Book Review: Syncretic Islam, Life and Times of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi by Anil Maheshwari & Richa Singh

At the outset a million thanks are due to Anil Maheshwari Sir, who gifted this lovely book to me which he has co-authored with Richa Singh. The book is a brilliant study of the life and socio-religious thought of one of the doyens of Muslim theology in the Indian subcontinent, Al’a Hazrat Ahmed Raza Khan, the founder of the Barelvi school of Islamic theology. The Barelvis constitute the majority amongst the Hanafi Sunni Muslims in the subcontinent.

My main takeaways from the book are;

1. Born on 14 June 1856, Al’a Hazrat was a precocious and gifted child who amazed people by speaking in chaste Arabic at the age of four, even though he had never learnt the language before. He could recite Naat at the age of six and by eight wrote a treatise on the obligatory beliefs and practices enjoined by Islam upon Muslims. He finished his education in the dars-i-Nizami curriculum at the age of 13 and by the age of 24 he had positioned himself as one of the foremost jurist in the country, receiving nearly 500 requests for juridical opinion every day, not only from India but from all over the Islamic world. When he was 22, he became the ‘murid’ of Shah Ale Rasul, (from whom he received both ‘ijazat’ and ‘khilafat’), a highly regarded Barkatiyya Sayyid Pir from the Qadri order of saints at Marehara.

2. Al’a Hazrat called himself Ashiq-e-Rasool (lover of the Prophet), he enunciated the main principles which define the Barelvi belief today, ie the primacy accorded to the Prophet, considering him as a Noor and one who possessed Ilm-e-Gaib and that he could be present simultaneously at several places. The hierarchical notion of respect was clear to him; Allah, the Prophet, the other Prophets, the Saints and finally the living Pirs. The Prophet and the Pirs possessed the power to intercede on behalf of the people. Such beliefs obviously raised the heckles of the Deobandis, Wahabis and Ahl-e-Hadith who argued that they compromised the unity of God, the fundamental principle of Islam.

3. I would however very humbly disagree with the authors on the title of the book. Whatever little I have read of Al’a Hazrat’s writings, I find that there was nothing ‘syncretic’ in his beliefs. This belief gets further reinforced by reading this book. Frankly he was both communal and sectarian. Not only was he opposed to the other sects of Islam like Shias, Ahmadiyas, Deobandis, Wahabis and Ahl-e-Hadith, whom he argued were not true Muslims, he was equally opposed to Hindus. He argued against any social or political collaboration/cooperation with the Hindus lest the Muslim way of life got corrupted under their influence. He opposed the Ali brothers and Maulana Azad when they cooperated with Gandhi. He also condemned those Muslims who argued that the Muslims should give up on cow slaughter in deference to the sensitivity of their Hindu brethren. It was probably under his influence that during the national movement we witnessed that the Barelvi Ulema and Pirs formed the bedrock of support for the Muslim League and Jinnah being at the forefront of the Pakistan movement, unlike the Deobandi Ulema many of whom opposed Partition.

4. He was socially conservative who supported the caste system amongst the Muslims (argued that upper caste Muslims, especially women, should not marry Indian lower caste converts) and supported Purdah for womenfolk. He had special regard for the Sayyed’s being the descendants of the Prophet, treating them with utmost reverence. In fact he could never say ‘no’ to a Sayyed for anything. He also opposed music in any form including Qawalli.

5. Many scholars in today’s world argue that Sufi Islam as represented by the Barelvi’s is a folkish variety of Islam, opposed to the Sharia and thus qualifies as syncretic and tolerant Islam. Nothing however can be further from truth. The reality is that even for the Barelvis ‘tassawuf’ (spiritualism) does not override the fundamental principles of the Shariat. As Sher Ali Tareen had shown in his excellent book, ‘Defending Muhammad in Modernity’ (which I had reviewed in my earlier post…/book-review…/ ), this understanding of Sufi Islam being anti Sharia and stressing ‘only’ on local traditions is incorrect. This idea was propounded by the American think tanks after 9/11 who had little understanding of Islamic theology. Surprisingly, even the Pakistanis caught on to the idea with Gen Musharraf supporting the Barelvis as the tolerant ones. How wrong he was is now being seen with the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer and the rise of Khadim Hussain Rizvi and the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Party, which was banned by the Pakistani govt day before yesterday.

All in all a great read. This book is a must read for anyone interested not only in the life of Al’a Hazrat but also Barelvi sect of Islam.

I need to thank Anil Sir again for the gift. I do need to get his signature on the book when we meet though!


Book Review: Instant History, A Memoir by Anil Maheshwari

In the introduction of this book MJ Akbar Sahab writes, ‘Every journalist has two sets of stories. They send the boring ones for publications in their newspapers in return for the pay cheque. The interesting ones they reserve for their memoirs that they will write after the powers have stopped paying salary, free from the inhibitions of propriety and proprietor.’ That in my view sums up this book by Anil Maheshwari Sir really well. I picked it up and could not let go of it till I had finished it, such a wonderful read this book is!

