Review: Enlightenment Now. Steven Pinker.

I have not so much read the book as scanned it. For most of the book he builds a case for his basic claim that life, for most people, has improved to an amazing extent in the last 200 years and we can thank science, reason and humanism for all this progress.
I assume he has to provide so much data because he knows this is an unfashionable opinion within the postmodern liberal intellectual elite and this bothers him. By listing all these facts and showing us all these graphs, he thinks he can convince even his most skeptical critics that progress is real, and that it is much more widely distributed than most people imagine. Is there something missing from his account of progress? I think there definitely is. I do not disagree with his claim that progress is real. Hunger, disease, violent death, these are not trivial concerns. The tremendous progress in these areas is real, and it is meaningful. Intellectuals who criticize Pinker by pointing to persistent or new forms of ill health, physical suffering or violence should take a break and actually read the book, they will find that he has the data and it is not bad data. Either argue about his data with better data of your own, or argue on some OTHER grounds. On THESE grounds, he is solid. Continue reading “Review: Enlightenment Now. Steven Pinker.”


Review: The Storm Before the Storm

A relatively short (265 pages), fast paced and lively account of the Roman Republic from 146 BC (the fall of Carthage and Corinth) to 78 BC (the death of Sulla), covering the period in which the Republic saw major social upheaval, conflict and civil war and in which many of the constitutional checks and balances of the Republic fell by the wayside, setting the stage for the final overthrow of the Republic by Julius Ceasar and his grand nephew, Augustus Ceasar. Mike Duncan is known for his Roman history podcasts and in this book he makes the case that the decline of the mos maiorum (the “mores”) of the Roman Republic in this period of crisis was the crucial factor that led to the final fall a few decades later. WHY the mos maiorum fell apart is a big question, and it is not really answered in this book (a book that really tries to answer that question would probably be much denser and longer than this book) , but is beautifully described, and that is enough to earn 4 stars.

This period of Roman history and its main characters are not as prominent in popular memory as the final crisis of the Republic. Almost every educated person has heard of Julius Ceasar, the ides of March, Antony and Cleopatra, and Augustus, but relatively few people are familiar with characters such as the Gracchus brothers, Gaius Marius and Sulla, which is a tragedy, because their stories are as fascinating (if not more fascinating) than anything that happened in the final crisis of the Republic. if you are not a Roman history nerd and are not already familiar with these compelling characters, then this is a great introduction to the era and its most famous personalities. Colleen McCollough’s historical fiction (the “Masters of Rome” series) is far more detailed and richer in texture because in historical fiction she can fill in details where the historical record is silent (she is very careful to stay faithful to the historical record as far as it is known), but if you just want the story that is in the history books, this is a great place to start. Its all in here, the increasing immiseration of the peasant proprietors who were the base of the ancient Republic; the corruption that came with increasing wealth; the fight to extend citizenship to all Italians; the rise (and violent fall) of the Gracchi, aristocrats who championed the cause of the downtrodden; the incredible (and incredibly long) career of Gaius Marius, the “new man” (novus homo) who rose from outsider to outstanding general, savior of Rome and 7 time consul but just could not bear to retire; and last but not the least, the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, impoverished aristocrat, brilliant general, harsh conqueror and even harsher dictator, who tried to reform and re-animate the ancient Republic and actually managed to retire at the height of his power, but whose reforms failed to prevent (and whose personal example probably aggravated) the final crisis of the Republic. As you read, you cannot help wondering why 20 famous movies and TV serials have not been made about these people. Marius’s escape from Rome alone is worth at least one great movie, with more hair-raising chases, captures, escapes, betrayals and last minute twists of fortune than any fictitious adventure movie could possibly squeeze into one character’s life.
Overall, a great read, well worth a look.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla
Gaius Marius


Book Review: The RigVeda

How many fires are there, how many suns?

How many dawns? How many waters?

I ask this, O fathers, not to challenge.

O Sages, I ask it to know

(RigVeda Book 10, hymn 88)

Full Disclosure: I have not actually read the entire RigVeda; all I did was read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the RigVeda. The hymns are (as expected) very repetitive, but they do give you a picture of the culture of the Indo-Europeans who came to India around 1800 BC (or so we believe these days, this may be adjusted as ancient DNA from Indian sites yields its secrets). It is a window (and probably the most complete and most ancient window we have) into the Indo-European world that played such a huge role in the creation of the present cultures of much of Eurasia, from Western Europe to India (and beyond). The book is thus a window into our own “heroic age”, so to speak and should be of interest to all, above and beyond their obvious status as shruti (heard, i.e. revealed, as opposed to composed by latter day humans) holy books in Hinduism.

