Book Review: Ye Khamoshi Kahan Tak (Silent no more?) by Lt Gen (Rtd) Shahid Aziz

The late great Asma Jahangir once described Pakistan’s generals as ‘duffers’ on national TV. While it would be disingenuous to generalize a whole group as duffers, one can infer that within a strictly hierarchical structure as the army, loyalty to the force and to the commanders is considered a greater asset than intelligence or aptitude. A better experiment would be to take a look at the books written by various retired generals through the decades and reach a conclusion. It can also help us understand what type of characters are highly valued by the institution and thus given promotions. Many of the earliest officers in Pakistan Army wrote their memoirs including (but not limited to) General Ayub, General Sher Ali Khan, Air Marshal Asghar Khan and General Gul Hasan.  General Sher Ali Khan was an ‘ideologue’ of the elusive ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ while Ayub Khan and Asghar Khan had slightly more pragmatist views in that regard. Lt Gen Shahid Aziz belonged to the former category. According to his account, he was an honest officer who always put the interest of institution before any other interests.

He described himself in the following words in his book:

“Why am I full of contradiction? Why can’t I be balanced? Then I console myself with the thought that a pendulum has a balance too; what use is a balance that is static and frozen? Real balance is in movement. One should be flying back and forth on a swing.” (Translation: Khaled Ahmad)

Reading the book, one gets the impression that he was slightly more PakNationalist than the average military Joe and his levels of self-righteousness were high enough to prompt him writing that book. He knew exactly what he was doing and was a man of his (however flawed) convictions. He was the kind of guy who refused to vote for Zia in the sham referendum held in 1984, despite being asked by his superiors in the military, the type of officer who wouldn’t display a star and Pakistan’s flag on his staff car.  Musharraf obviously was wily enough to see through Shahid Aziz’s simplistic stupidity and didn’t promote him as the Vice-Chief of Army Staff. You can see his cognitive dissonance in the book that he has no shame (or self-awareness) appropriating Faiz’s work (the book is littered with poems by Faiz and Ahmad Faraz, both of whom were harsh critics of despotism and military rule in Pakistan and left the country rather than stay under a military dictatorship).

I think he’s the ultimate Nasim Hijazi character (Man on a white horse), someone who imbibed the whole PakNationalist Muslim narrative and decided to live accordingly. By PakNationalist Muslim narrative, I mean believing wholeheartedly in the ‘Two Nation Theory’, believing in conspiracy theories that the US-Israel-India nexus is constantly working to undermine the sovereignty of Pakistani state, holding the military at a higher pedestal than politicians and believing that Pakistani Islam is supposed to save the rest of Muslim world. Throughout the book, he refers to Taliban (of any variety) as ‘Mujahideen’, without any shame or remorse. His view about Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is the following:

“The bombs that kill innocent Pakistanis in bazaars and mosques are planted by friends of America, and this terrorism is done to persuade Pakistan to embrace America more closely, allow the government to pursue pro-America policies, and to alienate Pakistan from the mujahideen. But this trend of support to the killers of Muslims is an open rebellion against Allah.”

In the book, he mentioned two instances during his training in the US when he was approached by people who wanted him to leave Pakistan army and join the US army in the same position that he held in Pakistan. This sounds preposterous because you need to be a green-card holder or a national to enlist as an officer and you can’t be inducted straight as a commanding officer.

One of the more interesting (but not completely unsurprising) aspects of his book was the discussion of nepotism and corruption within the ranks of the army (especially corruption during weapons procurement and the way DHA scams people). Such things, if ever pointed out by civilians, would constitute heresy and treason. Another aspect that intrigued me was his criticism of war tactics during 1971 (he fought along the Kashmir border) and during Kargil (when he was part of ISI).

The most useful part of the book is when he discusses his role as a first-hand observer of Musharraf’s coup and its aftermath. He was also part of the team that selected people for running different ministries under Musharraf and he spilled the beans on how Ministers of Finance, Commerce, Trade, Industry, and Petroleum were ‘pre-selected’ and Shaukat Aziz never even appeared before the interview panel. He was initially optimistic about the monitoring mechanism put in place to hold the relevant ministers accountable but things didn’t work as smoothly or ideally as he wished. He laid the blame squarely at Bureaucracy’s feet.

