Posts Tagged ‘Jinnah’

M J Akbar’s Tinderbox: The Book in Images

August 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I was asked to review M J Akbar’s new book Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan and have done so; the review appeared in the May 2011 issue of Himal Southasian magazine. Here I wish to attempt something different – to convey to the reader a sense of the book through the images that came to mind as I read it.


Tinderbox is a particularly apt metaphor for present-day Pakistan. I reached for the book with a sense of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of learning whether the tinderbox would explode or somehow be defused. The issue had been on many minds and the focus of many talks for some time. A member of the family had put it thus after attending one the talks: (more…)

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rely on cultural or psychological constructs for explanations are particularly exposed to this danger, as any number of outdated verdicts can illustrate – the opium-eating Chinese, the Hindu rate of growth, the fatalistic Arabs, to name just a few.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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Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 3

September 10, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


In Parts 1 & 2 we discussed an Indo-Persian culture that evolved in India, and how this Ganga-Jamni Tehzib responded to the collapse of Muslim political power and the rise of European powers. We have seen how the frustration of the Muslim intelligentsia gave rise to an aggressive Jihad culture and an inverse reflection led it to the pursuit of modern knowledge and secular progress. Let’s see how Indian Muslims slowly drifted towards a new path of social and political isolation. (more…)

The Road to Partition

August 31, 2009

Jaswant Singh‘s book provides the excuse for this post. We are going to move away from narratives that seek a villain in the story. Rather, we will present a sequence of events that increasingly predisposed the outcome towards a division of the subcontinent. Along the path marked by these events, there were a number of crucial turning points at which different decisions could possibly have led to different outcomes. These remain the big what-ifs of our history.

In this narrative we present just the big picture and the key highlights. Each of the turning points needs a chapter to itself but it is useful to sketch an overview before we begin to start filling in the details. We hope to use the commentary for that purpose.

The British become masters of India

The story can start at any number of points but let us begin it in 1803. Before 1803, the British were one among a number of forces contending for power in India. With the defeat of the Marhattas in 1803, they became the sole masters taking the Mughal king under their protection.

Becoming sole masters meant that the British had now to rule India and a rationale had to be found for this rule. It is at this point that the humiliation of Indians begins because the rationale for British rule was found in the need to ‘civilize’ India, to raise her to the level where it could rule itself. Soon after, with the opening of the Suez route, came the missionaries who added the need to show the benighted heathens the true light. This is when the lingam became the penis as described by Professor Balagangadhara.

The rise and fragmentation of Indian nationalism

This humiliation festered till it burst in the first outpouring of Indian nationalism in 1857. Note that this was ‘Indian’ nationalism as all the disaffected, irrespective of identity, united to ask their reluctant king to lead them in the uprising. The roots of this composite Indian nationalism could be traced back to the formation of the Ghadr Party in 1913, perhaps the last non-elite resistance that was free of any prejudices related to religion, caste, ethnicity, or language, an aspect that would surprise many today. Perhaps, it was so precisely because it was a subaltern movement devoid of elite concerns for power, employment, and appropriation of resources.

Of course, the uprising was crushed. More important were the uneven (or at least perceived as such) punishments meted out to the groups that had participated in the uprising. This effectively split Indian nationalism along religious lines. Humiliation is a very powerful motivator and the responses to it left lasting impressions on Indian history that are being felt even today. (The most vivid account of this period is by William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal.)

Not only did Indian nationalism split into Muslim and Hindu nationalisms but each in turn split into nationalisms that looked for redemption to the past or to the future. On the Muslim side one can contrast the groups that set up seminaries with Syed Ahmad Khan setting up the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College. On the Hindu side, one can contrast the forward-looking vision of Nehru with glorification of a Hindu past by Savarkar.

Perhaps the lone voice of dissent was that of Gandhi who advised rejecting the British ‘habit of writing history.’ He must have sensed that given the context of India, any invention of a past would be divisive. “I believe,” he wrote, “that a nation is happy that has no history.” Khilnani explores this crucial point:

In contrast to nationalists who sought to construct a reliable future out of a selected past, Gandhi expressed profound distrust for the historical genre. He turned to legends and stories from India’s popular religious traditions, preferring their lessons to the supposed ones of history. The fact that so many on the subcontinent found these fables accessible, and recognized their predicaments and symbols, itself testified to a shared civilizational bond.

But it was too late in the day. It is ironic that Gandhi’s recourse to religious symbolism (including his support of the Khilafat movement in 1920 – which Jinnah opposed as ‘religious frenzy’) itself proved to be divisive.

