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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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“Remembering Intizar Husain”

Raza Rumi remembers Intizar Husain as a colossus of letters, but also as a formative influence for himself
ishtiaq1

(L-R) Jamila Hashmi, Intizar Husain, Masood Ashar and Kishwar Naheed

I remember the languid afternoon in Lahore when I met Intizar Husain surrounded by his friends and admirers. This formal introduction happened as poet-writer Fahmida Riaz was visiting Lahore and wanted to see Intizar Sahib – as we all called him. This was nearly a decade ago and my memory of that meeting is a bit hazy. All I remember is that Intizar Sahib showed extraordinary enthusiasm when he heard my name.

Arrey I have been reading you in The Friday Times”, he said. Bewildered, I thought that he was trying to humour a young novice with literary pretensions. Noticing my maladroit attempt to hide my expression, he added in chaste, homely Urdu: “I had thought that this guy Rumi was some old man writing about the shared cultures of the subcontinent…Aap tau naujawan nikle (you turned out to be a youth).”

In those days, I was regular feature writer at TFT and had penned many a rant on the civilisational ethos of the Indian Subcontinent that has fast eroded in the past few decades. Little did I know that it would be noted by – of all the readers – Urdu’s master fiction writer and columnist, essayist and a critic!

ishtiaq2Intizar Sahib had resisted the temptations of turning into a cult figure, a pop star or a pir

This was a moment of reckoning for me. I was but a pygmy in front of this literary giant and man of all proverbial seasons. Hearing his acknowledgment was a kind of homecoming – a process that continues, distracted by the necessities of garnering jobs and nurturing pretenses of a ‘career’. Among other reasons to change direction in my life, perhaps Intizar Sahib was a major reason. His encouragement – to an utterly unimaginative person like me – acted as an elixir.

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Remembering Parveen Shakir (1952-1994)

My 2009 article published in The Friday Times.

parveen-shakir-the-bold-brilliant-and-the-beautifulParveen Shakir (1952-1994) has defined the sensibilities of several generations and beyond. At the relatively young age of 42 years, Parveen Shakir died on an empty Islamabad boulevard, as if this was an essential part of her romantic persona. But she had lived a full life where poetry and tragedy intersected each other and became inseparable from her being.

As a young student in high school, I was introduced to Shakir’s romantic poetry, which was best represented by her first collection of poetry ‘Khushbu’ . I had won an essay writing competition in Urdu and a delightful award came in the form of this tender volume of poetry. Since then I have always returned to bits and pieces of Khushbu . It may not be ‘great’ according to the cannons of literary theory, but it is spontaneous, fresh and almost dreamlike. Shakir was bearly 24 years old when Khushbu was published and since its first edition, this book has been a best seller wherever Urdu poetry is read or appreciated.

CXHeqSFWQAAri4VKhushbu turned Shakir into a celebrity. Aside from mushairas, newspapers and public fora, she was ever-present on the Pakistan television, perhaps as its only saving grace during the rigid years of Zia-ul-Haq’s Martial Law. Shakir had a natural talent for public speaking, reciting poetry and just being herself. I remember one monsoon evening in Murree when we were hooked to her presentation on Pakistan’s Independence Day. There was a distinct tenderness in her voice that was in sharp contrast to the platitudes being churned out. Above all she was beautiful. I remember she would read verses from her own work and from the great masters of Urdu poetry with complete ease and immense refinement. In the short period of time that she lived as a poet, Parveen did rather well and was quite prolific. Her later collections comprised Sad Barg (marsh merrygold), Khud Kalami (conversing with one’self), Inkaar (refusal), Maah-e-Tamaam (full moon) and Kaf-e-Aaina (edge of the mirror).
Her raw romanticism runs through her poetry. For instance, ye haseen shaam apni is a love poem of rare beauty; and has always been a favourite of mine. It is composite, taut and melodic; and here is my translation. […]

December 26th, 2015|Published in The Friday Times|1 Comment

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

Mumtaz Qadri – Salman Taseer- Blasphemy it was not

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has upheld the death penalty for Mumtaz Qadri – the policeman who murdered former Punjab governor Salman Taseer in January 2011 for an alleged act of ‘blasphemy’. I analysed the implications.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan on 7 October upheld the decision of the trial court and the Islamabad High Court and rejected the appeal against Mumtaz Qadri ’s death sentence. The defence lawyers had argued that because the slain governor Salman Taseer termed the blasphemy laws as “black laws”, Mumtaz Qadri had the right to kill him.

Salman Taseer with Aasia bibi Mumtaz Qadri blasphemy Salman Taseer with Aasia bibi

The obiter dicta from the bench, as reported in the press, were also encouraging. Supreme Court Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, while discussing the case, remarked that “criticizing blasphemy laws does not amount to committing blasphemy” and that Mumtaz Qadri had no legal grounds to take the law into his own hands. The fact that such a remark clarifying that “questioning the blasphemy law is not blasphemy” becomes a cause for celebration says quite a lot about the socio-cultural milieu of Pakistan. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that the apex court would have actually bought into the sham arguments presented by the defence lawyers and overlooked the rather clear admission of the accused.

Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed Mumtaz Qadri Salman Taseer blasphemy Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed

The idea of committing violence as a religious obligation is neither alien nor criminal for a sizeable number of people

However, the temporary euphoria after this judgment must not conceal the fact that a former Chief Justice of Lahore High Court and a former judge of the same court were defending the accused largely on theological grounds. In fact the former judge, Justice Mian Nazir Akhtar, in an interview declared that disliking kadoo (pumpkin) was akin to committing blasphemy, since that was a vegetable preferred by our Holy Prophet (PBUH).  While the verdict is an important step to establish rule of law, the lawyers who showered rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri will not disappear nor will young students who vandalized a vigil for Salman Taseer earlier this year.

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Grace in hand

Komail Aijazuddin’s artwork marks a step beyond the earlier explorations of the baroque symbolism

aijaz Composition with Border 76.2 x 56.3 cm mixed media on paper 2015

Komail Aijazuddin is a representative of Pakistan’s younger generation of artists that is renegotiating the possibilities of artistic expression. In a sense, the works of Komail and many others have helped to create a new aesthetic that draws from the ‘tradition’ but reinterprets and subverts it with much flair.

Komail does not belong to a traditional school – or the cabals created across the country – that usually sets the styles of art practices in the country. Trained in New York (at New York University and the Pratt Institute), Komail Aijazuddin brings the Western traditions into his artistic experience and fuses them with the Pakistani traditions of religious symbolism and devotional narratives.

aijaz2 Black Tree 76.2 x 56.3 cm mixed

In Saint in Silver, the division between the sacred and the common is a border

In his early works, Komail ventured into a forbidden arena – of imagining the range of figurative within the Islamic traditions. Thus the Shia and the Catholic motifs found echo, and continues to speak, in the growing corpus of work. He did not stop there but added other traditions into his oeuvre, such as Buddhism, which were once native to regions comprising Pakistan.  Given the nature of contestations and violence that surrounds ‘religion’ in Pakistan, Komail’s work goes beyond the formalism of the motif and has been turning overtly political. The intersections of personal faith and the cultural milieu – littered with the notions of blasphemy, purity and public religiosity – have defined the various and prolific phases of his art practice.

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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