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Akbarnama on Pakistan

RASHEEDA BHAGAT
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Tinderbox - the Past and Future of Pakistan By M.J. Akbar
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Business Line Tinderbox - the Past and Future of Pakistan By M.J. Akbar Price: Rs 499

For reasons obvious enough, M.J. Akbar's Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan (Harper Collins) is unlikely to get the warm reception Jaswant Singh's book on M.A. Jinnah got its author in Pakistan.

Though it's a great narration and analyses of events that created Pakistan in the name of Islam, read this book much more for the pre-Partition events to gain an understanding into the Muslim mind which so vehemently rejected Gandhi and his assurances after placing implicit faith in him.

Under Akbar's engaging style and sharp eye, yesteryear's leaders come alive in brilliant colours, with the greys highlighted with a masterly touch. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, “aristocrat by temperament, catholic in taste, British in manners, reserved by preference, was the unlikeliest parent” of an Islamic republic. “He broke every convention, ignored the dress code of beard and pyjama, preferring a cosmopolitan wardrobe of what grew to 200 well-cut suits.”

Jinnah's vivid portrait

As in any India-Pak narrative, the most colourful figure here too is Jinnah. He spoke English, did not, or could not, use Quranic quotes to impress Muslim audiences, and had for hero Turkey's Kemal Ataturk, who abolished the Ottoman Caliphate and separated religion from State. In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi believed that “politics without religion was immoral, and pandered to the Indian need for a religious identity. Privately critical of the ‘Mahatma' title, publicly he never disowned it.” Colourful anecdotes are skilfully sewn into the fabric of the book to give relief from the tediousness of dates and numbers, without which, alas, history can't be recorded. So Jinnah hosts a noon banquet for Lord Mountbatten on August 14, 1947, when Pakistan was founded, while the masses had been fasting for weeks! But, ironically, “the man who had little religion, divided India in the name of religion”.

India and Pakistan moved on divergent arcs, because, says Akbar, “the idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani.” Against India's four solid principles of “modernity, democracy, secularism, gender equality and free speech”, Pakistan went in a different direction, where “faith became the basis of nationalism”. It slowly “slipped towards a confused polity in which theocratic urges were patched onto the legislative framework”. And yet, religion failed to keep Pakistan united; in 1971 “cultural identity proved more powerful than Islamic cohesion.”

‘Bania cunning'

Pakistan was born out of the thesis that “Hindus and Muslims could never live together as equals in a single nation, a thesis sustained by nostalgia for the past and fear of the future,” argues the author. “Hindu tyranny” was touted and Gandhi's secularism was dismissed as ‘bania' cunning. The archetypical Hindu, in the Muslim League's lexicon, was summed up thus: ‘Bagal mein chhuri, munh mein Ram (Ram on the lips but a knife under his arm). The sly Hindu, went the logic, would take revenge for past Muslim dominance by keeping Muslims in permanent subservience, and would obliterate Islam from the subcontinent.

Such logic, argues Akbar, locked Muslims into a “minority complex”, while the Muslim elite, a coalition of landlords, professionals, quasi-nobility and businessmen, had its own agenda — “to exercise power without interference or competition from Hindus, and retain its traditional privileges without challenge from socialists like Jawaharlal”.

Interestingly, just like the Jinnah of Jaswant Singh, and before him L.K. Advani, Akbar's Jinnah too comes out handsomely in this book. Against the popular Indian — particularly saffron — depiction of Jinnah as a monster, this Jinnah is different. His famous “icy reserve” broke down only twice in public, at the funeral of his young and estranged wife, Ruttie, in 1929 and after the anti-Hindu riots in Pakistan when he visited a Hindu refugee camp in Karachi in January 1948. He told an aide bitterly, “They used to call me Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader) but now they call me Qatil-e-Azam (the Great Killer).

Akbar argues that despite his utterances against theocracy Jinnah did not fully understand the theocratic forces that would claim Pakistan. He believed that ties of travel, trade and investment between India and Pakistan would remain unaffected. Despite being elevated to the stature of a “demigod in official propaganda after his death, his views were slowly erased from public perception and discourse.” Some of his famous speeches against theocracy or how Hindus would be free to go to their temples, and how or where people worshipped wouldn't concern the State have “become more famous outside Pakistan than in it.”

In 1948 Jinnah died; too late for those who wanted a united India, but too early “for those who sought a secular Pakistan.”

Pakistan's Godfather

Jinnah's antithesis, a powerful intellectual and ideologue, Maulana Maududi founded the Jammat-e-Islami, as well as Islamic fundamentalism — “or better put, the Islamist movement — in South Asia. This Godfather's prime concern was that Islam and Islamic society should be able to withstand its increasingly corrosive encounter with the West.” Westernised leaders such as Liaquat Ali Khan (first Prime Minister) were against him and warned civil servants against joining the Jamaat, banned its publications and arrested its leaders but the Maulana had his support base.

