What is Arundhati Roy’s problem, “truth”?

Colin Todhunter writes in column titled ” Looking In The Mirror, Living In Denial: The Arundhati Roy Effect” in Countercurrents.org about problems with Arundhati Roy, that her critics acknowledges the fact that what she says and writes the true motives and intent underlying official policies. That, she is a Malayali/Bengali and it has always been fashionable to take an opposing view and that she is merely playing to a western media that are always looking to paint the India in a poor light.

Arundhati Roy holds up the mirror and forces people to look. Picture by Richard Avedon

Arundhati Roy’s recent 6,000 word article in India’s Outlook magazine in March contained a wide ranging critique of US foreign policy, capitalism, imperialism, globalisation, India’s industrialisation and the nation’s various internal conflicts and numerous other matters. All the things she has become noted for. Predictably, it provoked the kind of personal attacks that Roy has become accustomed to.

You either agree with Roy’s overall analysis, or at least parts of it, or you do not, and it’s always interesting to read critiques of Roy’s stance based on logical argument. Those who try to counter Roy in this way at least respect her views enough to spend time critiquing them. There are many, however, who like to leave logic aside and concentrate on Roy the person, stridently attacking her motives, psychology and personality.

What is it about Roy that elicits such bitter reactions, especially from within India and particularly in upper middle class circles? Such responses confuse personal prejudice, character assassination and sniping with critical analysis. Notwithstanding that no one can ever be right all of the time, it could well be that there is nevertheless a good deal of truth in what Roy says on various matters, and perhaps that’s the problem.

If her arguments are too black and white then show it. If she leaves little room for nuance then discuss it. If she is playing fast and loose with facts, challenge her. Instead, what we too often have are outbursts that have little to do with the issues themselves, but with Roy and what some consider her to be.

There are the accusations that say she merely plays to a western audience that buys her books, she is a self publicist or that her writings display some sort of personality deficit in terms of her constant attention seeking. While it may well be the case that there is a certain underlying misogyny inherent in some of the personal attacks, the question remains as to why do so many ordinary people in middle class households get so fired up over her.

Anti-establishment figures in all countries have always been vilified by newspapers, TV channels, politicians and opinion leaders. And ordinary folk often follow suit. Noam Chomsky experiences it in the US and journalist John Pilger has also had to bear similar establishment backed wrath in the UK. Roy is as terribly anti-India as Chomsky is as single-mindedly anti-US, so the warped line of reasoning from officialdom and its cheer leaders goes.

Most of the time, the writings of such figures delve beneath the rhetoric and propaganda to highlight the true motives and intent underlying official policies. Their arguments, however, too often become buried beneath personal criticisms and smear campaigns which set out to undermine them as people and by proxy their analyses. Why deal with uncomplicated truths that challenge officialdom when they can be brushed aside or attention can be diverted from them with abuse?

As far as Roy is concerned, the smears against her take many forms. She has writer’s block, so she seeks the limelight by jumping on the latest cause celebre. She’s not an expert – others in a given field have been working for a cause for decades and never get the column inches she gets. She is Malayali/Bengali and it has always been fashionable to take an opposing view. She is merely playing to a western media that are always looking to paint the India in a poor light.

And don’t forget that she doesn’t really understand the plight of the poor or oppressed. How could she choke on the stench of poverty or oppression with such a big silver spoon filling her mouth?

India doesn’t need Roy to tell us what we already know, does it? We don’t need such a celebrity activist with prosaic writing to tell us how to put things right? India has thousands of hands on community activists and workers who are making a real difference every day.

Such is logic of the anti-Roy brigade.

Looking at onself in the mirror can be a painful process, especially when the mirror is, like India, not as shiny as you were led to believe. Roy holds up the mirror and forces people to look. It is then that the gap between the poor and violently oppressed and the self congratulatory ‘new’ India of AC shopping malls, gated communities and all manner of conspicuous displays of luxury which the Indian upper middle classes cherish so much becomes too unbearable to accept. So what better response than denial? What better reaction than to vilify the messenger?

