Aug 302015

Having seen off my third book, The Great Indian Rope Trick, I have taken a break from writing here and elsewhere. It was hard work, but I learned a great deal. One lesson is that it is very difficult to write a book that deals with really current affairs, something that should probably be left to journalists. I am proud of what I wrote, and it has been well enough received by enough people to make me think it was worth the effort.

I am now moving on to thinking about my fourth book, which has been around in draft for quite a while now – I am ashamed to say for several years.

Bur before I do I need to tidy up one small thing. One review of Rope Trick was so bad, and so unfair, that I cannot let it pass entirely without comment. I won’t link – it’s not hard to find; the writer has managed to get two versions of it up online, in separate publications. Which seems provocative. Such fervent desire to reach the public is certainly an odd response to a book he considers so irredeemably awful.

They say that a bad critic is often in error but never in doubt. Very true here, where the writer must have decided to hate the book before he read a sentence. He was so desperate to find fault that he singled out individual words, took phrases out of context, and even criticised my writing style. Rather hilariously this included attacking me for ‘tautology’, but also for ‘errors and solecisms’ (emphasis added). If you use long words you should, ideally, be aware of what they mean.

If that were all, it might not greatly matter: I have been attacked by biased and ignorant people before, and I dare say I will be again. But more seriously, he missed some very central points in the book, and I do care about that, because he gave an entirely misleading impression of the book’s scope, and its major thrust. He claims that I did not understand the propensity of democracy to generate violence, or its impact on India. Not true. I addressed exactly these issues, and directly explained, in my view, why India has had relatively non-violent politics, particularly when compared to her neighbours. See Part 3, especially pages 250-262. But I dare say he never got that far, or was more concerned to impress his think-tank seniors with his ferocity than give the public an accurate picture of the book.

A poor effort, but the writer has ‘previous’. Elsewhere a much higher authority than me found Srinath Raghavan guilty of ‘selection bias’ and of pervasive ‘lack of theoreti­cal reflection’.

I concur.


 Posted by at 12:38 pm
Jun 132015

I have recently been reading a book worthy of a short review: ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. It is not exactly a gripping read, because it is very detailed and couched in a kind of journalese that doesn’t really allow a reader to wander off. In other words it makes certain demands of its readers that mean, in my case, that I have to keep putting it down. But in most other ways it is a brilliant book, because it tackles head-on all the questions a general reader might want to have answered about ISIS – where did it come from, why has it been successful, how does it work, who joins it and why etc.

The level of detail and knowledge it displays is impressive, and I would certainly use it as a reference for any serious writing I might want to do about ISIS. Anyone who is interested in the ISIS phenomenon, and especially anyone seriously concerned that it is about to conquer the world, should read this book. It sets out very thoroughly how ISIS is a local phenomenon, partly related to Islam but also very heavily connected to the political, diplomatic. sectarian and criminal history of the modern Middle East.

It also forcefully brought home to me how Islamic societies are socially very stable but politically very fragile, which means that the disruption both caused and exacerbated by the intrusion of an ISIS-style organisation can create such mayhem. Politics in Islamic cultures is often very closely related to coercion; the triumph of the West, in one way, is that Western societies can be politically stable without recourse to either violence, or notions of God.


 Posted by at 12:59 pm
Apr 202015

A great article in the Times of India here. Well done Anvar Alikhan – humorous, subtle and apposite.

Counterfactual history is always good fun, and it is a fairly democratic sport, in that most people can have a go at it. The downside is that, of course, the conclusions are always provisional and sometimes outright insane. Most obviously what happens is that people use the technique to reinforce their existing prejudices; no one’s mind is ever changed. So articles like the above serve less to stimulate elevated historical discussion than to act as barometers of current popular opinion. And this one has unleashed the residual admiration, even yearning, for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who never ruled India and did very little for anyone apart from himself throughout his life. His ego was fragile and his judgement poor. But many Indians to this day forgive his failings and his failures because he was indisputably, in their eyes, a patriot.

And here he contrasts very favourably in the popular imagination, as expressed in the scores of comments that the subject of Netaji always provokes, with the figure of Jawaharlal Nehru, who stands accused of lack of patriotism, corruption, the imposition of English education, wrecking the economy, inventing dynastic politics, permissiveness etc. etc..

Here we immediately see the contrast between a man who never had to deal with the practicalities of government and one who did, between a man who strode around in uniform claiming he could solve all India’s problems – by his very being – and one who actually wrestled with the daunting task of governing a cash-starved country full of conflicting interests. Bose dodged all the difficult decisions, and instead repeatedly backed losers, yet for his patriotism alone he is stll revered as a figure somewhere between King Arthur and Santa Claus.

Nehru’s own patriotism, which was subtler, was nevertheless sufficiently deep and sincere to drive him to spend over three thousand days in prison, not being saluted by anyone. That is forgotten, and the sins of his daughter have been held against him.

It should also be pointed out, as I seek to do in my latest book, that it was not Nehru that imposed English on India. He was keen to be rid of it in favour of Hindi, and only the reaction of the non-Hindi-speaking states ensured its preservation as a link language. It was not Nehru that instituted corruption; it was a combination of long-term factors that led a small, over-powerful bureaucracy into the heart of commerce. It was not Nehru that turned the Congress into an organ of patronage; that was the result of the stampede of India’s existing social elites into the party for their own purposes. At most he can be reproached for doing too little to stop any of these things from happening; he did not actively connive in any of them.

If Indians are glad they live in a democracy, they have more to thank Nehru for that they ever would have had reasons to be grateful to Bose.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should have written Rope Trick. At times like this I am glad that I did.

 Posted by at 8:31 am
Apr 052015

I have reviewed a few books in my time, and I have always tried to be fair – I am well aware of how hard it is to write, let alone get published. My usual approach has been to explain what is in the book and how it relates to others on the same subject. I always allotted very small space to questions of style, or my personal views on the topic, whatever it was.

Now, as I watch my third book go through the critical process, I am beginning to realise how rare this approach is. So, for writers everywhere, here is:

A potted guide to reviews, and how to survive them

Favourable reviews are are always welcome and, of course, they are easy to accept as fair. But in areas where non-fiction overlaps with politics – i.e. my area – they are also much rarer than unfavourable, for a variety of deep reasons related to human nature and the imperatives of commercial publishing.

As an author, the first thing to do is to distinguish whether a review is bad, or merely hostile. The first kind deals with the book, and explains why it has failed to live up to the reviewer’s well-founded standards; the second primarily criticises the author.

Beyond this principal distinction, there are five main factors that can overlap and interact, which can help you distinguish hostile from merely bad reviews.

1. Wrong book. The book is bad because it is wrong in its general approach. In other words, if the reviewer had written the book it would have been different. This is a silly stance, but very common.

2. Wrong audience. The reviewer takes against the book because it is written for a general audience, whereas he/she is an expert and therefore feels the book’s tone is wrong; it is insufficiently obscure, rigourous, detailed – whatever. The reviewer is standing on a higher plane of understanding, and the book is a waste of time, considered to be either over-simplified, or patronising in tone. This is a refined version of the previous type, adopted by reviewers who either are academics or wish they were.

3. Turf War. These are easy to spot, because the critic fills the review with detailed refutation of specific points, and pronounces the author to be an ignorant dunderhead. The refinement of the detail and the vitriol of the denunciations both derive from the offence given by the very existence of the book in the reviewer’s own area of expertise. It is less an exercise in critical reasoning and more an attempt to repel interlopers and pirates. Reviewers should be aware of following this model, because it can easily become self-defeating, and end up making the original book and its hapless author into martyred creatures that cannot possibly deserve the abuse heaped upon them.

4. Deadline Decisiveness. Probably the most commonly found type, this is usually the work of a staff writer who has been given an eye-wateringly short time to rustle up some copy. It is the most superficial type of review and therefore the easiest to shrug off. Typically the reviewer has read the Introduction and anything headed Conclusion, and has then read till, and only till, they found something they could disagree with. The results are curt and definitive, based on the reviewer’s general prejudices on the subject, illuminated by one or two small details where the book has deviated from the true path of understanding.

5. Moment of Glory. This is the most insidiously biased type of criticism, the result of a reviewer taking the opportunity to grab access to public attention. The review will consist entirely of what the book should have said, and will only mention in passing what it does say. It will be peppered with references to other books that the author has ‘obviously’ not read, which serve to show how much more the reviewer knows than the author. In short, it ends up as a précis of the book the reviewer always intended to write, and the review serves only as an opportunity to gain access to a wider public, armed with a megaphone, standing on a soapbox.

