Podcast • August 23, 2011

Ayesha Jalal, Part 2: What Would Manto Say?

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3) … One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, ...

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

… One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, he dropped everything, climbed the nearest tree and installed himself on a branch, from which vantage point he spoke for two hours on the delicate problem of India and Pakistan. The guards asked him to get down; instead he went a branch higher, and when threatened with punishment, declared, ‘I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree.’

From “Toba Tek Singh,” Manto’s masterpiece on the separation of lunatics — Hindus from Muslims — after Partition in 1947. In Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto. Translated by Khalid Hasan. Penguin, 2008.
Ayesha Jalal, the historian, with Iqbal Hussain‘s painting of two ladies of the night in Lahore, cover art on a Penguin edition of Manto’s stories

LAHORE — Pakistan’s greatest prose writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, set his most famous story in the Lahore lunatic asylum, to render an immortal judgment on the Partition of India and Pakistan. As Ayesha Jalal (who chances to be Manto’s great-grand-niece) sums it up in conversation: to Manto it was clear that “the madness outside is greater than the madness within the asylum.”

The Partititon had in fact two still-astonishing chroniclers of the horror that displaced nearly 15 million people and killed about a million. One was Margaret Bourke-White, whose black-and-white photographs for LIFE magazine stared into the shrouded eyes of the living dead on the march. The other was Manto, whose stories don’t just drip with the cold sweat of rape, murder and unspeakable loss along the way; they also drill far into the absurdity of that vast project of separating neighbors. I am thinking of a Manto story, “The Last Salute,” about Rab Nawaz and Rab Singh — two soldiers who’d gone to the same primary school in a Punjab village, who’d joined the army on the same day and fought for the British 6/9 Jat Regiment in Italy, and in their final, fatal encounter are fighting for Pakistan and India in Kashmir — “the friends of yesterday… transformed into the enemies of today.” Manto writes realistic tales that brim with his own generous, forgiving embrace of sinners and saints, but incomprehension is the telling note of his Partition stories. As Ayesha Jalal is noting for us: “… he cannot understand why India is partitioned. He cannot understand the logic of it.” These are notes of incomprehension and absurdity that recur spontaneously to a visitor in Pakistan even now, 64 summers later.

Ayesha Jalal is writing a biographical and literary reflection on Manto, to be published on the centennial of his birth in March, 2012. She is reminding us that in his short career, abbreviated by alcoholism and death at 42, Manto wrote brilliant sketches, successful screenplays and radio scripts, and essays as well as fiction. His nine “Letters to Uncle Sam” from the early 1950s stand up as playful, pungent and prophetic.

For example:

21 February 1954

Dear Uncle,

I wrote to you only a few days ago and here I am writing again. My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan. I tell you I feel like writing a letter a day to you.

Regardless of India and the fuss it is making, you must sign a military pact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs. They would also need American-made rosaries and prayer-mats, not to forget small stones that they used to soak up the after-drops following a call of nature. Cut-throat razors and scissors should be top of the list, as well as American hair-colour lotions. That should keep these fellows happy and in business…

I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs. I am your Pakistani nephew and I know your moves. Everyone can now become a smart ass, thanks to your style of playing politics.

If this gang of mullahs is armed in the American style, the Soviet Union that hawks communism and socialism in our country will have to shut shop. I can visualize the mullahs, their hair trimmed with American scissors and their pajamas stitched by American machines in strict conformity with the Sharia. The stones they use for their after-drops of you-know-what will be American, untouched by human hand, and their prayer-mats would be American, too. Everyone will then become your camp follower, owing allegiance to you and no one else…

Your obedient nephew,

Saadat Hasan Manto

From “Letters to Uncle Sam,” No. 4. In Bitter Fruit. Penguin, 2008.

Podcast • August 22, 2011

Ayesha Jalal: Pakistan’s Revenge of the ’40s, then the ’80s

It takes a historian of Ayesha Jalal‘s power to crystallize an awkward truth: that the agony of Pakistan today is inseparable from the tragedy of Pakistan’s birth in 1947. Still more bluntly, that Pakistan as ...

