Shahid Amin Reviews I: San Sattavan

[Professor Shahid Amin, prominent historian and author most recently of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015), reviewed Amritlal Nagar’s Gathering the Ashes for Biblio India. CM is delighted to feature his longer review here. We hope to post more of Professor Amin’s public writings in the near future– sepoy.]

NagarAmritlal Nagar, Gathering the Ashes, tr. By Mrinal Pande ( Harper Perennial, 2014), pp. 378, Price Rs. 399

On 13th July 2006 the Prime Minister of India found time in the middle of the then delicately poised negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That was a lot of Indians. It would not be uncharitable to suggest that very few of this motley group would have been comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy,or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad, the Alha of Rajputs lineages of Awadh or the Urdu of rebel communication and proclamations. One could even wager that some might even have faltered reciting little more than the refrain “Khub lari mardani… Jhansi wali rani…” of that stirring poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Yet a GOM (Group of Ministers) went ahead and cleared Rs.150 crores of public money for a major commemoration, beginning August. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, specially in Delhi which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. It seems to have mattered little, for here was a nationalist gesture– the dream of annexing the untidy, to say the least, events of the Ghadar of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month.

‘San-sattavan’! (The Year ’57)

In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the myriad things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies British rule was to end within hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, ‘san sattavan’ stands resplendent in perhaps the best known poem on the Ghadar (rebellion) by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: ‘Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi’. The sword unleashed to drive out the firangis had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries, as indeed was the case; it was the very old sword of an ‘aged Bharat’ which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself (‘burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi’).

Let’s stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem. Recall that this great nationalist poem places the ‘value of lost independence’ and ‘the resolve to throw the firangi out’ in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, ninety years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Lets now cut to a folksong about Jhansi-wali Rani popular in district Etawah and its environs in UP, collected by that inveterate ‘native ethnographer’ Ram Gharib Chaube for his colonial master-scholar William Crooke in 1912. “O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/… Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi! Well fought the brave one.” Here in a local folksong, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani’s sacrifice and valour (‘sagre sipahiyan -ke pera-jalebi, khud khae gur-dhani; morcha ko chor-ke lashkar ko bhagi, dhunde nahin milei nahin paani’), but no intimations of a reactivated and well-entrenched sense of Indian nationhood.

To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah–- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph– was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose ‘making’ requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed– like a mannequin in a shopping window– merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.
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August Days

Gentle readers,

It has been quiet, I know. I hope all of you are busy writing your books to keep your jobs, or to get new ones. It must be exhausting, and you have my sympathies. I published a review-essay in Caravan looking at four new books on 1947/Partition: the edited volume by Urvashi Butalia, Partition: The Long Shadow, Anam Zakaria’s The Footprints of Partition, Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, and Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina.

The histories and memories in the new books considered here are in tension with one another. They open up new archives, methods and understandings, just they continue to naturalise the incommensurability of the Muslim with India. It is evident in reading them that our need to understand the deep history of Partition is acute. Just as graveyards are segregated by communities, so are histories. In partitioned South Asia, the Shia, Sunni, Muslim, Hindu, or Assamese, Sindi, Baluchi pasts are also constructed to be separate. The histories we produce must acknowledge the burden of recognising difference and parsing it. For the subalterns, those adrift among borders, the fuller history of Partition remains unwritten. The Rohingya floating at sea are also part of the forgotten stories of Partition. They who once were Indian or Burmese or Pakistani or Bangladeshi are now of nowhere. Without land, they are also without history.

Do take a look, and do let me know what you think.

Bhalo ki Bhalo na

Acchā Jī Acchā!
– Taimoor Shahid, translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri acchī
aslī acchī naq̣lī acchī
sastī acchī mehngī acchī
maiṇ bhī acchā tum bhī acchī
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī acchī
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī acchī
āsmān ke bādal acchay
mauj dularī hawā bhī acchī
garmī acchī sāwan acchā
mailā acchā ujlā acchā
sabzī acchī qourmā acchā
machli bharā pakoṛā acchā
sīdhā acchā bāṇkā acchā
daff bhī acchī ḍhol bhī acchā
bāl bhī acchay ganjā acchā
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā acchā
ḳhastā pūrī belnā acchā
gān purāne sunnā acchā
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā acchā
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi acchā
lekin sab se acchā bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ!

Kāfir Re Kāfir
Taimoor Shahid, translated parody of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri kāfir
aslī kāfir naq̣lī kāfir
sastī kāfir mehngī kāfir
maiṇ bhī kāfir tum bhī kāfir
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī kāfir
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī kāfir
āsmān ke bādal kāfir
mauj dularī hawā bhī kāfir
garmī kāfir sāwan kāfir
mailā kāfir ujlā kāfir
sabzī kāfir qourmā kāfir
machli bharā pakoṛā kāfir
sīdhā kāfir bāṇkā kāfir
daff bhī kāfir ḍhol bhī kāfir
bāl bhī kāfir ganjā kāfir
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā kāfir
ḳhastā pūrī belnā kāfir
gān purāne sunnā kāfir
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā kāfir
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi kāfir
eid-ul fitr ki pūjā kafir*
lekin sab se kāfir bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ

*Line inserted on the recent IS statement banning Eid prayers in Mosul

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: