At first glance, Ayesha Jalal seems like an unlikely agitator. She is a tiny, angular woman whose small frame is accentuated by her flowing beige shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani outfit consisting of a loose tunic and baggy trousers. Her scholarly credentials — Wellesley, Oxford, Harvard — are purebred establishment. But in recent years, Ms. Jalal has taken on the academic and political mainstream in her native Pakistan as well as the administration of Columbia University, where she taught history for seven years.
And while her historical work on South Asia has elicited anonymous threats, it also earned her a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly called the genius grant) this year, worth $265,000, no strings attached, and a reputation as one of the most innovative scholars in the history of the region.
What has angered so many Muslims here and in her homeland is Ms. Jalal’s assertion that the revered founding father of Pakistan, the slender, eloquent Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had feet of clay. She argues that the 1947 partition of India — the event that opened the door for the creation of Pakistan — was an accident, a colossal miscalculation.
What’s more, she says that Jinnah never wanted a separate Muslim state; he was only using the threat of independence as a political bargaining chip to strengthen the voice of the Muslim minority in the soon-to-be sovereign India.
For proof, she maintains, look no further than Jinnah’s reaction to the partition. “The state-sponsored nationalist attitude seems to suggest that what Jinnah had dismissed as a mutilated, moth-eaten Pakistan is what they were actually fighting for,” the 42-year-old scholar explained in a recent interview, adding that Jinnah twice rejected what turned out to be the final model for Pakistan.
This is heresy to most Pakistanis, for whom the partition is a point of pride, a landmark historical event comparable to the declaration of the state of Israel for Zionists. And to many Pakistanis, the individual most responsible for the partition is nothing less than a Muslim paladin.
“It’s as though you’re telling Americans that George Washington wasn’t a starry-eyed nationalist but a coldblooded, opportunistic militarist,” remarked David Ludden, an associate professor of South Asian history at the University of Pennsylvania.
India scholars around the world have found Ms. Jalal’s work no less provocative. “In Pakistani terms, she takes a very pro-Indian perspective, but in Indian terms, she’s still a Pakistani,” observed David Washbrook, a professor of modern South Asian history at Oxford University in Britain.
What may be most unusual about Ms. Jalal is that she studies Pakistan at all. There are only a handful of scholars of Pakistan in the United States; most South Asian specialists here focus on the country’s considerably larger neighbor, India.
And to hear Ms. Jalal tell it, the state of Pakistani history in Pakistan is no better. The country didn’t even have a free press until the late 1980s and four decades of military rule have left a legacy of media self-censorship. The country’s liberal arts colleges, for their part, are controlled by the national government.
Ms. Jalal uses the word “tragic”to describe the fate of historical scholarship in her homeland. “There just aren’t many Pakistanis who are historians,” she said. “They’re not interested in history, they’re interested in projecting an ideological position.”
Her three books, starting with “The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan” in 1985, have been credited by scholars of South Asia with breaking new ground. “She is the foremost historian of modern Pakistan,” Washbrook said.
Still, her view of Jinnah and the partition is hardly conventional. In his biography of Jinnah, Stanley Wolpert, a professor of South Asian history at the University of California at Los Angeles, painted a different picture of the partition, ascribing Jinnah’s zealous quest for Pakistani independence partly to a religious metamorphosis toward the end of his life. Wolpert’s perspective conforms much more closely to that of the traditional Pakistani narrative.
Indeed, when “The Sole Spokesman” was published, several Pakistani newspapers assailed Ms. Jalal for understating the role of religion in Jinnah’s push for partition and accused her of being under the sway of an Indian academic adviser.
Ms. Jalal is teaching at Harvard University this year after a bitter fight with Columbia. At Columbia, she says, enrollment in her South Asian history courses doubled from 1991 to 1995, but she was denied tenure in June 1995.