By far the most influential of these invented histories in terms of impact on the immediate future was the nationalism espoused by Savarkar that equated India with Hinduism with everyone else “relegated to awkward, secondary positions.” Khilnani notes that “the Gandhian Congress adroitly marginalized the Savarkarite conception of Indian history and Indianness, but its presuppositions were never erased: many nationalists outside Congress, and even some within it, shared them.” This sentiment was to make itself felt after the elections of 1937.

The political fracturing of Indian nationalism

Just in case the widening of religious and cultural splits in Indian nationalism were not sufficient guarantors of British dominance, a political fracture would make assurance doubly sure. In 1905, Bengal was severed into two provinces: East Bengal,with 18 million Muslims and 12 million Hindus, and West Bengal, with a largely Hindu population of 47 million. The stated purpose was administrative efficiency—Bengal was too big to govern effectively — yet British advisers were quite clear about the political implications. “Bengal united is a power,” one of them counseled. “Bengal divided will pull several ways. That is what the Congress leaders feel; their apprehensions are perfectly correct and they form one of the great merits of the scheme….One of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.”

The objective was achieved. Here are Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s observations in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian: “It was from the end of 1906 that we became conscious of a new kind of hatred for the Muslims, which sprang out of the present and showed signs of poisoning our personal relations with our Muslim neighbours and schoolfellows. If the spouting enmity did not go to the length of inducing us to give up all intercourse with them, it made us at all events treat them with a marked decline of civility. We began to hear angry comments in the mouths of our elders that the Muslims were coming out quite openly in favor of partition and on the side of the English.”

Although the partition was reversed in 1911, things, not unexpectedly, could never revert to the status quo ante. The damage was done even if its ultimate consequences were not entirely intended. It was the prelude to the partition of 1947 and some of whose seeds were sown in Bengal in 1905.

The creation of religious identities

The shock of the great uprising of 1857 yielded two immediate lessons to the British – the need to learn more about Indian communities and to find a way to rule indirectly through a pliable elite. The first led to the introduction of the census (conducted in 1871) in which the determination of religion was of primary importance. This was contrary to the practice in Britain itself where a question about religion was not included in the census.

The fascinating story of the census is described in In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia  by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik (2007). The notes of the census takers themselves tell the story – no one answered to the category of ‘Hindu’ when asked their religion and so Hinduism was defined as a default category – anyone who could not be classified into any other religion was listed as a Hindu. There was no room for ambiguity; all syncretic communities were put under one heading or another (see a brief description in this post). Thus were religious identities created – as Sunil Khilnani puts it in The Idea of India: “The terminology of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ was itself an inescapable imposition of the political accountancy of the Raj.”

The creation of political identities

At the same time, the mechanism envisaged to involve the local elite into the governance of India was electoral representation. Here again, the practice differed from that in Britain where the unit of representation was a territory. In India, the British chose the units to be communities “with immutable interests and collective rights.” And once again, these were determined on the basis of religion. “Defined as majorities and minorities, they were shepherded into communal electorates whose interest the British had to protect from one another” (Khilnani).

The decision to use separate electorates based on religion was a crucial decision taken in 1909. Any other marker of identity – territory, language, ethnicity – could have been used, if at all one was needed. Or proportional representation could have been employed to give adequate representation to the various groups that the British felt were vulnerable in the electoral system. But the British opted for religion. Ostensibly it was the Muslims who asked for separate electorates. It is well known now that the British principal of the Aligarh College and the private secretary of the Viceroy drafted the memorandum spelling out these demands. The Viceroy readily agreed to the demands. Thus “the dice were loaded against Hindu-Muslim unity” (see Raghavan here).

So religious affiliation was turned into a decisive distinction. Here is a quote from the conclusion of the Indian Statutory Commission in 1930:

So long as people had no part in the conduct of their government, there was little for members of one community to fear from the predominance of the other. The gradual introduction of constitutional reforms, however, had greatly stimulated communal tension as it aroused anxieties and ambitions among many communities by the prospect of their place in India’s future political set-up.

This is followed by the verdict of the Indian historian K.N. Pannikar: “the introduction of the principle of elected representation in public institutions actively promoted the rising of communalism in India.” (Both these quotes can be found in this post.)

The next crucial turning point came in 1932 when the draft Indian Constitution proposed by the British included separate electorates for Dalits – a proposal that was supported by Dr. Ambedkar.  Gandhiji began a hunger strike because he felt that separate electorates for Dalits would “disintegrate Hindu society.” Apprehensive of the consequences, Dr. Ambedkar withdrew his support. Later, on his own deathbed, he is reported to have said that it was the “biggest mistake in his life.”