The translation I read is by Indologist Ralph Griffith, who lived most of his life in India (he was the pincipal of Benares college in the Hindu holy city of Benares) and is buried in South India (i.e. one of those Englishmen who came to India and fell in love, or like JBS Haldane, fell in love and came to India). A more recent and scholarly translation is now available but is very expensive. This one is free and available in its entirety at this site:  (

In the original Sanskrit, the hymns are arranged in stanzas and follow particular rules of rhyme and meter (hear a sample at the end of this review). They are meant to be memorized (with extreme fidelity to the text and its correct pronunciation) and then sung/recited (as they still are), in religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the Gods.  In this sense, my use of them as a “window into the heroic age” has little to do with their use and status in Hinduism. But then, I am not a Hindu (unless we are following Savarkar’s definition, in which case I guess I am a little bit Hindu too). Anyhow, on with the review. Continue reading “Book Review: The RigVeda”


Review: From the Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

This was a long rolling rant I wrote 5 years ago while reading Pankaj Mishra’s book “From The Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia“. The format is that I commented 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 editing it a little because the topic came up once again.

Spoiler Alert. since the “review” is really a very long rolling rant, written as I read the book, some people may just want to know this one fact: 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 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 have finally started reading it.
I have only read 50 pages so far but it is beginning to set a certain tone. And its not a very encouraging one. I am not impressed. At all. So Far.

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

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 audience. There is a vague sense “out there” in liberal academia that Islam is unfairly maligned as monolithic and even that the label itself may be “Islamophobic”. Pankaj wants to let people know that he has no such incorrect beliefs. It is a noble impulse and it recurs. A lot. Continue reading “Review: From the Ruins of Empire; The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia”


Review: On China

“On China” is a curious mixture of history, geopolitical analysis and self-serving memoir (concentrating mostly on the last two elements). Kissinger reviews some of the highlights of Chinese history; ancient and medieval China is covered quickly and superficially and the material is pretty much standard issue, but the level of detail increases after greatly from the opium war onwards and the book becomes much more interesting at that point. Kissinger makes the case that the Qing bureaucrats, in dire straits thanks to internal revolts, financial crisis and administrative decay, were not completely clueless or apathetic. Faced with determined, ruthless and far more technologically advanced European powers who had already overcome or overawed other great non-Western empires, Qing diplomats did their best to play European powers against one another and try to use (very limited) breathing space to try some fitful reforms, but the court was too far gone and the situation could not be salvaged, which led to 100 years of defeat, disorder, revolutions, famines and other disasters. Continue reading “Review: On China”


Book Review: The Silk Roads

This is a frustrating, though still useful, book. Historian Peter Frankopan’s title claims this is “a new history of the world”. He then proposes that what the world needs is to reorient its focus from Europe to “the silk roads”, vaguely defined by him as “the region between East and West.. from the Eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to the Himalayas”. This almost certainly reflects the fact that the core of this region happens to his particular area of interest (Turkey, Persia, Central Asia and Russia) as a historian. Having made this decision, he has to force the rest of the story to keep coming back to this region, to somehow keep his argument afloat. My recurring thought on reading this book was that all this is unnecessary. He could have written a history of the region without pretending that this was the REAL history of the world, and it would have worked fine. Or he could have attempted a history of the world and not bothered with this tendentious framing. But he insists on doing both, and it causes endless (and needless) irritation. Continue reading “Book Review: The Silk Roads”


Review: Age of Anger. Pankaj Mishra

Postscript: Having been told this is a rant, not a review, I have decided to add this disclaimer: it IS a rant. And no, it is not personal. I have never met Pankaj and for all I know he is probably a very nice guy. This is not so much about him as about the postliberal Eurocentric elite in general. That he writes this for them and they love him for it makes me use him as a focus for my criticism. Someday, if i have the discipline and/or the time, I should write a long-form essay and not make it about him but about the worldview in general. Until then, he gets to stand in for the lot of them. But it is NOT personal. 

Pankaj Mishra is a British-Indian writer and public intellectual who currently lives between London and Mashobra and writes regularly for publications like the NY Times and the NYRB. He started his career as a promising literary critic (Naipaul was initially impressed) but soon switched to “native informant” mode, presenting and interpreting what he described as the angst, atomization, envy and ressentiment of newly emerging and fitfully modernizing India; a phenomenon that other elite commentators and foreign visitors were presumably failing to notice. He then expanded this theme to all of Asia and has finally graduated to interpreting the  Metropole to the metropolitans themselves. This could have been a somewhat risky move, since Western reviewers who received his reports about the darker nations relatively uncritically, might well know enough about their home turf to become critical. But by and large, that has not happened; reviews have generally been favorable.