Could it be that Roy makes many feel too insecure? Could it possibly be that living in denial helps suppress the guilt that would gush forth if people were to acknowledge that a terrible price is being paid for an urban-chic lifestyle built on squeezing the life out of much of India via population displacement, land grabs, highly exploited labour, environmental degradation and state backed violence?

You don’t have to be living in the gutter before you are allowed to express a valid opinion on poverty or oppression. And if you have a message, it would be foolish not to use your talent to reach out to as wide an audience as possible. But maybe that’s part of the problem. For some, holding up a mirror to Indian society is bad enough, but Roy has the ability to project a realistic yet unpalatable image of India across the globe. With all their new found wealth, that’s what seems to annoy her critics most. When you strike at a raw nerve, unthinking, knee jerk reactions usually follow.

Colin Todhunter : Originally from the northwest of England, writer Colin Todhunter has spent many years in India. He has written extensively for the Deccan Herald (the Bangalore-based broadsheet), New Indian Express and Morning Star (Britain). His articles have on occasion also appeared in the Kathmandu Post, Rising Nepal, Gulf News, North East Times (India), State Times (India), Meghalaya Guardian, Indian Express and Southern Times (Africa). Various other publications have carried his work too, including the London Progressive Journal and Kisan Ki Awaaz (India’s national farmers’ magazine). A former social policy researcher, Colin has been published in the peer-reviewed journals Disability and Society and Social Research Update, and one of his articles appears in the book The A-Z of Social Research (Sage, 2003).

Incredible India: Andhra teachers asked to ‘train’ students in abuses

Imagine a teacher writing filthy abuses on the blackboard and explaining their meanings to students.

Shocked? This is exactly what schoolteachers in Andhra Pradesh are being told to do. A handbook designed by the state government to train schoolteachers has a peculiar chapter that has left teachers blushing.

This chapter suggests that they should make students list out women-specific filthy words or abuses, generally used as slang in society, and explain their meaning.

The offending chapter in question, Discrimination in culture”, says: ‘List out such words and ask students to write them down along with their meanings. Explain why most of these vulgar words are related to sex of women, their chastity and doubting their fidelity. Tell the students whether such gender abuses are there in other countries, too and what they are.’

The handbook, which was distributed among teachers at a training programme across the state recently, basically deals with gender discrimination in society and how teachers should educate their students on eradicating this evil.

It was prepared with the support of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Rajiv Vidya Mission (earlier Sarva Siksha Abhiyan) programme and Jana Ganam, a voluntary organisation.

The handbook states the chapter’s objective was to make students understand why discrimination against women in the socio-economic fields has been reflected in culture.

Several teachers at the training programmes expressed the view that though the handbook was designed with a good objective, it will be highly embarrassing for them to talk about vulgar words.

‘It is ridiculous. How can we mention vulgar abuses before students, leave alone telling them to write them down and explain their meanings?’ G. Rama Devi, a state teachers union member, said.

Senior teacher L. Ravinder Rao said those who designed the chapter might not have taken the teachers’ sensitivities into consideration. (courtesy: A. SRINIVASA RAO  & MailOlineIndia)

Rabiya: An iron woman who changed the history of Kerala

K.V. Rabiya lived on alphabets and words and so through the educational light which she had set for her people, she will live forever.

Vellilakkadu, Tirurangadi: “The Kerala society always looked at and the media hyped me as a literacy mission crusader but they always took care to turn a blind eye towards the inspirational role of Islam behind my activities, the role of Islam in ‘the making up’ of me was never discussed and now I need to do something desperately to convey ‘the right message’ out of my life. I feel I am nearing death, so visualising my life in a documentary – well in lines with my dreams and ideas – is an important and urgent task before me”, says KV Rabiya.

A documentary ‘Charitram Sakshi, Rabiya ennennum Jeevikkunnaval’ is intended at carrying out Da’wat by portraying her life, which she has tried to live according to Islamic principles, she wanted that the documentary should be directed by a non-community member, having an affinity and willingness towards Islam. She was fortunate enough to find such a director in Suresh Iringaloor, and the documentary is under way.

