On Thinking Pakistan—Rambles and Recollections of an… upon Intezar Husain’s ‘Chiraghon ka Dhuvan’

Once it is granted that in India we practise a different kind of secularism, a secularism which is unique to us, it becomes very difficult not to grant the same status to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. This may seem bizarre given the fact that religion seems to pervade life in all these places, and a struggle over the definition of the state continues everywhere. However, defining oneself is different from the way one may be read. Many an avowed Muslim appears highly heretic to others. In fact the contemporary state, given the kinds of tasks of enumeration, surveillance, discipline and welfare that it is asked to command can only ever be secular, a fact that the Emory based legal scholar Abdullah Bin Naimi has been trying to hammer home to different kinds of Muslims over the last decade. For more of his works one can go to here and here.

The reason I bring this up in particular relates to the case of Pakistan. An avowed Islamic state, it has found it difficult to satisfy the urgings of different kinds of Islamists. And indeed it never can do so simply because protecting its citizens and assuring them equality is also one of its declared goals. The clash between the principle of treating each citizen as an individual, equal before the state, and the demands of different kinds of communities which may be ethnic, linguistic, regional or religious is precisely the playground of struggle that all South Asian, and now some European, states grapple with in their pursuit of secular goals.

In the particular case of Pakistan, it was declared an Islamic republic only in 1956. But it took over twenty five years of pressure, and two wars with India, before the secular socialist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims and appointed Friday as the national holiday. It took Zia ul Haq’s regime to instil the importance of reading Namaz in offices, playgrounds, assemblies and official meetings as an important Islamic and state-sanctioned practice. The blasphemy and Hudood laws in Pakistan continue to be entangled in practices of jurisprudence and precedence that are secular and in many cases, Indian and/or Hindu.

Intizar Husain’s enthralling literary memoir Chiraghon ka Dhuvan, brings a lot of these issues into the open without ever underlining them. Classical music in Pakistan, with all its bandishes ostensibly dealing with pagan Hindu gods, continued to prosper up until the seventies. State television and radio would patronise the musicians, the All Pakistan Music Conferences continued to attract large crowds and the Arts Council in Lahore conducted kathak and other dance lessons even under Zia. Urdu writers continued to publish, not in clandestine magazines but in journals with above ground circulations and government registrations, poetry inspired from and in praise of Mirabai. Here is a particular conversation with the poet Salahuddin Mahmood, a self proclaimed Sufi who wrote highly emotionally charged letters from Madina, and aspired to relive the physical moment when the Prophet breathed upon this earth. But one day he called all his friends, put out the light and began to play M. S. Subbahlakhsmi singing Mirabai’s bhajans. When Husain queried him on this apparent contradiction, Salahuddin Mahmood’s response was, ‘my Islam is incomplete without Mirabai. The thing is Intezar Saheb that I was not born in a vacuum, I am a progeny of those Muslims who have been seeped in this habitat for over nine hundred years. Once the date tree is transplanted to this land from Arabic, perforce the fruit would taste different.’

Husain’s memoirs also highlight the now forgotten the fact that it was in fact the condemnatory and dismissive attitude of the leftists that dealt as much of a body blow to classical music in Pakistan as the intransigence of the Islamists. Here is a note from Iftekhar Jalib, a noteworthy leftist and a great friend and acolyte of Faiz who wrote in response to one of Husain’s newspaper columns-

‘the days of Raag Darbari are now well and truly over, only Qawwali will prevail. Pure classical music cannot escape its elite origins, keeping it alive is akin to keeping the old feudal power structure alive.’

In a rebuttal to that the writer Hayat Ahmad Khan described a meeting with Maulana Maudoodi the godfather of Jamat-e Islami and in many ways the leading ideologue of political Islam in South Asia. Hayat queried him about the legitimacy of singing, he responded by saying it is all right to sing with a daf (a kind of dafli, prevalent particularly in Iran) but not with a Tabla because of the curious reason that the daf is open from one side whereas the Tabla is closed from both sides! Caught between the Islamicists’ disapproval and the condemnation of the leftists, the decline of classical music in Pakistan can hardly be equated with the nature of the state.

