By Mahir Ali
A COUPLE of months ago, it was reported that the ambulance conveying Nelson Mandela from Johannesburg to a hospital in Pretoria had broken down, entailing a 40-minute wait before he could be transferred to another ambulance amid the bitter chill.
The unfortunate event was inevitably reminiscent of a September afternoon many decades earlier when another founding father faced a similar predicament on the streets of Karachi. The weather was vastly different, though. And the consequences considerably more dire.
Pakistan was not yet even a year old when Mohammed Ali Jinnah lapsed into the fatal stage of his ailment, which remained something of a state secret unto the end. By the time Lieutenant-Colonel Ilahi Bakhsh, the principal of Lahore’s King Edward Medical College, was summoned to Jinnah’s bedside in Ziarat in late July 1948, it was already too late.
In a slim volume titled With the Quaid-e-Azam During His Last Days, based on a diary he kept during the time, Dr Ilahi Bakhsh says had a course of treatment been launched considerably earlier, the prognosis would likely have been notably better. Jinnah initially responded well to medication and an improved diet, but the will to live eventually seeped out of him.
He was reluctant to heed his doctors’ advice to move from Ziarat to Quetta on the eve of the first anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, but eventually gave in. The shift was predicated by Ziarat’s elevation, and the doctors felt Karachi would be even more conducive from the medical point of view, but Jinnah was extremely reluctant to return to the governor-general’s official residence as an invalid.
By the time he agreed, he was probably well aware that his hours were numbered. Minutes before he breathed his last, he responded to Dr Ilahi Bakhsh’s reassurance that “God willing, you are going to live” with a faint but seemingly unequivocal “No, I am not”.
In Quetta a couple of weeks earlier, he had shocked the good doctor by confiding in him: “You know, when you first came to Ziarat I wanted to live. Now, however, it does not matter whether I live or die.”
“I noticed,” Dr Ilahi Bakhsh writes, “tears in his eyes, and was startled by this manifestation of feeling in one generally looked upon as unemotional and unbending. I could not, moreover, account for his dejection at a time when he had been making excellent progress in all respects, and ventured to seek enlightenment from him.
“The explanation he offered was that he had completed his job, but I found it enigmatic and evasive. Was his job incomplete five weeks ago, and had he done something in the meanwhile which had given him a sense of fulfilment? I could not help feeling that something had happened which undermined his will to live.”
In his preface to the 2011 Oxford University Press edition of the treatise, the doctor’s son, Nasir Ilahi, notes that “based on information available” to his elder brother, Humayun, “there was an initial version of this book which the author had submitted to the Pakistan government for review … but which regrettably does not exist any longer.
“The author was required to delete certain passages from the book as they were considered to be politically inappropriate and sensitive. Essentially, these included, inter alia, information … which suggested that the patient was unhappy after some difficult meetings with his close political allies who he felt were departing from the cardinal concepts of the state of Pakistan that he had begun to visualise…
“It is believed that the author took the view that the Quaid’s reaction to these emerging political differences, and his possible perceptions about the lack of support for them, may have been one of the factors that contributed to the onset of the Quaid’s depressed state.”
The absence of an authoritative version of Jinnah’s last thoughts on his monumental achievement — it is uncommon, after all, for political leaders to be credited with founding a state — is deeply unfortunate. He was, after all, in the context of the struggle for Indian independence, a highly unlikely recruit to the communal cause. And the profoundly secular vision he articulated for his dream-nation on the eve of independence was arguably at odds with the confessional basis on which it was founded. Was he trying, at that late stage, to bottle a genie he had expropriated for a political cause?
A few years ago, Alex von Tunzelmann wrote in her book Indian Summer: “According to his doctor, Jinnah saw Liaquat [Ali Khan] and told him that Pakistan was ‘the biggest blunder of my life’. Further yet, he declared: ‘If now I got an opportunity I will go to Delhi and tell Jawaharlal [Nehru] to forget about the follies of the past and become friends again’.”
Von Tunzelmann cites no source, although the “biggest blunder” quote had previously appeared elsewhere, and the desire for reconciliation doesn’t automatically negate partition. Close to 70 years later, however, the logic of good-neighbourly relations remains a somewhat fraught concept. All too frequently, prospects of improved ties are thwarted by precipitate action.
It is also an open question whether greater longevity for Jinnah would have set Pakistan on a notably superior trajectory. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the greatest discourtesy to the man has repeatedly been perpetrated by putting him on a pedestal while undermining whatever remained of his vision after the Objectives Resolution of 1949.
In the sort of open-minded society that Jinnah favoured, it would have been possible to debate the pros and cons of his vision. Insufficient contemplation and clarity, though, appears to have paved the shortcut from “the Quaid’s Pakistan” to what could be described more or less (and one hopes less) as Al Qaeda’s Pakistan.