His thoughts post-9/11 were:
“After 9/11 the bitter reality of a unipolar world was exposed. This incident happened under suspicious circumstances. A lot of American experts claim that this incident was orchestrated by American Intelligence Agencies and Jewish terrorists”.

He was bitter about the fact that Musharraf allowed US forces to use some of our Airbases (Shamsi, Zhob, Dalbandin, Jacobabad). He also mentioned how Indians sneaked into Afghanistan right after the organisedUS-led operation and took over TV stations in Kabul. According to his account, American forces didn’t keep Pakistan informed regarding their hunt for Al-Qaeda militants and knowingly pushed then towards Pakistan. About the first encounters between SSG unit and Al-Qaeda militants, he was full of praise for the militants and commented: ‘how can you compare a salaried individual with a guy who is looking to be martyred?’

Regarding the Indian Parliament attack in December 2001, he had this to say: “After The Delhi bomb attacks, Pakistan was accused in the world as a terrorist haven. This was a ridiculous claim. By that time, Pakistan had ceased help to Kashmiri Mujahideen. ISI was strictly acting upon the new policy. Obviously, Kashmiri Mujahideen were not an organized group, they were nothing more than a ragtag army who were fighting in the way of Allah, not listening to anyone. However, the government wasn’t involved.”

There were tensions within the top brass in 2002-03, which have been highlighted by the author. There were turf disputes between ISI and Army, involving some captured Al-Qaeda militants, close coordination between Army and CENTCOM,  and development of a Quick Response Force and a Special Operation Task Force within SSG. There were two assassination attempts on Musharraf in the period 2003-4 which were orchestrated by people within the military.  He, however, voted for Musharraf in the 2001 Referendum. (Just an aside, I was an ‘observer’ for the Referendum near a village in Mansehra and saw how people brought NICs of dead people to the voting station so that those people’s vote could be counted).

His reflections on becoming CGS (Chief of General Staff):
“My tenure as CGS was really hard for me. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. In Afghanistan, we collaborated with the U.S. while waving the flag of non-partisanship and were equally responsible for massacre of fellow muslims, a dictator who came to the fore promising change became President for five years based on a sham election, Incapable and corrupt politicians were promoted by the army to run the country, compromises were made on Kashmir under American pressure, separatism in Balochistan was promoted, commercial TV channels were allowed to manipulate our nation’s narrative, ‘Pakistan First’ was used as a slogan and there were efforts to reform Islam under the auspices of ‘Enlightened Moderation’. He argued with Musharraf in favor of keeping the Kashmiri ‘Mujahideen’ as proxies against India.

He rails against both secular people and religious people because they don’t follow what he thinks is the righteous path. According to his plan, religious education in regular schools should be updated and secular education in religious schools should be updated so that in a decade, students of both systems are on par with each other. He sparred with Musharraf and his friends over this at dinner parties. The more alarming insight from the book is that such view and such officers were popular in the army. He also had a romantic view of the ascetic life, free of the burdens of money, job and retirement.

Book Review: The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch

Qandeel baloch was murdered in cold blood two years ago. She had rose to prominence as a ‘bold’ social media personality, challenging Pakistani society’s consensus on ‘morality’. Her selfies, vlogs, Live videos and twitter posts were shared and re-shared thousands of times as soon as she posted them. Sanam Meher’s book on her life is a poignant portrait of Qandeel’s (real name: Fauzia Azeem) life, where she started, whom she encountered on her ascent up the ladder of popularity and the obstacles she faced by Pakistan’s entrenched patriarchal culture. The book is important not only because of Qandeel’s story but because it focusses on other people, such as Digital Rights Activtist Nighat Dad and a female police officer who was tasked with investigating Qandeel’s murder. While she was alive, I personally didn’t care much for her but I remember receiving the news of her killing while I was in a library preparing for my USMLE Step 1 and the shock that I felt. She has been re-branded as an icon of feminism after her death and the National Assembly closed a loophole in the law regarding ‘Honour Killings’ soon after her death.

