Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan – A Review

In Himal Southasian Magazine, May 2011

By Anjum Altaf

It is an irony that the most significant enemy of history books is history itself, books being frozen at a moment in time while history continues its relentless march – eventually mocking, more often than not, the certainties of an earlier age. Historical accounts that rely on cultural or psychological constructs for explanations are particularly exposed to this danger, as any number of outdated verdicts can illustrate – the opium-eating Chinese, the Hindu rate of growth, the fatalistic Arabs, to name just a few.

The senior journalist M J Akbar thus takes on a large challenge when he sets up his chase to identify the villain of the piece in this new book, billed as ‘historical whodunit to trace the journey of an idea … that divided India.’ Akbar repeatedly points to what he calls Pakistan’s ‘DNA’ as the key to this mystery – for example, in the comment that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto could have relaid the foundations of Pakistan along Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s democratic-secular blueprint, but the pull of his nation’s DNA prevented him from doing so.

Tinderbox is not really a whodunit, because Akbar identifies the villain at the outset. Rather, it sets out to search the past for the smoking gun that made Pakistan inevitable. Starting from the arrival in AD 712 of Muhammad bin Qasim in Sind, he works through all subsequent invasions and battles till he arrives at the long jihad of Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, which ‘began in 1825 and continued long after his death in 1831, on the battlefield, at Balakote’; today, a parenthetical note reminds us, this area is ‘a principal centre of the Pakistan Taliban’. Although the jihad ‘turned into an internecine war between Muslims,’ it was here, Akbar claims, that ‘the seeds of a concept called Islamic nizam, or rule’ were sown in the area. Akbar embeds these seeds in a ‘theory of distance’, attributed to Barelvi’s predecessor Shah Waliullah, whose aim was to protect ‘Islamic purity’ from the ‘cultural power and military might of the infidel’ – ‘He urged Muslims to live so far from Hindus that they would not be able to see the smoke from their kitchens.’

The book, the chronicle of a death foretold, aims to show how the interplay of the DNA and the theory of distance made the creation of Pakistan inevitable, and continued to nurture the tinderbox it has turned into today. But the chronicle lacks conviction, because too many of the clues tell a different story and the theory repeatedly contradicts itself. A sense of disconnect dogs the reader as time and again the explanation and the record trip over each other.

No sooner are we introduced to the rooting of the seeds of Islamic rule in the Northwest Frontier Province and the drive to seek distance from the infidels, than we are informed that ‘in a remarkable piece of social engineering, the British turned, through positive discrimination in education, job benefits and political empowerment, a hostile Muslim community into a resource for their Indian Empire within just two decades.’ Elsewhere, we discover that in the 1946 elections, swept by the Muslim League, ‘its only defeat was in the Frontier.’ Further along, Akbar reveals that ‘Gandhi’s most important associate during the salt agitation was a man from the Frontier,’ and many pages later we learn that when the Congress Working Committee accepted Partition, on 2 June 1947, ‘only the Frontier Gandhi’ – the Pashtun political leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan – ‘voted against the resolution. With tears in his eyes he said, “Hum to tabah ho gaye” (We have been destroyed).’

In the last chapter, where the author describes the rise of the Taliban in Swat, he comments: ‘It is not entirely coincidental that Sufi Mohammed and Fazlullah – two militant leaders – ‘ruled their virtual “Islamic state” in the same “liberated zone” from where Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi and his successor Shah Ismail established “Tehrik-e-Mujahideen” and fought first the Sikh kingdom and then the British in the nineteenth century.’ Akbar connects these two dots, separated by almost 200 years, as proof of his thesis, but ignores all the other points in between that belie the storyline.

Akbar records that the intermediary in the British taming of the NWFP was Syed Ahmad Khan, the 19th-century reformer. ‘[W]hile Barelvi sought salvation through holy war,’ he writes, ‘Syed Ahmed Khan believed that modern, English education was the only key that could release a community locked in the past.’ However, a page later we read that Deoband, the seminary founded by Barelvi’s heirs, ‘sought Muslim space within a shared Hindu-Muslim India’, while the modernists of Aligarh, founded by Syed Ahmad Khan, led the drive for a separate country. Akbar himself remarks on this contradiction when comparing Jinnah and Maulana Azad at another point in the book: ‘There is a notable anomaly in the partition drama … The man who had little religion divided India in the name of religion’ while the ‘true maulana’, who ‘lived, breathed and practised Islam’ opposed Pakistan.

