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Flag lowering ceremony at Wagah border -- Reuters

Reviewed by Asha’ar Rehman

Finding a new common identity as an alternative to the Indian one that vanished in 1947 is an intricate, patient job. Nations and regions have moved on since then, even if mostly and overwhelmingly in response to the Indian centre. Conflicts have simmered, wars have been fought and intra-region refugees have been a source of disputes. Economies have developed and conservatism has stalked the region in its ever-ominous new, old and revivalist manifestations. The point is whether these developments should be a cause for greater insularity between units or should they inspire a surge for understanding and a will to work towards a stable South Asia whose inhabitants are at peace with each other?

Himal, a publication committed to bringing a regional as opposed to a national perspective on issues, was launched two and half decades ago, taking a stand much before peace became a fashionable word in the subcontinent. In 1996, the magazine widened its territorial and ideological scope to include the whole of South Asia. The Southasian Sensibility: A Himal Reader, a selection of works published in the magazine over the past 25 years, shows how it has gone about its assignment.

One of its main targets, so to speak, has been a media that is vulnerable to nationalism and the superficial. Quite early into the 330-page volume, in an article on the Chipko movement (“Axing Chipko”) by Manisha Aryal the reader is brought up-to-date with Himal’s dislike for the brand of journalism that glosses over facts, quite often to the detriment of the cause it ostensibly and proudly pursues. The argument against the simplistic use of mass media reaches its peak in a scathing critique of how a popular game such as cricket can combine with the mass appeal of the Mumbai film industry to hold a people in a trance in the interest of the status quo. Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan is dismissed, not on account of any cinematic or thematic deficiencies or for its naïve parallels with reality but for the caste and consumerist culture that cricket and Bollywood are accused of promoting.

Taking on dominant symbols in this manner — the nationalist news media, Brahminic superiority, Bollywood and cricket — which in popular thinking bring people together and have been credited with averting a war in the subcontinent — helps put forward alternative, more humane, less consumerist and more profound approaches.

The complexities of land are reflected right at the outset in the introduction by Kanak Mani Dixit, the editor of Himal. The South Asia that beckons is a whole whose various parts stand out with their little nuances, strong biases and peculiar needs sometimes protruding on others. It is not what a classical good newspaper was supposed to be: a monolith that flows smoothly as if edited by a single hand. In its variety, the mass of land is more akin to a newsmagazine that, with its varied offerings, tries to provoke and inspire the real change makers — the people — into thinking and action. This is delicate work and cooperation between various units in the region has to be encouraged, yet some order and restraint has to be maintained for it not to appear linked to the onset of globalisation. Meera Nanda thus concludes her “God and the Gospel of Globalisation”: “The only real response to religious nationalism is to actively cultivate a secular culture that can displace the majority faith as the national culture and would require a purposeful demolition of the truth claims of all faith-based ways of thinking — including the faith in the gospel of globalisation and ‘free’ markets.”

Old concepts have to be challenged and eventually, says Dixit. “One definition that appeals to the editors of Himal is to consider South Asia as a region made up of much smaller units of governance, particularly when it comes to the larger countries — the states and provinces of India and Pakistan. The smaller countries of South Asia should contemplate developing links with these provinces and states. Likewise, states and provinces should be interacting reasonably independent of the national government. The knee-jerk capital-based nationalisms in smaller countries would tend to reject such a notion, so we have to add an important caveat: there is no questioning the sovereignty of a country.”

Dixit wonders if Himal Southasia had been born before its time. This impression can be put down to the editor’s preference for humble understatements. The formula of a relationship between smaller units of governance that he talks about is taking root in his region. A Bihar chief minister has only recently been hosted not just by Islamabad, but by Lahore and Karachi as well in their capacities as capitals of provinces that can and wish to establish province-to-province ties across national boundaries. The deputy chief minister of Indian Punjab visited Lahore for a few days, resuming with fanfare and hope a process halted momentarily by events. A few years since Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, then chief minister of Pakistani Punjab crossed over to India, an increasing number are willing to undertake the journey. The trend may be limited to a few states or provinces right now, it may be more pronounced in the border areas, but the momentum appears to be shifting and smaller routes are being explored in earnest across South Asia. These exchanges for now may be too dependent on or too beholden to the market, yet they inherently create more space for pro-people ideas to take shape.

