Published in Himal Magazine

In too deep: Afghanistan, Pakistan & the region

3 May 2014

My piece for Himal published in March 2014..

Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan is caught in the muddled terrain of domestic political machinations and regional ambitions

flickr / smlp.co.uk

 

Afghanistan’s history is a turbulent one filled with civil wars, invading armies, foreign political meddling, and disputed successions. Sitting on trade routes between the Mediterranean and China, the Silk Road, and the entrance to India, it has been seen as a prize for many conquering empires. Sadly, Afghans have paid a heavy price for this curse of geography. The British Empire in the 19th century could not subjugate the territories, nor could the Soviets in the 20th. Now the US-led coalition forces, after a disastrous occupation of 12 years, plan to leave the country later this year. 2014 is not just significant for Afghanistan: it will result in regional shifts of power and a new security paradigm, with serious implications for Pakistan.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 unleashed a period of intense conflict as the US and the West responded by mobilising unprecedented resources and funnelling support to mujahideen fighters through regional proxies, most notably Pakistan. Driven by its regional ambitions and perennial fear of India, Pakistan entered the game and for a decade supported the development and oversight of a jihad industry that played on Islamist passions against the ‘infidel’ Soviets. Thus, a stream of jihadists crossed the Durand Line and found many allies to further the rise of Deobandi Islam on both sides of the border. This was a defining moment when jihad acquired a legitimacy of its own and engulfed not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan. (more…)

That easy intimacy

15 October 2011
By Raza Rumi
A Pakistani re-discovers Bangladesh.
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Image: Carey L Biron

As a Pakistani, there is a part of you that reacts instantly to the word Bangladesh: guilt, remorse or, in some cases, nostalgia can suddenly take over. I am from the generation that was spared the horrors of Pakistan Army actions, of information blackouts on the massacre of Bengalis in the name of Pakistani nationalism. But what does it mean to be half a Pakistani, without East Bengal – especially when you know a bit of history and have managed to see through the falsities of the textbooks? It means nothing or it means a lot; it depends on which way you want to look at the other half, now a proud, vibrant country.

Working in international development is what took me to Bangladesh for the first time, nearly five years ago. Prior to that, I had been familiar with the country’s mythical music, rich poetry and tales of its golden sunsets and singing rivers, but had never touched its soil. Bengal’s magic is embedded in the Subcontinental imagination, and these images and literary references long shaped my view of the country. However, my romantic notions were severely jolted when I arrived in Dhaka – at first glance, an overcrowded concrete jungle typically lacking in urban planning. More of the same, I concluded: big cities, despite their buzz, can let you down.

Still, my disappointment did not last, as I soon undertook to seek out the city’s various corners, its hidden spaces of beauty and comfort; above all, what I found was an engaged citizenry marching on. Discovering the University of Dhaka and its surroundings came as a much-needed connection, though older parts of Dhaka are also quite mesmerising. The gulmohar (or krishnachura) trees, almost on fire, greet a visitor on nearly every street, as does a tremendous volume of rickshaws.

Then there is the Shaheed Minar, the monument marking Bengali resistance founded on linguistic identity. The physical monument is modern, and by itself is not particularly exciting. However, its significance is truly monumental, marking as it does Bengali nationalism from 1948 to 1971 under the misrule of West Pakistan elites. Given movements for ethnic, linguistic and provincial identities ongoing in today’s Pakistan, the Shaheed Minar is a powerful reminder of how centralised rule and marginalisation of cultural identities lead to festering problems.

A colleague who took me to see these sites was most polite with me. He was fervently nationalistic but chose his words carefully – at least until I asked him to drop the formalities and just say what he wanted. Then the floodgates opened, and out came his personal memories and renditions from Bengali oral histories. I even found myself apologising, though I then laughed at myself for such a delusional gesture – my few words of apology meant nothing against the horrors of Bengali suffering. Luckily, the charms of the place and the krishnachura trees came to my rescue. And so, I brushed the dark side of our shared histories under the proverbial carpet, just the way that Pakistan has done. For many people in Pakistan, 1971 is today an invisible event, a deliberately ignored footnote in our collective memory, despite being one that should remain understood as a moment of reckoning for the entire country. After all, majority provinces seldom secede; it is usually the other way around. (more…)

An existential crisis

2 February 2011

On 4 January, Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer was killed by a member of his security detail, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. But as disturbing as the assassination itself were the circumstances surrounding and following the governor’s death… In the aftermath, the hold of Pakistan’s religious lobbies has proven to be so powerful that no mullah, not even one appointed and paid by the state, was willing to conduct his funeral rites. While progressive civil-society voices have condemned both the incident and the direction in which Pakistan is heading – an act of great courage in these times – they remain a desperately small minority.

