In conversation with historian Ayesha Jalal
In 1985 a new book on South Asian history became an overnight sensation in academic and political circles in India, Pakistan, and Britain. Challenging the conventional wisdom on the partition of India, it postulated that the creation of Pakistan was not part of a planned movement but a product of political, administrative, and social realities of the era.The book was The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, and the author was a budding historian of that time, Ayesha Jalal. I was completing my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when she joined its Department of Political Science after her PhD from Cambridge. I was fortunate to listen to her presentations on South Asian issues. Since then, she has become a well-respected scholar on South Asian history and authored several books. Jalal is currently Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University and director of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies. Ayesha Jalal shares her views on South Asian affairs in this conversation, including the Ayodhya verdict, Kashmir, religious orthodoxy, freedom of expression, and the future of democracy in Pakistan.
The Ayodhya verdict
For some historians, including Romila Thapar, former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, the recent Supreme Court verdict on the Babri Mosque seems to be politically motivated. When I asked Ayesha about the future of secularism in India within the context of the latest developments in Kashmir and the Supreme Court verdict on the Babri Mosque, her response was:
“The Ayodhya verdict has undermined the basic premise of secularism in India: the principle of neutrality towards all religious communities. So, yes, it will likely impact the future course of Indian politics, especially relations between various religious communities. It remains to be seen how effective the political fightback will be by those who are genuinely alarmed by the erosion of India’s commitment to the principles and practices of secularism.”
Kashmir has been a source of tension between the two nuclear powers in South Asia. While India defines the issue in terms of terrorism and foreign intervention, for Pakistan, it is essentially a humanitarian problem where the territory has practically become a jail for Kashmiris with the presence of a large number of Indian security forces.
Her analysis of the issue was: “New Delhi sees it as a security issue in the main. But officially Islamabad, too, has had a claim on Kashmir, and its stance has not been limited to humanitarian issues.”
“It may be that Pakistan is now trying to change the general international impression that it has a direct stake in the Kashmir dispute by only emphasising issues of human rights violations,” she articulates.
For her, “the old claims are still being voiced by some quarters that, given virulent Indian propaganda has ensured that Pakistan’s advocacy of Kashmiri self-determination is looked upon by the international community as self-interested rather than one driven by horror at India’s shockingly inhumane treatment of Kashmiris.”
“Democracy is a constant struggle against authoritarianism, and Pakistan too is witnessing that ongoing battle, albeit in a markedly different and less effective form.”
In the aftermath of the Indian annexation of Kashmir as its union territory, diplomatic efforts of Pakistan in raising the dispute internationally have not been as successful. The overall global response was to resolve the issue bilaterally.
According to Ayesha Jalal, when India insists on bilateral talks on Kashmir, it also denies that Kashmiris are a significant party to the dispute. “It is very unlikely that India and Pakistan can be brought to the table and made to arrive at a workable solution without some background prompting and monitoring by leading members of the international community, such as the USA and China,”she insists.
Historically, ethnic and religious communities have been living in the subcontinent for centuries with harmony and peace. But post-colonial South Asia is witnessing religious intolerance, violence against minorities, and majoritarian supremacy at an unprecedented level.
Commenting on this religious divide throughout the region, she says, “With the mantras of neo-liberalism reducing everything to economic value devoid of morality or concern for issues of social justice, not just South Asia but many other parts of the world have witnessed a surge in right-wing authoritarian populism.”
These trends, she pronounces, “have invariably manifested themselves through strident assertions of singular and majoritarian identities with a view to mobilising political support against mostly imagined threats from minorities in their midst. Together with the erosion of the Congress’s support base, these global trends have given a fillip to anti-Muslim rhetoric that is intrinsic to the ideological beliefs of the current incumbent ruling configuration in New Delhi.”
Faith, for the most part, has been targeted as the primary source of inter-religious rivalries and bloodshed. For Ayesha, however, “There is nothing inherently unresolvable about religious differences as far as spiritual or scriptural matters are concerned. It is the politics built around the rhetoric of religious differences that have to be offset with narratives of interfaith harmony but that is only possible if there is an actual desire to replace conflict with dialogue aimed at mutual understanding and social peace.”
Freedom of expression
Curbs on freedom of expression have become a way of life when we look at the ongoing censorship on media contents in India and Pakistan. We can identify historically determined factors in Pakistan where dictatorial regimes have been a powerful source of controlling media outlets. But how can we explain it in India where democratic norms have been strong, and supremacy of civilian governments over the security establishment established?
In her view, “It is the alignment of corporate-owned media houses with the right-wing Hindu government and the securitisation of political dialogue that accounts for the conformity of narratives emanating from the mainstream media in India. This is not to deny that the BJP government, whose aim is to create a centralised Hindu majority state in India is determined to quash dissent by portraying it as anti-national, especially when it comes to such sensitive matters as Kashmir.”
Democracy in Pakistan
Discussing the future of democracy in Pakistan against the backdrop of a tumultuous political past, she seems to be optimistic: “Democracy is a constant struggle against authoritarianism, and Pakistan too is witnessing that ongoing battle, albeit in a markedly different and less effective form than before.
This could change in the future,” she adds, and the nature of that change will be determined by the balance struck by the forces of resistance against authoritarianism and those committed to abject compliance to its diktat.”
From Mohammad Ali Jinnah to Saadat Hasan Manto, Ayesha has come a long way in exploring new dimensions of South Asian history. She is currently working on a book on the Muslim thought process in the subcontinent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is analysing this narrative to examine a more open-minded understanding of how Islam sought to negotiate British rule in the subcontinent, which, according to her, “is self-proclaimed, if contradictory claim, of liberalism.”