This is not one of those favorable reviews.

I found the book  tendentious, shallow and repetitive, with quotes and facts cherry-picked from across his vast (but chronologically limited and highly Eurocentric) reading list, full of unfounded assumptions and opinions that are casually passed off with an “as everyone knows” air in practically every paragraph.

The book begins with a brief account of D’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume in 1919. This relatively obscure episode is sprinkled with cherry-picked quotes and while the facts are mostly true, their significance is asserted rather than proven. This pattern is followed throughout the book; vast historical claims (e.g. that modernity led ultimately, not just transiently, to more immiseration in Europe; “First manifested in 19th century Europe – Bursts of technological innovation and growth offset by systemic exploitation and widespread immiseration“) are casually asserted as if they are already known and accepted by all sane-thinking people. There is no systematic description of what happened economically, socially or culturally in Europe (or elsewhere) in the last 200 years, and no data is ever offered to support any claims, but since these claims (sometimes stated, frequently just hinted at) are almost all prevalent (if only vaguely and without systematic evidence) in postmodern liberal European (and Westernized Desi) circles, so the book gets a pass in those circles; but the fact is that if you stop and dig into any random claim, the tone and the details will not pass muster.

It could be objected that this is not the point of the book. As Pankaj himself puts it:

This books is not offered as an intellectual history; and it cannot even pose, given its brevity, as a single narrative of the orign and diffusion of ideas and ideologies that assimilates teh many cultural and political developments of the previous two centuries. Rather, it explores a particular climate  of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition, from teh age of Rousseau to our own age of anger

He goes on to say “It tries to show how an ethic of individual and collective empowerment spread itself over the world, as much through resentful imitation as coercion, causing severe dislocations, social maladjustment and political upheaval.

Marx said it better but this is not bad either. But unlike Marx, who offered a diagnosis and then a prescription (right or wrong), Pankaj goes on to dig through 200 years of (mostly European) intellectual history to find quotes and episodes that bewail this process of destruction of the old in action; but he never offers a diagnosis of why human beings and human societies created modernity in the first place (after all, even Europeans, or rather Anglo-Americans, who appear in this book as the only people who actually do things instead of just reacting to things being done to them, are also humans); nor does he offer any ideas about what an alternative may look like. What he does add to the diagnosis of some of the authors he quotes is a relentless focus on ressentiment as the quintessential human emotion; the secret sauce that explains everything that Pankaj does not like about the world today, from Trump and Modi to Erdogan and, somewhat surprisingly, the New York Review of Books (“a major intellectual periodical of Anglo-America“).

Resentment and envy drive everything in Pankaj-world. Herder and Fichte, for example, are “young provincials in Germany.. who simmered with resentment against a metropolitan civilization of slick movers and shakers that seemed to deny them a rooted and authentic existence”. This motif is repeated with variations throughout the book. Everyone (except the Anglo-Americans of course) is endlessly burning with resentment and hates who they are. It almost makes one wonder if the book is really about Pankaj digging through 200 years of intellectual history to find his own mirror image everywhere? But this would be to psychologize, and one should try to avoid that, even if Pankaj never does.

Perhaps all this would be fine if he was suitably humble about his own limitations, but of course, he is no such thing. There is a consistent tone of “I have discovered what all of you fools missed” throughout the book. That tone is grating, partly because what he has discovered is not very original, and partly because it is by no means certain that his assessment of the Enlightenment and its major thinkers is the correct assessment. I think it likely that the specialist who specializes in any thinker cited in this book will disagree with the flippant generalizations and cherry-picked quotes, but given that this treatment is being meted out to dozens of thinkers from across the globe and the specialist knows only his own, he may not realize that Pankaj is equally shallow about all of them. For example, he sums up Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant in one go with the dismissive “the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant”; is this really a fair and reasonable summary of all that those subtle and profound thinkers wrote and thought? I think it is certainly part of what they said, but Pankaj has no use for their other insights. What he needs for his purposes is the code words “commercial, self-interested, rational”. He knows these will do their magic within his (superficially anti-capitalist) audience, and he is probably right.

Of course, doubts and misgivings about modernity have been the subject of countless works ever since the terms were invented. In fact, the reason Rousseau, Nietzsche and company are one of the two groups who dominate the quote-mining in this book (terrorists and anarchists are the other) is precisely because they did produce works that questioned and critiqued many Enlightenment assumptions. Pankaj, with his focus on resentment and envy is, if anything, a much more limited and shallow version of their work. This may sound harsh, but this book is really little more than a disorganized dictionary of selected (sometimes misleadingly so) quotations and sweeping generalizations about writers who generally thought deeper and harder than Pankaj does. So my suggestion, dear reader, is, why not read them?

