Tenderbox Not Tinderbox

Mani Shankar Aiyar, a diplomat turned politician, is a former Union minister and an author of several books
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For all its contemporary woes and tortured history recounted in MJ Akbar’s new book, Pakistan is not about to fall apart

MJ Akbar’s Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan was reviewed in London’s The Economist within days of its publication in India. It is difficult enough for British authors and publishers to worm their way into the review pages of The Economist;  for an Indian author and publisher to do so on the morrow of publication is testimony indeed to Akbar’s high international reputation as much as the international importance of his latest offering. Patrick French’s India: A Portrait—An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People occupies the same space as Akbar’s book in the same issue of The Economist, underlining not only the world’s interest in India, but also the world’s concern about Pakistan.

The tribute to Akbar is richly deserved. He combines the outstanding journalist’s ability to turn the dense jargon of historiography into epigrams worthy of Oscar Wilde with the true scholar’s ability to cut through dry academics missing the wood for the trees to lucidly convey detailed information through an easy, entertaining read. I doubt that anyone picking up Akbar’s book would fail to zip through it in a reading or two. I would advise the reader to go slow and savour both his prose and perception. This is a book that takes its place of honour on any good shelf of books on Pakistan—my personal collection being, I believe, a reflection of my magnificent obsession with that country in the 33 years since I served there and the numerous visits I have since made (five in the past year).

For, I am persuaded that whatever might be the justification for, or faulting of, the thought and actions that created Pakistan, rump India will never be able to consolidate its own nationhood, of which secularism is the bonding adhesive, or effectively counter regional terrorism, whose home lies in Pakistan, or take its due place on the international stage, unless it first sets its house in order on the Subcontinent. And to do so means neither denigrating nor condemning Pakistan, but understanding its whys and wherefores. There could be few better introductions to the existential reality of Pakistan than Akbar’s book, although I would commend it in conjunction with others: Dr Farzana Shaikh’s little masterpiece Making Sense of Pakistan (Hurst & Co, UK, 2009) and Sherbaz Mazari’s heartbreaking memoir A Journey to Disillusionment (OUP, 1997).

Akbar is on firm ground in dealing with the past and present of Pakistan. But the future is, as Shakespeare might have said, a bourn from which no traveller returns. I would, therefore, have preferred the subtitle, The Past and Present of Pakistan, but as Akbar has ventured into the future too, let us discuss his forebodings after first examining his assessment of the past and present of that deeply troubled country.

Akbar begins his search for Pakistan’s present roots, as is only to be expected, in Mohammad bin Qassim’s capture of Sind in AD 711-712, and carries the story felicitously through to the deposition of the last Mughal Emperor in 1858 by way of Nadir Shah’s invasion of 1739 which signalled the crumbling of that once-mighty empire. He attributes the spiritual beginnings of Pakistan to the bewilderment felt by the Muslim elite at the coming collapse of what they had been led to believe was an impregnable fortress of Muslim political domination, invoking the 18th century Sunni theologian Shah Waliullah (1703–62), who ascribed the collapse to the Muslim community’s drifting away from strict observance of Quranic injunctions, as well as his disciple, Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi (1786–1831), who raised the flag of fundamentalist religious revival (or jihad), especially among the Muslim underclass, against the Sikh domination by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore and much of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan (‘Raj karega Khalsa’), as important influences before creeping ‘infidel’ British/Christian power led to the final denouement of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s exile to his Rangoon grave and Hodson’s merciless elimination of the Mughal line. ‘The confidence of the Muslim elite dropped from a heightened sense of superiority to a tortured collapse of self-confidence,’ writes Akbar (page 82). It is potted history, but accurate nevertheless. There are, however, two important conclusions to be drawn from this history for Akbar’s larger purposes that the author does not draw. 

Akbar does, of course, make the pertinent point that so long as the Muslim elite were in political power they never considered themselves a ‘minority’ although they were always a numerical minority because, as Akbar says, the sense of being a minority is not a function of elementary arithmetic but of the reality of the power structure: ‘Numbers, which had seemed irrelevant during the high noon of power, now became the focal point of despair.’ (Page 82) The ‘minority’ complex was a post-1857 mindset brought about by the loss of power and apprehension that if ever the sun were to set on the British Empire, the numerical majority of Hindus would prevail over Muslims in any post-colonial world order.

True enough, but I do think one also needs to understand the complexities and contradictions of the Indian Muslim mindset in terms of two other critically significant India-specific factors in the astonishing rise of Muslims from the Arabian desert to their conquest of much of the known world, westwards through all Arab lands and North Africa, and then across the Straits of Gibraltar into Iberia, where the Empire of Andalus was established for half a millennium, as well as eastwards right across Persia, Central Asia and the South Asian Subcontinent through the Malaysian Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago to distant South Philippines.

