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What Pakistan’s Top Leaders Saw In Gandhi When He Was Assassinated – Analysis

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All except Jinnah hailed Gandhi as a leader who strove for communal harmony and Indo-Pak understanding. Jinnah stoically held on to the view that Gandhi was only a leader of the Hindus. But he modified his stand later, after listening to his colleagues’ effusive eulogies.

When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948, the leaders of the new country Pakistan were shaken, and in their speeches in the Constituent Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies, they fully acknowledged the Indian leader’s life-long fight for Hindu-Muslim harmony, and after the formation of Pakistan, his campaign for India-Pakistan understanding and cooperation. 

But even in that brief grief-filled atmosphere, the top-most leader of Pakistan, hailed as its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, chose to be stoic, reticent and unemotional in his statement on Gandhi’s death. He stuck  to his time-worn line that Gandhi was a “great Hindu leader” nothing more. Jinnah totally ignored Gandhi’s life-long and fearless campaign to bring the Hindus and Muslims together and did not acknowledge that his last fast-unto-death was to get the government of independent India to give the newly created Pakistan Rs.55 crores (550 million) which was its due from the partition of the assets of British India.                    

Reactions to Gandhi’s assassination in Pakistan are presented in Stockholm University Emeritus Professor Istiaq Ahmed’s  book Jinnah: His successes, failures and role in history, Penguin 2020.

Immediately after Gandhi’s assassination, Jinnah made the following statement: ” Whatever our political differences, he (Gandhi) was one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community, and a leader who commanded their universal confidence and respect. I wish to express my deep sorrow, and sincerely sympathize with the great Hindu community and his family in their bereavement at this momentous, historical and critical juncture, so soon after the birth of freedom of Hindustan and Pakistan.”

“The loss to the Dominion of India is irreparable and it will be very difficult to fill the vacuum created by the passing away of such a great man at this moment.”   

According to Prof. Ishtiaq Ahmed, when Jinnah was dictating the statement, one of his British assistants had suggested a different wording to describe Gandhi – something on the lines of ‘a great leader of the world’. But Jinnah would not budge. In his decades-long fight with Gandhi on the Hindu-Muslim question, the two men were diametrically opposed to each other with Jinnah believing in the impossibility of Hindus and Muslims living together as equals in the same country and Gandhi trashing the ‘Two Nation’ theory. Jinnah was touting the Two-Nation theory according to which Hindus and Muslims are so fundamentally different and incompatible, that they cannot live together in the same country. Further, Jinnah fought tooth and nail for the partition of British India, while Gandhi declared that India would be partitioned “over his dead body”.  No wonder then, Jinnah did not mention Gandhi’s work to bring Muslims and Hindus together and make them regard India as their common motherland.

Jinnah’s Colleague Strick Different Note 

But surprisingly, Jinnah’s close colleagues struck a totally different note in their obituary references. Their allusions eventually forced Jinnah to revise his assessment of Gandhi.  On February 24, 1948, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan told the Pakistan Constituent Assembly: “It is with a deep sense of sorrow that I rise to make a reference to the tragic death of Gandhiji. He is one of the greatest men of our times. Thirty years ago, Gandhiji preached the doctrine of non-violence and it is indeed an irony of fate that the man should be the victim of an assassin’s bullet. As he was always anxious for communal harmony, he threw himself, heart and soul, into this work of establishing communal harmony in India. And everyone knows that even at the risk of his life, he carried on his noble mission. The immediate cause of his tragic death was certainly his effort to re-establish communal harmony in India.”

Note that Liaquat Ali Khan used the honorific ‘ji” when mentioning Gandhi. Jinnah on the other hand, would always refer to Gandhi as “Mr. Gandhi”. At any rate, Gandhi was no ‘Mahatma’ for him. 

In his obituary, the East Bengal Premier Khawaja Nazimuddin said: ” Gandhiji led the freedom movement in pre-partition India. And during 1922, Muslims and Hindus worked together for Indian independence. After partition, Gandhiji recognized that partition was an established fact and he impressed on all Indians that in the interest of both Pakistan and India, it was necessary that the two Dominions should work together in harmony and cooperation. It is more unfortunate that at the time he was trying his best to protect the minorities in India he should have fallen victim to the bullet of an assassin. I feel that his death is not only a loss to India; it is a loss to Pakistan too. He was trying to bring about good relations between India and Pakistan.”

Punjab Premier Mian Mumtaz Daultana’s tribute was even more grand, attributing to Gandhi, a spiritual quality. Daultana said: “We believe he was killed when he was fighting for a noble cause viz., the establishment of communal harmony and peace between the peoples of Hindustan and Pakistan. Our hearts are full of grief and sorrow at the loss of this great man who by his spiritual and noble greatness enriched the culture of this world. I hope by his death, the two people of Hindustan and Pakistan will have mutual friendship, concord and goodwill.”         

Sind Premier M.Khuhro said in the Sindh Provincial Assembly on February 4, 1948 that Gandhi was a world leader, not just a leader of the Hindus or Indians:  “Gandhiji was undoubtedly one of the greatest men the world produced and one of the greatest leaders of our times. But really speaking, his work which was far more important began from August 15 (1947). Many innocent people (Muslims) men, women and children were massacred and property looted. At that time, this man rose to the occasion and he struggled very hard to see that helpless minorities are protected. He fasted at Calcutta and at Delhi to save the lives of those minorities. I must say that those minorities, particularly Muslims in the Indian Dominion, were very grateful to him and they owed a great deal to his work from August 15 till he breathed his last.”

After Jinnah heard the emotionally charged speeches, he felt constrained to recast his tribute. Perhaps influenced by the mood in the House, he shed his narrowly political and dreary stance and said: “I have heard the deep expression of sorrow and grief, and I associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to this great man and his greatness. He died in the discharge of duty in which he was engaged. He was a man of principles, and when he believed that it was his duty, he took it up and performed it. His tragic death, however much we may deplore and condemn it, was a noble death for he died in the discharge of the duty in which he believed.”

Commenting on this Prof.Ishtiaq Ahmed says: “Finally Jinnah graciously eschewed any reference to the Hindu community and was willing to concede Gandhi’s greatness as a human being rather than as a leader of the Hindu community. He also acknowledged his principles and his sense of duty and his noble death.”

Respect for Gandhi Remained in Pakistan

For a long time after his assassination, respect for Gandhi remained among Pakistan’s top leaders of the pre-partition era.  Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, a hardcore Muslim Leaguer and Prime Minister of Pakistan for 13 months between 1955 and 1956, wrote in his book “The Emergence of Pakistan” (Columbia University 1967): “He (Gandhi) was at that time passing through the noble phase of his life and was devoting all his energies to restore communal peace and harmony. On January 13, 1948, he undertook an indefinite task to bring peace to riot-stricken Delhi. To those who argued with him to give up the fast he said that the ‘object should not be to save my life but to save India and her honor’. When Sardar Patel sent word that he would do anything that Gandhi wished, Gandhi replied that ‘the first priority should be given to the question of Pakistan’s share of the cash assets withheld by the Union government’. Thus, on January 15 ,1948, the Government of India decided, under pressure from Gandhi, to implement the financial agreement with Pakistan immediately.” 

Chaudhri Muhammad Ali’s reference was to the handing over of Rs. 55 crores (550 million) to Pakistan, which was its due following the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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