Which brings us to another problem with this book; its complete lack of interest in all human history before 1688 and in all civilizations except the European civilization of the last 200 years. Again, one may say that they are not the subject of the book, but the problem goes deeper than that. Not only are they not the subject of the book, it seems that they are not of interest to Pankaj at all. He never shows any interest (or awareness) of humans as biological beings, evolved over millennia, with instincts, drives and abilities shaped by that evolution far more than they can ever be shaped by “modernity”, whatever that may be. He is not interested in 10,000 years of human cultural evolution or in the vast literature on the evolution of political order. And he seems to regard all non-European (or perhaps non-Anglo-American) civilizations as interchangeable place holders for “tradition”, trammeled under the boot of modernity. That China and the Chinese, for example, may not be exact counterparts of his native India, and may even be a civilization that regards itself (justifiably) as a world-leader, a source of many “modern” ideas, fully capable (and desirous) of joining the modern world on its own terms. But these are not notions to be found in Pankaj-land. To him, all non-Europeans are simply interchangeable primitives; “traditional” people driven by resentment and envy and, more to the point, doomed to fakery, imitation and disappointment.

Finally, there is the issue of conscious (or unconscious?) manipulation of facts and anecdotes to fit his agenda.  Pankaj seems to know the prejudices and vague preconceptions of his postmodern Eurocentric audience, and he never misses a chance to push their buttons, even if it requires some subtle alteration of events. A few random quotes will illustrate this tendency:

Turkeys Erdogan to India’s Modi, France’s Le Pen and America’s Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reserviors of cynicism, boredom and discontent”. Discontent, yes, but cynicism and boredom? Other than sounding good to his audience, how much sense does this really make?

Speaking of the 1990s “The Dalai Lama appeared in Apple’s “Think different” advertisements and it seemed only a matter of time before Tibet, too, would be free”.  Did it? really? to whom? The only reason this sentence appealed to him is because it presses the right buttons. The Dalai Lama, check. Evil corporation Apple, check. Advertisement, check. Sheeple being fooled yet again, check. It is a theme, and it recurs.

He casually claims that the first televised beheading occurred “in 2004, (just as broadband began to arrive in middle-class homes) in Iraq, of a Western hostage dressed in an orange Guantanomo jumpsuit“.  This is another classic example of Pankaj in action. It is hard to believe that he has not heard (or did not learn while Googling) that the televised beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl happened two years earlier in 2002; but that beheading was in Pakistan, involved Jew-hatred and did not include an orange Guantanomo jumpsuit. So it doesnt really evoke instant anti-imperialist memes in the way the Iraq invasion and Guantanomo jumpsuits do, so the example chosen has to be Iraq in 2004. And the “broadband arriving in middle class homes” is the cherry on the subliminal messaging cake. This is a minor point, but it is worth noting that even in the case of minor points, the rhetorical needs of Pankaj’s overall project are going to be paramount. The reader has to be on his guard.

only on the rarest occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence” . First of all, it is by no means certain that this history is “largely one of carnage and bedlam”, but among those who think this is true, this has been the fashionable view for decades. Pankaj does not get to announce this as new news to the in-crowd.

Wrought by the West’s transition to industrial capitalism and mass politics..“. We know he is against capitalism. Perhaps against industry as well. But is he also against mass politics? Pankaj will not say “the people” are ignorant, easily manipulated fools, but he is never too far from implying exactly that. It would be hugely interesting if he went deeper into this topic and reached some philosophically interesting (and perhaps even controversial) conclusions (aristocratic ones? under that “man of the people from Jhansi” exterior?) but this is another reason I am not a fan of his books. You get the party line, and nothing but the party line. The message is in fact NEVER controversial or new or shocking. it is exactly tailored to fit current postliberal fashions and where those fashions are internally contradictory, Pankaj will not venture. Sad!

By the way, he thinks Pope Francis is the “most convincing and influential public intellectual today”. Convincing? to whom? and MOST influential??

When it comes to Islam, he is even more predictable and safe. The following, for example, is a fairly typical example of clueless Euroliberal apologetics, and Pankaj may even know better, but he knows what buttons to push, so here it is.