The India-specific element of this story is that unlike the history of Muslim conquest everywhere else, where Muslims were either totally victorious or totally defeated, in our Subcontinent alone was there neither total victory nor total defeat. A large part of the ruling establishment was always drawn from the ‘majority’ community, most notably in the heyday of our author’s namesake but also including Aurangzeb’s principal military general, the Rajput, Jaswant Singh (no relation, as far as I know!). And even the beginnings of the Delhi Sultanate owe a great deal to VP Singh’s ancestor Raja Jai Chand having invited Mohammad Ghori to join him in chastising his son-in-law, Prithviraj Chauhan. At no point in the 1,100 years from Mohammad bin Qassim to Bahadur Shah Zafar did we have exclusively Muslim rule, but Muslim-Hindu partnership, albeit among unequals, in the ruling establishment.

Second, the spread of Islam in India had little to do with the sword of Islam and much more to do with the ideological appeal of musawat (equality) for those suffering the grinding oppression of the caste system which was endemic to Hindu social and ritual practices. Mohammad bin Qassim left Sind within six months, instructing his satraps to not interfere with the religious practices of the vanquished so long as they paid their taxes (reference his inscription at Alore on the left bank of the Indus, opposite Sukkur, where he built North India’s first mosque). For 185 years thereafter, bar one invasion of Multan, the Message of the Prophet was carried by Islamic preachers rather than armed horsemen. There then followed a brief but bitter interregnum, from Subuktgin forcing the Kabul Pass in AD 997 to his son Mahmud of Ghazni’s repeated and vicious forays into India till 1026, but thereafter outside military interference ceases for 166 years till Ghori captures Delhi in 1192. Thus, for nearly 500 years, from AD 712 to 1192, it is not political or military power but moral and spiritual power that converts Hindus, although always a minority of Hindus, to Islam.

Even more instructively, through the 666 years from 1192 to 1858, when Muslims and Muslims alone sat on the throne of Delhi, such a small part of the subject population adopted or were made to adopt the religion of the ruling class that, as Akbar points out (page 89), the first census of 1872 reported that under a fifth of Indians had taken to the religion of the Muslim ruling class. Nowhere else in the world did centuries of Muslim rule leave Muslims in such a small minority. 

It is thus in the Indian Subcontinent that Islam learned to co-exist with other religions. And this profoundly impacted not only the Hindu mindset through the Bhakti Movement, but so significantly also the Indian Muslim mindset that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the doyen of Aligarh, often considered the intellectual progenitor of Pakistan (in Pakistan), is quoted by Akbar as saying in a famous speech in 1883: “India is home to both of us. We both breathe the same air and take the water of the holy (!) Ganges and Jamuna.” (Page 90)

The exclamation mark is mine. There is no Quranic injunction that makes the waters of the Ganges holy. That is a deeply held Hindu belief. And yet the expression trips so lightly off the lips of a Muslim grandee a thousand years after the advent of Islam on the Subcontinent that one must pause to appreciate the profound impact of the composite intellectual and spiritual traditions of our country, significantly called in Urdu the Ganga-Jamuna tehzib, on both the Hindu and the Muslim mindset—the uniquely Indian synthesis that evolved not in the aftermath of India being declared a secular republic but over a millennium and more of the Hindu-Muslim encounter. It accounts for the ambiguities and inconsistencies, retreats and advances, clarifications and contradictions, in the meandering and tortured course that led from an idea’s early beginnings to the creation of Pakistan half a century later.

For there is no historical determinism, no inevitability, nothing ineluctable, and no direct line of descent from Shah Waliullah’s theological reflections in the 18th century to the creation of Pakistan in the 20th. That historic event was not the outcome of the Muslim being fundamentalist and inherently separatist, as is often portrayed in India, but of the rise of the politics of minorityism under British rule which characterised both the Hindu minority in the Muslim-majority provinces and, progressively over time, the Muslim minority in Hindu-majority provinces. MJ Akbar’s potted history does refer to the politics and polemics of Hindu minority Congress leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal in Muslim-majority Bengal, Lala Lajpat Rai in Muslim-majority Punjab and Jairamdas Daulatram in Muslim-majority Sind, but does not, I think, adequately link Hindu minorityism engendered by Britain’s divide-and-rule policies, especially Curzon’s division of Bengal on communal lines and the propagation of separate electorates, to the eventual rise of minorityism in the narrative of Muslim politics in undivided India in the decade of the Furious Forties. Of course, the British could not have divided and ruled if the two communities were not only too willing to be divided. If, however, there had been no politics of separation fostered by the British, the converging tendencies of the two communities, evidenced over a thousand years prior to colonial rule, to live and let live, would have sensibly prevailed.

I hope Akbar in the next edition of his valuable work will dwell at least as much on minority politics among the Hindu minorities as on minority politics among the Muslim minorities in British India, because that would bring out the reality that centrifugal forces were not characteristic of Muslim politics till the 1940s, as also the fact that Hindu politicians’ fears of Muslim domination in Hindu-minority provinces presaged and preceded Muslim separatism. Hence, Motilal Nehru writing to his son, Jawaharlal, still a student in the United Kingdom, as early as 1908: ‘Many a Congressman is a communalist under his nationalist cloak.’ (pages 106–107). Hence too Lala Lajpat Rai arguing as early as 1909, decades before Jinnah made the ‘two-nation theory’ the dogma of the Muslim League, that “there can be no doubt that Hindus are a ‘nation’ in themselves because they represent a civilisation all their own”; and Savarkar invoking ‘Hindutva’, a term he invented and himself translated as ‘Hindudom’, a counterpart, as he explained, for ‘Christendom’ (pages 179–180).

