The book seeks to build a body of knowledge that falls under the rubric of Pakistan scholarship
The publication of this book has brought some dignity to the claim that India has some serious academic expertise on Pakistan. Although more than a score of diplomats and journalists are projected by the Indian media as Pakistan experts, hardly any Indian author figures in the list of top 20 books written on Pakistan over the past two decades. This could also be said of Indian scholarship on Middle East, Latin America, and many other regions. But it becomes a bit too embarrassing in respect of Pakistan because it happens to be our most important and, at the same time, highly sensitive neighbour.
Why is that so? It has much to do with the way our research institutions are run, and the state of area studies in our universities. India's Pakistan-centred scholarship is seemingly sandwiched between biographical writings on Jinnah and accusatory references to Pakistan's role on Kashmir affairs. This research work seeks to break free from these stereotypes and build a body of knowledge that genuinely falls under the rubric of Pakistan scholarship.
Akbar's first book on Pakistan, Tinderbox is, in a sense, the culmination of some of his early research on South Asian history. It is likely to remain one of the major contributions on account of the sheer intensity of reasoning and the depth in analysis that marked the study of South Asia's convoluted history, its troubled politics, and its impact on nation states and multiculturalism. What emerges clearly from the narrative is that history matters. Akbar himself calls the book “a history of an idea as it weaved and bobbed its way through dramatic events with rare resilience, sometimes disappearing from sight, but always resurrected either by the will of proponents or the mistakes of opponents.”
As the world debates the fate of Pakistan, the author says a few encouraging things about the future of Pakistani state. He asserts that “fears of Pakistan disintegration … are highly exaggerated” and is emphatic that “driven by the compulsions of an ideological strand in its DNA, damaged by the inadequacies of those who could have kept the nation loyal to Jinnah's dream of a secular Muslim-majority nation, Pakistan is in danger of turning into a toxic ‘jelly state,' a quivering country that will neither collapse nor stabilise.” The term “jelly state” is a new addition to the vocabulary related to state studies. Used as an ideologically loaded term, it has provoked massive research among major social scientists for generations.
Those who are familiar with the works of Max Weber, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, Jurgen Habermas or Anthony Giddens are likely to hesitate to embrace the idea of jelly state. Akbar does not use the word “state” with the same connotation as political sociologists often do. For him, it represents governmental infrastructure, and hence his argument that it would never disintegrate. It is also the reason why questions about its legitimacy or potential for responding to the developmental requirements are not raised. Instead, the concept recognises its minimal role as a government, with a power to coerce and thus govern or misgovern.
Some may note that questions regarding Pakistan's future have arisen prominently in recent years. But such questions are as old as its birth. It was Tariq Ali, who wrote a book titled, Can Pakistan Survive? (1984), with the similar objective of dealing with questions that Akbar raises. Two chapters in the book stand out as most original in their narratives. One is A Theory of Distance, which analyses the theology and politics of Shah Walliullha, and how his idea of “Islamic purity” for Indian Muslims was threatened by the Hindu infidel's cultural and military power. The other is God's General in which General Zia's role and contribution is discussed.
Akbar contends that General Zia's decision in 1976 to change the motto of Pakistan army to Jihad fi Sabil Allah, in the belief that Islam alone could confront Hindu India, was a conscious strategic move, not a populist one as often argued. While the competing Islamic ideologies and their implications for Pakistan get adequate attention, one felt the author could, perhaps, have done better justice to the subject by examining party politics. After all, its impact on domestic politics — and by extension on the current mess that we see in Pakistan — has been quite significant. Overall, it's an outstanding work, which those pursuing Pakistan studies and students of Islamic politics will find very useful.
TINDERBOX — The Past and Future of Pakistan: M.J. Akbar, HarperCollins, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 499.