DAWN - Opinion; December 14, 2007

Published December 14, 2007

Relevance of Bulleh Shah

By Ayesha Siddiqa

A COUPLE of days ago I had a chance to see Ajoka Theatre’s play ‘Bulleh’ in Islamabad. The stage play was made on the life and spiritualism of the famous Sufi saint Bulleh Shah who grew up in the town of Kasur near Lahore where some of the modern-day rulers of the country come from.

The Sufi was forced to leave his hometown on several occasions as he struggled against the local religious and power orthodoxies.

In fact, in his speech scriptwriter Shahid Nadeem drew a parallel between Islamabad and Bulleh Shah’s Kasur. The audience applauded the writer’s comment as they could relate to the rise of orthodoxy and extremism in society. Equating Islamabad with Kasur made a lot of sense to the spectators, particularly in the backdrop of the Red Mosque incident in the capital city.The play expressed a latent desire to shift the emphasis of society from orthodox Islam to Sufi Islam which traditionally had a secular flavour and did not necessarily distinguish amongst religions. The foundation of Sufism, which some also call the folk religion of the region, is love and respect for humanity rather than division on the basis of sect, creed, gender, colour, race and ethnicity. The message went down well with the liberals of Islamabad who are generally apprehensive of the extremism and militancy growing around them.

However, what was equally interesting was the fact that the audience seemed to have missed the larger point of Bulleh Shah’s message and Sufism — his struggle was not just against orthodoxy or the mullahs and muftis of his time but also against the rulers and holders of state power. Throughout the play there were references to the constant struggle and battle between the Mughals and the Sikhs and it talked about the sorrow and pain of the common man.

I would probably not entirely blame the audience because most of the crowd belonged to a class which usually conducts itself in fluent English in everyday life. It is appreciable that they saw and enjoyed a performance in Punjabi including the Sufi’s poetry which was in Punjabi and Seraiki. It was hilarious to hear some of the comments after the play finished. The height of excitement for some of the viewers was that they could understand most of the words spoken in Punjabi. This is certainly great considering that the majority of the elite in Islamabad and Lahore shy away from both Urdu and Punjabi.

Surely it is not right to be critical of an anglicised crowd especially when the commentary is in English and for this very crowd. However, it is important to know if the ruling elite thought beyond the message of secularism of folk religion and looked into the deeper issue of how woeful is the life of the common man and it is this that must be changed. The elite shy away from creating institutional mechanisms to ameliorate the problems of the poor.

The resistance to creating institutions for the masses is central to the judicial crisis as well. The diplomats in Pakistan are not impressed by the lawyers’ movement because of the absence of a mass movement. It is a fact that what we see in the streets is the struggle of the fledgling middle class in the country, part of which is protesting because of its exclusion from decision-making and redistribution of resources.

So when Chaudhry Shujaat says that the issue of the judiciary does not bother the people he is partially correct. The common man’s life does not necessarily change, especially in the short term, if there is one set of judges or the other. After all, who ever comes out and protests for the common man when he is picked up and brutalised by the state, its agents or other members of the power elite.

A glance at the election manifestos of all political parties actually shows that there is almost no ideological difference between them and the various parties have nothing to offer to the man on the street. The PML-Q’s five Ds opposed to the PPP’s five Es do not ameliorate the hardship of the dispossessed classes. Conditions do not improve even under military governments which are as much a part of the elite as the feudal in other elite groups. The rulers will continue to chant slogans in favour of economic policies which do not bring any relief to the common man. The brilliant macroeconomic indicators of the previous government have only resulted in increasing the financial burden of the poor.

The streets have already begun to struggle with the shortage of wheat and sugar. This is in addition to the food inflation which has made people generally critical of the regime, especially General Musharraf and his team of foreign economists. It will not be surprising if problems proliferate due to bad planning such as the government’s ill-thought consumer financing.

Poor economic planning, however, is not regime-specific. All governments during the 1990s have pursued neo-liberalism without thinking the policy through which does not bode well for the common man. This commonality is because policies are generally made for the benefit of the elite rather than the poor masses.

The aforementioned description brings us back to the issue of the restoration of the judiciary which is vital from the point of view of the need for keeping a psychological balance in society. With nothing else working for the masses, at least the common man and woman must have the assurance of being heard or having a door to knock at. The very fact that there is no longer any institution which could come to the common man’s rescue will increase the general level of frustration in society. It will only cause anxiety which is not beneficial for anyone.

Furthermore, it is this anxiety which often lead people to orthodoxy and militancy. Ask anyone who demands shariah to explain the concept. Most of the time people are searching for justice and a favourable redistribution of resources. It is necessary for the exploitative elite to leave some breathing space for the dispossessed. Blocking all avenues just manifests the suicidal instinct of the ruling classes more than anything else. Unfortunately, this is a predatory elite which is known for chasing short-term gains rather than long-term objectives. The manner in which the president tried to protect the police and intelligence officials, and rated their honour higher than that of citizens, is one of the many examples of the myopia of the elite.

