Sunday, February 20, 2011

Between food and opium: What Pakistani liberals fail to understand

This article was first published for The Express Tribune, Pakistan here

There’s something Newtonian about the way Pakistani political discourse is being carried out these days. At one end is the ‘ghairat brigade, with their twisted ideology and their usual diatribe against the liberal fascists – a term which is about as meaningful as a Vegan BigMac.

On the other end are the liberals ( fascist or otherwise) who might not be as reprehensible as their bearded cousins, are equally redundant with their staid arguments, essentially revolving around the ‘Quaid’s vision and his speech to the Constituent Assembly.

Fundamentally, I do not have an issue with the arguments of the liberal camp. In fact, I think they make perfect sense in their arguments. The only issue I have is with their approach. Of late, ongoing debates between the two sides have split along predictable dichotomies like:

religious versus secular,

Jinnah versus Maudoodi,

left versus. right etc.

The vehement arguments of one side are responded to by equally vociferous counter arguments of the other. This has only exacerbated societal tensions.

In fact, by getting sucked into this mud slinging, we have unwittingly fallen into a trap. The liberal’s so called ‘la-deeniyat’ gives the other side fodder for their ‘Islam is in Danger’ claptrap, and their shrill voices further reduce the already shrinking space for an intelligent discussion.

Change the subject: Policy instead of ideology

Instead of opposing each other, let us fashion the debate on our own terms. Instead of talking about ideology, let us talk about policy. Instead of talking about Islam versus secularism, why not talk aboutroti, kapda’and makan’?

Instead of talking about “Pakistan ka matlab kya?” let us ask “Pakistan ka maqsad kya?”.

After all, history has shown that extreme obscurantist ideologies have been used as diversionary tactics when the political class fails to address the basic socio-economic needs of the populace. As they say, if you can’t give the masses food, give them ‘opium’.

The liberal mistake: secularism can’t be imposed

Another fundamental problem in the liberals’ argument is their over emphasis on constitutional amendment as a means to ‘secularising’ Pakistan. Not only do the prospects of such drastic changes in the constitution appear bleak at the moment, but even in the rare case that the liberals are successful, I have my doubts about the efficacy of such a measure. On the contrary, a top to down approach to secularism might backfire and could be viewed as an ‘elite project’ by the masses. The success of a secular state is predicated upon the extent of ‘toleration of plurality’ in society as a whole. Hence I would argue that amending school textbooks instead of the constitution might be more effective in making Pakistan ‘secular’.

As recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown us, the only antidote to the coercive power of the state is a sustained non violent campaign spearheaded by the masses, not politicians. Left on their own, elites (whether religious or conservative, uniformed or civilian) everywhere are prone towards furthering their personal agendas. True democracy is never something which is given to the masses; it is a right which the masses give to themselves. The future course of Pakistan depends not so much on the whims of its tiny elite population but the action (or inaction) shown by its millions.



Between food and opium: What Pakistani liberals fail to understand

This article was first published in The Express Tribune, Pakistan here


There’s something Newtonian about the way Pakistani political discourse is being carried out these days. At one end is the ‘ghairat brigade’, with their twisted ideology and their usual diatribe against the liberal fascists – a term which is about as meaningful as a Vegan BigMac.

On the other end are the liberals ( fascist or otherwise) who might not be as reprehensible as their bearded cousins, are equally redundant with their staid arguments, essentially revolving around the ‘Quaid’s vision’ and his speech to the Constituent Assembly.

Fundamentally, I do not have an issue with the arguments of the liberal camp. In fact, I think they make perfect sense in their arguments. The only issue I have is with their approach. Of late, ongoing debates between the two sides have split along predictable dichotomies like:

religious versus secular,

Jinnah versus Maudoodi,

left versus. right etc.

The vehement arguments of one side are responded to by equally vociferous counter arguments of the other. This has only exacerbated societal tensions.

In fact, by getting sucked into this mud slinging, we have unwittingly fallen into a trap. The liberal’s so called ‘la-deeniyat’ gives the other side fodder for their ‘Islam is in Danger’ claptrap, and their shrill voices further reduce the already shrinking space for an intelligent discussion.

Change the subject: Policy instead of ideology

Instead of opposing each other, let us fashion the debate on our own terms. Instead of talking about ideology, let us talk about policy. Instead of talking about Islam versus secularism, why not talk aboutroti, kapda’and makan’?

