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The Genius of Stanley Wolpert

by Khaled Ahmed
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Courtesy Oxford University Press

In his books on Pakistan and India, the American historian, who died aged 91, had much knowledge to impart

On March 12, 2019, the former Managing Director of Oxford University Press in Pakistan, Ameena Sayyid, posted on Facebook a message from Dorothy Wolpert, wife of writer-author Stanley Wolpert: “I write to share the grievous and shocking news that my beloved Stanley has died suddenly and unexpectedly during a visit to our son and his family. The incredible swiftness without suffering was a great gift to him which he has shared with us, but the suddenness is very painful. He admired you very much and treasured your friendship over the years of your working relationship. He regretted that he could not return to Pakistan in recent years. Perhaps you can convey this news to his many friends in Pakistan. We will have a memorial on May 26 at UCLA.”

Stanley Albert Wolpert (1927-2019) was an American historian-Indologist well-known within Pakistan for his four books on the country, which predictably became controversial by clashing with the potted national canon. He taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) from 1959-2002 and was UCLA’s Professor Emeritus thereafter.

Born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian-Jewish parents, Wolpert served as an engineer in a ship and arrived in Bombay, India, for the first time, in 1948. Gandhi had just died and Wolpert was greatly affected by the outpouring of grief over his death at the hands of a Hindu nationalist. He witnessed thousands of Gandhi’s mourning his death by rushing to touch his ashes as they were taken away for scattering into the sea. On returning home, Wolpert abandoned his career in marine engineering for the study of Indian history, getting a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1959.

Wikipedia lists his work as follows: Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and Reform in the Making of Modern India (1962); Morley and India, 1906-1910 (1967); A New History of India (1977); Roots of Confrontation in South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the Superpowers (1982); Jinnah of Pakistan (1984); Congress and Indian Nationalism: The Pre-Independence Phase (1988); India (1991); Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times (1993); Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny (1996); Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and the Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi (2001); Shameful Flight: The Last Years of British Empire in India (2006); India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation (2010).

Banned book

The controversy over Wolpert—which caused him to visit Pakistan rarely—was his book on Jinnah. According to his preface: “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah did all three.” Yet, Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq banned the book, Jinnah of Pakistan, because there were lines in it describing Jinnah’s dietary habits, which Wolpert had refused to take out.

M.C. Chagla, a crypto-Muslim friend who disagreed with Jinnah over the Nehru Report in 1928, and later became a judge of the Supreme Court of India, was quoted in Wolpert’s book as saying that Jinnah drank alcohol and ate ham sandwiches. Chagla, a villain in Pakistan for reporting this “false” detail, had gone through his own peculiar transformation. A judge of the Bombay High Court and later India’s ambassador to the United States, Chagla never let on what the initials “M.C” stood for. He had changed his name from Merchant to Chagla early in life, but he hid his Muslim name behind “M.C.” to make himself more acceptable. His popular autobiography not only suppresses his own name but also the names of his Muslim parents.

Assessing Wolpert’s stature as a scholar, Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote in daily Dawn on Dec. 30, 2001: “We had to wait for an American, Professor Stanley Wolpert, to write what is the definitive biography of the man Jinnah as he really was—and he was commissioned by no one but himself. Yet, when the book was published in 1984 its distribution in Pakistan was proscribed because of one passage he had quoted from M.C. Chagla’s book, Roses in December, which referred to Jinnah’s eating and drinking preferences.

“Wolpert was put under much pressure (as he reminded us when he spoke at the Aga Khan University auditorium this Dec. 26, 2001) when the government of General Zia-ul-Haq offered to buy thousands of copies of his book were he to excise that particular passage. Of course, he refused. The amount of research Wolpert has put into his book can be gauged from the 40-odd pages of Notes and Bibliography.”

Banned but available

The book was probably the most effective defense of Jinnah but has remained banned in Pakistan (it has somehow continued to be available nonetheless and is on the Internet as a PDF); and Wolpert, who went on to write a debunking biography of Nehru has visited India often. According to author Akbar S. Ahmad, in his book Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin, General Zia did a sneaky thing. He acquired numerous copies of the Wolpert book and began to present them to his guests with the offending page marked to bring out the “difference” between himself as an Islamic messianic leader, and Jinnah who had “founded the country wrong.” Jinnah’s daughter Dina, living in New York, was secretly asked to deny that Jinnah ever drank alcohol or ate ham, but she refused to oblige, after which she was threatened with “disclosures” about her private life if she ever made it public that she had been approached. She was never officially invited to visit Pakistan, except the once.

