HIDDEN HISTORIES OF PAKISTAN: Censorship, Literature, and Secular Nationalism in Late Colonial India by Sarah Fatima Waheed. Cambridge University Press, 2022.

In Hidden Histories of Pakistan: Censorship, Literature, and Secular Nationalism in Late Colonial India, Sarah Fatima Waheed’s examination of the writings of left-leaning Urduphone intellectuals reveals how their complex engagements with socialism, modernity, and Islam gave shape to new conceptions of selfhood and ethics. These, in turn, resulted in a crisis of ethics that led to charges of blasphemy, obscenity, and sedition being levelled against them. Consequently, this book is equally about the legal cases that a number of leading left-leaning intellectuals were implicated in both in colonial India and the independent states of India and Pakistan. The trials are used as foils to a broader understanding of how figures like Sajjad Zaheer, Saadat Hasan Manto, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Rashid Jehan were challenging the norms of upper-middle class ashraf Muslims as well as the moral-legal and political apparatus of states.

The book has four major chapters each exploring a particular historical case focusing on the emergence of a specific text and the forms of censorship imposed upon it. The first deals with the charges of obscenity and blasphemy that were filed against the authors of the controversial text, Angare (Burning Embers), which was published and banned in 1932. It is worth noting that this text continues to be banned. It is argued that the uproar against it was generated by upper-middle class anxieties about the rise of new conceptions of ethics and selfhood. The next chapter studies the obscenity charges filed against Saadat Hasan Manto. These, it is asserted, reflected Muslim middle class disdain over public discussions of sexuality that were influenced by Victorian notions of morality. The focus of the next chapter is on Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s repeated detentions in Pakistan and the string of conspiracy charges brought against him and his left wing compatriots by the state. The final chapter surveys the work of feminist poets in 1970s and 1980s Pakistan, the patriarchal structures embedded within Urduphone intellectual spaces themselves, and feminist politico-literary transformations in Pakistan.

Three broad themes run through the book: the emergence of new norms of ethical self-fashioning; the positioning of left-leaning Urdu literature as a counter-discourse; and the complex relations between Islam, socialism, and communism in the writings of various figures. The book makes an important contribution to the available historiography of Urdu literature and modern Muslim discourse by demonstrating that publications like Angare marked the emergence of a new self-representation and ethics. One that strongly denounced the sexual politics of the conservative middle classes and mocked religious and political authority within north Indian Muslim society. Such an ethics developed within a context wherein there were new formulations of the relations between politics and self-expression, and inner-worlds and politics. Waheed asserts that the call for the text to be proscribed was at its core due to concerns on the part of the middle classes about their norms of ethics, social etiquette, and respectability being challenged.

The early 20th century was also a period that witnessed extensive debates over the ideal form of education for Muslims. These were often debates by and on education for the ‘respectable’ sections of society and focused not only on the types of institutions necessarily but also on ideal forms of literature. The uproar over the publication of Angare should, thus, also be seen in the light of concerns over the impact of literature on mentalities and comportment. Such concerns were, no doubt, partly influenced by Victorian notions of morality and ideas on the role of education.

As Waheed notes, in the writings of left-leaning intellectuals, new forms of self-expression also encapsulated a new programme for social justice. Their writings expanded the focus beyond the ashraf and called for the liberation of ordinary people from socio-economic inequalities. The themes of justice and equity were prominent in such works. Thus, the writings of left-leaning Muslim intellectuals are located within the context of a new public sphere and new assertions of the role of literature. For instance, it is highlighted that Manto defended his writings in court by repeatedly asserting that it was the role of the writer to reflect the injustices prevailing in society. More broadly, it is suggested that the writings of left-leaning figures be approached as a counter-discourse to the colonial state, middle class hegemonic discourses, and the official histories of Pakistan.