It takes a historian of Ayesha Jalal‘s power to crystallize an awkward truth: that the agony of Pakistan today is inseparable from the tragedy of Pakistan’s birth in 1947. Still more bluntly, that Pakistan as we know it is not at all the country that its sainted founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had in mind. As she puts it in conversation, “Complete partition was the last thing he wanted…”

It is an argument that made her famous in her first book: The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1985). The Muslim nation that Jinnah championed was a state of mind more than a nation state. Separation from India was a bargaining ploy more than it was a demand in principle. What Jinnah wanted was a power-sharing arrangement at the all-India level, between his own Muslim League and the mostly Hindu Congress Party. He wanted equal standing, that is, in a pluralistic Union of India, but never a bordered nation, and still less an arbitrary dismemberment of the Muslims’ two great regional powerbases: the Punjab in the northwest of India and Bengal in the East. She is speaking of the history that stalks Pakistan and the wider world: Partition in the 1940s, and then the Cold War in the 1980s.

If you’re talking about Pakistan as it stands today — Pakistan with its bouts of unreasonableness, its treatment of minorities, the killing of minorities, the blasphemy laws, a whole succession of things — it’s clearly not the Pakistan that the founder of Pakistan imagined. The founder of Pakistan was first and foremost a constitutional lawyer, who believed in the supremacy of the law — something that has never somehow caught the imagination of Pakistanis. They may talk about it, but there is no law. Each man is a law unto himself. Whoever can grab it, that’s it. So that’s a fundamental departure. Second, when Jinnah spoke of Pakistan as a Muslim state, he envisioned a democratic, enlightened Pakistan. So what I’m saying is that there are many levels at which this country departs from Jinnah’s ideals. But the most interesting thing I’ve discovered is that by the same token, everyone or most people do hark back to Jinnah’s Pakistan. So while they have moved away from Jinnah’s Pakistan as an ideal, it remains as a main point of discussion. That is something hopeful, I think…

Pakistan’s problems go back to the moment of its creation. But there’s no denying that changes in the strategic situation post the Soviet invasion [Christmas eve, 1979] were a watershed. The military regime was not simply ridding the region of the Soviet presence, but was using that threat to Pakistan’s existence to solidify its own rule within Pakistan. The Soviet invasion came as a great boost to General Zia’s regime. It brought him lots of greenbacks. It was a period of prosperity. And it was a decisive step not only because of the uses made of militant Islam to allow the war against the Soviets, but also because the infusion of US dollars (matched dollar for dollar by Saudi money) resulted in a scenario where the society was up for sale. It was a transformative process. It saw the further entrenchment of the military’s role in Pakistan. It resulted in a further fragmentation and polarization of civil society. There is no question that a three-decade-long policy has taken a very heavy toll on Pakistan: the arms and drugs economy, the weapons that made their way into Pakistan — they didn’t all go to Afghanistan; a lot of money came to Pakistan as well. That is where the qualitative changes take place… The 80s are crucial in Pakistan’s history, and I think in global history.

Ayesha Jalal at home in Lahore with Chris Lydon, mid-summer 2011.

Podcast • April 14, 2011

Pratap Mehta: Pakistan’s Perpetual Identity Crisis

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3) Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

The reconsideration of partition is a critical, current existential question not only for South Asians, but also for Americans who watch the continuous outrages from Taliban and CIA sanctuaries inside Pakistan. It’s a question on many levels — terrorism, geopolitics, ethnicity and religion — but, Pratap Mehta says, “it’s fundamentally the question of the identity of a country.”

In his telling of the partition story, the contemporary reality of Pakistan grew out of a failure to answer a core challenge of creating a nation-state: how do you protect a minority? It’s Mehta’s view that the framers of the modern subcontinent — notably Gandhi, Jinnah & Nehru — never imagined a stable solution to this question. He blames two shortcomings of the political discourse at the time of India’s independence:

The first is that it was always assumed that the pull of religious identities in India is so deep that any conception of citizenship that fully detaches the idea of citizenship from religious identity is not going to be a tenable one.

The second is that Gandhi in particular, and the Congress Party in general, had a conception of India which was really a kind of federation of communities. So the Congress Party saw [the creation of India] as about friendship among a federation of communities, not as a project of liberating individuals from the burden of community identity to be whatever it is that they wished to be.

The other way of thinking about this, which is to think about a conception of citizenship where identities matter less to what political rights you have, that was never considered seriously as a political project. Perhaps that would have provided a much more ideologically coherent way of dealing with the challenges of creating a modern nation-state.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 12, 2011.

