Review: Tinderbox by MJ Akbar


I had almost bought this book but then I realized that my spending on books was becoming unmanageable. And luckily enough my own employer’s library had it on the shelves. In hindsight, it fit in perfectly because I would have had half of a regret if I had bought this book. On the cover page, as you can see, the color of 'Tinderbox' and 'and Future' is the same - turquoise, and makes them stand out. And this set the expectations for me.

The breadth of the book in terms of facts is praiseworthy and it disappointingly doesn't make up for the lack of depth of analysis. The first two chapters seemed more like a chronicle of events rather than a commentary - too many people introduced within such a short span that I was
totally lost and left wondering whether to read the rest of the book or not! Akbar doesn't go much into the details and the reasons of events and just skims through them. That, I believe, is a trait found in all history books written by journalists and the like. Chapter one begins with "an Arab invader, Muhammad bin Qasim, established the first Muslim dynasty, in 712, in Sind". And then starts the melee - The Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Sayyids, Lodis, Suris and Mughals followed by the Britishers. The last phase, of the Britishers, marked the beginning for Indian Muslims of "an age of insecurity for which they sought a range of answers. One question fluctuated at many levels: what would be the geography of what might be called Muslim space in the post-Mughal dispensation?". Akbar writes that the most "creative phase of Gnadhi's career was between 1919 and 1922 when he fused Muslim and Hindu sentiment to mould a non-violent revolution called the Khilafat Movement." The Portuguese and the Dutch are thrown in between. One criticism of this theory is that it totally ignores the equations of Arab Muslim traders who had first brought Islam to India on its southern shores through trading routes. For an understanding of the Indian Muslim identity this forms an important sub-part but definitely not as a part of the germination of the idea of creation of Pakistan because the traders were anyways in minority (in terms of numbers and power). Hence, for them, they never had felt any sense of loss of their right to a religious identity for their livelihood was the trade. While for the Muslim dynasties and the populace thereafter, British rule resulted, as Akbar says, in a sudden void of power, prestige, and the ensuing realization that in numbers as well (though numbers had never mattered earlier because they had the power to offset it by great margins). So, the criticism isn't valid.

The book is full of stunning facts and quotable anecdotes. Few worth recalling: The conversion of the Muslim temple of Su-Manat to a Hindu Somnath; the creation of Aligarh Muslim University and its contribution in the idea of partition (I wish I was aware of this fact when I visited AMU a couple of times years ago); the earlier belief of Jinnah that Hindus & Muslims cannot be divided; Jinnah's drinking and Ham-eating habits; Jinnah's infatuation with a 16 year old Parsi girl and then marrying her just after she crossed the legal age of 18 when he was 42!; Jinnah's ignorance of Islam and total avoidance of Muslim practices; the hugely distorted version of history being taught in Pakistani schools. The coverage of various renowned contributors to the Muslim identity and otherwise is, again, more broad than deep: Shah Waliullah, Sayyid Ahmad, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab, Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, Syed Ahmad Khan, Aga Khan and many more.

Akbar traces the discontent which resulted in Muslims after the failure of Khilafat Movement. This made them wary of Gandhi's principle of non-violence and the inherent contradiction in his support, in terms of men for the British Indian Army, for the British during World War-I (in the hope of extracting concessions in the future). On the contrary, Jinnah was always opposed to this war effort and "did not share such illusions". He dissects the turbulence faced by the ideologists after the creation of Pakistan and the various multi-directional forces which pulled apart the core theme of a secular Muslim state as desired by Jinnah and the growth of a theocratic one. The power hungry and the religiously over fed,  from Maududi (Godfather of Pakistan), Bhutto, Zia, Ayub Khan, Yayha, Zardari, Taliban and the others are all thrown in the cauldron of the emergence of today's Pakistan and its contradictions.

This book shatters the popular and ignorant belief that Jinnah alone was responsible for creation of Pakistan - for he was just an actor on the stage with the script having been written much before his arrival. Azad's view, that minority should not be seen in terms of numbers but in terms of power, position and freedom - all three of them being present with the Muslims of undivided India and hence there should be no division, was grounded, well thought and ahead of its times. Akbar terms the Pakistani state as a Jelly State - which will "neither collapse nor stabilize". The dependence of Pakistan on its army from saving itself from disintegration is ironical - since as long as its Army is the most powerful structure it will never be a democracy - which has resulted in a yet-never-ending-cycle. After setting expectations by putting 'and Future' in turquoise on the cover page, Akbar doesn't write anything about the future except for a customary paragraph or two. He doesn't cover anything at all about the state of Pakistan's economy and its history - for the economy forms an important shaping force - in history and definitely for the future. The book lacks the clarity when compared to the ones written by historians, chronicles just important events and peoples hastily, analyses intelligently lot of topics of relevance but hugely misses out on the economy and the future. This is a book to be read, but not in isolation, for an introduction to, majorly, the dream of creation of Pakistan and its becoming a nightmare later on.


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