(Osama and Zarqawi, not to speak of Al-Baghdadi, who has a PhD in Islamic studies, do in fact know a lot about the Islam of their ancestors. that the foot soldiers don’t know the theological details is neither here nor there; foot soldiers of other ideologies don’t know either)

He is not always wrong. In fact he is frequently perfectly correct, but in a trite and almost trivial way. For example, he says (correctly in my view) that “those routinely evoking a woldwide clash of civilizations in which Islam is pitted against the West, and religion against reason, are not able to explain many political, social and environmental ills”. Yes, but to hear him say it, you would think everyone except Pankaj thinks this is the case. But in fact, hardly any liberal commentators see this as the main explanatory framework for the world today. Debunking this to a liberal audience (and there is no other audience for this book) seems like the easiest of easy shots, not worth wasting 350 pages. But that is the problem with the book: in the end, it is just dumbed down propaganda, preaching to the converted, telling then what they already believed, but making them feel like they are participating in the unmasking of some deep and meaningful secret. This formula surely works as a way to sell books and get good reviews. But for anyone interested in new information or deeper insights, it is a waste of time.  What Scruton said about Foucault’s “The order of things” (“an artful book.. a work not of philosophy but of rhetoric”) applies to this book too. Which is unfortunate. Pankaj is obviously intelligent and very widely read. He could do something more interesting than just artfully massaging the fashionable prejudices of his class and his audience.

Besides, while he hates this “soul-killing world of mediocrity and cowardice” he is also a Westernized liberal (or post-liberal) who cannot possibly stand alongside, say, the extreme Hindu or Islamic radical who says exactly the same things. To him, those people are justified in their rebellion (though he is not at all sympathetic to the Hindu variety, relatively gentle on the Islamist variety, and most forgiving of the Leftist variety, because of the particular politics of his own peer group) but at the same time he cannot really advocate any “return to traditional mores” because of course, those mores are patriarchal, heirarchical, transphobic etc etc.. Knowing this and knowing his audience, he never goes too far into this problem. But the problem is very real. If modernity is evil, then why not the premodern? And if that too is “problematic”, then we have a bigger human issue on our hands and all this handwaving has done nothing to bring us one step closer to a solution.

PS: a couple of other random screenshots

“Man..can no longer connect cause to effect”. OK, but that implies a return to very ancient isolation. Is that the solution? maybe it is, but you won’t hear more about it from Pankaj. He presses the button, makes you feel deep, and moves on.

The book is full of this sort of elevated pseudo-discourse..

We end where we began. We need to do something new. But what?

by the way, since Pankaj quotes Nietzsche on ressentiment, here is the original. Judge for yourself..



Review: What is Islam, by Shahab Ahmed


Shahab Ahmed tells us up front that he is not going to answer the question “what is Islam?”. And of course, he does not really do so, but the title (misleadingly) suggests that he will, and in the course of the book, he comes perilously close to trying (and failing) to do so without outright saying he is going to do it. In short, Shahab himself seems confused about what he is trying to achieve here. The book is a description of some (but certainly not all) aspects of Islamic culture as it developed and expanded, especially AFTER the initial Arab phase of empire building. And it is a long argument with various seen and unseen opponents who want to define Islam as some ONE thing. In the course of this argument, Shahab wants to show that Islam was very varied, but he also wants to show that it is not infinitely varied. In the course of an overly long book, he manages to show that Islamicate societies (a term he does not really approve of) had a very wide variety of beliefs and practices, though they also remained anchored within a certain tradition and in continuous argument with particular foundational texts. All of this may be a surprise to extreme puritanical Islamists AND to more or less ignorant anti-Islamists, but should be no surprise at all to anyone else. Why wouldn’t there be a lot of variety? Anyway, if you happen to spend your life arguing with people who have a very monochromatic view of Islam, then you can keep this book handy in order to prove otherwise. It is good for that.

Beyond that, it is a rich compendium of anecdotes (he has read VERY widely and quotes extensively from hundreds of sources) and you will learn a lot about the “Balkans to Bengal complex”, a cultural zone that Shahab Ahmed is particularly fond of and regards as archetypically Islamic. Incidentally, you will also be able to prove to your friends that Islamic history is characterized by an official/theocratic prohibition of alcohol AND a simultaneous cultural fascination and widespread use and even praise of alcohol, complete with social practices that incorporate regular use of alcohol (e.g. in poetry recitals and courtesan dance performances… though this also being a work of apologetics, the “courtesan” part is not highlighted). What you will NOT find is any mention of how the Islamic empire was created in the first place. Military force and politics are almost completely absent from this cultural history of Islamdom. Make of that what you will. But it is worth keeping in mind that the geographic region extending from the Balkans to Bengal did not just magically happen to switch religions, it was conquered…Still, the the book is worth reading if you want to know more about the cultural history of the core-Islamicate region. It is more or less useless as a book of history. And it is somewhere in between when it comes to theology and philosophy.

Overall, this is high class and erudite apologetics, and the anecdotes collected herein will stand the test of time; but I suspect that the postmodern arguments and apologetics will not age well. When the current phase of history has passed, readers will wonder why Shahab Ahmed is wasting their time with convoluted and wordy arguments about how legitimate or illegitimate this or that simple-minded view of Islam actually is. Then again, maybe postmodernism will not fade away as completely as I imagine (or wish for) and future generations will continue to be fascinated by the verbiage that just seems like waste of space to me.