Out of date

Tinderbox is riddled with such anomalies, because Akbar’s smoking gun is religion that drives politics. But these might have disappeared had he considered the possibility that politics could well have been driving religion. The contradictions are too numerous to list, but Akbar’s thesis is undermined almost entirely in a chapter entitled ‘Breaking point’. Picking up from an account of the incredible efforts at forging a common national struggle (itself a contradiction of the theory of distance), the chapter begins with the sentence: ‘There were five “swivel” moments in Congress-Muslim relations before the formation of Pakistan.’ If one interprets a ‘swivel moment’ as one at which the outcome could have gone either way, this does away at one stroke with any notion of the inevitability of the division of India.

Even more surprising is the fact that at three of these swivel moments, the author assigns responsibility for the eventual turn taken to the Congress, not to the proponents of Pakistan. Thus, ‘the fifth, and most tantalizing, chance appeared at the very last minute, in 1946, when the Congress and the League accepted the British Cabinet Plan to retain a united India, but the Congress, fearful of Balkanization, reversed its decision.’ It was only ‘after this [that] their separate paths became irreversible’ – and the author drives a nail into his own thesis.

What survives is not a chronicle of what made Pakistan inevitable but merely an account of how Pakistan came into being. This makes the book far less rewarding than what the author promises, as it is ground that has been covered many times before. Further, there is no new archival material or conceptual insight that adds value to the earlier accounts.

This manner of recording history, with its chronology of dates and minor details, reminiscent of the court histories of emperors, has long gone out of style. So too has the style of writing history that anchors itself in the present, and projects its categories back into the past. The very sense of Hindu and Muslim identities, and the notions of majority and minority, are not timeless but rather are artefacts of a census that did not take place in British India till 1872. Akbar misses out on the very critical policy choices that shaped the creation of identity in Southasia and that selected religion as the primary marker of identity for the allocation of resources, thereby triggering a calculus in which numbers, and therefore conversions and reconversions, assumed a significance they did not previously possess. A much more cohesive account of the journey of Pakistan could be constructed around the failure to find, in an alien electoral framework, a system of representation that would accommodate the vast diversity of British India – now carved up into majorities and minorities divided across directly governed provinces and princely states.

As was to be expected, there were numerous political interests and intellectual currents at a time as traumatic as the period following the ‘uprising’ of 1857. The lack of familiarity with the new mechanisms of governance introduced by the British prevented the majority opinions from accommodating or neutralising the fringes. Over time, the latter reduced the negotiating space for the former to such an extent that compromise became impossible. Akbar himself notes that ‘liberals sensed the dangers in permitting the extreme to shape the agenda’, but proved unable to retain control of the dialogue. Instead, he quotes B R Nanda, the author and historian, to sum up in a pithy aphorism the increasingly intense discussions between partisans: ‘Hindu politicians were incapable of generosity and Muslim politicians were incapable of trust.’ Had Akbar used this political insight as his starting point, rather than that of DNA and distance, he could have provided a much more insightful account of the human tragedy that led capable and well-meaning individuals to such a traumatic outcome.

Unity through diversity

So much for the creation of Pakistan. Tinderbox divides neatly into pre- and post-1947 periods, and the account of the latter begins with a strangely contrary premise. Having spent the first half of the book trying to convince the reader of the unique DNA of Muslims and their preference for distance, Akbar launches the second half with the claim that ‘Indians and Pakistanis are the same people.’

