DINNER WITH THE NIZAM

During a recent visit to the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad (India), I saw a sepia photograph taken at a dinner party held by the ruling Nizam during the era when India was part of the British Empire.

Some of diners were Indian and others sitting beside them at the table were Europeans, most probably British. All of them have their faces turned towards the camera, but what was going through their minds?

The British at the table, who were probably high ranking colonial officials, and their wives probably believed, as many Europeans did in the past, that they were superior to the Indians. They were most probably outwardly polite to their Indian hosts and fellow diners, but inwardly contemptuous.

The Indians at the table were probably also outwardly civil to their fellow European diners because not only are Indians hospitable by nature but also they knew that the high positions they held in the State of Hyderabad were dependent on being respectful and loyal to the British. However, inwardly I am sure that they regarded the British as inferiors, worthy only of contempt. They felt, I imagine, an innate sense of superiority over their European guests, who unlike them were not members of a royal house.

I wonder whether, apart from the superior British military ability, it was this mutual contempt that ensured an albeit uneasy harmony between the British imperialists and the royal families that ruled the princely states that made up a sizeable portion of the British Indian Empire.

Triumph of the ego

jinnah

Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) saw the realisation of his ambition, the formation  of a sovereign nation for Indian Muslims: Pakistan, a year before he died as its supreme leader. Jinnah was a brilliant barrister and orator. His brilliance is described by Rafiq Zakaria in his book “The Man who divided India“. The author, clearly recognising his subject’s skills, does not rate him highly as an individual. His lucid, well-reasoned text makes this very clear.

At first, Jinnah, who was always attracted to politics, strove for Hindu-Muslim unity/harmony in pre-independence India. Various factors, including his disapproval of the anti-British Khilafat uprisings of India’s Muslims following WW1, led to him being sidelined by both the Indian National Congress and the main Indian Muslim political groupings. This led to him leaving India and establishing a legal practice in London and also attempting (in vain) to become involved in British parliamentary politics. 

Returning to India after a few years in London, Jinnah recommenced his struggle to become prominent in the Indian polical scene. To do this, he abandoned the idea of working for Hindu-Muslim unity for the opposite – the alienation of India’s Muslims. This proved successful. Under his leadership of the Muslim League, he promoted the idea of a separate sovereign state for India’s Muslims by indoctrinating his followers to believe that as the Congress became more powerful and when the British left India, Muslims would be at the very least dominated by the Hindus. By 1947, when the British gave up their hold on India, the formation of Pakistan, a sovereign state for Indian Muslims, was guaranteed.

The formation of Pakistan was associated with mass movements of people: Muslims into Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs out of the newly created country. During this ‘Partition’, there was massive loss of life and much irreversible misery both in Pakistan and India. Furthermore, Pakistan was not one contiguous territory, but two widely separated portions: West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Zakaria describes how Jinnah, the great leader of the  Muslims, was really a very unobservant Muslim. Throughout his life, Jinnah ate pork, enjoyed alcohol, hardly knew the Koran, and never learnt Urdu, the language of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. According to Zakaria, Jinnah did not hold his fellow Muslims in high regard, to put it mildly. It appeared to me while reading the book that Jinnah took advantage of Muslim fears of possible domination by the Hindus to further his ambitions of achieving political prominence, which were indeed successful.

Zakaria uses the last few chapters of his fascinating book to discuss the legacy of Jinnah’s creation, Pakistan. He paints a gloomy picture. Having espoused the idea of the separateness of the Muslims, and promoted the idea that the Indian Muslims were a ‘race’ or ‘nation’ separate from their non-Muslim Indian neighbours, Jinnah, like his hero the Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, decided that Pakistan should become a ‘modern’ secular state rather than some kind of Islamic entity. He wanted to govern Pakistan using the model of British imperialism, which the Indian subcontinent had just freed itself. This has not happened in Pakistan; it is now an Islamic state.

Zakaria emphasises that far from unifying India’s Muslims, Jinnah’s creation of Pakistan has achieved the very opposite. The Muslims of the subcontinent are now divided between Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Many families have members now separated by international borders. Many Muslims in India continue to live with the fear that they are somehow threatened by the Hindu majority in the country.  In addition, within Pakistan itself, different factions of Muslims (Sunnis, Shias, and others) are in permanent conflict with each other. In Bangladesh, there are also problems. And, if that were not bad enough, the political situation in modern Pakistan is extremely unstable and life there is far from peaceful. From what I have read in Zakaria’s interesting and highly readable book, Jinnah’s dream of unifying India’s Muslims has turned into a nightmare.

To conclude, it should be mentioned that Zakaria, an Indian Muslim, has served the Indian Congress Party, which opposed Jinnah in the years before independence,  as a high-ranking official. Despite that, I felt that his book attempts quite successfully to give a balanced view of Jinnah and his politics without concealing his own views.

Thrown out of a library

When she was about two years old, our daughter dressed in a unisex romper outfit, rushed into the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. An elderly gentleman conducted her back to the entrance of the bar, saying: “You can’t come in here yet, young man. You’ll have to wait until you’re twenty one.”

My wife explained that our child is a girl. The gentleman replied: “In that case, my dear, you will never be able to enter the Men’s Bar.”

The Bangalore Club was founded by British officers in 1868 at the time when Mahatma Gandhi was born in faraway Gujarat. Until after about 1945, women were not allowed into the main Club House. There was a separate annexe reserved for women. And until 1947, with the exception of servants and a very few high ranking military officers, no Indians were permitted to enter any part of the Club.

The Bangalore Club and many other similar still existing colonial era clubs in India maintain many of the old-fashioned rules that applied in elite clubs in the UK. For many years, men could only enter the Club House at the Bangalore Club wearing ‘proper’ shoes, not sports shoes or sandals. Now, sandals are allowed providing they have a back strap around the ankle.

Once, I stayed at the Kodaikanal Club deep in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Dress code seemed to be non-existent there until I stepped into the club’s small library. Within a few seconds, a member of the library staff escorted me out of the library. I was wearing sandals. I was told that one could only enter the library if formal leather shoes were being worn.

Well, if you join a club, you should respect its rules however idiotic they might seem. Vide the UK and the EU.

As time moves on, rules change. A couple of years ago , for reasons best not explored here and they were nothing to do with gender equality, women were permitted to enter and use the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. Since that date, the formerly masculine sanctuary has been renamed “The Bar”.

The old gentlemen who evicted our daughter from the Men’s Bar is probably no longer alive. I wonder what he would have thought when his prediction proved to be wrong. Let’s finish by raising a glass to his memory.