Is Pakistan a fundamentally flawed state? Why did the dream of a homeland for Indian Muslims sour so quickly? Why has it become one of the most violent nations in the world? Not because, in the words of M.J. Akbar, “Hindus were killing Muslims but because Muslims were killing Muslims”.
In Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan, Akbar raises these and similarly knotty questions. There are no easy answers. But history provides some tantalizing clues, and the journalist-writer delves into them abundantly in this book. He suggests the commonly held contention that Pakistan emerged out of a March 1940 resolution at the Muslim League session in Lahore may not be the whole truth. The reality, he writes, is more complex. Pakistan is actually a “successor state to the Mughal Empire”.
Akbar does not deny that Pakistan, birthed by an English-speaking, Shakespeare-loving, toffish lawyer, emerged out of Muslims’ “fear of the future and pride in the past”.
Big blow: People pay tribute to slain Pakistani governor Salman Taseer at a church in Lahore on 9 January. K.M. Chaudary/AP
But this fear, he writes, “began as a mood of anguish that set in among the Muslim elite during the long decline of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century”.
Muslims living in India for five centuries with a “superiority complex suddenly lurched into the consuming doubt of an inferiority complex which became self-perpetuating with every challenge that came during different phases of turbulent colonial rule”, writes Akbar. In doing so, a key question was ignored: Was Islam so weak that it could not survive a minority presence?
Leading Sunni theologian Shah Waliullah proposed a theory of distance and protection of Islamic purity—he feared that Indian Muslims would lapse into Hindu practices. Islam could survive in India, he argued, only if Muslims maintained “physical, ideological and emotional distance” from Hindus.
Akbar reckons that the “mistrust of the Hindus, fundamental to the theory of distance, became the catechism of Muslim politics when it sought to find its place in the emerging polity of British rule in the early 20th century”.
When Muslim notables demanded separate electorates—Muslims could be elected only by fellow Muslims—even Muhammad Ali Jinnah protested. He predicted that India’s unity would be jeopardized by such religious electorates.
The unruly vicissitudes of history ensured that Jinnah himself became a fervent votary and founder of this cherished homeland. But a homeland based on the fear of the majority community in undivided India may have been doomed from its bloody beginnings. To demonstrate this point, Akbar falls back on his favourite theological-politician Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the most frighteningly prescient Cassandra on the estranged siblings. “An entity conceived in hatred shall last only as long as the hatreds lasts,” prophesized Azad. “This hatred shall overwhelm relations between India and Pakistan. In this situation it will not be possible for India and Pakistan to become friends and live amicably unless some catastrophic event takes place.” Azad also believed that Pakistan’s future would be blighted by incompetent leadership, high foreign debt, internal unrest, regional conflict and an iniquitous society, dominated by the “neo-rich and industrialists”.
Akbar is a brilliant raconteur of history, and writes on the extraordinary course of events that led to the division of India and the creation of Pakistan in his trademark racy, luminous prose. Six decades after a bloody Partition, Pakistan is teetering on the brink. It faces a terrorist blowback at home and opprobrium abroad. Radicals stymie any effort—however feeble—to make it a modern and centrist state. A tottering economy fails to produce growth or jobs. Feckless politicians and a powerful army conspire to keep the country in the doldrums.
Many believe that only Pakistan’s army and its politicians can rescue the nation. The army, they say, needs to subject itself to civilian and parliamentary oversight. Governments need to stop running to the army and involve them in settling political scores. Shuja Nawaz, writer of Crossed Swords, possibly the most authoritative book on Pakistan, believes that though the army remains a conservative institution, it is not yet overrun by radical Islamists. So if politicians play their part faithfully and the army stops meddling in the affairs of the state, he writes, Pakistan may “break out of the vicious cycle that has kept it from developing as a progressive nation”.
Akbar is not so hopeful. He believes a strain of theocracy runs through the “DNA of the idea of Pakistan”. Ergo, efforts to convert the nation into a Taliban-style Islamic emirate “will continue in one form or the other, at a slow or faster pace”. So will it then eventually disintegrate, with the fiercely independent Balochis and Pashtuns exploiting the turmoil and breaking away? Akbar doesn’t think so, and posits an even bleaker future: Pakistan, he writes, displays all the characteristics of a “jelly state”, neither stable, nor imploding. It is a chilling premise. Has Jinnah’s dream turned into a nightmare without end?
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org