Born in 1909, Dina Wadia was alienated from her father, the leader of Indian Muslims, following her defiant marriage to a Christian converted to Zoroastrianism and refusal to come to Pakistan except when Jinnah died in 1948, and again in 2004, when she had mellowed about her bitter childhood, her son Nusli Wadia having become an Indian tycoon. She tried to inherit the house Jinnah had built in Bombay for her mother but failed to convince the Indian government. She lived in New York after her divorce from Neville Wadia, till she died in 2017.

From Jeenabhai to Jinnah

Jinnah drew worshipful support from North India, but his family came from Gujarat, from a village only 20 kilometers from Gandhi’s own. He matured in Bombay among a community of Indians who must qualify as the true citizens of India. People like Dadabhai Nauroji and Gokhale formed his “outsider” worldview. The Muslim-majority regions of Punjab and Bengal resisted the politics of his Muslim League. For North Indian Muslims, divided between a pro-Congress clergy and Muslim League, he had to transform his identity. He changed his name from Mamedali Jeenabhai Poonja to Mohamed Ali Jinnah, dropping the family name Poonja altogether. He was secular to the core and therefore found it easy to turn from the Aga Khani Ismaili sect to Twelver Shia faith probably to be able to make his final testament.

Secular Jinnah encountered the problem of national identity soon enough. In 1947, three days before the state the Lahore Resolution had subliminally demanded was to come into being, he actually described Pakistan. He wanted all the different religious, regional, linguistic and ethnic identities in it to evolve as one nation. On Aug. 11, 1947, Jinnah delivered the following message in his presidential address to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State…. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State… I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in due course Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would 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.”

Mohammad Ali Jinnah following Partition in 1947. Bert Brandt-Files-ACME—AFP

Secular state or state of Madina?

Historians have mulled over this apparent contradiction of 1947. Wolpert thought the August speech must have “disoriented even his closest lieutenants and associates.” One Pakistani historian writing under General Zia actually thought Jinnah was “infirm of mind” when he presented Pakistan as a “secular” state on Aug. 11.

But Wolpert knew what Jinnah had pronounced earlier—and which Pakistan underlines even today as Jinnah’s choice of an Islamic state. His reply to Mountbatten’s speech on Aug. 14, 1947 remains on record: Mountbatten wanted Pakistan to pursue the pluralist ideal of Emperor Akbar; Jinnah wanted to adhere to the pluralist model of Madina under Islam’s Prophet. However, today the “pluralist” state of Madina has been transformed into an ideological state that progressively tolerates less and less liberalism. Today the non-Muslims of Pakistan are doomed, as an empowered clergy sets aside Madina’s pluralist model by arguing that the Quran had superseded it with its strictures against non-Muslims. The Taliban under Al Zawahiri had actually planned to place them under a special punitive tax called “jiziya.”

But Wolpert didn’t miss out on Jinnah’s intellectual development. He sees him greatly inspired by the liberalism of Morley, an ardent disciple of J.S. Mill; and sees him falling in love with the theater when he was in London to study law. He refers to his secret ambition to play the role of Romeo at the Old Vic. “Even in the days of his most active political life,” he quotes Fatima Jinnah, “When he returned home, tired and late, he would read Shakespeare, his voice resonant.” Well-known Mumbai lawyer-historian and critic of Hindutva, A.G. Noorani added: “The poison of the two-nation theory [was] propagated by [Hindu Mahasabha leader and father of Hindu nationalism] V.D. Savarkar since 1925, which Jinnah recklessly adopted in 1939 only to discard it on Aug. 11, 1947, in his famous speech to Pakistan’s Constitutional Assembly.”

Wolpert got in the last word: “Often asked by disciples, ‘What are we fighting for? What are we aiming at?’ Jinnah replied: ‘It is not theocracy—not for a theocratic state. Religion is there, and religion is dear to us. All the worldly goods are nothing to us when we talk of religion, but there are other things which are very vital—our social life, our economic life …We Muslims have got everything … brains, intelligence, capacity and courage—virtues that nations must possess … But two things are lacking, and I want you to concentrate your attention on these. One thing is that foreign domination from without and Hindu domination here, particularly in our economic life, has caused a certain degeneration of these virtues in us. We have lost the fullness of our noble character. And what is character? The highest sense of honor and the highest sense of integrity, conviction, incorruptibility, readiness at any time to efface oneself for the collective good of the nation.”

