“One good section, two okay parts, and several instances of selective interpretations.”

One-line review: Two books, three parts, and some parts confusion and obfuscation.

Short review: MJ Akbar displays an impressive grasp of history that blends into a fast-paced account of world events that intersect with the march of the Indian subcontinent to freedom, and partition. This is however marred, repeatedly so, by the jarring interjection of incongruous paragraphs that seem to exist for little reason other than to serve as the display of an elegant train of thought’s ugly derailment.

Curious omissions of facts and selective interpretations should cause one to examine both the narrative and the subtext with a magnifying lens of a fact-checker. There are also more like two distinct books crammed into one, with justice done more to the first than the second. Furthermore, perhaps the part most likely to appeal to most readers is the modern history of Pakistan, especially that going back to the 1970s, when the shift to radicalization started in earnest with General Zia’s dictatorship.

That is given less than its deserved share of space, but should be enough for people to want to read more. Perhaps Tariq Ali’s “The Duel” (my review) does a better job of describing Pakistan’s post-independence history.

Long review:
Pakistan, as a nation, has been one of the most fascinating, tragic, and spectacularly disastrous examples of religion as the sole basis of nationhood in the twentieth century. Partly the result of British imperial divide-and-rule policy, partly the result of Muslim intellectual introspection into the reasons for their decline in the subcontinent, and partly the result of a muddled policy followed by the Congress party’s leaders in their freedom struggle, it nonetheless was formed out of India on August 14, 1947, to the accompaniment of the displacement of an estimated ten million people and the deaths of more than a million.

The raison-d’être of Pakistan was to seek a dedicated space, a nation, for Muslims, who the leaders of the Muslim League thought would otherwise not get equality in an undivided India. Before that however, much before that, the roots of the partition of India seemed to have originated with the decline and eventual fall of the Mughal Empire itself.

Soul-searching over the loss of political and military power had been brewing for a long time. Anxiety over a weakening Mughal empire and a need to reassert the “purity” of Muslims led to the “theory of distance”, articulated by the eighteenth century cleric Shah Waliullah. “He told Muslims to live at such a distance from Hindus that they would not be able to see the light of the fires in the Hindu homes.” A philosophical distance from the Hindu was made understandable in physical terms.

The loss of power was brought to the fore in a stark manner by the loss of Lahore to Maharana Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler, who “in 1799, took Lahore from the Afghans and made it his capital. For the first time since the tenth century, when the Ghaznavids had established their rule up to Lahore, this region was being ruled by someone who was not a Muslim.” Shah Aziz, son of theologian Shah Waliullah, “prayed to Allah to sweep away the Sikhs, whom he called Islam’s greatest enemies and bands of demons. Shah Aziz would later declare India “Dar ul-Harb” since “Christians had become the true masters of the land between Delhi and Calcutta.

Shah Aziz’s disciple, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, would go on to launch a jihad against the British in 1825. The decline of the Mughal Empire culminated with its termination with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal ruler and the eighty year old leader of sorts of the First Indian War of Independence in 1857, and who was described by Syed Amhad as “a mouldering skin stuffed with straw“.

Anger at the rise of the Sikh empire, the rise of the English empire, and frustration with the decline and end of the Mughal rule caused much anxiety and introspection from the Muslim intellectuals in India. Some of this anger directed itself towards “the pollution that had affected Indian Islam, not only from Hinduism but also from Sufis” for having “introduced their own imaginations and superstitions” into Islam.

Even language played at the growing insecurities of the Muslim aristocrats.

Whereas Urdu had been the lingua franca of the administrative machinery for long, Hindi began to find a place, and “tension increased after the Bengal government notified that Devanagri could be used in courts and government documents in Bihar and Central Provinces which came under its jurisdiction.

Not only was there a direct economic consequence of this step on the Mulsims, but there was a more visceral impact on the psyche of the Muslim aristocrat, who first found themselves slowly deprived of power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but now faced with the prospect of economic subjugation at the hands of those people that he had ruled over for “seven hundred years.”

There were two common arguments used by theologians and fundamentalists alike to rouse the people. The first was the fear that “Islam was in danger” and that it was the duty of every Muslim to rise as one against that threat. The second was that Muslims constituted a distinct and superior group that deserved to rule if in a minority or carve a different nation for itself otherwise.

A strong votary of this line was Sir Syed, who believed that Hindus and Muslims were two nations living in one land.

