Review: Soldier Sahibs

This was written way back in 2002 for the Pakistani newsmagazine Herald (which just closed down unfortunately). Lets see how it holds up.

Soldier Sahibs is an old-fashioned and unapologetically imperialist book. And writer Charles Allen makes sure you know what you are getting into by giving it the flagrantly politically incorrect subtitle: The Daring Adventurers Who Tamed India’s Northwest Frontier. But imperialist does not necessarily mean inaccurate and Allen has taken a good deal of trouble to get his facts right. The book claims to tell “The astonishing story of a brotherhood of young men who together laid claim to the most notorious frontier in the world, India’s North-West Frontier,
which today forms the volatile boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
The men in question include John Nicholson, Harry Lumsden (founder of the Guides), Herbert Edwardes, William Hodson, James Abbot and Neville Chamberlain. Protégés of Sir Henry Lawrence, these men were responsible for laying the foundations of British rule in the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier. The author’s intent is to tell the story of these young men and through their adventures, give the reader an idea of how the British conquered – or, as he would prefer, “pacified” – the ‘wild’ Northwest Frontier of India.
But while Soldier Sahibs gives a very readable account of the adventures of these (surprisingly) young men, it is not possible to piece together the broader history of those times from his book. Why the British were here in the first place and what were the factors that made a small island in Europe more powerful than any kingdom in India do not form any part of Allen’s concerns. Nor does he waste much time explaining the situation in the Punjab or of the East India Company at that time. In fact, the author does not even provide a map of the vast area over which his protagonists established their rule. If you are totally at sea about those times, then you may have to read a few other books to fully appreciate the goings-on in this one. But if you are one of those enthusiasts who cannot get enough of the Raj, the mutiny and all that jazz, then you will definitely enjoy this book. Its written in authentic ‘Flashman’ style, with wit and verve and loads of ‘local color’.
The English heroes may appear larger than life but by all accounts some of them indeed were larger than life. And being Englishmen, they left us a veritable storehouse of laconic and understated wisecracks. These include Nicholson walking into the mess to tell his fellow officers: “I am sorry gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I have been hanging your cooks.” (The cooks had apparently poisoned the food but were detected and hanged, and dinner was served half an hour late).
Though Nicholson gets the most lines in the book, the stories of Edwardes of Peshawar and Bannu and Abbot of Abbotabad are also told in some detail. William Hodson, the villain who executed Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons, also gets a sympathetic hearing. We are told surprisingly little about Sir Henry Lawrence, who is supposedly the godfather of this fraternity. And it is not always clear why certain officer’s lives are described in detail and others get only cursory mention. Lack or availability of sources may be the explanation for that .
In these times, it is impossible to read such a book and not look for parallels with the current efforts at “pacifying” Afghanistan. But these British adventurers and their peculiar code of life are poles apart from the westerners who are now coming to bring us into the civilised world. Occasionally, Madison Avenue will try to create a suitable heroic image for some American colonel or diplomat but the substance of this new empire is very different from the last one and so are its agents.
Nicholson and company may have been bigoted, male chauvinist psychopaths, yet they also had undoubted personal courage and their own peculiar brand of love of justice. In the Pakhtuns and the Punjabis, they found not just enemies, but also friends and fellow adventurers. It is fashionable these days to describe their local supporters as ‘traitors’ who took the side of a ‘foreign power’. But to the Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims and Pakhtuns who fought under Nicholson to reconquer Delhi, the capital was also a foreign power and one they did not remember fondly. And these British officers had always respected their honour and treated them fairly. They provided an administration that was in many ways a big improvement over the ‘locals’ they had replaced. In fact, it would not be remiss to say that the Punjabis and Pakhtuns who fought for the British may have been men of higher character and personal courage than most of their current detractors. Many things have improved since Nicholson rode across the plains of the Punjab blowing mutineers from canons but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that some things have also deteriorated.

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Capsule Review: Napoleon, a Life; by Andrew Roberts

Roberts is an unabashed hero-worshiper when it comes to Napoleon. That can become a little irritating. But he has also done tremendous research and presents a very thorough, very readable and very up to date biography of Napoleon (up to date because new information, including 100s of previously lost letters, have continued to turn up and all that information is included in this work).

