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In defence of secularism

Published : Aug 26, 2005 00:00 IST



Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist by Mani Shankar Aiyar; Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2004; Rs. 425.

TO review Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist by Mani Shankar Aiyar as a fundamental Pakistani is both a pleasure and a problem.

A pleasure on several counts: This is a delightfully readable book. It deals with substantial issues with unusual elegance. Though one knows most of the critical conclusions in advance of reading them, the book is a racy intellectual thriller difficult to put down.

The book is a problem because it also covers aspects that are awkward for a Pakistani to confront. At the same time, the text contains some observations concerning Pakistan that are inaccurate or misperceived and therefore provocative and easy to rebut. This helps smooth one's sensibility about how to relate to such a multi-faceted work.

Comprising about 300 pages, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist contains eight chapters, an appendix, notes and references besides an index. The text represents a structure and content that reflect a comprehensive, research-based approach to a subject of great importance to all nations in general and to South Asia in particular.

The prologue sets the tone. Reproducing a nine-page "Conversation with Arun Shourie" the dialogue is at once both a pirouette and a fencing duel. Aiyar leads Shourie like the lead partner in a dance of the minds, goading and guiding one of Hindutva's more accomplished exponents to explain individual and ideological contradictions while also making sharp, decisive cuts and thrusts.

This is a book that is as much about secularism as it is about religion, as much about Hinduism as about Islam, as much about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as about the Congress, as much about India as about Pakistan, as much about the past and the present, as about the future.

Drawing from the breadth of history as also the relative narrowness of personal experience, from sociology, economics, culture and current affairs, the book synthesises a powerful, compelling case for secularism. This philosophy is seen as the only viable construct for all Indians to espouse and as the most politically pragmatic framework that the country should operate within.

Aiyar's advocacy of secularism goes beyond prescribing it for a population that is 85 per cent Hindu. Whether it is Pakistan which is 97 per cent Muslim, or Sri Lanka which is 70 per cent Sinhalese-Buddhist, or less imbalanced mixtures of faiths further afield in Palestine or in the Balkans, the author forcefully asserts the need to maintain parallels: Between the intensely private nature of religious belief and the extensively public nature of the political sphere; the imperishable diversity of society and the need for an impartial uniformity in how the state and its citizens relate to each other.

Citing the words and actions of Hindutva's own proponents and adding his own finishing touches, the author demolishes the facade erected by this ideology of forced inclusivism.

Referring to the tragic destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the author shows how the parochial platform itself can be dismantled with the instruments of idealism, often wielded by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Though Pakistanis view some aspects of these two founders of the Indian polity with scepticism, Aiyar's references to their respect for all religions gives his approach unassailable strength.

From wondering as to why the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) never unfurls the Indian national flag on India's Independence Day, to pointing out the contradictions between the stands taken by extremists on the uniform civil code while retaining special privileges afforded by Hindu- specific legislation (for example, on page 90), Aiyar conducts the reader on a grand tour of critical issues such as conversions, reservations, respective rates of population growth, and of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

There is a refreshing willingness to be self-critical about his own party's policies in and out of power when it wavered and weakened in its secular approach, be it in Motilal Nehru's time or in P.V. Narasimha Rao's tenure. And the self-criticism also covers the Indian Foreign Office, the institution of Government where he himself served with distinction. He accuses South Block of wasting three precious decades by refusing to discuss the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, even after the Shimla agreement in 1972.

With cold, clinical precision he shows how the British are directly responsible for creating a large part of the India-Pakistan crisis through the ignorance of Radcliffe and the connivance of Mountbatten.

He also shows how the sun never quite set on British incompetence - or insidious intent? - as they left behind them festering crises in Cyprus as well as Palestine, in Ireland as well as Nigeria, among others.

By an amusing coincidence, in the first week of June 2005, two polar opposites such as Lal Krishna Advani and Mani Shankar Aiyar visited Pakistan, including Karachi. It was remarkable to see a convergence taking place between their respective views about Pakistan. Known for decades as one who believes in "Akhand Bharat", the head of the BJP stated that Pakistan is "an unalterable reality". While the author of Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist writes on page 213 that "Pakistan ... is here to stay".

As a friend of Aiyar, but more relevantly as a Pakistani, I found the latter conclusion far more significant than Advani's belated acceptance of Pakistan. For one of the more troubling facets of relations between Indians and Pakistanis is how, even amongst the progressive, liberal, rational, well-informed and well-meaning Indians, there has always appeared to lurk the conviction that the separate existence of Pakistan is only a temporary aberration: this being the symptom of an ominous inability to accept truly the permanence of the idea of Pakistan.

About 10 years ago, in one of his previous books titled Pakistan Papers (which I had the privilege of reviewing for a leading Indian journal), Aiyar rendered a sentence that reversed all the other insights he possessed - and possesses - about Pakistan. He wrote: "... Pakistan can become a stable, military-free democracy only by dissolving Pakistan and merging back with India." That kind of observation shocked and offended one. Now, to see both Advani and Aiyar sharing a vision, without qualification, of Pakistan's abiding identity is to realise how even an unlikely duo can become reassuringly similar.

Where there is positive change there is also a positive consistency. Reiterating the course that he emphasised 10 years ago in Pakistan Papers, Aiyar makes a persuasive case once again for continuous, uninterrupted, patient dialogue to resolve all Pakistan-India issues, including Kashmir, rather than sporadic, erratic talks and summits.

Aiyar writes with a rare lucidity that expresses large issues in a concise, memorable manner. For instance, on page 33 he writes: "Ours is the only major civilisation in the world to combine antiquity and continuity with heterogeneity, the only one whose unity derives not from uniformity but diversity... .

"The most effective contraceptive is development... .

"The Babri Masjid was a defeat inflicted on us by our own people... .

"What we need is not disinvestment in favour of the obscenely rich but investment in favour of the desperately poor... .

"Communitarianism is not communalism unless it chooses to become communal... .

"While Islam unites Pakistan, Islamisation divides it... .

"Resolving our differences with Pakistan is, therefore, not a matter only of national security or foreign policy, it is essential to the building of our secular nationhood. However daunting the challenges, we must learn to live with each other in peace, tranquillity and friendship."

WHEN he quotes data about how few Muslims actually voted for the Muslim League in 1946 - and therefore how few voted for the idea of Pakistan - partly due to the right of franchise being severely restricted through archaic, absurd rules defined by British-made laws, and even as he rejects the two-nation theory, Aiyar fails to appreciate the complex origins and the authentic rationale for Pakistani nationalism. To be fair, that is a whole subject in itself which he has not claimed to address in this book. Nor is it possible to amplify it in the space of this review. We may be able to address that subject separately on another occasion.

Being a loyal Indian, the author also glosses over the origins of the Kashmir dispute and the manifest inconsistencies in India's actions on decisions taken by the rulers of the princely states: On the one hand, rushing troops to occupy the capital of a Muslim majority State on the basis of an Instrument of Accession supposedly signed by a Hindu ruler, a document whose original copy has yet to be exhibited for independent scrutiny. On the other, rejecting the will of the Muslim rulers of Hindu majority States such as Junagadh and Hyderabad Deccan who signed no Instruments of Accession before Indian troops invaded their territories.

For a writer who otherwise fearlessly pulls no punches, Aiyar disappoints by repeating the myth of "police action" being taken in Hyderabad Deccan. There is irrefutable evidence of full-scale deployment of India's armed forces in September 1948 to crush a grossly under-equipped resistance at the cost of thousands of lives. It was certainly not an innocuous "police action".

THE author only devalues his own considerable stature when he makes derogatory references to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. To read Aiyar on page 72 attributing Jinnah's entire struggle for Pakistan to the base personal motive of allegedly "securing vengeance" for being jeered at at the Nagpur session of the Congress in 1920 is to realise with a shock how deeply rooted misconceptions about Jinnah remain embedded even in erudite persons like Aiyar.

On page 80, Jinnah is alleged to have consciously cultivated Muslim carpet-baggers rather than the unwashed millions in order to secure Pakistan. On page 139, the groups of tribal fighters and others from the Pakistani side who unsuccessfully attempted to reach Srinagar airport in 1947 before airlifted Indian troops, are directly linked to a man who abhorred violence as much as Mahatma Gandhi did, by referring to them as "Jinnah's murderous marauders".

The attempts to denigrate Jinnah reach culmination on page 179 where Aiyar claims that "a mere Jinnah or Liaquat Ali Khan... " could not possibly be able custodians of the interests of the Muslims of the sub-continent in comparison to Maulana Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Syed Shahabuddin.

Does one have to demean a great Pakistani in order to pay due homage to great Indians?

While it has become conventional, deficient wisdom in India to portray the founder of Pakistan as the man responsible for the partition of India and the related bloodshed, the fact is that Jinnah is surely one of the most misrepresented and misperceived personalities of the 20th century. Even Stanley Wolpert's fitting tribute to him in his book Jinnah has not corrected the distortion. And Wolpert is not a Pakistani. He is an independent American scholar of repute who has also written notable biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Wolpert opens the biography about the man so dismissively referred to in Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist with the following words: "Few individuals alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly any one can be credited with creating a nation-state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah did all three."

If there is a need for historiography in Pakistan to re-examine our own conventional reflexes about Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, there is an even greater need for Indian scholars and media to discard the inherited or acquired biases about Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, as also other elements of the Pakistan saga.

One unfortunate omission in Aiyar's ambitious overview of history is the crucial Cabinet Mission episode in 1946-47. This was surely the last real chance to avert the agony of partition and the stoking of the brutal communalism that eventually erupted due to Mountbatten's callous insistence on utterly unreasonable, premature dates for Independence.

