Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Inner Sea: Dreams of a Muslim Cosmopolis. Book review

NB: This is a review of Venkat Dhulipala's Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India (2014), by Keerthik Sasidharan. It is insightful and intellectually perceptive. Of especial note is the point of the hostile reception this book has had amongst those members of the South Asian intelligentsia who despite their advocacy of freedom of thought, resent any discussion of Indian history and politics that disturbs their established views on communal politics and on India's partition. These views are for the most part imbued with extremist positions (often referred to as 'radical'), whose overall posture is a claim to speak on behalf of one or other social group, ethnic minority or ideological current. They are not reducible to 'left-liberals' (another vacuous term); and  include not only the adherents of the CPI 'line' on Pakistan in 1942, but also proponents of the politics of Subhas Bose, B.R. Ambedkar and M.A. Jinnah. They include Savakarites: L.K. Advani certified Jinnah as 'secular' after a trip to Pakistan in 2005; and whose ally Jaswant Singh, wrote an encomium to the founder of Pakistan in 2010. 

Barring the CPI, none of these ideological currents are leftist. Nor are they liberal - Bose was an admirer of Stalin and Hitler. The brunt of the argument is always an attack not just on the Congress (which they tend to conflate with the post '47 dispensation), but more significantly on philosophical moderation per se. It is as if  the shattering of utopic dreams may be compensated by persistent attacks on liberal democracy, in the guise of nostalgic commemoration of this or that favoured icon. 

The method employed by ideologically inclined scholars has been aptly described by the philosopher Leo Strauss: "Historians who start from the belief in the superiority of present-day thought to the thought of the past feel no necessity to understand the past by itself: they understand it as only a preparation for the present. When studying a doctrine of the past, they do not ask primarily, What was the conscious and deliberate intention of its originator? They prefer to ask, What is the contribution of the doctrine to our beliefs?.." (cf Chapter 9 of Thomas Pangle’s Rebirth of classical political rationalism, p 209). As a result their scholarship is eclipsed by propaganda. 

The net result of this hermeneutical zeal is cynicism, the erosion of faith in democratic institutions, and the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies. It is rather like the effect that decades of relativism and deconstructive mania have had on Western polities, which we are told, is now in a 'post-truth' era. Having contributed to the political erosion of objectivity, some of us are now awakening to the value of truth, both in politics and in historiography. 

Partition historiography remains immersed in a guilt syndrome. Dhulipala's monograph on Muslim League politics disturbs the established 'radical' version, wherein Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress are the preferred culprits. Hindutva apologists are at one with League apologists in this regard, forgetting that their icon Sardar Patel was a senior Congress leader and played a major role in events. The argument put forward in this book is not going to disappear, however much intellectual indigestion it might cause in certain quarters, and no matter how much censorship it is subjected to. It is time to engage in honest truth-seeking about our past. Thanks once again to the author of this review. DS

Note by the author: This was an essay written after reading Venkat Dhulipala's fascinating book ('Creating a New Medina', Cambridge University Press) on how Pakistan came to be.  After sendingthis essay to a few editors in mainstream press, from none of who I heard back, I abandoned the idea of getting this published.  Over time, from afar, while reading reviews about the book - some of them thinly veiled personal attacks on the author and some others as ideologically convenient valorizations - I realized that the reception to this book itself has a short history worth telling. More than a year had passed after my missives into editor's email inboxes went unanswered, when yesterday, I was reminded of the book when someone mentioned it on Twitter.  Thought, some of you might find of interest.

Despite being a country of more than 200 million people, marked by a diversity of income, resources, and talents, Pakistan today is often reduced in popular media as “the most dangerous country in the world”.  With that descriptor comes further qualifications which stress that it marked by a “triple threat of terrorism, a failing economy, and the fastest growing nuclear arsenal”.  Irrespective of the truth of such dire assessments (usually from intelligence sources or foreign correspondents in search of a juicy story), what is agreed widely true is the Islamization of its popular culture, public spaces, and political rhetoric over the past three decades.  To many observers, this change can be traced back to Pakistan’s alliance with the CIA and Saudi intelligence in the 1980s, when the ISI trained thousands of Pakistanis, Afghans, and foreign volunteers to fight the USSR.  

When that war ended — a war where violence, geopolitics, and messianism came together — the elaborate physical and ideological infrastructure of violent Islamism found itself other uses and proliferated.  Much scholarly attention has been paid to what followed the 1980s and the changes in society that three decades of jihad culture had wrought.  What is less remarked now is the ease with which the Pakistani State and its proxies were able to legitimate their use of Islam, its vocabulary, and creedal requirements to rally, organize, and sustain various factions for ‘the Great Game’.  In parts, the reluctance to press harder on this question of why or how of the maneuvering by the Pakistani State is that it forces us to reach back to the promises and tensions which birthed Pakistan in 1947.  

This inevitably means trying to wrap one’s head around the density of originary conviction in the minds of its citizenry and political elite that saw their country as an Islamic idyll separate from British India that had an Hindu majority.  This self-portrayal as a sacrosanct space for believers of Islam, which was deployed by the Pakistani State repeatedly in the 1980s as a rallying call, has a history of reception itself, particularly in fellow Muslim countries...
In 1953, merely six years after independence, Pakistan zealously projected itself as leader of the Muslim world, under the penumbra of the Suez Crises.  Seeing this, the ousted King Farouk of Egypt famously quipped, “Pakistanis believe[d] that Islam was born on August 14, 1947.”  Seeing this dissonance between how Pakistan’s official histories saw itself and how the rest of the world saw itself led some to introspect.  A Pakistani Christian scholar Samuel Martin Burke explained the skepticism of others: “such talk (of leadership) from a country (Pakistan), the rationale of whose creation was little understood at the time, and whose capacity to survive bore a large question mark, naturally [it] was not well received by other countries, proud of their [own] heritage.”  

To many like Burke, at the heart of the matter was a question to which few outside the immediate circles of British Indian politics had any answers:  Why did Pakistan come to be?  What conditions birthed this country? How was Pakistan to be a Muslim country when millions more Muslims still continued to live in India after 1947?  To the outsider, the newness of Pakistan when juxtaposed against the seeming eternity of ‘India’ in popular imagination made the Partition of India into two countries seem like a petulant fraternal dispute that would eventually resolve itself.  Echoing this, a few years before the Partition, in 1938, when told about the Hindu-Muslim divides and the idea of Pakistan, the leader of the Egyptian Wafd Party, Nahas Pasha replied incredulously, even if somewhat disingenuously: “In our country (Egypt), Zaghlul Pasha settled the minority problem (involving Copts) and now we are a nation.  Why cannot you settle your problems?”.   

The Question of Origins
It is these set of questions - the originary conditions that led to Pakistan’s creation - that Venkat Dhulipala attempts to answer in his extensively researched and fascinating new book “Creating a New Medina”.  It is as meticulous in its reading of little studied archival material as it is bold in its willingness to let evidence accrete even if this means leading us into discomforting cul-de-sacs of contemporary politics.  The result is that, by the end of this study, Dhulipala radically undermines - in this reader’s mind, without being didactic - many politically convenient historiographical pieties that have sought to efface the role of an Islamic vocabulary and imaginaries in the Partition of India and Pakistan... read more:

See also