Wolpert’s rather pointed message is contained in this summing-up: “His legacy of wisdom was worthy of the Quaid-e-Azam, who lived a life honoring justice and fair play. Every Pakistani must remember that Jinnah’s fearless integrity would never sanction any terrorist murder, nor the violent abuse of any man, woman or child in his noble Land of the Pure.”

Gandhi book banned

If Wolpert’s book on Jinnah was banned in Pakistan, he fared no better with his book on Gandhi which got banned in India. The report on the ban said: “In 1962, the Indian government banned the novel, Nine Hours to Rama by the historian Wolpert, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is a fictional account of the last day of Gandhi’s life, and focuses on the Hindu nationalist conspirators who plotted and carried out Gandhi’s assassination at a prayer meeting in 1948. It got banned because it exposed the poor security provided to Gandhi, and hinted at possible incompetence and collusion.”

Wolpert lost fans among some “qualified” historians in the United States, who objected to his writing Indian history without having the ability to read Indian sources in their original language. His book on Bhutto was likewise criticized for some “errors of fact.” But in these books he achieved an understanding of his subjects that was replete with new insights.

In his Nehru book, however, Wolpert is able to peel off the layers of radical pretension from a man who steadily comes across as a gifted egoist. Nehru’s Harrow and Cambridge background gave him a snobbish Fabian panache whose first victim was his moderate father, Motilal. He confronted Gandhi’s non-violent pacifist struggle against the British with a radical agenda that appealed to Indian youth and undermined Gandhi. He flaunted his leftwing agenda to embarrass the Congress old guard, but when Bose tested him on his socialism, he balked. He ignored the communal issue and reacted violently to Jinnah’s advocacy of the Muslims even when the Congress old guard was inclined to listen to Jinnah.

Wolpert weaves Nehru’s own version into the events as they unfolded. Almost every page in this biography is studded with quotes from the man who left behind a lot of written material about himself and the times in which he lived. Where the subject is obscure Wolpert boldly reads into incidents left unexplained. He steadily points to the inner torment of Jawaharlal’s latent homosexuality when he digs up the mysterious “Englishman” from Nehru’s memoirs; he gives details of his affair with Edwina Mountbatten. He faults Nehru repeatedly over his treatment of Gandhi and Jinnah and cruelly exposes his contradictions while allowing ample space in the book for the extraordinary gift Nehru possessed as an intellectual and thinker.

To begin with, it was Motilal who was the big man, a Kashmiri Brahmin whose ancestors had served the Mughals and become rich. A wrestler in youth, Motilal became India’s richest lawyer whose success was symbolized in the big mansion he acquired in Allahabad. Wolpert is unclear about the construction of this historic 20-acre house and has missed the great irony behind Anand Bhavan. The land was given to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan by the British, who built a house on it which he called Mahmud Manzil after his son who never lived in it and sold it to a Hindu after moving to Hyderabad permanently. In 1889, Motilal bought it and named it on the suggestion of his friend, Urdu poet Akbar Illahabadi, whose own house was called Ishrat Manzil (house of bliss) which is what Anand Bhavan means. When he moved into it in 1900 his son Jawaharlal was only 10.

Nehru and Krishna Menon

At this point a curious coincidence occurred. Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society, based on belief in the reincarnation of Buddha, had become popular in India. She was also the most brilliant woman living who had adopted home rule for India as her political plank. Jawaharlal was initiated into the Society almost at the same time as Krishna Menon, a boy from Kerala who was sent to Britain to become a part of the movement there. Young boys were “adopted” as reincarnations of Lord Buddha by “teachers” who were not always morally immaculate. A teacher called Leadbeater had already become notorious for sexually abusing these children. Krishnamurti was to be the most famous victim of this racket, surviving only by running away with the movement; Krishna Menon survived by abandoning the Society and becoming the most important Congress activist in the leftwing circles of Britain.

