Monday, December 29, 2008

Bangladesh: a forecast

Elections are being held in Bangladesh today. Our moderately enlightened media cannot be trusted to understand how important they are for Pakistan.

Bangladesh and Pakistan are the only countries which were voted into existence. First, in the elections of 1945-6, people voted for the creation of a state comprising of West Pakistan and East Bengal. Then in 1971, they voted for the autonomy of East Bengal (which had come to be called East Pakistan by then).

Since these are the only two states which came into being precisely through the same method (i.e. consensus of the people), we cannot overlook the fact that in many ways the two countries have been evolving in a manner similar to each other and different from everyone else:
  • In 1975, Sheikh Mujib got assassinated by the Army; two years later, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed (and later hanged) by the Army in Pakistan;
  • Armies in both countries launched processes of Islamization which lasted till the late 1980s;
  • The first female prime minister of the Muslim world came from Pakistan, and the second from Bangladesh soon afterwards
  • Emergency was declared again in Bangladesh in 2007, and in Pakistan latter the same year
Practically every major political change which occurs in one country gets mirrored in the other. Between any other nations these would pass as coincidences, but since Pakistan and Bangladesh came into being through exactly the same method, would it be rational to ignore these “coincidences” or to study them for discovering some unknown forces that might be operating in the collective lives of societies?

Elections are being held in Bangladesh today – just as they were held in Pakistan earlier this year. We know that a consensus government was formed in Pakistan after the recent elections. Should it not give us something to think about if consensus government also comes in power in Bangladesh after these elections?

The independent and sovereign states of Bangladesh and Pakistan seem to be held together in a bond which cannot be discovered through the existing theories of political science. It can be discovered in the poetry of our great poet Sehba Akhtar who addressed the spirit of Bengal in 1968 and said, “There are no chains, but this Love is a bond which, even if you wish, you will not be able to break.”

Chains, if there were any, got cut in 1971. The bond of love remains. Pakistan should pay attention to the happenings in Bangladesh. They may tell us more about ourselves than expected.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jinnah's Reply to the US Ambassador

The United States of America was the only country whose representative attended the birth of Pakistan on August 15, 1947. Later, he was replaced by an ambassador who presented his credentials on February 26, 1948. It seems that a generous monetary aid was also offered at the same time.

Fortunately, the reply of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder and the first Governor-General, has been preserved. After highlighting the role which the US had played in inspiring freedom movements like those of Pakistan, Jinnah said in unmistakably clear words:
I can assure Your Excellency that after having emerged from an eclipse which lasted over a century and a half, the people of Pakistan desire nothing which is not their own, nothing more than the goodwill and friendship of all the free nations of the world. (Read complete text)
At that time, Pakistan was in dire need of money. Just a while ago, even our former colonial masters, the government of Great Britain, had not flinched from accepting American loans (in fact, from the autobiography of Harry Truman we learn that the British government kept nagging for more than what the Americans were willing to lend them).

The refusal of a starving nation to join the beeline of borrowers (even when the line was headed by their former masters) should have been an eye-opener to the ruling elite of the United States but it seems that it wasn't. Apparently, they eventually succeeded in persuading the later rulers to accept what the founding fathers had categorically refused.

If precedents set by Jinnah should be regarded as the guiding principles of “the ideology of Pakistan” then refusing foreign aid (whether American or Russian) can be rightly regarded as a cornerstone of that ideology. Something to remember while Pakistan celebrates Jinnah’s birthday this year?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The guiding spirit

Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, has a mystical presence for many of his followers, and nowhere is it depicted better than in the mainstream Pakistani films, especially those made by the adherents of the Film Arts school of thought. By these I mean Waheed Murad, Pervez Malik, Nazrul Islam and some other filmmakers from Pakistan.

It is customary to hang a portrait of Jinnah in Pakistani offices and educational institutions. Hence, most public offices in films were depicted with Jinnah’s portrait hanging in the background. Clever filmmakers knew how to make good use of this convention. Pervez Malik, whose films were invariably parables about the collective life of the nation, usually managed to bring a portrait of Jinnah in those scenes which pointed at the real theme of his movies.

For instance, Sachai (1975) is a parable about the quest for truth in a society where dishonesty seems to prevail. “As long as this picture hangs above me, I cannot flinch from doing my duty,” says an impassioned officer in that movie. Since Jinnah was known to be a person who never told a lie in all his life, his portrait becomes a thematic icon in this movie whose title means Truth (or Truthfulness).

