The Problem of Pakistan

20 Apr

The following article is by a regular contributor to the blog, Chaste. The article is a comprehensive analytic exploration of the extent of problem that we face in Pakistan, and a considered exploration of the possible alternatives.

I will first sketch the history of and the situation in Pakistan, and then suggest a range of options. Throughout the piece, I will use “Jihadist groups” as an umbrella term for groups including the Kashmiri terrorists, LET, UJC, AQ, Taliban, and the like. My apologies to those who see Jihad as an internal spiritual struggle; I cannot think of a more efficient term.

In 1965, Old Pakistan tried unsuccessfully to annex the part of Kashmir that fell to India during the spoils of independence/partition. Six years later, in 1971, an East Pakistan (Bengali) based party won national elections. Because the party was East Pakistan based, the West Pakistan dominated military refused to recognize the election results and launched a coup. What followed was an incredibly bloody suppression of a Bengali insurgency. The West Pakistani military action caused the killing of about 1.5 million people in the space of nine months; that would average out at five thousand killings every day during the whole of those nine months. These are controversial numbers, difficult to verify, so I have halved the numbers claimed by Bangladesh. Ten million Bengalis became refugees in India. India started to support the insurgency, and Pakistan declared war on India at the end of 1971. With the help of Bengali insurgents, India forced a surrender of Pakistani forces in the area, and East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh.

In nearly forty years of independence, Bangladesh has coexisted peacefully with both Pakistan and India, viewing neither as a threat or even a rival. It should be noted here Bangladesh’s population is roughly equal to that of Pakistan and is about 90% Muslim. On the other hand, West Pakistan took ownership of the identity of Old Pakistan – viewing India as a rival and a threat, and itself as the lands of the Muslims of the subcontinent. It did this despite having just lost about half of its population to Bangladesh, and being reduced to a nation of Punjabis, Sindhis, and a host of peoples in the mountainous Northwest of the subcontinent. West Pakistan chose to overlook its slaughter of up to three million Bangladeshis (West Pakistan would point out in its defense that it murdered and raped a disproportionately high number of Hindus). Instead, West Pakistan held India fully responsible for the breakup of Old Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. West Pakistan (henceforth Pakistan) forged a new Pakistani national psyche, which dramatically reinforced India as Pakistan’s existential nemesis. Pakistan forthwith embarked on its project to acquire nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons project was easily accelerated in the 80s because the West was happy to look the other way. In exchange, Pakistan channeled Western money to Jihadist forces, among others, to overthrow the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan. The channeling of vast amounts of money through the ISI made it much more powerful, even as it was radicalized both by its common cause with Jihadist forces and by the Islamization under General Zia.

The end of the 80s saw Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the successful conclusion of anti-Soviet action in Afghanistan by the alliance of the West, the Jihadist forces among others, and Pakistan’s ISI. The former gave Pakistan carte blanche to pursue any military action against India short of a frontal assault; the latter placed at Pakistan’s disposal, a considerable Jihadist force and the bureaucratic / political structure (ISI) to manage these forces. Pakistan decided to capitalize on the sense of grievance in the Muslim majority state of Kashmir over two instances of opportunistic behavior by the Congress party earlier in the 80s (the Congress had behaved similarly in most other Indian states). Accordingly, it set up extensive terrorist training camps in Pakistani Kashmir, and unleashed a violent, partially Jihadist insurgency in Indian Kashmir. One of the first actions of this insurgency was to carry out an ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir valley. This insurgency has continued since, claiming on average three thousand lives every year. Pakistan’s usual rationalization for supporting this partially Jihadi insurgency is that it helps defend Pakistan by keeping a large part of the Indian army tied down in Kashmir. This reasoning is patently absurd: India could retain territorial control over Kashmir during any hostilities with a fraction of the army it currently needs to maintain law and order. Besides, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent should forestall any hostile intentions India may ever have had. Meanwhile, among the various groups that Pakistan supported to a greater or lesser extent, the Taliban not only consolidated its hold over most of a fractious Afghanistan but also became a reliable ally of Pakistan until 9/11 shook things up a little.