Two things are important to note here. First, no one in Congress opposed separate electorates for Muslims on the grounds that it would disintegrate Indian society (as it did). Second, the entire process of representation was not based on any consistent principle. The choice of separate electorates for Muslims was a bad one; but having made it, separate electorates for Dalits could have lent coherence to the system. Together, the Muslim and Dalit vote could have provided a balance to the Congress that could have made a first-past-the-post electoral system work. By giving separate electorates to one but not to the other the system became lopsided and unworkable.

The rules of the game

There is an important feature of this period of Indian history that is often overlooked. I will borrow the terminology of game theory to explain it. There are some contests that take place within well-defined rules of the game; there are other contests that take place to determine what the rules of a future game are going to be. There is a profound difference between the two. Think of two teams playing a game of cricket or negotiating over what the rules of cricket are going to be. Contests over rules are resolved most often when the balance of power is one-sided – thus the formation of the UN after WW2 when the big powers decided there was going to be a Security Council, they would be the permanent members, and they would have the right to veto. When the balance is not so lop-sided resolution becomes very difficult – as is the case in the negotiations over the WTO or climate change. Brinksmanship is common and statesmanship of a very high order is required to arrive at any mutually acceptable consensus. When the game itself is alien (as electoral representation was in India), the difficulties get compounded many times.

 The 1937 elections

Given the electoral system in place, the Congress won an overwhelming majority in the 1937 elections. But as Khilnani notes: “there is real force to the point that that the practical experience of Congress rule in the provinces after the elections of 1937 was instrumental in encouraging political alienation. Congress governments, subject in many cases to the influence of nationalist Hindus, lost the trust of Muslims and so helped to kindle support for the Muslim League. It was this erosion of trust that fanned a desire to redescribe a ‘minority’ within British India as a separate ‘nation’, and to take it outside the boundaries of India.”

The demand for Pakistan

Khilnani concludes the above line of argument with the statement: “The Muslim insistence on a separate state crystallized only in the decade before 1947.” It was in this period that Jinnah, the secular ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity (as vouched for most recently by LK Advani and Jaswant Singh) became the champion of Muslims only.

And here there is another critical twist in the story. Recall that all the leaders who mattered at this stage of history represented India but were not representative of India. They were all British-trained lawyers with whom the British felt at ease because of their competence and intellect and degree of comfort with European ideas. Khilnani remarks how unrepresentative Indian political parties were and that “most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book The Burden of Democracy writes:

The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about…. It was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.

The fact that the leaders representing India were lawyers and not politicians by tradition or training had a major impact on subsequent events. When Jinnah took on the brief for Pakistan, his entire focus converged on winning his case. Like it would for any lawyer, the case became the world and everything outside blurred in significance. Professor Ralph Russell has a perceptive take on this dilemma when he notes that there had indeed emerged a “sophisticated” case for Muslim separation based on secular or quasi-secular concepts (see here).

But such sophisticated concepts could not arouse the mass Muslim enthusiasm which the leadership needed if acceptance of its demands were to be enforced. With the illiterate and half-literate Muslim masses, what carried weight was precisely the ideas of the ‘most undesirable reactionary elements’… An appeal to the Muslim masses to come into the political arena could, in the late 1930s and 1940s, hardly have had any other result than to fan this sort of Muslim chauvinism. The response to Jinnah’s call in December 1939, to celebrate a ‘Day of Deliverance’ when Congress ministries resigned, already showed this; still more horrifying was the response to his Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946.

Borrowed concepts

This aspect needs to be mentioned briefly although it is perhaps of the greatest importance. The European concepts that dominated the thinking of Indian elites were grafted onto Indian soil without much analysis of their compatibility with local realities. Their efficacy and applicability were assumed to be universal: Westminster-style democracy was introduced in a vertically stratified and horizontally polarized society and nationalism in a multi-national polity, to mention only two dimensions. Khilnani remarks on the latter: “The special frisson of Savarkar’s ideas lay in their translation of Brahminical culture into the terms of an ethnic nationalism drawn from his reading of Western history.” Gandhi who was most skeptical of these borrowed concepts was swept aside because the alternatives he presented were not considered modern enough.


