MJ Akbar needs no introduction. A famous journalist and politician (BJP), he is also a prolific writer. His latest offering, its unwieldy and somewhat misleading title notwithstanding, is about the last phase of India’s freedom struggle. The struggle for freedom was never between Hinduism and Islam, not even in its last phase, no matter how loudly the British said it was so. The struggle was always between Indians of various hues on one side, and the British + ‘Mussalmans of Importance’, to use the phrase Lord Minto used for them, on the other.
The story is as tragic as it can get. Because everything went wrong between 1940, when Jinnah first made his call for Pakistan, and 1947, when he got Pakistan, a million and a half people died a horrible death, lakhs of women met a fate worse than death, and fifteen million terrified people were forced to flee from their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs and bitterness in their hearts. Less than six months later, Gandhi, who had opposed the ‘vivisection’ of India till the last, was killed (by a Hindu). A few months later, Jinnah, consumed by a wasting disease, died inside a hot, stalled, ambulance on a desert road with just his sister Fati by his side, struggling to keep flies away from his face.
The story is also well known (probably as well known as the story of the Mahabharat, with which it bears such a striking resemblance). It has been told and retold in thousands of books and learned articles, many of them written by eyewitnesses. So why one more book on it?
First a word in praise of the book. It is a well written page turner of a book, impossible to read at a slow trot, and hard to put down before reaching the end. But why the book? The blurb of the book says that it is ‘meticulously researched from original sources’ and contains facts ‘from the archives’. This could well be so—though the Notes at the end mention, in main, only old, well-known books (including those written by Mahatma Gandhi himself), no recently declassified official files, no newly unearthed letters, no Anne Frank diary . . .
The blurb goes on to say that the book challenges ‘the conventional narrative’ and disturbs ‘the conspiratorial silence used to protect the image of famous icons’. Who are these icons? The struggle for freedom and its terrible twin, the struggle for Pakistan, had a cast of thousands, several of whom find mention in the book, but the list of ‘icons’ in the last phase of the struggle consisted, apart from Gandhi and Jinnah, only of Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and Subhash Chandra Bose on what may be called Gandhi’s side, and nobody on Jinnah’s side. Yes, there were the Britishers (to use the fine word that Gandhi used for them), starting with Churchill and three Viceroys, villains all, but surely none of them qualifies to be called an icon, not in the story of India’s freedom struggle.