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Sunday, March 16, 2014

India, Empire and the First World War - I

MJ Akbar
A minstrel is a mediaeval bard who sang songs and told tales of distant places, of real or imagined events from the past. When the European courts evolved under the influence of mercantilism, minstrels lost their appeal and began to travel around, becoming wandering minstrels.

I’m often reminded of the wandering minstrels whenever a public intellectual from India visits Toronto. I get to meet them and hear them talk at the Munk Centre which organizes their visit with a reassuring regularity. 

Romila Thapar, Ramchandra Guha, and Rachel Dwyer, among many others have engaged the Indian diaspora in what may be described as a conversation among the believers. And by that I mean that both the speakers and the listeners are all generally speaking liberals.

MJ Akbar was here a couple of weeks ago to talk on India, Empire and the First World War organized by the Bill Graham Centre for International History.

A minor digression: One wonders whether Akbar should continue to be included among the liberals after his new-found love for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial aspirant of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. I guess many in India and amongst the Indian diaspora who categorize themselves as liberals have found (and are finding) new reasons to support Modi. So, we shall leave the categorization in abeyance for now.

Apart from an utter incapability to understand or appreciate Akbar’s pro-Modi tilt, which sort of tends to cloud my perspective about everything that he writes these days, I must admit listening to his erudition is unquestionably an enriching experience.

Although he was to speak about India, the Empire and the First World War, he deftly encompassed many themes in his talk and focused mainly on the making of the modern Muslim world. For those aware with his works – especially his 2002 book The Shades of Sword – the Conflict between Islam and Christianity, there was a familiar note to a lot that Akbar said that afternoon.

Some of his positions are well-known and have hardened over the years. But his approach of examining history as an interplay between empires that rose and fell over the last millennium, rather than looking at it from the narrow prism of nation states remains unique and compelling.

The breadth of the lecture was wide, sweeping across centuries, spread across geographies, and peopled with innumerable figures; and punctured with innumerable diversions.

In the middle of the talk, he stopped and quoted from Matthew Arnold’s poem Stanza from the Grande Chartreuse
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

The other powerless to be born

Wikipedia described Arnold, as an English poet from the Victorian era, who wrote this classic to describe the irreconcilable differences between science and religion while on a brief visit to the Grand Chartreuse, the abode of the Carthusian order. 

Akbar used the lines to describe the present world order where the old world of the 20th century is evidently dead, but a new world order is yet to be born.

Another riveting insight: Tracing the west’s global domination over the last five hundred years, Akbar observed that the simple reason was technology. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Gutenberg press (introduced in the same decade) changed the discourse of dominance. It wasn’t just the battlefield where supremacy mattered. Gutenberg opened up a new front – supremacy of ideas. 

And the Islamic world was kept away from this revolution (especially in South Asia) by the trade unions of the khatibs, the scribes, who prevented the introduction and use of the movable type.

Describing India’s strong roots of syncretic traditions, he quoted Mughal emperor Babur, who said one could either eat beef or rule India, one couldn’t do both.

Continued in the post below

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