Another clever example can be seen in Aina (1977), the most popular of all Pakistani films. An angry rich man wants to stop his daughter from marrying a hotel clerk, and tries to enlist a police officer for that cause. “Find some law which could prevent them,” says the father. The police man replies curtly, “There is no such law. Go to the parliament because that is where laws are made, not here.” The founding father overlooks this conversation through a portrait in which he is looking into the camera very knowingly.

A very unusual instance comes from Jaal (1972), a film produced by Waheed Murad. At the climax of the film the villain gets exposed as the ultimate source of crime in society. Just before committing suicide in the courtroom, he looks at the judge who is busy writing the verdict, and then at the portrait of Jinnah hanging above on the wall behind the judge. For a moment there is an eye contact with the face in the portrait, and then the villain ends his own life. Hence Jinnah becomes the guiding spirit who is still overseeing the country founded by him.

Yet, the use of Jinnah’s picture in Mastana Mahi (1971), another film produced by Waheed Murad, can be said to be the most unusual because here, the picture is not shown at all. A power and disowned son of a dead noble asks his uncle to inform him about his parentage and practically everything which is said about the dead father applies to Jinnah in his relationship with the deprived and downtrodden segments of the society. A picture is handed down to the boy, who starts talking to it. “I shall call you father,” he says to the picture. “I will take you to my home, but will you be okay in the home of a poor man? After all, you also left me and even chose to get buried near your other son who lived in the city!” The picture is never shown in the camera but you can understand who the man in the picture must be. The “father” in this beautiful allegory can be none other than the “father of the nation.”

Monday, December 22, 2008

Iqbal: A Message from the East

It can be outside the scope of a historian to study the roots of literary trends but a poet-philosopher may analyze them for a prophetic insight about the future of a society. Hence, when in the 1970s distinguished British historian A. J. P. Taylor observed that Great Britain experienced its best times soon after the First World War and therefore the pessimism of British writers of that period was unrealistic, he concluded, "It is not easy to understand why they thus cut themselves off." However, even back in 1923, Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal had tried to analyze that emerging problem of world literature and observed:
Regarded from a purely literary standpoint, the debilitation of the forces of life in Europe after the ordeal of the war is unfavourable to the development of a correct and mature literary ideal. Indeed, the fear is that the minds of the nations may be gripped by that slow-pulsed Magianism which runs away from life’s difficulties and which fails to distinguish between the emotions of the heart and the thoughts of the brain. (Preface to A Message from the East)
Iqbal acknowledged that the First World War had left scars on the hearts of sensitive writers and unfortunately there were not enough remedies in colonial Europe to help these writers regain their grip on reality. Iqbal believed that remedies could possibly come from America and the East (especially the Muslim East). However, they both should realize that "the flame of life cannot be borrowed from others. It has to be kindled in the temple of one's own soul."
This takes us back to the questions:
  • Why the views of people like Iqbal and Taylor have been blacked out so completely in academic circles?
  • Why a normal student does not even get to know that alternate views exist which are not so pessimistic?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Intellectual death of Thomas Friedman?

'Calling All Pakistanis' in The New York Times on December 2, 2008, Friedman wrote in a manner which is widely being seen as irreponsible.

What is special about the backlash against Friedman's article is that he seems to have lost credibility with the educated Pakistani (and some Asian) writers and readers, and also The New York Times has also come down a few notch on the benchmark ('sub-standard' is the buzz word currently going around):
  • Response by Asim Khan: posted on TeethMaestro, this detailed reply is followed by a string of thought-provoking comments which make an interesting read by themselves (originally published in Cogito, Ergo Sum).
  • Mr. Friedman's Demagoguery: written from a slightly different milieu by Saadia Toor and Balmurli Natarajan of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI), this reply doesn't represent the Pakistani point of view alone, but comes out as a South Asian response. If Friedman was hoping that by losing Muslims readership he would gain some from the other side then he may have been wrong on that count too, it seems from this article.
  • Don't Shoot the Messenger: this response from Shandana Minhas is well-articulated and was published in a leading mainstream newspaper in Pakistan, though some may find it to be a bit more defensive than others.
To set the record straight, Friedman's article didn't fail to get some followers when it first appeared about a week ago. "I know this article is written by a non-Pakistani, telling Pakistani'swhat to do," someone posted in the mailing list of a leading rights group in Pakistan. "But he says a lot of what I've been thinking that we all need to do in response to Mumbai. Please consider." As a member of the same group, my response to this was:

