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.

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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:

The World of Prannath

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My review of Vasudha Dalmia and Munis D. Faruqui, ed. Religious Interactions in Mughal India. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014) a version of which ran in The Book Review (Feb, 2015).

In 1674, Mahamat Prannath (1618-1694 CE) and his followers sought an audience with the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1619-1707) in the imperial capital of Delhi. Mahamat Prannath had recently split from other disciples of his sampradaya of Guru Devchandra over the question of succession and the audience with the Mughal badshāh was meant to resolve this differnence –as was customary in such cases, in those times. Leaving Gujarat must have been hard for Prannath. He was born in Jamnagar and had spent his adulthood living and traveling in Junagadh, Ahmadabad, Diu, Thatta, Muscat, and even Mecca. The regions of Sind, Gujarat and Aden had shared networks of traders, merchants, mendicants and scholars — living in port-cities and capitals — for centuries before Prannath. During his time, it was an especially diverse space. Here were the religious orders of Nizari Ismailis, Jesuits, Jains, Vaishnavite and Krishanavite sants, Sufis or Sunnis. Here was just as diverse political powers of the Arghuns, the Mughal, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Surat Rajas.
Continue reading The World of Prannath

Passport Tales

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My Pakistani passport is the most Pakistani thing about me. When I clutch it approaching the border agents, I carefully keep the seal facing downwards. No need to scare off the grandmother next to me. Yet the green does seep out of my palm. My expiring passport was the older variety – not readable by machines. The ticketing agent and the border agent had to laboriously decode the trilingual (Arabic, English, Urdu) categories to hunt for my date of birth or the expiration date. Eagerly, I would try and point them to the right pages. This digital intrusion into their domains was rarely met with a smile.

I needed to get a “Machine-Readable” passport.

My father who got his in 1967, once spoke to me about passports. He had won a scholarship to go study Engineering in Ankara. He recalled it taking a laboriously long time to acquire. He had kept it – as he had kept all of his passports. When I took hold of it, I carefully went through its yellowed pages, filled with strange looking stamps and hand-scribbled notations of entries and exits.
Continue reading Passport Tales

Whence Muhammad?

‘Muhammadanism’ was always a heresy, a contamination, a deviation – and hence, always needed satire. Where humor inserts the uncanny into the mundane, satire exposes the decay inside the ordinary. Muhammadanism has always been understood through the satirical gesture, whether couched in scholarly objectivism or bazari insouciance.1

The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. The eighth century epic The Song of Roland – written in the eleventh century – depicts Muslims as idol-worshippers of a trinity of gods – Apollin, Tervagant and ‘Mahomet':

“From Tervagant take they his ruby, and into a ditch they throw/ Mahomet, where foul swine rend him, and dogs hale to and fro.”

The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives. This is most legible in the tradition of a biography of Muhammad – Vita Mahumeti – that cast him specifically as a Christian heretic who got a garbled message of Christianity from a Monophysite or an Arian or a Nestorian or a Jewish monk.
Continue reading Whence Muhammad?

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  1. Since long, I have been meaning to finish an argument about the centrality of the Prophet to Pakistan but … the work remains; and one import of my argument will be to demonstrate that the European understanding of the centrality of the Prophet is now the reigning understanding in Pakistan, in distinction with the pre-colonial. []