Time will tell.

Post Script: A friend commented that “you cannot expect him to say more than that..” and I am adding my answer to this review:
I certainly expect a good historian (even a “cultural historian” ) to say much more than that! or rather, much less than that; with a better ratio of facts to verbiage, and a better ratio of evidence-based historical theorizing to windbaggery. I happen to be reading Tomb’s “The English and their history” at the same time and the difference is night and day. With Tomb’s book you actually get an attempt at describing the English and their history and culture and so on, with systematic, rational and evidence-based theorizing and refutation of theories. Whether you agree with his particular view or not, you get what he is saying and you get what he is arguing against. Much of the time, you get something close to a “full picture”. With Shahab Ahmed, you get nothing of the sort. Now, granted Tombs is a serious historian working within a great tradition and Shahab was more or less an amateur working from within the bullshit end of modern academia, but still…there should be standards 🙂


Book Review: Monsoon War (the war of 1965)

From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain. (btw, maybe the gentlemanly conduct of both sides would be better described as chivalry?)

Book Review – The Monsoon War
Hamid Hussain

Lieutenant General Tajindar Shergill and Captain Amarinder Singh’s book The Monsoon war is an encyclopedic work on 1965 India-Pakistan war.  It is a detailed account of operations of all phases of 1965 war from the perspectives of junior officers.  Authors have used extensive Indian material as well as Pakistani sources to provide a detailed picture of the conflict.

Book starts with the background of the conflict that culminated in open war in 1965.  This is followed by details about the Run of Kutch conflict that was prelude to the war.  Chapter five is especially a good read as it provides details of armor equipment of both armies and advantages and disadvantages.  This helps the non-military reader to understand strengths and weaknesses of rival armies during the conflict. Authors provide details of some of the challenges faced by Indian army in the aftermath of Indo-China conflict of 1962. Rapid expansion of Indian army resulted in poorly armed and poorly trained formations.  If Indian army was producing ‘nine months wonders’ for Indian army officer corps, Pakistan army was producing ‘pre-mature’ officers from Officers Training School with only eight months of training.  In early 1960s, Pakistani officers were not happy with the pay as it had remained stagnant as well as lack of accommodations.  When troops were used to construct accommodations, there was resentment among soldiers as they saw it below their dignity to work as laborers.  Pakistani tanks had not carried out any tank firing for over two years as training ammunition provided by Americans was hoarded as ‘war reserve’. However, when war started majority of officers and soldiers on both sides fought to the best of their abilities.

Contrary to popular perceptions in Pakistan about Muslims of India, it is interesting to note that a number of Muslim soldiers and officers fought on Indian side.  Lieutenant Colonel Salim Caleb (later Major General) was commanding 3rd Cavalry. 4th Grenadiers was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Farhat Bhatti (later Major General) and class composition of the battalion was A and B Jat, C Kaim Khani Muslim and D Dogra companies. GSO-3 of a division was Abdul Rasul Khan of 4th Grenadiers (later Colonel). Lieutenant Colonel Salim Chaudhri was CO of 4th Rajputana Rifles, Major A. K. Khan was 2IC of 8th Garhwal Rifles and B Squadron of 18th Cavalry was a Muslim squadron. Ironically, the platoon that ambushed Pakistani Brigadier A. R. Shami’s jeep in which he was killed was a Muslim platoon of 4th Grenadiers. Company Quartermaster Havaldar Abdul Hamid of 4th Grenadiers won a posthumous highest gallantry award Param Vir Chakra (PVC).

On page 108, it is suggested that change of command of 12th Division in the middle of operations from Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik to Major General Yahya Khan may be due to the fact that Malik was an Ahmadi (a heterodox sect of Muslims) and high command wanted to deny him the honor.  The question of change of command has never been explained but sectarian factor was probably not the reason.  Official ostracization and persecution of Ahmadis started much later in 1970s.  At the time of 1965 war, disproportionately large number of Ahmadis was serving in all branches of armed forces.  A number of Ahmadis were senior officers and many performed very well.

