NON-FICTION: Method in the Madness

Updated March 26, 2017

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Since Pakistan’s inception, inconsistent and even contradictory national narratives have rendered the nation rudderless, swerving hither and thither with an obscure past, a stormy present and an unpredictable future. The problem can be best exemplified using the slogan coined by the character Napoleon to bewilder innocent animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Lies, myths, half-truths, distortions and the murder of history are hallmarks of Pakistan’s national narrative, so much so that even today the nation is not sure of its raison d’être. An identity crisis has plagued Pakistan since Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah died. Is Pakistan a Muslim country or an Islamic state? A nation state or part of the Ummah? Is it a Sharia-compliant country? Are we Muslims first or Pakistanis first? Such questions have haunted the nation from all sides, like the pincers of a scorpion menacing its prey. The common man is bewildered, and this is exactly what the myth-making machinery wants.

The Pakistan Anti-Hero by Nadeem Farooq Paracha sheds light on the people whose names and contributions before and after the creation of Pakistan have purposefully been either marginalised or thrown away because they did not fit in the ruling elite’s propaganda. It irons out distorted events and mentions those that were completely wiped out as they stood opposed to the policies of rulers from Liaquat Ali Khan to General Ziaul Haq. In a country where fair is foul and foul is fair, the book is a saga that unfolds how villains turned into heroes and heroes became villains.

According to Paracha, the notion of Muslim nationalism rose from the ashes of the Mughal Empire in the 19th century when Indian Muslims — supported and funded by the Muslim bourgeoisie and landed elite — aimed at burying the so-called glorious past and constructing a separate identity that could strengthen their faith based on rationalism and modernity, bypassing pan-Islamism. Paracha argues that Pakistani nationalism is the offshoot of Muslim nationalism which was pluralistic, but exclusivist. He further argues that the divergent narrative, which was dogmatic and inclusivist, resurfaced after the fall of Dhaka, an event that polarised society and created space for pan-Islamic voices. Supported by the Arab countries, the notion was sold to the urban bourgeoisie who were disoriented in the absence of democracy during General Ayub Khan’s rule. The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), enlivened by the tragedy, invoked the notion of pan-Islamism by suggesting an assumption that Muhammad Bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh laid the foundation of Pakistan; thus, he was the first Pakistani.


“A book that highlights Pakistan’s sins of ommission and commission in the historical record


Paracha highlights Urdu almost as a neglected factor, which also played a key role in carving and shaping an early sense of nationhood after it replaced Persian as the language of the ruling elite. As a result, people from Persia and central Asia stopped settling in India and Urdu, which was mainly spoken by local Muslims, became the language of the Muslim elite. The Muslim League used Urdu as a symbol of the integration of Muslims, whereas the Hindus wanted Hindi to dominate, consequently leading to the Urdu-Hindi controversy which fuelled the demand for a separate homeland for Muslims on the basis of linguistic disparity. Therefore, the Indian National Congress, in an attempt to prevent Urdu from replacing Persian, fanned nationalist sentiment and made the Hindu-Muslim division even more prominent. Ironically, declaring Urdu the national language of Pakistan in 1948 antagonised the people of Bengal. They protested against the decision while Jinnah was paying his first visit to Bengal as the governor general of Pakistan, and demanded that Bangla, being the language of the majority, should be the national language of Pakistan.

The book presents an interesting case for Chaudhry Rehmat Ali. In history textbooks, his name does not go beyond coining the word “Pakistan”, but he had also made the ‘audacious’ suggestion that a separate homeland for the Muslims had already existed across various periods of history; it only needed to be reclaimed. It was his theory that led the JI to suggest that the idea of Pakistan was born with Bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh. Furthermore, he came up with a self-drawn map which showed Pakistan’s and India’s civilisations existing on the sides of the rivers Indus and Ganges respectively. Jinnah, on seeing the map, brushed it away, calling it the “ravings of a student.” Ali lived in England and remained aloof from the Pakistan movement led by Jinnah. He came to Pakistan almost a year after its creation and became a critic of Jinnah for compromising the “full idea of Pakistan” which he (Ali) had envisioned, until he was asked by prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan to leave the country. Ali returned to England and lived in isolation until his death in 1951.

Paracha also explores the Khilafat movement triggered by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which is glorified in textbooks as an event that demanded extraterritorial loyalty. The All India Khilafat Committee, comprising Muslim League stalwarts Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and his brother Shaukat Ali, saw the caliph as the protector and defender of the global Muslim fraternity. What the textbooks lack is how Jinnah looked at it: “Jinnah warned that the (Khilafat) movement would be detrimental to Hindus and Muslims of India.” One day a mob turned violent and burned alive more than 20 policemen at Chauri Chaura. Hundreds of Muslims quit their schools and colleges in a crackdown by the British which put a dent in the Muslim League. Jinnah had been proved right. The Khilafat movement finally crumbled when Mustafa Kemal abolished the caliphate and founded a secular Turkey based on Turkish nationalism. The Khilafat spree brings to light Jinnah’s vision: he had no pan-Islamic ambitions, his agenda was local, not global.

The pungent, satirical style of writing Paracha is known for using in his weekly columns published in this newspaper is missing from his book. The back and forth narrative technique, in which the author having moved ahead chronologically, returns to points in the past is somewhat tedious. Nevertheless, the book’s clarity of thought, forceful expression and impersonal interpretative style makes it an interesting read.

The Pakistan Anti-Hero is a dauntless effort in its own right. With so many myths and illusions coiling in the common man’s mind, the book may face resistance. Even so, it is an eye-opener that gives us an insightful understanding of our past, an opportunity to assess our present afresh and can help us engage in a meaningful discourse for future. After reading it, one gets the same impression of our history textbooks as Polonius had of Hamlet when he said, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” It is highly recommended for academicians, laymen, lovers of history and, last but not least, students of history as a reference book. However, should students quote in their exams from this book, they do so at their own risk!

The reviewer is assistant professor in the department of English at Greenwich University

The Pakistan Anti-Hero
By Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Vanguard Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9694026053
370pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 26th, 2017