Saturday, November 9, 2019


Title: Heroines – Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History
Author: Ira Mukhoty
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2017 (First)
ISBN: 9789384067496
Pages: 211

Women have historically been relegated to a subsidiary role in historical narrative where kings and nobles followed a one-to-many relationship with the females in their harems until quite recent times. This naturally reduced the power and influence of women as they had had to compete with other wives, mistresses and slaves for the lord's attention. There are noble exceptions to this general rule and this book details the lives of eight women from India's past who had won for themselves the aura of immortality on account of their steadfast determination and strength of character. The eight women chosen are: Draupadi, Radha, Ambapali, Razia bint-Iltutmish, Mirabai, Jahanara Begum, Rani Lakshmibai and Begum Hazrat Mahal. The author has an excellent answer to those who frown on the inclusion of two mythic characters in the list – Draupadi and Radha. This is because history blends into mythology and vice versa in the Indian context. The history of Rani Lakshmibai is embellished with colourful lore to make her a semi-divine personage no longer bound by the physical limitations inherent in mortal beings. Making the horse jump with her adopted son tied to her back from the ramparts of Jhansi fort to the ground below is one such example. The logic in selecting them is clear cut – all women share an unassailable belief in a cause for which they are willing to fight and they refused to borrow a man's prerogative – whether a father's, husband’s or son’s. Mukhoty is a popular writer who had developed an interest in the evolution of mythology and history and its relevance to the status of women in India. She has written for magazines on culture and travel.

This book’s evaluation of Rani Lakshmibai is patently unfair and merciless. The author assigns the dubious epithets of an ‘accidental heroine’ and ‘reluctant participant in the drama that made her a heroine’ (p.146). Mukhoty explains the reasons for this strange judgement of a nationally loved historical personality. She points out the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ put in place by Lord Dalhousie as soon as he became the Governor General of India. This policy sought to remove all travesty of self-governance of princely states whose ruler died without a legal heir to succeed him. In the case of hereditary ancestral kingdoms, adoption of an heir was permitted. As far as Jhansi was concerned, the deposed Peshwa of Pune conceded all his territorial claims in Bundelkhand to the British in 1817. The ruling Navalkar family signed a separate treaty with the East India Company, who recognised Ram Chand Rao as its ruler. Gangadhar Rao, Lakshmibai's husband, followed him to the throne. He was a transvestite and no children were born to him. He adopted the five-year old Damodar Rao on his death bed. So, on a close examination of the finer nuances of law, it may be argued that the British were right in denying the continued enjoyment of the throne to the adopted son, which is exactly the attitude the author assumes.

The author’s attacks on the Rani of Jhansi don't stop there. She concedes the Rani’s bold decision of not shaving her head and declining renouncement of her pearls and diamonds on the death of her husband. She sometimes dressed like a man, argued with men, rode horses and wielded the sword. This was revolutionary for the time and quiet unthinkable activities for a woman. Rani Lakshmibai explored all avenues open to her as part of the British judicial system to argue her case and win the control of her principality. For this purpose, she hired the services of a maverick lawyer named John Lang. The reception accorded to Lang is given in great detail in the book which is however clearly intended only to tarnish the queen’s repute in nationalist chronicles. Mukhoty claims that Lang was brought from Agra in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by the Diwan of Jhansi and a butler carried a bucket of ice containing water, beer and wine all the way. A servant stood outside the palanquin on a footboard and fanned the men with a punkha. The constant appeals and entreaties made by Lakshmibai to the British are also projected in an unfavourable light. As a parting shot, the author claims that she had no option but to fight the British after the massacre of innocent men, women and children of British origin at Jokhun Bagh under her watch. No clemency could be expected from the Europeans for such a heinous deed.

Mukhoty’s criticism of Rani Lakshmibai is propelled by the high renown she enjoys in nationalist circles. While she knocks about the Rani unceremoniously, her encounter with Begum Hazrat Mahal is with kid gloves. The Begum of Lucknow is, no doubt, a great leader of the 1857 war of independence, but the author’s arguments against the Rani are equally applicable against the Begum too. She had even threatened her soldiers that if they don't fight enough, she will negotiate with the British to spare her life (p.162). The Rani fought the British and fell in the battlefield while the Begum fled to Nepal on a tacit agreement with the British. She tried to come back later in life, but her appeals were rejected. One crucial point to be noted here is that this comparison is in no way meant to degrade the role of Begum Hazrat Mahal. On the contrary, it is included to highlight the similarities in the parts played by these two brave women for the country. It is the author who picks one among the great stalwarts of the Independence movement for making a disreputable attack.

This book does not promote nationalism of a more intense kind, but in the early part of the book, she notes a general disregard about the country’s heroes and heroines from every historical period. She nearly taunts the countrymen for continuing names such as Havelock and Neill for islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago who were British military generals who had brutally put down the 1857 uprising. Vishnu Bhatt Godse was a traveller and chronicler of the 1857 war, but the book uses the spelling ‘Godshe’ as if to pre-empt any confusion with the person who assassinated Gandhi. The book does a great service by omitting Indira Gandhi from the list. Even though she deserves to be there on account of the impact of her rule of post-independent India, it is better to leave her out, because most of that impact was detrimental to the nation as a whole.

The book is recommended.

Rating: 3 Star

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum

Title: Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum
Author: Tilak Devasher
Publisher: HarperCollins India, 2019 (First)
ISBN: 9789353570705
Pages: 358

Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan, rich in minerals and natural gas. By area, it constitutes almost half of Pakistan's landmass, but it is so scarcely populated that they form only six per cent of the nation’s headcount. What marks Balochistan out from the other provinces is the strong and recurring current of rebellion against the federal government. Balochis assert that they have been amalgamated to Pakistan forcefully, against their will, and allege that the Centre is interested only in exploiting the natural resources of the province. Several rounds of violent struggles were staged by the Baloch people against the Pakistani state that is controlled by the army. The military confuses the armed struggle as a law and order issue rather than as a political protest. Consequently, the Baloch people are subjected to brutal repression of the worst kind, with no avenues open for an amicable settlement. The Pakistani state is also worried about the prospect of Balochistan becoming independent, like what Bangladesh did in 1971. The army wants to avoid such an outcome at any cost, as they clearly know that their nation, founded on the glue of religion, would crumble to dust if one more province is to cede from the union. The ongoing repression in Balochistan is proving to be a stumbling block for commissioning of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) funded by China in its ambitious scheme of expanding trade and commerce in Asia. This book examines the issues related to Baloch integration to Pakistan and what it holds in future for the nation. Tilak Devasher took to writing after he retired as special secretary to the government of India in 2014. He is the author of two widely acclaimed books on Pakistan. During his professional career, he specialized in security issues pertaining to India’s neighbourhood. He is currently a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) of India.