“I believe it is the passion to release this documentary, which still keeps me alive despite all these life threatening diseases I am subject to”, says Rabiya.

Beginning of the mission
Born handicapped to Kariveppil Moosakutty Haji and Allipara Biyyachutty Hajjumma, Rabiya had her legs weakened by Polio, but this couldn’t stop her from going to school, with immense passion, she read books aloud, thus wiping tears off her parent’s eyes. As she reached the Pre Degree level, when she was seventeen, being unable to stand sound on her weakened legs, she had to stop studies. Unlike most others who would weep over their fate, Rabiya started living a meaningful life thereafter. She was not ready to blame her destiny nor did she shed a single drop of tear. She started taking tuition classes to her neighbouring students and this indeed was the start of a big leap in her life as well as the history of Kerala. It was such efforts by Chelakodan Aishumma, Khadeeshumma and Rabiya, that initiated the complete literacy mission in Kerala.

She joined the literacy mission as a temporary instructor and took the Vellilakkadu village by her hand to the magical world of letters. Even her mother and grandmother learnt letters from her and literacy units across the state came to know about the complete literacy achievement of Vellilakkadu village. Rabiya was of the opinion that mere literacy rate won’t be sufficient enough for the development of her region, so she emphasised on the need for getting engaged through jobs.

Development of Vellilakkadu village
With complete support from the villagers who were mostly potters by profession, she set up cottage industries, a publication group called ‘Chalanam’, vocational training programmes, tuition centres, village libraries, a school for the mentally retarded and deaf students, discussion and debate rooms, inter family get together, family counselling centre, reading promotion club, blood donation team, small investment plans and pain and palliative campaigns. Along with Rabiya, Vellilakkadu village was thus entering a new phase of development. The income from ‘Chalanam’ publications made her financially self sufficient and was able to meet the needs of those dependent on her.

The awards and recognitions which she received were numerous. She even won the UN international award in 2000. The other awards and recognitions which she received were Nehru Yuva Kendra Award [1992], National Youth Award [1993], Bajaj Trust award [1995], Ramashram Award [1996], Karunakara Menon Smaraka Award [1997], Jaysees Zone Award [1998], MSS Ahmed Maulavi Smaraka Award [1998], Junior Chamber International Award [2000], The central govt’s first Kannaki Sthree Shakthi Award, Kuwait Tahira Award [2000], IMA Award [2002], Yuva Kala Sahithi Award [2003], Kerala Handicapped Social Service Organisation Award [2004], Murimattathil Bava Award [2004], Star Friends Creation Literary Award, Riyadh [2006], Nahdi Malayalam Association Award [2007], Bhaskar Foundation Award [2008], Mahila Tilakam Award of the Kerala Social Welfare Ministry [2012].

Though in wheel chair, Rabiya involved in every spheres of the village life and had thus set an example for the whole state. She married her cousin brother and Rabiya was the second wife. Fate had a few more harsh games to play with her life as she was diagnosed with cancer when she was 32 and had her left breast removed as part of the treatment. When she was 34, she accidentally slipped in bathroom and damaged a few spinal nerves which almost dumped her into an inactive phase of life for years.

During those bedridden days she wrote a book named ‘Ente Mauna Nombarangal’ [my silent grievances] and after publishing it she was feeling tensed as she feared that the world might misunderstand – this book – as her life. The book reflected her state of mind and it was full of grievances. So she later wrote an autobiography named ‘Swapnangalkku Chirakukalund’ [dreams has wings] and was published by Lipi publications. The Kerala govt has included a part of her autobiography in the fifth standard Malayalam text book.

Now Rabiya is 46, her liver and kidneys are not functioning well, her words are not that crispy and continuous because of memory loss but her unending passion to serve others has now forced her to make a Documentary on her life and her village.