In this context of minorityism, it is also important to emphasise that, rather than religious belief being the harbinger of Pakistan, even as the Muslim aristocracy was reacting with alarm to the prospect of a democracy of brute numbers, the most important school of Islamic theology in the Subcontinent, Deoband, ‘welcomed the birth of the Congress in 1885 through a fatwa from Maulana Rashid Ahmed Gangohi, its sarparast or guide-superintendent at that time, which, using the Prophet’s alliance with non-Muslims in Medina as a template, judged that it was acceptable for Muslims to cooperate with Hindus to win concessions from the British. This would be the Deoband line till and beyond the formation of Pakistan in 1947. (Page 96)

Ironically, the Pakistani ‘Deobandi’ of today has become, in Pakistan, synonymous with religious extremism and even terror, but the ulema of Deoband in India continue to be secular, democratic and firmly against fundamentalist terror, as seen in their 2008-09 fatwa against terrorism in the name of Islam. It is politics, not religion, which accounted for the divide between the custodians of Islam as a theology and the propagators of the political slogan of ‘Islam in danger’. Although this became the predominant discourse of Muslim politics in the decade after the 1937 elections, it is entirely significant that Islam was not mentioned in the ‘seminal’ Lahore resolution of 1940. (page 225) That is why the aam Mussalman of India and the aam Mussalman of Pakistan bear no animus against Hindus/Indians and are the most ardent in their desire for an end to the idle and increasingly dangerous confrontation between the political elite of the two countries.

It is the fact of the Indian Muslim community being more Indian than Muslim at the turn of the 19th century that accounts for so few Muslims having favoured the widening of the wedge between the two communities that the British had to drive in to sponsor Muslim separatism and provide the ballast for their divide-and-rule policies. Separatism was never a natural growth of the soil of India. It is this that accounts for both those who favoured one India and those who favoured two nations being able to quote the same Sir Syed at different times, and the long gestation that followed the first articulation of Muslim minority apprehensions in the last quarter of the 19th century to its slow and halting transformation nearly 50 years later into the demand for Pakistan. It also accounts for the passion with which many of the best Muslim minds strove to maintain the unity of India until, almost reluctantly, they went over to the separatist camp decades later.

One evidence of this is Akbar’s now amusing quote from the 1906 memorial presented to the Viceroy by the Aga Khan and his 35 ‘undersigned nobles, jagirdars, taluqdars, zamindars, merchants and others.’ (Page 107) Jinnah refused to join this group of self-serving feudals. Akbar tellingly recalls the Aga Khan’s complaint that Mohammad Ali Jinnah is “our doughtiest opponent” who holds that “our principle of separate electorates was dividing the nation against itself”. (Page 109) Remarkable, is it not, that no more than 35 puffed-up grandees, could—or wished to—be found in a community of some 90 million to petition the colonial authority? And that none less than the Quaid-e-Azam-to-be had underlined India as not two nations but one nation which must not be divided against itself if Indians were to gain freedom? Indeed, even years after his differences with Jinnah had become the rift valley of Indian politics, Mahatma Gandhi stressed: “I agree with Mr. Jinnah that Hindu-Muslim unity means swaraj.” (Page 175)

That brings us to the central dilemma of the central character in MJ Akbar’s book, the Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. For three long decades, from the closing years of the 19th century to the mid-1930s, Jinnah was the ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’. And immediately on attaining Pakistan, he outlined a secular vision for his creation in words that ‘could have been spoken in the Indian constituent assembly’: “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 caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state… Make no mistake, Pakistan is not a theocracy or anything like it.” (Inaugural Address to the Pakistan constituent assembly, 11 August 1947, quoted on page 225)

So we have a Jinnah who is not only the epitome of secularism for all his years till about 1937, but then, apparently, again an ardent secularist ten years later in 1947 as Pakistan’s first Governor-General. It is not just his 11 August 1947 Inaugural Address to the Pakistan constituent assembly (that has transported Lal Krishna Advani and Jaswant Singh into grovelling admiration of the Great Leader’s secular credentials), but also his holding of a luncheon banquet for the Viceroy in the middle of Ramzan to signal the birth of Pakistan (page 101); participating in a celebratory Christian mass at independence; appointing a Hindu, Joginder Nath Mandal, as Pakistan’s interim Head of State before he himself took over; and adopting Jagannath Azad’s lyrics as Pakistan’s first national anthem; as also the tears he shed on 7 January 1948 at the site of a massacre of Hindus and Sikhs in Karachi’s main gurdwara where he bemoaned his transformation from the Quaid-e-Azam to the ‘Qatil-e-Azam’. (Pages 225–226).

