The lopsided narrative


How Indians imagine Pakistan

Even after six decades, the idea of Pakistan continues to elicit new expositions particularly from across the border in India. No matter whether an Indian is a liberal, religious conservative or a diehard nationalist; the creation of Pakistan remains an enigma. Instead of delving in the ocean of historical sources to understand the rationale behind partition, the Indians cherry-pick evidence to construct grotesque narratives just to debunk Pakistan.

Much more weird is the metamorphic nature of these narratives that are weaved just to fit in the political trends in flux at a certain point in time. One can discern at least three major planks in this regard. First, the birth of Pakistan was the result of the classical British policy of ‘divide and rule’. Second, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah single-handedly created a state from nowhere by adopting a separatist communalist agenda for the Indian Muslims. Third, as the Cold War developed between the capitalist bloc led by the US and the socialist bloc headed by the erstwhile Soviet Union during the second half of the twentieth century in which Pakistan placed herself in the Western camp, the Indians developed a new narrative that centered on the theme that Pakistan was formed to act as a bulwark against the rising tide of the ‘Red Menace’ in Southeast Asia.

With the disintegration of Soviet Russia and the attendant rise of religious militancy as a result of the ‘Afghan jihad’, a new narrative has been constructed in a book entitled, ‘Tinderbox – the past and the future of Pakistan’ by the notable Indian journalist, politician and scholar M J Akbar. The crux of his arguments is that the religious militancy prevalent in Pakistan is not a recent phenomenon but has actually been in what he calls the very ‘DNA’ of the idea of Pakistan, thus locating the roots of Pakistan not in the “Two-Nation Theory” of the nineteenth century modern social reformer Syed Ahmed Khan but in the ‘Theory of Distance’ of the eighteenth century orthodox religious leader Shah Waliullah that emphasized upon the Muslims to live at a ‘distance’ from the Hindus in order to remain ‘pure’ and ‘free from pollution’. Akbar quotes the ‘wasiyat nama’ (will) of Shah Waliullah that directed the Muslims “to conform to the habits and customs of the early Arabs and the Prophet (PBUH) himself” and “to abstain from the customs of the ajam (Turks/Persians) and the habits of the Indians”.

The author’s innuendo is that if the Hindus and Muslims could not fuse into an Indian nationhood, it was because of this political line given by Shah Waliullah. And if in today’s Pakistan, there has been a rejection of the tolerant sufi South Asian Islam and a drive towards puritan ‘Arab Islam’, invariably labeled as Saudi, Salafi or Wahabi, it is because of Shah Waliullah’s teachings that were fully encouraged and propagated by the Pakistani state under General Zia to fulfill its political and strategic designs. Akbar then adds that the proponents of Waliullah’s thought firmly believe in employing all available military means to ensure Muslim ascendancy over the Hindus. He points at Shah Waliullah, who, himself called upon the Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali to crush the rising Maratha power in the third battle of Panipat in 1761.

The author avers that to gain political space for the otherwise declining Muslims, Waliullah’s followers commissioned the slogan of ‘jihad’ in India and refers to the 1803 fatwa of Shah Abdul Aziz, son of Shah Waliullah, declaring India ‘Dar-ul-Harb’ ( House of War). Three decades later, three disciples of Shah Abdul Aziz namely Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed Barelvi, Shah Ismail and Shah Abdul Haye also raised the banner of ‘jihad’ and met martyrdom at Balakot, at which Akbar comments: “… the blood of Balakot runs in the veins of the Muslims. The shrines of Barelvi and his close associates Shah Ismail in Balakot, now a stronghold of the Pakistan Taliban, have become pilgrimage centers.”

Such a fantasized Indian narrative gels well with the post-9/11 Western discourse that brands Muslims as militant religious extremists and Pakistan as the nerve center of international terror, making India a natural partner of the West, furnishing the gleeful Indians with yet another opportunity to mock Pakistan. This bizarre construction is not only self-contradictory; it is also blotted with several historical inaccuracies. For instance, the allegory that the shrines in Balakot have become the ‘pilgrimage’ centers is incorrect because the followers of Shah Waliullah’s thought do not subscribe to making ‘pilgrimage’ to the shrines. A large number of Pakistanis do perform pilgrimage to pay their respects – but their preferred destinations are not Balakot but the shrines of saints in the Punjab and Sindh, and Ajmer and Delhi to appreciate the sufis’ message of love, humanism, tolerance and mutual coexistence. Most Pakistanis believe in and live by these great sufi ideals, even today, and not the way M J Akbar has tried to put.

Moreover, the central idea of Akbar’s contention is that Shah Waliullah and his adherents promoted ‘distance’ and ‘discord’ instead of harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims and exercised the concept of ‘jihad’ to energize the sagging Muslim power against the Hindus. He links his central idea to the post-partition Pakistani state which in his opinion has used this concept to hate Hindu-India and fight wars with it. Herein lay the anomaly because the 1803 fatwa of Shah Abdul Aziz was against the British colonists and not against the Hindus. Akbar himself admits that “the fatwa was meant for both Muslims and Hindus, although of course the Hindus did not respond” (pg 56). So, a call made to the Hindus to fight the imperialists was spurned.

Next, he has given the example of Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi’s ‘jihad’ movement which raised a maximum force of 80,000 at its peak. The number is correct but in a hurry to depict the Muslims as militants, he forgot the fact that this figure was insignificant when compared with the total Indian Muslim population. As far as unfolding the banner of ‘jihad’ by Ahmad Barelvi is concerned, again, it was against the British and not the Hindus because the author has himself written that on the way to ‘jihad’, Sayyid Ahmad was feted by a Hindu Rao in Gwalior (pg 62); borrowed Rs 35,000 from Hindu moneylenders in Manara, near Hund when he was short of finances (pg 64) and has quoted without giving any reference of his source an important letter sent by Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi through Haji Bahadur Shah to Raja Hindu Rao, the brother-in-law of Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia, in which he had promised that once the British were kicked out of the subcontinent, the territories of the “traditional hierarchies, including Hindus’ would be restored to them”, arguing that “alien people from distant lands have become the rulers of territories…” (pg 61-62). This kills M J Akbar’s self-concocted “Theory of Distance”.

In fact, his entire thesis is marred by lopsided arguments, and therefore, fails to stand on its legs. He might not have ventured into such a damning narrative, had he consulted Ayesha Jalal’s seminal work on jihad in South Asia entitled “Partisans of Allah” published in 2008 – exactly three years before Akbar produced his work. When I checked the list of references cited in ‘Tinderbox’, Ayesha’s research was missing in it.

The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]


  1. This book of MJ Akbar came out quite some time ago. Either this columnist got the book very late or it took him a long time to think out his reply….

  2. From what I read up on Syed Ahmed Barelvi on Wikipedia, that chap only fought a physical war/jihad against the Sikhs and not against the Britishers.
    So this author too is feeding the readers with half-truths just like he claims MJ Akbar is doing in his book.

  3. Thanks for giving this link. Very informative indeed.

    If the writer is interested in removing most of his mental cobwebs I will strongly recommend he listen to it carefully.

  4. The impeding doom of Pakistan seems to have caught up with the author. on what basis of does he support current misery? MJ Akbar's theory in that regard is a very sophisticated description of the reality that Pakistan turned out to be. Agree or not current Pakistan state was envisioned by many in India in 1990's itself. It does not take a genius to see that. It only takes a fool to argue to the contrary!!

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