Pakistan's first military ruler, Ayub Khan, disliked Maududi. In childhood, he had slapped a bearded maulvi, ending his learning of the Quran. Ayub dismissed the mullahs as enemies of modern education and regretted the conversion of Islam from a “dynamic and progressive movement” into dogmatism.

When an Islamic scholar with liberal views was attacked by mullahs, Ayub Khan wrote how new interpretations of Islam had no place in this “priest ridden and ignorant society. These people will not allow Islam to become a vehicle of progress. What will be the future of such an Islam in the age of reason and science is not difficult to predict”.

Akbar's comment: “In the context of what happened to Pakistan in the next three decades, these sentences need to be heavily unlined.”

Despite their personal lifestyles, Ayub Khan, who had “fantasised about flying the flag of Pakistan over Srinagar in 1965”, and Yahya Khan, who “overdid alcohol in his diet”, didn't challenge the central place of Islam in Pakistan's identity, but were not willing to “hand over Islam to the mullah”.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who came to power after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 and was “Western in his personal preferences and Eastern in his public persona”, walked the “Islamic” path, pursuing funds from oil-rich Muslim nations.

But in 1977, when he got into trouble for rigging elections to defeat the coalition of religious parties, Bhutto tried to buy his way out by banning nightclubs, gambling and liquor. Says Akbar: “The interesting fact is that such pleasures were legal in the Islamic Republic till then”!

God's General

Alas, Bhutto's most important contribution to Pakistan's Islamisation was “inadvertent” — appointing Zia ul Haq as army chief in 1976. In 1977, through a military coup, he became “God's General”, confident that “Allah had sent him to claim Pakistan for Allah”. He declared he'd remain in power till Allah wanted. His death in 1988 in a mysterious air crash has also been attributed “to divine intervention”, says the author.

During his reign the Jamaat “became the standard-bearer of moral values” and Pakistan the “international headquarters of Islamist movements as the length of visas became commensurate with the length of beards”. Worse followed when the law of evidence was amended to deny women equality through Hudood (crimes listed in the Quran) laws, leading to atrocious trials and judgements in crimes against women.

Atrocious gender concepts of clerics claiming Allah wouldn't accept the prayers of a woman who had angered her husband; the devil accompanied a woman the moment she stepped out of her house; women shouldn't appear even before a blind stranger; and similar nonsense were reflected “in the social and legal norms” adopted under Zia's rule.

Export of jihad

But “exporting jihad” to Kashmir began much earlier, when Liaquat Ali approved funds and weapons for the invasion of Kashmir by 2,000 tribesmen in October 1947. Their behaviour was atrocious in both “human and military terms”. Having entered Baramulla they could have “continued to a defenceless capital” just 35 miles away but got busy looting, raping women and killing. What followed, including the plebiscite bit, is well known, but what remains “inexplicable” is Nehru accepting ceasefire when the Indian army had the advantage and could have gained more territory. “It is generally believed that the reference to the UN was Nehru's worst blunder; the Indian army believes, although it is too disciplined to say so publicly, that the ceasefire was a colossal mistake.”

Taliban era

The 1990s were dominated by the Taliban, “created in Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan, by Benazir Bhutto, who once described the Taliban as “my children”, put the Taliban amir, Mullah Omer, into the field to halt spiralling chaos and bring Kabul into Islamabad's fold.” The Taliban advanced in Afghanistan in 1994, fortified by Pakistani weapons. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari made a candid confession when he said in July 2009 that militants and extremists were “deliberately created and nurtured for short-term tactical objectives. Let's be truthful, the terrorists of today were heroes of yesteryear(s) until 9/11 occurred.”

Akbar argues that fears of Pakistan's “disintegration are highly exaggerated” and agrees with the theory of the “slow-burning fuse” of religious extremism rather than a collapse. George W. Bush attacked Iraq in 2003 to “eliminate nuclear weapons, dictatorship and terrorists… he would have found all three in Pakistan, including a champion proliferator in Dr A.Q. Khan.” But the single-most outstanding feature of this book is the manner in which it dives deep into the Muslim psyche, not 10, 20 or 50 years before the Partition but from Mughal India and even earlier. To get an insight into the anger, desolation, depression, desperation, suspicion and insecurity of a class that turned from rulers to subjects, read this book. Akbar is an excellent narrator of history; but his razor-sharp and bang-on analysis of the changing Indian Muslim mindset from Mughal to modern India is nothing short of brilliant.

(This article was published on January 27, 2011)
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