The Muslims of undivided India have been victims of historical memories constructed by the disinherited and disempowered sections of their elite who had a hard time forgetting that the “rulers” of yesteryear were reduced to ordinary subjects. The first three chapters of Akbar’s book provide an important entry point for the understanding of the extremely complex Muslim Question. As he points out, many stereotyped and blatantly hostile narratives of the Muslim rule in India have conditioned the thinking of even educated people in understanding the genesis of the birth of Pakistan as a separate homeland for Muslims. “A strange alchemy of past superiority and future insecurity shaped the drama of a separate Muslim state in India,” Akbar writes.
Muslims became victims of the cunningness of history and not Muhammad Ali Jinnah but Shah Waliullah’s message that “Muslims cannot abandon the elixir of faith… Faith had to be pure and separation was the antidote of pollution”. Akbar observes that this might be called “the theory of distance”: Muslims should live at a distance from “infidel” Hindus and the argument and logic were extended by the Muslim League to demand “a separate Muslim space”.
The eventful history of Indian Muslims was also significantly impacted by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Gandhi, Jinnah and the policy of Divide and Rule pursued vigorously by the British colonial rulers. This identity was also shaped by events occurring in Muslim society outside India especially the siege of the Ottoman Empire by the British and the fear among Indian Muslims of the threat posed to Caliph and their sacred places of worship in Mecca and Medina.
The founding of Sir Syed’s Aligharh University, while tackling the problem of modern education as a basis for jobs for Muslims whose backwardness was mentioned in Hunter’s The Indian Musalmans, led to consequences unforeseen by the founder. Akbar observes: “Its alumni played a defining role in the history of Indian Muslims, in the establishment of their first political party, the Muslim League, then as allies of Mahatma Gandhi in his first great challenge to British rule, between 1919 and 1922, and lastly in the creation of Pakistan”.
If Sir Syed’s Aligarh University experiment ultimately created an intellectual and political base for Muslim separatism, the same fate awaited Jinnah who started as a secularist and ended up as the Qaid-e-Azam of a separate homeland of Pakistan. Gandhi’s Congress also worked for a united India but ultimately it was projected as a “Hindu” party that refused to share power with Muslims after the 1937 elections.
Events moved very fast between 1937 and 1947 and Akbar regrets that the demand for Pakistan blinded Muslim leaders to the fact that “United India might fashion a secular, democratic, modern nation…” and that Jinnah, “the sole spokesman” must have died not in peace because his own creation buried the idea of a secular state and became a fertile ground for Muslim theologians, mullahs and maulvis.
The last four chapters of Akbar’s book provide a grim picture of Jinnah’s dream country where not only was democracy aborted by military generals and manipulative political leaders, but every party, whether led by politicians or generals, used a particular kind of Islam to legitimise state power. The so-called Islamic state of Pakistan, the product of a deadly mix of religion and politics, remained under the siege of the mullahs patronised by the military.
Every major religion of the world is internally differentiated and Islam is no exception. There is nothing like a monolithic Muslim religious community and once Hindus were out of the picture, different Islamic sects confronted one another in Pakistan. Akbar, like many others, has suggested that General Zia-ul-Haq, whom he describes as “God’s General”, established a puritanical form of Islam in Pakistan, but the reality is much more complex than that of military promoting mullahs in society. It is inherent in the logic of religion-based states that intra-religious conflicts take place because a theocratic state cannot resolve, say, Shia versus Sunni disputes since the state itself is not a neutral agency in matters of religion. Wahabbism or the products of Islamic seminaries belonging to different schools of Islam are bound to compete against one another by claiming a copyright over “Pure Islam”. And Jinnah has no place in this kind of Islamic society.
Akbar’s book has a message and a warning that religious fundamentalists, whether the Hindu Rashtravadis of the Sangh Parivar or the Taliban type of Islamic organisations, capture state power only to practise tyranny under the garb of defending the “pure” religion. A democratic state cannot be a defender of the faith. Every Indian should read this well-written book quite carefully because Akbar has made a formidable case for democracy and secularism. Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher, has written a seminal book Open Society and its Enemies. Akbar’s contribution is to alert South Asians to the dangers of religious organisations that threaten secular, modern democratic state systems. Pakistan is not going to disintegrate, but peace in that country cannot prevail because the jihadis are not being confronted by a committed and neutral state.
TINDERBOX: THE PAST AND FUTURE OF PAKISTAN
M J Akbar
343 pages; Rs 499