Unlike many other Open Source talkers on Pakistan, Pratap Mehta does not immediately link its Islamization to the United States and its 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Reagan and his CIA-Mujahideen military complex were indeed powerful players in the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, he agrees, but the turn began first during a national identity crisis precipitated by another partition, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Suddenly, Mehta is telling us, Pakistan could no longer define itself as the unique homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent. In search of identity, and distinction from its new neighbor to the east, Pakistan turned towards a West Asian brand of Islam, the hardline Saudi Wahhabism that has become a definitive ideology in today’s Islamic extremism.

Mehta is hopeful, though, that in open democratic elections Islamic parties would remain relatively marginalized, that despite the push to convert Pakistan into a West Asian style Islamic state since 1971, “the cultural weight of it being a South Asian country” with a tradition of secular Islam “remains strong enough to be an antidote.”

Podcast • February 10, 2011

India-Pakistan: Vazira Zamindar on the raw wound of Partition

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vazira Zamindar. (30 minutes, 16 mb mp3) Time April 22, 1946: “MOHAMED ALI JINNAH: His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow” Vazira Zamindar is filling in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vazira Zamindar. (30 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

Time April 22, 1946: “MOHAMED ALI JINNAH: His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow”

Vazira Zamindar is filling in a critical back story of fury and fear in our world, The Long Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and after. It was one of the great post-colonial wounds, and it keeps on wounding, visibly and invisibly. Partition has been the root of endless public miseries: ethnic cleansing, chronic warfare, constructed “national” and religious hatreds. It’s also, as Professor Zamindar testifies for herself, “a wound within.” It’s the mother of many millions of individual identity crises that seem never to go away.

Ahmed Rashid’s recent “lament for a troubled Pakistan” makes a similar zig-zag connection from 1947 to 2011, from the corrupted legacy of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and the frenzied fundamentalism behind the murder last month of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab state. He writes: “Jinnah was a liberal, consensual, inspired Muslim who categorically and repeatedly stated that Pakistan would be a state for Muslims to pursue their religion and culture, but never an Islamic state. He welcomed all minorities to live and worship in freedom. Jinnah himself never sold his house in Bombay. That was the kind of vision needed for a new country that was multicultural and multi-ethnic, one that had been the seat of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. That was the Pakistan we grew up in, in the 1960s and 1970s. But that Pakistan is now rapidly being lost…”

Vazira Zamindar, on the history faculty at Brown, is herself a child of one of those many “divided families” that never saw the division coming. Jinnah, she is reminding us, was a cosmopolitan lawyer who never envisioned an Islamist state.

Something that’s easily forgotten today is that the whole region was a multi-religious society, and people lived together… [with] class conflicts, and ethnic conflicts, and resource conflicts which often got translated in terms of religious boundaries… And still it was a profoundly multi-religious society, so any project to create a Muslim Pakistan or a Hindu India would necessarily have to be an extremely violent one…

The argument for Partition was decided in 1947 by a narrow elite. Instructively, ironically now, the Muslim religious leadership at the time opposed partition. Lord Mountbatten of Burma, the last British viceroy, was accused of rushing it. Nehru and Jinnah can both be charged with a heedless ambiguity about the consequences. A democratic choice in the matter would have come out differently, Vazira Zamindar is saying: “The way people actually live on the ground … is with a heterodoxy of practices. People learn to live together in ways that governments don’t learn to live together. 

I would argue that in 1947, it was still unclear how these two entities called India and Pakistan would inscribe themselves as two nation-states. I think it is the following decade that’s quite decisive, and one could say it’s still an ongoing process of creating this distinction: the need to constantly articulate this distinction, through hostilities, through enmity, through making the border between these two states almost impossible for citizens of the region to cross.

There is a line on the ground that disappears very quickly when people cross it.

Vazira Zamindar in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, January 31, 2011.

We are talking about the many reasons Partition is debated to this day. The fact that people keep reflecting on the question marks the spot, Vazira Zamindar says, to begin “a critique of the present… I want to hold onto that question as a sign that people can still imagine a multi-religious society. It’s a sign that people are fed up with our terribly divided present, that they don’t want these wars. They don’t want conflict.”