Instead of talking about “Pakistan ka matlab kya?” let us ask “Pakistan ka maqsad kya?”.

After all, history has shown that extreme obscurantist ideologies have been used as diversionary tactics when the political class fails to address the basic socio-economic needs of the populace. As they say, if you can’t give the masses food, give them ‘opium’.

The liberal mistake: secularism can’t be imposed

Another fundamental problem in the liberals’ argument is their over emphasis on constitutional amendment as a means to ‘secularising’ Pakistan. Not only do the prospects of such drastic changes in the constitution appear bleak at the moment, but even in the rare case that the liberals are successful, I have my doubts about the efficacy of such a measure. On the contrary, a top to down approach to secularism might backfire and could be viewed as an ‘elite project’ by the masses. The success of a secular state is predicated upon the extent of ‘toleration of plurality’ in society as a whole. Hence I would argue that amending school textbooks instead of the constitution might be more effective in making Pakistan ‘secular’.

As recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have shown us, the only antidote to the coercive power of the state is a sustained non violent campaign spearheaded by the masses, not politicians. Left on their own, elites (whether religious or conservative, uniformed or civilian) everywhere are prone towards furthering their personal agendas. True democracy is never something which is given to the masses; it is a right which the masses give to themselves. The future course of Pakistan depends not so much on the whims of its tiny elite population but the action (or inaction) shown by its millions.


If not love, let frenzy be

This article was first published in Himal Southasian here

There are some poets who speak of revolution, some who speak of love’s misery, some who are concerned with life, and then, there is Mirza Ghalib. Ghalib, or Mirza Nausha as he was sometimes called, is for me the poet of frenzy, the poet of madness. The frenzy of ishq(love), the frenzy of being, and the frenzy of fana (self annihilation).

MirzaGhalibBefore I write further, I think I should add a disclaimer that I am no expert on Ghalib (Besides God, I doubt if there ever was one!), but merely an aficionado. Hence, some of my thoughts might be written from a very personal and a subjective point of view. But then, writing objectively and dispassionately about Ghalib is itself an insult to his poetry and what it stands for.

After I had learnt Urdu, I made the Himalayan blunder of starting off with Ghalib. I say blunder, because after reading his poetry, others’ simply paled in comparison. The Ghalibean world was a veritable crucible of human emotions, and as much as I wanted to spread my net of awareness, the meaning of his poetry proved to be an elusive Anqa (a mythical phoenix-like bird) that I could never catch. There were verses which were deceptively simple, and then there were some which took months to reveal their true glory. One verse particularly stands out,

Aate hain ghaib se yeh mazameen khayaal mein,
Ghalib sareer-e-khama nawa-e-sarosh hai.

A crude translation would be:
(These themes come to mind from the world unseen,
Ghalib, the scratching of the pen is the voice of the heavenly angel)

In typical Ghalibean fashion, this verse took two torturous months to reveal itself to me.

Besides his poetry, what endeared me to Mirza was his personality. From what I infer through his letters, he comes across as a man with whom you could talk about the mysteries of the universe whilst at the same time have a conversation about the pretty girl (perhaps asaqi) you saw at a bar yesterday. Ghalib seemed to effortlessly straddle both worlds at once, and that is something which is very rare amongst poets indeed.

In matters of love, it was the vahshat (madness, frenzy) which makes Ghalib stand out. In fact, one of the most potent expressions of Ghalibean love can be found in the movie Dil Se, especially the song Satrangi Re, which reminded me of his sher on Laila-Majnoon,

Mana’-e-vahshat-e-kharaamiha-e-Laila kaun hai
Khana-e-majnoon-e-sahra gard be darwaza tha.

(Who was there to forbid the wild ‘walking’ of Laila,
There were no doors to the house of Majnoon, the desert wanderer)

This love of ‘Ghalib’ was at once personal and universal. It was ishq-e- mijaazi (mundane love) as well as ishq-e- haqiqi (true love, one for the creator). Although a man of faith, he was never a man of religion. Like countless Sufis before him, he recognized no distinctions of caste or creed. His poetry resonates with this message of universality. In one of his verses, he beautifully describes the relation of the Kaaba to its erstwhile idols.

Go vaan nahin, vaan ke nikaale hue to hain,
Kaabe se un buton ko bhi nisbat hai door ki

(Though they aren’t there, they have been expelled from there,
With the kaaba, even those idols enjoy a distant relationship.)