Devasher begins by providing a good background of Balochistan’s accession to Pakistan. Muslim League had no significant presence in the province and no Baloch had attended the 1940 Lahore Declaration of the party that unequivocally demanded a separate homeland for Indian Muslims on the guiding principle that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations cohabiting inside the frontiers of India. Muslim majority provinces were lukewarm to the idea at first. The princely state of Kalat, which formed the bulk of present-day Balochistan declared independence in August 1947 opting not to join either India or Pakistan. As a consequence, the spectre of communal riots connected to Partition didn't touch the province. Under the constitution promulgated by the Khan in 1947, five Hindus were elected to the 52-member lower house of Dar ul-Awan. Kalat legally enjoyed an independent status similar to Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. It also didn't join the Chamber of Princes formed in Delhi by the rulers of Indian princely states under the British power. Jinnah’s patience ran out by March next year and on 27 March 1948, the Pakistan army invaded and annexed Kalat. Even in the neighbouring British Balochistan, only eight out of the forty-three members of the Shahi Jirga had supported accession to Pakistan. The forced occupation of Balochistan thus ended the Baloch ownership of their homeland and turned them into a marginal ethno-linguistic minority of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s suppression of the Baloch psyche is multi-pronged – political, cultural and physical. This book analyses each in good detail. Pakistan was always dominated and controlled by Punjab. Devasher claims that it is indeed a Punjabi empire subjugating other nationalities. In 1955, Balochistan was merged to the ‘One Unit’ structure of West Pakistan. This took away whatever little autonomy it enjoyed till then. This was a clever Punjabi attempt to combine the ethnically diverse provinces of West Pakistan into one administrative entity to offset East Pakistan’s rising influence, which was ethnically homogeneous and numerically larger. Convinced of the futility of integration, the provinces were again separated in 1970. The step-motherly attitude extended to Baloch language and culture is shocking and puts any civilized country to shame. Pakistan has not allowed Balochi to be the language of instruction at the primary level in schools. As claimed in the book, it is taught only at the Master’s level at Balochistan University.

The author points out the reasons for alienation of the province in sufficient detail. Balochistan is underrepresented in the political, bureaucratic and at the military level. The average constituency size in Punjab is 1,388 sq. km while it is 24,799 sq. km in Balochistan. Even after adjusting for the sparse distribution of population, this skewed ratio is glaring. In the Bhutto period, out of the 40,000 civil servants, only 2,000 were Baloch and most of them were in the lower rungs. The army is the most powerful institution in Pakistan. All others stay in power only as long as the army wills them to do so. The absolute power of the army can be seen in its infamously orchestrated shooting down of Mir Ghulam Murtaza Bhutto, the brother of the then reigning Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1996. After putting the blame of the police encounter on the sister, she was summarily dismissed from office a month later. The army is seventy per cent Punjabi and fifteen per cent Pashtun. There are only a few hundred Baloch in the entire Pakistan army. Adding insult to injury is the famous Baloch Regiment that has no Baloch in its rolls. The Baloch rose up in a series of insurgencies in the years 1948, 1958, 1962, 1973-77 and the latest one which began in the early-2000s which is still raging. The army is ruthless in crushing political leaders. It had bulldozed 13,000 acres of almond plantations owned by Sher Mohammed Marri for voicing against the army’s script.

There are people in Pakistan who compare the province of Kashmir in India that is claimed to be undergoing the same level of repression as in Balochistan. The fallacy of this argument is clear from the facts given in the book. Kashmir is not a natural resource-rich state and India has no material advantage in keeping them within its fold, but Balochistan is different. It is a surplus producer of electricity. The power produced there is tapped for use in other provinces. Moreover, poor provincial grid design ends up in load shedding of up to twelve hours’ duration in regions other than Quetta. The Gwadar port is being developed as a maritime outlet for products flowing from Western China, but operations are already handed over to China for forty years. The Baloch is denied any revenue till 2048. Due to this discrepancy, many in Balochistan believe the CPEC to be in fact the China Punjab Economic Corridor. The province provides practically all the oil and natural gas produced in Pakistan.

‘Enforced disappearance’ is a tactic used by the Pakistan army to silence dissenting Balochis. The author cites numerous instances and the military logic behind this cruel policy. Enforced disappearance, or extra-judicial abduction, is the clandestine arrest of activists whose whereabouts would be hidden even from judicial scrutiny. They will invariably be mercilessly tortured and if they die in the process, the mutilated bodies would be unceremoniously dumped in the open. This has turned the province into a boiling cauldron of ethnic, sectarian, secessionist and militant violence. The number of such disappearances runs into several thousands while the security agencies are answerable only to the army or ISI chief.