His hero worship does not affect my five star rating because he does not hide any of Napoleon’s faults, mistakes or disasters. He just feels the need to jump in with explanations, mitigating factors and examples of similar atrocities/mistakes etc. from others to try and keep things in perspective. If you do not share his Napoleon-love, you can still benefit from reading this book. As someone who grew up hearing about Napoleon from an uncle with several editions of Emil Ludwig’s classic biography always present in the house, I am not exactly an unbiased observer, but I think the book really IS worth a read. Factually accurate, extremely detailed and highly readable.

Best “new thing I learned from this book”? Exactly how much money the British spent (very effectively) as subsidies to various European powers to keep Napoleon in check. I knew they spent money but it had never been clear to me how systematic, well thought out, effective and extensive that effort was.
by the way, Roberts’ England-love is also real, and likely deeper than any Napoleon-love he may have. That too shows up in the book 🙂

2+

Review: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

I listened to Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s memoir as an audiobook. I was expecting some sort of standard “third world middle class memoir with woke characteristics”, but it turned out to be something far more interesting; Trevor was born to a Black South African mother and a White father during apartheid, when such relationships were illegal. He grew up in poverty with a single mom who sounds like an amazingly strong and independent woman and the story of those early years is the best part of the book. You will learn more than you may expect about daily life in Black South Africa and the story is told with great verve and wit. There is the expected craziness and cruelty of apartheid, but he is also refreshingly blunt about the social evils prevalent in the ghetto and the various divisions (generally violent, sometimes outright vicious) within Black society. South Africa becomes a real (and far more colorful) place for the reader, well beyond the somewhat simple and superficial “black and white” story we all know from (distant) headline news reports. Trevor and his family attend 3 churches every Sunday, escape a possible rape/killing by jumping from a moving minibus, deal with poverty, crime and prejudice (mostly from other Blacks and “Colored” people, since interaction with White society is very limited in any case) and through it all, his mother manages to somehow hold things together and give him a reasonably good education. A violent stepfather (who eventually shot his mother, she survived) and a life of adolescent and early adult crime round out the picture. As a window into South Africa, it was much more colorful (and more interesting) than I expected.

Many of the quirks of Black life that he describes (always with empathy and sympathy) are not too unexpected or shocking to anyone with some knowledge of the world. When his teenage dance troupe goes to a Jewish school and they all start shouting “Go Hitler”  (the name of their lead dancer) it is very funny, and Trevor’s explanation of why they did not see this as some sort of faux pas is sensible and reasonable. But one other episode was personally harder to process for me and that is: cruelty to cats. 2 of the author’s cats were lynched, skinned and hung from their gate because Black South Africans have a thing about cats and witches. And while talking about this, Trevor casually throws in the fact that a Black security guard beat a cat to death on live TV when she ran out onto a sports event in a stadium and Trevor seems to think this is just a cultural quirk and we all have them. He lost me at that point I am afraid. Yes, Spaniards publicly torture bulls, some Chinese do horrible things to various animals and modern people all eat meat from cruel factory farms, but I find it very hard to see this kind of cruelty as somehow “normal”, and Trevor lost a few points in my estimation with his attempt at cultural sensitivity on this topic.

Trevor is, as expected, ready with modern liberal tropes for most of the historical and political references in the book. That is OK, but one does get the feeling that he thinks his experience as a rather unique mixed-race South African, and the lessons he draws from this life, can be smoothly transposed into the experiences, attitudes and priorities of any generic “third world” person.  In actual fact, South Africa is a rather extreme case, and his life is unique and unusual even within that case; the lessons he learned may not apply to every country as much as he thinks.

At the end he jumps from his life of petty crime (basically pirating and selling music and fencing stolen goods) to a successful career as a comedian, but this part lacks the detail we get of his early life. He does not in fact tell us anything about how he came to be a successful comedian. Maybe that will be in some future book. Or maybe he is just a smart guy and does not want to get too far into a phase of life whose characters he still deals with professionally.

Overall, a fascinating and very interesting book. More interesting and insightful than I expected it to be. Worth a read.

3+

Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes

From Amazon Intro:
https://www.amazon.com/Keenie-Meenie-British-Mercenaries-Crimes/dp/0745340784

Keenie Meenie Services – the most powerful mercenary company you’ve never heard of – was involved in war crimes around the world from Sri Lanka to Nicaragua for which its shadowy directors have never been held accountable.