My main takeaways;

1. At the outset since I had taken issues with Anil sir about the title of his earlier book, let me commend him for the title here. It indeed is ‘Instant History’! The title gels perfectly with the contents of the book. It is said that journalists write the first draft of history and you do find enough references to oral and journalistic history in this book. Some very important and interesting examples for me were the confirmation that I got about the difference of opinion between Chacha Nehru and General Thimmaya, leading to the latter submitting his resignation as the army Chief. Nehru of course prevailed upon him to withdraw his resignation. He had resigned because he found Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon interfering too much in day to day military affairs. I have come across many who say this never happened and is a figment of the imagination of the opponents of Nehru ji, but Anil Sir details how the information got leaked in the press then and how Nehru ji tried to suppress it.

The chapter on Kashmir makes for some real interesting read wherein the oral history of Kashmir finds a reference with many still believing that Nehru and Sheikh Sahab stopped the Indian army from pushing ahead in Kashmir in 1947, lest the Bakarwals and the nomads become dominant in Kashmir to the detriment of Muslims of the valley.

2. Another topic which really caught my attention was the history of the invocation of contempt of court against the press. Anil Sir delves into the issue in some depth analysing it’s historicity right from the British days. He also highlights the remarkable courage shown by editors who preferred to face incarceration rather than letting down their reporters, Mahatma’s son being one such editor.

3. The book is a must read for aspiring journalists. It highlights the good and bad in the profession, stressing on the qualities needed to succeed in the profession. Some of these I would say are need for planning and implementing those plans, maintaining good relation with sources as well as the ability to think on ones feet. The book clearly brings out the empathy which Anil Sir feels for his acquaintances and sources. MJ Akbar rightly says in the introduction,’ His (Anil Sir’s) writing has the comfortable confidence of a writer who knows that journalism is an exchange of information between fallible human beings. This is a book of smiles, not scorn.’

Here is an example of thinking on his feet; Don cum politician DP Yadav’s sister and her husband are fired upon by the rival gang in which the latter loses his life and the former is critically wounded. Anil Sir is there to do a story and the hospital is teeming with Mr. Yadav’s henchmen who are most worried that Mr Yadav is distraught and is refusing to eat or drink. Anil Sir walks into his room, holds him by his hand and asks him to collect himself for his sister and his family. His concern and empathy has an impact on Mr. Yadav who not only eats something, but let’s Anil Sir photograph his injured sister for his story.

Similarly an anecdote about planning a story; In 1953, when Raj Kanwar, a rookie sub editor of Indian express wanted to get an interview with Sir Arnold J Toynbee, the famous historian, he realised that he will not get much time with him. So not only did he write his questions down but also researched about Tonybee in such great detail, that he wrote the answers to those questions himself. On meeting Tonybee, who was coming out of the house where he was staying to board his car for the airport, he introduced himself and asked for an interview. Tonybee said he had no time to spare, so he gave him the copy of the question as well as the answers he had written explaining that he had done both and to kindly check if these indeed would be his answers. So impressed was Tonybee with the answers that he said, yes, that they indeed would have been his answers, signed on the paper and said that Mr. Kanwar could use them as his interview.

4. Written in the style of ‘kissagoi’ the book has been arranged thematically and deals with stories related to journalism and journalists (and what interesting stories they are) but also with politicians, state institutions like bureaucracy, police, courts etc. – what ails them and what gives us hope. All these stories make for a wonderful read!

An unputdownable book! Buy it and read it. You will surely enjoy it.

Book Review: Tombstone, The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng

I had been hunting for this book for long, and was delighted to have finally laid my hand on it. A highly disturbing book, it describes and analyses the worst man made famine in human history during the period 1958-62 that was inflicted by the rulers of their own country over its own people in China, a complete rarity in the world; but then that is what Communism and Communists are capable of.  Frankly, I never underestimate the capacity of a Communist to be a willing participant in murder!

Author Yang Jisheng, investigated and wrote this book to ‘erect a tombstone for my father, who died of starvation in 1959’. Using his authority as a distinguished journalist working with Xinhua news agency, in the 1990s he began researching the famine, using his reporting trips to access archives, collecting secret party records and interviewing people who had survived the famine. His research revealed that 3.6 crore (36 million) people starved to death in China from 1958 to 1962. Starvation also caused a sharp drop in birth rate leading to an estimated shortfall of 40 million births during those years in China. Seen in context 3.6 crore (36 million) was 450 times more than the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and greater than the number of people killed in World War 1. Further research showed Yang’s estimate to be an underestimation, for an official fact-finding mission in early 1980s estimated that 4.2 crore (42 million) to 4.3 crore (43 million) people had starved to death in the famine. Objectively speaking the Chinese Communist leadership killed more Chinese that what the brutal Imperial Japanese Army had managed to do. So much for Communists as liberators and nationalists!

Yang’s book remains banned in China for it clearly holds Mao, his colleagues and Communist party responsible for the death of crores in China. The authoritativeness of the documentation that he carried out seems to have further appalled the Communist leadership. The 2 volume masterpiece running into 1200 was first published in Chinese Mandarin in Hong Kong in 2008, and ran into 8 reprints within two years. The English translation that I got my hand on is an abridged version, running into 582 pages excluding appendices.

The book starts with young Yang being informed by his school mate that his father was about to die due to starvation and that he should rush home from his boarding school. He reaches home to see his famished father breathe his last. The house had nothing to eat, the trees around the house reduced to barkless trunk with even its root dug up and eaten leaving only a dry hole. No dogs, chicken, fish even bird droppings were available. Deeply brainwashed as a young Communist, he thought of his father’s death initially as a personal tragedy.  It was only later that he became aware that the tragedy had not only befallen on him and his family but on the whole country. It was the Cultural revolution which made him question the views of the Communist establishment when much to his astonishment, many revolutionaries whom he revered, were now being branded as corrupt and debased. ‘I began to lose faith in authority and officialdom’ he argues.

