Monday, August 24, 2009

Those Ten Thousand Promises

It seems that the sweet nothings that Manmohan Singh whispered into Yousaf Raza Gilani's ear at the romantic Egyptian resort have in fact come to nothing. Dialogue between India and Pakistan is once again predicated on action against terrorists. This time it is India's External Affairs Minister SM Krishna who poured cold water over the feverish promises of that brief but torrid Sharm el-Sheikh honeymoon.

Perhaps he felt obliged to play the censorious father to the blossoming Veer-Zaara love story. Or perhaps he felt duty bound to rescue our gallant Veer from disgrace. It has been clear for a while that Singh’s ardor was nowhere as openheartedly embraced in India as Veer’s was. The right has been busy castigating him for his unseemly display. But then again, from the crusaders against Valentines Day, this reaction can hardly come as a surprise.

On the other hand, Zaara it seems has been ready to take the plunge for nearly a decade. She has been strutting her markets quite seductively before Veer despite alarmed Pakistani industrialists’ best attempts to cover her up. Now if only Veer would grow a pair, make up his damned mind, Zaara’s rabid ex-fiance be put down and their families resolve their property dispute…

This saga really has dragged on for an inordinate amount of time, even by Bollywood’s extravagant standards. And the heaps of unnecessary plot twists are making this story more tiresome than Star Plus soaps. Even Yash Chopra couldn’t have come up with a more convoluted storyline.

I just want to fast-forward to the end of this god awful film, catch a weekend plane to Bombay without having to deal with the cumbersome visa and registration process and knock back a couple of mojitos with my friends there. Is that really too much to ask? Is it?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Fallacy of the Authentic Other

Last week I had written a post about making our national identity more inclusive. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how rich English-speaking Pakistanis are excluded from the national identity by the discourse of authenticity. This discourse is most obvious in the Urdu media where columnists and talk show hosts enthusiastically denounce English-speaking Pakistanis as traitors and dupes of the West. But what is a bit more surprising is that this discourse is equally prevalent in the English media and among English-speaking Pakistanis, who also tend to see themselves as less-than-authentic Pakistanis.

This past Tuesday Koel Gallery put up a photography and video show by Maazin Kamal and Ahmed Omar titled “Bereft in the Fatherland”. It was as apt an example of this discourse in English speakers as I could imagine. The photos were high contrast black and white portraits of orphan children from Machar Colony, the largest slum in Karachi. In each photograph an orphan stared out with large doleful eyes, the image framed so tightly around the child that the background was invisible. Under each of the dozen or so photographs were Urdu couplets that read like plaintive pleas from the children. The one on the brochure, which if memory serves is quite typical of the rest, reads:

میری حساس امیدوں سے لرزتا ہے زماں
پر میرے دیس کی مٹی پہ میرا نام نہیں

At the opening, people, including myself, were hunched over the couplets struggling to decipher them. Later, over doodh pati and dhoklas, people clucked about these unfortunate souls captured so poignantly by the intrepid photographer. The whole show, consciously or subconsciously, was aimed to remind the viewer of the ‘real Pakistan’ outside the air-conditioned art galleries and cafes. The insistence on using Urdu for the poetry when most of the people there were much more comfortable in English further emphasized those children’s authentic pakistaniat.

Perhaps, someone will argue that the poetry was giving voice to the disenfranchised children and their voice of course cannot be in English. In that case it would have been more accurate for the poetry to be in Bengali, Sindhi and Pushto, the languages most heard in Machar Colony. But the fact is that those photographs had very little to do with reality. They were more interested in constructing the authentic other. The expressions were consciously selected by Maazin – it is hard to believe that these children, difficult as their lives are, never smile. The poetry was carefully crafted by Simi Kamal, Maazin’s mother and is tantamount to putting words in the children’s mouths. The decision to make the images black and white further aesthetizes them adding to their carefully calculated poignancy.

The photographs were the visual embodiment of ‘the masses’ whom the rich so airily talk about: the illiterate masses, the unfed masses, the helpless masses, the masses that need our sympathy and assistance. They put forward an utterly uncritical, patronizing and reductive view of the children of Machar Colony. The photographs reminded me of those NGO ads that pop up during Ramzan exhorting people to give zakat. They too use especially pitiful images of the ‘helpless masses’ to loosen people’s purse strings. But at the very least the money NGOs collect goes to people with similar needs to the ones who had excited the viewer’s sympathy. The money earned from the sale of these photographs goes straight to the photographer and the gallery, which strikes me as little more than exploitation.

But there is more to the story than Maazin and Mom’s dubious use of the orphans’ photographs. These images appeal to English-speaking Pakistanis. We like casting ourselves as saviors of these orphans. These images evoke noble (and thus pleasurable) sentiments in us. They simultaneously confirm our superiority over that other Pakistan. And equally crucially they stir in us a delectable guilt over our privilege and our inability to relate or even communicate with this other Pakistan. It becomes a delicious exercise of self-flagellation. Evoking the unfortunate but authentic other becomes a form of masturbation for English-speaking Pakistanis: a quick and easy way to revel in and relieve our feelings of guilt.