Like its mysterious name, Keenie Meenie Services escaped definition and to this day has evaded sanctions. Now explosive new evidence – only recently declassified – exposes the extent of these war crimes, and the British government’s tacit support for the company’s operations. Including testimonies from SAS veterans, spy chiefs and diplomats, we hear from key figures battle-hardened by the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Iranian Embassy siege. Investigative journalist Phil Miller asks, who were these mercenaries: heroes, terrorists, freedom fighters or war criminals?

This book presents the first ever comprehensive case against Keenie Meenie Services, providing long overdue evidence on the crimes of the people who make a killing from killing.

Excerpts from Aditi Khanna’s article in Outlook India
https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/india-used-british-pilots-in-fight-against-ltte-book/1727422

British mercenary pilots helped Indian troops in their battle against the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, a new book reveals for the first time.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) received air support from these for-hire British pilots despite Indian diplomats publicly condemning the presence of UK mercenaries in Sri Lanka, according to the book, ”Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away With War Crimes”, authored by UK-based investigative journalist Phil Miller.

However, India”s attitudes gradually began to shift and the envoy to Colombo, Jyotindra Nath Dixit, said New Delhi had to publicly deplore the use of UK mercenaries in Sri Lanka but privately he accepted there was “a large pool of ex-military personnel” in Europe and North America who wanted to “market these skills” and if it was not KMS then it would be another “cowboy” outfit involved.

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Book Review: Blood Over Different Shades of Green: East Pakistan 1971 History Revisited

Book Review

Hamid Hussain

 Ikram Sehgal & Dr. Bettina Robotka.  Blood Over Different Shades of Green: East Pakistan 1971 History Revisited (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2019)

 This book is history of the last chapter of united Pakistan in 1971.  Ikram Sehgal is in a unique position to write about the separation of eastern wing of Pakistan and emergence of independent Bangladesh. His father was Punjabi and mother Bengali.  He had personal relations with Bengali and non-Bengali senior political and military leaders.  He understands the passions involved on both sides.  In addition, he was a young army officer and served in both theaters of war in 1971.  He had a front row seat to the final act of the tragedy, and he gives his side of the story candidly. 

 First few chapters give details of social, political and economic differences between two wings.  It then highlights events that gradually widened the gulf and then details about final days of united Pakistan and emergence of independent Bangladesh.  Ikram also narrates his personal experience in 1971 war and many brushes with angel of death. 

 This book highlights for the first time, the role of 1965 India-Pakistan war in almost complete alienation of Bengali public. At psychological level, separation was complete after the war as almost all Bengalis were shocked to see that West Pakistan risked fifty five percent of its Bengali population surrounded by India on three sides and with very meagre resources to defend itself against India for few hundred thousand Kashmiris.

 Civilian and military leadership dominated by West Pakistanis never understood Bengali view point.  The defense doctrine of ‘defense of east Pakistan from west Pakistan’ was never seriously evaluated in the broader context of national security. If one region of the country arrogate itself the title of ‘heart of the country’ and relegate another region as less important ‘periphery’, it is bound to have serious reservation from the entity relegated as periphery.  This was the reason that this doctrine was viewed as absurd from Bengali point of view.

 In discussing Pakistani 18 Infantry Division operations in western desert, authors raise the question of why Jacobabad airfield was not activated regardless of whether GHQ asked for it or not?  Air Commodore ® Sajjad Haider has provided the answer in his memoirs Flight of The Falcon.  Air Chief Air Marshal Rahim Khan visited army headquarter on 04 December 1971 and was informed by Chief of General Staff (CGS) Lieutenant General Gul Hassan about the attack of 18 Division in south-west towards Indian city of Jaisalmer.  Air Chief protested and informed him that closest Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bases of Sargodha and Karachi were over 300 miles away.  He also explained that Jacobabad airfield could not be activated due to paucity of resources and even if decided PAF needed ten days to activate the airfield.  He also informed CGS that Indian Air Force had three air bases in that area that could play havoc with the advancing Pakistani troops without air cover.  Army went ahead with the operation despite Air Chief warning and hence the disaster. 