The objective here shifts to an attempt to figure out why the two countries have moved on such divergent arcs since 1947. Akbar ascribes this divergence to the fact that ‘the idea of India is stronger than the Indian [while] the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani.’ But the claim is never really articulated or established, deriving its plausibility from retroactive knowledge of what was to happen. Akbar conflates the idea with the mode of governance when he states that ‘secular democracy, a basis of the modern state, was the irreducible ideology of India, while the germ of theocracy lay in Pakistan’s genes.’ This is tantamount to saying that a secular democracy would always do better than a theocracy – this might or might not be true, but it does little to explain how the former is stronger than the Indian and the latter weaker than the Pakistani.

Leaving aside the fact that there were at least three (if not more) ideas of India at the outset, it would be more promising to claim that the idea of India that won out stressed unity through a celebration of diversity, while the one that emerged as the easy way out for Pakistan attempted unity through an abolishment of diversity. It could then be argued that the former was more compatible with human psychology than the latter, and also that the reasons for these choices were rooted in the particularities of the two successor states. Unlike in Pakistan, for instance, in India there was neither an ethnic group that outnumbered all others nor a coalition of coercive power that could impose its will. Indians had no choice but to accommodate the diversity, while the dominant groups in Pakistan chose to protect their privilege by attempting to eliminate the differences that provided the rationale for sharing – thus the rise of the Islamic ethos. This choice was enforced not by the religious elements, but rather by the most secular groups in the new country. Indians and Pakistanis were indeed the same people: it was the particular circumstances and configuration of forces that made them act in different ways.

The second half of Tinderbox repeats the pattern of the first, offering a blow-by-blow recording of events from 1947 to the present day. The author recounts the deeds and misdeeds of all the Pakistani regimes since Jinnah’s – again, a record that is well known – ascribing the motivation for these various actions to the pull of psyche rather than to compulsions of politics and economics. As before, this makes for a disconnected narrative. By the time one arrives at the concluding chapter, the reader desperately wants the author to pull the argument together and speculate on what might be expected of the tinderbox in the future. Will it explode, or somehow be defused? Alas, the chapter continues the linear narrative with an account of the crisis in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, constituting little more than a collection of news reports and op-eds from various Pakistani newspapers.

On the second-to-last page, Akbar asserts, ‘the challenge from Taliban and its present and future allies is not irreversible. But Pakistan cannot face this challenge unless it returns to the precepts and advice of the father of the nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and decisively rejects the man who became godfather, Maulana Maudoodi.’ In proffering these two alternatives between the secularism of Jinnah and the fundamentalism of the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the author posits a rational choice, freed of the compulsions of the psyche and DNA that had allegedly been propelling the fate of the nation through its journey. But just a page later, the sense of inevitability returns as the book concludes with this final sentence: ‘more than six decades later we are staring, transfixed, at havoc beyond repair.’

It is disappointing that Akbar has little to say about whether or not the tinderbox looks set to explode. Instead, he inserts the predictions of Maulana Azad, made in 1946, about what might be expected in the yet-to-be born Pakistan. Those predictions are remarkably prescient, with Maulana Azad highlighting eight potential ills. Akbar dutifully lists these, without remarking that not a single one has to do with the DNA or the psyche of the nation, or with any religious theory of distance; rather, they are all related to the unfolding of the political economy of the new country. It is the concluding irony in a book replete with ironies that a religious scholar is seen to rely on a political economy paradigm while a secular modernist places his faith in a religious explanation.

Anjum Altaf is a former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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4 Responses to “Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan – A Review”

  1. Hasan Says:

    I don’t remember completely, but I think this idea is something that Tolstoy talks about too in War and Peace (I think). He had a different idea about how to account for that but the basic idea was the same; that history isn’t fixed and historical understanding is a weird, fuzzy creature.

  2. Vikram Says:

    There is a reason why history and journalism are two separate departments at any American university. I am not saying journalist’s are incapable of writing good history books, but when they write bad ones, it becomes all too evident.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: I agree. MJ Akbar is among the leading journalists in India and spliced apart as about 150 or so separate columns, the content would have had value. Each column would have informed, amused and provided an opinion for discussion. Bound together, the opinions repeatedly contradict each other and the author is unable or unwilling to resolve the contradictions. The whole is decidedly less than the sum of the parts.

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