The behaviour of some segments of the elite towards the state is another example. For instance, a glance at the list of people who have joined the caretaker government or those who have helped military dispensations in the past shows how divided civil society has come to be. Or take the issue of the media. Some sections of the media that now complain of the state’s extremist behaviour had happily served the state and its agencies without any concern for the people or rule of law until the axe fell on them. Finally they are trying to mobilise the masses, thinking that the people are ready to sacrifice.

The fact is that any new leadership that wants the support of the people will have to stop playing games with the powerful and the masses at the same time. The common man will only back a Bulleh Shah who can truly challenge the powerful and question all forms of coercive power.

The writer is an independent analyst and author of the book “Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy”.

Kashmir pines for dignity

By Kuldip Nayar

I KNOW the accession of Kashmir to India is a sensitive point with us. Anybody questioning it is criticised in the worst language possible. I am, however, surprised to find lack of furore over a remark by Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

He has said repeatedly that the killing of innocent people by the army “forces us to think whether signing of the instrument of accession by my father, Sheikh Abdullah, and Maharaja Hari Singh, was fair, straight or not”.

Coming as it does from a person like Farooq Abdullah the remark is a point to ponder over. It is no use feeling horrified. He does not become ‘anti-Indian’ because he has said that the guilty in the security forces should not be spared.

It can well be argued that the odd killings should not lead to the questioning of basics which even the constituent assembly of Jammu and Kashmir had endorsed and which had said that the accession could not be reopened. Yet, the fact of accession does not condone violation of human rights.

One, the number of those killed is not negligible. It runs into thousands. Two, in the situation that prevails in the Kashmir valley, it is but natural for the people to look back and wonder whether their forefathers were right in opting for India. This does not mean that they want to join Pakistan. The question they ask after every human rights violation — this time the killing of a youthful baker at Damhal Hanjipur, south Kashmir, in ‘cross-firing’ — is how will all this end.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promises that tolerance over the violation of human rights will be zero, it should have been so. True, a case has been booked against some army men and an investigation has been ordered.

Yet, the Kashmiris shrug their shoulders and say that this is a familiar exercise which they have gone over earlier.

Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has not touched the question of accession but has said that “they [the security forces] kill with impunity and the law of the jungle prevails”. These were strong words but he would have been more credible if he had condemned the killing of an army major the other day.

Individual terrorism is as bad as state terrorism. Kashmiri leaders attack the latter, not the former. Moreover, individual terrorism has come to be associated with fundamentalism all over the world and condemned unequivocally. Kashmiri leaders would get heard if they were to denounce it.

A popular leader, Yasin Malik, has taken to the Gandhian way to draw attention to human rights violations. He has undertaken a two-day fast. He was the first militant to turn Gandhian. Official denial of violations will not do for him or other Kashmiri leaders. The inquiry ordered by the government may not carry weight.

New Delhi should request South Asian Human Rights (SAHR), headed by former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, to look into the killings and other allegations. Hundreds of people are said to be missing. SAHR should go into their cases as well.

Whatever the inquiry and at whatever level, it will remain one-sided if the grievances of some 50,000 Kashmiri pundits remain unheard. Most of them have been living in camps for years.

They should be rehabilitated in the valley. If the Kashmiri leaders were to take the initiative, the misgivings about them would disappear. Some Kashmiri leaders had once said that the future of pundits would be decided with the future of Kashmir. I hope they have changed their mind as they have hinted here and there.

Human rights violations have a lot to do with the uncertain future of Kashmir. Talks are taking place between India and Pakistan. But I do not know how far the back channel has helped the two sides find an amicable solution. I was told by a high-up a few weeks ago that “80 per cent of the distance had been covered”.

Whatever that means, it indicates substantial progress. One salient feature of the understanding reached is that the Line of Control (LoC) will become the border and it would be softened. When Sardar Abdul Qayyum, former prime minister of Azad Kashmir, was in Delhi last, he said he would not oppose it if a settlement was reached on converting the LoC into a border.

The unstable domestic situation in Pakistan has stalled the talks. I am told that the slowing down of the process was at the request of Islamabad. The outcome of elections in Pakistan will have to be awaited now.

Some may argue that the solution should have been concretised when President Pervez Musharraf was at the helm. He had proposed a settlement which would make borders in Kashmir irrelevant and rule out any division on the basis of religion.

Yet, an arrangement on these lines without the involvement of political leaders in Pakistan would not have lasted. The thread can be picked up after the January elections.

I hope that political conditions in Pakistan will settle down by February-March because India may then be in for mid-term polls if the Left withdraws support to the Manmohan Singh government as it has threatened it to wind up the talks on the Indo-US nuclear deal by December 31.

In such a scenario, any dialogue on Kashmir will have to wait for the election in India. At some stage the people of Jammu and Kashmir have to be associated with the dialogue so that the settlement, if and when reached, has their endorsement.

Any settlement without their involvement will be like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. New Delhi has held one meeting with the Hurriyat leaders and some others. Islamabad has not yet talked to the people in Azad Kashmir and in the Northern Areas.

The public in the two countries has yet to be told what the governments have been cooking. Even if the common man on both sides is sick and tired of the Kashmir problem, the elite, parochial and prejudiced, would like to have its pound of flesh. The solution which has evaded both countries for 60 years will not be easy to reach.

It would have been better if New Delhi had unilaterally reverted to the 1951 status when Kashmir enjoyed autonomy. Srinagar controlled all the subjects except three — external affairs, defence and communications. Some parties like the BJP will oppose going back to that status. Yet they have to be brought round. I see no better solution than the two countries giving to their side of Kashmir the type of autonomy which the Indian side of Kashmir enjoyed till 1952 when Sheikh Abdullah was arrested for asking India to make good its promise on autonomy.

Yet whatever the solution and how much time it takes, human rights violations cannot be tolerated. People feel helpless and shorn of dignity.

The writer is a leading journalist based in New Delhi.

Guilty as charged

By Farhat Haq

UNTIL Nov 3, when President Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, I was living the life of an academic in the safety and comfort of a small Midwestern college town in the US where my biggest worry was that my sixteen-year-old son now had a driver’s licence. The declaration of emergency pulled me into the peculiar emotional state inhabited by those of us who experience the turmoil of their native lands while living in the safety and comfort of their adopted homelands.

I watched on the television screen as Pakistani protesters were beaten by plain-clothed security personnel and hauled away to prison. It made me want to join the street demonstrations. Instead I tried to go about my daily routine, almost bursting into tears once as the checkout person at the grocery store asked innocently, “How’s everything?”

Then the emergency came to find me. “They have issued an FIR [first information report] for you along with three other faculty and two students,” a Pakistani colleague from a university in Lahore, where I sometimes teach, informed me. To my colleague the fact that I was accused of disturbing the peace by “chalking on the wall … writing inappropriate things about the government” when I was not even in the country was just one more indication of the Kafkaesque world Pakistan has entered since the declaration of the state of emergency.

The government is supposedly fighting Islamic radicals and bringing on what is alleged to be the ‘third stage’ of democracy. Oddly enough, it seeks to accomplish these goals by suspending the Constitution, shutting off the independent media, manipulating the January election, packing the courts with compliant judges willing to take an oath of office under whatever President Musharraf says is the law and, finally, imprisoning secular and progressive figures who dare to voice truly democratic aspirations for their country. Add to this last strategy the issuing of arrest warrants for troublesome scholars (including yours truly) who are not even residing in Pakistan.

Of course I am very proud of this FIR. It makes me feel as if I am actually doing something. But my husband is not amused. He has experienced imprisonment and interrogation at the hands of Pakistani police, during another dark time in Pakistani history, when another general hung the first popularly elected prime minister and arrested student leaders in order to keep ‘peace’ in the streets. “You do not know what kind of trouble they can make for you when you go back to Pakistan,” he told me as I cheerfully showed him the email. “This is not a laughing matter.”

Growing up in Pakistan, I knew FIRs were nothing but trouble. My extended small-town and rural Punjabi family mostly kept on the right side of the law, but there was a maternal uncle of mine, a rabble-rouser who had eloped with another man’s wife, who was familiar with FIRs, thanas (jails) and police. Such involvement was no picnic. Nor was the process particularly fair.

Successfully lodging an FIR against one’s adversary was a sure sign of one’s connections and ability to humiliate the enemy. With FIRs in hand the police could raid your house and arrest all the males. If they really wanted to humiliate the family, they would haul the female members to the thana too.

For a middle-class Pakistani, no encounter with the law could possibly be very good. For working-class and poor Pakistanis, encounters with the law are likely to be ruinous. One does not turn to law to get justice; the powerful use the law to keep others under their control. Equality under the law, a rudimentary principle of modern citizenship, remains elusive for Pakistanis. FIRs, along with other legal instruments — the detritus of British colonial rule — has continued to subjugate the Pakistani public.

A few months before the current state of emergency was declared came a glimmer of hope. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the judges of the Supreme Court resisted arbitrary rule and asserted supremacy of the law. Sitting here in the US and looking at the unfolding political drama in Pakistan, I saw the first act as being ho-hum. A chief justice was told that he should resign or he would be charged with misusing his office and thus dismissed anyway. There were rumours of sweetening the deal further by promising sweet real-estate deals and cash.

The chief justice refused and insisted on facing the charges against him. The accused chief justice became a lightning rod for a movement for an independent judiciary. The chief justice got reinstated. The ordinary people rejoiced and looked to the Supreme Court to get justice. People started urging the courts to take suo motu action on all kinds of grievances: traffic jams, graft and corruption, kidnapping, disappearances, unfair selection for the national cricket team. Could it possibly be that, for ordinary people, the law would no longer be their enemy; that they could finally look to the legal system to get justice?

Unfortunately, this first act concluded with the imposition of the current ‘emergency’. We are now in the middle of the second act. How it will turn out, nobody really knows. But I am part of it. A warrant has been issued for my arrest, despite the fact that I am thousands of miles away from the trouble. I accept this warrant proudly. In a way, it is no mistake. If it is criminal for a daughter of Pakistan to long for freedom and justice, then I plead guilty.

The writer teaches political science at Monmouth College in Illinois, US.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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