Tellingly, what is missing from rich English-speakers’ conception of the authentic other is the Pakistani middle class. The middle class is equally conspicuous in its absence from Pakistani art. But this is wholly understandable. The middle class is a bit too much like the rich and their antagonism is a bit too palpable. They wield economic and political power and frankly the rich don’t really know what to make of the middle class. This is not to imply that the two groups are hermetically sealed or entirely antagonistic. There are way more familial links connecting the upper and middle classes than between the upper and working classes. It is more that we (not just the rich but Pakistanis at large) haven’t quite made sense of who the middle class is as a social group and what its role, character and capabilities are. It is easier then to cast the authentic other as the helpless poor Pakistani and leave it at that.

Ahmed Omar’s video, on the other hand, was a refreshing contrast to the photographs. It was a long clip of children playing in a street in Machar Colony. The strength of the work lay in the freedom it gave to the subjects. The camera lay stationary, the shot was uninterrupted by cuts and the children played without interference or apparent direction. They bounced all about the street and every so often came up to the camera and boldly peered in. They asked for no sympathy and were in fact extremely relatable. Their exuberance and curiosity immediately reminded me of my own three-year-old sister. In Omar’s video, the aesthetized other of Maazin’s work recovered their humanity. The other it turns out is not so different after all.

Corrigendum: The post incorrectly notes that sales from the exhibition went to the artists. Profits, in fact, went to the Hisaar Foundation, an NGO that works in Pakistan's slums. Furthermore, while the post attributes authorship of the photographs to Maazin Kamal and of the video installation to Ahmed Omar, they were both collaborative efforts.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Repealing the Blasphemy Law

In other news, Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti told Dawn that the government was working on a bill to reverse the discriminatory laws enacted by Zia. Can this tantalizingly vague remark be construed as a promise to repeal the blasphemy law? Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's earlier but equally vague statement about reviewing laws "detrimental to religious harmony" seems to lend some credence to this conjecture. It would certainly be a very appropriate move after all the criticism the blasphemy law has attracted post-Gojra.

But already the right-wing spin doctors have declared Gojra to be a meticulously orchestrated conspiracy against the blasphemy law by unnamed sources who are set on undermining Islam. The rhetoric is appalling in its bald-facedness but is also quite familiar. The downer is that the Pakistani public too seems in synch with the right on this issue. A recent Pew Institute poll found that 78% Pakistanis support the death penalty for apostasy. While there were no questions on blasphemy, the apostasy question should serve as a gauge for Pakistani opinion on the issue. The survey was conducted before Gojra though and perhaps opinions have shifted thereafter.

Nonetheless, repealing the blasphemy law seems to be a politically tricky task. But a few years earlier, the Hudood Ordinance seemed just as much of a sacred cow. The right was certainly fulminating with more venom back then but the amendment still went through. Then again, the Hudood Ordinance was amended by a dictator who at that time at least was somewhat impervious to public opinion. The only hope that I see is in the Pakistan Peoples Party's commitment to human rights. It did put aside its differences with Musharraf to support the Hudood Ordinance amendment. It also recently passed a law against domestic violence. But it still hasn't followed through on its promise to abolish the death penalty. So overall, the PPP's record is a bit mixed. But maybe, just maybe, now too it will take a politically risky move and rid Pakistan of the blasphemy law. One can only wait and see, I suppose.

War of attrition?

Dawn just reported that the army will need several more months to launch a ground operation against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in South Waziristan. It cites Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmed who addressed the press after meeting with Richard Holbrooke, America's point person for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lt Gen Ahmed gives a whole bevy of reasons including shortage of equipment and the lack of availability of planes, which are currently in use in Swat, and so on.

But Lt Gen Ahmed also talks about creating the right conditions before a ground operation. His direct quote in Dawn is "Once you feel that the conditions are right and you have been able to substantially dent their infrastructure and their fighting capacity, then you go in for a ground offensive." To achieve these optimal conditions, the army seems to have laid siege to South Waziristan, blocking roads, bombing militant hideouts and such.

I sincerely hope that the army is keeping in mind the human consequence of this approach. A war of attrition will disproportionately affect civilians in South Waziristan. Adopting such an approach just days after the collective punishment clause of the Frontier Crimes Regulation was substantially diluted is extremely unfortunate. With ominous reports emerging of extrajudicial killings by the army in its Rah-e-Rast Operation in Swat (see here and here), another ethical and human rights crisis is the last thing it should be courting.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

17 crore dillon ki shanaakht

Distinguished economist and historian Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence was a very timely book. Published in 2006, it came just a few years after George W. Bush fashioned himself as a trigger-happy Christian crusader and launched his War on Terror. The world in those days was seen mostly through Samuel Huntington's clash of civilization lens and the "Western civilization" and "Muslim civilization" were considered in a most fundamental way to be mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic.