Krishna Menon was to play a crucial role in Jawaharlal’s life. Nehru’s initiation into the Fabian circles, his contact with the dominant leftwing British political thinker Harold Laski, his friendship with Simon and Cripps, his pursuit of the Soviet Union as an economic model and an ally against the United States for India, and his romance with Edwina Mountbatten, were all owed to this brilliant South Indian who played no small role in his downfall after the war with China during which he was Nehru’s defense minister. Krishna Menon’s closeness to the Mountbattens in 1947 was crucial to the decision on Partition when Gandhi could have prevented it by making Jinnah the first prime minister of independent India. He was the go-between for Nehru with Mountbatten for the political direction of British India as he was with Edwina for Nehru’s urge for romance.

In 1923, Motilal rebelled against Gandhi’s boycotting politics and set up his Swaraj Party inside the Congress together with the great Bengali leader C.R. Das. He was lured away from his Anglophile moderate politics by his son who simply couldn’t be persuaded to follow his father’s lead. He tried hard to wean his son away from Gandhi but had to give in and, in the end, had to obediently follow his son into agitational politics. In the viceroy’s legislative council, Motilal pursued dominion politics against Gandhi’s agitational policy and was supported by Jinnah. In 1925, prematurely bald and suffering from piles at the age of 35, Nehru not only stood against his father’s moderate politics but also wanted Gandhi to be more secular and radical. His ‘seditious’ speeches had landed him jail where he wrote prolifically, reinterpreting India and the world in a Marxist key.

Indian prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Staff-Intercontinentale—AFP

After Lucknow Pact

The Lucknow Pact of 1916 was already a forgotten legacy. Both wings of the Congress had united and the Muslim League had aligned its policy with the Congress asking the British “to transfer power from the bureaucracy to democracy.” The Pact had conceded the Muslims’ demand for a fair share of special electoral representation on every council in British India. It had been drafted by Jinnah and Motilal with Tilak’s approval who had remarked, “We have found our luck in Lucknow.” But it was the legacy of Gokhale “who had outlined its points as his final act on the eve of his early death in 1915.” Jinnah had been hailed as Muslim Gokhale in 1916; in 1925, he had to cope with Hindu-Muslim riots after Gandhi botched the Khilafat Movement.

In and out of jail for going beyond the self-government and dominion position of the Congress old guard, Jawaharlal was opposed to everyone. He despised Gandhi for taking on the caste system and was contemptuous of Jinnah for putting forth the Muslim demands. He ignored the increasingly religious direction of politics as his father complained that communalists like Lala Lajpat Rai and Pandit Malviya had founded Hindu Mahasabha and were accusing him of being anti-Hindu and pro-Mohammadan, a beef-eater in league with Jinnah. Jawaharlal had decided that all religious conflict originated from economic causes and that global changes in the 1920s were more important than what was happening in India.

After Simon Commission

The Simon Commission came to India in 1927 to test the waters for a future constitution for India but was boycotted because it did not include a single Indian. An all-parties conference was held in December 1927 to offer an all-India solution to the Simon Commission. Jinnah had brought Muslims of all political stripes to the conference in Delhi; Congress was there in full panoply; and the secularists were cheek-by-jowl with the communalists. Jinnah’s demand for separate representation on councils, promised in Lucknow Pact was now rejected and, according to Wolpert, the first seed of Partition was sown. Jawaharlal lumped Jinnah together with Hindu extremists and dismissed the whole affair as being ‘tiresome.’ In 1928, Motilal presided over a commission charged with writing India’s own constitution. He produced the famous Nehru Report that is remembered to this day as the historic crevasse that divided the Hindus and Muslims of India forever.

In 1937, provincial elections on a restricted franchise of 10 percent of the population were held in which Congress won 716 of the 1,500 seats while the second largest party, Muslim League, could claim only 109. Jawaharlal was in touch with up-and-coming British politician Stafford Cripps in London through Krishna Menon. He declared triumphantly that there were only two parties in India, the British and the Congress Party; to which Jinnah replied that there was a third one too, the Muslim League. Wolpert calls this statement Nehru’s folly because Jinnah took this as a challenge and Nehru failed miserably in the following months to recruit more Muslims into the Congress.

Communal crevasse

By 1938, while Nehru was touring Europe, Jinnah had collected proof of persecution of Muslims under the Congress governments, which even the Congressite Muslims found difficult to reject. On his return, he rejected a proposal by Muslim members of the Congress to make a deal with Jinnah; even Gandhi was worried about the cleavage with Muslims. Once again an opportunity of taking Jinnah on board was lost because of Nehru’s recalcitrance. In 1942, when Churchill sent Cripps, a member of his war cabinet, to India to make ‘the final offer,’ Nehru once again overplayed his hand. Cripps was friendly towards Nehru but found him unreasonable while Jinnah surprised him with his rationality. What Cripps offered in 1942 within India was rejected by Nehru; a much more unpalatable surgery of Partition by Mountbatten in 1947 was instead accepted. Jinnah became convinced that Nehru would never listen to him.

