Tales of two villains

Updated 08 Mar, 2016 02:02am
Screengrab from
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A society that is self-sufficient in nurturing hatred, is equally self-sufficient in producing villains. Pakistan is one of such societies, where we remain engaged in the process of producing and reproducing villains endlessly. Let me illustrate my point by talking about two villains. First of these villains is Kautilya Chanakya — a Fourth century BC, political theorist of India and the second is the Niccolò Machiavelli — a 15th century political theorist of Western Europe.

Both Chanakya and Machiavelli are well known figures in the political literature produced in our society. Both are condemned in our society and their reference is evoked when someone does something nasty in the country’s politics. Both produced the same genre of political literature that is often described as ‘Advice to the King’.

The ‘aggressive’ and ‘nasty’ Indian leaders, who dare to browbeat the Pakistan militarily or dupe us politically or diplomatically, are often referred to as “disciples of Chanakya”.

The name of Machiavelli is also often equated with deceit, brutality and in human acts committed by powerful political players. The name of Machiavelli was used in these idiomatic meanings for the first time in the western languages and from there it was imported into our domestic political discourse. For instance BBC English dictionary describes the word Machiavellian as “Machiavellian behavior is a behavior in which someone tries to get what they want by deceiving and cheating people in clever ways”.

The attitude our intellectuals display towards these two great political theorists of ancient world is symptomatic of much bigger problem — a problem which stems from xenophobic attitude towards everything which comes from outside the narrowly demarcated boundaries of nationhood. True, other cultures and societies have also condemned these two historical personalities for their ideas of preaching treachery and deceit to the rulers of their times.

Chanakya is condemned for obvious reasons: He is presumed to be representative of Hindu society and history, and since we as a Muslim nation had parted ways with the Hindu-majority nation of India, it is considered a sin to accept influence from a writer who is presumed to be representative of that same bad Hindu society and history.

In the final analysis it doesn’t matter whether our negativity stems from any foreign cultural influence or is a product of domestic intellectual processes. What matters is that we have become unreceptive towards ideas that come from outside our narrowly defined intellectual base. One outcome of this process of narrowing of intellectual base is that now we see less and less of translations of works of foreign authors into local languages. Progressive writers’ movements in the 1930s and its remnants in post-independence period undertook the translation of some great world classics in local languages, but it remained a half-hearted attempt.

We are living in a society where accepting foreign ideas that can cause ripples in the pond is considered a sin and imperviousness to foreign ideas is considered a virtue. Chanakya is particularly unlucky in this toxic environment of present day Pakistan. He is perceived as a Hindu and since most prominent known fact about his life is that he was a Brahman, he becomes a particular target of more hatred. And this fact also disqualifies him as someone from whom something could be learned.

But in order to set the record straight let’s examine some well know historical facts about his life and ideas.

First of all, Chanakya was not a religious figure and what he wrote cannot be described as religious text by any stretch of imagination. Distinguished Indian historian, Romila Thapar has described Chanakya’s work, Arthashastra, as a purely secular text.

Second, it is preposterous to try to understand Chanakya and his ideas in the context of Hindu-Muslim tensions, which are a product of colonial era. Chanakya walked the earth at least 800 years before the advent of Islam and more than 1000 years before Hinduism started to take its present ecumenical form. Two intellectual achievements that Chanakya could be rightly credited with are, a) for helping, a group military heroes of ancient Indian society, raise a mighty empire that united India for the first time in third century BC and, b) for devising a new and uniformed taxation system for that empire.

Empires are much detested political entities now and especially so in Pakistan since we deeply abhor the expansion of Indian influence in the region. But when Chanakya provided the intellectual bases to the Mauryan Empire in third century BC, empire as a political entity was considered a source of stability in the anarchic world. Our political sensibilities are too focused on nation-state. However, we can rest assured that Chanakya’s thinking about a vast Indian empire cannot materialise in the present day world, which is gradually moving towards decentralisation.

Machiavelli is another example of someone made an outcast without any efforts to discover him and what he stood for. He lived in times when his motherland, Italy, was disunited and fragmented into separate political units and was facing onslaughts from its neighbouring countries in Europe. All his writings and discourses had as his central focus the unity and emergence of Italy as a strong country. He was inspired by the emergence of France and Spain as protonation states.

European left has sort of rediscovered Machiavelli. French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, has raised a crucial point: if Machiavelli’s book, The Prince, was a medium to teach rules tricks of how to be cruel and successful in dealing with the masses, than it should have been a secret document. But it was not, The Prince was available for reading to the general public in 15th century Europe. Someone who lets the general public know the tricks of politics can be rightly described as pro-people. Althusser points out that The Prince was a classical case of arming the ruler by telling him how to govern and at the same time disarming him by telling the masses the ruler’s tricks.

I am not advocating that we should start celebrating Machiavelli and Chanakya as our heroes. Instead, we should try to understand the ideological import of their ideas: that whatever garb you may give to politics of your time in the final analysis politics is always about power and interests. The rule applies to every society irrespective of the dominant religion of that society.