Monday, 7 March 2011

Book Review: Tinderbox – The Past and Future of Pakistan by M. J. Akbar

Once in a rare while, one comes across a book which provides fresh insight into a highly debated topic that one is keenly interested in. M. J. Akbar’s most recent offering, ‘Tinderbox – The Past and Future of Pakistan’ is one of those books. The history of relations between the Sub-Continent’s Hindus and Muslims and the causes that led to the partition of British India is something that has always fascinated me, with a number of questions left unanswered. Tinderbox answers many of these questions better than any other I have read on this topic.

Tinderbox is split into three sections, one which covers the period from the advent of Turko-Afghan invaders in Northern India till the time the British replaced India’s Muslim rulers, the second stretches over period of British rule and the freedom movement and the third starts from the time of Partition and Independence and goes on till the present. Each of these sections is characterised by the same brevity and excellent analysis, interspersed with anecdotes, some funny, some well-known and many I hadn’t heard of, till I read this book.

Akbar does not waste a single word in his 313 page (excluding the notes) masterpiece. Each event is covered with a minimum of words and fuss and Akbar’s analyses, inferences and conclusions are set out in simple and fluid text. For me, one of the best things about Tinderbox was that I learnt so many things I didn’t have a clue about or hadn’t heard of before.

I had read about the Khilafat movement and possessed a rough idea of how Gandhi tried to use it to create unity between the Hindus and the Muslims. However, Akbar’s description of the Khilafat movement and the social background in India at that time shows the whole thing in a new light. I had no clue how deeply distressed Indian Muslims were by the Ottoman Empire’s losses in the First World War and the abolition of the Caliphate. For example, I did not know that “the presence of Bulgarian troops at the walls of Istanbul in 1912 shook Indian Muslims out of their establishmentarian mood. It was taken as axiomatic that Bulgaria was merely a pawn fronting for the European colonial powers.” Akbar quotes from Gandhi’s autobiography to explain that from his South African experience, Gandhi knew that “there was no genuine friendship between the Hindus and the Mussalmans.” So Gandhi launched the Khilafat movement to create friendship between the two communities. Indian Muslims didn’t really believe in non-violence, but such was Gandhi’s appeal that they handed over leadership of the ‘jihad’ to him, the first time any jihad was headed by a non-Muslim. Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement was initially a great success and some of the stories associated with it are really eye-popping. The most interesting aspect of the Khilafat movement was how, just as Indian Muslims were clamouring for the Caliphate, the Arabs started to fight the Turks and the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, started a revolt against the Caliph. Later Sherif Hussein would be overthrown by Abul Aziz Ibn Saud. Two years after Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement (after the Chauri Chaura incident), Kemal Pasha, the new ruler of Turkey, abolished the Caliphate on 3 March 1924!

We all know that Mahatma Gandhi was a brilliant politician and strategist. However, how many people know that the Mahatma resorted to a gimmick that is straight out of a marketing text book to coin the word ‘satyagraha’? In South Africa, Gandhi had used the phrase ‘passive resistance’ to define his non-violent agitation. In India, the Mahatma wanted a better word and he offered a nominal prize to the readers of his journal ‘Indian Opinion’ to define in a single word what he was doing. The word ‘sadagraha’ came up and the Mahatma modified it to ‘satyagraha’, since it’s easier off the tongue!

Here’s another interesting anecdote. When Jinnah wanted to ask Sir Dinshaw Manockjee Petit for his beautiful sixteen year old daughter Ratanbai’s (Ruttie) hand in marriage, he started off by asking Sir Dinshaw what he thought of inter-communal marriages. Sir Dinshaw said “he thought it was a splendid idea and would considerably help national integration. Jinnah calmly asked for Ruttie’s hand. Sir Dinshaw went apoplectic, dismissed the idea as absurd and fantastic and took out a high court injunction against the marriage….” Do read this book for fuller details. Trust me, some of the stories associated with Jinnah’s courtship and marriage are really straight from a 1940s Hollywood movie.

