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An Indian tryst with pan-Islamism

Uttaran Das Gupta 

M A Ansari and the Indian Medical Mission 1912-13
Burak Akçapar

Oxford University Press
336 pages; Rs 995

Turkish ambassador to India Burak Akçapar's book People's Mission to the Ottoman Empire opens: "It was an era where sides had to be taken and lines were drawn in people's minds." He might as well have been talking of our troubled times.

Merely a few hours after the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the Jacobin made a point that would find wide circulation in the following days: killing journalists is heinous but the Parisian publication was racist. Hook-nosed caricatures of Arab jihadists have been ubiquitous in the pages Charlie Hebdo, as have been irreverent depictions of Jews and Christians. However, the weekly's depiction of Muslims and the Prophet has earned it the most criticism and violent attacks, including a fire-bombing of its offices in 2006.

Mr Akçapar's book addresses some of the central issues of this debate, albeit through the lens of an almost forgotten chapter of India's engagement with pan-Islamism.

Oxford Islamic Studies defines pan-Islamism on its website as "ideology calling for sociopolitical solidarity among all Muslims". Coined by Turkish intellectuals in the late 19th century to find support for their efforts to prevent the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the term is used and abused only too frequently.

It is perhaps fortuitous that the Islamic State (IS) should declare itself a caliphate on the 100th anniversary of the First World War, which destroyed the Ottoman Empire, resulting in the abolition of the caliphate a few years later and the carving up of its dominions in West Asia along the Sykes-Picot lines - international borders that the IS claimed to "smash" as it launched its spectacular offensive across Iraq and Syria. (Charlie Hebdo's last tweet spoofed the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with the haunting caption: "Best wishes. To you too, al-Baghdadi." To which al-Baghdadi is depicted to be replying: "And especially good health." It is signed "Honore", one of the cartoonists killed in the attack.)

Before the final downfall of the Ottoman Empire, its death knell was heard in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. This was the crucible in which the fuel that fired the First World War was also brewed. As the caliphate and the last-surviving Islamic power came under siege, its Indian sympathisers put together three medical missions to the wars. Of these, the one led by M A Ansari - granduncle of current Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari - captured the public imagination, thanks to his letters published in the weekly journal Comrade.

A career diplomat and a lawyer, Mr Akçapar presents a compelling case for the Ottoman Empire - something that has not been done too frequently - in the first part of his book, where he tries to correct a perceived historic wrong: the portrayal of Turks as despots in Western historiography. He eschews the legitimacy of the early 20th century nationalist movements in east Europe, calling into question their imagined narratives. Describing the disintegration of the empire of the Ottomans, he writes: "Greece and Serbia effectively cannibalized most of Macedonia" (page 47). But such a claim behoves us to insist that the Turkish legitimacy to its empire and, in fact, to the caliphate was equally imagined. To borrow Benedict Anderson's term, all communities are, after all, "imagined communities".

Mr Akçapar's scholarship is ambitious: entire chapters are devoted to the intricate details of the two conflicts in the Balkans, the history of diplomatic relations between India and Turkey, and pan-Islamism. Though the details provide a context for the story to follow, they don't really add to our understanding of it. For instance, what does the last Nizam of Hyderabad marrying his sons to the daughters of the last Caliph have to do with Ansari's mission? Nor is there any original theoretical or political assertion in the protracted first part. Postcolonial and anti-Orientalist theories of the Edward Said school abound in these pages in lieu of any breakthrough.

The story of the medical mission is narrated in the shorter second part. It is no less interesting than the fictional narratives of 19th century German writer Karl May. Mr Akçapar sets up a contrast between the fictitious travelogues of May and real travels of Ansari and his team. The imagined Orientalist fantasies of the European writer, who had never set a foot outside his homeland and when he finally did was too shocked by what he saw, and the real-life experiences of the medical mission are a study in contrast. Mr Akçapar makes the subtle point of how, unlike a fictitious travelogue where the plot is too well made, real life travel is full of uncertainty.

The most interesting section of the book is the epilogue, which has the letters Ansari wrote to the Comrade. The concerns in these of an impending global conflict and a clash between civilisations is not in the least anachronistic. As the war between the IS and the United States intensifies, Turkey is likely to play a key role. Even now, millions of refugees - like the migrating hoards described in Ansari's letters - fleeing civil war-torn Syria have found shelter in Mr Akçapar's homeland. It is a pity that these letters are not provided with any annotation that would have made them more readable.

First Published: Tue, January 13 2015. 21:25 IST