The past two decades in Pakistan have been characterized by an unstable political equilibrium. There are three important political factions: The Bhutto party with its base in Sindh, the Sharif party with its base in Punjab, and the military with its base in a combination of raw power, and popular dissatisfaction with the extreme corruption in the other two political factions. Neither the Bhutto nor the Sharif faction has compromised on their core interest of corruption: neither party has indicated an interest in good governance as a means of staying in power. The military, though more interested in good governance than the others, has not compromised on its core interest of absolute power – has not accepted any power-sharing as a means of co-opting ambitious civilians. All three factions share the national consensus about supporting the violent, partially Jihadist insurgency in Kashmir. All three have a similar approach to the Taliban, namely, that they are a core ally of Pakistan who must be protected even as Pakistan needs to guard itself against some of their excesses. All three also approve of groups, which carry out bombings of movie houses, markets, commuter trains, and the like in major Indian cities every few months. The most “spectacular” of these were the attacks on various targets in Bombay including the Taj Mahal hotel and the Victoria Terminus railway station.

For those inclined to deem this a rather harsh assessment of Pakistani political players, consider the following sample of responses (largely from moderate parties or moderate military figures at a time when Pakistan had great external pressures and incentives to act moderately:

  • General Musharraf cut deals with the Jihadi forces by ceding parts of FATA to them and allowed other Jihadi groups like LET full freedom to operate in Pakistan; all this despite the fact that these groups supposedly tried to assassinate Musharraf himself on at least three different occasions.
  • When Ms. Bhutto was assassinated by Jihadi groups, her party directed blame at elements in the government allied to those groups rather than at the groups themselves. Part of this was because it was more expedient to blame the government (governing party) during an election campaign. But part of it is also because of the reluctance to openly criticize Jihadi groups. This latter construction is reinforced as Ms. Bhutto’s widower recently concluded a deal with the Taliban in which the government ceded the Swat valley to the Taliban. The Taliban has promptly taken control of the lucrative emerald mining operations in the area.
  • For several weeks after the Indian government released the names and addresses of the Bombay attackers, the Pakistani government refused to admit that any of the attackers was Pakistani. Indeed, Mr. Sharif was raked over the coals when, within a couple of weeks, he acknowledged that the captured attacker at least was Pakistani. Along similar lines, in the wake of the recent attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team, a Pakistani minister promptly blamed the Indian government for carrying out the attacks. The MO of the Pakistani political establishment is always the same: while they vehemently condemn terrorist attacks (thereby giving the appearance of sanity), they rarely attribute it to any group (other than the Indian government). This lack of attribution preempts any obligation to publicly condemn the Jihadi groups.
  • When faced with Jihadi groups induced instability: increased suicide bombings in Pakistan including in Punjab, the tenseness surrounding the attacks on Bombay, the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team, the ceding of Swat to the Taliban after a vicious campaign including wide spread school burnings, and the like crises, the Bhutto faction responded not by trying to undermine the Jihadi groups, but rather by trying to undermine the Sharif faction. Accordingly, they have packed the courts with partisans, and recently both Mr. Sharif, and his brother (the governor of Punjab), were disqualified from running for office. The Bhutto faction backed down only after massive street protests threatened its own hold on power.

The foregoing represents what we can expect from the Pakistani political establishment under any modification of business as usual. The reason for this is simple if rather uncomfortable, namely, that the central and defining element of what it means to be Pakistani is a hatred of India. This is not to suggest that every single Pakistani Muslim hates India (only an overwhelming majority do), or that it is a consuming passion (most have more immediate and concrete matters to preoccupy them). Rather, the view that India is Pakistan’s existential nemesis is assumed to be a self-evident truth. This has made hatred of India the preeminent national value. Establishing extreme anti-Indian bona fides has become a surefire shortcut to legitimation for any group whatever. Any Jihadi group knows that it only has to establish its anti-Indian bona fides (by fighting in Kashmir, bombing Indian civilians, or in any other way) to have carte blanche to do anything in Pakistan (including killing Pakistanis). As long as the extreme anti-Indian sentiment and the legitimation shortcut exists, and it will fall under any business as usual scenario, Pakistani Jihadi groups will be ineradicable.

But is the current unstable equilibrium satisfactory for the primary stakeholders? I will focus only on Pakistan, America, and India (Afghanistan is powerless to effect any change, so I will ignore it). All three stakeholders have grounds for dissatisfaction. Pakistanis are dealing with a deteriorating and unstable equilibrium. Extremists have struck in the heart of Punjab, the Pakistani army is often engaged on the front at the frontier, and Pakistan has become the center of much unpleasant international attention. America has sunk a lot of money and prestige in its Afghanistan operation, and would dearly like to proclaim it a success. There is also a significant if quite minor security angle to the American operation. India has become more integrated into the global economy. Spectacular attacks like those on international hotels in Bombay are likely to jeopardize India’s status as a business and investment destination much more than the mundane attacks on commuter trains and movie houses.