He blames Communist totalitarianism for the millions of death that happened during the famine. ‘The CCP’s dictatorship of the proletariat made Mao the most powerful emperor that ever ruled China….In 1955, in accordance with Mao’s wishes, economic policy took on a ‘rash advance’ marked by high production targets at high speed that burdened the national economy…The regime considered no cost or coercion too great in making the realization of the Communist ideals the supreme goal of the entire population. The peasants bore the chief burden of realizing these ideals; they shouldered the cost of industrialization, of collectivization, of subsidizing the cities, and of the extravagant habits of the officials at every level. Most of the cost was imposed through the state monopoly for purchasing and marketing. With official priority placed on feeding the burgeoning urban population and importing machinery in exchange for grain exports, grain was all but snatched from the peasants’ mouth…The inadequacy of the grain left after the peasants sold their ‘surplus’ to the government was one of the reasons so many starved to death.’

The collectivization of agriculture deprived the peasants the power to decide what would be planted over how much area and by what means. All agricultural products including food stuff were procured and marketed by the state and all goods of daily life were supplied through a system of state issued ration coupons and could be exchanged only in the locality in which the households were registered (hukou). Further under the hukou systems the peasants could engage only in agricultural labour and could leave their villages only with the permission of production heads of the collectives. In case the collective failed to supply the daily necessities the peasants had no recourse but to starve.

Further, communal kitchens were established which forcibly replaced home kitchens. Home stoves were dismantled and the Communists forced common people to hand over all cooking equipment’s, table chairs food stuffs etc. to the communal kitchens. These communal kitchens initially wasted food believing in Mao’s pronouncements that there was ‘too much food’ (all based on inflated and false figures of production reported from provinces and prefectures), but when no replenishments came after the initial stocks were exhausted, starvation set in amongst common folks. These communal kitchens became bastions of privilege for communist cadres. Yang writes, ‘By controlling the communal kitchens, cadres were able to impose the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ on every individual stomach, as anyone who proved disobedient could be deprived of food.’

The book details the brutal punishments meted out on villagers for extracting food grains from them as well as on those conscientious officials who saw figures of production being fudged or who were truthful in highlighting the plight of peasants. They were tortured, brutally and repeatedly beaten, publicly humiliated and accused of rightwing tendencies. Many paid with their lives and careers.  

The most poignant and disturbing part of the book is the horrific survival choices that people made to survive; many keep one child alive by starving others to death, deserted one’s family fleeing to another province knowing that this would lead the local CCP to kill their family members, protected themselves by informing on one’s neighbor, selling themselves to an official for few morsels of food (for the officials always had plenty to eat).

The most gut wrenching stuff that Yang’s investigation reveals is the extent to which cannibalism was resorted to by people to survive. Not only did people eat dead relatives to survive, they also dug up corpses to eat. In Liuchangying village when the adult members of a family died, their three surviving children stayed alive by eating the corpses over several months. In their interview with Yang, they informed him that the heels and the palms tasted the best! In Panggwang village, an 18-year-old girl drowned her 5-year-old cousin and ate him. Another girl aged 14, was also driven by hunger to eat her brother’s flesh.

While reading the book I could not get over the fact that this was only the part one of the death and destruction that Communists and that destructive ideology of Communism had imposed on China through the Great Leap Forward. The part two of the death and destruction was still to come in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution was unleashed. But then such mass killings are child plays for the Communists, they revel in them. The common factor amongst all Communists be it Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Che, East European leaders, North Korean leaders etc. is the ease with which they have murdered millions. But since their murder apologist followers have complete hegemony over academia and media, sadly their crimes against humanity have never been called out. No Communist has ever faced a Nuremberg kind of trial, or is condemned for believing in this ideology. Surprisingly, (s)he holds it like a badge of honour. Isn’t it surprising that one can still proudly call oneself a Communist though the number of deaths that the followers of that ideology have been responsible for exceeds the abominable fascists by millions? It is for this reason why books like these and ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ should be made compulsory reading for all. This is what Communism looks like/operates when it is put to practice. All the ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’ and ‘to each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ is as fictitious as the Indian traditionalists fetishizing about the existence of Pushpak Vimana in Treta Yug.

Book Review: The Chronicle by Intizar Husain

This book a part of the trilogy of Intizar Sahab’s work (Basti, The Chronicle and The Sea Lies Ahead) – though he insisted they were not a trilogy – deals with various periods in Pakistani history; and the turmoil that the country faced This novel is set in the backdrop of Zia’s regime in Pakistan who ruled the country from 1977 to 1988. The main protagonist of the book is Ikhlaq, who migrates with his mother Bujan to Pakistan after partition. He finds the manuscript of the tazkirah, his family chronicle, written by his father, and he decides to add his story to it. The family chronicle starts from Isfahan in Iran from where their ancestor Ahmed Billah migrated to Qazvin after city was ravaged by Taimur. The family continued to migrate over generations till they finally settled in Jahanabad, where the iconic Chirag Mahal was built by Hakim Gul Zurgah Ali. The family resided in this Haveli for three generations before Ikhlaq Ali and Bujan were forced to migrate to Pakistan after partition. Apart from the chronicle of a family, it is also a chronicle of Pakistan – the promised land for many – which failed to live up to its promise. The changing politico-socio-economic landscape of Pakistan, the withering away of a dream and idealism form the backdrop of the book.

