Aug 312012

I have been invited to the Kovalam Literary Festival. Very flattering.

I have never been to either Delhi or Kerala before, so I am in for a treat. More daunting is the revelation that I am going to be grilled interviewed by Swapan Dasgupta.

The homework starts now…


 Posted by at 1:35 pm
Aug 292012

I have been thinking for some time now that one of the less obvious effects that colonialism wrought on India was to deprive her of nostalgia. Individuals may well remember golden childhoods but, since 1947, culturally and politically India has been bereft of fond memories of herself. Real memories, that is.

Am I right?


 Posted by at 12:49 pm
Aug 242012

Yesterday I found this article about the alleged genesis of Pakistan while googling around, and if ever I needed a vindication for the existence of this site, then this could well be it.

The author, one Tarek Fatah, might not be an Islamophobe (unlike some of his commenters) but he is suffering from a very North American sinsitrophobia – the belief that all bad things in the world must be the responsibility of the left. Pakistan is bad, therefore the left did it, he concludes. Jinnah’s baby, it seems, was really fathered by a global socialist conspiracy, led by the US and Churchill, for the purpose of setting up an air base within range of Russia.

Not content with a ridiculous premise, he then proves his ‘theory’ in a variety of ridiculous ways, with virtuoso leaps of logic, oodles of ignorance and more distortion than Jimi Hendrix. And all this in a national newspaper!

If the Toronto Sun would give me a column I could show that his ‘arguments’ have more holes in them than a cheese grater, while being rather less useful. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for the call.

I have read a great many conspiracy theories about Partition and Pakistan, and this one was slightly new, with slightly different villains. But the mistakes are familiar, and if Mr Fatah had ever read any serious academic literature on the subject, he could not be so sweepingly confident. For instance, it is quite inappropriate to compare Congress attitudes circa May 1945 when most of its leadership was in prison, and those attitudes post-August 1947, by which time the party was the government of an independent state within the Commonwealth, and the arch pacifist Gandhi was out of the loop. Next, the US had showed no interest and took no part in the making of Pakistan; Washington pointedly ignored the fledgling country for years, despite desperate attempts by Jinnah and his successors to get American money. Nor did the US back Pakistan over Kashmir in 1947, or in its two subsequent wars with India. Finally (for now), the air base for which the whole enormous enterprise was supposedly undertaken was not built until the late 1950s.

Needless to say some of his commenters are rather worse. But here again is my point; bad history launched from high places, told in loud tones and lurid terms, makes for strong opinions held without foundation. Is that really the way to make a better world?

As ever, it’s easy to ‘prove’ the existence of conspiracies if you cherry-pick your facts and ignore chronology wherever you need to. I will brush up my work on Partition conspiracy theories and put it up as soon as I can.

 Posted by at 7:22 am
Aug 182012

Back now, and not intending to stray for a while.

Still lots to say about the whole Jinnah-Gandhi-Partition issue, and I will be returning to it I am sure.

One thing to say now is that I am not sure that many Indians appreciate how truly unprecedented the whole imperial demission process was in India. Nothing like that had ever been done before, and that it didn’t run entirely smoothly should not be a great source of surprise. Empires usually collapse under the force of invasion or local rebellion, and in India mild variations of both were involved.

Despite this, the essentially civility of both sides is striking. Sovereign power over about 412 million people was at stake, and was resolved by negotiation. The departing power repeatedly asked what structure it should leave behind it, and the newly liberated locals were all essentially agreed that the forms of imperial British government should be preserved. It was only matters of detail – of drawing lines around or within majority rule Parliamentary system/s – that were at issue.

The desirability of elective government run on liberal principles was never questioned by any major player. This was the great strength of the Indian nationalist movement, but ultimately it was also the greatest weakness hidden in its originally united front.

To highlight and contextualise all this I will spend a few posts looking at the complex phenomenon of imperialism and empire.


 Posted by at 9:35 am
Aug 082012

With expert timing, I will not be poised over this blog on the day that my second book is launched. If you have come here because of it, have a look around. Not everything on this site is equally polished, but I think there are things lying around here that might be of some interest to those with any curiosity about history.