In 1946, the Cabinet Mission plan of having India parceled out in three groupings was accepted by Jinnah but predictably sabotaged by Nehru, and this was to be the last Nehru blunder. In 1947, he accepted a much more painful division of India along with dominion status over which he had always quarreled with the Congress elders. Wolpert digs up evidence that Indian troops were sent into Kashmir before Maharaja Hari Singh signed the accession letter. Confirming author Alastair Lamb, he finds that the U.N. efforts at resolving the issue were frustrated by Nehru; also, India’s relations with Britain and the United States were off to a bad start because Nehru wouldn’t listen to their advice on Kashmir. Wolpert faults Nehru on his response to Liaquat Ali Khan’s efforts to normalize relations; the latter’s confession to him that the prefix “Islamic” to Pakistan simply pointed to the family laws may have got Liaquat into trouble with the clerics in Pakistan.

Romance and hubris

During the interim government, Nehru had a shouting match in the cabinet with Liaquat Ali Khan on the clearly nepotistic posting of his sister Vijaylakshmi to Moscow as ambassador. The real reason, according to Wolpert, was that she had resumed her affair with Syed Hussain in a Delhi hotel and had to be sent away; Syed Hussain, meanwhile, was posted as ambassador to Egypt. In 1954, Indira abandoned her husband Feroze and shifted into the prime minister’s house, beginning her apprenticeship for her future role as the leader of India. She resented her father’s affair with Edwina (who died in Malaya reading Nehru’s love letters) as she resented her father’s neglect of her mother Kamala.

Nehru’s hubris was brought low when he got into trouble with China and lost the war in 1962. He died in 1964 but not before he had bestowed the legacies of socialism and anti-Americanism to Indian democracy. Wolpert tells us that Nehru was attracted to women and didn’t bother to hide it. Mountbatten noticed that he warmed to him only after he had felt drawn to his wife. It happened to Mountbatten, to Galbraith, and finally to President Kennedy, who thought that his meeting with a monosyllabic Nehru was a disaster while Jackie got along famously with him.

Wolpert’s final verdict

Wolpert could have added Han Suyin’s impression of Nehru when she went to see him as a friend of Chou Enlai. The author avoids reference to the memoir of Nehru’s secretary M.O. Mathai who witnessed an affair then-prime minister Nehru had with a yoga-teaching lady who had to abort his baby. He also ignores Mathai’s claim that the word “tryst” in Nehru’s “tryst-with-destiny” speech was Mathai’s correction of Nehru’s rather banal “date.” Wolpert doesn’t fail nonetheless to project Nehru as a great man who had lucid moments of equally unflattering self-knowledge, which he was not scared to share with his devoted followers.

Indian readers were divided over Wolpert’s Nehru book. As a big South Asian nation, India has to accept the truth about its past, and comprehend why good writers like Alastair Lamb, Victoria Schofield and Stanley Wolpert end up writing “anti-Indian” books. The biggest negative contribution of Nehru to the Indian psyche is the paranoia that today grips the entire nation and stands in the way of normalizing India’s relationship with its smaller neighbors in particular.

Wolpert’s last message to Pakistan serves as a grim reminder of how far the nation has come—and how much further it has yet to go: “After seven decades, how many of the problems Jinnah defined at Pakistan’s birth have as yet been resolved? And of late senseless terrorist murders have been added to Pakistan’s list of dreadful crimes against its innocent, impoverished people, helpless women and children, as well as devout Muslims bent in their prayers even inside the most beautiful mosques of Karachi, Quetta, Lahore and elsewhere.”

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1 comment

Muhammad Akram August 28, 2019 - 5:58 pm

I have read all the books which late Wolport had written on Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru, Bhutto and subcontinent. His book Jinnah of Pakistan was outstanding. To Khaled Ahmed, thank you for writing such a beautiful obituary on Stanley Wolport ( RIP) and commentary on his books. People living in subcontinent must read these books to differentiate truth from lies.

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