Book gives some insight into regimental intrigues.  It is claimed that Corps Commander XV Corps Lieutenant General Katoch due to resentment over not being appointed Colonel of Sikh Regiment was responsible for not forwarding gallantry awards recommendations for 2nd Sikh Regiment. It is to the credit of Indian army as well as government that people were taken to the task for the acts of omission and commission.  161st Field Artillery Regiment serving under 10th Infantry Division abandoned its guns.  Later, CO of the regiment was court martialled and GOC of 10th Division Major General B. D. Chopra was relieved of his command.  GOC 15th Division Major General Niranjan Prasad was relieved of his command on September 07 and replaced by Major General Mohindar Singh.  In fact irate Corps Commander XI Corps Lieutenant General Jogindar Singh Dhillon threatened Prasad with an immediate court martial in the field with the likelihood of being found guilty and shot. CO of 15th Dogra Lieutenant Colonel Indirjeet Singh was one step ahead of his retreating soldiers when panic struck the battalion.  He first went straight to brigade headquarters and despite Brigade commander’s efforts raced all the way back to division headquarters.  He was promptly placed under arrest, later court martialled, dismissed from service and given three year imprisonment sentence.  CO of 13th Punjab was also removed from command. 48th Brigade Commander Brigadier K.J.S. Shahany was also relieved of his command and replaced by Brigadier Piara Singh. Pakistan army also penalized some officers but many were simply removed from the command and no detailed inquiries were conducted.

Book mentions role of some officers in 1965 war with amazing life experiences. Brigadier Anthony Albert ‘Tony’ Lumb was commander of 4th Armored Brigade of Pakistan army consisting of 5th Probyn’s Horse and 10th Frontier Force (FF).  He was commissioned in 9th Royal Deccan Horse and this regiment was allotted to India in 1947. Tony opted for Pakistan army.  In Khem Karan theatre, Tony was fighting against his old regiment Royal Deccan Horse of Indian army. In 1947 when Indian army was divided, Proby’s Horse and Deccan Horse had exchanged squadrons. In 1965, old Probyn’s squadron now carrying regimental color of Royal Deccan Horse was fighting against its own old regiment as Probyn’s Horse was part of 4th Armored Brigade.  Tony was a Gallian; alumni of Lawrence College Ghora Gali. He migrated to Canada in 1967 where he died in 2013.

Major General Niranjan Prasad was commissioned in 4th Battalion of 12th Frontier Force Regiment (now 6 Frontier Force Regiment). This is parent battalion of current Pakistan army Chief General Raheel Sharif.  Prasad was later seconded to Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) as Flight Lieutenant and fought Second World War with air force. He served with No: 1 Squadron commanded by K. K. Majumdar.  Even in this capacity, he saved his battalion.  4/12 FFR was in Burma and during withdrawal towards Sittang and in the fog of war was strafed by RIAF planes. Prasad recognized the markings of his own battalion and helped in stopping the strafing by calling off further attacks.  Later, he commanded No: 8 Squadron.  Many other army officers also joined RIAF and never reverted back to army.  Asghar Khan later became Air Marshal and C-in-C of Pakistan air force and Diwan Atma Ram Nanda retired as Air Vice Marshal in Indian air force.  Prasad reverted back to army as he had problems with his commander.  In 1962 Indo-China war, he was commanding 4th Division, was blamed for the disaster of 7th Brigade and sacked.  A humiliated Prasad went to the airfield alone and not even a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) was sent to see him off.  He petitioned the President against his sacking and was re-instated.  15th Division was raised in October 1964 and Prasad was appointed GOC.  After the war games, his Corps Commander and Army Commander recommended his removal as he was found not fit to command. In a meeting with Chief of Army Staff (COAS), he was only given warning but not removed from the command.  Chief gave the reason that Prasad had influence with higher authorities in Delhi and that they should ‘go easy on him’. Poor command cost Indian army dearly and a day after the start of the war Prasad was removed from the command. He had already written a representation against his sacking and Pakistanis got hold of it when his jeep was captured that contained his brief case.

Lieutenant (later Major) Shamshad Ahmed of 25th Cavalry of Pakistan army was the grandson of legendry Risaldar Major Anno Khan of 17th Poona Horse.  Anno Khan decided to stay in India at the time of partition. His one son Yunus Khan also stayed in India, serving with 17th Poona Horse and retired as Risaldar.  Anno’s other son Mehboob Khan had also served with 17th Horse and retired as Daffadar.  In 1947, Mehboob decided to come to Pakistan.   Mehboob’s son Shamshad Ahmad joined Pakistan army.  In 1965 war, he was serving with 25th Cavalry of Pakistan army and his regiment fought against 17th Poona Horse; his family regiment.  If Mehboob had decided to stay in India, it was very likely that his son Shamshad would have joined his family regiment and fighting against 25th Cavalry.

