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Promoting pluralist folk heritage is vital for Pakistan’s future

13 February 2015

I talked to Dr Fouzia Saeed, the newly appointed Executive Director of Lok Virsa

fauzia saeedDr Fouzia Saeed with Zarina, a folk singer from Cholistan

Dr Fouzia Saeed, a scholar and civil society activist, was recently appointed as the head of Lok Virsa – the premier government institution to conserve and promote cultural heritage. After years of inaction and treating folklore as a commodity to be sold at melas and cafes, it is somewhat encouraging that a professional is in charge of an important institution. Fouzia is a renowned folklorist. Her well-researched book ‘Forgotten Faces: The daring women of Punjabi theatre’ traces the lives of women actors active in folk theatre during the 1960 and 70s. Another publication on the lacquered work of Dera Ismail Khan is a useful reference on an old craft that continues to be practiced.

Earlier, Fouzia led the movement for promotion of Manganhaar music encouraging younger people to participate and take pride in that activity. On PTV Fouzia interviewed many artists who had quit performing arts. As the founding member of Sanjh Theatre, she has been actively engaged with the folk arts. In 1988, she joined Lok Virsa as a Deputy Director, Research, and produced a record number of publications. In 1989 she set up a private organization – The Folklore Society – that she still chairs. Fouzia’s best known initiative remains Mehergarh – a Human Rights institute – that provides leadership training and helps build an alternative discourse on culture and society. Her PhD in Education and academic training in anthropology led to her award winning book ‘Taboo’ that explores the stigma on performing arts in Pakistan; and is now being used as a textbook in many countries.

We spoke to Fouzia as she was leaving for Islamabad to take charge of the institution.

Going back to Lok Virsa as its head must be a homecoming of sorts?

Yes, Nostalgic! When I joined it in 1988 I had just completed my education from the USA and was so full of enthusiasm. It was a thriving and creative place! There was a tea khokha on one side and we used to have samosas there and come up with  creative ideas for our programs. I really got groomed there. It is great to come back to it. All these past years I used to call it my ‘maika ghar’ (parental abode). I know almost all the people there, I also know its glorious as well as subdued past quite well. With all the affection for Lok Virsa, it is great to be back. Not just for the staff and colleagues but also the folk artists that I have maintained close contacts with.  They are thrilled and I am thrilled!

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Manto’s women

13 February 2015

Manto stands more or less alone in the position he takes on women, contends Raza Rumi, in an exploration of Manto’s relationship with his female protagonists

 

Manto2Saadat Hasan Manto

Perhaps the most well-known and also controversial Urdu writer of the twentieth century happens to be Saadat Hasan Manto. He left us with a stupendous literary output, which continues to remain relevant decades after his death. Manto, not unlike other ‘greats’ died young and lived through the greatest upheaval in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Partition. As a sensitive writer, he was influenced and traumatized by political turmoil during 1947 and beyond. His stories reflect his repeated attempts to come to terms with this cataclysmic event especially for millions in North India. For Manto, partition remained a mystery but he did not keep himself in a state of denial about it. He always used the word ‘batwara’, never partition.i Manto felt that it was the ripping apart of one whole and would lead to greater divisions among the people of the subcontinent. This coming to terms with the ‘batwara’, is experienced in his works by unusual characters driven by plain ambitions, mixed emotions and above all sheer humanity.

Like Nazeer AkabarAbadi, Manto’s characters are universal and often it is difficult to condemn or dislike them since their humanity remains overarching. Manto raised the slogan of humanism at a time when the subcontinent presented the picture of a boiling cauldron of religious riots and protests, of acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’. For example, in the story Sahai, Manto writes, “Don’t say that one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died. Say that two lakh human beings have perished.” Manto uses his characters as metaphors to highlight the prevalent abuse of humanity in those times.

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Pakistan’s future — fraught with perilous possibilities

12 February 2015

Nearly two months after the Peshawar attack, it is unclear if Pakistan’s direction has changed. The unprecedented grief and anger over the tragedy has now given way to business as usual. Bureaucrats undertaking the routine round-up exercises, platitudes by the politicians and the ‘firm’ image by the military leadership. Sections of civil society that defied the taboos of entering Islamabad’s no-go area i.e., Lal Masjid, ignited some hope that there was going to be a mass-scale mobilisation of Pakistanis against extremism and its violent manifestations. But the last rounds of activism attracted lesser numbers and apathy – a cornerstone of Pakistan’s mainstream culture.

What could be the greatest example of this syndrome than the muted response of the state and society over the massacre of 61 worshippers in Shikarpur. The National Action Plan is under implementation and apparently, thousands have been rounded up without a plan in place as to how they will be prosecuted in a court of law. The end result will not be different from the past record. Courts will bail them out sooner than later. Military courts are being operationalised and many Pakistanis view them as a panacea for the long-term failures of the judicial system. But there are many stages before they will become effective and deliver the kind of results that are needed to combat terrorism.

The prime minister had announced that all violent militias would be banned and proceeded against. But there are many which are free to mobilise. One day, the Jamatud Dawa is banned, the other day it is not. The ASWJ rallied in Karachi and the seminaries that are the backbone of these organisations remain fully functional. Admittedly, it is not possible to tackle them immediately but is there a strategy to handle three decades of mess that is growing messier? The answer to this question is in the negative.

When the Senate questioned the Punjab Police about foreign funding to seminaries, the initial response was denial-as-usual. Senator Tahir Mashhadi reportedly said that substantive evidence confirmed the “involvement of foreign-funded seminaries which were involved in promoting militancy in Pakistan”. The Saudi Embassy clearly said that whatever support was extended to welfare seminaries, mosques and charity organisations materialised with the express consent of the government. This has exposed the hollowness of the government’s commitments to address this key issue. Pakistan simply cannot be a playground for imported ideologies and allow sectarian battles to further bleed society. (more…)

Raza Rumi: They Tried to Silence Me Once and For All

11 February 2015

I spoke with Clarion about fighting for fredom of speech when the price for failure is death.

