under the mistaken impression that it was named after his famous nephew, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, erstwhile Chief Minister of Bengal in 1946 and subsequently the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Sir Hassan was an eminent surgeon, politician and also the first Muslim Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University. However, his chief claim to fame, for which he was probably knighted and had the Avenue named after him, was the incident on February 6, 1932, in which he, “by his courageous and timely” intervention saved the life of the Chancellor of Calcutta University and Governor of Bengal, Sir Stanley Jackson, who was shot by a 21-year-old revolutionary Bina Das during the annual convocation.

Sir Stanley survived the assassination attempt and Das was jailed for nine years. While the British appreciation of Suhrawady’s act at that time was expected, surely we, who claim to greatly value the sacrifices of our freedom fighters, can only see his actions as that of a traitor and a betrayal of our cause. Then, shouldn’t post-independent India have taken the initiative to replace his name with that of Das? Surely, that would have reflected our commitment to our freedom fighters as well as our contempt for turncoats more than anything else could have, apart from being poetic justice!

As for Huseyn Suhrawardy, his term as the Chief Minister of Bengal certainly didn’t go well as he was held responsible for orchestrating the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’, the riots on the Muslim League organised ‘Direct Action Day’ that resulted in the death of thousands, mainly Hindus. These riots lasted for around a week till the Army was finally able to regain control, and were the precursor to the spate of communal killings that made the Partition inevitable.

He went on to become the fourth Prime Minister of Pakistan and was responsible for promulgating the 1956 Constitution that nullified the large majority that east Pakistanis enjoyed in Parliament by virtue of their 56 per cent share of the population. In essence, this move reduced Bengalis to the status of second class citizens, a situation finally rectified by its secession leading to the formation of Bangladesh.

After his short-lived term as the Prime Minister, he was considered as an anti-national by Gen Ayub Khan and was forced into exile in Lebanon. He died shortly thereafter, though there were credible suggestions that he was assassinated. That both Pakistan and Bangladesh yet went on to honour him for his rather dubious achievements seems remarkable and eminently nonsensical.

In all of this, one thing is clear that whatever one may wish to believe about Jinnah’s character and leadership, he was unquestionably culpable for the violence that rocked Calcutta, the rest of Bengal and subsequently spread to north. All of those who were forced to flee their homes and businesses in areas that went on to become Pakistan, having suffered unspeakable horrors along the way, can never forgive him for the tragedy of Partition and the consequent destruction of their families and way of life.

Whatever be Jinnah’s connection with AMU, surely, those families that came into India as penniless refugees post-Partition, deserve better than to once again be faced with religious zealots keen on putting Jinnah on a pedestal  that he is undeserving of. This is not about politics or patriotism but just plain empathy for our fellow citizens who suffered because of his actions. Too high a price has been paid by our people for him to be dignified by being placed on our walls. The university authorities have been at fault for not having replaced such so-called doyens of yesteryear with heroes of post-independent India, those who have made the nation and community proud. Surely, that was not too much to ask.

It is not that such acts are without precedent, after all, Stalin’s statues have been toppled across the erstwhile Soviet Union, as have those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. As a matter of fact, there is a growing popular movement at the present time in the US to remove the statues of popular Confederate leaders, such as General Robert E Lee,  that continue to adorn parks and public spaces in southern States  whose  attempted secession led to the American Civil War.

Surely, we too need to clear the detritus of history that divides and holds us back through consensus, without letting past antagonisms get the better of us.


This commentary originally appeared in The Pioneer.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Deepak Sinha

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