Yet it may be more than arguable that the unstable equilibrium is preferable to the unknown consequences of any action that would disrupt business as usual. It cannot hurt to remind ourselves of the different responses of India and America to comparable attacks. India has largely taken them in its stride without making a big fuss. As a consequence, it has continued to maintain an 8% growth rate even as several hundred people are killed every year in bombings, and a few thousand in Kashmir every year (the latter are primarily Kashmiris unsympathetic to the Indian cause). A severe disruption of the status quo could have the highest cost for India since it shares a long and at places an unmanageable border with a nuclear Pakistan (think dirty bombs), not to mention that its important cities are within range of Pakistani missiles.. Gaurav has suggested that India can reduce the adverse effects of spectacular attacks on India’s international image as an investment destination by a few careful media regulations. Starving western (and probably Indian) media of video feeds would turn these from “spectacular” attacks to mundane deaths and killings worth only perfunctory coverage.

America has already paid the price for disturbing a stable if unpalatable equilibrium in Iraq. Indeed the primary victory of the 9/11 attackers was in knocking America off-balance psychologically. What should have been no more than a $200 billion loss has turned into a multitrillion loss (the worth of the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks was only about $20 billion assuming the rather generous $6 million per life used by the government in its usual cost-benefit analysis). America could settle for maintaining a nominal, internationally recognized client regime in Kabul. America could check Jihadi forces by retaining the right to bomb targets of interest all over Afghanistan. Under such an arrangement, even if the Taliban held parts of the country (non-hostile warlords would hold most of the rest), they would not be much more of a threat to American security than they are now. In the alternative, America could actually try to win hearts and minds by helping the people of the area. No one in the region save the Jihadi forces regard America as an existential nemesis: indeed, America has been a friend of several Afghan groups in the past and present, and has been Pakistan’s most loyal ally for decades. Unfortunately, this is not a practical solution since America will need to spend significant money in helping the region’s peoples. The American people and foreign establishment have shown themselves far more willing to spend $100 billion on killing and occupying a people and their lands (it is called “supporting the troops”) than spend $1 billion on helping those people.

Pakistan has little to lose from the unstable equilibrium. It can revel in its national identity as the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims by nurturing extreme Islamic groups, and by continuing to be a thorn in India’s side by supporting a partially Jihadi insurgency in Kashmir, and terrorist attacks by Jihadi groups in India. Pakistan will not need to acknowledge its role in the slaughter of millions in Bangladesh, fulfill its duties as a nuclear-armed nation, or face the consequences of exporting terrorism to other countries.

But what if the unstable equilibrium ceases to be an equilibrium, and becomes a slippery slope where the Jihadi forces have a real shot at getting power in Islamabad? Though still very improbable, this scenario is not as outlandish as it was even a couple of years ago. If Pakistan were not nuclear armed, the world might have allowed the struggle between fundamentalist and moderate groups to play itself out over the customary few decades. However, its nuclear status ensures that the world will not leave Pakistan alone if there is a threat of a fundamentalist takeover. Such is the price to be paid for becoming a significant power! With this in view, I will discuss some of the measures that can be taken by outside players (America and the international community) to forestall this outcome. It should be understood that these measures should be considered only when the equilibrium is seriously threatened, or if there is a very high chance of the measure succeeding. The equilibrium persists because Islamic fundamentalists have never garnered significant support in the key provinces of Punjab and Sindh, which contain close to 80% of Pakistan’s population. It will not be seriously threatened unless extremist parties gain significant support in Punjab. Currently, they hold around 1% of the seats in Punjab, and received just over 2% of the nationwide vote. However, we must remember that the government of NWFP surrendered Swat to the Taliban despite the extremists winning just over 10% of the seats and votes in NWFP. Thus, “significant” support which should trigger the softer option means anything approaching a double-digit share of the vote, and “substantial” support which should trigger the hard-line option means a vote share well short of the 29% that gave the PMLN a near majority in the Punjab.

