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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tinderbox: The Past and the Future of Pakistan - MJ Akbar

MJ Akbar is an Indian institution. In my humble opinion, he has no parallels in Indian journalism.

He invented modern Indian journalism in the 1970s with Sunday magazine, and introduced the real India (that is Bharat) to Indians hitherto used to reading newspapers and journals edited by pipe smoking journalists who pontificated about things that had little or no relevance to most of their readers, and wrote in English that was a hangover from the colonial times.

Akbar and his magazine Sunday changed all that.

Carl Sandberg has famously described slang as “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.” 

Akbar did that to English journalism in India. He made it work.

He made the post-Emergency renaissance in Indian journalism relevant and meaningful. 

It was a sort of rediscovery of India for a new generation of readers that was coming of age then. 

Leaving the pontificating to the fast-fading pipe smokers, he went to the heart of India and helped Indians understand India.

Akbar brought us face-to-face with the horrible atrocities the Dalits faced in India.

“The untouchable Jatav is touchable only when a pretty Jatav woman can be raped, or when a whimpering man has to be dragged into the field to do forced, whimsical paid labour.”

(Have Gun, Will Kill, January 1982 – report on the massacre of Dalits in Dehuli and Sarhupur in Uttar Pradesh from Riot After Riot, 1988).

He brought alive the horrors of unending communal violence that erupted in different parts of India.

“Many Muslims who were killed cannot be traced…to give just one example: Salim Mohammad was twenty-five years old, and he had been married to young Naeema just five months earlier. He was a worker who polished brass in one of the factories which have made Moradabad famous all over the world. He went to the Idgah, which is hardly five minutes away from his house, to pray; he never returned. A friend of his who was sitting nearby saw a bullet hit the side of Salim’s face. Salim fell dead. This friend went to the fallen salim, removed the only thing of value he had, a wristwatch, and brought it back to the family. (We saw the watch when we met the family; it was a poor man’s watch, a brand called Siwa; it had been given to Salim as a wedding present by his wife’s family.) Today Salim’s body cannot be traced. His family have asked for it, but the police say they cannot find a Salim among the dead.”

(Massacre in Moradabad, August 1980 from Riot After Riot, 1988)

Akbar has also written often controversial but always readable histories that have helped us understand ourselves better. By analyzing the past, his books have accurately anticipated the future.

India – The Siege Within (1985), Nehru – the Making of India (published in 1989 – Nehru’s centenary), The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity (2002), are among the books he has authored that have received winder acclaim (although his description of the Khilafat Movement as Gandhi’s peaceful jihad is a leap of imagination).

In Nehru’s biography, he quoted Russi Modi to corroborate the Nehru-Edwina relationship. “Russi Mody marched up, opened the door and saw Jawaharlal and Edwina in a clinch. Jawaharlal Nehru looked at Russi Mody and grimaced. Russi quickly shut the door and walked out.”

His latest book Tinderbox: The Past and the Future of Pakistan is again an invaluable addition to understanding the tortured history of India’s neighbour. Again, as in his previous books, he rakes up controversies. 

Explaining the ever-widening divergence between the paths that India and Pakistan have taken since 1947, Akbar says, “The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani.”

Akbar was in Toronto earlier this week to talk about `Terrorism and Geopolitics: The Coming Decade’ as part of promotion of his book at the University of Toronto’s India Innovation Institute. 

In an hour, Akbar gave a glimpse of his erudition, scholarship, vision, philosophy and also a bit of prejudice. A virtuoso performance enjoyed by the who’s who of the Indo-Canadian community.

I wonder how my Toronto friends of Pakistani origin would have reacted to the lecture, and to the book.

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