Authors meanwhile can:

1. Treasure the fair reviews more than they despair at the unfair.

2. Remember that the book they have written will be on the shelves longer than the newspapers or magazines that contain the reviews.

3. Remember that no one ever yet put up a statue to a critic.



 Posted by at 6:46 am
Apr 022015

I was very happy to be asked back to the Oxford Literary Festival this year, and I spoke about the new book last Friday. Thanks again to Sally Dunsmore and Gill Metcalfe.

No Hogwarts this time. Building work at Christchurch meant that the Festival ‘home’ shifted partner to Worcester College. Lack of boy wizards was made up for by the bonus of a lake and a full-sized cricket pitch. And the breakfast was just as good.



 Posted by at 7:17 am
Jan 042015

I have now finished my next book, which should be out in February. The Indian press has picked up on it already (para 2). The print version carried a picture of the cover too.

A big relief to have it done, coupled with a certain frustration that I can no longer include current events in the text.

So what’s next? One thing is that I intend to do more work on this site – including posts on breaking news, and some additions to the longer pages on historical subjects. One obvious example that seems to demand both kinds of attention is the revival yesterday of the old claim that Pythagoras’ Therorem is in some way an Indian invention, possession, idea, or achievement. Not really. I think that the minister concerned, Dr Harsh Vardhan, would find, with a little less chauvinism and  a little more digging, that the Sumerians had it earlier, as did the Egyptians. Pythagoras is not given priority among modern Western mathematicians. His name was attached to the idea because the theorem came from Pythagoras to the later generation of Greek mathematicians who proved it, not discovered it. Simple. And nobody disputes that Indians invented zero.

I did write a long piece on the subject of Greek-Indian links once, and I will try to polish it up and post it soon.

[Done now. Here.]


 Posted by at 9:13 am
Oct 152014

Hello Botswana! Hello Finland! Hello Qatar, Australia, Brazil and italy! And most of all, hello Pakistan!

Am having another of those traffic spikes today, thanks to Imran Khan, who has failed to avoid the Macaulay banana skin. Cheap anti-colonial rhetoric can always be had, and that internet-approved quote is irresistible to those who wish to inflict as much damage as possible in as short a time as they can. Sadly for such enthusiasts the quote is entirely bogus, despite the views of some bad tempered commenters here.

Anyway. if you are visiting courtesy of Imran you may not get to view the front page. But if you do, enjoy yourself and look around. It’s free.

 Posted by at 1:28 pm
Sep 182014

Today the Scots decide. Everybody says things will never be the same, whichever way the vote goes. So, how can some good come out of this?

A ‘Yes’ vote, if it comes, looks like it will be by a narrow margin. This, surely would be a disaster, and no kind of birthday present for a nation founded on the need for its existence. If Alex Salmond, with years to make the case, can only convince a tiny majority of his ain folk to agree with him, he can hardly claim the mandate he needs to boss around the rest of the world.

There is a case for Scottish independence, or a least for greater Scotish autonomy, especially if it is made within a larger case for regional reform of the existing UK. But Salmond has not embraced this  - properly democratic – agenda, he has instead peddled a fantasy. Vote yes, he has said. so that ‘we can get the country we want’. How childish, how narrow, how wilfully dismissive of the existence of the rest of the world. So a country can be fixed with one scratch of the pencil? And what exactly is it that ‘we’ Scots want? The idea that international relations, the laws of economics and the realities of politics can be abolished with a scribble is quite risible. An independent Scotland will still contain its own range of rich and poor, and does he seriously contend that all the rich people will maintain a newly discovered, specifically Scottish social conscience? The border may have changed but the pre-existing social diversity of Scotland will remain, and tensions will be exacerbated, if anything, by the newly claustrophobic Scotland he will have created.

The intellectual mendacity of the Scot Nats has been on show for a long time, capped last night by Salmond’s assertion – his final rallying cry – that the Nats were still the underdogs. Does nobody get this? How can a nationalist party that truly represents the nation BE AN UNDERDOG?

Despite the many unfilled holes in Salmond’s prospectus, it has to be said that Better Together have run a lacklustre campaign, though admittedly they did have the difficult task of defending the status quo in the midst of a recession, and at a time when British politics is ornamented with its least inspiring leadership cadre ever.

