Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Parable of the Sea

The following is my article published today as 'Samandar, a Parable?' in Dawn, Images.

On January 6, 1968, the government of President Ayub Khan announced that a conspiracy had been un covered between some personnel from East Pakistan and Indian politicians to overthrow the government in East Pakistan and establish an independent state of Bangladesh. Twelve days later, the popular Bengali politician Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was also implicated (he was already under arrest for almost two years, since he had suggested partial autonomy for East Pakistan in his Six Points given in March 1966).

“The young Bengalis were quieter than usual at the Dacca and Chittagong Clubs,” the American Consulate General in Dhaka wrote secretly to the US Department of State a little later. “Eid was quieter this year. Fear was in the air. Men were afraid to pass more than the barest of greetings. Once argumentative chaps endured the taunts of Punjabi and non-Bengali members.”

Against this backdrop, the film Samandar was released on March 10, 1968. It was produced by Waheed Murad, who also played the lead role and sang an unaccredited song. Shabnam, a successful talent from East Pakistan, appeared here in her first lead role in a West Pakistani production. Could the on-screen alliance between talents from the two wings be a thinly veiled parable about the federation?

There are no conclusive answers but there are some pointers. Director Rafiq Razvi was known to be a patriotic filmmaker: his best-known work was Bedari (1957), a film with explicitly patriotic agenda, whose songs are played as national songs even today ("Ae Quaid-i-Azam tera ehsan hai ehsan", to name just one).

The lyrics of Samandar were written by Sehba Akhtar, who would later write such national songs as "Mein bhi Pakistan hoon", and become known as “the Poet of Pakistan”. The music was composed by Deboo Bhatacharya. Since the two wings of the country were connected by the sea, and not by the land, the title song becomes especially symbolic: "Saathi, tera mera saathi hai lehrata samandar" (Friend, the sea is our common friend).

The story is set in a fishing colony, which could be treated as an analogy of Pakistan. Rajah (Waheed Murad) aspires for nothing except love, while his best friend Jeera (Hanif) aspires to become the next chief of the community but ends up playing into the hands of Jaggu Seth (Rashid), a foreign intruder who wants to monopolise the economy. Rajah is persuaded by the people to contest a boat race through which the next chief would be elected. Rajah wins the race, but hands over the power to his former friend after eliciting from him a promise that he would defend the community against the intruder.

If Jeera is taken as a symbolic representation of the politicians of East Pakistan, Rajah becomes a role model for their counterparts in the western wing of the country. Significantly, his love interest is Noori (Shabnam), the chief’s daughter, whom the custom requires to marry the next chief. Thus being associated with Jeera, she becomes a symbol for the land and culture of East Pakistan. In this capacity, she is balanced by Rajah’s sister Bali (Rozina), who is wooed by Jeera.

The paradox is that Rajah does not want to rule, and yet he wants the hand of Noori, who by custom should only marry the ruler. This is not unlike the challenge that the politicians of West Pakistan faced at that time, probably without grasping it: they were supposed to keep the federation without wanting to rule over it forever.

The film was released at a time when there were rumors about Ayub Khan suffering from ailments. His successor would turn out to be Yahya Khan, whose reputation of heavy drinking would even precede his real procrastination. Consciously or unconsciously, both aspects are reflected in the ailing chief in the movie, who admits, “Old age, sickness and alcohol have rendered me incapable of taking a firm stance (against the enemy).” A community ruled by an inebriated head, threatened by foreign intrusion and divided against itself through mistrust, while fear lurks in the hearts of those whose love is pure — could there be a more candid depiction of Pakistan at that hour of its existential crisis?

Rajah resolves the moral dilemma at the tomb of a local saint where the visitors are dressed to represent diverse ethnicities but the two qawwals singing the traditional Sufi song, "Damadam mast qalandar", wear Jinnah caps. Spiritual ideals translated into collective action might be the solution required for Pakistan, even today.

Carving a unified nation out of a diverse stock is like striving against the forces of nature. The human being seems to be in conflict with nature in every song of the film, until it is announced in the final one that the lamps of the people have outshone the stars, and their garden boasts of a perfume that cannot be produced by spring.

This is the promised goal of Samandar, and the film tells us how to achieve it. Whether those who delivered this message 42 years ago were thinking about the debacle of East Pakistan or not they managed to provide an insight that is as relevant today as it was then.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Unite Organically

The following is my article, which appeared as Friday Feature, 'On Organic Unity' in Dawn today. The text presented here may vary from the version printed in the newspaper.
A new goal that appeared before the people of Pakistan in 1967 was to discover a synthesis of socialism and democracy through Islam. The tool for achieving it was the organic unity that Pakistan had achieved in its first twenty years as a new state. The ideal to be kept in front was to use this unity, i.e. unite organically, or through ideals. Some indicators may show us that a synthesis had occurred, in some ways, by 1986.