The softer option is to exert extreme economic pressure on Pakistan to achieve definite outcomes. The economic conditions must include generous aid on the one hand, and extreme sanctions including extreme trade sanctions and denial of practical access to international financial institutions on the other. The outcome sought should amount to no less than a revamping of Pakistan’s identity. This would include among others: taking strong action against all terrorist groups, surrendering all listed government officials to an international court to face charges of supporting terrorism (the names of a few ISI officials submitted by America to the UN can be the starting point for such a list), a settlement of all outstanding issues with India by a date certain (de facto acceptance of the status quo), and a revamping of the education system to exclude not only extreme Islamism, but also extreme anti-Indian sentiment. Pakistan has a recent record of changing the course of governments through popular pressure. A sufficiently tight squeeze on all sectors of society couple with generous incentives and an effective public campaign could well deliver even such a radical shakeup. These would doubtless be seen by Pakistan as humiliating conditions, and an assault on its national identity. But one must also remember that the right to support and orchestrate terrorist attacks in India has been seen by Pakistan as a nonnegotiable part of its national identity. A very mild version of this option is seen in the Obama administration making significant aid to Pakistan conditional on Pakistan stopping its support of groups, which carry out terrorist attacks in India. Even this version, which only asks Pakistan to stop supporting terrorist groups (as distinct from taking action against them), has become quite controversial.

The more hard-line option involves a redrawing of the regional map, and a dissolution of Pakistan. The redrawing would create ethnic nations in the area. Thus, Punjab, Sindh, and most of Baluchistan would become their own nations. Northeast Baluchistan, NWFP, and FATA would be joined with southern and eastern Afghanistan to form a Pashtunistan. The rest of Afghanistan would form its own nation, or choose to be absorbed into neighboring nations like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Iran, based on regional demographics. There would have to be a solution for the Pakistani regions of AK and FANA, which will not ally them with Punjab. The military action would need to be NATO based, and exclude India to avoid a nuclear incident. Naturally, this solution should be implemented only when the extremists gain substantial support in Punjab.

Though this is a high risk strategy, there are a couple of reasons why it is likely to deliver the best long-term outcome for all the peoples involved. The two most prominent recent examples of failed states falling to Islamic extremists are Afghanistan and Somalia. Both were riven by ethnic or clan factions. Since the primary role of traditional governments is to reallocate resources, a factionalized nation is much more likely to be unstable due to competition among the factions for a larger share. Islamic governments hold out not only the prospect of religion as a unifying force amid the actions; they proclaim that their primary role is the establishment of an Islamic way of life. This is what made the Islamic fundamentalist regimes (the one in Somalia was not particularly intolerant) remarkably stable until they were overthrown by foreign invasions. Pakistan also has strong regional factions, which would find an Islamic fundamentalist regime attractive in difficult circumstances, and find self-determination attractive if it can be easily achieved. As mentioned before, Islamic fundamentalism has a greater draw for Pakistan, which sees itself as the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims, and which sees largely Hindu India as its existential nemesis.

I have mentioned before how the visceral anti-Indian sentiment among Pakistani people gives any groups that attack India and Indians a shortcut to legitimation. This visceral anti-Indian sentiment is unlikely to survive a dissolution of Pakistan. The largest post-dissolution nation would be Punjab with a population around 8% of the Indian population, and an area barely a quarter of the current Pakistan. The fiction that this nation comprises the lands of the subcontinent’s Muslims would be even more difficult to maintain. Any credible rivalry with India will be equally unrealistic. The new nations would likely settle into a pattern of peaceful coexistence similar to Bangladesh. Like Bangladesh they will derive their national identity from internal cultural history rather than by positing an external nemesis. Western hopes about Pakistan have always rested on the hypothesis that the moderate peoples of the Punjab and Sindh can be leveraged to defeat the Jihadi forces in the frontier regions. However, given the virulent anti-Indian (and increasingly anti-American) sentiments, the Jihadi forces have found it much easier to manipulate the sentiments and resources of Punjab and Sindh. There is no chance that this situation will change organically in the next few decades. Dissolution of Pakistan will starve the Jihadi forces of the logistical, human and technological resources of Punjab and Sindh. They will therefore become much less dangerous, and their smaller inconsequential state will be easier to manage. The moderateness of the people of Punjab and Sindh, when freed from the polarizing influence of anti-Indian sentiment in a post-dissolution situation, will likely create modern secular nations concerned with economic progress.