Documentary on her life and village
The documentary ‘Charitram Sakshi, Rabiya ennennum Jeevikkunnaval’ is intended at giving a message to the victims of fate so that they could stay bold despite physical challenges. “Since times everybody focused on portraying me as a literacy worker, so my other works and things which I had to convey to my society went unnoticed. My literacy works were just another part of my social service efforts. Every similar ventures which accompanied the literacy alleviation attempts, too was out of the ideal set by my prophet Muhammed [SAW]” says Rabiya

Talking on the relevance of her documentary she told TCN, “The inspiration indeed was Islamic values and the reward from the Almighty; so portraying my life by making use of the possibilities of visual media, I believe is a far more efficient form of Da’wath [invitation to Islam]. So by my life, the educational and social services I undertook, I have tried to practically live as a Muslim and now I feel this should stay as a source of inspiration for the world even after my death. Besides I would like to introduce my villagers and lot other good hearted comrades before the world, so that their lives could make more people interested in undertaking educational and social causes”.

“I am not sure whether I would live until its completion and not sure whether I could pay out the debt of around 15 lakhs spent on the documentary film before my death, as I have produced the film on my own. Another 10 lakh rupees is required to complete the rest visualisation, dubbing, editing, brochures and advertising. My Director Suresh Iringalloor has done justice to my dreams and ideas regarding this documentary, and we hope to telecast it in the Samasta EK Sunni owned channel, Darsana TV as episodes, within a few weeks” said Rabiya.

Married life
The feminists, intellectuals and writers favouring west have always attacked Islam over topics like Polygamy. I was married as the second wife to my cousin brother. By portraying my married life, the documentary has a role to prove regarding the purity of Polygamy; even in the present day world. The first wife was indeed possessive over him but what else would make a wife happy than the husband’s words like “Rabiya is the greatest asset in my life”, asks Rabiya. He was kind enough to give a life and wipe tears of a weakened, marginalised lady by accepting me as his wife. Polygamy in his life, Rabiya believes was not different from what is said in the religion. Understanding the emotions of first wife and husband, their married life, she believes if portrayed could be an ideal justification for Polygamy in Islam.

She always tried to hold intact family relations and her husband’s first wife too was not different and this she says as how said in the Holy Quran will bring Allah’s blessings and thus prosperity in to one’s life. She believes this was the only reason why she is able to meet the needs of her family members dependent on her, even in this bed ridden state.

She hopes that her documentary with its English subtitles would travel across the world and would take a blow at writers like Taslima Nasreen, keen on attacking Islam baselessly.

“It is a fact that people within the community are misusing such provisions within Islam, but that doesn’t mean such rules within the religion are to be discouraged and writers like Taslima should have the least sense to distinguish what is said in Islam and what it is now being practised by the vested interests within the community”, said Rabiya.

She will live forever
The profit from the documentary if any, after paying out the debts will be used for setting up a trust called Rabiya Foundation Trust. The trust is intended at supporting the sidelined and victimised lives of the society by continuing those educational and palliative services, she hopes.

Rabiya is proud as she quotes the recently demised, Kerala’s most eminent intellectual and literature giant Sukumar Azheekode who once said that, “The Pope of Catholic Church, Vatican might have easily stepped on to the procedures of canonizing and proclaiming Rabiya as Saint, if she was born a Christian”.

She considers her people’s affection, encouragements, criticisms and their respect for being the teacher who made them learn letters, as the biggest achievements in her life. Thus she is able to forget her physical pains on being loved and respected by her dear ones.

Rabiya lived on alphabets and words and so through the educational light which she had set for her people, she will live forever. (courtesy: Abdul Basith MA, TwoCircles.net)

The Bird Man Of India Salim Ali, now in Comics too !!!

Amar Chitra Katha is launching a new title inspired by nation’s
foremost naturalist and ornithologist Salim Ali

As the nation has started noticing that one of our favourite backyard
bird, sparrow, is disappearing fast and are taking preventive steps –
another recognition for an avid bird-lover, noted naturalist and
ornithologist Salim Ali, has come very timely. Ali, who spent his
entire life working for birds in India, has inspired a comic series
published by Amar Chitra Katha (ACK).

