Book Review: Tinderbox – The Past and Future of Pakistan by MJ Akbar

Published July 14, 2013 by vishalvkale

MJ Akbar is an Indian Journalist with a wide-ranging experience of more than 40 years cutting across Media, ranging from The Times of India to Headlines Today. He is a prolific Author, with several books to his credit…
 “The actions by the Pakistani Government to support them – actively and passively – represent a growing problem that is undermining US interest and may violate international norms, potentially warranting sanction. In supporting these groups, the Government of Pakistan, particularly the Pakistani Army, continue to jeopardize Pakistan’s opportunity to be a prosperous nation with genuine regional and international influence – Admiral Mike Mullen, 17th Chairman of The Joint Chiefs of Staff”
The above excerpt from the conclusion makes the overall approach abundantly clear – blunt, straightforward, factual, and racy. This is a book that is a must read for Indians, as it is among the most authoritative books that I have read on the subject of Pakistan. It is full of insights and facts that will surprise the Indian citizen, The book takes you deep into the quagmire of what is modern Pakistan, and how it got to this sorry state of affairs. It starts from the very beginning – AD 712, and traces the Pakistani claims of connections to Ghori and Somnath; it picks up from there, takes it all the way to 2011 – and enables a deeper understanding of one of the most enduring tragedies of modern times- Partition, as well as the India-Pakistan discord.
The book can be viewed in 2 parts – the period leading upto Partition, and the modern state of Pakistan. The period leading upto Partition looks at the entire scenario in a very different light – tracing the roots of the discord to the Muslim psche that was punctured when they lost their hegomony in India. Subsequent events, which lead to them losing their rule just about everywhere, has also been looked at, and identified as a key aspect that lead to Muslim demands in the 1920s – 1940s period. This is a logical approach – one that has been explored to some extent by Pankaj Mishra in his book; but that work was Pan-Asian in outlook. The book under discussion is exclusively about India, and this makes for a deep and wholesome appraisal of this entire issue. The rise various thinkers and philosophers, and their impact on the Muslim psyche right from the 16th century to the 20th century is a superb section, as it enables a deep look into the happenings in Muslim society in those days. The slow radicalisation of the society, and the role of the British has been brought out into the open – which paints a picture that enables you to understand the how and why of the rapid deterioration from the 1920s
The only negative aspect I could detect in this section was the aspect dealing with the Nehru Report of 1928, and the Cabinet Mission plan. I cannot understand why some people regard them as good; both were recipes for certain disaster. The Nehru Report ceded residuary powers to the states, and gave the Muslims reservation in both minority as well as majority areas; why should anyone have reserved seats even when they are in a minority? If the logic of protecting minority rights applies to Muslims, it applies to Hindus as well! And why cede residuary powers to the states? That would weaken the center! Similarly, the cabinet mission plan – with its 10-year joker, giving the option for leaving the  Union after 10 years – for a sure-fire recipe for Balkanisation! I know that this desire of the Author has no connect with religion; I have read a similar opinion from a Non-Muslim as well; it is more of a romantic hoping, a what-could-have-been feeling. However, in my humble opinion, given the circumstances unveiled in various works spanning Pankaj Mishra, Akbar, Jaswant Singh, IIC (India and Pakistan- The Great Divide : My next review) – it seems more and more certain that the partition of India was not avoidable…
Even so, this section is an awesome piece of research; it virtually gives you a look into the situation within Muslim society as it existed in those days, which enables you to understand the subsequent years much more easily. This is what makes this book a cut apart from most other books I have read. The part after independence is a searing indictment of the 2-nation theory, and makes the telling point: the hunt for an identity by Pakistan, and its citizens – drove it inexorably towards increasing Islamization of its society and institutions. This hunt for a common identity – and its internal differences right from Muhajir to Shia-Sunni-Ahmediya etc- drive a nation struggling to stand on its own feet to its nadir. You can literally feel the destruction as page after remorseless page piles on the story: a frankly tragic story of a people hunting for their identity in the past and in religion – instead of moving on from what has happened, and setting up reliable institutions.
The book traces how the idea of Pakistan went sour right at the very beginning; it quotes a telling and prophetic statement by Maulana Azad, who had clearly spelled out the coming destruction in 1946. You are left shaking your head in despair as you are taken into the middle of the quagmire, such is the power of the narrative. The deeply disturbing sequence of events that lead to the plunge of Pakistan into disrepair is a sad sequence: as, over time, India has had to pay the price for the same. It takes a deep and long look at how player after player played the wrong cards; how the radicalised society came into being, with the first challenge right after independence, when clerics demanded a fundamentalist Islamic state; how they succeeded…  a story of unmitigated disaster, told in a fluid and telling narrative.
It rips into the USA, and takes it apart in 2 chapters; how the US studiously looked the other way when Pakistan was going Nuclear, quoting facts as evidence of the US knowledge of Pakistani activities; in fact, there is a section which clearly states that the USA would have found in Pakistan all that it was looking for in Iraq. The book rips apart the US-Pakistan duo on terrorism, tracing the rise of terrorism, and how even Osama Bin Laden was a US-Pakistani creation. Most telling is the fact that Pakistan was on the lookout for the Nuclear option even before India’s test… which puts a rather different light on our own Nulcear Tests in 1974…, as well as the attendant isolation – but that is another story. All in all,  a superb book – this belongs in your library, and is a collectors’ item!
Sorry to digress, but in closing, please do tell me why (as per the opening quote of the Admiral) did terrorism and Pakistan become flashpoints now? Why was the world silent when India was bleeding? Why was the world looking the other way? But that is another story. Problem is that this “another story” is tied up inexorably with India. While the book doesnt quite question the west, it draws much the same conclusion, forcefully making the point that, for the USA, there is only 1 real partner against terror in Asia – India. Will USA wake up to Pakistani duplicity? Doesnt seem like it, while we in the subcontinent, to quote the book, “we are staring, transfixed, at havoc beyond repair…

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