The three broad options I have laid out here: the status quo, the softer option of squeezing the Pakistani people to deliver an overhaul of their institutions and identity, and the hard-line option of the redrawing of the regional map are not necessarily preferable in a descending order. Indeed, the probable outcomes would make them preferable in an ascending order. It is primarily my risk-averseness and cost-benefit analysis approach to civilian casualties that makes me rank them as I do. It is important to understand that if Pakistan starts sliding down a slippery slope, the mild half-hearted policies that have marked the international approach to Pakistan hitherto will be dangerously ineffective. The options I have outlined here are among the more credible approaches to avoid the serious consequences of a nuclear Pakistan turning into a failed state. Policy makers must have clear thresholds for deploying these options, based on the extent of support for extremists in Punjab. Until then we will continue to see the half-hearted pressure for superficial results, which will not address the need for the overhaul of the Pakistani institutions and identity that make it susceptible to Jihadist forces.

Interview: Saira Wasim

13 Aug

Saira Wasim is a US-based contemporary artist from Pakistan. Saira has carved a niche for herself with her innovative, meticulously crafted Persian miniatures, which she employs to make political and social commentary. Saira’s work has been widely feted. It has been exhibited at numerous prominent art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


How was it growing up in Lahore? Did you ever visit the BRB canal?

While I was born in the city, my parents moved to the suburbs right after my birth. I grew up in Allama Iqbal town, which is a southwestern suburb of Lahore. After my birth, my father built a house in Allama Iqbal town; he always wanted to live away from the city life. Our house was one of the first in the town. My early memories of living in that new town include seeing fields all around our house. My parents still live in that house, though the town itself is much more crowded now. And yes, I have visited BRB Canal plenty of times. My father loved to take us there on picnics.

Is your family originally from Lahore? Or did they move there during partition?

My maternal grandparents were from Lahore while my paternal grandparents were from Pasrur, a small village near Sialkot near the Indian border. Many of my family members originally lived in Qadian, a small village in Gurdaspur in Indian Punjab as Ahmadis have long had very strong ties with Qadian.

Childhood and parents

We were raised in a protected environment. Our weekends were spent at my father’s village of Pasrur. Our father always wanted us to have first-hand knowledge of village life because he wanted us to experience how people live in extreme poverty. We were also taught swimming, horse riding, fishing, and how to climb on trees, among many other activities of village life.


My father is an engineer. In 1984, my father started a factory for manufacturing capital goods in Lahore. He ran a factory to manufacture control panels and switch gears. Power Electronics, my dad’s company, was the first Pakistani company that made switch gears. Before that, Pakistan had to import these products from Western countries at an enormous cost. It was, in fact, that realization that prompted him to start manufacturing capital goods.

My father disliked the idea of emigrating to other countries. He believed that we have to make things better in our own country. He thought things would get better after Zia’s regime and that our Caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, would come back. He thought that Pakistan would be on the road of peace and prosperity soon after Zia left, but my father was mistaken in his optimism.

Anyhow, while the 1980s were the worst in Pakistan’s history in terms of freedom of speech and religious freedom, the 1990s were the worst in terms of political chaos and corruption in the country. My father had to struggle hard and faced numerous obstacles due to the constant flip-flop between the democratically elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and because these governments brought a lot of corruption to the country. The common man in Pakistan had thought that democratic governments would bring peace and prosperity to the country, but things got much worse.


She is a very sensitive person.

My mother had a very tough childhood. My Nana Jaan died when she was two years old, and she had to live in extreme poverty.

Although my Nana Jaan, a close friend of Mirza Gulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect), was a very rich businessman, with interests in Lahore and Bombay, before partition, and left huge property for his four kids and two widows, those four kids, and two widows didn’t get even a single penny from that property because my mother’s two Chachas (uncles) were very much against my naana jaan’s conversion to Ahmadiyya faith and his second marriage at the age of 60 to my nani jaan (a young Kashmiri Ahmadi school teacher from a very poor family). His first wife was a rich lady from a nawab family who lived most of her life with my nana jaan. She had converted to Ahmadiyya faith along with nana jaan but couldn’t have kids so she, along with second caliph Mirza Basir-ud-deen Mahmud and his wife, made my nana jaan do a second marriage with my nani jaan. The first wife died soon after my nana jaan death, and both chachas distributed the wealth among their children. My nani jaan, who got widowed at the age of 25 with four young kids, moved to Rabwa from Lahore where the second caliph was living, who supported nani just like his own daughter and grandkids and there she started teaching at a local school. My nani also died when my ami was 16 yrs old and my mamoo (ami’s elder brother) who was himself just 21 yrs old became the guardian of three younger siblings.