Then what happened to turn the secular Jinnah of the first 60 years of his life into the ‘aberrant Jinnah’, as I would call the Sole Spokesman of the decade from about 1937 to 1947, and then back again into a proponent of secularism once Pakistan was attained?

Perhaps it was his increasing despair at trying to bring the Congress and Muslim League onto a single nationalist platform. He tried at first to secure this by abandoning his opposition to separate electorates by persuading the Congress to abandon its opposition to separate electorates at the simultaneous but separate sessions of the two parties at Lucknow in 1916. That was, at the time, the apogee of his political achievement. But the communal hatred and violence which the practice of separate electorates unleashed in the 1920s pushed Jinnah back to an espousal of joint electorates in his last—and futile—attempt to bring about a rapprochement through the Delhi Pact of 1927-28 which he had drafted with Motilal Nehru and Tej Bahadur Sapru as native India’s response to the all-British Simon Commission which had been appointed to consider the future constitutional development of India. As late as December 1928, addressing the Muslim League in Calcutta at a session convened in the same city at the same time as the Congress session there, and deliberately aimed at recreating the atmosphere of Lucknow 1916, Jinnah pleaded, “Believe me, there is no progress for India until Mussalmans and Hindus are united.” (Page 183)

He only ended up dividing the League, with Muhammad Shafi and Fazl-i-Hasan walking out on him, which so weakened the party that its 1929 session in Mumbai could not be held because they could not gather even the required quorum of 75 persons, as the renowned Indian historian, Professor Mushir-ul-Hasan, has often highlighted. Perhaps because Gandhiji realised that Jinnah had by the late 1920s come to represent few but himself, but more probably because of the Mahatma’s preoccupation at the Congress annual plenary in Calcutta of December 1928 with reconciling Father and Son Nehru who had parted ways over the question of Dominion status or Purna Swaraj, Mahatma Gandhi did little to push for plenary Congress endorsement of the Delhi Pact, which had become something of a political football between Congress politicians from the Muslim-majority provinces and League politicians from the Hindu-majority provinces. As Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhiji’s grandson, laughingly points out in his utterly outstanding book Understanding the Muslim Mind, Muhammad Ali, Gandhiji’s much-disillusioned companion-in-arms in the first satyagraha, combined both his favourite prejudices in a single sentence when he denounced Gandhi at the League session in Calcutta over his non-endorsement of the Delhi Pact as “You are a bania; you are a Jew.”

The Jinnah-Motilal-Sapru initiative came unstuck over what now seems now a tragically small difference. As against a population share of some 26 per cent, the Delhi Pact provided for 33 per cent reservation in the Central Legislature for Muslims in exchange for the League abandoning separate electorates in favour of joint electorates. As Akbar remarks, this was remarkably similar to the deal which Gandhiji was to make in 1932 with Dr Ambedkar to drop Ramsay MacDonald’s Communal Award, which provided for separate electorates for ‘Depressed Classes’, in exchange for reservations in proportion to population for Depressed Classes in the Legislatures (page 193). Akbar does not, however, add that while the Yeravda Pact was based on reservations in conformity with population share, as had been provided in the Delhi Pact for minorities in the provincial legislatures, the reservation for Muslims in the Central legislature provided for in the Delhi Pact was some 7 per cent higher than the population share of Muslims. This small difference—small in relation to the immense tragedy of Partition that was to follow the repudiation of the Delhi Pact—altered the course of India’s history.

No historian I know of, not even MJ Akbar, has been able to satisfactorily explain the reasons for this missed golden opportunity to bring the Congress and Muslim League on to a common nationalist platform. I am only guessing that the Mahatma sensed Jinnah’s isolation within the Muslim League. Jawaharlal Nehru barely mentions the Delhi Pact in his autobiography. There is virtually nothing in Tendulkar’s Collected Works or BR Nanda’s biographies. One has to turn to Mushir-ul-Hasan and Jaswant Singh for a detailed recounting of the sad story of Jinnah’s last secular nationalist initiative, but neither offers a real answer to the Mahatma’s indifference to, and the Party’s hostility to, a Pact that had after all been crafted by none less than the Congress President for 1928, Motilal Nehru. Perhaps it was because 40-year old Jawaharlal represented the new mood of the Freedom Movement with his insistent call for Purna Swaraj that rendered both Motilal and Sapru, in the Congress and Liberal camps respectively, as irrelevant to the national ethos, as Jinnah himself had become in his corner.

Disillusioned with Mahatma Gandhi not having persuaded the Congress plenary to endorse the Delhi Pact which even the All-India Congress Committee had approved the previous year, and depressed even more at the plummeting of the Muslim League’s fortunes even in the Muslim politics of the country, Jinnah left India and politics in 1930 for residence in England. But destiny was conspiring to bring him back as the Quaid-e-Azam. The same year, Chaudhry Rahmat Ali Khan at Cambridge coined the name Pakistan, and the poet Allama Iqbal, invited to chair a League session, dynamised the whole movement by speaking of the future of Islam in the context of sovereignty. Although the Lahore resolution of 1940 does not mention Islam, it was when Jinnah stoked fears for the future of Islam in justifying the demand for Pakistan that it became a mass movement and Jinnah the Quaid-e-Azam.