P.S

Islamabad-based band Bambu Sauce sang a song titled ‘Wazir-e-Azam Qandeel Baloch’ a few days before she was killed. You can listen to it here:

 

Review: The Spy Chronicles

This is a review of “The Spy Chronicles” (not by me, but by our regular contributor Dr Hamid Hussain), a recent book co-authored by two former chiefs of ISI (the Pakistani intelligence agency) and RAW (the Indian intelligence agency). The book has generated some controversy (a lot of it far-fetched and irrational) and the Pakistani author (Retired General Asad Durrani) has been called to GHQ to provide an explanation and has been barred from leaving the country until an enquiry (conducted by a 3 star general) has been conducted.

The review is by Dr Hamid Hussain.

The full title is: Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace. A. S. Dulat, Assad Durrani and Aditya Sinha (Delhi: Harper Collins), 2018.

This book is neither a memoir nor an organized attempt to explain a theory. It is essentially a transcript of conversations. It covers India Pakistan relations, Kashmir, Afghanistan and other general regional and international topics. Two informed individuals from rival countries engaged in a candid conversation and some of their views are not fully in line with the official stance of their respective countries.
In view of unresolved issues between India and Pakistan, there have been several international attempts to bring high former officials of both countries together for dialogue. One effort was to bring former intelligence officials of both countries together. This effort called ‘Intel Dialogue’ was organized by the University of Ottawa. Dulat and Durrani met each other during these ‘Track II’ efforts and developed a kind of friendship. Continue reading “Review: The Spy Chronicles”

Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Jack Weatherford is an anthropologist who has spent many years researching the Mongols in general and Genghis Khan in particular. The book is a very sympathetic portrayal of Genghis Khan and his descendants and their impact on world history. It is a very easy read and is an excellent summary of the rise of this amazing man and his (relatively few; a total population of less than a million) people to greatness. And there can be no doubt that Temujin is one of the most remarkable characters in world history; one of those (few) heroes about whom you can confidently say that without them, the history of his people would have been VERY different indeed. He is a one-man refutation of the idea that individuals, no matter how prominent, do not really matter and all we need to study are the aggregate/impersonal/stochastic processes that drive history. Continue reading “Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”

Review: 12 Rules for Life (Jordan Peterson)

This is not the sort of book that usually interests me, but what with the controversy surrounding this man, I decided to look it up. To my surprise, when I requested it at my local library I discovered that I was 67th on the hold list! The man has clearly struck a chord; I have never seen a hold list that long in our (rather small) library. Luckily the system seems to have bought more copies, so I only had to wait a couple of months to get my copy. The book lists 12 rules that are an “antidote to chaos”. Somewhat to my surprise, they are generally good rules, though some of them are rather obvious, and even a bit hokey. Since many of you are not going to read the book, I will list them here:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Continue reading “Review: 12 Rules for Life (Jordan Peterson)”

Bhatkhande: The Contradictions of Music’s Modernity

I am excerpting this post from my personal blog. This semester,in my “Evolution of Music in South Asia” course, I gave 2.5 lectures on Chapter 3 of Professor Janaki Bahkle’s book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition—  focusing on Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.

In her book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition(Oxford University Press 2005), Professor Janaki Bakhle extensively discusses Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936), a musicologist largely responsible for the standardization of Hindustani Classical Music. Bakhle describes Pandit Bhatkhande as “one of Indian music’s most contentious, arrogant, polemical, contradictory, troubled and troubling characters. It may be better to view him not as a charlatan or a savior, but as a tragic figure, one who was his own worst enemy. All through his writings, there is ample evidence of elitism, prejudice, and borderline misogyny” (99).  She goes on to note the irony that though Bhatkhande is revered as a great figure in Hindustani music, his vision for the art form is not being followed today. For example, Bhatkhande wanted to create a national tradition for Indian music, not necessarily a Hindu tradition.  Yet today, much of Hindustani Classical music is “suffused with sacrality” (99). Bakhle describes how at a recent musical gathering in Bombay, Bhatkhande’s portrait was adorned by a marigold garland with a silver incense stand placed in front of it.  She asks the crucial question: “How did it happen that a vision that began with scholastics, debate, and secularism culminated in garlands and incense?” (100).

