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THE heated debate over L.K. Advani’s recently concluded visit to Pakistan, in particular his ‘regret’ about the destruction of the BabriMasjid, Partition and the subsequent creation of Pakistan as a ‘settled’ fact and, above all, his reappraisal of Jinnah as a ‘maker of history’, a ‘nationalist’ and ‘secular’ political leader is taking its expected course. Nationalist historiography, more so as constructed by a party wedded to political Hinduism, is unlikely to take kindly to such revisionist, almost heretical, formulations.

Whatever the purported reasoning behind such statements – whether Advani is going through a ‘genuine conversion’, or that he felt such formulations would go down well with his hosts and strengthen the ongoing peace process between otherwise warring neighbours, or even that he is attempting one more of his image makeovers and positioning himself as a moderate nationalist and thus more acceptable as a leader of the NDA – surely he could not have been blind to the risks inherent in the strategy. For even if he succeeds in his proximate political objectives and manages to rally his troubled party behind him and his formulations, the rumblings generated will have significant fallouts, not all expected or intended.

For few in this country is Jinnah a desirable figure. Most revile him as an opportunistic politician, a one-time non-believing, westernized liberal constitutionalist who reinvented himself as the ‘sole spokesman’ for India’s Muslims, fanning communal hatred, the two-nation theory, and eventually Partition.

This charge has so often been repeated in popular texts and media that it is taken as axiomatically correct. It hardly helps that Jinnah, like many political leaders, assumed a different persona at different times – an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity in 1916, the promulgator of the two nation theory in the Lahore Resolution of 1940, and the articulator of a ‘secular’ Pakistan ‘where Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual but in the political sense as citizens of the state’ in 1947. Little surprise that the work of Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, which painted Jinnah more as a prisoner of the times left with few options in a Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress, finds little resonance in this country.

Few nations and people find it easy to interrogate their foundational myths. This is more true for ideological believers. Today, more than five decades after the Khrushchev revelations of 1964, old style Bolsheviks, including those in our country, continue to hold Stalin up as a great socialist hero, dismissing all alternative formulations as ‘revisionism’ or worse, CIA propaganda. All subsequent research, viz., Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Montefiore, based on KGB archives opened up for public scrutiny post the demise of the Soviet Union, have failed to shake the certitudes of the past.

One wonders what many of our Maoist fellow-travellers weaned on not only the Collected Works of the Great Helmsman, but elegantly crafted accounts by Edgar Snow (Red Star Over China) and William Hinton (Fanshen and Shenfan), to cite but a few, will make of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang (the author of Wild Swans) and Jon Halliday. The fat tome uses interviews, intelligence reports, diaries and other documents to not just severely dent Mao’s image as a leader and person, but questions the ‘official’ understanding of the Long March, the anti-colonial struggle against Japan and, more troubling, discusses in detail the Politburo decision to continue grain exports to Soviet Union in return for military assistance in the period 1958-61 when millions died of starvation. Much as China of 2005, post Deng, may have moved away from Maoist formulations, such ‘heresy’ about the foundational myths are likely to generate fury, and not only in the CPC.

So when do countries and paeoples develop the self-confidence to confront ‘revisionist’ formulations about their history, whether recent or of the more hoary past? Or, do we have to wait for fundamental transformations/revolutions to be offered a different history and interpretation? These, as we have seen in our own country, despite the absence of a totalitarian state, generate substantial passion. Just think of the continuing fracas over NCERT textbooks.

If Advani’s comments help to generate a new, and hopefully non-partisan, debate over our recent history, they may still serve a useful purpose. Only if we are willing to loosen our certitudes can we develop the ability, and the culture, to imagine new solutions to old problems. Whether intended or not, Advani may just have provided us the window of a new opportunity.

Harsh Sethi