Has anyone seen Raazi or planning to do so? I’ll share my thoughts later on but for now I’m excerpting the Deccan Chronicle.

Does anyone at BP actually watch Bollywood or follow South Asia pop culture?

The two-nation theory has had far too many ramifications than the leaders would ever have imagined. For over 60 years, both India and Pakistan have remained sworn enemies despite them sharing history and having the commonalities that their people would not find anywhere else in the world. Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, based on Harinder Sikka’s book Calling Sehmat, gives us a taut espionage thriller that doesn’t take sides, although in many ways Pakistan’s intelligence seems to be failing and the officers made to look gullible. But what Gulzar emphasises most on is citizens of both sides of the border displaying their own brand of patriotism that indicates loyalty to their nation. In turbulent times like the one we are all going through now, when one word (or, a portrait!) of praise of the enemy camp leader could trigger a belligerent reaction from both sides, her standpoint is extremely relevant. She also manages to weave many humane and emotive characteristics of real men and women into the narrative that may border on the unlikelihood of the very premise itself, but never strays into jingoistic flavour.


Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, Hero of Asia!

Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, our favorite 92 year old PM of Malaysia! Malaysia was one of the centers of the great Arya civilization for thousands of years; now enriched by Confucianism, Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, Islam, and expats the world over. One of the most diverse and immigration friendly countries in the world. One of the most pro business, pro capitalist, pro globalization, pro neo-liberal, pro enlightenment values, and pro moderate Islam countries in the world. A country that fought against the full might of the Soviet Union, China and the global communist block and won. A shining city on a hill. A self assured, self confident Asian Tiger without inferiority complex. One of last great bastions resisting the global post modernist wave.

Continue reading “Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, Hero of Asia!”


India as the hydra against Islam

In some versions of the legend of the Hydra, every time you cut off one of the heads of the monster two more grow in its place.

I have been thinking about why and how India remained predominantly non-Muslim despite most of the subcontinent being under Muslim ruling for 500 years (dating from 1250 to 1750 approximately). The contrast here would be most stark with Iran and Turan. While the zone of the Islamic Empire between Mesopotamia and the Maghreb was dominated by a Christian populace which spoke an Afro-Asiatic language, Iran and Turan retained their language and their cultural distinctiveness, as evidenced in the nationalism clear in the Shahnameh.

There was a comment on this weblog that implied India was unique because of violent resistance to Islamicization. This is patently false. To give a concrete example, the region of Tabaristan in northern Iran was dominated by warlords and dynasties which adhered to the Zoroastrian region until the 9th century, 200 years after the Arab defeat of the Sassanians. Despite the inroads of Islam in the 9th century, after more thorough integration into the Abbassid Caliphate, Tabaristan was still throwing up Zoroastrian anti-Muslim warlords into the 10th century.

But most attempts to infer the religious demographics of Iran, which are to a great extent guesswork, suggest that it was in the 10th century the region became majority Muslim. One indication of this that this is so is that this period correlates with a more muscular and resurgent Iranian high culture and reemergence of political non-Arab political power. As Zoroastrianism was no longer seen as a threat to Islam, Persian cultural identity could reassert itself without a non-Islamic connotation (there is in the 10th century a shift away from ostentatiously Arab names by Persian Muslim elites).

Basically, it seems that it took about 300 years for Iran to become majority Muslim. I’ve seen similar numbers for Egypt and the Maghreb, though in the latter region indigenous Christianity became extinct by the medieval period.

There are two related issues that I want to suggest for South Asia: scale and complexity. Though the Indian subcontinent is geographically smaller than the Arab Caliphates as their height on paper, the reality is much of the Near  East and North Africa are empty of people. Islamic rule really consisted of a string of cities and fortifications interlaced over broad swaths of the territory occupied by pastoralists, as well as a few regions of dense cultivation.

Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world consist of between 400 and 500 million people. The Indian subcontinent has 1.7 billion people. The population in the past may have been different, but I think it gives one a rough sense of the differences in magnitude over the long-term.

Second, the social complexity of South Asia is astounding. I say this as a geneticist: the differences between different castes in the same region are hard to believe. Though there is a great deal of ethno-religious diversity in the Middle East, they are not surprising. Arabs engage in a consanguinity. Ethno-religious minorities such as Copts or Assyrians have less cosmopolitan ancestry than their Muslim neighbors. This is all to be expected.

In contrast, any analysis of ethnic “Telugus” has to take into account local structure because it is so extreme. Dalits are different from middle castes are different from Brahmins. Some of this is due to genetic drift, but much of it is due to continental-scale differences in genetic admixture.

