Our leaders and their writing – by Aakar Patel

Monday, December 29, 2008 (The News)

India’s early leaders wrote a lot. Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches number some 20 volumes. Nehru’s Selected Works, still being edited, have reached volume 39 and the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote almost every day, sprawl over 100 volumes, possibly unmatched anywhere in the world.

These are books meant to be dipped into, not consumed front to back — except for Ambedkar’s, whose collected works do not include letters he wrote, and whom every Indian child must be taught, along with Gandhi.

He had clarity on Pakistan as early as 1940, and Partition, though inevitable, might have been less painful if his Thoughts On Pakistan had been more widely read and understood. Jinnah wrote no book, but his letters have been edited by Z H Zaidi. For some reason Zaidi also includes correspondence to Jinnah, and most of it is banal. This is irritating because the Jinnah Papers volumes are very expensive.

Each volume of Gandhi’s collected works can be bought for as little as Rs25 (free online), while each volume of Jinnah’s is between Rs2,500 and Rs4,750. It is surprising the Pakistan government does not subsidise the publications of its founder, as India does the publications of its early leaders.

Pakistanis who trawl through the Jinnah Papers will not find much illumination: Jinnah wrote little about his view of Islam, or its history or Pakistan’s future or form of government. His letters are about everyday life: motor car repairs, travel plans, statements of accounts, granting of appointments, telling people not to name their companies after him, accepting or declining invitations, a series of very brief exchanges with Liaquat, a rejection of Bombay Bar Association’s decision to honour his 50 years at the Bar in 1947, saying that the vote was carried narrowly.

One woman, Mrs K L Rallia Ram of 5, Masson Road, Lahore, wrote to Jinnah every other day in 1946 and 1947, alerting him to the conspiracies she was convinced Hindus, Sikhs, Communists and the RSS were plotting against him. She attached newspaper clippings in support of her theories. Zaidi has included many letters by her in the volumes.

While there is abhorrence for Jinnah in India, Iqbal’s is a grey figure. He is reviled for the idea of Pakistan, but the educated North Indian loves the width and beauty of his writing.

Manmohan Singh began reintroducing Iqbal to India through couplets that he delivered in Parliament’s Central Hall in the middle of his budget speeches of 1991-1996, through which he liberalised India’s economy.

I was familiar with the basic lines of Tarana-i-Hind but had not registered its most stirring couplet: Yunan-o-Misr-o-Roma sab mitt gaye jahan se, ab tak magar hai baqi naam-o-nishan hamara, till Manmohan Singh recited it in his Punjabi lilt. Iqbal is to be read like Ambedkar is to be read: front to back, and carefully.

His great work is the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, and it is one of the world’s undiscovered classics. His understanding of east and west is majestic, perhaps unmatched in all India. And his defence of religion in the opening lecture is the best I have ever read, and would be an excellent response to recent books by the rationalists Dawkins and Hitchens.

Naipaul’s dismissal of Iqbal, though it is comprehensive, does not appear to have incorporated the reforming side to him. Muslims of course love the middle-period Iqbal of Shikwa and Bang-e-Dara and Javidnama but not the author of the Reconstruction lectures, or the young unifier of India, before he went to Europe.

I have spent many hours talking about Iqbal with my late friend Dr Rafique Zakaria, who said he had a book of Iqbal’s bawdy verse somewhere but could never find it. It is no surprise that the great scholar Annemarie Schimmel chose Iqbal as her muse in India. The man that Pakistan’s Muslims, and perhaps India’s, needed alive after 1947 was not Jinnah, who died in 1948, but Iqbal, who died in 1938.

The formulation of the current Islamist intellectual Tariq Ramadan (Hassan al-Banna’s grandson) that Muslim states retain their Hudood laws but suspend their execution would have found favour with, and is possibly lifted from, Iqbal, through his sixth lecture. This is actually something that the Pakistan state has lapsed into doing, though without reasoning it through.

