Was Ruttie The Woman Behind Jinnah’s Success?

Was Ruttie The Woman Behind Jinnah’s Success?
Ruttie Jinnah nee Petit was 18 years old when she married the 42 year old barrister and the then joint Congress and Muslim League leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The 24 year age difference was controversial even for those days when women of all classes were married off as young as 14. Adding to this was the religious controversy. Ruttie was a Parsi and Jinnah a Khoja Shia Muslim. Headstrong as she was, Ruttie married against her parents’ will and in rebellion against the Parsi elite of Bombay.

However, what began in love was to end in tragedy. Ruttie died 11 years later, a few days after her 29th birthday. Many have speculated that Ruttie committed suicide because of chronic depression. Others suggest that it was a case of drug overdose.

Saad S Khan and Sara S Khan’s new book, Ruttie Jinnah; the woman who stood defiant, does a good job at bringing alive the events surrounding this marriage to life, albeit with a characteristically Pakistani twist i.e. that Jinnah’s faith was so important to him that he asked Ruttie to convert to Islam and would later object vociferously to his own daughter Dina Wadia nee Jinnah’s marriage to a Parsi/Christian scion of the Wadia family. This is where the book gets it completely wrong.

The law for civil inter-communal marriages was that either one party would convert to the other or both parties would renounce their faith. Jinnah was member of the Indian central legislature on a separate Muslim constituency from Bombay and a member of both the Congress and the Muslim League. As early as 1912, Jinnah had been arguing for a reform to the marriage law, asking for the right of educated Indians to marry each other without renunciation. Ruttie’s conversion to Islam therefore was nothing but a case of political expediency, and by all accounts, she was never a practising Muslim after her conversion.

Quite the contrary, she experimented with theosophy and the like, and there is no record of her having adopted the Islamic faith in her personal or public life. Indeed Stanley Wolpert in his book, Jinnah of Pakistan, notes that she would bring ham sandwiches for Jinnah to his chambers at the Bombay High Court and would often be dressed to shock and awe Jinnah’s Muslim colleagues. The conversion was on paper, to allow Jinnah to continue as the Muslim representative from Bombay in the Indian legislature.
The book is scathing when it comes to Fatima Jinnah who is portrayed as a jealous sister that hated Ruttie with a passion. In their zeal to make an angel out of Ruttie, the authors have gone an extra mile in denigrating Fatima Jinnah.

Jinnah’s objection seems to have been for public consumption because contrary to what is fed to us ideologically, Jinnah at no point “disowned” his daughter after her wedding and his estrangement seems to have been temporary. Indeed, he left a substantial sum of money according to the time to his daughter and her children in his will which was drawn up after the marriage. At least according to one account he even sent flowers to her daughter on the day of her wedding, and a few years later Dina and her father made up. Jinnah often played with his grandchildren and is said to have carried their pictures with him.

Certainly Dina’s own account suggests, as does that of others like Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz in her book, Father and Daughter, Jinnah was not the only politician to have found himself in a dilemma because of his child’s marriage or faith. Mahatma Gandhi vociferously objected to his son Harilal’s conversion to Islam (Harilal had taken up the name Abdullah Gandhi but had later recanted upon his mother’s insistence). There was at least one famous Pandit from Allahabad and one famous Muslim leader from the then NWFP who faced similar challenges. In Jinnah’s case, the Muslim League went into an overdrive with the narrative that Jinnah had disowned his daughter because the latter had converted to a different faith.

It is this narrative adopted by ideologues of Pakistani nationalism that has trickled down to us. For an otherwise well researched book, the authors of the book under review have bought this myth. In their zeal to prove Jinnah’s commitment to his faith, they have quite unwittingly painted Jinnah as a religious bigot. Jinnah may have been many things, but he was not a religious bigot.

The book is scathing when it comes to Fatima Jinnah who is portrayed as a jealous sister that hated Ruttie with a passion. In their zeal to make an angel out of Ruttie, the authors have gone an extra mile in denigrating Fatima Jinnah. She is even accused of inventing a previous marriage for Jinnah to Emi Bai who Jinnah is said to have married when he was 16 years old in 1892. The authors posit a series of arguments for why they feel the marriage was entirely fictitious and concocted by Fatima Jinnah. They do not explain what possible reason could there be for Fatima Jinnah to invent a prior marriage for Jinnah.