Sen's point was simple. It is fallacious to categorize people solely by religious affiliation. To see the world only as a federation of religions is to overlook the individual's countless other identities. Sen enumerates some of his own as "an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights” (19) and so on. The insistence on the primacy of one identity, may it be racial or religious, is an old tactic of hate-mongers from Nazis to Hutu and Tutsi militants to Islamic fundamentalists. To ignore the plethora of other identities is to forego all the ways in which people can relate across the so-called civilizational divide. What Sen says is nothing new. In fact it is extremely obvious. But in all the acrimony that followed the 9/11 attacks, many had lost sight of this simple truth.

When I picked up Identity and Violence last week to reread it, it hit me how far the world has come since Bush's disastrous first term as president. The war on terror paradigm and Samuel Huntington are now in the junk pile of history. Obama, a man with astoundingly diverse identities (a biracial American with Kenyan and British heritage, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, a Christian, a man married to an African American woman, a lawyer, a technophile, a community organizer and so on) is now at the helm of the world. The talk of the day is not war but rapprochement and reconciliation with the Muslim world. It is now obvious to most that Muslims do not inevitably sympathize with terrorists. And with the recent national consensus behind the army operation in Swat, this has become obvious to Pakistanis about themselves too. But in a lot of ways, Sen's book is still extremely relevant today when our Pakistani identity remains narrowly defined as the negative of the West, India and other exogenous and endogenous perceived threats.

These past few weeks, in the wake of Gojra, Pakistanis have been immersed in serious debate about our identities. The problem is an old one and with our country's 62nd anniversary over yesterday, we are not much closer to effecting a solution. I say effecting because the solution has been apparent for a long time, even as early as 1947. It will not do to straitjacket 170 million individuals with an artificially fashioned national identity (male, Urdu-speaking, Muslim). Pakistani identity must be broadened to include the varied identities of its citizens. Pakistan should not seek to define its citizens but its citizens should define what it means to be Pakistani.

In this respect there has been a lot of criticism of the Blasphemy Law of late. Some commentators are calling not only for its repeal but also for a secular Pakistani state. Secular government gets a lot of flak in Pakistan as being anti-religion but in reality it only means that the state is religion-blind, treating citizens of all religious identities equally and protecting the religious freedom of everyone.

Many advocates of a secular state quote Quaid-e-Azam's inaugural speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. But the most impassioned and articulate defense of secular government in Pakistan remains Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s who was the opposition leader of our first Constituent Assembly. In his speech during the Objectives Resolution debate of March 1949 Chattopadhyaya said:

"Let us eliminate the complexes of majority and minority. Let us treat citizens of Pakistan members of one family and frame such a constitution as may not break this tie so that all communities may stand shoulder to shoulder on equal footing in time of need and danger. I do not consider myself as a member of the minority community. I consider myself as one of seven crores of Pakistanis. Let me have to retain that privilege.

In other words, Chattopadhyaya envisioned a state where Pakistani identity was not defined to exclude non-dominant religious groups.

But a secular state while going a long way in solving our identity crisis will probably not go far enough. What is really needed is a redefinition of pakistaniat not just in the constitution but also in the minds of the Pakistani people. Here once again the state has to take responsibility because its textbooks are the widest and most effective method of disseminating an understanding of the Pakistani identity.

Those marginalized by the narrow definition of pakistaniat (women and individuals belonging to non-dominant linguistic, ethnic and religious groups) must have their identities accommodated in the larger Pakistani identity. What our schools and textbooks should teach our children is that (A) citizens of our country have multifarious identities that must all be respected and celebrated and (B) that these identities are in total harmony with being Pakistani. A Hindu, a woman, an English speaker, an atheist, a Brahui speaker are all equally Pakistani.

The monolithic way in which history is taught must be changed. Pakistan’s history is not a straight line from Muhammad bin Qasim to the Mughals to the Muslim League and then Pakistan. The importance of non-Muslim rulers needs to be highlighted, as do the regional histories of the provinces and the contributions made to our history, thought and culture by dissidents and also intellectuals and politicians opposed to the League (like Nehru and Gandhi). A history that is more representative of the histories of our people and less ideologically oriented against India and the West and towards the idea of a Muslim nation will go a long way in freeing our national identity and bringing it into line with the identities of our people

A few months back, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan organized the Shanaakht festival to highlight Pakistan’s diversity. It was just the kind of inclusionary event that we need to see but the slogan, “17 crore dillon ki aik shanaakht”, was somewhat disappointing in its implication that we are all Pakistanis despite of our differences rather than because of them. A much more appropriate maxim in my opinion would be: “17 crore shanaakht; aik Pakistan.”