The entire incident epitomises the very real existential crisis in which the Pakistani nation now finds itself – one that relates to its very identity. Successive governments in the country have been quiescent before the forces of religious fundamentalism, and over the years brought in legislation to appease the religio-political forces – including the blasphemy laws that have been under such scrutiny of late. Today, this has reached a situation in which the country’s religious minorities (constituting less than five percent of the national population) are beleaguered amidst a legal system that denies them basic human rights. In turn, this has enabled fundamentalist ideologies to take firm hold in the minds of government functionaries. The support of the state and its security agencies, including sections of the armed forces, to such sections has now reached a point where they are becoming a threat to the very existence of the Pakistani state itself – at least, in the form we know it. (more…)

The pampered Islamabadites

17 October 2008
My piece published by Himal Southasian

Mahboob Ali

Islamabad is a very peculiar urban space. Though no longer a town, it is still struggling to become a city. Arguably, it is the most ‘inhabitable’ place in Pakistan, and ranks far ahead of several other capitals in Asia and Southasia, nearly all of which are plagued by pollution, traffic jams, crime cartels and civil strife. Islamabad, despite the disturbances and security threats that became endemic during 2007, remains largely aloof from this pattern – at least for now.

Located in the foothills of the Margallas, and boasting green spaces and forests intertwined among the folds of the city, Islamabad appears almost surreal against the densely populated rest of Pakistan. Built during the early 1960s by Pakistan’s developmentalist dictator, General Ayub Khan, Islamabad was seen as an antidote to politicised Karachi – which, in any case, was a bit too far from the Punjab and the NWFP, the popular bases for Pakistan’s powerful military. Laid out as a model city with the help of Greek architects, this city of the exclusive was formally born in 1965. Nearby Rawalpindi was already the seat of the army’s headquarters, and its proximity to the new capital was certainly intentional.

The new city’s layout was divided into sectors, numbered streets and broad avenues that are called ramna, using the Bengali term. The civil bureaucracy of federal united Pakistan moved here, and thus the sleepy town suddenly emerged as a new urban settlement in line with the earlier planned emergence of Chandigarh. In Islamabad, roads would empty out after sunset, and the national capital would be oddly deserted on all public holidays. After all, for decades none of the residents actually belonged to this city. (more…)

Living Lohawarana – a Lahori rambling

7 October 2008

My piece for Himal Magazine’s October issue


There was a Lahore that I grew up in, and then there is the Lahore that I live in now. Recovering from an exile status for two decades, I find myself today turning into something of a clichéd grump, hanging desperately on to the past. Yet I resist that. Writing about Lahore is a sensation that lies beyond the folklore – Jine Lahore nai wakhaya o janmia nai (The one who has not seen Lahore has never lived). It has to do with an inexplicable bonding and oneness with the past, and yet a contradictory and not-so-glorious interface with the present.

Lahore is now the second largest city in Pakistan, with a population that has crossed the 10 million mark. It is turning into a monstropolis. Had it not been for Lahore’s intimacy with Pakistan’s power base – the Punjab-dominated national establishment – this would be just another massive, unmanageable city, regurgitating all the urban clichés of the Global South. But Lahore retains a definite soul; it is comfortable with modernity and globalisation, and continues to provide inspiration for visitors and residents alike.

Over the last millennium, Lahore has been the traditional capital of Punjab in its various permutations. A cultural centre of North India extending from Peshawar to New Delhi, it has historically been open to visitors, invaders and Sufi saints alike. Several accounts tell how Lahore emerged as a town between the 6th and 16th centuries BC. According to commonly accepted myth, Lahore’s ancient provenance, Lohawarana, was founded by the two sons of Lord Ram some 4000 years ago. One of these sons, Loh (or Luv), gave his name to this timeless city. A deserted temple in Lahore Fort is ostensibly a tribute to Loh, located near the Alamgiri gate, next to the fort’s old jails. Under the regime of Zia ul-Haq, Loh’s divine space was closed and used as a dungeon in which to punish political activists. (more…)

The invisibility of the Mughal princesses

18 July 2008

My piece published by the Himal Magazine 

The limitations of Southasia’s historical record can be seen in the indifference towards two notable Mughal princesses, Jahanara and Zebunnissa.

