IT is amazing that a 23-year-old American journalist on a scholarship to British India should display an astonishing degree of maturity and say things that a scholar from his country, Stanley Wolpert, would write about the founder of Pakistan decades later.
At that young age, Chicago Daily News correspondent Phillips Talbot showed an uncanny ability to comprehend the intricacies of South Asia’s political and constitutional problems and come to conclusions that history would vindicate. By that time Talbot would be assistant secretary of state in the Kennedy administration and later president of the Asia Society. His assessment of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s personality — in fact his tributes to him — deserve to be highlighted today on the Quaid-i-Azam’s death anniversary.
The experiences he had in undivided India, including meetings with Jinnah and Gandhi, besides interaction with a galaxy of political and social leaders across the full spectrum of what Nirad C. Chaudhuri calls “the continent of Circe” make his book, An American Witness to India’s Partition, research material. Urdu, which he learnt in London, was one of his assets. He visited Muslim cultural institutions, including the Aligarh Muslim University, did a community study of a Kashmiri family, was at Gandhi’s ashram, toured the tribal area and went into Afghanistan to acknowledge that the Afghan people “show no recognition that they are inferior to anyone”.
Talbot didn’t write a book. Instead, the letters he wrote to the institution that had given him the scholarship were later compiled into a book. They concerned the period between 1939, when he landed in India, and 1941, when he went back home after America entered the war. He returned to India in 1945 at the peak of the Pakistan Movement, and was in Karachi, along with his wife, in 1947 when the Quaid-i-Azam took the oath of office as governor general. He was thus truly a witness to partition.
Talbot’s assessment of the Quaid deserves to be highlighted today.
Talbot met the Quaid for the first time in February 1943, and heard him make clear that there could be no solution to India’s constitutional problems except a sovereign Muslim state. Jinnah, he says, was “the mouthpiece, protector and defender of the Muslim people of India. […] Few men could be less compromising. Yet none surpasses his skill in judging the temper of his partisans. Muslims have long wanted a strong champion, and the more Mr Jinnah is called an obstructionist by others, the more many Muslims like him”.
Jinnah, he says, “organised and hastened the development of Muslim solidarity with master strategy. By shrewd, brainy bargaining, cold-blooded astuteness, an absolute refusal to be panicked, and perceptive recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of both himself and his opponents, he has turned every opportunity to the advantage of the League. In negotiations he has consistently proved a match for the Congress high command with all its talents. [… ] Jinnah is all in all in the Leaguer”.
Talbot dwells at length on the situation in Punjab before the Lahore resolution was passed and calls “a parliamentary masterpiece” the Quaid’s handling of the crisis stemming from a clash between the Khaksar movement and Punjab chief minister Sikander Hayat, who had banned it. When Khaksar volunteers clashed with the police, the resulting violence killed 30 Khaksar volunteers and two policemen. The situation was embarrassing for the Muslim League, because Jinnah didn’t wish to lose the sympathy of either of the parties in a province that had a Muslim majority. Should the Muslim League lose Punjab, he would be left with only one province where there was a League government — Bengal. But, says Talbot, Jinnah’s “navigation through these shoals was a parliamentary masterpiece. […] The League came out of the affair unscathed, then, and full credit for this goes to Mr Jinnah.”
After meeting Jinnah, Talbot summarised the Quaid’s views thus: “Muslim India cannot accept any constitution which must necessarily result in a Hindu majority government. […] the raising of private armies as recommended by Mahtama Gandhi to the Hindus of Sukkar, when he said that they must defend themselves violently or non-violently, blow for blow. If they cannot, then they must migrate. […] Hindus and Muslims cannot become one nation merely by means of subjecting them to a democratic constitution….”
Hinduism and Islam “are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are in fact different and distinct social orders. […] they neither intermarry nor interdine […] they have different epics, the heroes are different and they have different episodes. Very often, the hero of one is the foe of the other and likewise their victories and defeats overlap”.
Then Talbot says something that has been universally recognised. Jinnah, he says, “has never accepted an honour from the British government; the prospect of personal gain or favour seems hardly to have affected his policy”.
The writer is Dawn’s external ombudsman and an author.
Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2021