Today, on the 15th of February, 142 years have passed since the death of Mirza Ghalib. However, his poetry has an appeal which is probably even more potent than it was during his own time. Probably this is because his poetry is reflective of the inherent nature of man itself. There is no human emotion that is left untouched in the Ghalibean universe. Love, misery, being, non-being…Every admirer of Mirza has a reason to keep coming back to him. In his own words,

Ganjina-ey maani ka tilism usey samjho
wo lufz jo Ghalib merey ash`ar mei`n aaway

(It’s a talisman of the treasury of meanings,
That word, ghalib, which happens to occur in my verses)

India:Getting screwed left, right and centre

This article was initially published for Himal South Asian here

I had always assumed ‘getting screwed’ to be a good thing. In fact, most of my teenage years were spent in fruitless pursuit of this goal. However, as I grew, and my concerns became more cerebral, the term assumed new connotations, none of which were in any sense even remotely positive. ‘Getting screwed’ began to mean something nasty (though not in the way you were thinking), which your professors or seniors (basically people who are supposed to guide you) did to you.

Of late, I have noticed that India is going through such a dreadful phase of getting screwed by people left, right and centre. Obviously these people are none other than those for whom we soil our thumbs with ink once every five years, our dear politicians and leaders. For a seemingly disparate group, they have shown remarkable consensus on their cherished goal of sucking the nation dry, albeit using different techniques and methods. Some use their perverted ideologies, some oppose for the heck of opposition, and some simply rob us.

Let me first begin with those who always think that they are ‘right’. And yes, you guessed it; I am referring to the mother of all parivars, the Sangh Parivar. With their twisted ideology and their warped notions of macho nationalism, they have ensured that an 800 million strong stays in perpetual fear of its (imagined) enemies. Not satisfied with ideology alone, some ‘Swami Unlimited Joy’ probably thought that having a ‘blast’ was a more worthwhile idea. Now that his cover has been blown, the self righteous brigade probably thought it better to deflect attention by launching an ‘Ekta Yatra’ (loose translation: Trip for Unity), which ironically has divided the country more than uniting it.

Moving on from the right towards the centre, Lord Buddha had always stressed on the middle path and avoidance of extremes. However, I think he couldn’t have envisioned that those in the so-called ‘centre’ would have such a devastating impact on Indian politics. Headed by a famous economist, one of their ministers, affectionately called ‘King’ has mastered the art of siphoning money to such insane levels that one can only exclaim “Gee!” (Twice). Whoever knew that one could make so much money through cell phones?

Another annoying trait of the followers of the middle path is their advocacy of sycophancy as a legitimate means of advancement. Now historically, Indians have been firm believers in the philosophy of ‘Vasudeva Kutumbkam’, which means that ‘the whole world is my family’. Unfortunately, through some mistranslation of the original Sanskrit, members of this party inferred the motto to be ‘the Family is the world’. What a pity!

Lastly, I shall talk about those who are left behind. Before saying anything further, I should specify a few things. First of all the ‘left’ in the contemporary context has probably less to do with ideology and more to do with being a ‘fashion statement’ of sorts amongst a strange sect who otherwise call themselves ‘intellectuals’ (the writer of this lousy article being one). By this I refer to those people who, after giving a few speeches on Marx and talking about the proletariat, quickly slip off into their air-conditioned homes where ‘daddy capitalist’ earns enough to support their misplaced idealism. Apart from these pseudo leftists, there are those who still haven’t bought new calendars since the late eighties. A random stroll through the streets of Kolkata on any given day would be a good way to see members of this species up, close and personal.

Apart from the ones I have described, there are other specimens in the subcontinent who are just as colourful and interesting. However, due to constraints of space and time, I haven’t been able to do justice to this veritable ecosystem. Breaking the barriers of caste, creed and race, they truly are symbolic of the unity in diversity that is India. Omnipresent and omnipotent, they have become interwoven into the fabric of this great nation. Probably a sher which my father told me sums it up rather well,

Har Shaakh Pe Ullu Baitha Hai,
Anjaam-e-Gulistaan Kya Hoga?
(An owl sits on every branch,
What fate befalls this garden?)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Salman Taseer’s murder and societal schizophrenia in Pakistan