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande was born on August 10, 1860, into a Brahmin family in Bombay. Although neither of his parents was a professional musician, he and his siblings were taught music. This was not unusual in a family of his class background.  At age 15, Bhatkhande began receiving instruction in sitar and studying Sanskrit texts on music theory, a field of inquiry that would remain his obsession throughout his life.  In 1884, he joined the Gayan Uttejak Mandali, the music appreciation society, which exposed him to a rapidly expanding world of music performance and pedagogy. He studied with musicians such as Shri Raojibua Belbagkar and Ustad Ali Husain, learning a huge number of compositions, both khayal and dhrupad (100-101).

In 1887, Bhatkhande received his LLB from Bombay University and began a brief career as a criminal lawyer. After the death of his wife in 1900 and of his daughter in 1903, he abandoned this career to turn his full attention to music.  The first thing he did was to embark on a series of musical research tours, the first of which was conducted in 1896.  He traveled with a series of questions. His major project was to search out and then write a “connected history” of music and it began with these tours, which he believed would give him some clues to help recover some missing links.  He was less interested in the actual performance of music than in the theory that underpinned the education of the musician.  He kept several diaries of his tours, which served not only as an account of his travels but also as blueprints for his future writings.  Bakhle notes that he “did not interview the people he met so much as he interrogated them, seeking out what he judged to be their ignorance. In all these encounters Bhatkhande met only men. He had little regard for women musicians and did not believe he could learn anything from them” (103).

Bakhle describes several encounters that Bhatkhande had with various scholars of music. One that is particularly indicative of his attitude towards practicing musicians and to Muslims in general is the dialogue he had with Karamatullah Khan, a sarod player from Allahabad.  During this conversation, Khan argued that knowledge of Hindustani music did not come only from Sanskrit texts but also from those in Arabic and Persian. He also stated that it did not matter if the ragas had come to India from Persia or Arabia or gone from India to those countries.  This argument deeply upset Bhatkhande who was obsessed with finding a Sanskrit origin for an Indian national music. Bakhle  writes: “From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Karamatullah Khan was voicing a prescient and progressive claim against national, ethnic and religious essentialism when it came to music. But Bhatkhande was looking for a ‘classical’ music that existed in his time not one that used to exist in ancient times” (112).  She goes on to note that Bhatkhande was “not unique among late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalists in caring deeply about a classical and pure past… All nations ought to have a system of classical music” (113).

Bakhle argues that “Bhatkhande’s search for the origins of Indian music was not a simple Hindu nationalist search. He emphasized that music as it was currently being performed belonged to a different period, one that was constitutively modern and adequately different from previous periods so that any reliance on texts such as the Dharmashastras as a guide for everyday life was seen by him as romantic at best and anachronistic at worst. [He] rejected the idea that the claim for an unbroken history of music could be sustained merely by asserting that Hindustani music could reach back into antiquity, to the Sama Veda chants, as the origins of contemporary music. He also came to discover that music’s relationship to texts more than two hundred years old was difficult, if not impossible to prove” (115).  

More here

 

 

Review: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam

Allama Iqbal

In the late 1920s the Indian Islamist and poet Mohammed Iqbal delivered six lectures at Madras (to the Madras Muslim Association), Hyderabad and Aligarh, in which he set out his vision of the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam. Apparently Iqbal himself intended to write a second, larger book to be called “The Reconstruction of Legal Thought in Islam”, to which these lectures formed a sort of philosophical prelude.  That second book was never written, but the lectures were combined with a seventh lecture (“is religion possible”) that was delivered to the Aristotelian society in England, and published as a book “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”.  By the time the book was published (first in Lahore in 1930, by Kapur Art Press, then with the seventh lecture included, by Oxford in 1934), Iqbal had been knighted for his services to the crown and was already a famous poet (in both Urdu and Persian) and was being honored by the Islamicate elite of India as their philosopher and thinker par excellence. Since this is the only work of philosophy that he ever composed after his PhD thesis, his status as a philosopher is heavily dependent on this slim volume.

