Tinderbox: The Past And Future Of Pakistan
Rs499 pp 344
MJ Akbar receives admiring attention for the variety of books he has published. Some of his works are essential contributions to contemporary history and reveal his early interests and inclinations to reading and researching.
This book gives close and serious attention to the liberal and modernist discourses — or their absence — in the histories of Islam in South Asia. The canvas is uncomfortably wide. But it’s not easy to miss the focus of the narrative. The mix-up of people and events is apparent, but it is hard to miss the liberal and enlightened impulses of the author. Akbar, a distinguished editor-author, gives Tinderbox the touch of first-hand authenticity. Here is an illustration of an alert, critical, and sceptical mind, which is capable of threading its way through the mass of his prose.
Akbar writes short but lucid profiles of some major political actors. Shah Waliullah’s intervention in the 18th century is rather complex and we must eschew judgement on him unless the vast body of his writings in Arabic and Persian is translated into English. Syed Ahmad Khan was a modernist par excellence whose enthusiasm spread rapidly to others. Though he roared like a lion against the Indian National Congress, he was an unrepresentative lion whose natural habitat was MAO College, Aligarh.
The chapter ‘The Non-violent Jehad’ is instructive. Akbar writes judicially on political themes. His prose is not far from its best in some passages on Gandhi. An example: “Satyagraha was the ideology of the victim, its moral centre of gravity firmly rooted in justice, its principal target the adversary’s conscience.”
The discussion on the Muslim breakaway from Gandhi and the Congress, though, leaves me wondering if Akbar agrees or disagrees with Nirad C Chaudhuri’s fuzzy and silly conclusions on Partition. There are clues to how certain politicians were driven to disgrace on account of political non-conformity. But a great deal remains to be written about how MA Jinnah became a defiant trumpeter of the Two-Nation Theory. Among great nationalist writers, Jawaharlal Nehru alone gives frank admission of the reasons why the Congress and the Muslim League couldn’t settle rights tacitly implied in the Act of 1935. Nehru noted in 1938 that Jinnah didn’t show much interest in the economic demands of the masses and the all-important question of poverty and unemployment, thwarting even feeble attempts to propose democratic reforms and economic policies.
The Pakistan scholar Fazlur Rahman, who was exiled from his own country, had pointed out that the slogan “in Islam, ‘religion and politics are inseparable’, is employed to dupe the common man into accepting that instead of politics or the State serving the long-term objectives of Islam, Islam should come to serve the immediate and myopic objectives of party politics.” Since then the failure of successive regimes has led to a justified scepticism in much of Pakistan civil society regarding their leaders and the political rhetoric behind which they camouflage their fallings. The essays on contemporary Pakistan indicate the weight of religious conventionalism burdening the architects of the new nation. History may not have served the people of Pakistan well, but at this juncture they can ill-afford to either nurture or acquire the role of the vanguard for a fundamentalist vision of Islam.
Akbar’s conclusion merits consideration: “Driven by the compulsions of an ideological strand in its DNA, damaged by the inadequacies of those who could have kept the nation loyal to Jinnah’s dream of a secular Muslim-majority nation, Pakistan is in danger of turning into a toxic ‘jelly’ state, a quivering country that will neither collapse nor stabilise.”
(Mushirul Hasan is director general, National Archives of India)