The other Islamist of course was Maudoodi, who had a very nimble mind. Al-Jihad fi al-Islam was written when he was only 24. It was interesting to go through the work of the modern Islamists, al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and see how much they had lifted from him, especially Qutb. And how much brighter he was than them (strange to be proud of the fact that ‘our’ fundo is better than ‘their’ fundo!).

His political extension of the concept of Tawheed, and his construction of a religious state around it and also its top-down implementation was the work of a very intelligent and creative mind, but one with limited understanding of civilisation’s universality.

The writings of Hindu reformers Vivekanand and, in particular, Gandhi, softened the religion and made it flexible enough for Nehru and Ambedkar to legislate their reforms. Gandhi and Vivekanand were effective because they modernised the faith from the inside, unlike Ambedkar who fought it from outside and was ineffective outside his community.

The true Hindu intellectual was Radhakrishnan, India’s second president. His writing was like Iqbal’s: deeply immersed in the culture and the religion, but with the perspective of a trained European scholar.

The RSS’s writers were more passionate than intellectual, in part because of the audience they were addressing. The writing of RSS ideologues Golwalkar and Upadhyay is mostly moderate, and written in the emotional style of the Indian religious discourse. Hindutva, Savarkar’s classic, is simple, but overly emotional. Though his message on inter-caste marriage was pragmatic, and derived in scholarly fashion, he succumbed to caste when he insisted on his children’s marriage to fellow Chitpavan Brahmins.

Savarkar’s inclination towards the 19th century Italian reunifiers Mazzini and Garibaldi makes one think of what his thoughts would be on nationalism as it has now evolved in Europe.

Today India has no intellectuals in politics other than Manmohan Singh and Arif Mohammed Khan, a very fine mind. Except in Bengal, where caste is in decline, democracy has removed the layer of nominated, as opposed to elected, politicians, who have traditionally carried intellect to Delhi.

Few autobiographies have been written by Indian politicians in recent years, and no good ones other than one by Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was born in 1941 in Lahore’s famous Laxmi Mansion, home to Manto after 1948.

Political biographies in Pakistan peaked in the 90s when Bhutto’s supporters (Mubashir Hasan, Rafi Raza, Iqbal Akhund) and opponents (K M Arif, Sherbaz Mazari, Akbar Bugti, G M Syed) published their memoirs after Zia’s death. While a lot of Pakistani autobiography, like Indian autobiography, is self-aggrandising and dishonest, this period’s writing was possibly the most direct, and certainly the most entertaining. Mubashir Hasan wrote about his ministerial tenure in great detail but let his fellow liberals down by not revealing what he did, or even thought of, during Bhutto’s passing of the inhumane Second Amendment. He does not mention it at all, even in passing.

Bhutto comes across as deranged. The contours of his character revealed through his treatment of that fascinating character J A Rahim in Hasan’s and Raza’s books; his treatment at the hands of Akbar Bugti in Mazari’s book; and his behaviour just before his hanging in Gen Arif’s book are astonishing.

Zia wrote no book, but Ayub Khan wrote one and shouldn’t have. It starts off wrongly — by leaning on religion — and it paints a picture of him that collapsed the year he was booted out. He is seen positively today by very few excluding, presumably, Samuel Huntington (who likened Ayub to the Greek lawgiver Solon) and the economist Shahid Javed Burki.

Altaf Gauhar also wrote on Ayub, and his writing was dishonest — but Rafique Zakaria told me a story about Gauhar’s superb understanding of secularism and Islam, which made me see Gauhar in a different way.

Musharraf will be seen 20 years later in a better light than he now is, but he damaged his cause with his second-rate autobiography, actually written by Humayun Gauhar. Politicians have stopped writing in Pakistan and India. On the evidence of Ardeshir Cowasjee’s reporting, Asif Zardari cannot even spell, leave alone write. It will be strange if the only picture of him as a man comes out from newspaper columns.

The writer is a former newspaper editor who lives in Bombay. Email: aakar.patel@gmail.com