As the record shows, it was in this brief strange interlude of the Cabinet Mission Plan that Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan demonstrated on behalf of those who wanted Pakistan, their willingness to still accept a unified, singular, confederated India on the basis of equitable - not equal - sharing of power. It was the shortsightedness of leaders such as Vallahbhai Patel, given weird strength by Nehru and company, that led to the failure of a collaborative relationship, which was actually implemented for a few months. The forces of Hindu extremism shattered forever in 1946-47 the prospects of a potentially unique, singular, secular country.

The book contains some vital inaccuracies. On page 210, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) is said to be "virtually secessionist" even though in 2004, the year in which the book was published, this party was already a member of the ruling coalition in Pakistan elected in 2002, both at the federal level and in Sindh. In some phases of its earlier history in the early 1990s, some statements of the MQM veered towards a reparative line. But there was little credibility because, contrary to media-driven perceptions, the urban areas of Sindh (which are the MQM's strongholds) are only partly under its sole dominance. Large parts of urban Sindh are vibrantly multi-ethnic while the MQM itself several years ago replaced the first word of its name "Mohajir" (refugee/migrant) with the word "Muttahida" (United) to enable its name to mean "United National Movement", thus completely rejecting any "secessionist" tendency.

On page 239, the text states: "... Hindus are now non-existent almost everywhere in Pakistan (except in small pockets of upper Sindh)."

However, in Pakistan today, minorities including Christians, Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Bahais and others together constitute 3 per cent of about 150 million people - or about 4.5 million people (by itself, not a small number). In addition to pockets of upper Sindh, there are more abundant numbers of Hindu communities in Tharparkar in south-eastern Sindh across the border from Rajhastan and the Rann of Katch.

In some areas, Hindus make up more than 80 per cent of the local population while constituting approximately 50 per cent of the one million people residing in Tharparkar. The writer of this review happens to do voluntary work in this area, among others, for the past 20 years. One is thus constantly aware of the existence of Hindus in Pakistan, perhaps in disproportion to their actual numbers. Migrant Hindu share-croppers and peasants from Tharparkar, from castes such as the Kohli and the Bheels, serve as the virtual backbone of Sindh's agricultural economy, widely acknowledged for their skill and their hard work.

Several Hindus are prominent businessmen in Karachi and Hyderabad. There are also hundreds of Hindu doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, besides many Hindu communities in Balochistan, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Punjab.

Hindus also occupy reserved seats in the national and provincial assemblies and in local councils. They are thus not quite: "almost non-existent".

One of the more amusing aspects of Hindus in Pakistan is reflected in a personal encounter which this writer once had with a Muslim councillor in a place in Tharparkar, called "Islamkot", where the majority of the residents are Hindu. The councillor approached me with a quiet and desperate plea to protect him in Islamkot from the alleged tyranny of the local Hindu boss of the town's municipal government.

The author makes some highly questionable assertions. For instance, on page 179 he writes: "[T]he root cause, the basic, primordial cause of Muslim backwardness in India is Pakistan." The thesis at this point is that Partition in 1947 resulted in the entire Muslim middle class of pre-Partition India virtually vanishing away to their new home in Pakistan.

He contends that Muslim leadership at the grassroots (page 117), especially in the bazaars and mandis, villages, mosques and madrassas left their brothers behind them leaderless. While the sheer non-factuality of such a sweeping statement itself requires rejection, this contention also contradicts the conclusion that the author makes in another section of the book when he deals with the very small number of Muslims who actually voted for the Muslim League (and for Pakistan) in 1946. In that earlier observation, Aiyar states that the Muslim elite voted for the Muslim League and Pakistan with their hands, while the Muslim masses of India voted for India with their feet by remaining firmly on the ground, and staying on in India.

At one point (page 173), the author attributes to the publication titled Chandrika, the organ of the Indian Union Muslim League, the claim that the fundamental differences between the Indian Muslim League and the Pakistan Muslim League include the fact that the Pakistan Muslim League did not stand for the protection of minorities. This is an entirely false contention by the journal, which the author should have verified by a simple perusal of the relevant documents of the Pakistan Muslim League, which, even though I do not hold a personal brief, has always pledged and practised protection of minorities in Pakistan.

Without detracting from the book's own merits - and demerits - Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist should be read with another book by another Indian author who makes a valuable, well-considered contribution to the discussion on the anti-thesis of secularism. I refer to Hindutva: exploring the idea of Hindu Nationalism by Jyotirmaya Sharma (Penguin Books/Viking, India, 2003).

For a person who confesses in this book to being an atheist, Aiyar shows a touching reverence for all religions. His references to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism are more respectful than the fulminations of some who brandish their creeds on their sleeves. Aiyar emerges as a compassionate and caring humanist.

Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist is an excellent addition to public discourse on a subject that needs far greater analysis and advocacy than it has so far received in South Asia. The author may wish to consider quickly producing a revised edition of the book to remove inaccuracies, distortions and unfounded assumptions.

Born in Madras and migrated to Pakistan after 1947, the reviewer is a former Senator and has served as a Federal Minister in three Cabinets of Pakistan.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 26, 2005.)



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