We have reached the end of the road on this whistle-stop journey and can pause here to recap. The following were the key markers of the road to Partition: The establishment of British supremacy in 1803; the humiliation of Indians; the rise of Indian nationalism and the uprising in 1857; the discriminating punishments and the splitting of Indian nationalism into Muslim and Hindu nationalisms; the first census in 1871 and the creation of religious identities; the separate electorates for Muslims in 1909 and the creation of political identities; the denial of separate electorates for Dalits in 1932 and the resulting imbalance in the electoral calculus; the contest over the rules of an alien game and the resulting brinksmanship; the elections of 1937 and the disappointment of the Muslims; the lack of experience with electoral compromise and the dominance of lawyers; the determination of Jinnah to win his brief; the mechanisms to mobilize the political support of largely illiterate voters; the Day of Deliverance in 1939.

By this time things had reached such a pass and sentiments had hardened to such an extent that the leaders, brilliant and clever and selfless as they were or might have been, had lost control of events and were just being sucked into the undertow. Put these happenings in the framework of intellectual concepts and ‘modern’ systems borrowed from Europe without consideration of their appropriateness to local conditions and one can get a sense of how overwhelming and impossible the challenge would have been to the ‘best and the brightest’ in British India.

Each one of the great leaders got something right and something wrong. None of them got everything right. And that was the tragedy of India.

Essential Reading:

Sunil Khilnani: The Idea of India
Kamljit Bhasin-Malik: In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: The Burden of Democracy
William Dalrymple: The Last Mughal
Ralph Russell: Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia in How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature
Bettina Robotka: Democracy in India – A Historical Perspective in The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo (eds.)
Karl E. Meyer: The Invention of Pakistan – How the British Raj Sundered, World Policy Journal, Spring 2003. (Material on the 1905 partition of Bengal is taken from Meyer.)
Radha D’Souza: Revolt and Reform in South Asia: Ghadar Movement to 9/11 and after, Economic and Political Weekly, February 2014.

Note: I would like to experiment with this post keeping it as a live text almost like a Wikipedia entry. Let us see if we can end up with a shared history of this period in British India. 

The content on the Ghadr Party and the political fracturing of Indian nationalism – the 1905 partition of Bengal – were added in June 2014.


Jaswant Singh: What’s All the Fuss?

August 25, 2009

It is sad that the history we are taught in our countries is so one-dimensional that even the thought that the ‘Other’ might be semi-intelligent (let alone great) makes people catatonic. The predictable reaction is either to impugn the motives of the writer or to find selective evidence to prove that the real blame rests entirely on the ‘Other.’ The alternative of sifting through the arguments on their merits remains alien, unacceptable, impossible, or just too tiresome.

The reason Jaswant Singh’s book has made such a splash is because he is a front ranking politician with a very high reputation for integrity (for which, read Strobe Talbott’s Engaging India) and belongs to the BJP, all of which make the story impossible to ignore. Otherwise, this is an argument that has been made before and forgotten. (more…)

Jinnah, Nehru, and the Ironies of History

March 22, 2009

Varun Gandhi is reported to have said some strong things about Muslims in India. So, I am told, did his father.

Let me use this as a peg to say something about Varun’s venerable great-grandfather whose maturity Varun seems unlikely to emulate. But beyond that, let me speculate about some neglected dimensions of the political history of the subcontinent.

Two remarkable statements made around the time of the partition of British India continue to intrigue me:

Here is Mohammad Ali Jinnah, addressing the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in August 1947:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of 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.

And here is Jawaharlal Nehru, writing to Chief Ministers of provinces in India in October 1947, pointing out that there remained, within India,

a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.

How can we read these two statements given the history of which they were a part?

What intrigues me about them is the following:

Here was Jinnah, who had spent the previous twenty years arguing that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations, so completely different from each other that they could not live together. And here he was, on the creation of the country based on that logic of difference, saying all of you can now live together as equal citizens with equal rights.

And here was Nehru, who had spent the same period of time arguing the secular perspective that everyone was an equal citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity, still thinking in terms of minorities as special groups who needed to be dealt with in a civilized manner and given the rights of citizens.

I would have expected Jinnah to say something along these lines: I know it is going to be very difficult but we must now find a way to live together. And I would have expected Nehru to send out an unequivocal signal: We are all Indians now; there are no more majorities and minorities here.

It is time for some political psychology and this is my very idiosyncratic explanation:

I would argue that Jinnah’s innate values were secular. He belonged to a minority trading community from Gujarat where getting along with others was essential to survival and success. It is clear that Jinnah could never have believed from the outset that Hindus and Muslims were so intrinsically different that they could not live together. Had that been the case he could not have been the leading ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity till the 1920s.