The genetic differences tell us something us deep about the nature of South Asian social relations. Defection to Islam occurred on the individual scale, but generally, quantity could only be had by mass conversions. Even when groups of people of the same community are of different religions it was probably through mass conversion of particular subsegments.

Which brings me to Bengalis. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier was written many years ago, and I read it long before I ever knew much about the genetics of South Asians. In it the author explains that the dominance of Islam on the eastern march of Bengal was due to the fact that it was a frontier society that emerged during the period of Islamic rule. Meanwhile, western Bengal was a culture which was in a stationary state.

The ability of Islam to penetrate into the Bengali-speaking peasantry was due to its fluid and unordered character. In contrast in western Bengal, a more traditional South Asiab society with well-delineated caste boundaries had already crystallized by the time of the Muslim conquest.

So here’s the thing that genetics adds: the topology of genetic variation of Bangladeshis is totally different than what you see in other South Asians. There’s very little structure. Basically aside from a few half-Brahmins and a small community of Dalits, the 1000 Genomes sample from Bangladesh shows none of the genetic variation partitioned by the community you see in most Indian samples. Or, that you see in the Indian Telugus, Gujuratis and Pakistani Punjabis (the Tamils from Sri Lanka are somewhat less structured, but still have more than the Bangladeshis).

To me, this confirms the thesis of The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier. As a frontier society, eastern Bengal was mixed in a way where the structure socially and genetically that was the norm in most of South Asia by the time the Muslims arrived simply wasn’t present. Without the powerful collective substructure, Islam was able to swallow up the rural society in toto. Perhaps the best analogy might be to Indian communities in Trinidad, where caste has mostly disappeared, and Christianity has made extensive inroads.

So why didn’t India become Muslim? What is this “India” of which you speak?

Note: I moderate comments, please don’t stupid spam me.


Katrina Kaif is definitely half-Indian

Yeah, yeah, we all recognize the lady on the right. But, while most people would be able to guess that the woman on the left is Isabelle Kaif, if you saw her alone, we bet you wouldn’t have been able to. But right now, we’re going to make sure you never forget her.

There was a rumour spread around that Katrina Kaif was in fact fully English and that Kaif was a made up Kashmiri name.

Katrina is with her half sister Isabelle Turcquotte, who is fully English (they share the same mother). The difference is as clear as between night and day (no pun intended).

Isabelle won’t make it in Bollywood since of course the Desi ideal doesn’t map exactly onto the Western aesthetic. She screams foreigner in a way KK 1, KK 2 (Kalki Koechlin) and Sonia Gandhi do not..

Katrina Kaif has a bit of that Kim Kardashian exotic ness (I can’t believe I just wrote that).


Noble White Men and the humble brag

I have read 3 articles/posts in the the past 2 weeks of woke white men decrying their “privilege.” It was in the most random of places; the first was Instagram (the artist), the second was a week or so later when I was messing around with Medium (the techie) and the third today was in a London magazine (the editor’s piece).

One is a famous artist, the other is an editor of a magazine and the final is a tech millionaire.

I have a pretty solid bullshit detector and these statements of guilt just set it off.

The hypocrisy in our public discourse has now become so intense that the privileged are learning how to twist it in ever more imaginative ways.

Like all of us I was born with an array of advantages and disadvantages. I recognise I’m Munafiq (a hypocrite) and I contain a ton of contradictions. I won’t make public statement feeling guilty about my privileges, which is simply a convoluted way to show off.

If I really felt bad about my privilege I would resign from my job and give it to the underprivileged. The fact that I don’t do that means I’m pretty ambivalent about my “privilege” (whatever it is) and I should stfu about it.

It’s ok to show, I do it too, but it’s in poor taste to show off and be morally sanctimonious about it.

Only the truly great are truly humble; Shah Rukh and Prince William have no need to show off because they are the Kings of East & West..


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




Father of the Bum

On 20th January, 1972, Chief Marshal Law Administrator and President of Pakistan—Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto—called a meeting of the country’s most eminent scientists in Multan. Pakistan had faced the ignominy of terrible defeat at the hands of Indian army a few months ago. Mr. Bhutto asked the scientists to start working on assembly of a nuclear bomb. While the experienced heads declined to commit to this venture, younger scientists unanimously responded that it could be done in five years. Mr. Bhutto was satisfied by the response and promised his help.