In a non-linear writing style Intizar Sahab tries to situate Ikhlaq’s Lahore with his ancestor Mushtaq Ali’s undivided India. Like all his works, in this book too, the idea of ‘memory’ and ‘loss’ are the recurrent themes. While Iqhlaq and Bujan, do attempt to establish new relationship and forge a new identity with their adopted homeland, their memories don’t seem to leave them. Bujan’s mind keeps wandering back to Chiragh Haveli, which now falls on the wrong side of the border. Iqlakh too can’t get over his memories of Shireen, the cousin whom he was set to marry in India but could not and the times they spent together in Chirag Haveli. When they have a chance encounter in Lahore, where she is on a trip for some work, all those memories of the times they spent together in Chiragh Haveli are rekindled. Together, through their nostalgia, they revisit their ancestral home taking “hold of its memory for ourselves: the building sprang vividly to life, and in the process, we discovered ourselves.”

It is indeed a paradox for me that when I read his nonfiction writings I find that he supported the idea of partition as a historical necessity, but then in the same breath he questioned the identity of the new land. I remember in one of his interviews he asked as to if we were a different nation [from India] then what was our national and cultural identity? In another interview he remarked, “What a purely Islamic culture would be, I don’t have any idea”….“It is this Indian Muslim culture of which I am a product and which has shaped the history of which I am a part”. In line with this belief, the motif of syncretic Indian culture pervades the work. The deep knowledge that Intizar Sahab possessed of Buddhist and Hindu mythological and philosophical traditions are brought out by the characters of Pandit Ganga Dutt and his father Som Dutt. The Pandits are as well-versed with the Bhagavad Gita and shastras as they are with the Quran and hadith, something which was pretty commonplace in India, especially amongst the intelligentsia, before the deracinated Nehruvian secularism made study of “Indian” philosophical traditions unfashionable. That this syncretism was challenged by the rising separatism and communalism in the mid 1940’s is highlighted through Kishan Lal, Pandit Ganga Dutt’s son for whom Mushtaq Ali, the best friend of his father is now the ‘other’. When he hands over his recently deceased father’s writings in Farsi – a language now primarily associated with Muslims – to Mushtaq Ali he says, “It’s in your writing. It’s for you people – you keep it”.

At the end have to say a word about the translation – it has been brilliantly done. It is not so easy to translate Intizar Sahab’s book in English, especially his non-linear style of writing and a typical subcontinental ethos that his work carries, but Matt Reeck has done a fabulous work in retaining the ethos and sensibility of the work.

Lovely read, as usual with all Intizar Sahab’s work.

Book Review: India’s First Dictatorship by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil

Christophe Jaffrelot and Anil Pratinav write and important book on Emergency, proclaimed by Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi on 25 June 1975, which lasted for 21 months.

My main takeaways;

The authors divide their book in three parts, each dealing with a theme that characterized Emergency. The first part deals with the classification of Emergency as an authoritarian regime. The second part analyses the reasons why Mrs. Gandhi imposed Emergency while the third part deals with the resistance to and the reasons behind the lifting of Emergency in January 1977.

  • In trying to define the nature of authoritarianism that characterised emergency, the authors use Juan Linz’s typology which seek to define the variant of authoritarianism based on three criteria: the degree of pluralism, the extent of mobilisation in society and the role of ideology. Based on Lind’s typology, they characterise the Emergency as an ‘organic statist’ regime. Its three peculiarities were – (a) there was no regime change in the sense that the constitution was not abrogated and replaced, India’s political system remained as before; both federal and parliamentarian. Every anti-democratic step which Mrs Gandhi took had parliamentary approval and was also endorsed by the Supreme Court. (b) Emergency, like other authoritarian regime lacked an ideology. All the progressive and socialist rhetoric was just that, rhetoric with nepotism and cronyism ruling the roost. The regime developed a multivocal style, Mrs. Gandhi and Congress leaders tailoring their speeches to suit the audience; language of capital formation at business conclaves and emphasising workers rights with the unionists.  Political authoritarianism and social hierarchies reinforced each other, with Sanjay Gandhi’s gentrification and sterilization drives targeting mainly Muslims and Dalits. (c) Emergency encouraged depoliticization, for the regime followed no ideological consistency or doctrine, thereby making it more difficult for people to think and act politically.  This depoliticization of society was helped by the opposition and the JP Movement as well as the strikes orchestrated by the trade unions, developments which created a sense of fatigue with politics, mostly amongst the middle class.
  • Periodizing the 21-month Emergency, the first few months were dominated by Mrs. Gandhi’s agenda as reflected in her 20-point programme, but by the early 1976, the agenda was hijacked by Sanjay Gandhi and his five-point programme, with its attendant focus on mass serialization and gentrification. The rise of Sanjay Gandhi also saw a change in the nature of the Congress party, with the Youth Congress and the henchmen of Sanjay Gandhi coming to dominate the organisation. The criminalization and lumpenisation of the Congress party began in earnest, indiscriminate acts of nepotism and despotism became the order of governance. This extensively researched book provides several examples of such nepotism and cronyism, which fills one with disgust.
  • There was also a geographic north south divide in the nature of Emergency – more so in the repression faced by the people. The epicentre of the emergency excesses were the areas around Delhi and in the Hindi heartland, where the cronies and lackeys of Sanjay were in control. In the states beyond the Vindhayas Congress either governed through a coalition or had strong party bosses who did not let Sanjay have his way completely and so the excesses of Emergency were not that severely felt by the populous. This got reflected in the election results of 1977, where in the Hindi heartland the Congress won just 2 out of the 226 seats whereas its position in the four southern states remained intact, it sweeping 92 of the 129 seats on offer. In contrast while the Janata Party won 116 seats in the Hindi belt, it could win only a paltry 3 seats in the South.
  • While many scholars have argued, and rightly so, that the trigger for the Emergency was the Allahabad High Court Judgement against her and the gathering support for the JP movement, the authors have also looked at the reasons why Mrs Gandhi could prevail and impose Emergency without much opposition. This was made possible because of the changes she had brought about in the Congress, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, converting it into an over-centralised and personalised political machine. She was also helped by the support she got from the Communist Party of India, Shiv Sena, RPI cadres, industrialists, trade unionists, bureaucrats and a section of the intelligentsia, who actively collaborated with her.
  • On the question as to why Mrs. Gandhi lifted emergency and called for a general election, one can only conjecture. The authors argue that it probably had something to do with the three factors; (a) By 1976 she had become aware of some of the regime’s excesses and the deterioration of India’s image it was causing abroad. A victory in a snap election would help her legitimise these excesses. (b) She was sensitive to critiques coming from abroad, more so that Bhutto of Pakistan had announced elections and that India would now be considered more authoritarian than Pakistan, was probably difficult for her to digest and probably induced her to announce elections in early 1977. (c) and most importantly because she was sure that she would win, a confidence she acquired from intelligence reports and also because the opposition was in shambles.
  • The book also reinforces the view of cynics like me that the more things change in India, the more they remain the same. The change is only in degree, in the pace of execution and all ‘substantial’ changes in India are glacial. The Janata government too embraced her 20-point programme, and in October 1977, Raj Narain, Minister of Health and Family Welfare was threatening to cut off central funds to those states that did not do enough sterilization, the pressure (less coercive, of course) now shifted to women for men had become more defiant.  The gentrification of the urban spaces continued apace too, with Morarji Desai enquiring about and finally getting the unauthorised fish market removed, from the Old Delhi area which had witnessed horrendous events like the Turkman Gate episode during emergency.
  • The book also provides details of the struggles and compromises of the press, political parties, leadership, elites and intelligentsia against Emergency, and frankly it does not provide for a very happy picture. It also shows why in India the ‘formalism’ associated with the democratic process will always triumph over the ‘values’ that democracy entails. The formal, till date, enjoys more hegemony in the minds of average Indians and frankly the Emergency showed that despite all talks of deepening of democracy in India, this deepening is only in the realm of the former, not the latter. Even for the intelligentsia, as the recently concluded Bengal election and its aftermath showed, their commitment to democratic values remain skin deep and extremely shallow.   As the authors say, ‘Studying the Emergency helps us understand the nature of Indian polity. For this period reveals both the vulnerabilities and limits of Indian democracy….’

A very good read, but with the caveat that as with Jaffrelot, while I love his scholarship and research, but cant help but differ with his ‘interpretation’ many a times.

Book Review: The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906, A Quest for Identity by Rafiuddin Ahmed

In these difficult days what does one do if not read? The only way to keep your mind off these extremely depressing times…

At the outset must confess, it is a fabulous book. It deals with the the development of Muslim communal consciousness in Bengal during the period 1870’s leading finally to the partition of Bengal. Drawing from hitherto unused primary sources, Ahmed tries to analyze the reason that contributed to the development of this communal consciousness amongst the Muslims of Bengal. This was not something natural he argues and states that ‘the objective differences between the two communities at the mass level were not by themselves strong enough to induce mutual was only through skill manipulation of certain religious symbols and constant ideological propaganda that latent differences could be articulated and later used as a potent instrument in the conflict..’

The main reasons according to him were as follows;

1. Muslims in Bengal experienced a profound change in their religious ideology and social mores during the latter half of the 19th century which was induced by the religious reform movements of which the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya and Fairazi were the most prominent. These movements intended to purge the Muslim society of its age old un-Islamic beliefs and practices. Their principle ire was directed against the Pirs and the syncretic ‘Sufi’ Islam which was dominant in Bengal. These reformers joined forces with the itinerant religious preachers and village mullahs who commanded a great deal of influence on the Muslim peasantry. These preachers not only stressed on ridding Islam of all un-Islamic accretions from local beliefs and practices, but also prompted the masses to look beyond the borders of Bengal for their glorious Islamic past. Islamic identity as opposed to a Bengali identity was stressed upon, leading to the development of an exclusivist and separate Muslim identity. Open debates or Bahas in public gatherings were held as a means to establish proper definition of a Muslim, in which the local mullah was an active participant. All the so called Hindu accretions and practices, names, culture, even language was derisively rejected and Muslims were asked to desist from using them.

2. The Ashrafs who had been most hard hit by the establishment of the British rule enthusiastically joined and facilitated the ‘separatism’ bandwagon, when they realized that appeals to the majority Atraps/Ajlafs could be conveniently made on religion against the the Hindu Bhadralok, with whom they were locked in competition for jobs and political representation. The author argues that this was a tactical ploy to use the Muslim majority by the Ashrafs, who shared nothing in common with them, nor were even remotely concerned about their their socio economic upliftment. The book provides instances where the Ashrafs openly opposed teaching of these Atraps/Ajlafs beyond the primary schools, lest it destabilize society. They facilitated/established Anjumans who played an important role in carrying forward the agenda of Muslim separatism and exclusivity.

3. This ideological agenda was supplemented by the clash of economic interests between the predominantly Muslim peasantry and Hindu Bhadralok landlords and moneylenders, the grievances of the former soon acquiring a communal colour, such communal sentiments were further nurtured and promoted by the Ashrafs and the Anjumans.

4. The colonial government, on the demands of the Muslim notables, started a policy of preferential treatment for the Muslim community, both in education and for political representation. Instead of assuaging the Muslim insecurity, this in turn further heightened facilitating enhanced Muslim exclusivity. The author argues that the Ashrafs in Bengal suffered from a degree of xenophobia, even though they constituted a majority in the province. He states that these Ashrafs fundamentally derived their attitude from the UP Muslims, who by any standards were an extremely privileged minority, demanding ‘adequate’ representation for themselves in the services as well as in the elected bodies, in excess of their numerical proportion to protect their future in a Hindu majority province.

5. The rise of nationalism in Bengal, the leadership of which at times used symbols and slogans which could be construed as Hindu, like Kali Puja, use of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata, also became a source of Muslim alienation, not only from the national movement but also from the Hindus. One major cause of communal tension also leading to major riots, revolved around the issue of cow slaughter; the Muslims insisting on it while the Hindus opposing it. The hardliners of both the communities took an uncompromising stand on it, leading to massive and murderous communal riots in many places of Bengal.

A wonderful read.

Book Review: Ideology and Identity, The Changing Party Systems of India by Pradeep K Chhibber and Rahul Verma

Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma write a very interesting and thought provoking book. The book challenges the conventional wisdom held by many, that the competition amongst political parties in India as well as Indian elections are not based on ideological differences, but revolve around the politics of patronage and vote buying. It argues that since independence, Indian politics and party systems are rooted in ideological differences these having become more, not less ideological in recent years.

  • The authors argue that the ideological cleavage around which which western democracies were organised (as defined by Lipset and Rokkan) were the four axis of capital versus labour, centre versus periphery, cities versus rural areas and church versus state. However, these are not the axis around which ideological cleaves are formed in the Indian political party system. Instead, it is organised around the two axis of ‘politics of statism’ and the ‘politics of recognition’. ‘Statism’ is the idea that the state should exercise substantial influence on social and economic policy, the state intervening actively in remaking social norms and practices, and also to redistribute wealth in society. ‘Recognition’, on the other hand, is the intervention by the state for correcting group based social inequalities and the state working to accommodate the interests of historically marginalized social groups. Making use of the CSDS data since 1967, they argue that ideological divisions between these two types of politics have remained stable for over the 50 years now. They argue that since 1996, more and more voters make up their mind early as to which party they would vote for, indicating the greater influence that ideology has started playing in elections, even over campaign promises and freebies.
  • The authors argue that both these cleavages ie. the ‘politics of statism’ and ‘politics of recognition’, had sufficient tradition/intellectual capital in Indian political as well as mass of social support, who stood for or against ‘statism’ and ‘recognition’, thus creating conditions around which political parties could be organised. The traditional Indian political and philosophical thought argued of the primacy of society over state (unlike in the western tradition), had a strong welfarist orientation (job of the ruler to look after the masses), but not on the redistribution of wealth. This tradition was challenged by modernists like Nehru and Ambedkar. The authors use the CSDS/Lokniti National Election Survey (NES) data to argue that while these cleavages have been around for a long time, they became more pronounced in the 2014 election, where a distinct rightward shift was seen in both the politics of ‘statism’ and politics of ‘recognition’. The factors informing this rightward shift was the transformational leadership of Narendra Modi as well as the perception of corruption associated with the UPA government, and its statist policies of welfarism rather than aspiration.
  • Interestingly, they argue that the perception that the voters can be bought is false (they use use NES 2009 and 2014 data as well as cite ethnographic work by Bjorkman (2014) to justify their argument), and all that money does in elections is to probably act as a substitute for party organization. However, ideology has a much greater affect on voter behaviour, for that makes them identify with a party thereby making them more committed voters. They also discuss the impact that transformational leaders committed to an ideological vision, as well as vote mobilisers have in transmitting party ideology and also mobilising voters in their favour. The book also has chapters dealing with the decline of the Congress and the rise of the ideological right in form of BJP. ideological rise of and the ideological consolidation of the right manifested in the rise of the BJP.

The book makes for an interesting read, though frankly speaking in my view, the data questions around which the authors have built their argument are not exhaustive enough. While I would not challenge the conclusions in toto, but there is surely a need for a more focused research on the role ideology plays in organising political parties as well as in Indian elections.

Book Review: Republic of Hindutva by Badri Narayan

When we discuss Indian scholars who are actually seminal research at the grass root level, Badri Narayan Sir for me comes right at the top. In a way this work of his carries forward from his earlier work, “Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron politics and Dalit mobilization”.

The book has 6 chapters which deal with the following issues;

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the RSS and a short description of its functioning. It also provides an insight into how the RSS tries to identify as well as fulfill the aspirations/desires of the most marginalized castes in the country.

Chapter 2 provides an insight into how the marginal groups like Dalits, tribals and even minorities are being coopted into the Hindutva fold, and how the RSS carries its mobilization campaigns amongst them.

Chapter 3 deals with the changing nature of polarization in Indian electoral politics and as to why RSS today does not find exacerbation of communal tensions and communal riots in its interest.

Chapter 4 and 5 deal with the role that RSS plays in electoral politics of India and its relationship with the BJP during elections, especially in the last 2 Lok Sabha elections.

Chapter 6 deals with the challenges that the RSS is likely to face going forward and how they are likely to resolve them.

For me the most important chapter in the book was the epilogue which highlighted the changes that the outbreak of Chinese virus has created in the society. The creation of a ‘bio public’ which has started valuing biological safety over all other entrenched social considerations provides in my view, both an opportunity as well as a challenge for Hindutva.

A good and very easy read, written in a pretty lucid style.

(PS: If you have been following the Hindutva movement for long, you will find the book great, but will not find much you don’t already know)

Book Review: The Shadow Commander by Arash Azizi

I got interested in the life and activity of the late Iranian general Qassem Soleimani after reading a 2013 article about him, with the same title as this book which was published in the New Yorker magazine. Since then had been following his activities till his death in January 2020. This book by Iranian scholar and journalist Arash Azizi, is not only the biography of Major General Soleimani, chronicling his life, but also about the general events that shaped and conditioned his life, making him the second most powerful man in contemporary Iran after the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

My main takeaways;

  1. Born in 1957, in a village in Iran’s Kerman province he moved to the provincial capital at the age of 18, to work in the water department there. As a teenager new to the capital, he was more interested in honing his karate skills than in religion or politics. Ironically when he sought to join the emerging Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC), he was rejected by the young recruiter. He could join the organisation only later, thanks to the Iran Iraq war where the general population needed to be mobilised for ‘sacred defence’ of Iran. In course of time, IRCG became the most powerful armed force in Iran, eclipsing even the Iranian regular army. So it was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980 which shaped Soleimani’s destiny. As Azizi notes, “Were it not for Saddam’s attack on Iran and the mass mobilization that came with it, the likes of Soleimani might have continued their lives on the margins.”
  2. Starting his career in the IRCG where his first assignment was to guard the provincial airport at Kerman, he soon rose through the ranks, thanks to his devil may care attitude and desire to lead from the front. He got seriously injured twice in the battlefield. Impressed by his leadership capability and bravery, he was given command position at the age of 25. During this war, he also developed and honed his rhetorical skills, invoking God and “the religious folkloric tradition that every Shi’a boy or girl would instantly recognize,”, a skill he later used effectively to inspire and motivate the future militias that he commanded in battlefields across the Middle East.
  3. After the war ended, he was given the responsibility of taking on the powerful drug smuggling gangs in Iran’s southeast, an area over which the central government of Iran had never managed to exercise total control. He dealt major blows to these gangs through his hands-on military approach, leading from the front as well as enlisting the support of the locals. Being a tribal himself from these areas, he understood how to handle the tribes and win their loyalty.
  4. During the Afghan conflict Iran firmly sided with the Northern Alliance and the legendary Ahmad Shah Masood with Soleimani being the point man dealing with him.  In 1998 when he was promoted as the Commander of the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force, Soleimani oversaw Iran’s campaign against the Taliban.
  5. After 9/11 when the United States attacked Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban, Iran whole heartedly cooperated with the United States. The Americans were quite taken aback by the support the Iranians were providing them, and that too so openly. It looked like a new beginning was being made in the relationship of the erstwhile foes, but then as it happens many times in history, one false statement ruins it all. Much to the surprise and chagrin of seasoned diplomatic hands like Ryan Crocher, who was coordinating with the Iranians, President Bush in his State of the Union Address, written by the neo- con David Frum, categorised Iran as an ‘Axis of Evil’. This completely derailed all cooperation that Iran was affording the USA, the liberals led by President Khatami (who were calling for cooperation with the USA) panned and discredited by the hardliners. Iran and USA’s loss was Pakistan’s gain, for if the relationship between USA and Iran had continued its positive trajectory, Pakistan would have lost much of its geo strategic primacy for the USA in the Afghan war, as an alternative GLOC could have been available through Iran.  
  6. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, overthrew Saddam Hussain, Soleimani set about cementing Iran’s influence in the New Iraq. This was followed by expanding Iran’s influence in the region – in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. He was not only a Military commander but also controlled the foreign policy of Iran for these regions. He declared in his infamous communique to U.S. General David Petraeus in Iraq, “I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran when it comes to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.” Constantly on the move, the book recalls how stories circulated about him “having breakfast in Beirut, lunch in Damascus, and dinner in Baghdad,” all in pursuit of his tireless effort to build “a transnational army”. Various Islamist groups of the region like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were either controlled or deeply influenced by the Iranians.
  7. In 2014, when ISIS captured Iraq’s second city Mosul and rampaged across northern Iraq, Soleimani once again took a hands-on approach, organizing Shi’a militias and sending arms to the besieged Iraqi Kurds. He helicoptered into the besieged Iraqi Shi’a Turkmen city of Amerli to help organize Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga to repel ISIS. His photographs on many battlefields across Iraq and Syria made him a celebrity both in USA and in Iran. I remember, his walking on the streets of Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit, shortly after the IRGC controlled militias displaced IS in 2015, was repeatedly shown on TV.
  8. And as they say- pride goes before a fall. Drunk on the feeling of his invincibility he did the thing which cost him his life. My study of IR and geo politics has taught me two basic facts – (a) you do what you want to do, but don’t get USA so worked up that it loses its sense of proportion and (b) never ever attack the Russians in Russia, in history all powers doing so have been ruined. While President Trump and Soleimani were exchanging a war of words in December 2019 a Kataib Hezbollah rocket attacked and killed a U.S. civilian contractor in Kirkuk. In response the U.S. launched a series of airstrikes killing several members of the group in both Iraq and Syria. Azizi writes, “One would now expect Soleimani to back off,”..“But he had no such intentions. On his direct order, Kataib Hezbollah supporters marched on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, putting it under effective siege. The shadow commander had played his hand badly” (by making USA really angry and lose its sense of proportion). An angry President Trump, fearing the repeat of the siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, ordered the killing of Soleimani, who was blown up at Baghdad Airport on 3 January 2020 in a drone strike. The Iranian Supreme Leader however, seemed to have learned his lesson….he hectored on revenge…but the missiles that the Iranians launched on the American bases in Iraq as a retaliatory measure,  landed far enough from the base that no American soldiers was killed. J  
  9. Interestingly, it is his daughter Zeinab Soleimani who has been declared his successor, who has been calling for the revenge of her father’s death during his funeral. As it is her name has a special resonance with Shia Islam! She later married the son of Hezbollah’s Chief, Hassan Nasrallah’s cousin, Hashim Safi Al-Din, who many argue might succeed Nasrallah. Esmail Qaani, has succeeded Soleimani as the Chief of the Quds Force, but so far he has been no match to Soleimani, much to the relief of many in the region.