It was something in the politics of the situation that must have convinced him that Hindus and Muslims could not live together in a constitutional arrangement in British India that would be acceptable to both communities. Based on that conviction (here we are not concerned whether that conviction was right or wrong) he fought his case and won. And once he won, and walked out of the courtroom, metaphorically speaking, the political imperatives for him disappeared and he became the secular Jinnah that he always was.

Did Jinnah never see that there was a world outside the courtroom, that the forces that had been unleashed by the politics of separation would never allow the situation to go back to what it was, no matter what he wished or desired? It seems not.

Nehru, on the other hand, was a Kashmiri Pandit to whom the distinctions of caste and creed must have been second nature, a part of every act and practice. But Nehru, while not in the same league as Jinnah as a lawyer, was an intellectual steeped in Fabian socialism with the whole world as his observatory. For Nehru, secularism was not an inheritance by birth but a conviction that came from the exercise of intellect.

When framed in this perspective, one can expect that moments of stress could cause the templates of inheritance to exert some residual influence on how one sees the world. So, one can understand Nehru seeing Muslims, in the aftermath of the carnage of partition, more as minorities needing to be given equal rights and less as Indians who were entitled to them.

As we know from our own lives and times, it is not easy to overcome the prejudices and biases that one inherits at birth and to adopt radically different beliefs through an exercise of reasoned analysis. There seems little doubt that history will continue to accord Nehru the credit and stature that are his due for achieving what he did achieve given the tenor of his time.

But we can now push this psychological analysis further and note the complexity of the interplay between the beliefs inherited at birth and the convictions that are inculcated and sustained through intellectual endeavor.

Without the political imperatives that changed Jinnah’s beliefs, his descendants are avowedly secular. And without the intellectual rigor that characterized Nehru, his descendants are slipping back towards prejudice.

Contrary perspectives are welcome. For another analysis along similar lines, see The Tragedy of Jinnah by Simon Kovar. HM Seervai‘s book (Partition of India – Legend and Reality), written after the release of the Transfer of Power Papers, makes a similar argument.

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Governance in Pakistan – 6: Advantages of Good Analysis

March 15, 2009

In the last post we used material from an essay by Professor Ralph Russell to illustrate what we consider a good analysis. Let us continue using that example to convince the reader of the advantages of good analysis.

Resting one’s future on hopes does provide solace but is self-defeating because it provides no direction for the future. What happens when the hopes are dashed? More hopes? No wonder things continue to deteriorate as they have in Pakistan over the years so that we have now reached the stage where the unimaginable is peering in through the windows of our homes.

A good analysis, on the other hand, provides a roadmap for the future because it is based on an understanding of the forces that are operating in society and it is possible to shape and mould societal forces with intelligent public policy. Not that the intelligence emerges out of a vacuum. On the contrary, it is good analysis that helps inform public opinion of what is happening and mobilizes it behind the demand for intelligent responses.

We can see now a critical dimension of the systemic problem in Pakistan more serious than all the other seemingly more immediate problems. Without good analysis mobilizing public opinion on a continuous basis all there is are misplaced hopes and prayers for miracles. I too wish for a miracle but I would not count on it. As we have mentioned before, it is fine to trust in fate but it is wise to tie your camel.

So, let us go back to Professor Ralph Russell who explained the rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan by referring back to the tactics that were used to mobilize Muslim support for separation in the 1930s and 1940s. We ended with Professor Russell’s conclusion:

It hardly needs to be said that if appeal to sentiments of this kind helped to mobilize the mass support without which Pakistan could not have been won, it also strengthened the religious (or pseudo-religious) fanaticism which Jinnah had opposed.

When we read this analysis we can easily understand why Mr. Jinnah’s famous appeal on the founding of Pakistan was such an abject failure:

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.

This appeal failed not because Mr. Jinnah’s deputies were pygmies as is commonly argued. It failed because the emotional forces that had been let loose to achieve Pakistan were too powerful to be easily controlled even by a personality with the charisma of Mr. Jinnah.

Professor Russell picks up this thread:

Once Pakistan had come into being, this force, which the new country’s rulers had themselves done so much to foster, confronted them with a challenge. It has done so ever since.

Professor Russell’s argument is worth reading in detail but let me just summarize his bottom line. A situation had been created in which there was no getting away from the fact that Islam had to be a key element in the identity of Pakistan to weld the people together.

To Professor Russell it was clear that the answer was not to be found in conventional Islam. And based on his analysis he both asks the question and suggests a possible answer: If an Islamic identity was inevitable, why did it have to be the obscurantist one of Maududi when an alternative was available?

It seems to me that Islam in the subcontinent possesses a still living tradition which is at once authentically and recognizably Islamic, intelligible to the mass of the people and a more than adequate sanction for policies ‘workable in the light of the requirements of modern life.’