 There is a minor error regarding U.S. base in Pakistan.  It is mentioned that U-2 surveillance flights operated from Badaber Air Station near Peshawar.  Badaber was only a listening post and not an airfield.  It was an electronic listening facility run by National Security Agency (NSA) and project was code named ‘Operation Sandbag’.  Peshawar and Lahore airfields were used for U-2 surveillance flights.  There were no permanent stationing of U-2 planes in Pakistan.  Detachment 10-10 based at Incirlik, Turkey flew missions from Pakistan.  U-2 pilot and some ground personnel were flown in a C-130 plane to Pakistan a day before the flight.  A standby pilot brought U-2 from Incirlik to Lahore or Peshawar.  In four years, there were only twenty four U-2 overflights.  Out of these twenty four, ten originated from Pakistan; five from Lahore and five from Peshawar.  (I have written a detailed piece about these missions titled Eye in the Sky).  

 This book adds to the literature of 1971 Indian-Pakistan war and independence of Bangladesh by a first-hand witness.  Book is a must read for everyone interested in history of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

 Hamid Hussain

[email protected]

28 December 2019

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Capsule Review: The Birth of Classical Europe

This book is a great review of the rise and fall of classical Europe, from the earliest civilizations in Crete and Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity. The authors are professional historians and remarkably free of either Left or Right wing cant. They provide an excellent summary of the rise of Mediterranean civilization and the origins of the notion of Europe. They manage to pack a remarkable amount of facts into this book, including quantitative data where possible (“X percent of all crockery at this site changed from Greek to Etruscan between Y and Z years” kind of thing). Greco-Roman nerds will know many more details obviously, but even they will not be disappointed with how much information and perspective the authors can fit into a small space. Well worth reading.

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Book Review: The Battle for Pakistan by Shuja Nawaz

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In the post 9/11 years, a multitude of “Pakistan experts” emerged and the bookshelves were flooded with books containing the words ‘Pakistan’, ‘crisis’, ‘storm’ or ‘battle’. In my opinion, very few writers from outside Pakistan (and even inside) have explored the country, its politics and its regional dynamics pre- and post-9/11.  I consider Shuja Nawaz as one of the authors who, both as an insider and an outsider, written about Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance and foreign policy while maintaining balance and equanimity. I would like to disclose here that I have benefitted personally from Shuja Nawaz’s actions in the past. I was selected as one of the fifteen ‘Emerging Leaders of Pakistan’ (ELP) selected by Atlantic Council’s South Asia center (headed by Shuja) in 2012.

A little backstory: I was in a strange place in my life at the time. I had just finished medical school and had started my internship in internal medicine. My life was in flux. In the last year of medical school, I had drifted away from medicine and towards political science and history. Following Salmaan Taseer’s assassination in 2011, I had taken night classes at a makeshift school on political economy and history (more on ST’s assassination and my transformation here ). I had also started writing for my own blog and later for express tribune’s (ET) blogs and for Viewpointonline, a fledgling left-wing weekly. By the time I started my internship in May 2012, I had been published in ET, Pakistan Today and Dawn Blogs. During medical school, I had taken part in student politics and was aware of the brewing ‘Doctors Movement’ which was headquartered in the same dorms where I lived. In June-July 2012, there was a massive strike across Punjab and many of my classmates who were interns got arrested and were placed alongside death row inmates in Lahore. I wrote about this for ET and Dawn and engaged in twitter and Facebook wars with people who saw no benefit in our strike. A week after the strike was over, I received an email from Shuja that I had been selected for ELP and would be visiting the US in October-November 2012. I had earlier done an online interview and an in-person interview (after a typical 40-hour shift at the hospital) during the selection process. The other 14 people came from different backgrounds (Activists, NGO people, media people) and I was selected as a writer.  We met General Mattis at Shuja’s house in Virginia, Lt Gen Douglas Lute (Obama’s special rep for Af-Pak) in the West Wing of White House and Chuck Hagel at the Atlantic Council. We also visited the Pentagon and Hoover Institute in San Francisco where we met George Shultz. Most of these meetings came about due to personal connections and efforts by Shuja and his staff. One of the dominant themes of our conversations was the status of Pakistan post-2014 ‘withdrawal’ of the US from Afghanistan. We also got a two-hour masterclass in US-Pakistan history from Shuja while we were stranded at our hotel in NYC due to Hurricane Sandy (and had to cancel our meeting with then-Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker). I wrote a few blogs for the now-defunct website for the fellowship that can be accessed here, courtesy of way back machine.