Back to the question; how can some good come out of this?

A narrow win for ‘no’ followed by proper reform of the institutional structure of the UK. That’s how. What exactly thsi means can be worked out. This would help everyone, unlike Salmnond’s dream which would wreck the currency, give us two armies and navies where one would do, and condemn Scots, especially the poorer ones, to live in a grim world with no one left to blame.

An independent Salmond-topia might not be as bad as I fear. But it cannot possibly be as good as he has promised.


 Posted by at 1:02 pm
Sep 022014

Today one poll shows a dramatic swing towards a vote for Scottish independence, with a reduction of the unionist lead to 53-47.

Whether you are in favour of Scottish independence or not, the worst possible outcome of a referendum/plebiscite on something so important is a narrow win for either side. Most democratic assemblies in the world require a clear majority – 66/75% – in order to carry constitutional change. Not here. We just need one more Scot in favour and the whole thing goes through.

I have no vote in the future of the state that currently governs me, but I have followed the debates. What strikes me is the very poor quality of the formal confrontations compared to the less structured, less nakedly political panel discussions. On line, the debate has mostly been dire – ignorant, abusive, arrogant. Meanwhile the professionals, principally the SNP leadership and Alistair Darling, have remained within very narrow bounds. Darling has refused to take on board the wider issues relating to nuclear weapons, potential EU withdrawal and the general democratic deficit within the Yes case, while Salmond has jeered and blustered his way through a very long list of issues. He, of course, has had to shoulder the onus of proof – of questioning the status quo, and this is in some ways an easier task, if provided with enough optimism. An idealised future has no faults, and optimism plays better than pessimism. Darling has suffered in consequence.

But Salmond has persistently evaded the worst aspects of the possible outcomes he is advocating, and he has done this to an extent that seems wilfully deceptive.

In short, he has failed to touch, even for a moment, on the very real dangers of making his larger, more powerful, richer southern neighbour into at the very least a rival, and at worst an enemy. Most of the arguments he adduces about the economic position fail to take in that separation will convert most of the arguments into a zero sum game, in which English politicians will have no direct interest in accommodating him AT ALL. Instead we have been given a lot of hurt feelings about being bullied, not being dictated to and so forth. Salmond, nevertheless, feels unembarrassed in telling other people what to do, becasue he can perceive their best interests; this includes the Bank of England, NATO, English political parties, world oil markets and the EU.

The economic case for independence is not clear, and has not been proved. It is at best, marginal. The democratic case for it is strong, but is less emotive for most ordinary voters. Salmond has fudged the two, telling Scots that they will have more jobs, and more accountable government, which will be both cheaper and more generous. All round better, no catches. Just say Yes.

The nation he is so keen to create willy nilly is set to be a ready-divided, churned up entity, as a representative of which he can only embark on negotiations with England carrying a tiny mandate. Would 2 per cent look good? Or 3? And all to get him a statute as Robert the Bruce II? How desirable is it to create a new state that is scarcely convinced of its own necessity to exist? That is the sort of thing that got colonial empires a bad name.

Politicians risk messing about with institutions at their peril, and it is doubly risky if they do it when the alleged necessity so clearly aligns with their own personal interests. Constitutional change is notoriously tricky – if we have the power to make a constitution, on what grounds do we have the power to unmake it? When does the tinkering stop? Salmond has skilfully put together a new coalition that includes romantics, passive aggressives and welfare dreamers, but the only person with a really clear interest in the arrival of Scottish independence is him.

Scots beware.


 Posted by at 8:06 am
Aug 202014

Commentators in the UK are agreed that the Middle East is facing its worst crisis for decades. While they all condemn IS/ISIS/ISIL, they are also worried that the current situation somehow a) represents a crisis for the West and Western policy, and b) that the West is somehow responsible. The West is indeed responsible to a degree, but current events do not represent any kind of crisis for the West; the real crisis is actually being faced by the modern creed of political Islam. The disorder currently afflicting Syria, Iraq, Libya and to a lesser degree Egypt, is not a crisis of capitalism or of democracy. What is being revealed very starkly is:

1) the incompetence, inhumanity and unworthiness of jihadi ‘government’

2) the absence of proper accountability among Middle Eastern states, which are secretive and addicted to short-sighted policies of manipulating extreme, violent groups in misguided attempts to destabilise their regional enemies.