Growing up as an Ahmadi in Pakistan

Ahmadis have faced antagonism since the beginning. Ulemas of all the major seventy-two sects of Islam declared them Kafirs in 1891.

In 1974, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan was amended to outlaw Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims. Following the legislation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out in the entire country. Thousands of Ahmadis died in the riots. Their properties were looted and their homes burnt.

My ami (mother) always tells us this story that in 1974 when she was pregnant (with me) and alone in the house with her three-year-old daughter (my elder sister), the mullahs led a call during the Friday sermon for every Ahmadi house to be burnt in order to secure Islam from Ahmadiyyat. A huge mob went on a rampage. As the word got around people, including our next-door neighbors left their houses to try to save themselves. When the mob, which included some of our own Sunni relatives, was marching toward our house, my abu (father) went to the police to ask for help. The police refused point blank saying that they could not go against the mullahs.

Just when the mob was about to reach our house, there was a sudden severe sandstorm. My ami always says that it was a miracle. (I don’t know about Indian Punjab, but in Pakistani Punjab, we have a lot of sandstorms, especially in early summer and they come so unexpectedly that one doesn’t get the opportunity to close the windows and doors of the house. The storms leave your house covered in dust, and the whole city turns into a desert; one can’t even see beyond a foot). The mob couldn’t do anything except break a few windows. My Ami tells us that after the storm there were only shoes and turbans found on the street.

So at a fairly early age, we came to know that we had a religious identity that was unacceptable to mainstream Muslims. We were nurtured in the basic teachings of the Ahmadi faith in the house and sent to the Convent of Jesus and Mary school because my father didn’t want us to face any discrimination because of our faith.

The discrimination against us has also been endorsed on our passports. If we call ourselves Ahmadis, we have to enroll as non-Muslim which deprives us of all our basic rights as Muslims. For example, Ahmadis cannot cast votes as Muslims and in order to vote, we have to enroll as non-Muslims.

During Zia-ul Huq’s oppressive regime, our Fourth Caliph (spiritual leader) Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad was compelled to migrate to England. Since then many Ahmadis in Pakistan have emigrated to European countries. Most of my relatives moved to USA and Canada.

Zia’s oppressive regime left a long-lasting legacy of turmoil in the country and religious extremism. There were many incidents of animosity that I witnessed, and now living in the US I realize how much we were denied our basic religious rights. Ahmadis were not allowed to practice their faith in public places or build their mosques. So my father volunteered our house for congregational prayers in Ramazan and other Ahmadi meetings. When Mullahs of the local mosque got this news, my father had to face huge threats and warnings that we were using our residential area for unIslamic activities. It is against the constitution of Pakistan to build an Ahmadiyya mosque or use a building as an Ahmadiyya mosque and activities. My father was sued by the local mullahs, but my father took the fine in his stride and paid the penalty.

I find it ironic that the only country where I am a non-Muslim is my own. In the past, I have never commented on these issues in my work. And although I was very willing to address such controversial issues, the general air of intolerance in my society always discouraged me from doing so.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art? Was it a Eureka moment for you or a slow, eventual realization? South Asian societies generally see art as a hobby. From art as a hobby to choosing it as a profession, this transition is especially difficult in Asian societies. Were your parents supportive of your decision? If you feel comfortable, please tell us a little more about your parent’s professions and their impact on you.

From the earliest that I can remember, I have always been very fond of drawing. Every wall, cupboard, and the door was covered with silly figurative drawings and portraits of family members, relatives, and whoever visited our house. I watched the visitors secretly and drew their appearance on the wall, and when they were gone I showed it to my parents and said, “Look, I made the picture of Baba Chokidari, motti Chachi, and Apa ji – don’t they look like this?”

In the beginning, my parents were amused by the drawings, my parents said, “look how creative and clever she is.” They laughed at those silly drawings on every wall of the house. And then they realized that every wall was covered with scribbling and drawings, and it gave them a very untidy appearance. So I was given a blackboard and white chalks to draw on and instructed to draw on the blackboard only. The blackboard had two sides, one for me and one for my elder sister. We were told to do anything on our given area of Blackboard. My sister’s side was always covered with homework, and my side was always covered by drawings. It is funny that now my sister is a Doctor (a general physician in Missouri), and I am still doing those silly drawings.