Husain narrates anecdotes relating to Ustad Amanat Ali Khan who complains about the fact that PTV authorities have been asking him to sing Ghazals and light songs rather than the classical Ragas like Bageshwari that he truly enjoyed singing. A letter from Roshanara Begum narrates the fate of a television lecture demonstration in 1972 which was badly truncated because some sections, remnants really, of the erstwhile Pakistan Communist party, then fervent supporters of Bhutto, looked deeply askance at Classical music. They saw in it a perpetuation of the elite hegemony and preferred to propagate popular music forms such as Qawwali. It was the leftist Anwar Sajjad, otherwise a radical pioneer in the new Urdu short story movement, who eased out stalwart artists like Nazamat Ali, Salamat Ali and Amanat Ali Khan from space and prominence at the Alhamra Arts Council Lahore. The point that I am stressing is that an Islamic state is not a finished form which droppeth like a gentle rain from heaven. The struggle before an Islamic state, as much as a secular one, is to negotiate paths of legitimacy amidst conflicting claims and options. Approval for state action eventually lies in the realm of public opinion whether it is ratified in direct elections or is guessed by demagogues who want to manipulate public opinion.

Husain writes movingly of the times of war between India and Pakistan, the sell out of 1965, as it was imagined there as well as the ‘Crush India’ days of the 1971 war. During the former he chanced upon an encounter with the great Pakistani painter Shakir Ali. He asked the painter what he was up to during these epochal times. Shakir’s reply was-

‘Intezar Saheb, these days I read Rilke and try to paint the moon, which rises on both sides of the border.’

Take the case of Cinema. Films continue to be made in Pakistan, although their quality and popularity has steadily plummeted. During the seventies and eighties, under Zia ul Haq’s Islamic regime, Husain was one of the three members of the censor board of Pakistani films. The Pakistani state therefore not only officially permits the production of films but also attempts to regulate it. Husain writes of how, during all his years of watching them he actually ended up watching, essentially, only one film in Urdu and one is Punjabi. However one particular film got him into trouble with Zia’s regime when he allowed uncut a scene of a heroine bathing in the river. This was, for him, one of the few aesthetic portrayals of female nudity and his arguments had prevailed over the other board members which included the feminist poet Kishwar Naheed. Yet, the newspaper war cries of rising nudity and vulgarity that he mentions sound strikingly similar to the periodic bouts of concern we experience here in India. These are concerns that need to be negotiated with, in practice, regardless of the nature of the state. Therefore the practice of the Pakistani state is, in many ways, a struggle with impositions of forms of secularism over a conservative society.

The point is not that the Indian society or that part of it which is civil is the same as it is in Pakistan or Bangladesh. Obviously education, social values, perceived religious sanction and the experience of elective democracy have furthered the differences that already existed between Western India and the rest even in colonial times. The point to remember is that the state, when it comes to negotiating with its people, is often faced with a similar set of dilemmas. Nowhere is this clearer, or more similar, than in the case of adult independence choice of partners amidst community preferences and in the incendiary issue of the female attire. Women’s apparel and dating arouses as much angst among Hindu nationalists in India, for example the Shri Ram Sene of Pramod Muthalik in Bangalore, as does female education in NWFP. The biradari and Panchayat injunctions of western UP and Haryana, for instance on Dalit-non Dalit matrimony or romantic friendship, that periodically arouse grave concern in the media are issues that the Taliban has a lot to say on. In all such cases however, across borders, the state finds itself treading ground that is all too common. It cannot be seen to be passive, yet it cannot unilaterally and high-handedly uphold simple liberal values that you and I may espouse. All states, democratic, authoritarian or military-Islamist must engage different communities at the same time and seeking rationale amongst simultaneously irreconcilable demands of identity politics is precisely the plaything that secularism is made up of.