Personally, that first visit to the US in 2012 changed a lot of things for me in the short and long run. The fact that I’m writing this while sitting in the United States with a pretty stable life owes a lot to that selection. I have met Shuja over the years both in the States and in Pakistan and have learned a lot from him. I rate his earlier book ‘Crossed Swords’ (which I have a signed and amended-by-the-author copy of) as one of the best books on Pakistan’s military-industrial complex and its impact on Pakistan’s history.

Moving on to the next book. Shuja has been close to many of the protagonists in the book on both the US and Pakistani side. He grew up in a military family and his brother Asif was Chief of Army Staff in the early 90s, before his sudden death. He has been called the ‘Pakistan army’s man in DC’ by some people in Pakistan over the years.  Having read books on Pakistan-US relations in the last decade (including but not limited to: Directorate S, The Dispensable Nation, War on Peace, India vs Pakistan, Sleepwalking to Surrender, The Wrong Enemy, The Way of the Knife), one gets a general outline of the ebb and flow of the relationship between the two countries. What Shuja’s book does is to add an insider’s narrative on the events and puts things in perspective. It starts off on the Pakistan side with the political reshuffling underway in 2006 when Musharraf wanted to sign an NRO with Benazir Bhutto (BB) and a few months before that Nawaz Sharif and BB had signed the Charter of Democracy. Musharraf wanted to share power with BB but on his own terms, as a dominant partner. BB was not interested in such a lopsided setup and was gathering allies in the US before her trip to Pakistan. Musharraf was fighting many fires in 2007, the chief one among them was ‘Lawyers Movement’, allegedly an internecine conflict involving different intelligence agencies. BB landed in Pakistan in October and faced a bomb blast in which she survived but more than 100 of her dedicated party workers perished. In December, BB was not so lucky and became the target of another assassination attempt. Musharraf had lost the plot. Fresh Elections were held and BB’s party took control of the Federal government. Musharraf tried to maneuver a role for himself in the democratic setup but had to resign in August 2008. It was a new era for Pakistan and the political class was in charge after 9 years of complete military rule. Shuja was a first-hand witness to BB’s deliberations in the US and provides an insight into her mindset and that of Zardari at the time.

There was a change of guard in the US as well. Obama was elected President on the promise of quitting the useless, forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the first Obama term, there was the morass known as ‘Af-Pak’ policy review with State Dept, CIA, Military on one side and Richard Holbrooke on the other. In the end, with all possible information, Obama chose to announce an exit timetable from Afghanistan alongside a surge of troops. That was a blunder, as has been acknowledged by people in the Obama Foreign Policy team. The details of this process have been documented by Steve Coll and Vali Nasr in their respective books but Shuja provides further insight gained from candid interviews with key stakeholders and policymakers including Bruce Reidel. One particular thing that caught my eye was the discussion on Haqqani Network. I have always wondered why Pakistan protected them with such rigor and passion. A ‘senior Pakistani army officer’ told Seymour Hirsch that Haqqanis had “facilitated the evacuation of ISI personnel and their friends from Kunduz” and that was why they were regarded highly. Shuja thinks its not the right answer and I tend to agree with that. I wrote about the infamous Kunduz airlift here (link) and wish more Pakistanis would know about that incident.

With the arrival of Obama, the Musharraf-Bush ‘bromance’ post-9/11 was also over. Pakistan had received generous US aid and support (Non-NATO ally status and more) as a result of that relationship. The year 2008 changed that. Things went from bad to worse in 2011 though. Shuja has reserved a major chunk of his book on what happened in that fateful year. It was the year of Raymond Davis, of the OBL operation (my first ever blog for Dawn was on the OBL raid and I remember writing about the incident in Urdu while sitting in a General surgery lecture during May 2011), Memogate and Salala. I remember being quite up to date with the news at the time but Shuja’s narrative on all of these events, particularly the Memogate and Salala has added to my understanding of how the events unfolded and divergent viewpoints of protagonists.