The book is primarily targeted at contemporary Muslims, who were keenly aware of their weakness vis-a-vis Europe, as well as of their historic role as a “worthy opponent” that at some point in the past held the upper hand against Western Christian competitors. Iqbal’s primary mission here is not some open ended search for philosophical truth, it is the revival of Muslim greatness, the basic fact of which is taken for granted and is an element of faith. In his own words:

“I have tried to meet, even though partially, this urgent demand by attempting to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the more recent developments in the various domains of human knowledge.”

Like many other religiously minded thinkers of the day, he was also quite taken with modern physics and believed “the present moment is quite favorable for such an undertaking. Classical Physics has learned to criticize its own foundations. As a result of this criticism the kind of materialism, which it originally necessitated, is rapidly disappearing; and the day is not far off when Religion and Science may discover hitherto unsuspected mutual harmonies.”

In terms of his education and training, Iqbal was firmly in the Western philosophical tradition (tending mostly towards its German, orientalist, idealist and romantic currents) and like other Islamist modernizers, he took it for granted that the “Muslim world” has to come to terms with modern knowledge, but this was to be done from within the Islamic tradition and while maintaining the distinctive character of Muslim society. His grandfather may have been a Kashmiri Hindu (his son claims the conversion happened 400 years earlier) and it has been claimed that there were branches of the family that remained Hindu, but either because of this relatively recent conversion, or because of his mother’s strong Muslim faith, his commitment to Muslim separatism and supremacism was strong and unbending. He was willing to admire other traditions (including the learning of the Brahmins, about whom he has interesting things to say elsewhere) and learn from them, but they are always “other” traditions, about this there is never any doubt.

Iqbal’s (supposed) Hindu cousins
Mom and dad

The books is interesting, especially if you are philosophically inclined towards the “spiritual” and the mystical; on the other hand, if you are somewhere on the “new atheist” spectrum then the book can only be of historical interest. Even those who are willing to entertain metaphysical speculation should be aware that this is not a systematic philosophical text. All the central claims of the book are simply asserted (there is rarely any detailed argument showing why they are correct) and the historical views are very early 20th century, with the ghosts of Spengler and countless lesser writers hovering in the background. Entire cultures and historical epochs are summed up in ex-cathedra pronouncements of the sort that were popular in that age but seem to have fallen out of favor since then. For example  “the cultures of Asia, and in fact, of the whole ancient world failed because they approached reality exclusively from within and moved from within outwards. This procedure gave them theory without power, and on mere theory no durable civilization can be based”.

Always hovering in the background is his (not so original) view that history is progressive and something is gradually unfolding and developing as we move from ancient cultures (India, Greece, never China) to Islam to modern Europe. In this great drama, the “spirit of Islam” is essentially anti-classical and empiricist and it is Islam that created the foundations of modern science by introducing this attitude into humanity (“European culture, on its intellectual side, is only a further development of some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam”). This basically Hegelian view of history was all the rage in the circles that Allama Iqbal frequented (its echoes survive to this day), and if this is still your cup of tea, jump right in, Iqbal will not disappoint you. Continue reading “Review: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”

Indian Ink: Literary Insights into Colonialism and Identity

I am excerpting an article from my personal blog.

I originally wrote this essay in May 2009 and it was published on The South Asian Idea. It’s interesting to me how long I have been thinking about some of the same issues.  I have always been fascinated by the Raj.  In fact, in my Directing class as part of my Dramatic Literature major, I directed a scene from “Indian Ink”. This play has been with me throughout much of my life.

Flora: You are an Indian artist, aren’t you? Stick up for yourself. Why do you like everything English?

Das: I do not like everything English.

Flora: Yes, you do. You’re enthralled. Chelsea, Bloomsbury, Oliver Twist, Goldflake cigarettes, Winsor and Newton… even painting in oils, that’s not Indian. You’re trying to paint me from my point of view instead of yours—what you think is my point of view. You deserve the bloody Empire!

(Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink, pg. 43)

Great works of art often reveal insights about history in ways that are more accessible than academic historical accounts.  One work that was especially powerful in doing so for me is Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink. Ever since I first read this play some years ago, it has provoked me to think about the colonial experience in India as well as issues of identity and nationalism more generally.

In the tradition of Forster’s A Passage to India and Scott’s The Raj Quartet, Indian Ink examines the colonial experience through focusing on the relationship between one particular couple.   Set in two time periods (1930s India and 1980s England), the play tells the story of Flora Crewe, an English poet visiting India, and Nirad Das, an Indian artist who is painting her portrait.   Over the course of the play, Flora and Nirad’s relationship changes from a formal, distant one to a more intimate one. However, their relationship also reveals major points of tension and of culture clash.  Nirad constantly feels the need to impress Flora with his knowledge of England and of English culture, while Flora wants him to be himself. As the quote that I started this post with shows, she wants him to paint her from his own point of view.  He eventually does so, painting a nude portrait of her in the style of a Rajput miniature. Flora recognizes that he is working in his own tradition and has stopped trying to ape the English.  She tells him “This one is for yourself… I’m pleased. It has rasa” (74).

The play also makes interesting points about the reinterpretation of history, something that is a part of national and ethnic conflicts even today, both in South Asia and in other parts of the world. For example, in the modern portion of the play, Anish (Nirad’s son) and Mrs. Swan (Flora’s sister) discuss the events of 1857, which Anish refers to as “the first War of Independence” and Mrs. Swan insists on calling the Mutiny (17). History is written by the victors and later reinterpreted by various political groups to suit their own agendas. For example, in modern India, the BJP reinterprets the Mughals as a foreign occupying force, religiously motivated by their negative feelings towards Hinduism. Other historians argue that this perspective is not an appropriate way to view the Mughals, many of whom assimilated and became “Indian.” History remains a powerful force that can be used for various politically motivated ends. Stoppard’s play forces the audience to question the truth of any of these interpretations….

More here

 

 

A Golden Age: Literature and Nationalism

I am cross-posting my review of Tahmima Anam’s novel “A Golden Age” from my personal blog.  This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in 2010.

She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.

—Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47

Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events.

As a Pakistani-American, reading Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age, a novel set during the 1971 war between East and West Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, was an enlightening and somewhat disturbing experience. 1971 is rarely discussed in Pakistan, and when it is, it is always in the context of the “dismemberment” of the country and the treacherous role played by India in this process.  For decades, Pakistani history textbooks referred to Bengalis as traitors and the “enemy within” (a point discussed by the eminent Pakistani social scientist Rubina Saigol). We never discuss the reasons why the Eastern wing of the country wanted to declare independence. Neither do we critically assess our own role in this second Partition of the subcontinent.

Obviously, the historical narrative is very different in Bangladesh. There, 1971 is celebrated as a war of independence, leading up to the formation of a new state.  It is a victory against occupation and oppression, similar to the American Revolution or indeed of India’s winning of independence from the British.  In this version of the narrative, Pakistanis are seen as the villains and the Bengali freedom fighters as heroes.

While this is the basic narrative backdrop of A Golden Age, what makes the book worth reading is Anam’s complex psychological characterization, particularly of her protagonist Rehana Haque, a middle-aged widow and mother of two teenage children. Rehana is from Calcutta and is Urdu-speaking, having moved to Dhaka after her marriage.  She is a reluctant revolutionary, being drawn into the battle for Bangladeshi independence mostly against her will, through her two college-going children. It is through Rehana’s character and her ambiguous and divided feelings about the events around her that Anam expresses the complex personal ramifications of political events.