While a smug sense of superiority over our neighbors is sometimes useful in upholding social pride, a more discerning eye may develop more useful long-term lessons from the way our neighbors deal with problems that are common to us and them. A proper history of Pakistan would be able to teach us at least a few things about how the state has negotiated not just with its different minorities and ethnicities but also how it has engaged with exclusionary demand from within the mainstream, dominant Sunni Muslims. After all Pakistan too has a minority welfare ministry, at the federal and state measures, it also has so called sops and special measures for the upliftment of minorities. From time to time its universities, government departments and special boards also organise seminars, conferences and think tank sessions to improve the lot of minorities. The media periodically expresses concern over the treatment and or the plight of minorities. From time to time Pakistan has produced the odd non-Muslim in its cricket teams or, certainly in the early years of independence, in its business and official delegations. Parsis and Christians continue to occasionally sprout in its public sphere. Beer continues to be officially manufactured in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Very like the Indian state, the Pakistani state has constantly encouraged family planning and has instituted schemes to control the rate of increase of population. It propagates programs encouraging female literacy and the participation of women in public, civic institutions. Newspapers and wider civil society in Pakistan consistently set up aspirational models where a scientific/rational attitude to life and social organisation is highly valorised and sometimes the State is an active participant in those goals. Religious practices, shrines, peculiar customs of tribes and other ethnic groups often clash with the avowed rationalistic and economistic goals of the state. While the gun-toting militants in and around Pakistani mosques may give an impression of religion let loose, the reality is that the state consistently intervenes in the conduct and running of religious institutions. It patrols disciplinary and institutional boundaries wherever powerful religious shrines clash with state imprimatur and purview. Religion definitely intrudes into official Pakistan, sometimes more formally and institutionally than is the case in India but in practice the commonalities may surprise many of us. Special Ramadan prayers may not seem such an anomaly when one actually casts a sideways glance at the almost mandatory calendar idols and little shrines that exist in virtually all Indian offices. The state desires to and often succeeds in imprinting its dominant, secular authority over many forms of religious power centres that sprout in all South Asian countries. In theory at least everybody, religious leaders included, is equal before the law. Indeed the salience of law, colonial legal norms and the clout of lawyers, as remarkable a phenomenon as the spread of Jihadis in one sense, should ipso facto caution us from exercising blanket judgments about the nature of the state. The state has intervened in and attempted to streamline the so called Personal laws with greater efficacy than in India, it attempts to regulate the functioning of Madarsas and other voluntary religious organisations. Again, the point is that secularism or a secular state is not a formal attire that one can simply wear and be done with it. It acquires shape in practice, through everyday negotiation, regardless of the label it gives itself.

More crucially, where it really matters, the Islamic Republic has shown no signs of allowing any moral or religious compunctions stand in the way of its singular pursuit of the market and of the encouragement of interest-based private profit and financial capitalism. One may argue that Islam was after all a traders’ religion therefore the pursuit of free market should be consistent with its ethics. And indeed it largely is, regardless of scores of state supported institutions that continue to search for sharia-nomics.

Interrogating my response to Husain’s memoirs immediately brings into salience my Indian Muslim compulsions. I would obviously like to tease out strands of syncreticism and even, the obvious word, secularism from the conduct and cultural practice of Muslims past and present, Indian and Pakistani. Even more so I would, I suspect sometimes, alongside many of my compatriots, like to hear notes of regret and repentance from all who migrated at partition or from those who had once wanted Pakistan. However, Husain’s broadminded and ecumenical appeal to traditions and mythologies should not be collapsed into facile political positions. It is possible to be a staunch Pakistani and still speak about the Budhha and Mirabai. Sixty years after the event it is only we Indians who have the bravado to reduce decisions buried hard and deep in past lives into a simple question of ‘why did you migrate?’ I had asked Husain this question when I interviewed him some years ago, indeed he himself begins his memoir by raising this very question. The question is utterly and completely meaningless. Those who understand the Urdu word tabir, should instead ask questions about dreams turning sour and tabirs producing counter results. People went for all sorts of reasons and those who did have quite possibly thought about and turned the question over so many thousands of times in their own minds and have perhaps interrogated the what ifs and the counterfactual with such intensity that asking simply why they went is not merely trivial but even fatal in its stupidity. Indeed it should be possible now to see how the demand for Pakistan may actually have had some idealistic strands behind it, however abhorrent they may be to us secular liberals. Exactly in the same manner as it should be possible for us to understand a real and acute sense of angst behind strands of militant Hindu nationalism. Dreams, even religious and communal ones, are not without their own utopias and only a very literal reading can dismiss them out of hand.