He devotes a chapter to the issue of Financial Aid from the United States to Pakistan. It is a complex topic that involved failures on both sides. I have talked to many friends in Pakistan about this who work in development/human rights organizations and they told me stories of how cumbersome the process of getting funds from USAID is and the need for publicity often has to be weighed against the image that the US has in Pakistan (which is overwhelmingly negative).  That is the reason why some of the leading human rights organizations (e.g HRCP, Shirkat Gah) in Pakistan don’t even apply for grants and funds from US sources. There was (still probably is) a whole industry of ‘grifters’ who arose from the post 9/11 largesse by the United States. In the mid-2000s till recently, using the words ‘combating religious extremism’ was a very good way to get international aid in Pakistan, a fact that has been criticized by actual human rights activists. Many religious figures also used this opportunity to get US visas and money in the guise of fighting religious fundamentalism. Shuja writes about the much-maligned Kerry-Luger bill (in 2009) that was supposed to prioritize civilian aid to Pakistan and was disparaged from early on by the military. In the Tierney Repot in 2008, prepared by the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, it was admitted that “US brand in Pakistan had become ‘toxic’ over time”.

The New York Times wrote an editorial in 2015 titled ‘Is Pakistan worth America’s Investment?’ which Shuja quotes (and I find very true):

“Since 9/11, the United States has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to help fight extremists. There are many reasons to have doubts about the investment. Still, it is in America’s interest to maintain assistance—at a declining level—at least for the time being. But much depends on what the money will be used for. One condition for new aid should be that Pakistan do more for itself—by cutting back on spending for nuclear weapons and requiring its elites to pay taxes.

Doubts about the aid center on Pakistan’s army, which has long played a double game, accepting America’s money while enabling some militant groups, including members of the Afghan Taliban who have been battling American and Afghan troops in Afghanistan”.

Military Aid and what Pakistan did with that is no different. The details about how the Navy claimed $445 per sailor from Coalition Support Funds (CSF) in June 2005 but $800 per sailor in December 2005 would be comical if not tragic. In contrast, Air Force charged $800 per person in 2004 and $400 in later years. The Army charged steadily at $200. Similarly, Navy charged $5700 per vehicle per month as opposed to Army’s less than $100 per vehicle per month.

For Pakistan-watchers and students of civ-mil imbalance in Pakistan, there are frequent nuggets of interesting information. For example, about the 2014 PTI Dharna, US Ambassador Olson told Shuja that “We received information that Zahir-ul-Islam [DG-ISI] was mobilizing for a coup in September of 2014. General Raheel Sharif blocked it by, in effect, removing Zaheer, by announcing his successor. Zahir was talking to the corps commanders and was talking to life-minded army officers. He was prepared to do it and had the chief been willing, even tacitly, it would have happened”. We also learn about the inroads made into military by Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) and the ‘Pir-Bhai’ system which distorts the discipline of army.

In my opinion, the book is recommended reading for people interested in Pakistan, its civil-military relations and how the US treats its relation with Pakistan.

 

2+

Baba Nanak Within Reach, by Muzaffar Ghaffar

A short introduction to the work of Muzaffar Ghaffar, who has published 30 volumes of classical punjabi poetry with detailed explanations and translation.  Written by Punjabi writer Nadir Ali (who happens to be my father)

Muzaffar Ghaffar on Guru Nanak

BAABA NAANAK Within Reach  –  in MUZAFFAR GHAFFAR’S series “Masterworks of Punjabi Sufi Poetry”

Publisher :Ferozsons (Pvt) LTD       Pages :  435        Price : Rs 1095

In the cultural wasteland that is our homeland these days, to be a man of culture doesn’t take much effort; you do some literary chit chat or somehow get your name printed with some work people assume as cultural or creative and you become a cultural or literary figure! Having known Muzaffar Ghaffar for over thirty years, he is an honourable and notable exception to this superficial trend.  He came to Pakistan with his savings and a couple of books in print, a book of English verse which has had a couple of editions published and a book On How a Government is Run .  In my involvement with Punjabi we came together in the weekly “Sangat” in readings of Punjabi classic poetry held at the residence of Najm Hosain Syed and Samina Hassan Syed and I have had the pleasure of knowing him for over 30 years now.

