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The party line

My exclusive interview for the Friday Times with Kamran Asdar Ali about his book and the history of the Pakistani left

kamran1 Kamran Asdar Ali

Your book employs an interdisciplinary approach with literary texts playing a major part. What were the key reasons for adopting such a hybrid approach?

As I am trained as an anthropologist, my impulse has been that of an ethnographer while involving myself in history writing (looking for cultural patterns, the silences, the private sphere, the everyday). In the text I try to pay close attention to people’s lives, their writings and practices, I show the entanglement of their experiences in multiple and cross-cutting processes and political motivations. To capture these layers of Pakistan’s history, the book is based on oral testimonies, ethnographic fieldwork, memoirs, and archival research. Yet to excavate the nuances of people’s everyday existence during a particular era I also relied on fiction and literary texts. This provided me, as it does to numerous scholars who are trying to understand the cultural specificity of an era, a window into the life and times of the period I was trying to capture in the book. Reports, journalistic accounts, sociological descriptions and historical sources do provide an understanding of the past (as part of the formal archives), yet many historians use diaries and personal letters to enter the private and intimate domain. In these terms fiction also helps us understand the mood, sentiment and the affective experience of a particular moment in history. The bringing together of various genres of writing helps me to strive toward a more complete understanding of my subject matter.

The acceptance of Pakistan by the Communist Party of India remains a contested issue. Did the Communists foresee that they would soon face intense repression by the new state? 

The Communist Party of India (CPI) since 1942 onwards did seek to work with the Muslim League and also propagate Congress-League alliance. In pursuing this argument, CPI cadres worked closely with the Muslim League, at times joining the party in the 1945-46 elections. However, the CPI changed its position on Pakistan in 1946 and emphasised that the unity of India was the progressive point of view and partition would be a reactionary step. Later still in August 1946, the CPI issued a resolution asserting that surely the Muslim League represented the bulk of the Muslim masses, yet declared that the demand reflected the feudal and Muslim elite interests that sought to compromise with imperialism for a share in administering a divided India. Indeed, CPI finally did accept the creation of Pakistan by arguing for the division of the party itself during the Party Congress in 1948. But a deep suspicion of Muslim League politics and the agony over British India’s division was the overwhelming sentiment that was shared by a majority of party workers of all religions and ethnicities. Pakistan’s creation was, according to the CPI, non-progressive and hence reactionary.

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A twist in the tale

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My Interview conducted by Abdullah Khan for Earthen Lamp Journal:

ELJ: Tell us something about your journey from being a civil servant to […]

In memoriam: Writers like Intizar Husain never die, they live on in their words and ideas

In celebrating his pluralistic literary roots, Intizar Husain was a truly contemporary writer

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Intizar Husain, the last of great Urdu writers, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

He’d been hospitalized for some time in Lahore. His ardent followers had been worried that the worst was likely to happen. But the truth is that writers of Husain’s stature never die. They live in their words and the corpus of ideas that they bequeath to future generations.

Husain was definitely one such figure. He leaves behind some of the finest specimens of fiction, journalism, travel writing and critical essays. The sheer volume of Husain’s literary output is mind boggling as it indicates a life that was lived in a deep love of letters; engaged in an eternal search for meaning.

Intizar Sahib spent his early years at his birthplace Dibai in the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. In one of his interviews, he said that the partition of India in 1947 made him a fiction writer. Nothing could be truer as the shadow of his migration to a new country became perennial. For much of his life, this event and the sense of displacement informed his creative musings.

 intizar2
Intizar Husain was a sought after presence at literary festivals, where his vast body of work was discussed

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Dear Infidel: The Dilemma of British Muslims

I was a student in the United Kingdom when The Satanic Verses – the controversial novel by Salman Rushdie – created pandemonium across the globe. Images of the book being burnt were flashed across the television screens. My British Muslim friends were divided – some passionate about the issue of blasphemy, others unconcerned or detached from the divide. However, this moment marked a moment of imagination of a “new Islam.” Author Sadia Abbas has delineated this construction of the “violent” versus the “civilised” (Western world) in a new book entitled: At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (Fordham University Press). With the “defeat” of Communism and move to “liberate” Kuwait in 1991, a new kind of sensibility was brewing. The September 11 attacks a decade later cemented this construction and today the Muslim, especially in the West is a loaded term open to multiple interpretations; and a new imagination of Islam rules the public mind.

It is in this context that a recent novel Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali is an important work of fiction emanating from the United Kingdom where new Islam is also under heavy scrutiny. Sadikali, an authentic voice from the “hood” has both the panache and punch to weave a story around issues of “British Muslim” identity and how it is informed by race, ethnicity, dilemmas of assimilation. Dear Infidel is a story of disparate lives of young Brits negotiating multiple identities in a post-9/11 world. […]

Chronicles of our recent past

FS Aijazuddin’s new book is an erudite and introspective account of a turbulent decade

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The past decade in Pakistan has been cataclysmic. Political upheavals and assassinations, the menace of terrorism that cost us more than 80,000 lives and over $100 billion; and a time warped foreign policy kept pushing the country into a vortex. All of this reproduced the curse of endemic political instability that has been a hallmark of Pakistan’s trajectory. Much has been written on this decade especially by foreign commentators given our global relevance as an American ally in the War on Terror. Within Pakistan, a handful of commentators and analysts have articulated more grounded, organic narratives; and FS Aijazuddin is one of the chosen few. His new book The Morning After is a collection of articles, essays and speeches he delivered in various capacities during the years 2006 and 2014. As the author tells us, the book is a fourth in the series of such compilations. The last one – When Bush Comes to Shove and other writings – was published in 2006.

Such compilations can be tricky for a reader as often the contents respond to time-bound events and explore topics that run the risk of losing relevance overtime. Given the structural constraints of Pakistani state and society, the issues covered in The Morning After appear relevant even in 2015. Take the case of a column entitled ‘Making Cartoons of Ourselves’ on the global outrage against Danish Cartoons. It is hauntingly familiar and newsy. In 2012, there were countrywide protests against a film made on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and last year 14 staffers of a French magazine – Charlie Hebdo – were killed by fanatics in Paris. Aijazuddin’s conclusion is spot-on: “We are not the caricatures stencilled by the western press, nor the cartoons extremists make of themselves and of us by their aberrant behaviour.” […]

Manto’s women

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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A definitive history of Pakistan

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. […]