This is the tradition of Sufism, of Muslim mysticism, which finds such powerful expression in the poetry both of Urdu and of the regional languages such as Punjabi and Sindhi, and which is as familiar to the illiterate peasants as it is to the sophisticated Urdu-speaking literati. It proclaims values which are no less authentically Islamic than those proclaimed by Maududi and his supporters, but have little else in common with them.

Among these values are a cordial, and bluntly declared, hatred and contempt for religious bigotry, and a passionate dedication to humanist ideals which inculcates, among other things, a proper respect for the rights of ALL men, whether they be Muslim or not…

One may perhaps point to this last-named strand in Muslim consciousness as one which could provide even the most modern and progressive of Pakistani politicians with the authentically Islamic sanction for their policies which they seem to feel that they need.

It is easy to forget that Professor Russell was writing this in the 1980s and it was only his analysis that could make him see the writing on the wall so far ahead of time and to propose a feasible alternative that could have changed the trajectory of the future.

So, a new question arises here: Why was this Islamic tradition that was so deeply rooted in the everyday life of the majority of Pakistanis not made an integral part of the school curricula? Why was it displaced by an alien tradition imported from Saudi Arabia?

This requires an analysis of its own and Professor Russell hints at some of the reasons. We shall take up this discussion in a subsequent post.

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Governance in Pakistan – 5: An Example of a Good Analysis

March 15, 2009

Professor Ralph Russell died on September 14, 2008 at the age on ninety. Known as the British Baba-e-Urdu, he was a leading scholar of the language and was awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz for a lifetime of notable contributions.

Professor Russell was a scholar of language and literature and never thought of himself as a political analyst. But his training in the humanities endowed him with the ability needed for good analysis.

Here I take an extract from his essay (Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia – first published in the 1980s) to illustrate the attributes of good analysis.

It is quite likely that Muslims and Pakistani readers were upset by this analysis. But Professor Russell, a great friend of Urdu, Islam and Pakistan, never let that keep him from saying what he felt needed to be said. It is from him that I picked up the line: Do you want me to say what I think or what you want to hear?

In another of his essays, Professor Russell says “I sometimes have the impression that in the field of Islamic studies more than most, scholars feel a need to be ‘diplomatic’ (which, let us face it, is only a polite way of saying ‘less than completely honest’) so that influential people will not be offended. And then he refers to Hardy in the Explanatory Note to Tess—that ‘if an offence comes out of the truth, better it is that the offence come out than that the truth be concealed.’ 

So here is Professor Russell not trying to be analytical but making an observation based on the analytical process. Follow the logic of the argument as Professor Russell tries to explain the rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan:

The sophisticated Muslim case underlying the separatist demands that ultimately became the demand for Pakistan rested on the secular or quasi-secular concept of the Muslims of the subcontinent as a separate nationality; in the years preceding independence it was this concept that was always stressed by the authoritative spokesmen of the movement for the creation of Pakistan. To such a concept religious orthodoxy was irrelevant. ‘Muslim’ meant anyone who called himself a Muslim, anyone who was born into the Muslim community, even if he were a militant atheist. Jinnah himself, the Qaid e Azam (Great Leader) of the Muslim League, was anything but an orthodox Muslim of the old-fashioned kind. For him, the concept of a Muslim nationhood implied even an onslaught on the conservative Muslin divines, and an effort, as he wrote in 1942, ‘to free our people from the most undesirable reactionary elements.’

But such sophisticated concepts could not arouse the mass Muslim enthusiasm which the leadership needed if acceptance of its demands were to be enforced. With the illiterate and half-literate Muslim masses, what carried weight was precisely the ideas of the ‘most undesirable reactionary elements’—the prejudices which told them: ‘One Muslim is worth ten Hindus. We Muslims ruled over these people for centuries. We are a fine, manly people: the Hindus are slaves and cowards. Our type is the warrior, bold and generous: theirs is the banya, the cowardly, extortionate, hypocritical moneylender. Islam is a fine faith, the acme of all religious development: Hinduism is an inhuman and revolting system which sanctifies human degradation.’

And so on and so forth. An appeal to the Muslim masses to come into the political arena could, in the late 1930s and 1940s, hardly have had any other result than to fan this sort of Muslim chauvinism. The response to Jinnah’s call in December 1939, to celebrate a ‘Day of Deliverance’ when Congress ministries resigned, already showed this; still more horrifying was the response to his Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946.