The true spirit of the Baloch freedom struggle is reflected in the book’s narrative. The essence of the national struggle is the assertion that the Baloch have their separate cultural, social and historical identity which is markedly different from the fundamentalist ideology of the religious-based state of Pakistan. The federal government is injecting jihadism in the province to strengthen the religious bond that binds them together. The weakest link in the program of achieving liberty is the low demographic pattern in the state. The Baloch are spread around the province in 22,000 settlements that range from the capital city of Quetta to small hamlets having less than 500 houses. To add to the complexity, the Baloch society is structured around dominant tribes who continue to harbour animosity against other tribes even in the face of external aggression. Earlier, insurrections were led by tribal leaders in their strongholds. In the latest face of the struggle, this is taken over by educated middle class youth along nationalist lines.

This book makes an overt comparison of Balochistan with Bangladesh in 1971 and discusses the probability of its eventual success in its desperate bid to break free from Pakistan. Bengalis were relatively homogeneous, had a significant middle class, a well-established cultural and literary life, a standardized language, a broad base of nationalist activists and a history of mass politicisation that dated back to the struggle against the British Raj. On the other hand, Baloch nationalist movement was built on uncertain social and cultural foundations of a fragmented tribal society that had only a minuscule middle class, widespread illiteracy, underdeveloped literature, narrow base of nationalist activists and no real history of mass participation in the political process. Besides, India does not openly back them and Iran and Afghanistan are indifferent to the idea of a free Balochistan apprehensive of the loyalty of Baloch areas inside their national boundaries. Only a united effort by the people of the province, backed by the financial muscle of its diaspora stands any chance of success.

The book is written based on the material available only from secondary sources and periodicals. A lot of facts, figures and tables are included. Arguments based on numerical ratios appear to be nit-picking. It is doubtful whether the author has ever visited Balochistan before writing such an ‘authentic’ work. It includes no bibliography. Repetition of ideas in some places taxes the readers’ interest.

The book is highly recommended.

Rating: 3 Star

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Magdalene in the Reformation

Title: The Magdalene in the Reformation
Author: Margaret Arnold
Publisher: The Belknap Press, 2018 (First)
ISBN: 9780674979994
Pages: 300

Mary Magdalene’s legacy is a contested one between the clergy, laity and the common public. She has been accorded the status of a saint by the church. Her cult continues to motivate nuns of the Catholic Church and fires up the imagination of the lay followers as evidenced by the immensely successful thriller The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown whose central theme revolves around a chase for the Holy Grail with strong links to the Magdalene. The New Testament states that the resurrected Christ made his first appearance to her and instructed to carry the good news to his own apostles. In this sense, she is called Apostola Apostolarum (Apostle of the Apostles). After the resurrection, she was believed to have crossed the sea over to France and carried out evangelisation there. In the time of the Reformation in which the Western Church was split into two, the Lutherans opposed the moral degradation in the church and the apotheosis of the saints. However, the members of each of the faith traditions that emerged from the age of reform considered Mary Magdalene an ideal for women and for people of faith in general. This book describes the impact of Mary Magdalene in the turbulent times of Reformation and how her legacy contributed to the development of women's emancipation. Margaret Arnold is associate rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. She received her PhD in religious and theological studies from Boston University.

Arnold follows development of the life and message of the Magdalene in some detail. She appears in all four gospels. She was a Galilean follower of Jesus whom he had healed of seven demons and who thereafter supported his ministry. She was present at the Crucifixion and was the first witness of his rising from the dead. In addition to the above, her role was made coincident with Mary of Bethany who anointed Christ with costly unguent and the sexual sinner who repented before Christ. The Magdalene cult had developed a rich legend over the course of 1500 years of the Christian tradition even though clearly descriptive material about her is lacking in the New Testament. Mediaeval theologians’ focus was on her conversion from sexual sin to a piety of extreme penitence and devotion to the sacraments.

