Posts Tagged ‘Himal’

Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan – A Review

April 30, 2011

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rely on cultural or psychological constructs for explanations are particularly exposed to this danger, as any number of outdated verdicts can illustrate – the opium-eating Chinese, the Hindu rate of growth, the fatalistic Arabs, to name just a few.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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Macaulay’s Stepchildren

January 6, 2010

By Anjum Altaf in Himal Magazine

Thomas Babington Macaulay, commonly known as Lord Macaulay, is widely recognised yet inadequately understood in Southasia. While the legacy of his ‘decisions’ is correctly criticised, that criticism is often for the wrong reasons. Macaulay served on the Supreme Council of India from 1834 until 1838, during which time he sided with Governor-General William Bentinck in the adoption of English as the medium of instruction from the sixth standard onwards. Today, he is castigated for his infamous comment:

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.

This single sentence bears the burden of all the subsequent problems with education in India. It is a pity that the rest of the 1835 Minute on Education, of which this comment is a part, is left unexamined. Indeed, merely inserting the two sentences that immediately precede and follow the comment begins to add a layer of complexity. Part of the preceding sentence reads: “it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people.” And the one that follows states:

To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

From these three sentences, one could interpret Macaulay as saying that, given limited resources, it would be cost-effective to train master-trainers in modern methods to further disseminate knowledge to the masses – prescribing, in effect, a ‘trickle down’ strategy for mass education. Clearly, one cannot read into the text either an aversion to mass education or a rejection of vernacular languages, the charges most often levelled against Macaulay.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of resource constraints in the controversy over colonial education that was taking place when Macaulay arrived in India in 1834. At that time, he joined the General Committee of Public Instruction (GCPI), which was charged under the Charter Act of 1813 with “the revival and improvement of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences.” For the achievement of these aims, however, the Charter had assigned the meagre amount of 100,000 rupees to be appropriated out of surplus revenue. Such an amount could only go so far, and the GCPI was evenly split between the ‘Orientalists’, who favoured reviving India’s ancient culture via its traditional learned classes, and the ‘Anglicists’, who argued for transforming a stagnant culture through the introduction of modern science.

These two camps were not as far apart as they may at first seem. Both were in agreement on the objectives (the introduction of Western knowledge), the underlying principles (educating the masses in the vernacular languages), and the nature of the constraints (the inadequacy at the time of the vernacular languages for the teaching of modern subjects). What separated them was the question of means: how were the vernaculars to be revitalised given the limited funds available? The Orientalists argued for enriching them through the classical Indian languages (Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic); the Anglicists, for using English as the medium of instruction.

In this debate, Macaulay of course cast the tie-breaking vote in favour of the Anglicists. But it would be simplistic to think that this was either a whimsical decision or an objective, technical assessment. Colonial education policy was shaped by many contending forces in both England and India, and while Macaulay was certainly a central actor in this drama, he was by no means the author of the play. An analysis of these forces is essential to explain the past and provide a link to the present.

Our language, our learning
1803, the year the British graduated from being traders to being the sole rulers of the Subcontinent, was a major turning point in Indian history. The East India Company had preferred a ‘do not disturb’ policy opposing the introduction of Western knowledge, out of fear that it might jeopardise the lucrative status quo. India was to be managed through British officials whose deep knowledge of local languages and customs would, purportedly, enable them to emulate the Mughal Empire that preceded them.

Once Indians became British subjects, the changed relationship needed a new rationalisation, one that came to be termed the ‘White Man’s Burden’. Appreciation of India gave way to disdain, and zealots began clamouring to ‘bring light to darkness’ – to transform a static and degraded society through the infusion of Western ideas and practices. The movement was led by Christian evangelicals who, in 1813, were finally able to secure the right to undertake missionary work in India. By coincidence, 1815 became another key year in Indian history, as the end of the Napoleonic Wars spurred the opening of the overland route from Europe through Egypt, reducing travel time from England to India by more than half. The resulting influx of people included a disproportionate share of missionaries, thus setting in motion the events that culminated in 1857.

These dramatic shifts in British attitudes towards Indian society cast inevitable shadows on the thinking regarding education. Education remained in the service of politics (to promote the interests of the Empire in India), but the ideological ambitions (to establish ‘our language, our learning, our religion’ in India) continued to gain strength. By the time Macaulay arrived in 1834, the die had been cast – all that was left for him was to be enshrined in history as the one who made it official.

Two other intellectual trends need to be mentioned because they undoubtedly had a bearing on colonial thinking. Macaulay (1800-59) followed the economist Adam Smith (1723-90), whose very influential text The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), whose equally influential treatise on utilitarianism came out in 1781. Bentham’s influence can be seen directly in the recommendation of James Mill, an employee of the East India Company. In a dispatch on behalf of the directors in 1824, Mill criticised the GCPI policy of working through the classical Indian languages, arguing that the “great end should not have been to teach Hindoo learning or Mohamedan learning, but useful learning.” The purpose of education would certainly have been in Macaulay’s mind during his reflections on colonial policy.

