Bulleh knows not who he is

August 19, 2011

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Well, he isn’t the only one. There’s a whole nation that suffers the trauma minus that humble self-abnegation of Bulleh Shah, and Shah Husain before him, two inimitable poets rooted in this soil. Neither would have anything to do with established views or practices; both defied convention. In their refreshing repertoires they expressed much élan and a sense of jubilation at their defiance. There is not a spec of remorse or guilt whatsoever but pride in knowing that they do not know.

I don’t know if they were Sufis or not; I deliberately avoid that word for fear of insulting their memory by bestowing a holy tag on them when they sought none. They were the Kabir and Khusro of Punjab, but because of the black and white sensibility of the language that they used to give vent to their feelings and convictions, theirs comes across as a more hard-hitting idiom. That said, subtlety of expression belongs firmly in the heartland of the Ganga-Jamuna plains, and not with the descendents of the Kurus, who by their very likelihood of having written the classic epic, Mahabharata, make known their awe-inspiring talent: generously handing over victory to the Pandus, who vanquished them.

The very same generosity continues to haunt the verses of Shah Husain and Bulleh Shah. Luckily for them, they lived not in times or a country inhabited by the Taliban or the Zardaris of the world. The former would have chopped their heads off and the latter would have discredited them by bestowing pride of performance awards on them, whose recipients this year include so many lackeys and the brownnosed. Bulleh and Husain were saved the ignominy of undeserved wrath or praise in their lifetimes; Salmaan Taseer and Meera tasted it, respectively. Good Christian that he was, Shahbaz Bhatti escaped the posthumous insult but exposed the double standards the state applies to honouring its Muslim and non-Muslim ‘martyrs’.

Make no mistake, given half the chance and his chronic infliction that is hubris, Nawaz Sharif would have done worse at bestowing national medals. It is as if the gods have ordained that there shall never be a Mukhtaran Mai, or an Ahmadi even if one is murdered while praying, among the recipients of presidential awards, civil or military. This is precisely what is inadequate in the very ‘ideology’ of Pakistan, which the army chief says, every Independence Day, that his institution will defend. Defend from whom, pray tell? The religious and ethnic minorities which the state negates by calling this nation one of Muslims alone?

Even the pre-independence Congress Party didn’t negate the minorities this explicitly in its movement for self-rule; it was only a majoritarian Hindi idiom with some Hindu iconography that the party used to attract the majority vote, which alienated the Muslims. They were then forced to demand Pakistan. As irony of history would have it, in the same Pakistan today the minorities’ condition has gone beyond being helpless; it now borders on the hopeless, while secularism, howsoever imperfect in India, has not only integrated the Muslims who stayed back but also the thousands of non-Muslims who fled the areas that fell to Pakistan.

There are no ‘Mohajirs’ in India while in Pakistan, Mohajirs are definitely a fifth, de facto, acknowledged and thankfully accepted, nation at the popular level, though their grievances remain. Religion has failed to unite Pakistan; the majority East Pakistan seceded, and the remaining stands divided further on the issue. The Bulleh spirit says we must take Islam out of this controversy and disrepute which the more radical factions have brought to the great faith. This can be done by keeping religion out of the business of the state and its identity. Jinnah saw the problem coming and wanted to avert the disaster when he tried to bury the two-nation theory three days before Pakistan was achieved.

Rights activist and respected journalist, I.A. Rehman has argued that the two-nation theory had to be buried because its purpose had been served with the creation of Pakistan. Secondly, a theory that broke up India would do no less to Pakistan (we witnessed this in 1971 when Bangladesh was proclaimed out of the country’s eastern, majority-population province). Religion has not gelled but fractured this country.

Many of the points Jinnah applied in his rhetoric to Hindus and Muslims being two separate nations, because their social practices and because even their heroes and villains were different, apply between Sunnis and Shias or between the rest of Muslims and Ahmadis, let alone Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and adherents of other faiths living in Pakistan today.

Why can’t we have an ideology that includes rather than pointedly exclude the many minorities; that is, if we must have a state ideology. Bulleh allegorically demanded of such false gods and holy cows: “Pull down the mosque, the temple, and all that you can; save the heart, though, for God resides therein.” And, like a child to his mother, Shah Husain let out the lament: “Mother, to whom do I turn, to tell of my pain and anguish?

The writer is a member of the staff at Dawn Newspaper.