Recognition of Mary Magdalene’s later life provided and impetus to Christian tradition of Europe. Papal recognition of Vezelay Abbey in Burgundy as the site of her relics dates from 1050 CE. By 1279, the shrine of Mary Magdalene at Saint-Baume was elevated to this status and Vezelay declined. In this sense, the saint commanded a larger devotion from believers than warranted by her clout in the biblical narratives. She was made the patroness of convents and homes for reformed prostitutes, beginning in the twelfth century. The Magdalene was supposed to have converted the pagans in France, but there was a touch of paganism that came to be associated with her legend. Moreover, the saint was a relatively accessible figure for common women in contrast to Virgin Mary who enjoyed a quasi-divine status in Catholic theology with such lofty ideas such as Immaculate Conception and Assumption associated with her.

This book is not a primary reference on Reformation. It just assumes that it took place and does not pose to elucidate the major points of contention between it and Catholicism. The differences are then explained in the perspective of factors related to the Magdalene. The principal aim of Reformation theologians was the re-interpretation of biblical texts to express the evangelical gospel – the message of salvation by faith alone. This attack on the importance of clergy in the papal system opened up a chasm between the two beliefs that could never be reconciled. Luther advanced a theology of the priesthood of all believers. Choice of Mary Magdalene as the first preacher of the resurrection served Luther’s aim of promoting active evangelism by the laity. Luther’s frequent comparison of the Magdalene to Peter in his sermons reassured his followers that they are equal recipients of grace. It also served the purpose of undermining the traditional primacy of Peter among the saints and provided a subtle attack on papal authority.

Arnold fails to utilise the chance of tracing out the birth of women empowerment in the civilized world. She has identified some rudiments of the early movements, but leaves it in a half-baked way without drawing definite conclusions or inferences. A fillip to women's education was provided by the stress given by Reformation leaders on the use of local languages for liturgical purposes in place of the monopoly of Latin. The sixteenth century marked an increase in women's access to the Bible, newly available in vernacular translation and in comparatively affordable print editions that made their way into homes and schools. Even though the physical constraints had eased somewhat, the mental restrictions imposed by the traditionally male-dominated society that quoted a few verses of the New Testament to buttress their argument, remained in place. Saint Paul declared in his epistle to the Corinthians that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands athome; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church (1 Cor 14:34-35). Women had been forbidden to read the scriptures aloud in male hearing, an offense for which some had been arrested. Early scholars of the Reformation didn't relent much. Luther concluded that women may speak only where there is no man in authority over them, that is, unmarried women in their own homes!

True reformation trumps over what is said and done till that point in its fight for an idea whose time had arrived. The book presents the thread of women empowerment passing through many movements and schools of thought. Apart from Luther and Calvin, later scholars laid a foundation in Protestantism for the public ministry of women, based on Mary Magdalene’s preaching of the good news of Christ’s resurrection to the apostles themselves. The next generation saw lessening anxiety in society on women's preaching and greater appreciation for the role of women in defending reform, as it came under increasing attack. This provided a spur to early modern Catholic women, both lay and religious, to take up the subject of the Magdalene, writing about her life and expressing their devotion in prayer, music and visual art. The book contains some interesting portrayals of the saint produced in this period. However, aristocratic women’s loyalty was not clear cut. They were less politically fraught than those of their male counterparts, except in the case of monarchs like Mary I or Elizabeth I. Evangelical societies involving women teaching and preaching helped make new vocations for women acceptable to their society. Arnold lists out the dramatic productions and musical compositions of this genre. Women sometimes actually performed as the saint herself, speaking their own words with her authority.

This book is a product of extensive and fine research of literary material produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The author skilfully explores the text of medieval compositions, especially by female authors and its reception and influence in their immediate Catholic and Protestant contexts. The text is slightly thick for the taste of ordinary readers. The conclusion included at the end of the text neatly summarises all arguments and points made in the main narrative body. The book’s cover, showing a portrait of Mary Magdalene made by the Italian Renaissance painter Piere di Cosmo circa 1501 CE captivates the attention of readers for the elegant beauty envisioned in the sleek figure of the saint.

The book is highly recommended.

Rating: 3 Star