For all these reasons it may be rather useful for us to actually study Pakistan, in our schools, colleges and universities rather than simply dismiss it as an aberration. The argument for developing Pakistan study programs in our schools and Colleges can actually be mounted from an ultra nationalist, imperialist position as well. To know is to control, is to inscribe, to discursively control a social formation, after all the whole academic field of post-colonial studies is engaged in knowing how the West ‘knows us.’ The terms of knowledge are sometimes more crucial even in a hostile engagement than mere martial superiority. The more widespread the historical knowledge about our neighbors the more inputs we may have in dealing with them, as well as in learning from them. Looking at the state of racial relations in Western Europe and in the US, after a full thirty years of a politically correct, multicultural pedagogy may sometimes compel a sceptical glance at the efficacy of school pedagogy in producing better citizens. However, the only way to learn is to try. Therefore I propose that we have a paper dealing with Pakistan and possibly also with all our immediate neighbors as a compulsory course in historical studies, at schools as well as at higher levels.

These arguments, impressionistic as they are, should not be read as an endorsement of the current state of Pakistan, nor of all the policies it has followed since its creation. Asking for study and analysis does not mean that is in any sense ‘better.’ There are deep fundamentalist strains and tendencies within the militant-military strain of the melange that is the Pakistani state. I am only trying to draw attention to characteristics that are often ignored in the broad brush. While the history of the freedom movement and the machiavellian, even devilish, division of the country stops in 1947, life in the subcontinent does not. While the fate of Pakistan may always be bedevilled by its origins, and that is not always a historical guarantee—rotten apples also thrive—for as long as it continues to survive we need to understand it better. At this present juncture when it seems to be unravelling under its own sins the need is greater not lesser. For what is happening in Swat and in the NWFP is nothing else but a struggle for the kind of secularism that the Pakistani state would like to, or is able to, practice. For the state to be a state, in the modern sense of the term, it cannot but transgress norms that Islamists do not even fully understand. That is why each and every so-called Islamic state in practice has always faced condemnation from one or the other variety of Islamists. It can be argued that the very formation of a state in the early Islamic period, whether under Umar Farooq, or the Umayyads or the Abbasids, the so called pristine era of Islam, often faced such turbulent opposition that political assassination became a norm from very early on. A true Islamic state is an oxymoron, it can only function at the level of a small tribe. The rest is a negotiation with power. In order to fully fathom those struggles and negotiations we need a much wider engagement and a much greater dissemination and assessment of knowledge than is currently available to us. Pakistan is too important to be left merely to journalists and security experts.

6 thoughts on “On Thinking Pakistan—Rambles and Recollections of an… upon Intezar Husain’s ‘Chiraghon ka Dhuvan’”

  1. Very well written and argued. We do not have centers of excellence on any country in our neighborhood, leave alone other larger powers in the world. Also, As this writer pointed out, even I would like to believe that India is doing something right such that it is doing better than other countries in the immediate neighborhood in many fields, but it is difficult to pin-point what that is. We have the same corruption, identity politics, nepotism, occasional suppression of judiciary, and pockets of social unrest just like of the rest of the neighborhood of desi-land.

    The only two things (perhaps the most important, nonetheless) that stand out are largely free and fair elections and a military that has never undermined democracy. But, even that, where did it come from? I have no answers.


  2. “Dreams, even religious and communal ones, are not without their own utopias and only a very literal reading can dismiss them out of hand.”

    A thought provoking read. Thanks.


  3. Fantastic.. Bhot Acha Hai…Excellent article with facts.Life is not about the people who act true to your face …it’s about the people who remain true behind your back. asad mufty, amsterdam.


  4. Bravo Mahmood! Through all the bombardments of inane nonsense from ‘experts’, your words shine brightly with perception and scholarly content.

    We need more experts from civil society to address our ham-handedness in international politics and geopolitics, rather than the brigades of silly bureaucrats we pay, to mouth incredible drivel under the garb of expertise and experience.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s