In July 1974, a letter arrived at the Prime Minister’s(Mr. Bhutto’s) secretariat from the Netherlands. The correspondent claimed to be a physicist working for a European nuclear consortium. He claimed to have obtained blue prints for a revolutionary new process involved in building a nuclear bomb. The person, let’s call him AK, was working as a technical translator for the multinational URENCO consortium. He had claimed in his letter of ‘writing innumerable research papers and an internationally renowned book’. Son of migrants from the Indian state of Bhopal,AK had been living in Europe for 13 years and was passionate about ‘debates about the Hindu ba**ards over the border who had ransacked his old home in 1947’. Mr. Bhutto tasked an Intelligence Agency to investigate the whereabouts of this mysterious scientist named AK. It was found that he had worked as Inspector of Weights and Measures for the Karachi post office in the 1960s, after obtaining a science degree from Karachi University. He left for West Germany for further studies and received an offer to attend a series of introductory lectures in Metallurgy in September 1962, by West Berlin Technical University. He moved, with his newly married wife, to Holland in 1963 and continued his education at Delft University. In his spare time, he used to write letters to European Newspapers and magazines that he felt had misrepresented Pakistan.

Mr. Bhutto was satisfied by AK’s track record and invited him to start the process of assembling a nuclear bomb for Pakistan. He was provided a laboratory to run and unlimited funding as well as official patronage. After smuggling different parts required for building the bomb from a plethora of countries, through not-so-legal channels, AK succeeded in completing the crucial step in manufacturing a nuclear bomb. The rest of hard work was done by Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), an organization that AK hated with a vengeance.
By this time, AK had developed an acute case of megalomania. AK’s psychiatrist at that time, Professor Haroon Ahmed mentioned in his reports that by this time, ‘he was suffering from depression, and was classically manic’. He used to boast, “Jinnah Built Pakistan but I saved it”. AK even had an intelligence team follow his Dutch Wife and daughters because he thought they were more loyal to Europe than they were to Pakistan. In 1984, he called a reporter at a local Urdu digest and asked him to send a list of questions for interview. He was so disappointed with the list that he threw it away and drafted his own set of questions. He asked himself: “What do you think was your greatest achievement?” and “Did the government recognize your contribution?” In February 1984, he called Nawai Waqt and used the same formula. He used to give charity to mosques and schools, all of which had to bear his name as ‘testimony to his greatness’. In 1986, he invited a journalist from a small-circulation weekly digest called Hurmat to interview him at his laboratory. It resulted in a series of articles and a biography full of accolades for Mr. AK. One of the articles echoed AK’s inner thoughts as “In order to overcome the energy crisis in Pakistan,
the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission should be overhauled and its leadership should be handed over to this Mard e Momin of Iqbal”.

After Pakistan’s requirements for nuclear materials were fulfilled, AK started selling different parts as surplus to the highest bidder. He chose first Dubai and later Timbuktu as his operational base for nuclear proliferation. The Afghan War prevented United States to clamp down on his activities but the noose started tightening in the 90s. His footprints were all over the nuclear proliferation racket around the world, from Libya to Iran to North Korea, earning him the nickname “Typhoid Mary of Nuclear Proliferation”. In 2001, Musharraf was forced by the International community to get rid of AK and his crime syndicate, after two of AK’s ex-colleagues were found to have travelled to Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden (OBL) there. Intelligence sources in India and US allege that AK co-owned Al-Shifa chemical factory in Sudan with OBL and OBL had financed construction of Hendrina Khan Hotel in Timbuktu. In 2004, AK apologized to the nation in a televised address for his “errors of judgment related to unauthorized proliferation activities”. Musharraf noted in his memoir, “The truth is that he was just a metallurgist, responsible for only one link in the complex chain of nuclear development. But he had managed to build himself up into Albert Einstein and Robert Openheimer rolled into one”.

The arrogant “Father of the Bomb” started writing elementary- school-style essays for a national newspaper few years ago, continuing his crusade against common sense and reason. He has made hundreds of factual errors in his “columns” over the years along with an attempted whitewash of history. His most recent diatribes have been directed against chairman of PAEC Munir Ahmed Khan and Dr. Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only nobel laureate. AK has accused them of selling Pakistan’s nuclear secrets while comfortably ignoring his own efforts to sell the same secrets to the highest bidder.Without efforts of these gents, technicians such as AK would have miserably failed in the quest for nuclear bomb.These inneundos amount to slander and should be challenged in a court of law. Or perhaps, people living in stone houses should avoid throwing stones at others?
(previously published by The Nation. https://nation.com.pk/11-Aug-2014/father-of-the-bum)


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”