Let me share one another interesting story with you, my mother was also interested in art and always wanted to be a professional painter. Unfortunately, being a woman, she was not allowed by her family to paint or to pursue a professional career. When she was young, art was considered un-Islamic and a waste of time. She used to make miniature paintings on fabric, newspapers, and vases, from scratch and without any guidance or training. At that time, parents decided what careers the children would pursue and with whom they would marry. My widowed grandmother, who was a teacher and vice principal at a local school, decided that my mother should become a doctor. However, my grandmother died untimely, and the male guardians of my mother disallowed her from continuing her education. So, with her hidden passion for the arts and her mother’s unfulfilled dream for her to be a doctor, she was married away.

Since early childhood, my mother has been mentally and academically preparing my sister and me to eventually become doctors. My sister fulfilled my mother’s dream and became a doctor. But when it came to my turn to choose a career, I disappointed her. She always said: I didn’t get permission to be an artist from my mother, so how can I allow you?

At the time, my progress in school was getting very weak, and she had to face complaints from my school teachers that they had caught me drawing in class. So whenever my mother caught me drawing or painting, she would destroy whatever artwork I had created. The only safe time I had was in the middle of the night. I used to wake up in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep, switched on a torch, covered myself with a big blanket, and pursued my art underneath it. Now I feel funny sharing all this, but I was still caught and received a good beating from Ami. My mother had a special beating stick for me. If I ever said I wanted to be an artist my sister immediately fetched that stick and put it in front of Ami.

My mother was not an anti-art person, but she feared that her daughter wouldn’t have a respectable place in society and that pursuing art would kill my professional abilities. As you know in South Asian society artists are deemed to be mere craftsmen.

My secret decision to be an artist was totally opposite to what my mom had decided for me. What I was painting was an even graver threat to Ami and Abu because starting 8th grade, I started painting compositions on human suffering, persecution of minorities, and women’s issues.

Eventually, after years of persistence, my parents realized the intensity of my devotion to being an artist, and I was granted permission to go to an art school. My Abu was a very big support from the very beginning – he always supported me in whatever I did or chose except we were supposed to be good in our studies and elite in our fields. Like, Kasbeh Kamal khon khe Aziz-e-Jhan Shohri Iqbal

My Ami had her own very strong principles and beliefs. She always taught us it was a rigidly patriarchal society (secondly we were a religious minority) where there was much discrimination against women and minorities, and so women must pursue a career of utmost prestige and which would be considered safe and money-making too.

Another reason for these strong anti-art sentiments in the ’80s was Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Every sort of art except for calligraphy was condemned; figurative art was considered un-Islamic. In fact, engaging in any form of art was considered a great sin.

I was careful to never show my work to my family till it was exhibited or published because if they saw the content and imagery of my work, they would never allow me to continue making such paintings or display them. So, belonging to a family from a controversial religious minority and one that didn’t support the arts, I grew more politically conscious by the day.


Why did you choose miniature art? What specific affordances does miniature art provide for your overtly political work?

Even today, Pakistani audiences perceive miniature painting as decorative, a form of art that reflects and glorifies their rich traditional heritage. Miniatures, for me, however, have a more transcendental role; it is a vocabulary for the artist to engage in a sociopolitical dialog with viewers towards a more humane society.

Of late, the miniature has drawn the attention of foreign curators, museums, and art institutions. Yet, in Pakistan, my work was accepted by just one gallery — Rhotas2, the only serious gallery in Lahore; others were reluctant to display anything controversial.

Moving to Chicago in 2003, I gained the artistic and religious freedom that was somewhat precarious in my own homeland. I began responding to my new environment. The post-9/11 climate of fear, scrutiny, and surveillance of Muslims in the West shaped my current work. Global politics has become a consistent theme. Western societies in general — and the United States in particular — tend to be less aware of other societies in the world, particularly about Islam and Muslim culture. This is an era of cross-cultural misunderstandings and misperceptions created by the Western media that are mostly hostile to Muslim societies and Islam. Much of this misperception is attributable to the Western media, which often presents a distorted version of reality and only one side of the global debate. My new works unmask the injustices and hypocrisy of both the Eastern and the Western worlds.

My work has journeyed through several boundaries, from employing the centuries-old miniature format to a contemporary stage where a human drama unfolds every day to cross-cultural forays and political interventions. And the inspirational sources have been many — the courtly propaganda of the Mughals, the grandeur of baroque opera, the fun and enjoyment of circus performances, icons of pop culture, and the glamor of South-Asian cinema.