The point on literature as a means of social action is important. With regards to this, Waheed could have discussed the difference between the jadidiyat (modernist) and progressive writers over the role of literature and the models to be adopted that came to the fore from the 1940s. The former called for a new aesthetic but differed from the latter who were inspired by Soviet realism and strove to employ literature as an active medium to shape ideological, political, and social developments. Given that not all the figures that are studied in this book fit into neat socio-political categories, a deeper analysis of their views on the role and future of literature would have been interesting. It would also have been useful to examine the work of some of the figures – especially Manto – in the light of the boom in commercial publishing and the emergence of the printed text as an important form of entertainment. Francesca Orsini has demonstrated that the latter led to important and, sometimes, controversial shifts in the topics and genres being published.

Throughout the book, attention is drawn to how Islamic thought, expressions of being Muslim, and socialist writings were intermeshed and crucial to the self-formation of left-leaning intellectuals. It is shown that religious and cultural norms of comportment or adab, Islamic idioms, and memories of the Mughal past are reflected in the writings and the genres (e.g., ghazal) that they employed. Significantly, Waheed does not characterize left-leaning intellectuals as ‘cultural Muslims’ as opposed to ‘religious Muslims’. Instead, she engages in a welcome conversation with scholars like Talal Asad and Shahab Ahmad who have critiqued and complicated the secular-religious binary. This is an important intervention in the history of South Asian socio-political discourse. The book could, however, have benefited from a fuller discussion of the intellectual’s writings on and engagements with Islam (broadly defined) and its sources. The focus has largely been on their use of Indo-Persian traditions and Islamic idioms.

Overall, this book is an important and timely addition to the available literature on South Asian history, politics, and literature. As hinted in the title of the book, the lives of a number of left-leaning Urduphone intellectuals have largely been obscured from the histories of India and Pakistan. When they have been written about, they have been presented in normative categories like ‘communists’, ‘atheist’, ‘Islamic’, and ‘separatist’ that detract from a fuller appreciation of their thought and work. This book does not only draw our attention to these hidden histories but also points to ways in which we can study complex intellectual formations.      


Iqbal Singh Sevea

Associate Professor and Director, ISAS,

National University of Singapore


DARK SECRETS: Politics, Intrigue and Proxy Wars in Kashmir by Iqbal Malhotra. Bloomsbury India, 2022.


Dark Secrets is a gripping and action-packed account of Kashmir at the center of the ‘great game’ between Britain and Russia from the end of the 19th century to 1948. The author, Iqbal Malhotra, has used literary license to plug in the gaps left by missing records to write a work of ‘creative non-fiction’ which makes for a compelling read.

The vacuum created in the Pamirs by the seasonal withdrawal of the Cossacks in 1892, was filled by a small force of Chinese troops. A small force of Afghan troops seized Soma Tash and expelled the Chinese troops. In order to save face, the Chinese described the area as ‘indefensible’ and proposed that it be declared a neutral zone. In 1892, British and Chinese officers jointly approved the installation of a new ruler of Hunza, Mir Mohammed Nazim Khan and the latter informed the Chinese representatives that he could no longer accept tribute exchange with China. Subsequently, much to the discomfiture of the British, the Russians expelled the Afghan troops and established a permanent presence in the Pamirs.

The ‘great game’ was initiated through diplomatic intrigues in Kashgar. For a time to the utter consternation of the British, the better resourced Russians nearly reached south towards Gilgit, but the competition between the two powers was resolved in the old-fashioned way – through the intercession of the two monarchs – Queen Victoria was the grandmother of the Russian Tsar. The result was the Anglo Russian Convention of 1907.

Consequently, the British seized control of Gilgit, Nagar and Hunza and built roads through these territories. The author gives a detailed account of how the British manipulated royal succession in Kashmir and severely circumscribed the powers of Maharaja Pratap Singh and his successor Maharaja Hari Singh, especially in matters related to the frontier. Hari Singh could not take any decisions related to Ladakh without consulting the Council of State. Chitral, Hunza and Nagar were feudatories under the suzerainty of Jammu and Kashmir, but the de facto position was that Hari Singh’s writ did not extend to these territories, which were ruled directly by the British from Delhi.