“Oh my brother Musullmans, I again remind you that you have ruled nations, and have for centuries held different countries in your grasp. For seven hundred years in India you have had imperial sway. You know what it is to rule.”

“you must remember that although the number of Mohameddans is less than the number of the Hindus, and although they contain far fewer people who have received a high English education, yet they must not be thought insignificant or weak … our Mussalman brothers, the Pathans [could] come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys and make rivers of blood flow”


This line would find an echo in Ayub Khan who wrote that “As a general rule the Hindu morale would not stand more than a couple of hard blows at the right time and place.

These introductory chapters in the book add a context to the book that is useful to understand the ideological and historical underpinnings of nation of Pakistan. The middle chapters cover the freedom struggle, and can be divided into the roughly three parts. The first part covers the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, and the brief period between 1919 and 1922 when Hindus and Muslims united, perhaps for the first time, and under a Hindu, to fight the British rule. This was the period of the Khilafat Movement.

After the failure of this movement, there was disillusionment in the Muslim community with both Mahatma Gandhi’s efficacy and the potency of non-violence as a tool of struggle. The failure of this movement also gave an impetus to the fundamentalists on the Muslim side, who had anyway seen the Congress as a tool of the Hindu middle-class, and in its rise saw a conspiracy by the Hindu bania to enslave the Muslim. From there to partition was a short distance, covered in the short space of twenty-five years.

Pakistan would emerge as an independent country, with its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, professing a desire to keep it a place where people of all faiths could live peacefully – “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.” This vision would die soon after the death of Jinnah in September 1948. The first communal riots of Pakistan would take place in 1953, not against Hindus, but against the Ahmadiyas.

Pakistan would launch upon a gradual path of fundamentalism and radicalization, and while it is commonly known and acknowledged that it was General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq who set Pakistan upon its steepest descent into fundamentalism and Talibanization, even his predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was not above pandering to the fundamentalists by banning “night clubs, gambling and liquor (the interesting fact, surely, is that such pleasures were legal in the Islamic Republic till then). Bhutto changed the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday and invited opposition Ulema to join his advisory council for the implementation of Sharia.

The future of Pakistan, or at least a prescient prognosis, can be found on the last page of this book, made in 1946 by Maulana Azad. While Maulana Azad favoured a united India more on the grounds that the sizable Muslim population in the united India would have more leverage than a divided nation, his predictions about Pakistan were spot on.

“… After the separation of East Pakistan, whenever it happens, West Pakistan will become the battleground of regional contradictions and disputes. The assertion of sub-national identities of Punjab, Sind, Frontier and Baluchistan will open doors for outside interference. … We must remember that an entity conceived in hatred shall last only as long as that hatred lasts. … In this situation it will not be possible for India and Pakistan to become friends and live amicably unless some catastrophic event takes place.”

He also had a caustic word or two for Muslims, getting to a fundamental issue that has not received much analysis in modern times.

“They [Muslim business leaders] advocate a two-nation theory to conceal their fears and want to have a Muslim state where they have the monopoly to control the economy without any competition from competent rivals. It will be interesting to see how long they can keep this deception alive.”

This book is mostly a well-written and engaging account of Pakistan, even though, and obviously so, the roots of Pakistan and its history can be found in India, of which it was a part till 1947. However, while there is no denying the author’s formidable grasp of history, what is also on display is a remarkable trait to pick up and abandon topics without and before following them through to any sort of reasonable and logical conclusion? This can get quite exasperating at times, but can be overlooked.

Of much more serious import is the rather selective and injudicious omission of facts pertinent to a discussion. Where the reader is sure of his history he will be able to spot these incongruities. Where he is not, these inconsistencies will slip through the cracks.

Let me take a couple of illustrative incidents.

The story of the early conquests of Muslim invaders is undoubtedly bloody and gory. What happened almost a thousand years ago should and must be studied without fear and fully. The author seems quite unlike the disinterested and dispassionate observer when writing about cooperation between Hindu and Muslims in this period.

There is no denying that Hindus continued to cooperate with, and Muslim rulers continued to employ Hindus in their armies as well as in administration, and that conversions of Hindus to Islam took place not only under fear of death, but also willingly, though these were obviously far and few in-between (spontaneous conversions would have meant that all of India converted to Islam, which it didn’t). So, when the author writes, “The most famous convert of his time was Alauddin’s brilliant general, Malik Kafur Hazardinari, a handsome Rajput Hindu eunuch captured during the conquest of Gujarat.


