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It’s dark in the middle

A new book offers insights on identity construction in the subcontinent’s middle classes

A new book offers insights on identity construction in the subcontinent’s middle classes

News has not got to us in South Asia yet that nationalism,a disease of the nation-state,is an evil based on a pledge of war. Both leftist and rightist identities lead to totalitarianism,with the rightist one often called fascism. Hannah Arendt told the world how the totalitarianism of Mussolini and Hitler on the one hand,and Stalin on the other,though opposed,shared certain markers of fascism. The high point of conservatism,they say,is fascism,and the high point of liberalism is anarchism. Noam Chomsky,opposed to all kinds of oppression,is an advocate of syndicalist-anarchism.

Markus Daechsel has written a useful thesis about how some of our communal thinkers borrowed from the extreme form of “self-expression” in Europe to highlight their own movements. His book,The Politics of Self-Expression: The Urdu Middle-Class Milieu in Mid-Twentieth Century India and Pakistan (2013),gives us new insights into what happened in South Asia towards the end of the British Raj. Interestingly,he refers to the middle class attracted to this new identity construction as the “Urdu middle class”. (NB: the new middle class in India and Pakistan aggressively embraces nationalism and backs military preparedness.)

Daechsel qualifies his middle class by identifying its most prominent trait: its concentration on consumption as a way of recognising upward movement in society. He avoids equating communal boundary-construction as nationalism,because nationalism is a trait of the nation state. Therefore,“self- expression” seems appropriate to explain two phenomena in India: the RSS and Khaksar.

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The Khaksar movement,kept alive in Pakistan as a once-a-year footpath apparition by the descendants of the founder,Allama Mashriqi,will be surprised by Daechsel’s description of the utopian organisation as a fascist entity. In India,the Sangh Parivar has been described by Indian intellectuals as a fascist organisation; in Pakistan,given the intensely religious environment and apotheosis of jihad,few Pakistanis would even look at the possibility of a “middle class” obsession with extreme “self-expression”,highlighted often on TV by retired military officers speaking with gritted jaws.

Daechsel announces: “This book is a critique of this optimistic way of thinking about the middle class and its politics.” He characterises the phenomenon thus: “There is a valorisation of war and violence,a celebration of boundary experiences and political spectacles,an obsession with paramilitary activity and open sympathy for European fascism and Nazism.” Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay,Dayananda Saraswati and V.D. Savarkar represent Hindu extremist-militant self-expression while among Muslims,Mashriqi equalled Savarkar’s Hindutva with his radical manifesto,“Tazkira”. A follower of Mashriqi nearly killed Jinnah with a knife.

The “anti-societal orientation” was expressed most clearly and overtly in the thought of Inayatullah Khan (1885-1963) (alias Allama Mashriqi,“the Sage of the East”). The book says: “Born in Punjab in a village near Amritsar,he was from a family of moderate wealth but high status pretensions and a long history of service in the colonial government. Mashriqi himself received a scholarship to study mathematics in Cambridge and subsequently pursued a successful career as civil servant and headmaster in various colonial institutions in the North-West of India.”


The Khaksar movement started off with only a few members in Punjab and western UP,mostly from university-educated,“lower-level salariat or artisan backgrounds”. All members of the movement were required “to participate in weekly exercises in uniform,involving paramilitary training. Mashriqi openly acknowledged his debt to foreign models,particularly the German SA and SS,but also the Czech Sokol”.

The Khaksar trademark was the spade (belcha),which was used as a substitute for a gun in parades,but also as a real weapon in street fights and as a tool. “Like Savarkar and other RSS ideologues”,Mashriqi was deeply influenced by radical nationalisms in Europe,particularly by German Nazism. He wrote an admiring introduction in 1935 to an edited and abridged Urdu translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. According to Mashriqi,God’s greatest and most important command,revealed and elaborated in the Quran,is the willingness to endure hardship in pursuit of military glory.

Mashriqi formulated his credo in “Ten Principles”,which later became the core ideology of the Khaksar movement. The first and most important (the others are all variations on industriousness,scientific curiosity and martial organisation) “is the age-old Islamic core doctrine of ‘tawhid’,or absolute belief in one God”. The only true believer is one who is willing to sever all ties with society at large and is ready to become a soldier. In a lengthy and programmatic article in Al Islah,the Khaksar organ,Mashriqi argued that all the practical obligations of Islam were methods to increase the organisational and collective power of the Muslim community,thus giving rise to a “magnificent strength”.


For Mashriqi,this was the ideal in stark contrast to current practice: “In the Muslim family of today,all members strangle each other with inappropriate love and end up crippled. If the members of a nation end up strangled by their daily entanglements and obligations,this can ultimately only lead to the death and decay of the nation as a whole. This is precisely why the Muslims of today are a dying nation. Unlike other living nations who follow God’s eternal commands and nothing else,Muslims have chosen to love worldly things instead of God. The same idea is expressed in ‘Tazkira’ in terms of the conventional Islamic charge against heathenism.”

Mashriqi’s radicalism came out most clearly “in his willingness to push social-Darwinist lines of argument beyond the religiously acceptable”. Mashriqi hated the religious establishment and their (in his eyes) hair-splitting attempts to bring Islamic doctrine in line with modern requirements. But he equally decried Islamic mysticism or the many customs and traditions that formed the daily observances of Muslim community life. Festivals and traditional foods were all part of “the devil of ease and distraction”. He also excoriated Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Muhammad Iqbal.

The author states: “Unlike Savarkar,Mashriqi was not a good tactician ready to absorb prevailing political and religious norms under the umbrella of his own ideology. Despite their close resemblance in organisational set-up,ideological orientation and political style the subsequent histories of the respective movements that the two men helped to found were radically different.” Mashriqi staged his violent protest against the demolition of a mosque in March 1940 in Lahore while the founder of Pakistan Mohamed Ali Jinnah was issuing the roadmap for a new state for Muslims at a nearby venue. Mashriqi bitterly opposed the All-India Muslim League,which was to hijack most of his movement.

Under the spur of what the author calls sado-masochism,Mashriqi “not only prescribed a weekly programme of drill,military exercise and social work,but also insisted on a deliberately harsh regime of corporeal punishments. Smoking without permission and unsatisfactory standards of personal hygiene were seen as grave offences. Anybody who arrived at the weekly training session late was publicly flogged. The stated target of these assaults was the un-martial mental and physical condition produced by everyday life,often described as ‘torpor’ or ‘listlessness’ by authors such as Mashriqi or Ghulam Jilani Barq.”

Mashriqi’s appeal was widespread in India and many prominent Muslims devoted to social work joined the Khaksars. The most well-known among them was ICS officer Akhtar Hameed Khan,the founder of two internationally acclaimed community projects: Orangi Pilot Project,Karachi and Comilla Rural Academy in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Towards the end of his life,Pakistan paid him back by bringing a case of blasphemy against him,pursuing which in Multan hastened his end. Khan had evolved away from the fascism of Mashriqi to his anti-war humanitarianism.


Pakistan’s biggest misfortune was the consistent policy of confrontation with India embraced by its rulers as ideology. When Akhtar Hameed Khan visited General Ayub during the latter’s retirement,the former president admitted his mistake. He said he had abandoned his policy of non-confrontation with India because “almost anyone who mattered in Pakistan insisted that he should conquer Kashmir”.

The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

First published on: 12-11-2013 at 10:31:20 pm
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