Iqbal traces the growth of popular movements in Kashmir in the 1930s including the secular-communal divide between Sheikh Abdullah and Mirwaiz. The agitation had its genesis in the violence and deaths by police firing that took place after the demolition of a mosque. Muslim leaders in the state forced Hari Singh to introduce a constitution to safeguard political rights – in this way Hari Singh’s powers were further circumscribed. Sheikh Abdullah, a graduate of AMU, adopted progressive ideas and began to operate the National Conference as a secular party. This led to a fallout with the Mirwaiz, who resurrected the Muslim Conference. This gave additional leverage to Jinnah’s Muslim League to pursue its agenda.

The author avers that Mountbatten and British military leaders manipulated Nehru into taking decisions that led to a stalemate in Kashmir in 1948. The reason – and this is the central thesis of the book – was British interest in spying on the Russian nuclear program from top secret bases in Kashmir, Punjab and NWFP after the US Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 that denied them access to the results and secrets of the US nuclear programme.

In fact, even prior to this, the Government of India had set up a network of local couriers and spies to obtain samples of uranium and other ores being mined by the Soviets in Xinjiang. The government in Delhi directly took over this courier network in 1945. The Gilgit Agency also became a key monitoring station to evaluate seismic activity and to confirm that the Soviets had indeed, successfully conducted a nuclear test. The RAF also operated the Chaklala based Lincoln bombers to collect debris and conduct aerial reconnaissance.

Iqbal argues that the British understood that Nehru’s vision would have no place for the nuclear monitoring empire, precisely because he shunned cold war machinations. Abdullah, on the other hand, had been promised power by Nehru. But what Nehru did not adequately comprehend was that for Abdullah, Kashmir was the valley. He had little interest in other parts of the state. The latter, however, were integral to Nehru’s vision for India – a Kashmir bordering China and NWFP. The British on their part worked to destroy Nehru’s vision for a post-partition India. Once Jinnah and the Muslim League inserted themselves into the politics of Kashmir, the political polarization was complete. On 1 November 1947, Major Brown of the Gilgit Scouts arrested the Governor of Gilgit and in a secret message to Pakistan asked them to take up the administration of the area

One of the first decisions Mountbatten took after taking over as Viceroy was the return of the entire area of Gilgit to the State of Jammu and Kashmir before June 1948. Iqbal infers that the British were complicit in plans to integrate the state with Pakistan and not India. Mountbatten’s sudden decision to advance partition from 30 June 1948 to 15 August 1947 was taken to shift the focus away from the strategically vital interests of the British in Kashmir to the volatile situation caused by the partition of Kashmir and Bengal. Besides, the British had already decided that Kashmir would be handed over to Pakistan. In the aftermath of the tribal invasion of Kashmir, Mountbatten placed a voluntary restraint on the Indian Army so as to stop the recovery of occupied territory. Iqbal provides evidence of the involvement of British officers in the Kubaili invasion of Kashmir, which was clearly planned in advance and not a spontaneous event.

The book, Dark Secrets, also has some interesting subplots in the narrative, which will, no doubt stoke controversy – for example Bose, writes Iqbal, did not die in the plane crash in Taipei, but escaped to Russia and tried to re-enter India from NWFP.

The book is based on extensively researched historical sources with Iqbal filling in the gaps with plausible or likely conclusions where archival material is either not available or still sealed. It all began with the imperial powers – Britain and Russia – who jostled and intrigued against each other in a battle for ascendancy in the Pamirs. Over the years British interests in Gilgit assumed progressively greater importance. When the British did eventually depart India they connived – with partial success – with Pakistan in an attempt to ensure that Gilgit and the State of Jammu and Kashmir would be under Pakistani control, so that their cold war imperatives would be successfully taken care of.

All in all, the book, Dark Secrets: Politics, Intrigue and Proxy Wars in Kashmir, is a valuable addition to the growing volume of literature on the unfortunate course of history that led to the present imbroglio in Jammu and Kashmir.


Biren Nanda

IFS Retd;

former High Commissioner of India to Australia