It hardly needs to be said that if appeal to sentiments of this kind helped to mobilize the mass support without which Pakistan could not have been won, it also strengthened the religious (or pseudo-religious) fanaticism which Jinnah had opposed.

I am not saying that this is necessarily the correct diagnosis. What I am pointing out is the process by which Professor Russell explains the present through a link to the past and traces the consequences of actions taken and forces let loose a long time back to the conditions that exist at present.

If you feel Professor Russell is wrong, the field is wide open to present a better analysis. There would be little point, however, in the common response of merely accusing Professor Russell of being an agent of the enemy.

For those who consider Professor Russell’s description of the nature of the appeal to Muslim masses far-fetched, it would be salutary to read through the modern public school curriculum in Pakistan today (Here and Here).

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On the Emergence of Pakistan

January 29, 2009

A reader’s comment has raised the issue of the dynamic of Pakistan’s creation. The question posed is about the role of Mr. Jinnah’s leadership: did Mr. Jinnah’s charisma make Pakistan possible or was the yearning of Muslims for self rule the primary driver?

There have a number of other explanations for the creation of Pakistan and one can attempt to evaluate them by seeking answers to a few simple questions: (1) In which geographical areas did the demand for Pakistan emerge first? (2) Why did the demand arise when it did and not earlier? (3) Which social groups articulated the demand and lent it support?

Some of the explanations appear weak when evaluated against these questions. One of them is the religious explanation that presents the creation of Pakistan as the fulfillment of a religious desire for a state in which Islam could be practiced without hindrance. Given that religious groups were nowhere in the vanguard of the demand for Pakistan, this explanation can be rejected out of hand.

Another is the ‘cultural-geographical’ explanation that the areas that comprise Pakistan were never really a part of India and the movement was an expression of the reassertion of this separate identity. The facts are that demand for Pakistan did not emerge first and most strongly in these areas but rather in areas that remain very much a part of India. Some of the areas now in Pakistan were quite divided till very late when faced with the choice of acceding to the new country.

Then there is the explanation that portrays the origins of Pakistan as a democratic mass movement of the oppressed Muslim community against the dominant Hindu majority. However, there is no credible evidence that either the Muslim peasantry or the urban working classes were in the forefront of the demand for Pakistan. In this context, many people are unaware of the fact that elections in British India were held on the basis of a limited franchise.

There are of course explanations that focus on the role of individuals. In particular, it is often asserted that Pakistan was created by the brilliance or obduracy (depending upon your perspective) of Mr. Jinnah. Mr. Jinnah was no doubt a very able advocate for the cause when he decided to lead it but that is not conclusive proof that he was instrumental in creating the movement itself.

The officially sanctioned explanation in Pakistan is the two-nation theory that Muslims were a separate and distinct nation in relation to other religious communities in India and were therefore entitled to the right of self-determination. This is fine as a normative statement if one subscribes to the right of self-determination of communities as a principle for statehood although it is problematic because newly created states are themselves not homogenous. In the case of Pakistan, the theory boomeranged when the demand arose for the rights of the Bengali ‘nation’.

Even so, as an explanation for the emergence of the demand for Pakistan, the ‘two-nation’ theory remains unconvincing. In particular, it does not adequately answer the three questions posed earlier. The demand for Pakistan arose in those areas of British India where Muslims constituted significant minorities (e.g., UP and Bengal). It did not emerge first in Muslim-majority areas (e.g., Punjab and NWFP) or where Muslims were small minorities (e.g., areas in Southern India). And when Pakistan was created the majority of Muslims in the areas that remained in India did not move to the new homeland. Even if they felt they were members of a separate nation they did not feel they needed to be in a separate homeland.

In UP and Bengal where the population distribution had remained unchanged over time, the demand for Pakistan emerged only when the possibility became real that a key element of the status quo, the British, would withdraw from the scene. The potential disequilibrium in geographical areas with the maximum uncertainty over the future scenario triggered the jostling for relative shares of the reconfigured pie. Not surprisingly, landlords, entrepreneurs, professionals and salaried groups were in the forefront of this emerging competition for the redistribution of scarce resources. All of a sudden these groups, lacking confidence in their ability to compete or apprehensive of the motives of the competitors, concluded that Muslims were a separate nation that could not co-exist with other nations alongside whom they had been living for hundreds of years.

The actual outcome of the movement that was triggered by this self-interest was never a foregone conclusion and along the way there were many twists and turns, gambles and missed opportunities, narrow political triumphs and broad human tragedies. Our interest here is not to recount the details of who did what to whom; rather we are interested in explaining what gave rise to the big forces that changed the face of the Indian subcontinent. An examination of these forces makes it hard to conclude that the interest of the masses, of any religion, figured prominently amongst them. The fact that the interest of the masses continues to be ignored in most countries of South Asia lends credence to this belief.

