June Issue 2008

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 16 years ago

Mention the name Lal Krishna Advani before a Pakistani and most likely you will be greeted with a look of contempt, a shudder, a snort or, most likely, a combination of all three. After a half-century dedicated to serving the cause of Hindutva, this master politician has come to symbolise everything Pakistan dislikes about India, from the burning of the Babri mosque to Kashmir and a host of issues besides. My Country My Life, Advani’s almost thousand-page autobiography, finally gives him a chance to set the record straight. Shame he didn’t grasp that opportunity, choosing instead to focus on trivialities and score-settling.

advani-june08The few words Advani devotes to the destruction of the Babri mosque and his march from Somnath to Ayodhya tend more towards equivocation than illumination. He says that the marchers never intended to break the mosque and delegated Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati to plead with the mob to desist. While that claim can’t be proven one way or the other, it remains beyond any doubt that Joshi and Bharati were photographed celebrating the mosque’s destruction. It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that Advani is talking out of both sides of his mouth when he simultaneously condemns the destruction of the mosque, praises those responsible for the said destruction and maintains that a temple must be built at Ayodhya, come what may.

The Gujarat massacres, which, with some justification, are another sore point with Muslims, are dealt with in an equally brusque manner. A face-saving condemnation is issued and then the whole thing is trivialised. The killings of over 2,000 Muslims are described as the actions of a few “miscreants” and the notorious chief minister Narendra Modi is praised as a man of vision and courage and, most importantly, a loyal BJP foot-soldier. Advani points to Modi’s subsequent re-election as proof that he did nothing wrong, a non-sequitur that fails to make any logical connection between popularity and evidence of criminality.

Pakistanis have also viewed Advani’s stance on Kashmir with a mixture of suspicion and derision. He is widely held responsible for India’s last-minute refusal to ink a peace agreement at the Agra summit in 2001, a view that is confirmed by Advani himself. His intransigence when it came to cross-border terrorism were seen as an indication that he hated Muslims in general and Pakistan in particular. In hindsight, however, this charge is without merit. It turns out Advani was right; peace between the two countries only became a reality when Pakistan vowed to stop infiltration by militants. The fact that it was successfully able to do so, only proves Advani right in his contention that the terrorists were financially and operationally supported by the Pakistan government.

But then Pakistani mistrust of Advani is hardly a surprise, given his vehement opposition to the idea of a separate Muslim homeland carved out of his beloved India. The most passionate paragraphs of My Country My Life are brimming with hatred of the Pakistan Muslim League, which is accused of stoking ethnic violence, cosying up to the British when it was politically convenient and partitioning lands he sees as inseparable: the Punjab and the Bengal.

Even here, there is a bit of a contradiction. Advani, during a visit to Karachi, controversially praised Jinnah’s famous speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, calling it a “classic exposition of a secular state,” a move that almost cost him his political career. While this statement may be true on the face it, Advani, who devotes a whole chapter to the ramifications of his speech, is unable to reconcile it with his earlier denunciations of Jinnah. The contradiction, however, lies more in Jinnah, believes Advani. According to him, the pre-partition Jinnah did indeed flame communal tensions, particularly in his call for a Day of Action in 1946 that led to one of the bloodiest days in India’s history. But the Jinnah of August 1947, the one who had achieved his dream of a Muslim state, could afford to be more tolerant now that the political stakes had been lowered.

One ugly quality that bursts forth from every political criticism Advani issues, from his denunciations of Jinnah to his contempt for the socialist, secular Nehru, is his mistrust of those who are opposed to or only half-heartedly committed to his ideal of Hindutva. Nowhere is this extreme xenophobia more apparent than in his constant references to Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins. She is blasted for taking too long to become an Indian citizen and for having ties to a shady Italian businessman (as opposed to being supported by shady Hindu businessmen, which appears to be just fine in Advani’s book).

Advani’s autobiography is ultimately an important book, not for its literary merit or even for its portrait of a politician with over half a century of experience, but because it shows the mindset behind how secular India got to the point where it was justifying massacres of Muslims and burning of mosques. That mindset might be disturbing to say the least, but it is now viewed as acceptable in India, and for achieving that Herculean political task, Advani deserves both our admiration as well as our wariness

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.

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