The Jinnah who returned to India in 1935, after five years of self-imposed exile, was a man transformed. Hell hath no fury like a Quaid-e-Azam scorned. Abandoning all pretence at reconciling the two communities and finding common ground in their war against imperialism, Jinnah also abandoned both restraint and precision in language that had been his hallmark before departing for foreign shores. He became the polemicist and demagogue of the alternative narrative of India’s history and civilisation: that Hindus and Muslims constituted irreconcilable nations, not communities, who could not be artificially yoked to one Nation State. He thundered to his Muslim audiences that the Hindu Congress in an independent India would “bully you, tyrannise you and intimidate you”, that Gandhi’s “ideal is to revive the Hindu religion and establish Hindu Raj in this country”, that the Congress “is determined, absolutely determined, to crush all other communities and culture” and that “if you do not vote for Pakistan… Islam will be vanquished from India. I will never allow Muslims to be slaves of Hindus”. He added that the Pakistan constituent assembly would ensure that “Muslims will no longer be obliged to abide by unIslamic laws.” (Pages 220–221).

Under Jinnah Redux, ‘Islam and Sharia came back into play’ (page 220). This was the same Jinnah who had walked out on Gandhi when the latter leveraged Muslim apprehensions over the future of the Khilafat to launch the first (and last) all-community Civil Disobedience and Non-Cooperation Movement. Jinnah’s objections were two-fold: that by bringing religion into politics, Gandhi was lighting a tinderbox; and that by taking the Freedom Movement onto the streets, he was surrendering the movement to the uncontrollable masses and abandoning the decencies of civilised discourse.

Many Pakistanis (and not a few Indian scholars) argue that the Jinnah of 1937–47 was only paying Gandhi back in his own coin. Perhaps the most controversial sentence in Akbar’s book is: ‘Mahatma Gandhi believed that politics without religion was immoral, and pandered to the Indian need for religious identity.’ (Page 101) It could be argued that Jinnah Returned was doing the same, and that it is for this very reason that the much-neglected Jinnah of the 1920s emerged as the Quaid-e-Azam once he adopted the ‘Gandhian’ way. 

He was not doing the ‘same’ as Gandhi. He was doing the very opposite. For when Gandhiji maintained, as he consistently did through his long political life, that politics without religion was immoral, he was not referring to any one religion exclusively but to all religions inclusively, which he held to have the same or similar moral values. He was not promoting religious frenzy but religious harmony. He was also not arguing for linking any one religion to politics but all religions to all politics. To consider the religious inclusiveness of Mahatma Gandhi the same as the religious exclusiveness of the Sole Spokesman is to miss not only the profundity and subtlety of Gandhiji championing religious solidarity as the road to liberation, but also to fail to understand the root cause of his profound influence over the votaries of both Hindu and non-Hindu religions that he demonstrated in his finest hour at Noakhali, Bihar, Calcutta and Delhi at the height of the communal frenzy of 1946–47, and of his role as “the One-Man Boundary Force”, as Mountbatten was to call him. And to describe Gandhiji’s espousal of moral values emanating from religion—all religions—in political thought and action as ‘pandering’ to ‘the Indian need for religious identity’ is not only incorrect, it is offensive.

Gandhiji was concerned with including all religions in the forging of a single nationhood; Jinnah with the mutual exclusiveness of the two principal religions of the shared Subcontinent, who, he insisted, particularly after the elections of 1937, were not just two communities but two nations—only, it would seem from his 11 August 1947 speech to the Pakistan constituent assembly, to revert to Gandhian secularism the minute the political objective of a broken India was achieved.

Pakistan starts becoming a real possibility not with the elections of 1937, in which the performance of the Muslim League, particularly in Muslim-majority provinces and the Central Legislature was pathetic, but with uncontrolled communal incidents under provincial Congress governments and the vacation of the space for governance by the Congress decision of October 1939 to resign all ministries when Britain dragged India into the European war without the consent of the Indian people. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, promptly forged the Imperial alliance with the Muslim League that was to lead to vivisection in less than a decade.

I think Akbar is right in describing over a long chapter (pages 166–190) ‘The Muslim Drift from Gandhi’ through the 1920s that provided Jinnah with his opening on his return to India in the mid-1930s. He should perhaps have added that there was also a pronounced Congress Drift from Gandhi between the end of the first satyagraha and the second—the Dandi March. Yet, as Akbar notes, while the Muslim masses were very much with Gandhiji at the start of the 1920s, of the 72 who walked with Gandhiji from Sabarmati Ashram in 1931 only two were Muslim (page 185). But even that strategic loophole might not have led to Partition if there had been a proper appreciation and course-correction by the Congress to view the 1937 results as not a rejection by Muslims of the Muslim League but as signalling the fear of Independence and Democracy confronting all minorities, especially Muslim minorities in Hindu-majority provinces.