History – that mosaic of tales and fables that is generally, though not entirely, agreed upon – will always be contested and debated, often in the blood-lined bazaars of power. Indian history, which serves as the broad banner for the histories of Southasia, is certainly no exception in this. After all, Indian history has largely been one of power laced with the force of religion. In addition, during the course of this history, the rulers, ministers, clerics and soldiers have, with rare exceptions, all been male. Indeed, the annals of the sultanate and Mughal history, both medieval and modern, are largely tales of powerful and quarrelsome men vying for power and patronage. The local patriarchal society, influenced by the zeal of West Asian Islam, ensured the almost complete invisibility of women.

The brief reign of Razia Sultan (1236-1240) was an exception, though her ascension to the Delhi sultanate throne and subsequent dethronement and exile, as well as the continuous resistance of clergy and nobles to her political persona, only reinforced the predominance to patriarchy. Other than Razia Sultan and Queen Nur Jahan, who both gave up purdah and participated in the brutal politics of men, rarely did a woman rise to a position of authority or influence. For her part, Nur Jahan (1577-1645) experienced particular success, but her precedent was not the norm – she was Persian, after all, and was considered a particularly wily player of power politics. And Nur Jahan is demonised as a power-hungry monster, who supposedly subjugated the masculinity of her emperor husband to assume charge of the Mughal Empire. Indeed, in the words of that husband, Jahangir, the kingdom had been ‘sold’ to his wife for a cup of wine and a bowl of soup. Nur Jahan has also been accused of misdeeds that were common to powerful men of that age: bribery, nepotism and the weaving of court intrigues. Such faint praise aside, all the while her lasting contributions to the Mughal court – the cuisine, lifestyle and trends of that age – have been largely overlooked, to appear as little more than ‘feminine’ footnotes in the main narrative of Southasian power.

Lahore is where Nur Jahan and Jahangir married, and where they established their royal home. As a Lahorite, the childhood memories of this writer are inextricably mixed with those of many visits to Jahangir’s tomb. But the name of this much-celebrated monument is also particularly symbolic: it is not just the final resting place of Jahangir, but also that of the queen who lovingly designed the buildings and surrounding gardens, to their very last detail. Many of the architecturally significant additions made to the Lahore Fort, such as the zenana (female) quarters, have never been attributed to her. The irony, of course, is that Nur Jahan was the only queen who actually spent the majority of her royal life in Lahore. Other Mughal Emperors and Empresses lived in Agra or Delhi, save a few years of Akbar’s sojourn in Lahore. However, the histories of Lahore inevitably reduce Nur Jahan’s era to a brief footnote or an unread appendix.

Rilasa-i-Jahanara
But there is more to this story of the neglected women of the Mughal court than Razia Sultan and Nur Jahan. Buried within the folds of history is the tale of two princesses who have always remained well out of sight of the mainstream historical narratives of the Mughals. In recent decades, historians and novelists have indeed begun to explore the lives of princesses Jahanara and Zebunnissa, but the scanty primary sources available have largely thwarted these endeavours. Nonetheless, the stories of these extraordinary Mughal women dazzle through the mists of time, and their central paradox cannot be overlooked: the princesses were royal, and hence noteworthy, and yet they are almost completely invisible in what Southasians know as ‘history’. (more…)

Pakistan’s rich dissident literary tradition

19 May 2008

Himal Magazine had published this article on the resistance poetry in Pakistan. I had uploaded it on the Pak Tea House some time back. However, I just realised that it should be published here as well..

The long spells of authoritarian rule in Pakistan have nurtured a rich dissident literary tradition. This tradition has its roots in the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which originated in colonial India with major Urdu poets and writers as its vanguards. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was, of course, the best-known torchbearer of this tradition, while other luminaries included Sajjad Zaheer, M D Taseer, Rashid Jahan, Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chughtai, Sahir Ludhianvi and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, to name only a few.

With the post-Independence Pakistani state continuing the old-style approach to ruling over the masses, the progressive movement too carried on its dissent long after 1947. Those who had migrated to Pakistan faced a new reality, which, in the words of Faiz, was far from the dawn for which they had hoped. “This blemished light, this dawn by night half-devoured,” Faiz wrote ruefully. “surely not the dawn for which we were waiting.” (more…)