Another grisly and demeaning video of a beheading hit social media this morning. Yet again a group of young men have tried to portray themselves as powerful and dominant, whereas the effect in the mind of ordinary people everywhere is to demonstrate their pettiness, cruelty and unsuitability to hold power over anyone, ever, anywhere.

The essential flaw in Islamism is that the degraded version of Islam that it professes has no proper understanding of temporal power. This is an amplification of a flaw written into Islam as a whole, because the wielders of power within the Islamic tradition are expected to be pious, well informed and rightly guided, and therefore no attempts were made to diminish or dilute the power with which holy men were endowed. Why should this be done, when God’s will was known? The Prophet held unlimited power, and his successors were trusted with very much the same mandate, limited only by consensus among the faithful, and careful study of scripture, hadith and sunna. This was enough, within the tribal-feudal society of the early years, though it did not stop the historic Sunni-Shi’a split over the succession.

The enormous differences between those days and now comes in two areas. Firstly, the modern jihadis are social outcasts, not tribal elders. They are self-made men, much like gangsters who have killed and intimidated their way to the top of rickety, local empires of fear. Their followers are not bound to them, and vice versa, except by conquest and the hope of booty, loosely coupled to dreams of a better world (which they will rule) or hopes of a sex filled afterlife.

Secondly, these fanatics possess entirely self-certified religious credentials. Yet again, senior clerics across the Muslim world have condemned them, with a new ruling from the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia just yesterday. But the jihadi fighters have read their scripture, and have found what they wanted to find. They think they know what God wants. For those in the West who wanted Islam to have its own Reformation – here it is. Sola scriptura all over again.

These limitations – rootlessness, lack of social responsibility, self-validated holiness, addiction to violence – mean that jihadis can fight and rule, but will never be able to govern. Most of all they want to kill, or die, and somewhere further down the list they want to tell people what they should do. This is, however, only a small part of government.

The new video is designed to attract discontented Muslims all over the world to flock to the black flag of IS. See how strong we are! See how we slaughter the infidels! If I was setting up a new world order, I would not want to be recuriting the sort of people that are likely to show up in reponse to this kind of demonstration of power. I would, instead, put my efforts into discrediting my opponents’ propagada against me, by showing the quiet, undisturbed residents of Mosul going about their lawful daily business, safe and content under the strong hand of ISIS. Ah, but they can’t, can they? And if they can, and yet choose not to, then this only strengthens the idea that the caliphate is not about winning an argument or hearts and minds, but about the glorification of violence, pure and simple.

Nor have they shown us the respectable, educated souls that have been running Saddam’s giant dam, because there weren’t any. Like Pol Pot before them, the jihadis will find that they need book-learned types to run a modern government, and these are exactly the kind of people they most distrust and despise, and who are the least likely to join them. The Khmer Rouge sent teachers and accountants out to plant rice, and the result was that everyone starved, and the failure was punished by further executions. The Islamic State will go the same way, marooned by its own ignorance and intolerance.

The crisis is here and now for the Islamic State. Its creators have made a series of classic mistakes, born of arrogance – their certainty of their own rightness. First, they have ceased to be a gureilla force, and have decided to take on government and territorial holding. This opens them to military counter-strikes; they can be seen moving above ground, and superior, conventional weaponry will pick them off.

They are now also exposed to unprecedented public scrutiny. In the end Communists all over the world were deprived of the well-worn excuse that Marxism had never been tried, so how could we know it wouldn’t work. Similarly, the jihadi project has always been able to claim that Muslims would want to live under a caliphate, were they given the chance. Now we know what a caliphate looks like, and currently we see no exodus from anywhere of Muslims willing to live there; what we see is a stream of young dreamers going there to fight, a more attractive prospect from an Islamist perspective than living there in peace and planting radishes.

The Islamists have broken cover, and they will be attacked and judged as never before. They will lose the conventional war that follows, and they will never gain the hearts and minds of anyone apart from the most psychopathic and deluded. There is, therefore, some good news out there. The crisis is not of democracy. This is just the latest in a long string of crises – for violence.


 Posted by at 11:50 am