There are comparisons galore of personalities who have a lot in common, but turned out to be very different in ideology. For example, comparing Azad with Jinnah, Akbar notes that Azad hailed from a family of scholars, was born in Mecca to an Arab father and was very knowledgeable about Islam and the Koran. Jinnah on the other hand was not a practicing Muslim and had only a perfunctory knowledge of his religion. Jinnah ended up as the leader of Pakistan, while Azad opposed Partition and became a minister in Nehru’s cabinet after independence. The comparison between Gandhi and Kemal Pasha is equally revealing. The impact of personalities like Syed Ahmad Khan, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, the Ali brothers (Muhammad and Shaukat), Savarkar and Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi is put in perspective with a succinct description of their personal backgrounds. In particular, I found Sir Syed’s life story very engrossing. A man whose family suffered so much hardship at the hands of the British after the 1857 revolt, went out of his way to court the British and persuade Indian Muslims to adopt British education. The college he founded for that purpose later became the Aligarh University and many of the leading proponents of Pakistan were its alumni.

One of the best bits about Tinderbox (and there are so many very good bits) is the description of important battles such as the battle between Prithviraj Chauhan and Muhammad Ghori, the third battle of Panipat where Abdali’s troops defeated the Marathas, the Battle of Plassey etc. Akbar doesn’t take up much space, but does bring those battle scenes alive. The 194-48 wars over Kashmir and Nehru’s decision to refer the matter to the UN receive blow by blow attention. According to Akbar, it was Mountbatten’s idea to refer the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations and Nehru was forced to go along since he could not afford to confront his Governor General.

Was British rule good for India? Akbar makes it clear that the British were in India only to take away its wealth. The various famines in Bengal, caused by harsh tax levies, are a testament to this predation.

It is difficult to say which of the three sections in Tinderbox is the best. However, because the third section ends with present day Pakistan, I found it so much more engrossing. What’s the reason behind naming Pakistan’s missiles Ghazni, Gauri, Babur, Abdali? Why isn’t there a missile named Akbar? Why do Pakistan’s history books assume that Pakistan’s history began with the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qassim in 712? Why is Pakistan’s heritage of world famous civilizations in Mohenjadaro and Harappa and the University at Taxila ignored? Why are Ahmadiyas persecuted in Pakistan which does not consider them to be Muslims? Akbar has answers for all these questions. Please do read this fascinating book to find out for yourself.

Akbar tells us that Alauddin Khilji (1296 – 1316), one of the most successful non-Mughal Islamic rulers India has ever had, believed in keeping religion and affairs of the State separate. He kept his ulema at bay and did not let them interfere in State matters. However, Pakistan’s rulers have not been able to follow this practice. Jinnah had, at the start of his political career, opposed separate electorates for Muslims. He was also opposed to the partition of Bengal. Very angliscised, he once sought to stand for Labour at a Yorkshire constituency, but the selection committee found him to be too much of a ‘toff’. Jinnah, by all accounts, did not want to create a theocracy. Having confused religion with nationality, he only wanted a homeland where Muslims would be in a majority and assumed that he could keep the fundamentalists at bay with platitudes.

Islam was not a Maududist enterprise for every Pakistani, but even liberal Pakistanis found it difficult to offer a national identity without Islam, although experience suggested that it was an inadequate glue for nationalism”. Starting with rulers like Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan ("who rather overdid the alcohol in his diet" and would lecture Sheikh Mujibur Rehman on the need to work jointly for the glory of Islam, scotch in hand) and Zulfikar Bhutto, the concessions given to Islamic fundamentalists kept increasing, but they kept asking for more. After Zia ul Haq came to power, Maududi and the Jamaat e Islami stopped fighting the Pakistani government since Zia ul Haq was ‘one of them’. The Afghan campaign against the Soviets gave Zia a good excuse to create and strengthen proxies for future battles in Kashmir, where the Hizbul Mujahiddin would eventually marginalise the relatively secular JKLF.

Akbar says that fears of Pakistan’s disintegration are highly exaggerated. “Driven by the compulsions of an ideological strand in its DNA, damaged by the inadequacies of those who could have kept the nation loyal to Jinnah’s dream of a secular Muslim majority nation, Pakistan is in danger of turning into a toxic ‘jelly state’, a quivering country that will neither collapse nor stabilize.”

Altaf Hussain, the founder and leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement, said in June 2009 that “partition was a mistake because it split and thereby weakened the Muslims of the subcontinent”. Though Akbar does not say so in as many words, there is little doubt that he too feels that Partition was a big mistake and a loss for the Muslims of the Sub-Continent.

A brilliant book which is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the Sub-Continent’s past and more importantly its future.

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