M.J. Akbar retells the saga of events in an interaction

Retelling a saga of events in history that concern the shared pasts and struggles of India and Pakistan, M.J. Akbar, Editorial Director of India Today and columnist, in an interaction with N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu, highlighted the differences that characterised the two countries.

The event was the launch of Mr. Akbar's book ‘Tinderbox- The past and future of Pakistan,' organised by Madras Book Club here on Tuesday.

Presenting an interesting mix of anecdotes from uncensored versions of history books, and known facts, Mr. Akbar spoke about landmark events and personalities, some known, many unsung, who contributed to the various historical changes in the sub-continent.

After recounting the narratives of the conquest of Delhi by Nadir Shah, the secular ethos of the Mughal and Ottoman empires, Mr. Akbar referred to attempts made by those like Muslim scholar Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and later Aga Khan in pushing for separate electorates. “We could have suffered the same fate as Pakistan had we taken a different trajectory. The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani,” he said, adding that religion cannot be an exercise in nationality.

Presenting his perception of the Indian connotation of secularism as being the coexistence of faiths irrespective of numbers, he said India was secular not because just the Muslims wanted it to be, but because the Hindus wanted it. “India is not secular because Gandhi wanted it to be. Gandhi was secular because India is secular,” he added.

Calling Gandhi's secularism inclusive, as opposed to Jinnah's secularism that was exclusive, he spoke about the familiar symbolism and imagery like ‘Ramrajya' that Gandhi used to perpetrate his movement.

“Religion has become religiosity in Pakistan, and the civil society has taken a hammering. Had Salman Taseer been an Indian Muslim, he would have been alive,” he said. The solution, he said, for Pakistan was to go back to the Jinnah before 1936. Jinnah, he said, was “quintessentially secular person, who picked up a thread later, from Sunni theologian Shah Waliullah's theory of distance between the Hindus and Muslims of India.

Of the four great men who were part of the Indian independence movement, two were European minded – Nehru and Jinnah. But stranger is the fact that the other two were deeply religious, Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who never were for the idea of a state based on religion, he said. His new book, he added, was not anti-Pakistan, but anti theocracy. Pakistan, he said was like a jelly that could neither stand up nor disappear. “It is strapped in an illogical idea that faith is a substitute for nationalism.”

Mr. Ram read out an excerpt from Mr. Akbar's book, of the prophecy by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and spoke of the book as being “a biography of an idea that covers a long period, and makes a coherent and persuasive read.”

Responding to an audience's description of Pakistan as an entirely failed State, he said, “I do not believe that Pakistan is a failed State, for Pakistan's good, and for India's good.”

More In: Books | Arts | Chennai