Book Extract: How Gandhi outsmarted Jinnah to take centrestage

“Mr & Mrs Jinnah” is not just a book about a marriage that shook India, but also provides invaluable insights into Indian society and politics in the second and third decades of the last century

Picture insert from “Mr & Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India”, Penguin Random House
Picture insert from “Mr Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India”, Penguin Random House

Sheela Reddy

Much to his alarm, Gandhi was using his new-found popularity among Muslims to push through his non-cooperation programme on a national scale. If Gandhi succeeded in getting the Congress to accept it, Jinnah felt it would be nothing short of disaster for the country, calling as it did for the boycott of all government institutions, including schools, courts, legislatures and councils.

The only way to stop Gandhi now was to somehow separate him from the Muslims. And for that the Muslim League would have to snatch back the initiative on the Khilafat cause. It took another three months before Jinnah could get his Muslim League office-bearers to organise a special session in order to assess the situation. However, by that time, it became pointless because Gandhi was poised to take over the Congress, with his Khilafat allies supporting him solidly.

But Jinnah was not yet ready to give up. The battle shifted to Calcutta, where a special session of the Congress had been called to discuss whether it should adopt Gandhi’s programme of non-cooperation. Although Gandhi had won Muslims to his side, there were still enough Congress leaders as determined as Jinnah to oppose Gandhi’s programme. They were particularly resistant to the boycott of courts which meant giving up flourishing legal practices and also staying away from elections to the legislatures and consequently giving up their seats to the Liberals who were determined to contest in the coming elections. They were Jinnah’s last hope.

As he boarded the train to Calcutta with Ruttie and his Home Rule League colleagues, there seemed little to worry him. There were nearly 250 delegates from Bombay travelling on a train specially hired for the Calcutta session and the majority seemed opposed to Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. Throughout the journey there were lively discussions, much to Ruttie’s delight. It was a pleasant change from being cooped up in a first-class coach with only a brooding Jinnah for company.

Gandhi himself had left on an earlier train with his entourage and principal ally, Shaukat Ali. They were greeted wherever the train stopped by huge crowds that had gathered from miles around and kept shouting ‘Gandhi-Shaukat Ali ki Jai’. But the crowds were hardly going to help him win votes in the Congress.

Frantic lobbying to consolidate the opposition to Gandhi started as soon as they stepped out of the train. Motilal Nehru, who had come specially to meet Jinnah at the Howrah station, greeted him with the glad tidings of a combine being formed against Gandhi. Prominent leaders willing to join were Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, C.R. Das, Lajpat Rai and Annie Besant.

Das, the lawyer politician who was the tallest leader from Bengal, took the lead by organising a series of breakfasts, lunches and suppers for Congress delegates so that they would vote against Gandhi. It made Gandhi’s supporters insecure enough to redouble their efforts to keep their flocks from straying. It was unclear till the last minute which way the voting would go. But it looked as if the opposition had the edge over Gandhi’s side.

But at the last minute, Gandhi’s supporters resorted to going out on the streets and picking up random strangers to swell their numbers. Nearly a hundred outsiders were brought into the Congress pandal on the morning of the voting to ensure Gandhi’s victory.

But that was not the only trick that Gandhi’s supporters resorted to. Motilal Nehru, who had throughout been lobbying for the opposition, ended up voting for the resolution. He had been persuaded to cross over to Gandhi’s side by his son, Jawaharlal.

Jinnah took the betrayal calmly—as he did that of his two young associates in the Home Rule League, Umar Sobhani and Shankerlal. The two had not only crossed over to the enemy’s side but were directly involved in the vote rigging. Not everyone took it with his stoic composure. Shaukat Ali, who had been increasingly incensed by Jinnah’s stubborn refusal to yield to popular pressure and back down on his fierce opposition to Gandhi’s resolution, almost beat him up as they dispersed after the meeting. A large man, he lunged at Jinnah as if to strike him but was held back by other delegates. Jinnah walked away, seemingly unperturbed.

But the fight didn’t really end—at least in Jinnah’s head. It took another month before his rage and frustration against Gandhi finally boiled over. The issue was the way Gandhi broke all the rules and completely changed the Home Rule League which Jinnah had built up from scratch.

Six months ago, when he was still deluding himself that he could control Gandhi, Jinnah had invited Gandhi to take over as head of the Home Rule League. ‘He thought he would be able to keep some check on Gandhi if he would agree to work with him,’ as Kanji recounts in his book, India’s Fight for Freedom. But far from wanting to work together, Gandhi went over Jinnah’s head and changed the constitution of the Home Rule League, and also renamed it Swaraj Sabha.

Unable to stop him, Jinnah and nineteen other colleagues were forced to resign. Jinnah’s patience was by now exhausted and instead of trying to sort out the issue with Gandhi in person, he took the extreme step of publishing the letter of resignation in the Bombay Chronicle the next day.

Gandhi’s reply, arriving twenty days later, infuriated Jinnah even further. Apart from the less than lukewarm appeal to reconsider his decision, Gandhi stoked Jinnah’s already sore temper by his patronising tone and refusal to admit that he had broken the rules.

It was enough to make Jinnah forget himself and pour all his derision for Gandhi in an open letter to him. The letter, several pages long, published the next day in the Bombay Chronicle, attacked Gandhi for his ‘methods [that] have already caused split and division in almost every institution that you have approached hitherto, and in the public life of the country not only amongst Hindus and Mohamedans, but between Hindus and Hindus and Mohamedans and Mohamedans and even between fathers and sons’.

Reprinted with permission from Penguin Random House India.

Mr & Mrs Jinnah

The Marriage That Shook India

Sheela Reddy

Penguin Random House

Rs 699, pp 421

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