Raza Rumi9

Raza Ahmad Rumi is a Pakistani policy analyst, journalist and an author. He has been a leading voice in Pakistan’s public arena against extremism and human rights violations. 

In March 2014, he survived an assassination attempt in which his driver lost his life. Within weeks, he left Pakistan and has been affiliated with the New America Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace. 

He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project’s Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about Pakistan, free speech and blasphemy legislation.

 

Clarion Project: You are a writer. What challenges have you personally faced due to what you write about extremism in Pakistan?

Raza Rumi: When you write about growing radicalization and extremism and call for introspection, critique the role of clergy, then your writings are edited so as not to ruffle too many feathers. At times, one is labelled as anti-Muslim and anti-Islam for demanding a rational discourse on religion and its public manifestations.

Earlier, this opprobrium was restricted to verbal abuse and attacks, but now it has taken a dangerous turn with the increase of blasphemy law victims and in my case an assassination attempt.

Though I must clarify that writings in English draw less attention than those in the vernacular languages, I got into serious trouble due to my views aired on the mainstream Urdu broadcast media. My public engagement with media, academia/think tanks and civil society was too much for the extremists (backed by elements within the state) to handle. So they tried to silence me once for all.

Clariton1
An angry mob riots in Pakistan.

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The verse of freedom

7 February 2015

In a powerful exploration of resistance poetry in indigenous languages, I discovered marginalized poets challenging mainstream Pakistani identity in moving verse.

 PoetsFaiz Ahmad Faiz

Much has been said about the literary and artistic revolution of Pakistan. Undoubtedly Pakistani writers, artists and musicians are now recognised globally for their work which engages with the world and brings forth perspectives which alter the unidimensional image of the country. At home, the new wave of literary and creative output is celebrated each year at the Karachi and Lahore literature festivals which have emerged as major venues for conversation and showcasing of what is being produced in the mainstream.

Away from the spotlight of international media and TV channels, Pakistan’s regional poets and writers are waging a far more perilous battle by engaging with their subaltern, marginalised audiences in the local idiom, thereby putting themselves at risk. The days of Faiz and Jalib are not over as we often moan. Instead they have deepened and regionalised. Our region has had a rich, ongoing folk tradition and it continues in myriad forms and expressions now. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan poets and artists continue to challenge power and injustice. More so in Pakistan where instability, extremism and uncertainty have impacted people in a profound manner for the past few decades.

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Militancy in Sindh: End of our plural culture?

3 February 2015

The recent carnage in Shikarpur has come as a shock for many Pakistanis. Rural Sindh, invisible from the view of Punjab and Karachi obsessed media rarely makes news unless there is a major political rally or the images of dying children that can enable some quick political point scoring.

For the past decade, the land of Sufis known for its tolerant and plural ways has been the latest laboratory of Pakistan’s sectarian jihadists. Along the major highways, the mushrooming of seminaries is evident and the recent build up of hate crimes testifies to the ideological grafting that is underway. The Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi have since long succumbed to the madrassa-welfare complex that in part responds to state failure as well as fits into the security architecture. The largely secular Sindh and Balochistan provinces are now under attack to balance what is known in the official-speak as ‘inter-provincial harmony’.

Balochistan has seen the worst incidents of sectarian terror in the past few years. Hazara settlements being bombarded with explosives hidden in water tankers, youth spaces such as snooker clubs attacked and young women going to college targeted, are incidents all too well known. But forgotten as they happen away from the centres of power. The sectarian outfits nourished in the populous plains of Punjab have branched out in Balochistan for a variety of reasons. The foremost reason is to challenge the nationalist movement with sectarian-religious passions. Media reports have also indicated that the sectarian militants may have infiltrated the ranks of some separatists but all of this is speculative thus far. Reporting from and on Balochistan is as perilous as covering Syria or Iraq these days. According to Reporters Without Border, Khuzdar is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. You are bound to get on the wrong side of major players: the security agencies and the militants.

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The vicious cycle of hate and violence

1 February 2015

The recent issue to have riled up a good number of Pakistanis — including jihadi networks — is the alleged blasphemy against Islam committed by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The imagined gatekeepers of the Ummah and the country in possession of an ‘Islamic bomb’ must protest against the ‘degradation’ and ‘defamation’ of the ‘faith’. Nowhere in that discourse is mentioned how brutal murders by gunmen could be justified, let alone explained.

European societies must not be bailed out for their growing Islamophobia and the uneven integration of the ‘Muslim’ into secular societies. Nor can the double standards on free speech be condoned. Western Europe needs to introspect where it has gone wrong in breeding such alienation and discontent. But that is their problem.

For Pakistanis, and many Muslim societies to get outraged at the offensive material about their faith, is at best duplicitous.

In Pakistan, we grew up with Friday sermons and prayers that ended with calling for the defeat of Christians, Jews and Hindus. In some cases, there is an explicit invocation of divine help for their ‘destruction’. The grievances that such sermons manifest are political, often real, but largely imagined. Mahsaal, a Lahore-based NGO, has compiled a few sermons and one of them dated 2010 advocates thus: “O Muslims, get up and take in hand your arrows, pick up your Kalashnikovs, train yourselves in explosives and bombs, organise yourselves into armies, prepare nuclear attacks and destroy every part of the body of the enemy. The Holy Quran instructs us but since we have not followed it the Europeans have published the cartoons …”. This was perhaps said in the wake of the Danish cartoons saga where we only harmed ourselves by burning public buildings and getting innocent Pakistanis killed. (more…)

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