Himal puts its trust in democracy for movement forward. It does not take kindly to the adventurous pushes of the last many years — from the Maoists in Nepal to the sherwani-clad, nuke-flaunting generals in Pakistan and monarchy and its nominees elsewhere in the region. But as its writers go about building linkages for a common South Asian future, mercifully a conscious effort seems to have been made to avoid the tokenism that has long been a favourite of national newspapers.

If and when an issue comes up which binds the whole region together, it is covered in its breadth and the tone is of clichés that some more impatient harbingers of South Asian unity are prone to adopting in their emotional moments. Such as the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 that blurred the boundaries between India and Pakistan. A more low-profile yet significant moment is when Shruti Debi tries to make sense of the fog that enveloped the Sindhu-Ganga plains for a full 45 days during the winter of 2002-03. It is one fascinating look inside “the dark white shroud” even more deadly than the infamous summer heatwave of the subcontinent.

Nostalgia has little room in this stream fed by various tributaries, even if history is what shapes its developments. Occasionally — more than occasionally, in fact — a Himal contributor is moved by the urge to rediscover and revitalise an unlikely factor for unity within the South Asian family. In one article seemingly resulting out of this desire, a revival of the Gandhian tradition is longed for with its universal message and non-violent methods. In a style more passionate than what is usual for Himal writers, C.K. Lal argues in “Relevance of the Middle Path: Rediscovering Gandhi for all South Asia”: “This is the time then when the modern apostle of peaceful resistance needs to be rediscovered. M.K. Gandhi’s ideas were extremely powerful during the independence struggles of South Asia. His beliefs and methods are even more important today in a region passing through the pangs of adulthood. Decomposing democracy, arrogant autocracy, insecure intelligentsia, boastful business and violent conflicts are actually symptoms of the coming-of-age of a region that had remained mired in orthodoxy and hopelessness for centuries. When the status quo is too oppressive and change threatens to tear the place apart, Gandhi’s vision beckons like the proverbial light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.”

Lal says that various leftist groups have tried to replicate Gandhi’s technique to mobilise people rather than the parties and using the very instrument of empire to undermine it from within. But they have failed to move the people “since they ignore the fundamental feature of this moral method of political arm-twisting — non-violence.”

Inevitably, both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru suffer for their inability to “appreciate the ancient Hindu logic of dying to be reborn. Like other god-fearing and law-abiding English gentlemen, wogs at the fag end of the empire loved order and feared anarchy … Order implies continuation of the status quo. Fear of anarchy has to be overcome to initiate long-needed changes in the existing order that had instituionalised inequality for millennia.”

If Lal’s case for present-day reflection is liable to be read more as a lament than an alternative, Afsan Chowdhury’s deceptively low-key take on Faiz Ahmad Faiz in “Subsumed by History and Nation” is no less an expression in disappointment. The article is looking for answers to a host of disturbing questions: how did the poet, the internationalist who held a Pakistani passport, react to the events that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971? How did he get involved with the Rawalpindi Conspiracy 20 years earlier and what did the plotters of this conspiracy want to achieve? And did his politics end with his involvement in this conspiracy? Ultimately, Chowdhury is inclined to view Rawalpindi as the last really political act on Faiz’s part. He is less forthright in his verdict on the man and his reaction to the cruelties unleashed on East Pakistanis in the name of national interest. So sympathetic is he to Faiz’s Pakistani predicament that at one point he reluctantly allows himself to wonder if the poet would have been better off living in India.

Chowdhury is not happy at Faiz’s Pakistani nationalisation. Faiz may have been careful in deciding what idiom the circumstances allowed him at a particular time but he did also spend some of his last years editing the official journal of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Beirut. This unhappiness perhaps stems from the fact that people living in a particular region and within certain boundaries have greater expectations from their co-inhabitants as compared with the rest of the world. It is this regional affinity which provides justification for forums such as Himal.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

The Southasian Sensibility: A Himal Reader


Edited by Kanak Mani Dixit

Sage Publications, India

ISBN 9788132109006

352pp. Indian Rs895