By Mitali Chakravarty
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is an author-journalist based in New Delhi. He has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper with a circulation of 10 million daily, since July 2018. Khatlani worked in a similar capacity with The Indian Express, India’s most influential newspaper known for its investigative journalism, until June 2018.
Born and raised in Kashmir, he began his career with the now-defunct Bangalore-based Vijay Times in 2005 as its national affairs correspondent. He joined Times of India (TOI), one of the world’s largest selling broadsheets, in 2007. Over the next nine years, he was a part of the paper’s national and international news gathering team as an Assistant Editor. Khatlani has reported from Iraq and Pakistan and covered elections and national disasters. He received a master’s degree in History from prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.
Khatlani is a fellow with Hawaii-based American East-West Center, which was established by the US Congress in 1960 to promote better relations and understanding with Asian, and the Pacific countries through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Penguin in 2020 published Khatlani’s first book, The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan. Eminent academic and King’s college professor, Christophe Jaffrelot, has called the book ‘an erudite historical account… [that] offers a comprehensive portrait of Pakistan, including the role of the army and religion—not only Islam’. In this exclusive, Khatlani talks of his learnings from the journey into Pakistan and his extensive research on these issues.
Your book is about your around a week-long sojourn to Pakistan as a journalist for Times of India. What event were you covering for TOI and which year was this? Was it prior to Modi being elected the PM?
I went to Pakistan in late December 2013 for my first and last trip to that country at the invitation of the World Punjabi Conference for a peace conference in Lahore. This was five months before Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in the summer of 2014 and around the time my former employer—Times of India—was involved in a campaign called Aman ki Asha for promoting greater people-to-people contacts between India and Pakistan for conflict resolution.
How long did it take you to write this book? What kind of research went into it? Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating this book? How and why did you think of writing this book? What was the context and motivation?
I started writing the book in 2014 and kept writing off and on—basically elaborating on my notes and the stories I wrote for the Times of India at that time. A lot of research went into writing the book since Pakistan is a very sensitive subject in India and every argument one makes has to be substantiated properly.
I wrote and rewrote the book several times before it took the final shape in which it has been published. I pitched it for publication twice unsuccessfully before Swati Chopra, then a Penguin editor, found it interesting enough to publish it.
I had made up my mind about writing the book before I actually embarked on the trip. It was meant to be my second book. A book I was earlier writing has not seen the light of day yet. I always wanted to write books and would tell my friends that I have to write one before I turned thirty. That was not to be. I have, however, been able to finally write one before turning forty.
I have always been very curious about Pakistan and wanted to write the book because I thought I have a unique, layered perspective that will make it compelling given the straight jacketed approach towards that country in India. The focus in India on issues that reinforce the same old view of Pakistan has left many compelling stories untold. I wanted to narrate those. Pakistan is a complex country and I thought its complexities were worth exploring in the form of a book.
You have spoken about the RSS, the Muslim League and the religious divide in the 1940s that tore the country into two. Would you hold the British more responsible for the schism in India? Did the schism exist before the advent of the Raj or was the schism created for splitting the country in two?
The writings of RSS’s ideological forefathers during this period unambiguously articulated the organisation’s idea of India with no place for Muslims. The RSS clearly grew in a milieu created also by the British divide-and-rule policy that is well documented and relates to the creation of schisms between Hindus and Muslims to entrench their rule over India. The British did create the Muslim other, the enemy, which the RSS and its myriad affiliates have kept alive to this date with much help from a large section of the Indian media over the last few years.
Do you think splitting countries was a colonial policy in mid-twentieth century? From Malaya, evolved Singapore & Malaysia and Indonesia, which earlier had association with the Malayan kingdom and was handed over to the Dutch in the 1880s. Similarly, in 1950s, as the Americans and Soviets quit Korea — they had North and South blocs. So, which factor played a larger role in the splitting of the Indian sub- continent in 1947 — the historical Hindu and Muslim factions or the divide-and-rule policy of the colonials? Please explain.
The examples you have cited clearly point to a pattern. That so many countries were split in this manner leaves little doubt that it was no coincidence. Imagine how powerful these countries would have been had they been united and without the conflicts that some of them have been involved in and have cost them so much in terms of resources, which could have been used for human development rather that for buying armaments. In India’s case, the split was a result of the fault lines that the British exploited and also the local actors who cooperated for their own myopic interests.