This may sound like a far-fetched hypothesis because we are not used to reading the history of modern Muslim thought in this manner. However, such a conclusion seems to be the only plausible one when the matter is revisited in the light of the propositions of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Allama Iqbal and Quaid-i-Azam.

For that, we may begin with three essential concepts: (a) synthesis of ideologies through Islam; (b) organic unity as a human resource; and (c) definition of ideals.

When Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was founded on 30 November and 1 December 1967, its credo was stated to be, “Islam is our religion; democracy is our politics; socialism is our economy; power lies with the people.” The intellectuals who wrote the foundational papers of the party, as well as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who founded the party, may or may not have been aware, but the ideas mentioned in this credo had a long history in the collective consciousness of the society. As it was, Maulana Shibli Numani and Allama Iqbal had stated democracy to be the political ideal of Islam long ago, Quaid-i-Azam had talked about Islamic socialism and the very idea of Pakistan was based on the presumption that all power lied with the people.

Hence, the enormous popularity of this credo, as evident from the results of the elections of 1970 in West Pakistan, need not have meant that the people were willing to embrace a new ideology. They had not said yes to socialism, but to its synthesis with democracy and Islam (on the condition that all power remains with the people). Such a synthesis would not have been unprecedented in the history of Islam, since a primary function of Islam had always remained to be the assimilation of alien ideas and beliefs, and their re-evaluation for practical uses in Muslim cultures.

There was no reason to believe that Islam would not do the same for modern ideas and beliefs, such as Western democracy and socialism (in fact, as early as 1920, Iqbal had forewarned the Orientalist R. A. Nicholson, “Islam certainly aims at absorption. This absorption, however, is to be achieved not by territorial conquest but by the simplicity of its teaching, its appeal to the common sense of mankind and its aversion to abstruse metaphysical dogma.”)

The synthesis of ideologies had to occur in the consciences of the individuals. Indeed, that is what happened between 1967 and 1986, but it seems that the intelligentsia failed to notice it due to a “predominantly intellectual culture” (loathed by Iqbal as early as 1926). Hence, the synthesis that occurred was, in the terminology of Iqbal, “an inner synthesis of life”, but unfortunately, it has not been articulated by the intelligentsia to this date.

Mainly due to this failure on part of the intelligentsia, the process of synthesis became tedious, painful and unconscious. First, the country had to withstand the harsh socialistic measures taken by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during his first tenure, i.e. 1971-77. Then a certain kind of Islamization was introduced by General Ziaul Haque during his regime, i.e. 1977-1987. Just a year before the end of that regime, it became obvious that all schools of thought, now also including the right-winged conservatives who had earlier played as “B-Team of the Martial Law”, had come to an agreement for a full-scale adoption of Western democracy without any indigenous modification whatsoever.

This brings us to the second concept, i.e. organic unity as a human resource. Organic unity means unity through shared ideals. Obviously, the conscience of the people must have retained something from each experiences through which the society passed collectively. While the intelligentsia failed to synthesize socialism, Islam and democracy, the masses evidently synthesized these diverse experiences at least at an unconscious level. Therefore, the synthesis has to be sought at the level of ideals, even if not in terms of day-to-day reality. In this sense, ideals are those aspirations that form in the depth of our hearts or souls. They are formed through action, and as an aid to action.

Once formed, ideals express themselves in their own way. This may also explain why the histories of Bangladesh and Pakistan, even after their separation in 1971, reveal some striking similarities. It is quite possible that despite being completely independent of each other, as self-respecting sovereign states must be, both have retained some common ideals from their common past – especially when they struggled to shape Muslim nationalism in South Asia.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Thank You, Iran

Pakistan and Iran have ancient ties. The region now called Pakistan was part of the Achaemenid Commonwealth founded in 559 BC by the great Iranian visionary Cyrus the Great, who, according to some very credible interpretations, was the enlightened Zulqarnayn mentioned in the Quran.

After the advent of Islam, a majority of the people in both areas became Muslim. Since then, the cultures of Iran and the areas now included in Pakistan have had many exchanges, enriching the art and literature on both sides of the border.

Against such background, many in Pakistan would welcome, not just politically but perhaps also personally, the recent statement of the supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about the issue of Kashmir – an issue that is so close to the conscience of the people of Pakistan.

According to a news report published on the front-page of Dawn today, Khamenei asked Muslims across the world to back the pro-liberation campaigns in Kashmir, equating the region with Afghanistan and Iraq.

He has been quoted as saying, “Today the major duty of the elite of the Ummah is to provide help to the Palestinian nation, to sympathize and provide assistance to the nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Kashmir, to engage in struggle and resistance against the aggressions of the US and the Zionist regime.”

Reportedly, the Indian external affairs ministry has not been very pleased with this statement and on Friday lodged a protest with the Iranian embassy in New Delhi.

Especially for the youth of Pakistan, many among whom are turning into enthusiastic bloggers, and writers and producers of the “new media”, the best way of showing gratitude to such international support is, perhaps, to understand the issue of Kashmir objectively and to further elaborate the principle-centered stance of Pakistan on this matter.

In all the noise created by an almost senseless and irresponsible media today, we must not forget that the issue of Kashmir is not a sentimental matter for Pakistan. The issue is based on principles, and chief among those principles is the right of a people to choose their own destiny. Well-wishers abroad who express sympathy on this issue in a peaceful manner are not only showing sympathy with the plight of the people of this region but are also raising their voice for a just cause.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Respect the Law

The following is my article published in Dawn on October 29, 2010, as Friday Feature, 'Respecting the Law'. Some of the wording might be slightly different from the printed version.
With the birth of Pakistan, the Muslim community of the sub-continent not only created a new country but also a new nation. The first goal of this nation was to achieve a kind of organic unity, and Pakistan itself was the tool for achieving it. Respecting the law was the ideal to be kept in front. Studying the history of Pakistan in this light, one finds many indicators suggesting that the goal was achieved by 1966.

Obviously, this requires us to understand three concepts first. They are (a) organic unity; (b) Pakistan as a tool for achieving it; and (c) the significance of respecting the law in this special context.

The organic unity intended here is based on a portion of Verse 28 of Surah Luqman (Chapter 31 of the Quran). It is translated by Iqbal as, “Your creation and resurrection are like the creation and resurrection of a single soul.” Creation and resurrection are biological concepts, and hence the kind of unity implied in this verse is a biological unity, as if entire humanity was a single organism and individuals were its parts. If such a connection exists between all human beings, then obviously it is moderating the worldly and spiritual power of each individual, whether he or she knows it or not.

Giving us awareness of this connection is the aim of religious thought, according to Iqbal. However, thought alone cannot be sufficient. We need a practical tool as well. Hence, in the preface of The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930), Iqbal wrote, “A living experience of the kind of biological unity, embodied in this verse, requires today a method physiologically less violent [than the methods devised by the past masters] and psychologically more suitable to a concrete type of mind.”

The same year, while presiding over the annual session of the All-India Muslim League at Allahabad, he seemed to be suggesting that the achievement of a Muslim homeland in the region could become, somehow, the new method through which this kind of organic unity would be realized. In his presidential address, after proposing and predicting the birth of a Muslim homeland, he went on to suggest, “One of the profoundest verses in the Holy Quran teaches us that the birth and rebirth of the whole of humanity is like the birth and rebirth of a single individual. Why cannot you who, as a people, can well claim to be the first practical exponent of this superb conception of humanity, live and move and have your being as a single individual?”

Hence, if we could “live and move and have [our] being as a single individual,” we would experience what is meant by the Quran when it says that the creation and resurrection of the humanity is like the creation and resurrection of a single soul (and it seems that neither Iqbal nor Jinnah meant to exclude the non-Muslim citizens of the Muslim homeland, since according to the Quran, this organic unity is a biological fact that moderates the existence of every individual on this planet).

If Pakistan was the tool – “a method psychologically suitable to a concrete type of mind” – for discovering this organic unity, how was this tool going to be used? The most logical answer was, by respecting the law. This was how the homeland had been achieved in the first place, and even against the bitter opposition by powerful and unfair adversaries.

The first twenty years of Pakistan present a curious case study when visited in the light of this ideal. It seems as if the educated elite and the intelligentsia were on one side, often ignoring the significance of the ideal and the implications of the recent history. Apparently, due to the one hundred and fifty years of British domination, much power had been left in the hands of the liberals and those who favored secularism in some form. Quite often they were found to be guilty of abusing that power, for instance when Chief Justice Muhammad Munir, a self-proclaimed believer in secularism, upheld the decision of Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad to abrogate the elected parliament. Conservatives and socialists, perceiving that the just demands of the people were being suppressed, would often invite the masses to agitation and direct action. When the masses chose to ignore such calls, they were accused of lacking in political awareness.

Hence, the unschooled masses of Pakistan seem to be standing on the other side, clearly distinguishable from the reactionary educated elite and the intelligentsia. At least three successive events in the last three years of this period should have vindicated the masses against the widespread accusation of being politically unaware. These were the tremendous unity displayed in supporting Fatima Jinnah against Field Marshall Ayub Khan in the presidential election of 1964, the display of patriotism during the 1965 War and the general outcry against Ayub Khan after the signing of the treaty at Tashkent in 1966.

These are some indicators in terms of the broader current of history only. Understanding and experiencing their deeper meaning requires us to revisit our literature, politics and religious thought with a new approach, which has never been attempted (and unfortunately, our education offers us little preparation for such a task). However, in terms of the general outline of the story of our ideals as a Muslim nation, the year 1966 seemed to be the moment when the ambiance of being a ‘new country’ had ended, and the nation seemed poised for starting a new stage, together.