Mohammad Ali Jinnah: Too much a toff for Yorkshire

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 94-95:

Jinnah was a successful barrister, born in Karachi and called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. Tall and slender, he hardly ate, and smoked fifty Craven A cigarettes a day! He was often described as looking cadaverous, but this description does no justice to his dynamism. With his smooth coiffure and glittering stare he looked more like a cobra than a corpse. The photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White described at length “the Oxford-educated Jinnah” with his “razor-sharp mind and hypnotic, smoldering eyes.” Jinnah had not, in fact, been educated at Oxford; he had attended a madrassa in Karachi and a local mission school. But it was easy to believe that this urbane gentleman, described by the New York Times as “undoubtedly one of the best dressed men in the British Empire,” his public speaking rich with quotations from Shakespeare, was part of the British elite.

Jinnah had begun his political career in Congress. He made himself a figurehead for Hindu-Muslim unity and was acclaimed as such by Hindu Congress luminaries. He had joined the Muslim League in 1913, confident that he could act as abridge between the political parties. But it was the emergence of Gandhi as the spiritual leader of Congress in 1920 that began to push Jinnah out. “I will have nothing to do with this pseudo-religious approach to politics,” Jinnah had said, rejecting the call for satyagraha. “I part company with the Congress and Gandhi. I do not believe in working up mob hysteria. Politics is a gentleman’s game.” But politics is rarely gentlemanly, and as if to prove it there was a profound and deadly clash of personality between Jinnah and the other English gentleman of Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru. Like his compatriot and friend, the poet Muhammad Iqbal, Jinnah disdained “the atheistic socialism of Jawaharlal.” “We do not want any flag excepting the League flag of the Crescent and Star,” he would declare. “Islam is our guide and the complete code of our life.”

Despite his position as one of the key figures in the rise of twentieth-century Islam, Jinnah was no fundamentalist. His Islam was liberal, moderate and tolerant. It was said that he could recite none of the Koran, rarely went to a mosque and spoke little Urdu. Much has been made of his reluctance to don Muslim outfits, his fondness for I whiskey and his rumored willingness to eat ham sandwiches. In fact, he never pretended to be anything other than a progressive Muslim, influenced by the intellectual and economic aspects of European culture as well as by the teachings of Muhammad. The game he played was carefully considered: here was a Muslim who understood the British sufficiently to parley on equal terms, but asserted his Islamic identity strongly enough that he could never be seen to grovel. His refusal of a knighthood was significant; so, too, was his demurral in the face of Muslim attempts to call him “Maulana” Jinnah, denoting a religious teacher. Some historians go so far as to describe him as a “bad” Muslim, revealing more about their own ideas of what a Muslim should be than about Jinnah’s faith. In any case, the Muslim League suffered from no shortage of good Muslims. What it had lacked was a good politician. And Jinnah was without question one of the most brilliant politicians of his day.

Jinnah had married Rattanbai “Ruttie” Petit, the daughter of a prominent Parsi banker, when he was forty-two and she just eighteen. Rebellious and beautiful, Ruttie had been a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Nan Pandit; she was closer still, indeed almost passionately so, to Padmaja Naidu, who would later become Jawahar’s lover. The deeply personal and incestuous nature of Indian politics is plain from these relationships. Jinnah’s marriage was not an easy one. After the birth of their daughter, Dina, he and Ruttie separated. Ruttie died on her thirtieth birthday in 1929, following a long affliction with a digestive disorder. Jinnah was devastated at her death and moved to London with Dina. He took a large house in Hampstead, was chauffeured around in a Bentley, played billiards, lunched at Simpson’s and went to the theater. He considered standing for parliament in the Labour interest but was rejected by a Yorkshire constituency, allegedly with the verdict that it would not be represented by “a toff like that.” His sister Fatima gave up a career as a dentist to become, in effect, his hostess, though that title belies her full significance. Fatima Jinnah was a woman of intelligence and drive, and was influential in her brother’s move toward Islamic nationalism.

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Filed under anglosphere, Britain, India, Islam, nationalism, Pakistan

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