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Mohammad Ali Jinnah's portrait merits place on AMU's walls; to examine his legacy, one must look beyond Partition

There's been a controversy recently at the Alligarh Muslim University (AMU) over a portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah that hangs in its students' union office. This has led to allegations of the AMU not being patriotic enough. For Jinnah is considered one of the demons of Indian history and is blamed for the Partition of India.

But is Partition truly all the legacy that Jinnah has in India? Jinnah was a fighter for Independence alongside Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Till the demand for Pakistan came about, he was almost as important as the other leaders in the national narrative at that time. In fact, even after the demand for Pakistan came to the fore, Nehru and Gandhi didn't abandon him. The call for Independence was a unified one that was supported by all parties at the time. Jinnah and the other parties though differed on on how an independent India would look like and thus a controversy over whether it is still patriotic to remember him.

 Mohammad Ali Jinnahs portrait merits place on AMUs walls; to examine his legacy, one must look beyond Partition

Mohammad Ali Jinnah. AFP

To contextualise who Jinnah was, it's important to examine his legacy beyond the lens of Partition. Jinnah was a barrister from Lincoln's Inn who began his practice in Mumbai (then Bombay). He practiced before the high court and made a name for himself. One important case that Jinnah argued in relation to our freedom movement was the appeal against an order that required Bal Gandhadhar Tilak to bond himself for good behavior, as the district magistrate of Pune was of the opinion that Tilak was distributing seditious material. As Jinnah represented Tilak before the Bombay High Court and had this order set aside, he argued that Tilak's writings didn't amount to sedition under Section 124-A of the Penal Code (Sedition) but it was only an argument for home rule. The order was set aside and Tilalk was free.

Jinnah's legacy as a lawyer is strong. In fact, even after Partition was announced and the Direct Action Day riots happened, Jinnah was invited by the Bombay Bar Association for a reception in honour of him having completed 50 years at the Bar. He declined it, as the resolution had only been carried by a narrow margin, given the sentiments at the time.

In the Museum of the Bombay High Court, there is preserved Jinnah's Barrister Certificate, and there hangs a portrait of him along with his application to enroll at the Bar. He stands alongside others such as BR Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi, who also practiced at the Bombay Bar. This museum, containing these articles, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Feburary 2015. It is a surprise that the Sangh would proceed to villianise a portrait at the AMU when the prime minister himself had inaugurated a museum containing a similar portrait, and also had more memorabilia.

But there is something that also needs to be said for Jinnah's legacy in independent India. It is a legacy at the Bar that he would perhaps be most remembered for. The first Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court post Independence, MC Chagla, was Jinnah's junior at the Bar. He practiced in his chambers. In his autobiography Roses in December, Chagla writes:

"Before I left for England, as I have recounted earlier, Jinnah had promised me that he would allow me to read with him in his chambers. What attracted me to Jinnah was the force of his personality and more than that, his sterling nationalism and patriotism. If at that time anyone had told me that Jinnah would one day be responsible for the partition of our country I would have thought him mad. I joined his chamber and remained with him for about six years. I read his briefs, went with him to court, and listened to his arguments. What impressed me most was the lucidity of his thought and expression. There were no obscure spots or ambiguities about what Jinnah had to tell the court. He was straight and forthright, and always left a strong impression whether his case was intrinsically good or bad. I remember sometimes at a conference he would tell the solicitor that his case was hopeless, but when he went to court he fought like a tiger, and almost made me believe that he had digged his opinion. Whenever I talked to him afterwards about it, he would say that it was the duty of an advocate, however bad the case might be, to do his best for his client."

Chagla, who read for six years with Jinnah, disavowed him when the latter made the demand for Partition. But Chagla's legacy as a lawyer is tied with Jinnah, whether history would like it or not. Chagla would later sit as an ad-hoc judge at the ICJ, become India's High Commissioner to the UK and a minister in Nehru's government.

Jinnah has a legacy in India. We should be permitted to hang portraits of him at places where he played an important role, such as the AMU, which has made many notable people honorary members through history. Not just because his legacy in India to some extent warrants it. But because India's legacy demands it. The legacy of India is not one borne of hatred. Even post-Independence, we have made countless efforts to make peace with Pakistan. Indian leaders at the time fought for a pluralistic India grounded at its core with the freedom of thought. If some Indian finds some inspiration in Jinnah's legacy, then so be it. Let there be a marketplace of ideas. Let India, an India that Nehru and Gandhi fought for, not turn into a nation of illiterates demanding visible symbols be reduced rather than having a cogent argument.

The case for taking Jinnah's portrait off the walls at the AMU should be made at the AMU. There should be a free debate if Jinnah's legacy still warrants that portrait being there. It is not for the government or the hooligans to decide, what is to put it charitably, an ill-informed protest to decide what can hang on the walls in the AMU students' union office. In India, which is a free country, we take down photos and statues because we decide to do so after a debate; we don't do so in a flight of passion. This is the legacy India has built in the years after its independence. A legacy of liberty and democracy. The current actions by hooligans, who seem to have government support in the AMU, are a bigger taint on this country's legacy than a thousand portraits of Jinnah will ever be.

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Updated Date: May 10, 2018 12:07:37 IST