Religion, ethnicity, race and nationality remain very emotive and powerful forces in society and it is often to the advantage of self-interested groups to broaden the base of their support by appealing to these emotions. Most of the time such forces get out of control leading to outcomes that no one had actually anticipated. It is no surprise that the scale of the human tragedy that overshadowed their political successes or failures shocked all the participants in the drama of Partition.

Which explanation do you favor and why?

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January 16, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

Professor CM Naim has sent us a unique news report on the creation of Pakistan from the Nation datelined November 15, 1947 (Jinnah’s New Republic by Andrew Roth).

Amongst other things the report remarks on the nature of leadership in the new Pakistan:

With enormous problems, Pakistan has only a very ordinary set of leaders to cope with them. The brilliant Mr. Jinnah, of course, must be excepted, but he is over seventy and has been in poor health since a severe pneumonia attack two years ago. His voice can barely be heard ten feet away, and he chose to become governor general rather than premier partly because it was an easier post. He has repeatedly told subordinates, “I have done my part of the job; I’ve given you Pakistan. It is up to you to build it.”

Premier Liaqat Ali Khan is a competent administrator with the conservative social views of a typical feudal landlord and a strong belief in a political and economic alliance with Great Britain. He had to choose a man of technical ability for his Finance Minister but the other members of his Cabinet are all mediocrities. So farfetched was the appointment of the Calcutta hide merchant, Fazlur Rahman, as Minister of the Interior and Education that an old friend, seeing him in a front seat at the Independence Day celebrations, cried out, “You’re in the wrong row; that’s for the Cabinet!” Top officials are in the main from the landlord class, with a sprinkling of lawyers and merchants. The sole modern-minded industrialist in the dominion, Hassan Ispahani, is being sent out of the way as ambassador to the United States. Provincial officials are of the same kind: the Punjab Premier is the Khan of Mamdot, the province’s largest landholder.

Coincidentally, we were reading Ramachandra Guha’s new book (India after Gandhi) and came across this bit on page 22 about India’s first cabinet:

Apart from Prime Minister Nehru, it listed thirteen other ministers. These included the nationalist stalwarts Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, as well as four congressmen of the younger generation.

More notable perhaps were the names of those who were not from the Congress. These included two representatives of the world of commerce and one representative of the Sikhs. Three others were lifelong adversaries of the Congress. These were RK Shanmukham Chetty, a Madras businessman who was one of the best financial minds in India; BR Ambedkar, a brilliant legal scholar and an “untouchable” by caste; and Shayama Prasad Mookerjee, a leading Bengal politician who belonged (at this time) to the Hindu Mahasabha. All three had collaborated with the rulers while the congressmen served time in British jails. But now Nehru and his colleagues wisely put aside these differences. Gandhi had reminded them that “freedom comes to India, not to Congress,” urging the formation of a cabinet that included the ablest men regardless of party affiliation.

We will have more to say about this and will pick up on the evolution of leadership in the two countries at another time. For the moment, we jump ahead to take advantage of another coincidental find in a 2004 book by Strobe Talbott (Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb) in which he recounts his experience as President Clinton’s point person in the dialogue with the two subcontinental countries following the tit-for-tat nuclear explosions of 1998.

Here is how Strobe Talbott describes his comparative experiences (pages 105-106):

In general, our sessions with the Pakistanis, while occasionally more exciting than those with the Indians, lacked a comparable degree of intellectual engagement… While Jaswant [Singh’s] team was highly disciplined in every respect, some of Shamshad Ahmad’s colleagues tended to be querulous, surly, and sometimes abusive. On one occasion, early in our dealings, a member of the Pakistani delegation exploded at our observation that his country seemed always to react in knee-jerk fashion to Indian moves. He rose out of his chair and lunged across the table as though he were going to strangle either Bruce Reidel or me, depending on whose neck he could get his fingers around first. He had to be physically restrained.

For all these reasons, my team had to shift gears when we traveled from New Delhi to Islamabad. The danger with the Indians was that they would wear us down. They had their game plan and would stick with it, waiting for us to lose congressional support for the sanctions and give up on even the modest demands we were making with the benchmarks. 

The Pakistanis had no game plan. They always seemed to be either hunkering down, lashing out, or flailing about. 

Thus, it was apparent from the outset that the Indians were going to be hard to move, while the Pakistanis were going to be hard to help. 

Nothing much has changed since. 

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