Jaswant Singh, an Indian politician who died on September 27, was not a man easily branded. An officer-turned-politician, Singh joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh party (which later became the present Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) but at times appeared to be a bit of an outsider in it. The impressive track of ministerial posts he held, even though some were temporary, apparently did not reflect his popularity among the party base. His tenure as India’s foreign minister (1998-2002) has been often praised – not only by his own party and not only in India – particularly for his strengthening of the partnership with the United States. At the same time, however, Singh was perceived as representing the more liberal section of the BJP. He did not belong to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organization of which most BJP politicians hold membership. Thus, in the last years of his life Singh saw his relations with the party turn sour. There was even a time (2009-2010) when he was expelled from the BJP for writing a history book.
Jaswant Singh was a man who was once unjustly judged by the cover.
Recounting the book incident, in particular, demonstrates how history remains crucial for the BJP. Titled “Jinnah. India-Partition-Independence,” the book came out in August 2009 and immediately landed in a controversy, though not for the reasons it should have.
For a bit of context: Muhammad Ali Jinnah was one of the main leaders whose actions led to the creation of Pakistan. In the BJP and RSS understanding of history the establishment of Pakistan was obviously a sorrowful event. Jinnah is usually depicted as an antagonist in Indian historiography (not only by the BJP and the RSS).
Singh did not deny any of the above, but it was his judgment that Jinnah was far more moderate. And this is what evoked the demon of political controversy. Singh did, for instance, call Jinnah the “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity,” although he made sure to tell the reader that this was actually a statement made long time ago by somebody else. Singh also presented Jinnah as more of a pragmatic politician than a religious radical. These assessments were not historically wrong. Jinnah did stand once for Hindu-Muslim unity, but at an early stage of his life, when he spoke the language of liberalism and secularism, and not that of political Islam. That was before he abandoned the Indian National Congress for membership in the All-India Muslim League. The Congress was a party to which such leaders like Gandhi and Nehru belonged, and it was only at a certain stage that Jinnah moved from being their partner to a bitter political rival.
In both India and Pakistan, Jinnah is mostly remembered for this later stage, when he was building his position as self-appointed spokesman of Indian Muslims and when he eventually called for the creation of Pakistan. But most of the evidence we have suggests that Jinnah, a classic Britain-educated Indian liberal who was hardly religious in his private life, took up the green flag because of political strategy rather than personal extremism. This does not negate the significance of the religious sentiments that fueled the engine behind the Pakistan movement at the rank level, but forces us to look differently at the agenda of Jinnah as one of the leaders of this movement.
These nuances notwithstanding, Jaswant Singh was expelled from the BJP soon after his book hit the shelves. Rajnath Singh, BJP president at the time, declared that “the party fully dissociates itself from the contents of the book.” The RSS distanced itself from the book even before it appeared in print. A member of the organization’s National Executive Committee, Ram Madhav, said that he disagreed with Jaswant Singh’s views but admitted he had not even read his book. Some Hindu radicals even burned copies. In the BJP-ruled state of Gujarat, the book was banned within two days of its release.
It is true that Jaswant Singh – or somebody from the publishing house – rather startlingly added fuel to these outbursts by putting the “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” quote on the back cover. But had some of the radicals actually cared to read the book more patiently, they would have discovered other sentences to disagree with, but also many statements that would suit their worldview. One could say that Singh held a rather benign view of Jinnah, but not so much of Muslims and Islam, especially Islamic political movements. At any rate, it appears that some of the enemies of the book mostly knew it from the statement printed on its back cover (or perhaps from excerpts in the press). The controversy was a literal example of judging a book by its cover.
There was another challenge that the embattled author had to simultaneously face. Singh claimed that “the research for this book involved consulting an intimidating wealth of books” and five years of hard labor. And yet, the use of quotation marks in his book is dubious, to say the least; sometimes passages marked with quotation marks act as crucial parts of sentences but without references to their sources. The structure of the publication also suggests some form of a patchwork. I am not the first person to have discovered this (even if I did so independently). Soon after the book appeared, professor C.M. Naim pointed out in the Indian Express that substantial passages from Singh’s work were identical to texts found on the Internet. Naim’s conclusion was that “in most countries of the world, however, the same ‘lapses’ will be called plagiarism.”
Morally, this way of writing a book should not be defended, of course, but politically it did not matter, as the party focused on the message (or what it saw as the message), not the source of the message. This caused a double irony: Not only did the BJP view fragments of Singh’s book selectively, but even if the critics had referred to all of the book, we would have not known which passages were purely of Singh’s authorship. The writer did defend himself from the accusations, claiming that there were only problems with endnotes (which was not true). But, to his credit, as for the political responsibility for the contents, he took it upon himself, standing defiantly against the criticism instead of blaming others or offering public remorse.
One can assume that the controversy was also linked to intra-party tussles. Singh’s expulsion for this particular reason was part of a larger and longer process of marginalization; at that point, the book probably served as a convenient excuse. One person who appeared to be especially antagonistic to Singh in 2009 was the chief minister of Gujarat, whose government banned the book: Narendra Modi. Five years later Modi become the party’s leader and India’s prime minister. Jaswant Singh, marginalized or not, could and would not have stopped Modi from reaching that high post. But with hindsight the temporary removal of Singh from the party can be interpreted as a signal of a larger change in the party landscape which opened the way for Modi to reach the top position.
Singh was appointed to his ministerial positions by one of the main BJP leaders of that time: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. After the BJP lost the 2004 elections, however, Vajpayee quit politics and was soon forced to withdraw even more due to deteriorating health. By 2014, a whole group of party men who held cabinet positions in Vajpayee’s time were sidelined in the party. These included L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi, Arun Shourie and Jaswant Singh.
This does mean that every battle over history, belief or ideology must have a personal tussle behind the stage. History is a central aspect of the BJP’s worldview, as it arguably is for nationalists of all kind. The party and the RSS put a lot of effort into promoting their version of history. In terms of ideology, Singh’s book was an example of where the party’s redlines were drawn: It is not possible to write charitably of Jinnah or Pakistan. This was not the only such instance. In 2005 another party leader, L.K. Advani, went to Pakistan, and called Jinnah “secular” and a “great leader” (and evoked the same “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” quote) — he also faced a wave of anger.
More generally, this is about the ways of narrating history. The textbooks used now in RSS schools are a good example. They present history as single events, rather than processes, focus on great people, rather than the crowd, and on instances of clear-cut, symbolic divisions (such as battles) rather than complexities. In the same manner, Jinnah also exists in this narrative in only one dimension and as a person frozen in one stage of his life. It is easier, for instance, to present Jinnah just as an enemy, not as someone who used to be an ally and became a rival. Otherwise questions arise as to why he ceased to be an ally and whether it was possible to keep him in that role. Thus, such nationalist narratives often tend to avoid covering gradual changes or complexities, as such coverage would make it more difficult to build up the “us vs them” dynamic. Once again, the cover emerges as more significant than the book.