“ACK Media is proud to associate with Bombay Natural History Society
in launching our new title, ‘Salim Ali’ – The Bird Man of India,”
expresses Reena Puri, Editor, Amar Chitra Katha, adding, “We had
stories from mythology, history and literature but there was a vacuum
as far as natural history is concerned. Wildlife and its conservation
are very important parts of contemporary thought. With Ali, and his
story, we make a beginning for the same and hope to write more about
people and movements associated with this subject.”

Ali received his first lesson in ornithology from WS Millard, then the
secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society. Millard helped him
identify a Yellow-throated sparrow. Over the years, Ali’s interest in
birds led to his close association with the society. And after
Independence, he wrote to the then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal
Nehru, asking for financial assistance to support the work of the
institution. Dr Asad Rahmani, Director of BNHS said, “We are very
proud to launch the Amar Chitra Katha title on Salim Ali and thank ACK
Media for this initative.”

‘Salim Ali – The Bird Man of India’ will portray the noted
ornithologist as someone passionate about birds and nature and how he
never thought of money, fame, comfort or even safety while he went
about single-mindedly trying to learn as much about the birds of India
as he could. It took around eight months to complete this new title.
The scriptwriter Shalini Srinivasan says, “I referred to his
autobiography, ‘The fall of a sparrow’ and many other books like
‘Salim Ali for Schools’ by Zai Whittaker; ‘Salim Ali – India’s
Birdman’ by Reena Dutta Gupta. We also talked with his relatives and
referred to BNHS archival material to help more in the script.”

The series is out already and is expected to generate awareness about
environment and birds.

Jewel In The Town: Teen Murti Bhavan, only library in the world having monumental photo archives

Teen Murti Bhavan: 20 acres of land, divided into two expansive floors, and stocking over 2,59,000 books, 18,223 microfilm rolls, 51,322 microfiche plates, 500 periodicals, 1,95,000 photographs and 11,000 collections of manuscripts!

Treasure trove of political secrets

Baishali Adak
The Teen Murti Bhavan library has photo archives and century old papers besides historic books. Inspite of a lack of dedicated readers, Delhi does not lack libraries. Public and private libraries can be located in almost every district of the Capital city.

However, there are a few which are special in their historicity, purpose of establishment and book stock. One of them is the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). This magnificent library, located in the Teen Murti Bhavan complex, is a gem in terms of the archival material it has stocked over the years. Besides rare historic books, you will find here photo archives, micro-films documenting centuries-old newspapers and hand-written letters and files by political leaders difficult to find not only elsewhere in India but across the world.

Teen Murti Bhavan, the official residence of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was converted into a museum and library after his death in 1964. At that time, the library had part of Nehru’s personal book and letters collection and some donated by political leaders. Over time, it acquired more books and papers and now stands over atleast 20 acres of land, divided into two expansive floors, and stocking over 2,59,000 books, 18,223 microfilm rolls, 51,322 microfiche plates (a small sheet of microfilm on which many pages of material have been photographed), 500 periodicals, 1,95,000 photographs and 11,000 collections of manuscripts!

Professor Mahesh Rangarajan, director NMML, informs, “This is the world’s leading resource centre on political, social, economic and religious history of modern India starting from Raja Rammohun Roy to contemporary times with special emphasis on the Indian nationalist movement and the Nehruvian era. Today, we are supporting many research scholars and historians through study material and the Nehru Memorial Fellowship. The only problem is that not many are aware of this treasure trove of knowledge situated right in the middle of Delhi.” It goes without saying that the most impressive part of the library is its manuscript section. It houses carefully preserved collections of letters and papers of not only politicians but historic institutions, eminent businessmen, diplomats, academicians, scientists, bureaucrats and educationists. One of the oldest papers is that of the 1885 All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in Bombay detailing resolutions passed therein.

Besides, they have the original manuscript of Discovery of India handwritten by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1944 at the Ahmednagar Fort jail.

Other than thousands of letters by and to Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, C Rajagopalachari, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel etc., we also have here letters written to Nehru by Mahatma Gandhi undersigned as ‘Bapu.’