So what’s wrong here? Firstly, the author omits the fact that (Wikipedia, ) a Hindu, who, after his capture by Alauddin’s army Khilji, was “castrated and made a eunuch“. “His beauty … captivated Alaud-din” (India: A History. Revised and Updated) – for what purposes does not or should it require imagination, given the wide-ranging sexual predilections of the sultans. The same Malik Kafur then “sacked and plundered many Hindutemples including the famous Hoyasaleshwara temple in Halebidu.” [Source]

The second instance has to do with respect to a mosque built on the ruins of a temple destroyed by Babur, at Ayodhya. The author writes, “His candid and comprehensive memoir, Baburnama, makes no mention of it.” “It” being the presence of a temple or its demolition. Here again, Mr Akbar is, in true Humphrey Appleby fashion, being economical with the truth. While it is technically correct to say that Babur’s memoir makes no mention of the temple or its destruction, what is left unsaid is that the pages pertaining to Babur’s visit to Ayodhya are missing from his memoirs.

Also, what the author leaves unsaid is that Mir Baqi, the governor of Awadh, had the Babri Mosque built in Ayodhya at the command of Babur, the Mughal Emperor. Did a temple exist at the place? Yes, archaeological excavations have established that. Was the mosque built at the command of Babur? Yes. Was it worshipped as a mosque? Yes. Do English and older records mention it as a mosque? Yes.

The third instance is in some ways the funniest, because for no apparent reason the author ventures, with utmost sincerity, to portray the third Mughal emperor, Akbar (and his namesake), as the greatest warrior of the Mughal empire. He was certainly the most moderate, but that is only relatively speaking, for after the siege of the fort Chittorgarh, he ordered the murder of thirty thousand unarmed people. If that is not enough, the author also wants to bathe Akbar in the heroic patina of bravery on the battlefield.

Akbar’s deciding battle was with Hemu, in 1556, also known as the Second Battle of Panipat, and which cemented the Mughal Empire in India for the next two hundred years. So how does the author, MJ Akbar, describe Akbar  the Mughal, in this battle – “the teenage ruler held his ground, won the day…“, and how does he describe Hemu – “an unorthodox maerick rather than a traditional ruling clan. Hemu, a Hindu peddler of saltpeter…“.


What are the facts?
Let us ignore the belittling adjectives, “maverick” and “peddler”. Why this venomous animosity against Hemu is not quite clear, but words have spoken. The second concerns Akbar. Akbar did not fight, much less lead, from the front, in this pivotal battle. He stayed behind the battleground, eight miles away. Certainly a far cry from holding ground, unless one takes it in the most literal of ways, in which case it does the great Mughal’s reputation or bravery little good.

Hemu was on the cusp of victory, when a stray arrow pierced his eye, which led to confusion among his soldiers, and defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. The reaction of the noble Akbar and his regent, Bairam Khan, is notable. The wounded, unconscious, and near-dead Hemu was brought to the Mughal camp, where Akbar struck the near-dead Hemu, and then his regent Bairam Khan beheaded Hemu.

Truly the acts of a noble and brave king who held his ground. This was however not the end of it. Hemu’s head was hanged outside the Delhi Darwaza in Kabul, Afghanistan, while his body placed in a gibbet outside Purana Qila. That was that, as far as the peddler of salt peter was concerned – “a massacre of Hemu’s community and followers was ordered by Bairam Khan. Thousands were beheaded and towers of skulls built with their heads, to instill terror among the Hindus.” [much of this paragraph has been reproduced from here]

Based on these three episodes, spread less than ten pages apart, what is one to make of the rest of the book then? If a person like me, who has no more than a passing interest in Indian history, could spot three sins of omission and commission, it should certainly cast aspersions on the rest of the book. I, the reader, am no longer sure whether a statement of judgment is based on an even-handed and logical assessment of facts or whether it has been weighed on a fixed scale so that no matter how heavy evidence to the contrary, the assessment is a foregone conclusion?

Buying info: FlipkartFlipkart ebookAmazon US / CA / UKKindle US / UKCAPowell’s
Wikipedia
MJAkbar.org
HarperCollins Publishers India Ltd.

ISBN: 9789350290392, 9789350291948

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.