Sukarno: destined to fail — I

July 31, 2022

Sukarno was a brilliant orator and a man who took syncretism to its fullest

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Sukarno was an Indonesian statesman, orator, revolutionary and nationalist. He served as the first president of Indonesia from 1945 to 1967. Among post-colonial Muslim leaders, Sukarno was the most vociferous dissenter vis a vis colonial/ imperial control.

Before becoming president, he was a prominent leader of Indonesia’s nationalist movement during the colonial period. He spent over a decade under the Dutch detention until he was released by the invading Japanese forces in World War II.

Sukarno was described by one of his biographers, CLM Penders, as “the father of the fatherland, the symbol of Indonesia, the Moses who led his people out of captivity”. He was, indeed, one of a select group of people during the century, including Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ho Chi Minh and the Ayatollah Khomeini among others, who, according to journalists, possessed what has been described by Max Weber as “charisma”.

Indonesia’s mosaic of cultures provided an environment well suited for a man of Sukarno’s attributes.

Some 87.5 percent of Indonesia’s 188 million people are at least nominally Muslim, representing almost a fifth of the world’s Islamic population. At the same time, Indonesia has a great mix of ethnically distinct societies scattered over 13,667 islands, stretching in a chain 3,000-miles chain. Despite these differences, Sukarno was able to give Indonesians a sense of common identity.

Sukarno’s ideology united nationalism, religion and communism. It came to be known as Nasakom - an acronym based on the Indonesian words NASionalisme (nationalism), Agama (religion), and KOMunisme (communism). It is significant that Sukarno’s ideational synthesis (Nasakom) ran contrary to the situation punctuated with colonial structures. The system of thought and action propounded by Sukarno became the salient cause for his ouster from power in the Suharto-led coup d’etat.

Bernhard Dahm, another of Sukarno’s biographers elaborates: “His guided democracy, based on charisma and persuasiveness, depended heavily on the loyalty of PKI [the Communist Party] and the army as the two best organised power blocs in the country. That loyalty, however, was dubious from the outset, since as contending political heirs both groups watched each other’s activities with mounting distrust. Neither the raging struggle against imperialism nor Nasakom could bridge the gap between these two sources of power and the mass organisations that had gathered about them. These odds were natural impediments in forging unity among the diverse polity of Indonesia. Sukarno didn’t succeed in his mission but his struggle is worth appreciation. Obviously, the struggle determines the stature of a leader more than the success.”

Before proceeding further, it seems pertinent to reflect on Sukarno’s early life to furnish the context to his politics of anti-colonialism.

Sukarno was born in eastern Java in 1901 to a Javanese Muslim father and a Balinese Hindu mother. His name came, according to Sukarno in his autobiography, from Karna, a warrior hero in the Mahabharata. In 1916, his father, who was a schoolteacher, arranged for him to attend the Dutch secondary school and to stay with Haji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto, chairman of Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association). Tjokroaminoto’s organisation, established in 1912, was Indonesia’s first nationalist mass movement. By 1921, when Sukarno left for technical college in Bandung, its left-wing had joined the Communist Party (PKI). Sukarno remained, for the time, with Sarekat Islam expressing his views that year in the following manner: “Once the proper conditions come into being and our own parliament ... is achieved, the Sarekat Islam must still not end its activity, but must continue to act for the strengthening of democracy and of Islam in Indonesia, and for the destruction of capitalism.”

To him, unity of the nationalist cause was most important. As for Sukarno’s reference to Islam, his autobiography reveals that he regarded it as representative of a belief in God, “I thought and spoke much about God. Despite our country being predominantly Moslem, my concepts were not rooted solely in the Islamic God.... I did not see Almighty as a personal god. To my way of thinking freedom for mankind included freedom of religion.”

During Sukarno’s studies in Bandung, he was influenced greatly by Dr Tjipto Mangunkusumo and others who campaigned for complete independence from the Netherlands. Soon after graduating in 1928, Sukarno published a three-piece essay in Indonesia Muda (Young Indonesia), the organ of his Bandung Study Group, entitled, “Nationalism, Islam and Marxism” in which he called for close cooperation between the advocates of those political currents in the fight against colonial oppression.

The pattern of thought, circumscribed the chances of his success. Before coming to his sad denouement, I will turn my gaze to his relationship with Pakistan and the unequivocal support Sukarno lent to Pakistan during the 1965 war.

Pakistan’s relationship with Indonesia greatly developed under Ayub Khan. During the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965, Indonesia offered to militarily intervene in the conflict by attacking and seizing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to open up a second front and relieve pressure on Pakistan in Kashmir and the Punjab, which India tried to run over following Operation Gibraltar. There had been a context to Indonesia’s passionate sentiment of friendship with Pakistan.

During the Indonesian National Revolution, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had encouraged Muslim soldiers serving in the British Indian Army to join hands with the Indonesian freedom fighters in their fight against the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia. As a result, around 600 Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army had deserted, putting their lot at stake, and gone to Indonesia to fight. Out of these 600 soldiers, 500 died in the fighting. The survivors either returned to Pakistan or continued to live in Indonesia.

Jinnah also ordered the detainment of the Dutch planes at Karachi air terminal. These had landed there after obtaining permission from Britain. These planes were carrying weapons to Jakarta to enhance the Dutch fortification and arms stockpile in the fight against the Indonesian Republic. Jinnah also sent 100 more Pakistan Armed Forces infantry men to Indonesia to back the guerrilla warfare against the Dutch.

In recognition of the assistance from Pakistani Muslim soldiers, Indonesia presented Independence War Awards to the volunteer fighters and the highest honour of Adipura to Muhammad Ali Jinnah posthumously during the Indonesian Golden Jubilee celebrations of August 17, 1995.

(To be continued)


The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the
Beaconhouse National University, Lahore



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