Mohammed Ali Jinnah
Mohammed Ali Jinnah Wikipedia

He may not have the name recognition and global fame of India’s Mahatma Gandhi, but Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who died 65 years ago Wednesday, was one of the giant figures of the 20th century. For Jinnah was the founder of the modern state of Pakistan – a nation formed through the violent partition of British India with the purpose of serving as a Muslim-majority alternative to Hindu-dominated India.

Known as Quaid-i-Azam (“Great Leader”), Jinnah is the dominant political icon of the country, but his true legacy remains complex and controversial in Pakistan – a nation that has seemingly lost it focus and purpose. Trapped between a vociferous Islamic fundamentalist movement (including such violent organizations as the Taliban) and urban liberals who dream of establishing a progressive, secular state, Pakistan’s identity is unclear.

Regardless, Pakistanis of all stripes claim they are the descendants and inheritors of Jinnah’s vision of the country – some believe he wished to set up Pakistan as a Muslim theocratic state, while others insist Jinnah wanted a secular democracy.

On Aug. 11, 1947, Jinnah delivered a famous speech before the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in which he laid out his hopes for the brand new country he helped birth.

Parts of his speech reverberate to the present day.

On political corruption, one of the gravest problems still facing Pakistan:

“One of the biggest curses from which [we are] suffering -- I do not say that other countries are free from it, but, I think our condition is much worse -- is bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down with an iron hand.”

On cronyism and nepotism:

“Along with many other things, good and bad, has arrived this great evil, the evil of nepotism and jobbery [using public office to gain jobs and contracts]… I shall never tolerate any kind of jobbery, nepotism.”

On the partition of India and Pakistan:

“A division had to take place. On both sides, in Hindustan and Pakistan, there are sections of people who may not agree with it, who may not like it, but in my judgment there was no other solution and I am sure future history will record its verdict in favor of it… Any idea of a ‘united India’ could never have worked and in my judgment it would have led us to terrific disaster.”

On religious freedom:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or 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… As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class.”

Three days after Jinnah’s speech, Pakistan was officially born.

The contents of the speech suggest that he did not want to set up a Islamic fundamentalist state, but rather one that provided for religious freedom and an absence of any kind of discrimination (clearly, in stark contrast to present-day realities in Pakistan). But others contend that the very formation of Pakistan (which means “land of the pure of faith”) was intimately bound to Jinnah’s wish to create a Muslim-majority state, suggesting that Islam should dominate the society’s policies and very nature.

As such, the speech has been repeatedly downplayed or even ignored by many conservatives and religious ideologues in Pakistan over the decades because it seems to contradict their rabidly anti-Indian and anti-Hindu viewpoints.

Some in Pakistan believe that Jinnah’s original ideas have been distorted and hijacked in order to maintain Islamic supremacy and the marginalization of minorities. “It's not about trying to convince the religious zealots that Jinnah wanted a different kind of Pakistan,” said Murtaza Solangi, former director-general of Radio Pakistan, according to BBC. “It's about correcting our distorted history and letting the people decide what kind of Pakistan they want.”

Jinnah died a little more than a year after that speech.

Like his contemporary in India, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah led a lifestyle that was dramatically different from the millions he ruled over in Pakistan – born to an affluent merchant family, Jinnah received a Western education, and trained as a barrister in London. In Britain, Jinnah transformed himself into an “English gentleman” in speech, dress, manners and custom. Indeed, he smoked heavily, drank alcohol and reportedly even was fond of pork (the latter two activities strictly forbidden by Islam).

“Raven-haired with a moustache almost as full as Kitchener's and lean as a rapier, he sounded like Ronald Coleman, dressed like Anthony Eden, and was adored by most women at first sight, and admired or envied by most men,” was how he was described in a biography by an American academic.

Despite his British mannerisms and pretensions, Jinnah espoused a fierce nationalism and desperately wanted the British to quit India – thus his devotion to independence was never in question.

But what is Jinnah's legacy for the country he created, in light of the endless history of hostility between India and Pakistan? Syed Badrul Ahsan, the editor of The Daily Star, a newspaper in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), takes a decidedly dim view of what Jinnah wrought. “Once he passed from the scene, Pakistan went into a tailspin, a condition it has never been able to recover from,” Ahsan wrote. Ahsan also pointed out the messy contradiction of Jinnah wanting to form a “Muslim” state and then calling for a pluralistic society free of discrimination.

In India itself, Jinnah is widely disparaged and demonized as the man responsible for the carving up of the country and the millions of lives displaced or lost during the chaos of partition.

As for Pakistan, Jinnah’s legacy remains unknown – until the nation decides if it wants to operate as a Muslim theocracy or as a modern progressive state.