The problem is not that this is written by a non-Pakistani, but that it is written in a manner which will incite adverse reaction rather than persuade many. If I could conduct a detailed linguistic analysis, I would show that the writer knows that he doesn't know what he's talking about and his purpose is to show off his intellectual muscle and the size of his ego rather than to understand and be understood :)

Regarding the suggestion that Pakistanis should start alienating those fellow-citizens who support the wrong kind of extremism, such a suggestion will certainly appeal to some of us who have already been doing that since 11 years before Pakistan came into being. However, by this token we should have asked the Americans to alienate those who voted for George Bush a second time ;)

Another member called it "a bogus article" and commented, "How many times has the international community come out in vigils for the victims of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and the bombing of innocent civilians in FATA? How can he pass this racist lashing out at Pakistanis as material worthy for the New York Times?" Referring to one of the responses listed above, the mailer went on to say:
Shandana Minhas blasted it today; but somehow I don't think our tone should be defensive that Pakistanis have organized and participated in vigils for Mumbai. We should not be entertaining this idiot's charge. (And Mumbai, to remind everyone was something that the right winged BJP government did to change the name from Bombay, and hence assert their saffron agenda. It should not be confused with resistance to British colonialism.)
To this, one of the most highly respected of the emerging intellectuals in Pakistan replied, "Thomas Friedman has been writing along these lines for atleast the last seven years. Jokers like him are best ignored." This last suggestion is quite likely to be followed more than anything else by a large number of readers in the future. Let's see.
Photograph of Thomas L. Friedman is by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times. Source: The New York Times, December 2, 2008.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A resolution to live by

On December 2, 2008, representatives of all political parties from Pakistan met Prime Minister Gilani and passed a resolution with reference to the Indian crisis. The statement appears to be balanced and may be said to be representing the views of most Pakistanis.

As such, the All Parties Conference Resolution may be a good reference point for journalists, students, youth, teachers, intellectuals and other Pakistanis as they think about the present situation for coming up with their own perspectives. It is a document which should be circulated widely.

Text of the resolution as reported in Dawn, December 3, 2008:

On the invitation of the Government of Pakistan, leaders representing all political parties met in Islamabad today to discuss the developments following the Mumbai carnage, including the implications for national security.

The leaders and representatives of the political parties of Pakistan unanimously underscored the following: The people of Pakistan share the grief of the people of India and extend their sympathy to the families of the victims.

The conference expresses steadfast resolve of the Pakistani nation to defend its honour and dignity as well as Pakistan’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity.

All political parties and democratic forces firmly support the government and the armed forces in defending Pakistan’s security interests.Pakistan abhors any act of violence perpetrated against innocent persons. That the political parties take strong exception to unsubstantiated allegations made in haste against Pakistan.

The APC expresses Pakistan’s desire to pursue its constructive engagement with India in a comprehensive manner with a view to building confidence and mutual trust for establishing friendly and good-neighbourly relations with India on the basis of settlement of all outstanding disputes.

Prime Minister’s House, Islamabad.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The seven stages of Pakistan

In whatever way we interpret the “peak moments” discussed in the previous post, they help us divide the history of Pakistan since 1886 into seven symmetrical periods:

  • 1886-1905, Inquiry
  • 1906-1925, Discovery
  • 1926-1946, Transcendence
  • 1947-1966, Freedom
  • 1967-1986, Action
  • 1987-2006, Expansion
  • 2007-26, Creation
The names of the stages (i.e. inquiry, discovery, and so on) have been taken from the "Seven Stages" which recur in Iqbal's work as I've shown in my book The Republic of Rumi (2007) and discussed in my newsletter. Of course, those who may like to name this periods differently can do so ("What's there in a name?"). But the beauty of dividing our history into these seven periods is that not only this division is symmetrical but it is based on the peak moments of the entire society rather than the coming and going of individual rulers.
Does this sound better than naming the periods of our history "the Ayub Khan era", "Yahya Khan era," and so on?

Peak Moments in the History of Pakistan

Through my researches about the history of Pakistan, its literature and the ideas which led to its creation, I have come upon a rather curious pattern. It is the recurrence of "peak moments" precisely every twentieth year (with one slight exception).