Considerations of economy became relevant with deepening British involvement in governing India. There was a realisation that reliance on British expatriates versed in local customs would prove too expensive; thus, there was no alternative but to supplement them with Indians in the judicial and administrative services. Smith’s influence, meanwhile, was evident in the remarkably modern way in which Macaulay employed economistic reasoning to justify his decision – pointing to the fact that Indians themselves were evincing a preference for English over Sanskrit and Arabic, and concluding that the ‘state of the market’ should determine language policy. This was indeed true, as an increasing number of middle-class Indians aspired to learn English as a means of upward mobility, setting up an opposing camp to the Indian elites, who preferred to leverage their monopoly of traditional learning. They were joined by a group of Indian reformers who had bought into the British characterisation of a moribund Indian society – ten years before Macaulay’s Minute on Education, the Bengali intellectual Ram Mohun Roy had already argued for an English education, English in language and content, to revive Indian culture.

The outcome of this shifting balance of forces and alliances was that ideology and economics trumped considerations of governance. Macaulay subsequently used his oratorical powers to negate the mandate of the Charter Act for “the revival and improvement of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India” because, he charged, “a single shelf of a good European library [was] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” He transformed the mandate into a consideration of how the funds at the disposal of the government could be best used to promote learning, and boiled the choice down to the central question of “which language is the best worth knowing.” He voted for English over Sanskrit and Arabic because of its superiority as evidenced by a strong desire for English-language education in the Indian population.

Yet Macaulay was wrong in equating the desire to learn English as a language for enhancing job prospects with its appropriateness as the medium of instruction for the education of Indians. This was pointed out almost immediately by H T Prinsep, a fellow member of the Supreme Council, who asked how the English would have fared if they had been educated in Arabic rather than in Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe. Macaulay also erred (to give him the benefit of the doubt) in his presumption that the class of English-Indians to whom he was leaving the task of conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population would have any real interest in doing so. But the time for arguments had passed – Macaulay was only ratifying a fait accompli.

Half-understood catchwords
With the implementation of the new policy, the second half of the 19th century saw a rapid increase in missionary and private English-language secondary schools in India, whose graduates abandoned their education once they acquired enough English to qualify for clerical jobs. Meanwhile, elementary education in vernacular languages languished for lack of funding and support. The negative consequences became apparent as early as the turn of the century, prompting a wide-ranging review by George Curzon, who became viceroy in 1898. Curzon had no hesitation in attributing blame: “Ever since the cold breath of Macaulay’s rhetoric passed over the field of Indian languages and textbooks, the elementary education of the people in their own tongue has shriveled and pined.”

It is pertinent to quote from the resulting 1904 resolution on education policy:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

One can see here an admission of the requirement for a ‘sound’ education. But it is a matter of debate whether that recommendation was grounded in a sincere desire to educate Indians, or was simply a reaction to the fact that Macaulay’s policy had given rise both to an elite class of Anglicised Indians and to a larger mass of clerical workers increasingly disenchanted with their limited prospects. It is revealing to note that when the Colonial Office revisited education after the First World War, it determined to prevent the ‘unhappy results’ of English education in India from recurring in its African colonies, warning against the production of a babu-like class “imbued with theories of self-determination and half understood catch-words of the political hustings.”

Macaulay had argued for the use of English because modern science could not, in his opinion, be taught through Sanskrit or Arabic. Ironically, in the event hardly any science was taught in India at all – in addition to the babus, English-language education’s most notable product was lawyers. One outcome of Macaulay’s policy was that all the political leaders who mattered during the movement for Independence represented India but were not representative of India – rather, they were all Anglicised British-trained lawyers with whom the British felt at ease. As the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has put it, India’s political inheritance was “an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.”

Macaulay’s legacy was that Indian governance, by the time of Independence, was completely unrepresentative, with a class in power largely alienated from its cultural roots and the majority of its fellow citizens because of its education. It is hardly surprising, then, that 1947 brought little change in the parameters of colonial education, with the elite persisting in the belief that an English education, now abetted with technical skills, remained the path to modernisation. And while the churn of democracy is gradually changing the balance of power, the hold of the ancien regime still remains sufficient to stifle meaningful change. Today, the outcome is that almost half the Subcontinent’s population remains illiterate; the majority of the rest is poorly educated at best and indoctrinated at worst. Education is still subservient to the imperatives of governance (the need for a pliant population), ideology (the need to promote various nationalisms), utilitarianism (the need to serve the job market), and economics (the need to minimise expenditures). As a result, there exists a huge intellectual gulf and a lack of shared social values between the haves and the have-nots.

Of course, Pakistan and India have diverged in significant ways since 1947. In Pakistan, the ideological imperatives of the two-nation theory (and the subsequent attempt to transplant its cultural roots to Arabia) succeeded in destroying even elite education, while also radicalising a significant proportion of the country’s population. India has suffered largely from the benign neglect of mass education. Thus, while Pakistan has spiralled into a ‘failing’ state with an empty mind and lethal limbs, India has been described as a ‘flailing’ state, in which its very capable head remains poorly connected with woefully weak arms and legs. In both countries, Macaulay’s children continue to deny the place of education as a basic human right, the primary purpose of which is to enable all citizens to think independently for themselves. And Macaulay’s stepchildren have not yet found the strength to seize that right for themselves.

Anjum Altaf is an advisor to the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan. He moderates the South Asian Idea weblog.

This article appeared in Himal Magazine’s January 2010 special issue on education in South Asia and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.  Sources for most of the quotations in this article can be found in Stephen Evans, ‘Macaulay’s Minute Revisited: Colonial Language Policy in Nineteenth-Century India,’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002. Himal Magazine left out this citation from the published version of the article.