Following the Lahore resolution of 1940 and the Quit India Movement two years later, the Muslim League had a field day to feed these minority fears. For the Congress appears to have been clueless as to what was happening to minority sentiment while they were languishing in jail. Their final incarceration made Independence inevitable; their absence from the scene also made Partition ineluctable. Indeed, while Nehru was discovering India in Ahmednagar Fort, Jinnah was discovering Pakistan in the bylanes of Muslim ghettos. In consequence, the results of the elections of the winter of 1945-46 came to the Congress as a shock, with the Muslim League triumphing virtually unchallenged in Muslim-minority separate electorates (but, significantly, doing far less well in provinces where Muslims were in a majority; however, sufficiently well, alas, to stoke Hindu-minority apprehensions in these Muslim-majority provinces).

The election results should and could have been challenged on the ground that they represented the views of the Muslim elite and not the Muslim masses, as only about a tenth of the adult Muslim population had been enfranchised to vote. And this indeed was proved when Partition came a year-and-a-half later: the Muslim elite might have voted with their hands for Pakistan, but the Muslim masses voted with their feet to stay in India. The election outcome could not, however, be challenged, for it was the same limited franchise that legitimised the equally overwhelming victory of the Congress in separate electorates for Hindus. The League-Congress Lucknow Pact of 1916 cast its long shadow over the decisive elections of three decades later that made Partition the price to be paid for Independence. 

It was in the midst of this election-endorsed communal divide that the Cabinet Mission arrived to dismantle the British Empire in India. (No one seems to have remarked that the Cabinet Mission was just as all-British as the much-reviled Simon Commission of 1927-28! And, therefore, just as likely to pander to Imperial interests than to the needs of its subjects). The Cabinet Mission’s exertions over a period of three months produced a Plan that would give to the departing colonial authority the credit for leaving behind an undivided India while building into their departure schedule the Balkanisation of the country they had ruled and allegedly united. For the crux of the Cabinet Mission Plan was that India through every successive decade of its Independence would argue over whether to remain united or subdivide at the referenda to be held every ten years envisaged in the Plan.

It is at this point that the second principal character in MJ Akbar’s tome takes his place centrestage: Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, first elected Congress President in 1923 at the age of 35, and again President of the Congress from the Ramgarh Congress of 1940 till his reluctant replacement six years later by Jawaharlal Nehru in July 1946, days after Azad’s announcement of the Congress acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, which the Muslim League under Jinnah had accepted a few days earlier. Nehru promptly repudiated Azad’s acceptance of the Plan. Jinnah then announced Direct Action Day. The die was cast for not only the Partition of India, but for all the bloodshed and misery that Partition would entail.

Akbar renders a valuable service to the memory of the great Maulana by retrieving for the 21st century reader the profound wisdom and penetrating forethought of this great Muslim scholar and patriot. Having authored one of the most perceptive commentaries ever on the Holy Quran, Azad remained steadfast in his advocacy of a composite and secular India. It made him the hate-object of the Pakistan Movement, which denigrated him as a Congress “show boy”, but Azad showed a clearer understanding than anyone else at the time—or perhaps even later—of the harm that the Subcontinent’s Muslim community would be doing themselves by allowing themselves to be first divided into two and eventually three Nation States, thereby slashing to much under a third (for the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts) the influence they would have had as the world’s largest Muslim community.

While the speeches made by Maulana Azad in the aftermath of Partition have long been available in Urdu and English in official Government of India publications, Akbar is to be thanked for retrieving Azad’s extraordinarily perceptive and prescient interview to Shorish Kashmiri of the Lahore magazine, Chattan, in April 1946 (pages 312–313). Azad foresaw with chilling accuracy that, “The moment the creative warmth of Pakistan cools down, the contradictions will emerge and will acquire assertive overtones. These will be fuelled by the clash of interests of international powers and consequently both wings will separate.” There is much more in the same vein, but I would hate to preempt Akbar’s rendering of the interview by quoting further from it. To the readers of this review I would say, “Please read it—again and again—for yourselves.”

Yet, it is now less for what Azad had to say about Pakistan than for what he had to say about Nehru in his posthumous publication of 25 crucial pages of his autobiography, India Wins Freedom, that Azad attracts most study of his acceptance and Nehru’s rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan, seen by many as the last opportunity offered to keep India together. The view that India could have been kept together derives essentially from the view, expressed by Akbar, that ‘Jinnah and Azad were the two towering leaders of the Indian Muslims.’ (Page 215)

I beg to differ. While there is no doubt that the Sole Spokesman was easily the most ‘towering’ figure among separatist Muslims, surely the most ‘towering figures’ for nationalist secular Muslims were Gandhi and Nehru. Had Azad ever compared in influence to Jinnah, the Pakistan Movement might well have been divided. It was precisely because Azad and Badshah Khan, Gandhiji’s most loyal lieutenants at Ramgarh, were right about the longer-term interests of the Muslim community but of little influence on the Muslim perception of their more immediate interests that Partition happened at all. In accepting the Cabinet Mission Plan, Maulana Azad was protecting the interests of his community; in rejecting the Plan, Nehru was safeguarding the interests of the nation. And none of this affected the huge respect and regard in which Nehru held Azad as his principal mentor in Indian and West Asian history, and in religion and inter-communal relations, as seen in the warm dedication to Azad in his magnum opus, The Discovery of India. The affection and regard were mutual.