NMML is also the only library from the world over to have a huge stock of photo archives. These include black and white pictures of 15 August 1947 midnight session of the Indian Parliament; President Dr. Rajendra Prasad signing the Constitution on 24 January 1950; refugee camps across North India; the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference in Belgrade in 1961, the UN General Assembly in 1948 and several others.

Other than this, there is a section devoted to digitising fragile newspaper records in the form of microfilm rolls and microfiche plates. One can view the 1780 edition of Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, copies of Amrit Bazar Patrika from 1905 onwards, Times (London) 1785-1996, Census of India papers 1872-1931 and Madras Mail 1868-1981 etc.

The books include selected works by Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, their various biographies, excellent and rare books on the history of India and many other countries and scores of books on a variety of subjects like Sociology, Political Science, Economics and Geography.

Every year the NMML opens up some of its manuscripts which had remained closed because of confidential reasons until a certain time. These include private papers of Indira Gandhi, V K Krishna Menon, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and other leaders. So, besides general knowledge on Indian history, NMML holds in its folds, many political secrets waiting to be revealed. Be patient. (courtesy: Deccan Herald)

Book review by Aditya Sinha: Pakistan on the Brink

Fear and Loathing in AFPAK

Aditya Sinha

Next week marks the anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the man who sat in a cave and on September 11, 2001, attacked America. In the decade between the attack and the assassination, the Americans produced a long list of books dealing with AfPak – Obama’s shorthand for Afghanistan-Pakistan, though his advisors believe it ought to be PakAf – but almost all see matters through the prism of the US strategic establishment. Bob Woodward probably covers wider ground than most, but only because he is, as the late essayist Christopher Hitchens put it, “stenographer to the stars”; and still, his books have not been the best on the subject. (Tuesday will see the release of Peter Bergen’s Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, which promises to be fairly juicy.) Surpassing them all, arguably, is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whose Taliban: Militant Islam, Fundamentalism, and Oil in Central Asia fortuitously published just before 9/11 suddenly became a handbook for not just those of us covering the War on Terror but the entire planet. Since then, Rashid has put his expertise to good use, producing newspaper and magazine articles that rival The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh for both inside information and deep perspective. In 2008, he published Descent into Chaos: The US and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia which though demandingly dull reading, was uncannily prescient of how things would unfold in the region. And now comes his Pakistan on the Brink: The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West which makes for an absorbing, if sobering, read.