The liberals in Pakistan in your book had hopes on Modi despite his past records. However, most liberals in India seem to differ as the current PM of India rides on an uneducated populist tide. Would you say this sympathy among the educated Pakistanis for him has changed after the religious stand the ruling party in India seems to be taking?
Based on my interactions over the years with those Pakistanis who call themselves liberals, I can say they have been among India’s strongest supporters. They always tended to be hostile to the Kashmir cause and allergic to any sense of ‘Muslimness’. The turn of events in India has left them embarrassed. They really do not seem to know how to react.
The divide between the liberals and rightists in India, the Democrats and Republicans in the US are defined to a superficial eye by the lack of education and wealth. Would you say the same of Pakistan? Do they have a strong right wing among the less privileged? And what kind of stand would this conservative group have towards India?
It is indeed very superficial to conclude that it has anything to do with wealth and education. In India, the wealthiest are among the BJP’s biggest supporters. As for Pakistan, there is a very strong conservative element in its politics with a lot of street power. But it has never translated into any significant electoral gains for the conservatives, who have remained politically marginal. The mainstream political parties that are the mainstay of conservative politics in Pakistan like Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam opposed the creation of Pakistan and the country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The JeI was closer to the Congress rather than Jinnah’s Muslim League.
You have described the Taliban and Bin Laden as Kharijites (seceders), who have ‘emerged in different forms and targeted Muslims since first rebelling against and killing Prophet Muhammad’s companion and third caliph, Usman, in the seventh century’. Can you tell us about Kharijites in a little more detail?
Scholars like Mohamed Bin Ali have cited the Prophet Muhammad prophesies regarding emergence of extremist groups that would lead to the sufferings for the Muslims. For anyone with even basic understanding of the Islamic history, it is clear that the so-called Islamic State (IS), al Qaida and the Taliban are the modern, uglier version of Kharijites. The manner in which the Kharijites killed prophet’s companion Abdullah Bin Khabbab and his wife is similar to how the IS has carried out its brutal and infamous executions.
It is important to note that the Islamic clergy has likened the IS to the Kharijites. It has had a great resonance and played a key role in Iraq’s unprecedented victory over the IS three years after the terror group overran the country in 2014. Iraqi top cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s June 2014 fatwa swelled the ranks of anti-IS volunteer forces. The volunteerism it led to was the turning point in the war on the IS.
Kharijites believe in the idea of takfir and so do groups like the IS. Takfir justifies killings of even fellow Muslims when Islam calls the killing of an innocent person irrespective of one’s religion akin to the killing of the entire humanity. Like Kharijites, groups like the IS rely on superficial, literal, and misinterpretations of Islamic texts.
Mohamed Bin Ali has referred to outward piety of Kharijites and has cited the warning of the Prophet against getting misled by it. The Prophet warned against the rise of those who would appear to be practicing Muslims but their prayers would not get ‘beyond their collar bone’ and who would ‘swerve through Islam just as the arrow passed through the prey’. These prophesies is strikingly true for those who have come to be known ironically as ‘Islamic terrorists’. The Prophet warned there would be young people rebelling with foolish dreams, who would say the best of words but will lack the real understanding of Islam. It has been very evident that the people the IS has attracted have zero knowledge of Islam and have nothing to do with the values it espouses.
Are all terrorists claiming to be Muslim Kharijites? And do they aim as much at Muslims as at other religious groups, like Christians, Hindus, Jews etc?
This can be certainly said about groups like the so-called Islamic State and Al Qaeda, whose mindless violence has been mostly directed against the Muslims. In Pakistan, Taliban did the same thing. The mindless violence like the 9/11 attacks ended up strengthening Islamophobia globally. It has had devastating consequences on Muslims outside the so-called Muslim world. The Muslim genocide in Myanmar and rise of avowedly anti-Muslim Hindutva in India has in part been facilitated by global proliferation of Islamophobia. We have seen open incitement to violence against Muslims in these countries also because of a sense of impunity and dehumanisation of the Muslims that Islamophobia has led to.
What are your future plans? Are you planning any other book?
I am primarily a journalist and journalism has been my dream profession and I intend to continue working as a media professional and also write more and more books.
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