Speech by Anwar Ibrahim at the launching of MJ Akbar’s Tinderbox, on 2nd October 2012, The Royal Lake Club, Kuala Lumpur
MJ Akbar is an outstanding author and journalist; albeit piercing, critical and controversial. I recount Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remark to me about MJ’s sharp rebuke against the government and that I’m fortunate to be kindly treated by him.
I would like to place in record my appreciation to him and India Today for inviting me to participate in the prestigious India Conclave International Conference in Delhi early this year.
First, let me just say that there is never a dull moment when reading MJ Akbar. He can be diplomatic if he wants to, but most of the time he doesn’t tolerate fools. So, he will call a Taliban, a Taliban – and not some ‘turbaned fundamentalist of salafist persuasion’, or by some other apologetic description.
Reviewing MJ Akbar’s books is, however, a different kettle of fish. Yes, he’s never dull but because he seems to have so much to say, speed reading him is quite a futile exercise. Just keeping up with his thought processes sometimes requires mental energy of herculean proportions.
Most mortals will consider themselves very fortunate to have one of two talents: one, to have the gift of the gab but lacking in writing skill; and the other, the more common one I should say, writes well but for some reason or other, somewhat challenged in the verbal skills department. MJ Akbar is blessed with both: well, certainly no question he is a superb writer but give him the microphone, and he’ll talk until the cows come home. (My apologies, I forgot that since the breaking of that scandal, any reference to ‘cows, beef or even butter’ may be considered seditious!)
So, I’m very much relieved today that I am not here to review his works. Indeed, it is such an honour for me that MJ has asked me to launch Tinderbox. And having declared my incapacity to review his writings, I therefore now exercise my severe limitations merely to share some thoughts about his works.
I have followed MJ Akbar’s books as a continuum – from Byline, then Nehru: The Making of India, and Kashmir: Behind the Vale, just to name a few. Notice that I used the word ‘followed’, and not ‘read’.
And I believe herein lies a significant difference. One may have ‘read’ a book or be a ‘reader’ and yet may not be keen to read another one, while one who has ‘followed’ wears the badge of loyalty to the writer – as far as his books are concerned.
He displays it prominently in his library, proudly proclaiming that he is in the know about such and such a book. When a new one comes up, he will be among the first to tell his friends about it and ask whether they know that a new book is out. He has ‘read’ it, of course, – but not necessarily ‘read it through’. He visits the tome as and when the occasion arises.
He takes it with him in his travels. Now, speaking of travelling, it depends on where one is going. For instance, if you plan to visit the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan then for heaven’s sake don’t take Tinderbox with you. The Jamaat must be given credit for their call for political legitimacy for democratic rule; Islamic awareness and societal reform
Now, this book: I’m not sure if the reading leads us to the dark conclusion that Pakistan is in self-destruct mode. But I’m sure that not everyone will agree that Pakistan is simply beyond repair. The failure of corrupt political leaders and poor governance must not necessarily be attributed to the State or its citizens! Nevertheless, I believe it is legitimate to explore answers to the question: why is Pakistan in the situation it is today? What is the situation really? Well, that is the question discoursed in the book, among other things.
The book is said to be controversial. But as we know, controversy is not something a writer worth his salt ought to be shy of. The title obviously gives quite a bit away. It’s not for me to talk too much about this book, but suffice it to say that whether you call it time bomb, powder keg or tinderbox, there is some explosive stuff being talked about.
So for those who are thinking of a light and easy read, this is probably not for them. It is neither fiction nor drama where poetic license allows the writer to spice things up and we are prepared to engage in some suspension of disbelief. To my mind, it is a political treatise on a subject by someone well versed in its history and divergent ideologies. And as T.S. Eliot says, “History may be servitude, History may be freedom.”
And speaking of freedom, I would of course be remiss if I didn’t mention Pakistan’s great leader (Quaid-i-Azam), Muhammad Ali Jinnah who is without doubt universally acclaimed as pivotal in the creation of Pakistan. Just about six months before he passed on, he said: “The story of Pakistan, its struggle and its achievement, is the very story of great human ideals, struggling to survive in the face of great odds and difficulties.” This is relevant to encapsulate the spirit of the struggle for Pakistan.
Now, this latest outing by MJ Akbar will put him in the cross hairs of quite a few people and be that as it may, I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. But make no mistake: if you need an intellectual wakeup call on an issue that not only impacts the sub-continent but the entire region, this is your book.