On Dissent

Over at The Hindu, a slightly longer version of my thoughts on the assassination of Sabeen Mahmud.

Crushing voices of dissent:

The crime of the intellectual is to create the scene of the crime. The scene of the crime is a space — whether concrete or metaphoric — in which dialogue can exist. Their crime is in expressing or harbouring dissent. And the punishment is always death.

No Healer of Glass

Fanon wrote about why the anti-colonial struggle targeted doctors and intellectuals. It did so, he surmised, because the colonial doctor or the colonial ethnographer were not mere healers and intellectuals. They were also critical participants in the daily life of the colony; they had property, employed colonized bodies; the healers were torturers and the ethnographers were erasers of native pasts. For Fanon, the native doctor and the organic intellectual were the hope for the freed nation– these figures who would carry the episteme of Europe through the burning colony, and assimilate the two. We now know that project to be just as flawed as the colonial one.

The mis-titled ‘post-colonial’ nation that emerged in 1947 bent its will to dominate Kalat, Kashmir, Swat, Bengal, Sind, Baluchistan. At each, they erased the organic intellectuals, the healers, those who could offer a narrative counter to their enlightened nationalism. Fanon’s organic intellectuals were targeted and killed by the post-colonial state in 1971 in East Pakistan, in the 1970s in Karachi. The healers are being killed across Pakistan right now.

Today, as I sit and think about Sabeen Mahmud, my mind keeps going back to the state-sanctioned killing of intellectuals in 1971. Why kill Abul Khair and Munier Chowdhury? They wrote. They taught. In the perverse logic of the nation-state, their ideas, their capacity to have a dialogue, were the very reasons for their eradication. There is only one idea, only one conversation, only one speaker.

I started to talk about Baluchistan here when the insurgency started in 2005. Ten years later, the state has assassinated a number of leaders and over 3,000 have ‘disappeared’. The Baluchi men, women and children walked over 2,000 km to see if someone can answer them. No one did. One of those marchers, Mama Qadeer, was the participant at the talk held in T2F, organized by Sabeen Mahmud. She was killed after the event. She was killed because she provided a forum for a conversation that cannot be held in Pakistan. It is a conversation that pits the dreams of a Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor against local resistance. Just days before the T2F conversation, the State forced LUMS University in Lahore to cancel their talk on Baluchistan. It is this re-scheduled talk that led to the death of Sabeen Mahmud.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Baluch cause will be crushed. Whether economic nationalism triumphs or the sacral one, does not really matter in the end. The corridors will be built over the hidden mass graves and the charred dreams of self-autonomy. With the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, there is the end of decade old space for dialogue in Karachi. That space is not coming back. No one is going to step forward and create such spaces anew. The killing of Sabeen Mahmud is the shattering of T2F. We can now cry and hold these broken shards as much as we like. But, to quote Faiz, there are no healers of glass.

موتی ہو کہ شیشہ، جام کہ دُر / be it pearl or glass, uncorked or full
جو ٹوٹ گیا، سو ٹوٹ گیا / is broken is broken
کب اشکوں سے جڑ سکتا ہے / when can tears mend?
جو ٹوٹ گیا ، سو چھوٹ گیا / is broken is gone

تم ناحق ٹکڑے چن چن کر / for nothing, are you picking these shards
دامن میں چھپائے بیٹھے ہو / storing them in your lap
شیشوں کا مسیحا کوئی نہیں / there is no healer of glass
کیا آس لگائے بیٹھے ہو / what hope do you have?

For Sabeen Mahmud

In 2007-8 as email listservs sprang up to protest Musharraf’s dictatorship, I met Sabeen Mahmud, her words and her spirit through my inbox. T2F was part of this flowering of young artists, activists who made humor and wit their weapon against dictators. Asim Butt. Sabeen Mahmud. They were the two names I admired from faraway Chicago, IL. I study some bits of Pakistan’s past. I call Lahore, and only Lahore, home. I don’t remember such sadness, and despair. If I had ever met Sabeen, I would not be able to speak or write now. I just knew her from a distance; I just knew her work from afar. Un par kiya basri hai jo uss kay ashna thay. I cry only for few emails, and a spirit that has left with her.

IMG_5645

Sir Christopher Bayly, 1945-2015

20_british_empireToday’s passing of Chris Bayly is truly a shock to the community of historians of South Asia. He was such a generous and warm soul. Before the first time I met him– schooled as I was, in the “Subaltern” neck of the historiographic woods– I imagined him to be some caricature of a stern tasking empiricist. Instead, I found him to be really funny, and eager to engage with a random graduate student as if I was an equal interlocutor. I was completely taken aback by his kindness. Many years later, we met again and he not only remembered me but remembered the joke he had quipped on my rather stringent reading of his scholarship.

From friends and others at Chicago, I have heard all day about his kindness to students there. From colleagues whose manuscripts he read, and published, same stories are readily available. We tend to measure scholars by their outputs in books or articles– and clearly Bayly was at the top of said pyramids of excellence. Yet the shock comes from the loss of a generous and kind soul in a world that rarely produces or nourishes such souls. We will all miss you, Sir Bayly. My condolensces to his family and friends.

Further Remembrances and Notices: