Book Review: The line of control, Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani armies by Happymon Jacob.

Happymon Jacob writes a very engaging book. I purchased this book yesterday evening and could not put it down until I had finished it. I needed about 6 odd hours to finish the book but not once did I feel bored or tired. In fact when I picked up this book I was in the midst of reading two other books, Kamleshwar’s ‘Kitne Pakistan‘ and Zaki Chehab’s ‘Inside Hamas’, but once I started reading this book, I had no desire to go back to these 2 books!

Here are my main takeaways from the book;

1. The book not only deals with the lives/experiences of the officers and jawans living on both sides of the LOC but also provides a glimpse of the lives lived by the civilians inhabiting these areas. The author writes with great empathy and understanding of their day to day trials and tribulations, caught as they are between the high politics of both nations.

2. One important reason why everyone needs to read this book is to understand the importance of terrain with reference to the LC. When the great nationalists come and froth on TV every night arguing as to how we should go around destroying every available bunkers of the Pakistanis (interestingly a few of them are former infantry officers), we need to understand that India does not dominate all heights in all sectors. Further the foliage and elephant grasses create operational problems when one seeks to check infiltration (of course, ably assisted by the Pakistani army). The author also brings out the reasons for many CFVs, which can mostly be characterized as driven by tactical and local factors, though sometimes they may be strategic too.

3. While the chapters and anecdotes about his visits to Pakistan make for an interesting and fun read, and can be categorised as ‘adventure’, but the curious Pakistan watcher in me was left wanting for more. You drink but you are not quenched. Many of the things that Pak army officers say in the book are well known to even cursory Pak watchers. Well if the author is not self censoring himself then reading the book only reinforces my long held view that come what may, Pak army will always continue to see itself as a force whose fundamental interest/job is to challenge India’s rise in every possible way. Of course, their tactics will vary based on situational exigencies. No where did I get any hint of any major rethink by the Pak army about their views on India. “Inshallah we will prevail” continues to remained a belief and dogma. So looks like people like us who have not visited Pakistan have not missed much. After all all you then have to do is to you need read the Hilal every month (Thankfully it is available online for free) and you know all you need to know about the thinking of Pak army.

4. Where I differ with Happymon Sir is what he writes in the last chapter. I understand he comes from a left leaning persuasion but I find his concern about the rise of so called nationalism in India, way of the mark. My humble disagreement with him is that he is conflating xenophobia and religious intolerance with the noble sentiment that is nationalism. A nationalist is one who thinks about his/her nation first. And if you indeed think about the interests of your nation first, you would surely be clinical in analysing what those interests are and how to best achieve them. Borrowing the Kautilyan lexicon, it might involve sam, daam, dand bhed! I would consider myself as a hard nosed nationalist believing in the motto of “India First”, and I can see how the jingoistic stupidity of the so called nationalist media restricts freedom of action for the executive in achieving our national priorities and interests. So I would characterise their use of nationalism for higher TRPs as ‘faux nationalism’ (rather than nationalism) and those championing this faux nationalism as ‘pretender nationalists’ (rather than nationalists)!

All in all an excellent read. It also made me nostalgic about my own trip to LC. It was like re-living those moments again, including the lovely chai and pakoras!


Book review: The nine lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh

I had been reading some pretty heavy but interesting stuff (one which demands note making if you really want to retain stuff that you have read) these days, “Mohajir and the Nation”, “Defending Muhammad in Modernity”, “Fateful Triangle” and “Muslims and the Media Images”. Meanwhile purchased this book…

I have been a regular reader of Declan Walsh’s articles from Pakistan and was also intrigued when he was declared a persona non grata and asked to leave Pakistan in 2013 by the Government Of Pakistan (read agencies). The logic failed me, for his stories were mostly sympathetic to Pakistan. In this book he provides the answer as to why he was asked to leave Pakistan; for reporting on Baluchistan. An old ISI hand who was tasked with trailing him during his visit to Quetta on his reporting assignment but who subsequently left the organisation, and was now seeking an asylum in Europe, finally sought him out and told him the reason of his expulsion in 2019. Personally, apart from this chapter, if you are a Pakistan watcher, there is hardly anything new that this book tells you. Walsh tries to explain the contradictions that is Pakistan (but if you ask me objectively, which country on earth is not?), where opposites like westernization and philistinism exists with traditionalism and medievalism, votaries of liberal and secular values challenge state narratives and fissiparous tendencies coexist with Pakistani nationalism.

The biographies of personalities like Jinnah, Anwar Kamal Marwat Khan, Asma Jahangir, Salman Taseer, Col Imam, Chaudhary Aslam Khan, Nawab Akbar Bughti provides the palimpsest on which are written the stories of Pakistani contradictions (and for me it’s resilience). Now if you are a Pakistan watcher, these are pretty well known figures and so are their stories. Declan’s journalistic take on these personalities and their stories had nothing new to add for me personally. So this made it a pretty easy read for me…a break from the heavy stuff I was reading which demanded making notes…(सो बिस्तर पे लेट के नहीं पढ़ सकते आप)…The book finished in a day…! But let me add, if you are not an avid Pakistani follower, then this book should be on your ‘to read’ list. It will help you understand the country better.

Book Review: Defending Muhammad in Modernity by SherAli Tareen

SherAli Tareen defines his book as ‘…the first comprehensive study of Barelvi Deobandi controversy, a polemical battle that shaped South Asian Islam and Muslim identity in singularly profound ways.’ On the title of the book he says, ‘The book is called Defending Muhammad in Modernity because the intra-Muslim conflict it details centered on the competing imaginaries of Prophet Muhammad. What image of the Prophet should anchor a Muslim’s normative orientation and everyday life? This question, at the kernel of Barelvi-Deobandi controversy assumed unprecedented urgency in the modern colonial moment. The condition of being colonized generated tremendous anxiety as well as anticipation about the aspiration of constructing and ideal Muslim public.

‘My main takeaways from the book;

1. At the outset I must commend the author for debunking in no uncertain terms this false binary, which has acquired great currency, more so after 9/11 about Sufi Islam being the peaceful, folkish Islam, unconnected to Sharia (so the good Islam which needs to be promoted) as against the legalistic, puritan and fanatical Deobandis, Ahl-e- Hadith and Wahabi sects who insist on implementation of the Sharia (so the bad Islam which needs to be managed/repressed). While it is nobody’s call that interpretive difference don’t exist amongst these schools of thought, but as an ‘adna sa’ student of Islam I find it hilarious, when Sufis are projected as people having nothing to do with the sharia/law. The Sufis do not reject the law and its imperatives, but consider it as the first step in the hierarchy which would lead them to finally attain higher spiritual fulfilment (Sharia -Tariqa – Haqiqa).

2. The book begins with the completing political theology of Shah Muhammad Ismail and Fazl-i-Haq Khayrabadi. The main polemical discussion between these two scholars centered around the themes of prophetic intercession (shafa’at), God’s capacity to lie (imkan-i-kizb) and to produce another Prophet Muhammad (imkan-i-inzir). While traditional Islamic sources and also the Quran do document Prophet’s capacity of intercession, the scope of that capacity has been a matter of intense debate. Ismail (I would argue following the Mutazalite and the Wahabi tradition) places limits on the Prophet’s capacity to intercede on behalf of the sinners. He argues that if Prophet had unlimited capacity of intercession, this surely undermined divine sovereignty thus encouraging heresies and corruption amongst the masses. On this, Khayrabadi disagreed vehemently with Ismail accusing him of insulting the Prophet. The book provides interesting original references which both scholars provided in support of their argument. Similarly, on the issue of creating another Muhammad, Ismail argued that God had the capacity to enact an exception. In his book ‘Taqwiyat-al-Iman’ he declared (his most controversial comment), ‘God is so powerful that in one moment, just by uttering the command ‘Be’, he can create millions of new prophets, saints, jinn’s, angels, Gabriels and Muhammads.” This was rebutted by Khayrabadi in his Persian work ‘Taqrir-i-itirrazatbar Taqwiyat al Islam’ with the argument that accepting the possibility of a second Muhammad equates to accepting that God can lie and renege on his promise of Muhammad’s finality. This makes the possibility of God being defective, for lying was a defect and God cannot be defective. Carrying the debate further, Ismail wrote in his work ‘Yak Roza’ that God did indeed possess the capacity to lie and that he could contravene his own promise. Men had the capacity to lie, and so to argue that God could not do something which humans were capable of doing, was saying that human capacity exceeded the divine capacity. But he drew the distinction between potentiality (imkan) and actuality (wuqu) and stated that though God did have the capacity to create a million new Muhammad’s and to contravene his own promise, he would never actually do it. So the creation of the second Muhammad was not essentially impossible (mumtana bil dhat) but only indirectly impossible (mumtana bil ghayr). Therefore, basically he was in complete agreement with Khayabadi that there had never been, or never could be another Muhammad. It was totally impossible for God to either lie or create another Muhammad but this was so because this did not fit with his theological programme.

3. The book elaborates in some detail as to what the various Islamic scholars viewed as the limits of Prophet’s normative practice (sunna) and its transgression, resulting in innovation (bida) resulting in seeking to rival God’s authority as sovereign legislator. For the Muslim scholars of the Indian subcontinent the main issue surrounding ‘bidda’ was the question as to when the customary conventions (rasm) began to oppose and threaten the monopoly of the divinely ordained order i.e. the sharia? The Deobandis were principally concerned with protecting the primacy of religious obligations against the threat of seemingly pious and spiritually rewarding rituals which though ‘permissible’ (mubah) but were not obligatory. They were fearful that the masses may mistake such voluntary act of piety as obligatory. In their view bida was much more dangerous than other sins for it could wear the mask of religion. These rasm and their practice gets so deeply ritualized in the community that anyone abandoning it ends up facing rebuke and censure. Ali Thanvi argued that the rasm of ‘fatiha’ done for transmitting blessings to the deceased (isal-i-sawab) where food items were distributed amongst family and community members had got so completely corrupted that it had become bidda. The original logic of the ritual was on feeding the destitute relatives of the deceased as an act of charity, but in the present day Ismail argued, the Indian Muslims had become ‘so attached to the specific mode of performing the ritual that the original purpose and rationale was lost on them’. Ismail stated that if food was given to the family members saying it was for charity, or was meant for destitute, many family members would not even accept it.

4. The most interesting chapter for me in the book was the contestation amongst Indian Deobandi and Barelvi scholars over ‘Mawlid’, the celebration of Prophet’s birthday and the practice of standing up in his honour to offer him salutations and receive his blessings (qiyam). The opponents of qiyam argue that by believing that the Prophet can make simultaneous appearances at multiple mawlid function accords him with divinity and challenges divine sovereignty. The Deobandis, as we know oppose the practice of Mawlid (as is practiced in India) with Ali Thanvi considering it bida. The main argument they advance in support of their contention is as given in point 3 above, that the practice was elevated from mere permissible to what the masses have now started believing to be obligatory. The Barelvis of course as ‘ashiq-e-Rasool’ disagree. They argue that the corruption in such practices need to be rectified rather than changing the practice in toto (as changing the dates of celebration suggested by Deobandis) or abandoning it all together.

5. What comes through quite clearly is that the scholars of both the schools, Barelvis as well as Deobandis show a great deal of distrust with regards the intellectual capability of the masses. They believe that left to themselves they are prone to go astray. They need constant guidance from the religious Ulemas so that the moral order of the Muslim society is preserved.

An excellent read.

Book Review: Delhi in Historical Perspectives by K.A. Nizami translated by Ather Farouqui

At the outset Ather Sahab deserves a big thanks for having sent me this book. I would rate this book as one of the best books on Delhi that I have read. Deeply researched with references drawn from original sources, the book provides detailed insight into the social, political (fleetingly), economic and cultural life of the city spanning seven centuries.

Beginning with the early history of the city, it divides itself into 3 chapters, Delhi under the Sultanate, Delhi under the Mughals and Ghalib’s Delhi. The vicissitudes that this world city faced, it’s days of glory, of sackings by marauders, losing it’s capital status to Agra, the revival of the glorious days under Shah Jahan and then the fury of the British, following the first war of Independence in 1857, all are brought out so lucidly in the book.

It is important to note that even when Delhi saw it’s political and economic status diminished, it never lost its cultural effervescence, an effervescence rooted in the shared cultural values of the elites of the time.

An excellent read! मज़ा आ गया पढ़ने में!

Book Review: The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

There are some books you wait for a long time to procure (was horrendously expensive in India) and when you do manage to get it (discarded copy from a university library in the US), you do the obvious….read it in one sitting.

I had heard/read about this book while doing my research on the Syrian civil war and had them come across this statement by the Lebanese writer, Lina Mounzer who said, “Whenever anyone asked her the question, Why the Syrian revolution?, her answer was always this book”.

While the book is classified as a work of fiction, it is not purely so, for it is based on the actual experiences of the author during his incarceration by the Assad regime from 1982 to 1994 in the dreaded Tadmur prison in the desert land, north west of Damascus. Unlike Khalifa who is a Muslim, the main character who undergoes incarceration is the Christian and atheist Musa. Reading his interview, I came to know that during his internment one of his closest friend was a Christian and in this book he merged his prison experiences with the thoughts of his Christian friend to create the character of Musa.

Like Khalifa, Musa in this novel, went off to a university in France, where he studied art and film direction. When he returned from Paris in 1982, upon his arrival he was arrested at Damascus airport. Musa was initially branded as a member of the Muslim brotherhood and subjected to severe torture. When he professed that he was a Christian and an atheist and so could not be a member of the MB, the situation actually worsened for him as the other inmates boycotted him arguing that he must be a government agent and spy while the prison officials simply ignored him. It is only later that we come to know that the main reason for his arrest was that he had made a silly joke about the President in one of the parties in Paris. (Reminded me of the 2 year incarceration and solitary confinement in the Anda cell of Aurther jail, that poet Majrooh Sultanpuri had to undergo, when he had written a poem deriding Chacha ji for trying to keep India in the commonwealth).

Written in a direct diary like literary style, the novel on the one hand with its portrayal of never ending torture, killings and brutalization filled me with deep despair, on the other hand it also provided me with a glimpse into human resilience and nobleness of character, thereby filling me with hope. In his interview Khalifa says that many of his prison inmates qualify as the finest human beings he had ever met or was likely to meet. There are poignant tales of prisoners volunteering to take the quota of lashings for other prisoners who were weak or ill, higly qualified inmate doctors helping other inmates who were sick and deep rooted friendship that developed amongst inmates which helped them tide over the unending torture and brutalization launched by prison authorities. These days I have been trying to read a bit on the mental resilience training of the Navy Seals, and must say some of the techniques that the inmates used to withstand torture and not breakdown, was no less than those practiced by the Seals. The book provides a deep insight of the psychological impact that long prison sentences and torture can have on people.

Finally, all I can say is that a book like this should be a must read for those ‘maganubhaws’ who have dulled their minds to the impact that long term incarceration, solitary confinement and torture could have on people. But I guess, I am asking them for too much. Given their level of narrow mindedness, lack of understanding and empathy, it actually is too much of an ask!

Book Review: The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas by Amb. Phunchok Stobdan

Ambassador Stobdan writes an interesting and I daresay a controversial book. The main theme of the book, is the game of cultural and philosophical influence building that the Tibetans (and the Chinese) are playing in the Buddhist Himalayan region of India with a view to undermine Indian Buddhist philosophical traditions. What makes this book controversial is that he considers the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Buddhism as an active instrument being used by China, to further its agenda of cultural domination.

My main takeaways;

1. Ambassador Stobdan is one of the few Indian diplomat and strategic expert who understands the different schools/sects of Buddhist traditions in the Himalayan region. He also has a keen understanding of the historical relationship/engagement between the Chinese court and the Tibetans. While the dominant Buddhist sect in Tibet is the Gelugpa, headed by the Dalai Lama, which was founded in the 15th century by Tsongkhapa, in the Southern Himalayas (which encompasses Indian Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan), the older tradition that of Guru Padmasambhav is revered and is in vogue. The Nyingmapa sect has been associated with this tradition as had been other older sects/traditions like the Kagyu sect headed by the Karmapa, and Sakya sect based in Dehradun. Amb. Stobdan laments that these older traditions of Indian Buddhism are gradually being overshadowed and taken over by the Tibetan Gelugpa Sect. Historically the Tibetans have always been on a constant drive to entrench their Gelugpa sect in the southern Himalayas with many monasteries of Indian sects and traditions being taken over by them. He argues that this is being done with the tacit acceptance of New Delhi and blames New Delhi for its failure to understand the future geo strategic implication of this. While many think that Tibet is the vulnerable underbelly of China, he argues that if and when the Dalai Lama and the Chinese reconcile, or when the Chinese take over that institution (as they are likely to do after the Dalai Lama passes away), this could well lead to a Chinese sphere of influence in the strategic and sensitive Himalayan region of India.

2. Amb. Stobdan considers the stay of Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees in India as having been disruptive for India China relations. A study of history reveals that the Tibetans have regularly used the Chinese court to further their geo political interests. For example, while the Tibetan delegation had signed the treaty defining the Macmohan line in 1914, at the Shimla convention, later they refused to ratify it on the ground that the Chinese, who were their suzerain authority, had not ratified it. Soon after Indian independence in 1947, the Tibetan authorities wrote a letter to Nehru (who the author says was quite stunned to receive the letter) asking him to return all those territories to Tibet that the British had incorporated into India. This included parts of Ladakh and also Tawang. This demand preceded even the establishment of Communist China. In the initial years of his exile in India, the Dalai Lama was ambivalent on the question if the areas of Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh were indeed a part of the Indian Union. It was only later that he affirmed that they were, only after his negotiations with the Chinese had broken down.

3. An important assertion made by the author is that while the Chinese have understood the important role that Buddhism could play in the furtherance of their geo-political interest and soft power, India, despite being the place where Buddha attained enlightenment, has failed to use Buddhism as a potent instrument in the fostering bonds/connectivity with the Buddhist world. President Xi is not only focusing on building the OBOR, but has also embarked on the path of making China the world leader in Buddhism. It seems that he has been influenced by his father Xi Zhengxun, who while presenting his 11,0000 word in Document 19, had warned the party against banning religious activity in China for such a ban ending up alienating people. One of his signature line was, ‘If people have faith, the nation has hope, and the country has strength’. Not only has President Xi built several temples but also taking a cue from the practices of the Chinese imperial era, he has started using Tibetan cultural connectivity to expand Chinese influence in the Indian Himalayan Belt, Mongolia, and other South East countries. The OBOR in Nepal is sought to be linked with Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini and in Pakistan it is the Gandhara Trail which seeks to link Lahore, Taxila and Peshawar. China has reactivated the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). In 2006 China held the World Buddhist Forum, drawing monks from across the world. Almost all prominent Buddhist institutions in the world have now fallen in BAC’s fold. The World Buddhist Sangha Council, founded in Sri Lanka is run by Chinese teachers. Similarly, the prestigious WFB, (founded in Sri Lanka in 1955 by 25 nations), headquartered in Bangkok is currently headed by Masters Hsing Yun and Yi Chen from China and Taiwan. So, while China has taken a cue from the Buddhist globalization and diplomacy, as was originally practiced by Ashoka and Kanishka, India has failed to revive and support larger Indian Buddhist traditions and their philosophical heritage. In this book he suggests several steps for doing so.

4. Where I disagree with Amb Stobdan is his assertion that India extended support to the Dalai Lama as a part of an American conspiracy against China. The anti-American sentiment of the author comes through openly in the book. While it is true that the Americans did support the Dalai Lama, but to assert that they wanted to use the Dalai Lama to foster animosity between India and China (China had been getting more and more antagonistic towards India much before the Dalai Lama made his escape) is slightly farfetched.

5. The author also points out to the future complexities that the Chinese may face on the Tibetan issue. Though China had managed to keep the Tibetan issue from boiling over, and with its rising power profile around the world, most countries have downgraded their support/relationship with the Dalai Lama, the situation inside may change with the death of Dalai Lama. With his moderating influence gone, maybe we might see a new wave of radicalization sweeping among the Tibetan youth, many of whom feel that the path of peaceful struggle espoused by the Dalai Lama has failed to achieve much. Also the issue of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama after his death may become another complicating factor.

All in all, a very good read, though the book could have done with some better editing. Many a times the facts mentioned have been repeated, either in subsequent paras or in the chapters that follow.

Book Review: Understanding Libya since Gaddafi by Ulf Laessing

Ulf Lessing, Bureau Chief of Reuter’s writes an important book about the happenings in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. My main takeaways;

1. Libya was stitched together as a nation by the Alled powers after they defeated Italy in WW II, merging three autonomous regions of eastern Cyrenaica, Tripolitania in the west and the sparsely populated Fezzan region in the South. These regions had limited contact with each other. As a result, tribal and family connections continued to have primacy, inhibiting the development of a national identity. King Idris al Sanoussi, who had led a movement against the Italians, was tasked by thr British and the French to rule the present day Libya when the country became independent in 1951. The 1951 constitution established a federal system headed by King Idris wherein power was shared between the provinces and the states with the provinces being powerful enough to obstruct federal initiatives. King Idris was a reluctant ruler, and had a consensual style. So family and tribal connections continued to be more important than a larger national Libyan identity. He was overthrown in a coup by Col Gaddafi on 1 Sept 1969, who then ruled Libya with an iron hand for the next 42 years till 2011, when a popular uprising overthrew him. His Gaddafism ( if I may call it as such) was a curious mix of socialism, Islam and pan- Arabism. (You need to read his Green Book, to understand Gaddafi’s muddled ideology – a book I had but was conveniently stolen by one of my friends 😒)

2. The world seemed to be taken aback at the speed with which the Gaddafi govt was overthrown. We get a glimpse of why this happened in the book. First, Weak Army: Gaddafi kept the national army purposely weak, so that they could not undertake a coup against him. Instead, he created a police state with myriad security agencies to keep a track on each other. Instead of the army, brigades from his tribe Gadhadfa and other tribes considered loyal to him like Warfalla and Magaraha were strengthened. So when majority of other tribes revolted, his weak army and limited loyal tribal brigades could not protect him.
Second, his brand of Socialism: Any rational person knows that Socialism as a philosophy is a curse. Follow it and you are dead! Libya under Gaddafi was a state practising extreme socialism. All private enterprise was banned and to keep the population from revolting 75 percent of all Libyans were employed by the state. All the oil revenues went into funding the salaries of these employees, who basically did nothing productive with sectors like health. education and infrastructure completely neglected, fuelling anger amongst the people. The youth burdened with statism and lacking any opportunity of growth were the first to revolt.
Third, the curse of oil: Because oil money was used to fund Gaddafi’s socialism and all private enterprise was banned, Libya produced nothing and everything was imported from abroad. Oil exports ensured that Libyan currency commanded a higher value relative to the other currencies which made imports cheaper, thereby discouraging their local manufacture. All basic items consumed in the economy were imported and since private sector was declared as evil by Gaddafi, there was no domestic enterprise worth the name apart from Oil. The state had little surplus left after paying salaries to create industries even in the public sector. And even if they had been set up, they could never have competed with the cheap imports. (समाजवाद में तो ई तो होना ही है)

3. Post Gaddafi Libya has been reduced to an ungovernable chaos, the country having de-facto been divided into two states- with two separate administrations, one based in Tripoli and other in the East operating from Benghazi. While the Sherraj Govt based in Tripoli is recognised by the UN, it is Khalifa Haftar who rules in the east. All attempts at forming a national govt so far have failed. Different parts of the country are also under the effective control of militias.

4. The book also highlights the role international powers are playing in complicating and muddying the waters in Libya. While Turkey and Qatar supports the Sheeraj govt, which is considered more Islamist in its orientation, UAE, Arab states and Western powers support Khalifa Haftar. The militia driven civil war continues unabated in Libya with no end in sight soon.

A decent read, though at times tended to become repetitive. I give it a three and a half out of five.

Book Review: How India became Democratic by Ornit Shani

Ornit Shani writes well and she understands India. I had read her first book “Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism: The Violence in Gujarat” and had really enjoyed it. In fact I had read it when I was posted to Gujarat and the book really helped me in understanding the dynamics and the nuances of Gujarati society and polity.

This is her second book and is an equally fascinating account of the history of the administrative processes which let to the preparation of India’s first ever electoral roll. This was an unique exercise, conducted in anticipation of the laws to be passed for citizenship as well as promulgation of the constitution. The process began in 1947 (so that the rolls could be made ready by the time the constitution was promulgated and that the first elections were not delayed, but held in time) under the stewardship of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) and was a unique exercise as the electoral rolls prepared so far were severely restricted (as franchise itself was limited to certain classes of people) during the British rule. On top of it, the migration (both inbound and outbound) of refugees created complications in the enrollment of voters in an area. Further, princely states were still being integrated and were therefore governed by a different governance structure and laws.

This deeply researched book also highlights the participation by the press and ordinary citizens in preparation of this roll. This in turn made the ordinary citizenry of the country an active participant in the democratic process thereby helping in furthering a political imagination based on political equality and democracy.

For bureaucrats like us it is doubly inspiring for it shows what can be achieved with a leadership and organisation that is imbued with clear vision and dedication. Since much of the book is drawn from the normal notes/drafts from the files (archived in the EC) any bureaucrat reading the book could easily relate to the language of the book too. I however wish today’s bureaucrats like us could write draft/notes with as much felicity as our seniors of the 50’s did.

A lovely read.

Book Review: Republic of Religion, The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India by Abhinav Chandrachud

In this extremely interesting book, Abhinav Chandrachud explores independent India’s attempt at becoming a secular state. The book is divided into 6 chapters dealing with cow protection, freedom to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion, separate electorate, state interference in religious places (mostly management of temples), uniform civil code and personal laws and the mandated oath for witnesses in the court of law and for holding public offices. The book argues that the colonial secularism was imposed on a defeated people, was an unnatural foreign imposition and with the advent of independence was bound to come apart/modified. Chandrachud quotes extensively from the constituent assembly debates and the subsequent SC/HC judgements on the issues mentioned in his 6 chapters and they make for an extremely insightful and interesting reading.

1. Cow slaughter was permitted during the British period despite the provision of the Indian Penal Code that prohibited the destruction of ‘sacred’ objects of religions. This was because the Allahabad HC in its judgement of 1887 held that cows were living beings and thus not inanimate objects. However, post independence Art 48 was introduced in the constitution which called upon the state to take steps to prohibit cow slaughter. The Congress govts in many states enacted laws prohibiting cow slaughter and the SC in 1958 upheld the ban on cow slaughter based on the principle that cow slaughter was not obligatory in Islam. In its judgement in 2005 it held that all bulls and bullocks were useful because they produce ‘dung’ which is useful in agriculture and biogas production. So, a complete ban on cow slaughter is now permissible in India.

2. The colonial state had encouraged the activities of the Christian missionaries very nervously for they did not want any challenge to their rule. However a law was enacted in 1850 which stated that a person who converted to Christianity would not lose his right to inherit family property. Post independence though the state gave everyone the right to profess, practice or propagate their religion, the author argues that the soft secularism of Indian constitution has been designed to keep Hindus within their fold. States passed statutes which made conversion difficult and the SC in its judgement held that the right to propagate ones religion does not include the right to convert someone to another religion.

3. Separate electorates were introduced in 1909 with a view to keep the Muslims away from the national movement. The book elaborates in detail how on the letter by the Secretary of Aligarh College, Nawab Mehdi Ali Khan (better known as Mohsin ul Mulk) wrote a letter to Mr. W A Archbold if a Muslim delegation could meet the Viceroy in order to speak to him about the rights of the Muslims in India. It had so far been the practice of the British delegation never to meet a delegation of any one community. However, understanding that this was an opportunity to draw the Muslims away from the Congress and that the ‘educated Mohammedan is the most conservative element in Indian society’ the audience was granted and the Viceroy met a Muslim delegation led by Aga Khan. He requested for special privileges for the Muslims and that the Muslim seats in the ‘legislative councils should be commensurate not merely with the political strength of the Muslims, their political importance and the value of contribution they make to the defence of India…(but that) due consideration must also be given to the position that the Muslims occupied in India, a little more than 100 years ago and of which the traditions have not faded from their minds’. The colonial govt in its subsequent reports recognised that separate electorate was harmful for India because it created a ‘divided allegiance’ but colonial self interest drove them to further advance it to other communities. No wonder as soon as India achieved independence, separate electorate was abolished. Initially, there was some debate in the constituent assembly about reserved seats for Muslims but the Muslims representatives themselves, who were elected on ML tickets but chose to stay back in India, opposed the move arguing that the interests of the Muslims would be better served if there was goodwill between the Hindus and Muslims.

4. During the initial years of colonial rule, East India company took over the administration of many Hindu temples in the tradition of rulers they had replaced. However, under pressure from the Christian missionaries who considered both Hinduism and Islam as false and heathen religions, the govt started distancing itself from managing religious institutions. When the Indian legislators came to power they abandoned this form of colonial secularism and began the process of regulating and administering temples. The SC of India has permitted the govt to do so on the premise that administration of temples is a secular function, not essential to Hinduism.

5. While the Britishers had a uniform civil code for their citizens back home, in India, following the precedent of the Roman Empire they continued with a regime of separate ‘personal’ laws for different religious communities. Interestingly, the Britishers did legislate on ‘personal’ laws which dealt with the public sphere, like replacing the Hindu and the Muslim laws of contract, evidence and crimes and replaced them with secular codes. However, it was legislating on personal laws relating to family i.e. Sati abolition, permitting Hindu widows to remarry, raising age of sexual intercourse that created most opposition from the conservatives, and which was done by the govt with great reluctance and hesitation. The author argues that this difference between easy acceptance of changes in law dealing with public sphere and opposition to those dealing with family suggests that it had less to do with religion and more to the fact that it concerned the private. When Indian legislators came to power, they rejected the colonial secularism and actively sought to reform their personal laws. Also Art 44 of the constitution repudiated colonial secularism by abandoning the policy of religious non interference and directed the state to strive towards a uniform civil code. The Hindu code bill nearly governs 85 percent of Indians except Muslims, Christians and the Jews. The SC has continued following the ‘essence of religion’ argument in upholding the constitutional validity of many of these reforms.

6. The colonial state removed God from the public sphere by requiring public officials in British India to swear their oaths without any mention of God in them. The Constituent Assembly rejected this form of secularism by inserting the word ‘God’ into the constitution – public officials now have the option of swearing their oaths either in the name of God or on the basis of solemn affirmation. So the framers of Indian constitution, as brought out also in the constituent assembly debates, did not believe that secularism implied a Godless state.

Book Review: Islam on the Move, The Tablighi Jama’at in South East Asia by Farish A. Noor

Though I had read this book sometime back, actually speed read it, the recent incidents involving the Tablighis’ in the Chinese Wuhan virus episode made me go back and read this book again. This is considered to be an important work, deals with the rise and spread of the Tablighi Jamat in south east Asia. My main takeaways;

1. The book provides a detailed historical account of the growth and spread of the Tablighi Jamat in south east Asia, their foundational texts as well as theirpocket literature. He tries to answer this fundamental question if something like a ‘Tablighi identity’ or “Tablighi mindset” exists. The book also tries to provide an overview as to how other Muslims who are not Tablighis, view this movement.

2. It needs to be understood that the problem that Islam faced after the death of Prophet, was that the unifying principle of the Umma then shifted from the personality of the Prophet to his message. This message was obviously subject to various interpretations in the backdrop of the absent lawgiver. So now the Muslim community needed those who could reconstruct what the absent lawgiver would have done when confronted with this or that situation – so it was only in the absence of the Prophet that Islam became the nodal point of the Muslim community. Seen in that context, what did it mean to be a Tablighi? Explained in simple terms Noor defines the TJ as a ‘fundamentalist literalist movement that seeks to restore to the Muslim society a sense of pristine perfection of Islam at the foundational moment, when Islam was directly transmitted to the first community of believers from the Prophet itself….the core of the movement’s work lies in its missionary practices that focus primarily on the teachings of proper Muslim conduct in emulation of the life of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions (Sahaba).’ This makes up for the bulk of the TJs foundational literature. These include works by Tablighi’s founder leaders, Maulana Md. Ilyas Khandhalawi, Maulana Yusuf Khandhalawi and Maulana Md. Zakaria Khandalawi. At the heart of the corpus of foundational texts lie the 6 fundamental principles which outline the proper mode of religious conduct for the members of the movement. So the TJ is a missionary movement which seeks to ‘convert’ other Muslims to what they believe is the ‘true’ Islam. So, they believe that they alone are ‘authentic’ Muslims and others are Muslims only at the ‘nominal’ level. Apart from the foundational texts Noor also provides an insight into the pocket literature produced by the members of the Tablighi Jamat. These booklets provides important glimpses into the ‘mindset’ of the Tablighi Jaamatis. Some of the themes that find regular recurrence in these pocket books are ones like the presentation of the Salafis as regular bugbears for the Tablighis, highlighting how the world is inhabited by humans, Djinns and the Satan, and the struggles one needs to wage against the Satan, lest the temptations induced by these may derail all attempts by the Tablighis to lead a pious life.

3. In the course of his fieldwork, Noor finds two recurring themes in his interaction with people who became Tablighis. One was the wasteful and empty life they led with non Muslims and as slave to materialism before they became Tablighis and second that becoming Tabhligis was Allah’s call which saved them and drew them to the movement.

4. Seeking to imitate the Prophet has become an obsession with the Tablighis and according to them poverty and rejection of all materialism is a virtue, so is the rejection of all worldly temptations. The devil for them resides in toilets, cinemas, discos, nightclubs and other items of entertainment, poetry and fiction. They shun all new technologies and medicine as well as politics (though there are exceptions to this as the writer shows in the Singaporean Cabinet minister Sidek Saniff). Imitating the Prophet they stress on ‘dakwah’ which takes them on missions to propagate ‘true’ Islam around the world (khuruj).

5. Interestingly (more so in the light of what happened at the Markaz, Nizamuddin), India occupies a very important place in the life of the Tablighis. In his field work he found Tablighis regularly mentioning of the joy and spiritual solace that they witnessed when they visited India and during their stay there. May be this has to do because the movement originated in India.However, in none of their literature does he find reference to the fact that India is a Hindu majority country. India is presented as the centre of the world, the centre of Islam too. It is the place where Adam first set foot. Critics (mostly other Muslims who are not Tabhligis) highlight this primacy accorded to India rather than Arabia, the stress on poverty, becoming mendicants and living of alms etc a result of the corrupting Hindu influence on the Tablighis. They also condemn them for neglecting their families, especially their womenfolk and proceeding on their missionary missions (khuruj), a practice the critics argue is again influenced by Hindu sadhus. The political Islamists condemn their disinterest in politics and quietude as influences which stand in the way of Muslim acquiring political power. Noor quotes Nik Aziz, a leader of a radical Islamist party who criticises the Tablighi disinterest in politics thus, ‘They say things like ‘Muslims should only pray and leave the world to God’. That means that Muslims should avoid politics too. That is an Indian idea, all this denial of the world. If you deny politics, give up the world, then how will the Muslims ever come to power?’

6. Lastly, Noor deals with the issue of the TJ and its association with Islamic terrorism. In the recent years many former TJ associates have been found to be involved in radical Islamic terrorism. The author quotes B. Raman who argued that the movement had been at the forefront of Jihadi organisations and had been assisting radical Islamic groups. The author argues that this needs to be seen in the light of the fact that anyone can join the movement and that travelling on ‘khuruj’ provides them with a convenient camouflage to travel without getting noticed by the authorities. So many radical Islamists pretend to be Tablighis and may not be genuinely associated with the movement. While this may be true that it does not support terrorism and Islamic radicalism directly, however it cannot be denied that TJ believes and preaches that there is only one true religion i.e Islam, it also projects non believers as people who are ‘dirty’ and incapable of redemption. Inculcation of such beliefs and teachings amongst its followers does end up creating a sense of Islamic exclusivity and superiority, which in turn may/does provide a fertile ground on which seeds of Islamic radicalism and terrorism can be sown more easily.

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