Since the past two weeks or so, I have closely following the developments that unravelled after the assassination of Salman Taseer. After reading what seems like a zillion articles, I noticed that practically everyone was regurgitating the same thing. Following the assassination, predictably enough, the Pakistan media split across the old Urdu-English line, with conservative voices dominating the former and the liberal ones the latter. However surprisingly this time, there was a substantial amount of support for the assassin amongst the general populace. This baffled many in the liberal camp that had grown used to visualizing society in a naively dichotomous framework of an old silent innocent majority versus a reactionary vocal minority. It has always been my conviction that it is foolhardy (and a bit too generalizing) to force labels such as ‘moderate’/’extremist’ on the general populace, which numbers more than 150 million in the case of a country as large as Pakistan. I have always imagined the common man as a bit like the crowd in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (‘Methinks there’s much reason in his sayings’), fickle and susceptible to emotional vicissitudes (refer my article aam aadmi).

While the reactions from the Urdu media regarding the whole issue were more or less anticipated, what struck me was that the liberal press in Pakistan had not been the most innovative in the way they dealt with the whole issue. The most common argument of the liberals was that this wasn’t the Pakistan that Jinnah had envisaged, and how the Quaid had always championed the cause of a secular Muslim state. More or less, these arguments are correct. Jinnah did not desire a theocratic Pakistan, but he clearly articulated his position only in his speech to the constituent assembly, which was given a mere four days before independence. Had he revealed his intentions of a secular ‘Pakistan’ sooner, it would have been politically unfeasible to mobilize support for the whole idea in the first place.

Anyway, what Jinnah did or did not want can be argued endlessly. But my point is that, it’s been sixty-four years since independence, and I think it’s about time Pakistan reconceptualized itself. While it is understandable that Jinnah’s position as the founder of the nation has its due weight, but at the same time these arguments have not been lapped up by anyone besides the intelligentsia as I highly doubt whether the common man can differentiate between a state for the 'interests of Muslims' and an Islamic state. However, this does not imply that secularism has no future in Pakistan, but it has to be formulated differently. For secularism to take roots in Pakistani society, the entire political discourse has to change first. Of late, there has been too much emphasis on ethnicities, religious denominations and identity politics as a whole. Interestingly, no one seems to talk about politics from the angle of socio-economics. There is very little discussion on labour rights, land reforms or other more pressing issues. In short, there is no genuine leftist ideology in Pakistani politics today. Sure enough, the right winged parties have filled this vacuum by using their own brand of 'opium for the masses'. There gradual intrusion has only exacerbated sectarian and communal tensions, To offer a comparison, the two states in India, which have been relatively free of communal politics, are precisely those two states that have a long history of left politics, i.e. Kerala and West Bengal.

Moving on, from what I have known and read, the media in Pakistan has always highlighted the Barelvis as a relatively moderate and peaceful sect, in comparison to other sects like the Deobandis and the Ahl-e-Hadis. However what surprised many liberals was the revelation that the killer Mumtaz Qadri was himself a Barelwi. Now fools as a group are generally secular, for they occur across all sectarian boundaries. However, my instinct is that the sensitivity of Barelwis to the issue of Namoos-e-Risalat has historical roots. The founder of the movement, Ahmed Riza himself was very particular about the high station of the Prophet, and this sensitivity might have trickled down along generations.

So where should Pakistan go from here? While I am no soothsayer, I think the only way the liberalists can realize their intentions is by working from the ground up, which is infinitely more difficult than writing fluff pieces on a blog(such as my own). Also, at least for the time being the blasphemy issue is a hot potato that no politician wants to hold. Whether desirable or not, amending the law might have serious repercussions for an already faltering state. So my advice: concentrate more on the structural changes- reform school curricula, focus on land reforms, and let democracy take roots. In short, create an atmosphere in which such topics can be discussed without the threat of bullets being lodged into your chest. In short, dont reach for the secret too soon, and don''t cry for the moon...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A verse

I had written this verse about two years ago...and like all my great ideas, it occurred to me at the most unlikeliest of places (no need to mention that), at about three in the morning...


And for the non ahl-e-zubaan, it reads

"but parasti se aakhir hamein kya fa'ida?
gar khuda insaaN hota to aaina hi kaafi tha"

Here's a rough translation:
Of what use to us is idol worship?
Had god been a human, a mirror would have sufficed

Now I have been trying to convert this lone verse into a ghazal...However, like all my ambitious projects, this too has fallen into the trap of lethargy and your everyday procrastination

Oh and since we are on the topic, I have been thinking about keeping a takhallus(pen name)...Any suggestions people?