The gathering of Muslim community represnetatives from all over India at Aligarh in 1886 was the first of its kind in Islam since the days of the early caliphs. Strangely, something similar has been happening since then – every twentieth year with a slight change in 1947:
  • 1886, Foundation of Muslim Educational Conference
  • 1906, Foundation of All-India Muslim League
  • 1926, General Elections on the basis of separate electorates
  • 1946, General Elections on the question of Pakistan
  • 1967, Birth of PPP and popularity of 6 Points
  • 1987, General discontent with General Zia
  • 2007, Lawyers' Movement
Why does it happen, and can it help us in a better understanding of our history (and of ourselves)?
For those unfamiliar with these events, here is a brief recap:
  • The representative gathering at Aligarh in 1886 founded the Muslim Educational Conference. A gathering like that – or perhaps even surpassing it – happened exactly twenty years later in Dacca in 1906 where the All-India Muslim League was founded. The demand for separate electorates was put forward, which we were able to exercise exactly twenty years later in the general elections held in 1926. Precisely two decades after that we had the winter elections of 1945-46 in which Pakistan was voted for.
  • Since the birth of Pakistan a year later, i.e. in 1947, these cycles may be counted from the year in which Pakistan was created. Twenty years later, in 1967, Pakistan People’s Party was founded in West Pakistan and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Six Points gained acceptance in the Eastern wing. It may be noted that general elections which had never been conducted since the birth of Pakistan, were conducted as a result of this popular uprising – and we find this to be the case again twenty years later.
  • In 1987, the end of the Afghan War being in sight, the bomb blast in Karachi, the re-emergence of political parties in the municipal elections through the backdoor, the political liaisons of Benazir Bhutto and the increasing discontent with the non-party democracy introduced by General Ziaul Haq made the need for fresh mandate felt most widely felt among all segments of the Pakistani society (and not only among those who were opposed to the rule of General Ziaul Haque or Islamic reforms). Elections on party basis happened the next year – whether through Divine intervention or human design is a question which doesn’t concern us here.
  • Adding twenty to 1987 brings us to 2007 – need we say anything about this last year?
And hence the question:
Why does it happen, and can it help us in a better understanding of our history (and of ourselves)?

A J P Taylor: someone we should know

We have come to see our times as bad. Pscyhologists blame the increase in mental illness on the "complexity" of modern life. Professors, intellectuals and social scientists as well as poets, artists and filmmakers of "high culture" portray the world as if it were going to dogs. Is this realistic?

If your answer is yes, then the chances are that you have been brainwashed by false prophets of doom. Nobody told you that some great minds have been thinking otherwise, right? Well, A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) was one of the finest historians of the twentieth century and he believed that pessimism was popularized in Britain by some unrealistic writers after the First World War when, despite regrettable loss of life in previous years, the country was actually witnessing the best period in its history (italics are mine in the following memorable lines):
To judge from all leading writers, the barbarians were breaking in. The decline and fall of the Roman empire were being repeated. Civilized men could only lament and withdraw, as the writers did to their considerable profit. The writers were almost alone in feeling like this, and it is not easy to understand why they thus cut themselves off. By any more prosaic standard, this was the best time mankind, or at any rate Englishmen, had known. (A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914–1945)
False prophets of pessimism, as listed by Taylor, include: T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence (the 'Lawrence of Arabia'), Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and others. In my opinion, Taylor himself may not have escaped the influence of another one of this club, the biographer Lytton Stratchey. However, the more important questions are:

  • Why Taylor's views have been blacked out so completely in the academic circles?
  • Why a normal student does not even get to know that alternate views exist which are not so pessimistic?
The image shows the cover of Troublemaker: the Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor by Kathleen Burk (2000)
Next: Iqbal: A Message from the East

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Need for a new paradigm

It has been rightly suggested in a comment on a previous post, 'Conflict of mind and spirit':
ethnocentrism that there is only one nation or one culture better than others makes our views myopic.
The question, however, is how to avoid being myopic. Those who claim that all cultures of the world are equally dear to them are very often found to be considering themselves as better than the rest of their own nation or culture.

Thus it becomes ethnocentrism of another sort whereby you start believing that a few enlightened individuals from every nation who share a common understanding are like one international community, and members of this imagined community begin to perceive themselves as better than the masses of their own respective communities.

In Pakistan, the educated youth are slowly awakening to realize that they have to fend for themselves because apologetic approach isn't going to endear them to the world - it's only going to further isolate them from the majority of their own nation. Thus, what is needed now in Pakistan is a new paradigm which could facilitate seeing things as they are.