Courtesy: Aditya Sinha, Editor-In-Chief, DNA

It begins with an account of the secret US operation to kill Bin Laden; it is a defining incident not just because 9/11 began a chain of events which changed the world (the destruction of Iraq, the democratisation of West Asia, the global trend of encroachment on civil liberties in the name of security, etc), and not just because the hunt for Osama changed warfare in that the unmanned aerial vehicle has become the weapon of choice for the world’s militaries, but also because the unilateral operation defined bilateral relations in such a way that Rashid says: “The United States and Pakistan are just short of going to war.” What a sea-change from their relationship until 9/11.
Ahmed Rashid’s riveting account of the Osama operation beat Bergen’s upcoming book and a probably Woodward book on the subject (I’d bet on the Woodward book to come out shortly before the November US presidential elections). In this, and with the various political analyses in the book, Rashid was helped by wide access: regular meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a briefing to US President Barack Obama, briefings from the UN hierarchy and of course, sources all over the Pakistani establishment. His big source in the US government was apparently the late Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for AfPak, who suddenly died at the end of 2010, perhaps due to turf wars in the US administration which Obama could not mediate and which contributed to the failure to find a way forward in AfPak.
The Osama operation made the Pakistanis livid. Faced with angry junior officers, Army Chief General Parvez Kayani “took the easy way out by blaming the entire episode on the Americans for breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty – but he failed to answer the obvious questions: What had bin Laden been doing in Abbottabad for six years, and why had the ISI not found him?” Rashid asks. He says something you rarely hear his countrymen publicly ask, that the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty was actually by Osama, and not by Obama.
For the duration that Osama was a fugitive many Indians smirked at how Pakistan appeared to be pulling the wool over the US’s eyes. It turns out that the US wasn’t fooled, and that it was making plans. As CIA director, Leon Panetta gave his government a list of clandestine operations he wanted, including “even setting up a parallel intelligence organisation that would be hidden from the ISI”. In 2009, Obama “had secretly authorised the CIA to conduct large-scale recruitment of Pakistanis to establish a clandestine intelligence operation, with the help of fifty CIA officers… In other words, the Americans had set up a specific, secret, second intelligence agency to find Osama bin Laden.” Obviously, despite the sheer audacity of the idea of a secret spy outfit right under the ISI’s nose, it was something that had to be done. Obviously, it would seriously injure bilateral relations.
The biggest factor in souring relations was the US approach to Afghanistan, for Obama never made it clear what he wanted. We know that he wants to start leaving Afghanistan by 2014; it’s a political decision given the domestic unpopularity of the war. We know that he has overcome the American revulsion to negotiating with the Taliban (as even India has); “the Taliban had matured considerably since the 1990s”, having tired of war and also having tired of being ruthlessly under the ISI thumb. We know he wants to leave a permanent base in Afghanistan.
But beyond that, the Americans have never clearly defined a political approach to sorting out Afghanistan; as Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars points out, Obama’s first year was spent fighting a battle with the Pentagon on another troop “surge” with which he was able to sell his pull-out plan. Holbrooke’s brief was never taken seriously. The Americans, as Rashid tells us, started negotiating with the Taliban without telling Pakistan, but once the ISI found out, it threw the negotiator in jail. The ISI then planted a phony negotiator who tripped the process up. The Americans never had a strategy for Karzai, around whom nepotism and corruption intensified. The US was unable to help the Afghans build an economy, and Rashid predicts that when troops begin leaving, Afghanistan will collapse in an economic depression.
The US has to now deal with the Pakistan Taliban, whose fingers are itching for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It’s not a far-fetched dream. One of the book’s implications is that as the Pakistan state weakens so does the Pakistan Army. Though the Army dominates the state, it is still part of it. If you watch Gen Kayani’s pattern of behavior, as Rashid does, you begin to see that Gen Kayani is a singularly weak Army Chief, made weaker by President Asif Ali Zardari granting him an extension. There truly is a Mexican standoff between the extremists, the corrupt civilians and the Army. How Pakistan pulls itself out of this is difficult to see, though you can’t blame Rashid for trying to figure a way out.
Since we keep hearing about how Pakistan wants India out of Afghanistan (and how the ISI uses the Haqqani Taliban against Indian interests), Rashid views are refreshing: “Pakistan accepts only… no role for India – yet India is the region’s economic powerhouse and is the most likely investor in Afghanistan’s economy,” he writes. “A peaceful solution to the Afghan war must include the participation of India.”
While reading this fascinating and lively collection of essays, I wondered whether Ahmed Rashid would have written this book had Al Gore become president instead of George W Bush. Would Gore have invaded Iraq, diverting resources that could have helped Afghanistan to its feet, as Rashid argues? After all, Iraq was an American neo-conservative project. Who knows? The Americans suffered a huge blow to their pride and prestige with 9/11, and as it involved Arabs they could not let the Arab World go unpunished. They had to show the world that they could destroy a country that was brazenly against it. In that sense, with Pakistan’s Taliban far from defeated, and the nuclear-armed military losing its grip with each passing day, you would have to say that Pakistan is really and truly on the brink.

Book Review: The Oxford Companion to Pakistan History-A complex history

Ishtiaq Ahmed

The Oxford Companion to Pakistan History (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012) edited by eminent historian Ayesha Jalal is a milestone in information on and knowledge about Pakistan. The first attempt is always the most challenging and daunting. Fahd Raza and Salma Mahmud at OUP, Karachi were the initiators of this project. Later, Nadia Ghani took over as project editor. She deserves to be applauded, especially because of the very large number of entries she has contributed.