Convinced that a cadre of Indian and India-centric faculty members who objected to a Pakistani woman teaching Indian history had put the kibosh on her tenure application, she sued the university the next year, alleging religious and ethnic discrimination. Columbia refuted her contentions, and this spring, a federal judge in New York’s Southern District dismissed the case, labeling the evidence of bias “thin,” though “suggestive.”
While she was pursuing her claim against Columbia, Ms. Jalal was selected for a new chair in modern South Asian history at Brown University. But after winning the approval of the history department and a tenure review committee, she said she was rejected by Brown’s administration.
So come June, Ms. Jalal may find herself unemployed. She plans to stay in the United States, where she first arrived in 1970, when her father, a lifelong civil servant, was posted to the United Nations in Manhattan. When the family returned to Pakistan two years later, Ms. Jalal, then 16, finished her studies at the American high school in Islamabad, the capital city. She spent much of her senior year in Pakistan trying to persuade her mother to allow her to return to the United States for college.
“At that time, it was very unusual for Pakistani women to come to America to study,” she said. “The vast majority of women in Pakistan don’t take to reading.” But when Wellesley College offered her a full scholarship, she finally persuaded her mother to let her go.
From Wellesley, she went on to pursue a Ph.D. in South Asian history at Cambridge University, where she wrote the dissertation that would provide the foundation for “The Sole Spokesman.” That the individual who had set out to puncture the iconic grandeur of Jinnah was a woman played no small role in the book’s chilly reception in Pakistan.
“There is still a great deal of resentment there about that,” she said.
Ms. Jalal credits her father with inspiring her to rethink the partition. As a child, she would listen raptly as he reminisced about Muslim friends who had been left behind in India, which is home to some 120 million Muslims, roughly as many as in Pakistan. If the division of British India and the resulting creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan were really events for Pakistanis to celebrate, he wondered, why were so many Muslims, including many of his dearest friends, still stuck in the predominantly Hindu India?
Jinnah’s “Pakistan had to remain part of a larger all-India whole in order to raise some safeguards for Muslims in the minority areas or those who would invariably be left in India,” said Ms. Jalal, who studied the Koran in Arabic as a child and characterizes herself as a secular Muslim with a religiously informed identity.
Jinnah died of tuberculosis and lung cancer only a few days after the first anniversary of independence, leaving a leadership vacuum in Pakistan that is often blamed for many of the country’s subsequent political and financial woes. To Ms. Jalal, though, most of those problems can be traced right back to 1947.
The proximity to India, she argues, has put Pakistan in the untenable position of trying to square its considerable security costs with its limited economic resources, an imbalance that has in turn taken a toll on the democratic process in Pakistan. Years ago, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of the country’s former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, predicted that if India got the bomb, Pakistan would too, “even if we have to eat grass.”
As it turns out, he wasn’t far off. With the sanctions slapped on Pakistan after the recent nuclear blasts, the flow of international capital into the country has slowed markedly. The country now stands on the brink of bankruptcy, unable to pay the reservicing costs on some $26 billion in external debt incurred largely for military purposes.
“The country has paid a hefty price to fend off India,” Ms. Jalal said, “and the price has been Pakistan’s democracy.”
Her 1995 book, “Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia,” also irked partisans of India and Bangladesh, the Muslim nation that splintered off from Pakistan in a bloody civil war in 1971. In the book, she argued that military nationalism has undermined democracy not just in the two Muslim states but in India, which is generally considered the world’s most populous democracy. And indeed, many Indians are now concerned that the Hindu nationalist government, run by the Bharatiya Janata party, represents a threat to traditional democratic rights.
Nonetheless, scholars of India have criticized Ms. Jalal for underestimating the country’s representative government. “The comparison makes me uncomfortable,” said Francine Frankel, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. “I do feel that India has accomplished what Pakistan could not accomplish through an authoritarian system: It has brought politics to the majority of impoverished humanity.”
Ms. Jalal remains unmoved: “Either you’re giving a Pakistani line or you’re giving an Indian line, which I think is very problematic in an academic environment.”