A nice read.

Book Review: What is Existentialism by Simone de Beauvoir

First things first, and an unpopular opinion. After having read Sartre and also de Beauvoir, I have no hesitation in saying that she was a better mind, with greater felicity of expression than the former.

After having struggled with Sartre, Heidegger and Kierkegaard, what a pleasure it is to read a book so lucid as this. उन सब को जो पूरा समझ ले वो नोबल का हक़दार। (An unpopular opinion), but when you read those three, apart from being struck by their brilliance, you are also left thinking as to what was the need for them to write so abstrusely….when the essence of what they wrote could be summarised in this one sentence, ‘Human existence precedes essence, human beings are condemned to be free and faced with difficult choices in life, all these choices are contextual and change with changing times, and no choice is good for eternity, that it makes sense only in here and now.’ ….So now go and bloody make those choices, don’t ask us, existentialist philosophers for answers!’

As someone deeply influenced by the principles that existentialism espouses, (for me it is more a praxis than philosophy) it is a praxis of living in time and space, here and now, and making those difficult choices that life throws at you. So as Sartre says, ‘we condemned to be free’..and that freedom devolves on only us to make our choices. Even not making a choice is a choice. ‘तुम जानो और ज़िम्मेदारी लो!, is the maxim! And that is what makes this praxis/philosophy so powerful for me. It imposes upon you a responsibility to think and understand constantly, diligently and in all its ramifications. This act of thinking and understanding cannot be outsourced, even if it is, the burden of final outcome is yours and yours alone, for you ‘freely’ agreed to act on the advice provided. Surely, as circumstances change, the decisions need reevaluation. So all thinking is contextual and is finite. There are no ‘infinite’, ‘universal’ or ‘higher’ values that can provide answers to all questions for all times.

Such demands are bound to lead to frustration and finally make one realise the futility of it all; क्या बॉस, कुछ भी पूरी तरह सही नहीं है दुनिया में। How long can you live with the weight of this ambiguity and relativity? Finally the ‘absurdity’ of it all is bound to hit you…दुनिया और आप भी एक बेसिक्ली तमाशा ही हैं। But is it all meaningless, as reading the works of Camus fills you with? Many have criticised it as a pessimistic philosophy. But is it? I don’t think so. In fact existentialism constantly demands on you to understand and reflect more deeply on issues, for only then informed choices can be made. Further it makes you understand that much of things/issues/situations are grey and the (so called) best answer/solutions/responses to them can only be contextual, situational and finite, and at times only partially optimal. No answer one arrives at can be true to that it remains valid for all times to come or leads one to a utopia. Taking this argument forward, existentialists disregard the belief that certain social or moral values provide the a-priori framework for judging issues as wrong or right for all times to come.

In this book, Beauvoir uses the characters of ‘Pyrrhus and Cineas’ to take us through the main ideas of existentialism and touches upon how these ideas relate to God, the rest of humanity and one’s own experience of living. In a way the book carries forward from Sartre’s introduction to existentialism ie. “Man is condemned to be free”, de Beauvoir then asking. ‘And what after that?’….

Lovely read! 

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