(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)
I read books about Pakistan with great interest. As an Indian, they help me cut through the jingoism of the present moment and connect with a shared historical, cultural and geographical landscape going back thousands of years. While the act of reading cannot heal old wounds between countries, it can certainly soothe people like myself who thrive on the hope that things will get better one day.
Bahawalpur: The Kingdom that Vanished, written by a British woman named Anabel Loyd, promises to nourish the curiosity of readers interested in a part of Pakistan that is rarely celebrated in the way Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta and Chitral are. However, this book is not a people’s history. It is based on the author’s conversations with Salahuddin Abbasi, grandson of Sadiq Muhammad Khan V — the last ruler of Bahawalpur — a princely state that chose to merge with Pakistan rather than India after the Partition of 1947.
Abbasi was born on 29 July 1946, just a year before, in the western Himalayas at Al-Hilal, the summer house among the tea gardens of Palampur built by his grandfather in the 1930s. Loyd interviewed him over several weeks in 2016 to learn about the history of his state and his family against the backdrop of political upheaval in Pakistan. “He hoped, by telling his story to a foreigner who started with an open mind and scant knowledge of Pakistan, let alone of the Abbasi family, to avoid the whole spectrum of shades of truth and points of view that colour and reinterpret any Pakistani tale,” she writes.
Abbasi holds the mullahs and the military equally responsible for the corruption and decay that has seeped into Pakistani society, and also led to the destruction of his family heritage. Loyd is surprised to find that the sprawling family tree in Bahawalpur that used to exist 100 years ago has now been reduced to “a handful of aunts, uncles, warring cousins of closer or more distant kinship, all claiming some part of the broken Bahawalpur estate.” When Bahawalpur acceded to Pakistan, the latter gained not only an operational welfare state but also a well-resourced army, agricultural wealth and a large amount of funds. However, if this book is anything to go by, Bahawalpur did not receive much in return.
Though Loyd digs out stories of Bahawalpur’s princes from old records, letters and the accounts of British travellers and civil servants, her narrative lens is largely shaped by her sympathy for Abbasi. She feels sorry “that Bahawalpur had vanished from the map so far as at least as foreigners were concerned, behind the borders of an unexplored and potentially perilous Pakistan.” However, her concern is difficult to relate to because it focuses only on the faded glory of the Bahawalpuri elite “as the state was absorbed into the Punjab,” and not on the hardships faced by the subjects in the kingdom. I wish she had moved beyond talking about “glamorous nawabs, fleets of Rolls-Royces and remarkable palaces lost to view.”
Abbasi, we are told, is the sixty-second in a lineage that can be tracked back through the Abbasid caliphs of Cairo and Baghdad to Al Abbas Ibn Abdul al Muttalib, uncle of Prophet Muhammad. Why does this matter? Claiming Arab ancestry became a way to legitimize one’s stature among fellow Muslims, and indicate closeness to the roots of Islam. Abbasi’s grandfather renamed his capital Baghdad-ul-Jadid, and also adopted a “courtly headgear to express his family loyalty to the Ottoman caliphate.” The grandson continues to wear it to this day.
Instead of dismissing this as trivia, the reader can use this information to understand how the theory of the divine right of kings was incorporated within an Islamic framework. It also points to the ongoing tension within Pakistani society. On the one hand are people who believe that “the foundations of Pakistan go back to the earlier history of Arab Muslim arrival in India, first through trade into Sindh and then through the conquest in 712 CE, by Muhammad bin Qasim.” On the other side are the more secular-minded whose origin story is pinned on Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speech from 14th August 1947 wherein he spoke of religious freedom, rule of law, equality for all, and an inclusive and impartial government.
Loyd writes, “Pakistan has turned its face increasingly towards a medieval religious ideal. It attempts to destroy or envelop the diverse culture, individualism, liberality, education and colour of this part of the subcontinent in the burka of religious conformity according to the most puritanical interpretations of sharia.” The burka metaphor is troubling because it harks back to the trope of the white Christian woman trying to save the brown Muslim woman without fully understanding how the latter negotiates her everyday existence.
However, I do not think that the author is being Islamophobic. There is tremendous political backing within Pakistan for scripting an Islamic history that wipes out the Hindu and Buddhist past of the country. Indians do not have much to gloat over in this respect because the project of scripting a Hindu history for India that deprives Muslims, Christians, Dalits and adivasis a rightful place is well underway. “In 2017, Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government amended the Enemy Property Act to include Pakistani citizens and their legal heirs even if they are Indian citizens,” writes Loyd.
This review would be incomplete without taking a moment to call out the author’s orientalist gaze, however unconscious it maybe. Speaking of her plans to visit the region she wanted to write about, Loyd says, “Now I imagined a desert quest. An expedition, possibly involving camels, in search of Derawar and the further crumbling links of fortifications once intended to protect India’s wealth.” Instead of thinking about the place in terms of the people who live there, she reduces it to a tourist destination. Sample this: “The vast panoply of cultures, religions and unvisited treasures to be rediscovered…Baluchistan and Kalat, names of wild imaginings in Edwardian diaries.” Ugh!