Language is a particularly powerful marker of identity and during times of conflict the language one speaks often takes on huge significance. Today sixty years after the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, there is still conflict over whether Hindi and Urdu are two registers of the same language or two completely distinct tongues.  In Pakistan, Urdu has become increasingly “Arabized” and “Persianized” while Hindi in India has became “Sanskritized”. Similarly during 1971, an individual’s decision to use Urdu or Bengali became a marker of his or her political position.  Urdu, Pakistan’s official language, was seen as the language of the occupier, while Bengali became a symbol for the distinct identity of “East Pakistanis” and their fight for their own state.  But what of people like Rehana, those who were Urdu-speaking Bengalis? In order to show loyalty to the national cause, they were expected to give up their language.

What effect does this dilemma have on the individual?  Anam depicts Rehana as a lover of Urdu poetry, especially of the Ghazal. Even her son, Sohail, who is politically very engaged with the Bengali cause, writes love letters to his girlfriend in which he extensively quotes Urdu poets.  When he leaves to join the resistance, one of the only books he takes with him is the Ghazals of Mirza Ghalib. Clearly then, even someone so politically committed to a free Bangladesh could not abandon his love of Urdu, the language of the “enemy.”

A Golden Age is a powerful story of a nation’s violent birth. More importantly, it is the story of the harrowing choices individuals are forced to make in times of conflict. Which comes first, one’s ethnicity, language, or nationality?  Reading this book has caused me to continue to ponder the fascinating questions of identity, both national and personal.

Revisiting Somnath–A Review

I am cross-posting my book review of Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005). This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in July 2014.   I am re-posting it here because BP readers clearly have a deep interest in ancient “Indian” (or South Asian) history.

In 1026, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided the Hindu temple of Somnath (located in the present-day Indian state of Gujarat).  In retrospect, this event has had tremendous repercussions for contemporary South Asian history and is traditionally regarded as marking Hindu-Muslim animosity in the region from the outset. To this day, perceptions of Mahmud continue to be polarizing. While many Indians regard him as an iconoclastic invader bent upon loot and plunder, their counterparts in Pakistan view him as a conqueror who “established the standard of Islam on heathen land.” The Pakistani attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the country’s military has named the Ghaznavi missile in honor of Mahmud.  However, despite this conventional understanding, modern historians are attempting to question the received wisdom surrounding Somnath.

One of the modern scholars attempting to arrive at a new understanding of Somnath is Romila Thapar, considered among India’s most eminent historians. In her book Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005), Thapar argues that the dominant view that Mahmud’s raid caused great psychological trauma to the Hindu community is largely a colonial construction that gained prominence during the British Raj. She goes beyond the Turko-Persian histories favored by colonial historians to examine contemporaneous Sanskrit inscriptions, biographies of kings and merchants, and popular narratives. Studying these sources complicates the traditional view, posing important questions about how one version of the event became hegemonic.

Colonial historians divided Indian history into three periods: Hindu, Muslim, and British.  Study of the “Hindu” period focused on Sanskrit sources while study of the “Muslim” period focused on Persian texts. According to Thapar, this classification scheme was illogical and led to a piecemeal history in which links and connections could not be made. It also discouraged comparative analysis of different sources and an examination of the contradictions and interconnections between them.  In the case of Somnath, historians focused on the Persian sources to the exclusion of others, never inquiring why the event is seldom referenced in the Sanskrit temple inscriptions. In addition, the Persian texts were read at face value, discounting their internal contradictions. Various texts assigned Mahmud different motivations with some emphasizing his religious zeal and others focusing on his interest in plunder.

The dominance of the conventional view of Somnath can also be explained by the retrospective need to justify the 1947 Partition of British India into two nation-states: India and Pakistan. This was justified by claiming that, since the arrival of Islam, the Hindu and Muslim communities had been two distinct “nations” that were largely antagonistic to each other. In this view, the raid on Somnath became “a foundational event that created hostility between Hindus and Muslims since the raid could neither be forgiven nor forgotten” (Thapar 12). Post-independence, the conventional view of the event has become central to Hindutva politics. Thapar notes that the 1990 rath yatra that preceded the destruction of the Babri Masjid began at Somnath. The destruction of the mosque itself was seen as the Hindu reply to Mahmud’s iconoclasm. Thus, the received wisdom about Somnath served not only the aims of the British but continues to serve those of contemporary religious nationalism. Continue reading “Revisiting Somnath–A Review”