Violence in idiom leads inevitably to violence in action. Thwarted by Jawaharlal’s rejection of the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan, Jinnah launched Direct Action Day in Calcutta on 16 August 1946, thus also launching the cycle of violence and counter-violence that was to disgrace the name of the two countries through the period of their birth pangs. With that he abandoned all moderation and all constitutionalism. He was going to achieve through death in the streets what he had been unable to secure at the conference table. It was in this resort to violence that Jinnah met his final hubris, for while he thought of street violence as a tactical device, it turned into a Frankenstein’s monster that wrecked his dream of a Muslim-majority but secular Pakistan as the counterpart, perhaps even the exemplar, of a Hindu-majority secular India. And to this disaster, Lords Mountbatten and Radcliffe contributed their mite, the former for having needlessly rushed Independence and Partition only to have the monstrous ego satisfaction of getting his job over and done with on the second anniversary of his having accepted the surrender of the Japanese on 15 August 1945; the latter for delaying the drawing of the India-Pakistan boundary till 17 August, three days after Pakistan was conjured into existence. In the fortnight that followed, Pakistan was emptied of its non-Muslim minorities, who fled both the horrors of rioting but also the empty hope of a State based on religion negating religious identity as a factor of its constitutional order. With no minorities left to protect and nurture, Jinnah handed over his creation as hostage to the most reactionary forces of religious fundamentalism. The Objectives Resolution of the Constitution got stalled for a decade over the role of Islam in a Muslim state and eventually, under Zia, proved that while lslam is what unites Pakistan, it is Islamisation which divides it. And left with no minorities on whom to wreak their vengeance, vicious factionalism against fellow-Muslims became the preoccupation of the madrassas and mosques.

This leads Akbar to his most telling aphorism, which will doubtless outlast the book itself, that if Jinnah was the Father of Pakistan, Maulana Maududi was its Godfather (page xv). There is, of course, a battle for the soul of Pakistan; there is also a battle for its body—rather, its body politic. Whatever the role of theology in the battle for Pakistan’s soul, Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami has won little of its body politic. For apart from sending a couple of MNAs (MPs in Pakistan) from Karachi to the Pakistan National Assembly, and once winning in 2002 a freak majority in coalition with other Islam-pasand parties in what used to be called the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa), Maududi has mattered as little in the politics of Pakistan as he as loomed large in the ideology of Pakistan. Yet, his powerful presence in the mind of Pakistan is, indeed, the root cause of Akbar’s other felicitous aphorism: that the Idea of India is stronger than the Indian while the Idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani (page xvi).

The essence of secularism as State policy is to insulate the State from denominational religion, exactly as the Quaid-e-Azam desired and outlined in his Inaugural Address of 11 August 1947. He might still have prevailed if it had not been for the hubris of Direct Action Day. For till then it was feasible to at least contemplate a Pakistan in which there would be a very substantial minority of non-Muslims through the incorporation into Pakistan of undivided Punjab and undivided Bengal. But the minute Jinnah resorted to street violence as a deliberate instrument of policy, he put paid to any possibility of the Partition of India being agreed to without the partition also of Punjab and Bengal. And once a wholly Muslim Pakistan emerged, there could, of course, be no question of separating State policy from theology, for a nation created in the name of Islam could not distance itself from the religion that gave the nation its very raison d’etre, its Reason to Be.

Even more unfortunately for the secular Pakistan envisaged by the Quaid-e-Azam, the millennial plurality of the Subcontinent had to be subsumed under the unitary imperative of a Semitic faith. Instead of unity in diversity, the sine qua non of a secular State, the demands of the One Faith required unity through uniformity. The same Jinnah who but a few years earlier had asserted to Gandhi at their last encounter in Bombay that Gurmukhi could be an official language in the Pakistan he envisaged “if Sikhs so desired” found himself undermining his own creation by declaring that Urdu, the mother tongue of under 5 per cent of the citizens of Pakistan, would be the sole national language of that country. It led to immediate fury in East Pakistan, lighting the fuse that was a quarter century later to blow away a united Pakistan. The justification for privileging Urdu over the mother tongues of some 95 per cent of the population was that it was the ‘language of Islam’. Sindhis even now fume at the thought that while their script is written in the script of the Holy Quran, Urdu, which takes after the Persian script, should be regarded as Islam’s own in Pakistan.

Without plurality in every facet of national life, there cannot be plurality in religious belief alone, especially in post-1971 Pakistan where the imperatives of plurality of belief have turned religious strife into factional strife; there being virtually no non-Muslims in the country, Muslim has been pitted against Muslim in Pakistan in a war no longer confined to the seminaries but taken into the street and the masjid and dargah. Terrorism in the name of religion takes many more lives in contemporary Pakistan than the number of ‘infidels’ killed in 9/11, let alone 26/11. But it is Muslim taking Muslim life and limb—and all in the cause of what is their common avowed religion.