In the preface, Ayesha Jalal succinctly sets forth the philosophy that informs her selection of items and contributors: “There can be no singular view of history that has remained open to multiple and conflicting interpretations. The volume avoids projecting any specific viewpoint and takes the diversity of interpretations as given. Contributors have been allowed to adopt their own standpoints in delineating a topic. Users of the companion are free to disagree with the contributors while still taking advantage of the information made available on any particular subject.”

Indeed that approach and vision is abundantly manifest. There is hardly any recognised scholar of Pakistani history, culture and politics whose expertise is not included. Most of the contributors are Pakistanis but international scholars of Pakistan are also represented well. I myself have had the privilege of contributing on more than 30 subjects.

The concentration is understandably on the post-independence period, but the colonial and even pre-colonial periods have been adequately covered. The topics included are individuals, events, places, government, military, foreign relations, linguistics, archaeology, judiciary, art, theatre, education, government, political parties, media, economics, the nuclear issue, philanthropy, civil society and many other subjects.

Pakistan’s travails as a nation-state have always posed intellectual and political challenges. Was it conceived as merely a Muslim-majority national state or was it meant to be an Islamic state based on a strict and dogmatic interpretation of the Shari’ah? This question has been dealt with in sufficient detail and diversity but understandably, no resolution of this controversy emerges from the different entries. We get a fair picture of what standpoints were taken by different political organisations, sects and sub-sects. The problems posed with regard to Pakistan’s national identity derive essentially from the fact that unlike most nation states that emerged in Asia and Africa as a result of decolonisation and bona fide residence of their people in the same territory were included in the nation, Pakistan was won in the name of Islam and Islamic culture. Despite an overwhelming Muslim majority, non-Muslim minorities were found in significant numbers in what became Pakistan. Their numbers have decreased after East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh, but they are still in millions in present day Pakistan.

Constitutional and legal measures purporting to define the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim citizens opened a Pandora’s Box. As a result the raison d’être for the creation of Pakistan, the Two-Nation Theory, brought out tensions not only between the rights and status of Muslims and non-Muslims but also within Muslim sects. Who is a Muslim? This notorious question has dogged Pakistani history and politics throughout its chequered history.

Jalal has adopted a genuinely inclusive and liberal approach on this issue and the diverse and contradictory spectrum of views and standpoints on this contentious issue have been included. Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Ahl-e-Hadith, Ahl-e-Quran, Barelvi, Ahrar, Khaksar, Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Ahmadiyya community and others are included. Pakistani Christians and Hindus and minorities such as Parsees, Kalash, Sikhs and Zikris are also covered. There is no denying that the question of identity has taken a heavy toll of the democratic potential and resolve present in Pakistan. As a consequence, cultural of militarisation has thrived. Entries on these issues are very useful. Another major problem that has bedevilled Pakistani politics is the relationship between the Centre and the provinces. The Oxford Companion covers satisfactorily this controversial question as well in both theoretical and empirical terms.

Equally, as an ‘ideological state’, Pakistan has to work out its relations with neighbouring states as well as internationally. The theoretical and empirical problems that arise as a result of tension between classic Islamic theory and contemporary norms and principles of international relations are also taken up. This is particularly relevant because Pakistan is a nuclear weapon state with a highly accentuated concern for security.

The most difficult problem confronting such a volume must have been about the selection of candidates for the ‘who is who?’ entries, both with regard to the historical record and the contemporary period. It is also fairly representative, especially with regard to politicians. It was a pleasure to note that some leading stalwarts of the Indian National Congress are also included. I would urge the inclusion of Dada Amir Haider, the veteran revolutionary who was a legend of the working class struggle extending from the 1920s until his death in 1989. Some sports personalities would also be a worthy inclusion in forthcoming editions of the Oxford Companion.

The great bonus of this volume is the encyclopaedic information on science, culture, architecture, music, the arts, including performing arts and other miscellaneous subjects.

Such a huge undertaking is bound to have some typing errors and weak entries; some entries have become obsolete in the light of recent research and findings. The project was launched six years ago and during this period, many myths have been shattered. Apart from such minor faults that can be eliminated in future editions, the work is a solid contribution to understanding Pakistan and its people.

The reviewer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South AsianStudies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at billumian@gmail.com