Rightly pointed out in another comment, the West probably doesn't quite understand the culture of Islam and its richness. Perhaps, then, a very good way of getting understood is by making good use of this richness in Islam's own countries and thus demonstrating the wonders that can be achieved.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Farewell, Pervez Malik

Ironically, just as I was finishing my article 'The Mystery Behind Waheed Murad', the man who might have known the most about that mystery was breathing his last.

Farewell, Pervez Malik

Filmmaker Pervez Malik died on November 18. It can't be the end of the story if we remember where it began.

lt began in the days when the Pakistani nation had newly earned its freedom — and that included the freedom to dream, something which we seem to be forfeiting voluntarily these days. Pervez was nine years old when Pakistan was born. His family had a background in military service, but he got influenced by a classfellow whose father ran a film distribution business. His name was Waheed Murad.

Attending previews of Indian and Pakistani films, meeting celebrities from the national film industry and listening to them discussing the possibilities of success or failure of a new release, the two boys began to dream about making films with pertinent messages and thus bringing about a revolution of thought. They planned to study film-making in the US after graduation, but Waheed was the only child and his parents wouldn’t let him go away for four years. So Pervez went alone while Waheed took admission in Karachi University to pursue his second highest passion, English Literature.

When Pervez returned four years later, he was perhaps the only professional with a Masters degree in film-making from California and who was willing to make a career in mainstream Pakistani cinema. Waheed had already produced two films under his own banner, Film Arts, but had not acted in them. He was about to appear in the lead role in the third, preparation for which was already complete and another director had been hired. Due to some differences which arose between Waheed and the other director, Pervez got to start his career with the film instead of waiting for the next venture. That film was Heera Aur Patthar (1964), which was followed by Armaan (1966) and Ehsaan (1967), all under the banner of Film Arts and with the same team (These three films have been discussed in detail in 'The Mystery behind Waheed Murad' published in the November 23 issue of Images).

Pervez and Waheed began to branch out in slightly different directions after their third film together. While Waheed continued with the highly symbolic manner of storytelling, Pervez began to spell out his messages a bit more clearly. He directed 21 films over the next 25 years and almost always wrote his own screenplay. Almost always, these were parables about Pakistan.

A typical Pervez Malik film, a young man returns home to a mother from whom he ran away as a child. Since she doesn’t know what he looks like, a fugitive sees the opportunity of impersonating him and tries to kill him by throwing him off a moving train. The heir survives but loses his memory. Following only a retarded instinct, he keeps moving and somehow reaches his native village where the villain is now living under a fake identity. Having lost his memory, the real heir is nothing more than a madman and even his mother fails to recognise him or give him shelter, while the only person who has a hunch about him is the old female fakir who is blind. While most among the younger generation might never have watched these films, they all no doubt familiar with the signature song of the fakir woman, Allah hi Allah kiya karo…. The film was poignantly called Pehchan (1975), and that is what it was really all about: The young man was a personification of the educated, urban Pakistani who loves his motherland but has lost his memory and is no longer aware of his true “identity” (hence the film’s title).

Unlike Waheed, whose messages never got “decoded” in his lifetime (perhaps for his own good), the patriotic undertone of Pervez’s work was widely appreciated. Three of his films were declared exempt from entertainment tax and he also received the President’s Pride of Performance award.

In the early days of the late General Ziaul Haq, when the nation was in doldrums on the question of impending elections, Pervez released a benign mixture of The Sound of Music and Jane Eyre, but quite symbolically named it Intikhab (1978). Since nobody expected a commercial film-maker in Pakistan to be too profound, the title was interpreted as referring to the boy ‘choosing’ the girl although, in Urdu, the word also means ‘election’. Revisiting the film now, it is quite amusing to notice that the ‘boy’ in the film is a retired colonel who is being too strict with his numerous children while the ‘girl’ is a governess who never tires of reminding her dictatorial master: “Colonel Saheb! You’re retired now. You can’t turn a home into a barrack. The children need love.” Obviously, this is a parable about Pakistan under military rule.

That’s why the death of Pervez Malik can’t be the end of the story. The 24 films which he has left us, most of which were also co-written by him, are our collective dreams captured by the one most qualified to do so. We need to interpret them, and we need to do that soon, because sometimes dreams also come true.