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Past and Prejudice

By Khaled Ahmed

August 19, 2017

I must confess my admiration for the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. It has a lot to do with my “inebriation with the spoken word”. The occasion was the May 2015 Oxford Union debate, “Britain owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies” which I saw on video. After Tharoor was done with his speech, there was no doubt who had won the day. He has followed up with a book, An Era of Darkness, which I find convincing and informative in equal measure. It is a clever dig at Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul who wrote not so glowingly about India in An Area of Darkness (the book was initially banned in India). But Naipaul went on to even the scales by writing Among the Believers, which caused much consternation in Pakistan. This writer, who had given the book a positive review, was sent messages that barely concealed their threats.

Imperialism can be judged positively if you undertake a comparative analysis of occupying nations. But colonisation has never been without extractions. Tharoor won the debate not only because of his brilliant style but also because his facts were convincing. In his book, he is careful to take account of the “good” that India’s enslavement did to a rather decadent India under Muslim rule. But it is the thesis of “divide and rule”, generally accepted by those who passionately desired to keep India united after the British left the country, that binds Indians today and informs Indian nationalism. Tharoor sums up the catechism clearly: “The creation and perpetuation of Hindu-Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy. The project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the horrors of Partition that eventually accompanied the collapse of British authority in 1947.”

Pakistan has a similar exceptionalism that opposes the Indian interpretation of the Partition. This view holds that the British Raj sided with India — the last Viceroy Mountbatten and his wife were too close to Nehru — by tilting the formation of the state boundaries in its favour and depriving the new state of Pakistan of Kashmir. People like me in Pakistan — who had to contend with Muslim rationalists like Syed Ahmed Khan being rejected in favour of hard Islam after the Objectives Resolution of 1949 — can’t take the textbook explanations of what happened with an easy conscience. An important book I read in 2002 was Prejudice and Pride: School histories of the freedom struggle in India and Pakistan by Krishna Kumar who remains for me the most perceptive living Indian. He says: “A human child is ‘socialised’ by his parents through a certain process of conditioning to elicit from him a behaviour of obedience. Similarly a state too undertakes conditioning to produce obedient citizens. It uses history to create a uniform mind (national identity) and puts a carefully cultured version of it in the school textbooks.”

I can speak more confidently about what happened after the British Raj in Pakistan than I can about India, post-1947. Our national poet and philosopher Allama Muhammad Iqbal — who was knighted by the Raj and didn’t give up his knighthood like Rabindranath Tagore after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre — was supposed to be our guide on ideology. In his lectures he had “reconstructed” Islam by modifying certain ancient edicts, a modernising revision which the post-1947 state of Pakistan rejected. What stares us in the face now is what Pakistan rejected of Iqbal. In his defiance, we haven’t stoned women for adultery, haven’t cut hands for stealing and feel bad about letting down our ideology. But even Iran, where women were once stoned for adultery, has had to give up this practice.

The Penal Code of the Raj was ruined by introducing into it a matter that haunts the state today. The blasphemy law demonises the state and the law that bans banks from charging interest hurts the economy — Syed Ahmed Khan and Iqbal had argued that charging interest does not violate the scripture. Khushwant Singh who lived in Lahore till 1947 wrote that Hindus and Muslims never mixed socially and that wasn’t because of “divide and rule” of the Raj. But the Raj has started looking better as Christians leave Pakistan to avoid being brutalised by the Blasphemy Law.

India has veered right and the tensions that emanate from its damaged pluralism are mitigated by the country’s economy: India has a growth rate that makes it attractive to the world, which then overlooks Hindutva. It might seem that the world finds India attractive because it is not ruled by Muslims. But that is not the reason. Turkey’s growth rate has absolved President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he rolls back Kemalism — which I find strangely comparable to the British Raj. Turkey started late but will catch up with India where Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is being subjected to censorship. Of course, India can’t be compared to what is happening to the Islamic world. But it can start looking worse than the British Raj for people like journalist Saeed Naqvi. He has spelt out his reasons in his recent book, Being the Other.

Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’