It is this that carries Akbar to his final conclusion in the very last sentence of his book, that ‘we are staring, transfixed, at havoc beyond repair’ (page 313).

Are we really?

While bombs in the market-place and suicide bombers outside security establishments and rose petals being showered on the assassin of Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, are the stuff of ‘breaking news’, is there really irretrievable havoc in that country, and is that havoc ‘beyond repair’, and are Pakistanis staring ‘transfixed’ at this ‘havoc’, unable to do anything about the disaster looming over their destiny?

There is no shortage of smug Indians who would like to believe this. But even the most trenchant and principled (and courageous) critic of the awful state to which terrorism in the name of religion has pushed Pakistan, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy of the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, and deservedly quoted by Akbar before Akbar himself leaps to his dismal conclusion, would admit that ‘fortunately’ Hoodbhoy’s own worst-case scenario ‘seems improbable—as long as the army stays together’ (page 311). Akbar adds: ‘For six decades, power in Pakistan has seesawed between military dictatorship and civilian rule. What happens when both the army and political parties lose their credibility?’ (Page 311)

The more moot question is: why on earth should either or both lose their credibility? Contemporary Pakistan has the most vibrant media ever, the most powerful judiciary ever, the most plurality and federalism ever, and the least political influence ever of the always minuscule Islam-pasand parties. Indeed, the powerful presence in the public space of numerous common friends of Akbar and I is testimony to Hoodbhoy himself being no aberrant Pakistani. Yes, Pakistan today has more factional violence than ever, more madrassa-base jihad than ever, more theological agonising than ever, more victims of factional hatred than ever—and more lawyers than to defend blasphemy laws and murderers of those who oppose blasphemy laws. But for all the havoc they have wreaked, and still could wreak, they are far from undermining the social or political order in the country, the muted public opposition to their outrages and excesses owing much more to the AK-47s they cradle in their arms than to the persuasiveness of their tongues.

Moreover, none of this has weakened the resolve of what the Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa has called Pakistan’s ‘Military Inc’. They are not about to lose their loot only because some ISI types prefer prayer five times a day to five pegs every evening. Nor are politicians or civil society about to surrender their struggle for democracy to the mullah brigade. Indeed, even the characterising of the ‘seesaw’, for all its felicity of expression, does no justice to the reality that every military leader of Pakistan has sought legitimacy through associating comprador political parties with his rule, even as all political leaders have sought the barrel of the gun to reinforce their victory at the polls.

The ‘see-saw’ is much less important than the partnership, now covert and now overt, that binds the military and the political class in a quarrelsome marriage. Theirs is a joint front against those who would first blow them up before blowing the country apart. Which is why no one in Pakistan is ‘transfixed’. They, much more than us, are only too aware of the dangers overtaking them and the threat that menaces their future; they are not going ‘silent into the night’; they do ‘rage, rage against the dying day’ (Dylan Thomas).

The portrayal of Pakistan as the coming surrender of a modern Nation State to a howling underclass, incensed by religious fervour, is parody at best and dangerous misreading at worst. Akbar himself concedes that ‘Fears of Pakistan’s disintegration however are highly exaggerated’ (page 310), but then can’t resist sacrificing the truth at the altar of an aphorism (a crime of which I myself am often quite correctly accused!). For Hoodbhoy’s “slow-burning fuse of religious extremism” will be stamped out before it reaches the powder keg, as Pervez Musharraf demonstrated in Swat and then in Buner when the Taliban/Al-Qaida emerged from their mountain fastness to invest Islamabad, and as he again showed in clearing the Lal Masjid in the centre of Islamabad with rather more dispatch than the Indian Army displayed against Bhindranwale.

No, Pakistan is not about to commit hara-kiri. And it is in the Indian interest to understand that, rather than fear (or hope) that Pakistan will just blow up. For all their many difficulties, and for all the pessimism and even despair that permeates conversation and reflection among far too many Pakistanis from all walks of life, they are now past the anti-Indian and anti-Hindu extremism of their founders in three-piece suits. The consolidation of Pakistan’s Islamic identity, and its reconciliation of that identity with the imperatives of contemporary nation-building, is their problem, not ours; and the sensible thing to do would be to wish them well.

More, the really sensible thing to do would be to engage with Pakistan in sincerely searching for joint answers instead of the self-defeating polemics to which our forensic skills have reduced our diplomacy. A proper appreciation of Pakistan being a modern Nation State with a modernising civil society and an awakened people yearning for democracy, human rights and participative development (just as our people are), and which is what Pakistan really is for all the headline-grabbing of its theocratic nutcases and gun-toting thugs, could well mean a Pakistan we can help come into its own, and thereby ourselves come into our own, through uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue. That is the way forward, not by recourse to “I told you so.” We should be treating Pakistan not as a Tinderbox, but as a Tenderbox.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Member of the Rajya Sabha, former Consul-General of India, Karachi (1978-82), and author of Pakistan Papers (UBSPD, 1994)