Emi Bai died along with Jinnah’s mother Mithi Bai when Jinnah was in London. Why then would a mention of this marriage or indeed its invention be necessary? It is here that the authors’ attitude towards Fatima Jinnah borders on bias. The whole sordid affair comes across as a South Asian family soap opera with a loving wife battling it out with her sister-in-law for her husband’s affections. The relationship between Ruttie and Fatima was strained no doubt (primarily because the latter was a practising Shia Muslim and Ruttie was an agnostic by all accounts), and there might be some truth to the tensions between the two, but to then accuse Fatima Jinnah of inventing facts seems to be preposterous.
It depends on how you define greatness. Was Jinnah great when he was struggling for a united India or was he great when he asked for Pakistan?

Even though Ruttie Jinnah died in 1929, a full 11 years before the Lahore Resolution was passed in the famous Lahore session, the authors also make a case for Ruttie Jinnah’s contribution to the Pakistan Movement. First is that Jinnah had already begun to think along the lines of a Pakistan during Ruttie’s lifetime and Ruttie was at some level on board with it. Second is that had Ruttie not fallen sick, Jinnah would have remained in India during the crucial Nehru report years and Jinnah’s original amendments would have been accepted by the Congress, thus resolving the communal issue. As far as the first point is concerned, the authors argue that since Ruttie did not leave Jinnah after the Nagpur session where Jinnah broke with Congress, Ruttie must have supported Jinnah’s politics. The only problem with this is that Jinnah broke with Gandhi and the Congress on two main points: 1) The use of religion in politics that Jinnah abhorred; and 2) use of unconstitutional means for the struggle. At this point there was nothing in Jinnah’s politics to even remotely suggest that he would one day go on to demand a Muslim majority state and then become its founding father.

Indeed the question is not as much as whether Ruttie would have gone along with Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan but whether Jinnah would have assumed the leadership of an exclusively Muslim movement had she lived. So far as the second issue goes, Jinnah had bent over backwards to bring Muslims to agree to joint electorates in his four original amendments but the Congress leadership decided to press for more. It is unlikely that given the pressure from Jawaharlal Nehru – who represented the so-called left wing of the Congress -- and the Hindu Mahasabha, Motilal Nehru was ever in a position to accept the olive branch extended by Jinnah.

All said and done, the book does bring to light new facts. For example, very little is known of the friendship between Ruttie Jinnah and Nehrus, especially Motilal Nehru. The authors present her as a bridge between Jinnah and Nehrus. Once she was gone, the gulf became unbridgeable. We also learn of the various causes that Ruttie championed, including of trade unions.

Here we see a glimpse of a socialist Ruttie in the book. The book presents her as a leading public figure, engaging in parleys with not just Nehrus but also Gandhi. The authors quote the saying, “behind every successful man there is a woman”. The authors wrongly attribute it to Winston Churchill. The authors say that Ruttie was behind Jinnah. Ruttie was not the only woman who stood with Jinnah. After her demise, Fatima stood in support of Jinnah.

Did Ruttie propel Jinnah to greatness? She was there beside (certainly not behind) him during the phase of his life that he was widely hailed as the best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. It was Fatima who was with him when he took up the mantle of the sole spokesman of Muslims. In the end, it depends on how you define greatness. Was Jinnah great when he was struggling for a united India or was he great when he asked for Pakistan? It depends on each person’s angularity of vision.

Finally, a quibble or two about the sources: the authors have predictably relied on secondary sources. That is understandable because contrary to their claim that Ruttie Jinnah was a public figure, precious little can be found about her in the press archives. What is surprising though is their reliance on Kiran Doshi’s “Jinnah often came to our house”. The said book is a work of fiction – an excellent one at that -- and therefore not an academic treatise on Jinnah’s life.

The book under review cannot be described as a biography but a long essay on the wife of a towering political figure. The authors certainly have the right to their views but the book could have done without the undeserving indictment of Fatima Jinnah who was a political figure in her own right in the 1960s.

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a barrister at law and the author of the book Jinnah; A Life.