A digression first: Najm Sahib is already famous in Punjabi literary circles in both East and West Punjab.  To give you some idea I often quote a well-known Sikh scholar of Punjabi who was Head of Punjabi Department at Guru Nanak University, Amritsar.  He said, “There are two categories of Punjabis – those who have studied Mr. Najm Hosain Syed and those who have not; those who have not read him do not know much about Punjabi language or literature!”  To those not familiar with Mr. Najm Hosain Syed’s work, this may sound like an exaggeration.  But having attended weekly meetings at his house for nearly forty years and having read his poetry and books on literary criticism, plays and poetry, I venture to share this remark.  There are almost forty books of verse and landmark works of literary criticism and four books combining half a dozen plays  in Punjabi to his credit.  He keeps his books small so that the price remains within reach of Punjabi readers. “Recurrent Patterns in Punjabi Poetry” is his masterwork and the full text is online at apnaorg.com. 

Najm is Muzaffar’s guide and inspiration for the thirty volumes of the “Within Reach” series on Punjabi Classical poetry that are available to date, all in English.  But neither in the US, nor in England and rest of English speaking world abroad have I seen these books in the market, although Punjabi literature is taught in many places in institutes of repute in these countries, with considerable Punjabi speaking public.  Nor do I know of anyone abroad who talks of these books. In particular the worth and value of this remarkable volume “Baaba Naanak Within Reach” on Baba Nanak’s poetry is incalculable, and it is our enormous loss that this work of M. Ghaffar remains largely unknown. Continue reading “Baba Nanak Within Reach, by Muzaffar Ghaffar”

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Review: The Army and Democracy by Aqil Shah

Book review as receieved from Major Amin

This is an interesting book and what the author wants to say is something I have always believed and said. However it is essential to examine in detail what Mr Aqil Shah has to say and offer some humble analysis .
On page- ix , would like to offer some comments on Mr Ahmad Mukhtar :–

Mr Mukhtar has been an industrialist who belongs to a town close to the military garrison town known as Kharian cantonment.He has always maintained good relations with the army like any good business man and ,frankly like most politicians in this world has no substance. Just like most generals worldwide are men without substance !

Firstly I do not agree with Aqil Shahs argument about Mr Jinnah on page-3 , nor with Aqil Shahs view that military coups and adventurism were not inevitable in Pakistan:–

We hold the view that Mr Jinnah the so called founder of Pakistan apart from British Raj , had inflicted the unkindest cut on Indian Muslims of Bengal and Punjab in 1916 and thereby by doing this had destabilized future politics of Indian Muslims for all times to come,Pakistan being the worst affected.

In the Lucknow Pact of 1916, without asking the Bengali Muslims or the Punjabi Muslims, he reduced Bengal Muslim majority in legislature from 52 to 40 % and in Punjab from 54 to 50 %. Continue reading “Review: The Army and Democracy by Aqil Shah”

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Review: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia (Pankaj Mishra)

This was a long rolling rant I wrote several years ago while reading Pankaj Mishra’s book “From The Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia”. The format is that I comment as I read the book. So early parts are comments on early chapters and so on. Quotes from Pankaj are in bolded italics. I am reposting today after someone complained that it still needs some editing. Hopefully this version will be easier to read.

First things first, this books is NOT about the intellectuals who remade Asia. That book would have to start with people like Aizawa in Japan, the first Asian nation to be “remade”, but that is one nation and one set of thinkers you will not find in this book. Why? because this book is not about Asia, its history or its renaissance, it (like most of Mr MIshra’s recent work) is about post-liberal virtue signaling. For details, read on..

Introduction: After being told that everyone from Orhan Pamuk to Pakistani Ambassador (and liberal feminist Jinnahist icon) Sherry Rahman is in love with Pankaj Mishra’s new book I started reading it. The first 50 pages set a certain tone. And its not a very encouraging one.

On  page 18 he says: the word Islam, describing the range of Muslim beliefs and  practices, was not used before the 19th century. 

WTF? This is then negated on the very next page by Mishra himself. The only explanation for this little nugget is that Pankaj knows his audience and will miss no opportunity to slide in some politically correct red meat for his them. He knows that sections of the liberal academia believe that Islam is unfairly maligned as monolithic (and monolithically bad) and Pankaj wants to let people know that he has no such incorrect beliefs. It is a noble impulse and it recurs. A lot. I do not need to add that this sentence is complete nonsense. Continue reading “Review: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia (Pankaj Mishra)”

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