Indian and Pakistan armies are continuation of the Raj and they learned good sportsmanship from their British predecessors.  They kept those traditions even during the war. In June 1965 during Run of Kutch operation Major Khusdil Khan Afridi (later Lieutenant General) of 8th Frontier Force Regiment of Pakistan army was captured.  Afridi was winner of sword of honor of 4th Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) course.  He was captured by Major Venky Patel (later Lieutenant General) then serving as OP of 1 Mahar commanded by Lieutenant Colonel (later General) K. Sundarji. Famous Indian actor Raj Kapoor’s hit movie Sangam was the talk of the day and Afridi requested if he could see the movie.  He was taken under military escort to Ahmadabad to a theatre to watch the movie and then flown to Delhi to enjoy the fond memory of the movie during his captivity. Two pictures reproduced below taken immediately after ceasefire reflects the professionalism on both sides.  In one picture Major Hira Singh is embracing Major Shafqat Baloch for putting up such a good show.  In second picture, Indian officers are posing with their arms around their Pakistani counterparts when they met after cease fire.  I remember another incident in 1971 war when an Indian officer after accepting the surrender of Pakistani officers took them to the mess and ordered a round of drinks before sending them off to captivity.

Picture: 1. Major Hira Singh of Indian army embracing Major Shafqat Hussain Baloch of 17 Punjab of Pakistan army after cease fire for outstanding performance.

Figure: 2. Officers of 3 Jat of Indian army and 8 Baluch of Pakistan army meeting after ceasefire.  Note Sikh Indian officer with his elbow on the shoulder of the Pakistani officer and Pakistani officer putting his arm around Indian officer.
On page 1 is mentioned that Iskander Mirza was a former Major General in the Pakistan army and then transferred to the political service.  This statement is incorrect as Mirza never served in Pakistan army.  He was the first Indian commissioned from Sandhurst in 1920.  Mirza joined his parent 33rd Cavalry Regiment stationed at Jhansi in 1922 after serving a year with a British regiment.  Around the same time reorganization of Indian army was under way and 33rd Cavalry and 34th Cavalry were in the process of amalgamation to form 17th Poona Horse.  Mirza remained with his regiment for only four years and transferred to Indian Political Service (IPS) in August 1926.  He was Captain when he resigned his commission.  He became Secretary Defense in newly independent state of Pakistan.  Later, he became Governor General and President of Pakistan.  Mirza was given the honorary rank of Major General for protocol purposes.

On page 2 it is mentioned that Ayub Khan’s father Mir Dad Khan was Risaldar Major of Hodson Horse.  Mir Dad retired as Risaldar and not Risaldar Major of 9th Hodson Horse.  He was enlisted in 1887 and during Great War; he went to France with his regiment in October 1914.  He was evacuated to India due to ill health in 1915.  He served with the regimental depot and retired in August 1918.  He was awarded Order of British India (OBI) for his long and meritorious service but no gallantry award.  During war, regiment’s list of Risaldar Majors includes Mir Jafar Khan, Malik Khan Muhammad and Dost Muhammad Khan.   Mir Dad’s lifelong best friend and regimental buddy was Risaldar Muhammad Akram Khan and this friendship extended to the next generation.  Mir Dad’s son Filed Marshal Ayub Khan and Akram Khan’s son Lieutenant General Azam Khan (4/19 Hyderabad Regiment) were close friends but in the end got estranged when jealousies of power crept in the relationship.  On Page 83 CRPF is described as Central Reserve Peace Keeping Force but it should be Central Reserve Police Force.

On page 108, it is mentioned that ‘Yahya Khan was a Shia and a Pathan, as was Musa Khan’. This is only partially true as both were Shia but not Pathans.  Major General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was Shia but Persian speaking Qazalbash from Peshawar while General Muhammad Musa Khan was a Shia but Persian speaking Hazara from Quetta. On page 233, it is mentioned that Lieutenant Khizar Ullah of 3 SP Field Artillery Regiment had won sword of honor at PMA Kakul.  I have list of all sword of honor winners of PMA Kakul and didn’t find the above named officer. It may be a mistake.

Monsoon war is an excellent and very thorough work about the conflict.  It is to the credit of both authors that despite close personal relationship with some senior officers, they have remained objective and critically evaluated the conduct of war by senior brass.  This book should be on the shelves of every military institution of training and instruction of India and Pakistan.  Three works are essential in the library of anyone who is interested in the history of 1965 Indo-Pakistan war.  In addition to Monsoon war, the other two works are Lieutenant General ® Mahmud Ahmad’s and Major ® Agha H. Amin’s encyclopedic work on Indian-Pakistan war of 1965.

Lieutenant General Tajindar Shergill and Captain Amarinder Singh.  The Monsoon War: Young Officers Reminiscence 1965 India-Pakistan War (New Delhi: Lustre Press Roli Books, 2015)

Hamid Hussain
April 29, 2016

Defence Journal, May 2016.