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On Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

C.M. Naim’s, A Professor Emiretus had shared this some months ago:

“What an extraordinary man he was. Iftikhar Alam Sahib has been publishing books about him — about his little known aspects, the kind of things […]

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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Midnight’s furies

The violent process of Partition remains a highly contested domain in the study of history. Raza Rumi examines various histories of Partition in the light of arguments from three recent books on the blood-stained events of 1947

partition1 Death and displacement from 1947 remain seared into the historical memories of both Pakistanis and Indians

The debate on India’s Partition of 1947 continues even 68 years after the cataclysmic event took place. The manifestations of this historical rupture are all too evident in our ‘present’ as well. For the past few months, Indian authors and intellectuals have been protesting the growing incidents of communal violence and the mainstream Indian discourse on Muslims and Islam was never so pungent. Ironically, the right wing commentators and Hindu nationalist politicians have been advising the dissenters to move to Pakistan. This would have been amusing, if it were not for the looming threat of violence – physical, verbal or even imagine.

For decades, Pakistani dissenters have also been branded as Indian agents. With the rise of social media and the deep, dark havens of bigotry that the Internet provides, campaigns are launched to brand anyone deviating from the official line of ‘Pakistan’, defined by religious nationalism, as a traitor. Human rights defenders such as Asma Jahangir and even centre-right politician such as Nawaz Sharif have been painted in such a light. At the heart of these sterile and offensive campaigns lie issues linked to identity – religious, national and political. In short, the discussions that were taking place in British India of the 1940s have permeated into our contemporary discourses.

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December 18th, 2015|History, Pakistan, Published in The Friday Times, SouthAsia|0 Comments

Islam and the “Cold War baroque”

When “empire” strikes back, but the Force remains strong – in the arts and academia of contemporary Muslim countries. I spared with Sadia Abbas
zia2

As the world moves into a maddening phase of Islam versus the West, Pakistani academic Sadia Abbas presents a layered narrative in her book, At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (Fordham University Press, New York), on the contours of a new, imagined view of “Islam”. In great detail and with crafted nuance, she analyses the complexities of the postcolonial condition of Muslim societies and Muslims, and the myriad modes and facets of anticolonial ambitions.

Abbas’s study is unique because it delves into the intricate relationships between Islam, empire and culture, and weaves the story of the current crises that inform the lives of Muslims and their societies, through a literary lens. This study, in effect, presents an alternative discourse to the debates that surround depictions of both “Islamic terror” and “Islamophobia”. At Freedom’s Limit suggests that the complex histories of identity and struggle at the global level are vital to understanding the “new Islam” that has emerged since the early 1990s.

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August 14th, 2015|Extremism, History, Published in The Friday Times|0 Comments

Save Palmyra From ISIS’s Rampage

 

Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have placed on view a relic from ancient Palmyra in Syria. In addition, the galleries are displaying images of 18th century engravings and 19th century photographs from its archives. In the wake of Daesh or the Islamic State’s offensive in Syria, this exhibition has attained a symbolic significance. Being held in the capital of the world’s only superpower with a questionable Syria policy, the display reminds us of what is at stake.

It was exhilarating to be connected with this rich past of humanity and at the same time extremely devastating to remember that we live in a world where our ancient treasures can be wiped out while we look on helplessly.

Palmera2

Haliphat – a limestone funerary relief bust on display at Sackler- stares at you with an intense expression. Her two fingers on the chin represent modesty and virtue. For a moment it seems like a reflection on what is happening in Palmyra today. Halpihat has been dated back to 231 C.E. The almost-alive figure displays Roman and Aramaic artistic styles, reminding us of how Palmyra was the bridge between the East and West.

The Islamic State reportedly has planted mines and bombs in Palmyra. It is unclear if ISIS intends to destroy Palmyra or is using the threat as a strategy to deter attacks by Iraqi forces. Nevertheless, our collective heritage under grave threat. […]

The verse of freedom

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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Back in the Driver’s Seat

Pakistan’s military retakes pivotal control, and the public does not seem to mind.

PAKISTAN-DEFENCE-SECURITY

Pakistan’s military is back in the driving seat. This time, not through a conventional coup d’etat, but through an amended constitution that enables military tribunals to try civilians accused of terrorism.

On Jan. 6, in a joint session, the Parliament amended the country’s constitution to establish military courts. The Islamist parties, opposed to the inclusion of the term “religious terrorism,” backed out at the last minute. But the major secular political parties, ostensibly committed to democratic rule, passed on the judicial powers to special military courts for a period of two years. This is a significant blow to the democratic transition that occurred after Gen. Musharraf’s ouster in 2008, when the country returned to civilian rule.

The unenviable history of democratic evolution in Pakistan is well known. The military directly governed for more than three decades, and in the periods of so-called civilian rule (such as the present one), the military retains control over security and foreign policy. Pakistan’s military is also synonymous with the nationalist identity and therefore shapes the political discourse as well.

The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, assumed office in June 2013. In November, he appointed a new Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, thinking that he was consolidating civilian power. Sharif also pushed for the trial of former President Musharraf (who ousted Sharif in 1999) for violating the constitution by imposing emergency rule in November 2007.

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January 16th, 2015|History, Pakistan, Published in Foreign Policy, terrorism|0 Comments