I have given an interview to The Times of India about the book, but I keep thinking of things I could have said, or said better. I will add just a couple here.

1. After writing the book, I was more convinced than ever that India could do with less religion in her politics, not more. This was actually part of the thinking of both Jinnah and Gandhi at certain points. How this got away from both of them, in different ways, is explained in the book.

2. I believe that Jinnah did not ‘change’ in any great way throughout his career, except once in the limited area of tactics, after he despaired, in around 1937, of fair dealing from the Hindu majority in India. He was never a religious man, but he always wanted to protect and promote the political rights of his own community, and he did this throughout his life. There was never any deviation from this main objective. Trying to find two Jinnahs is a mistake. There was only one, who moved slowly across a spectrum of anti-colonial nationalism, from broad optimism to narrow pessimism.

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
Aug 072012

My second book, Jinnah vs. Gandhi, is published by Hachette on 10 August, and an interview with me in The Times of India should appear on 11 August. That interview will necessarily be limited in space and scope, so for those curious about the book I will sketch out some of what it contains.

One central element of the book is my analysis of how Jinnah and Gandhi adopted different approaches to nationalism, and how the experience was overwhelmingly more positive for India. Gandhi had a non-doctrinaire conception of nationalism, based on an inclusive vision of India. He merely wished to redefine India as an independent country, away from British rule, which he believed was stopping India from recovering her historic unity, and was preventing Indians from taking responsibility for themselves in their own lives. Swaraj for him always had a greater political, and a lesser personal meaning, although in his conception the personal issue was prior to the political, and was therefore more important in actually delivering results on a mass scale. Gandhi wanted India to be non-British, but he had a positive vision of what a truly Indian India would be like.

Jinnah, on the other hand, developed a special version of nationalism that was essentially negative. The demand for Pakistan was based on a vision of a new country that would be ‘Muslim’, but he never defined exactly what he meant by this. He was trapped to some extent by the political exigencies of holding together a broad coalition to press for the new country, so keeping the agenda vague always paid political dividends for him. The result was that the most that could be said about the new country was that it would be not-Hindu, and not-colonial. In sum, not-India, safely outside the dominance of the Congress party.

Both leaders unleashed powerful mass movements, but only one created a viable country with a defined culture. The inclusiveness of India has stood in contrast to the narrower society of Pakistan ever since.

The point here is not to denigrate Pakistan or Pakistanis, it is to illustrate that, when unleashing the very powerful forces that nationalism can generate, it is crucially important to understand what nationalism is. It can create community purpose like no other political force, but any leader who seeks to use it ought to be very careful about how he or she does so. Gandhi seems to have understood this, and was scrupulous about his language, whereas Jinnah was never very particular.

In my opinion there is a pivotal and wholly characteristic reason for this.

Gandhi always worked upwards from small details to larger concepts. His political imagination focused on individual hearts as the main material of politics. He reflected on what an independent India would be like, and he was certain that there were two things to be avoided at all costs. One, he did not want the new country to inherit a legacy of violence, among Indians or against the British, and two, after the British left he did not want Indians to behave in the way they had done under colonial rule. To do so would not be to create a new and better India, but to preserve a degenerate form of ‘Englistan’. Peace and personal spiritual reform were the answers, and these two things he pursued to his dying day.

Jinnah did not have much of a reform agenda at all, personal or social, beyond a vague liberal concept of ‘uplift’. Many of his heaviest backers were rich landowners, and he always avoided radical economic ideas. His sole concern was to protect the political rights of Muslims against a Hindu majority that he felt convinced was malign. This was an understandable objective, but Jinnah’s intellectual limitations put him, and all Pakistanis since, in a certain quandary. His original concern was to make sure that Muslism shared equally in the blessings that independence would bring. But he always started from the big picture, the grand idea, which left him weak on details. This is why he never gave Pakistan a detailed form or any kind of specific political shape.

He wished to protect the political rights of Muslims who, as a group, are defined by religion. This was the central flaw in his project, and one that has not been resolved since.

 Posted by at 3:32 pm