With Mughal allegorical symbolism, we miniaturists have created our own visual semiotics and metaphors. For example, the extremist mullahs who have hijacked Islam for their own political agendas and manipulate Muslim youth in the name of jihad are allegorized by Greek satyrs, Muslim leaders are depicted as string puppets in the hands of President Bush, Pakistani army generals wearing Hawaiian sandals indicate the irony that this nation is the world’s seventh nuclear state and is spending on a defense budget of over $3.5 billion a year in spite of a national debt of over $40 billion, and the Shia-Sunni clash in Iraq is a bull-fight, and the bogeyman media is a monkey with a camera.

Although they provide comic relief, they are critical of ignorance and prejudice, and the manipulation of governments and religious heads. The ironies and paradoxes of a post-9/11 world permeate my tragi-comic paintings. Mine is a plea for social justice.

Note: The interview was conducted in early 2007. The interview has been extensively edited for style and on occasion for content. Due care has been taken to keep the overall emphasis and context intact.

The General’s Report Card: Education under Musharraf

11 Jun

Investment in education in developing countries has been shown to produce a variety of desirable outcomes, including a reduction in child mortality, lower fertility rates, and lower gender inequality. Funding for education, however, suffers deeply, especially in South Asia.

Given that education is a broad topic, I have split the analysis into three non-exclusive parts: funding for education, literacy, and primary education.

For the analysis, I rely on data from three sources: Statistics Division of the Government of Pakistan (Federal Bureau of Statistics), Ministry of Economic Affairs and Statistics, Government of Pakistan, and Institute of Statistics at UNESCO (World Bank, UNDP use its data). Data from the sources sometimes conflict and in a small set of cases are wildly different.

Funding for Education

While the exact figures differ (details below), all available data show that between 1999 and 2006, Pakistan spent on average less than 2.5% of its GDP on education versus 3.6% by other countries in South Asia and 3.4% spent by other “low-income countries.”

Over Musharraf’s tenure, expenditure on education rose slightly, from 1.84% of GDP in 2000 to 2.25% in 2005 to 2.59% in 2006. Expenditure on education (as the percentage of GDP) under Musharraf, however, still compares poorly not only cross-nationally but also historically. Average expenditure on education stood at 2.7% plus during Bhutto’s second term, between 1993 and 1996. Musharraf’s regime, however, did do better than Sharif’s regime during which expenditure plummeted to below 2% of GDP. Cross-nationally, Pakistan compared poorly to its South Asian neighbors (about a percentage below India and generally below Bangladesh) and lagged significantly behind many other countries, including Iran and United States.

Education expenditure measured as the percentage of government expenditure rose appreciably between 2004 and 2005 from about 6.4% to nearly 10.5%. However in 2006, when the expenditure rose again to 12.5%, it was about six percentage points behind Iranian expenditure, a narrower gap than the 12 points wide chasm in 2005. Musharraf government’s spending on education averaged 4% behind Bangladesh’s expenditure, which remained steady between 14 and 15% points from 1999 to 2005.

Education expenditure is by no means uniform across the country, and aggregate statistics hide much of the regional and within-region variation. Expenditure on education in Pakistan is the prerogative of the provincial government. The Punjab government which swam in money during the Sharif era and allocated up to 31% of its budget on education, spent a declining proportion on education under Musharraf. Reflecting American money and priorities, investment in education by Balochistan’s provincial government went up post 9/11. Most budgetary allocation to education was spent on furnishing recurring expenses, and only a small proportion (less than 8%) on development (Husain, etc., 2003).

Adult Literacy Rate

Increases in literacy have been a major success of the Musharraf era. The overall literacy rate (10 years & above) was 54% in 2005–06, an increase of 9 percentage points over five years. (The more conventionally reported 15+ year literacy rate is slightly lower at around 50%. The increase in that statistic is unknown.)

The literacy rate for non-poor went up from 51% in 2001 to 59% in 2005 whereas for the poor it improved from 30% to 40% in the same period. The gender gap, however, remained significant and persistent—a 26% gap between male and female literacy in 2001–2002 versus a 23% gap in 2005–2006. As always, regional literacy rates varied widely. The female literacy rate in Balochistan was a shocking 15% in 2001–2002 and only rose to 20% by the end of 2005–2006. NWFP fared slightly better, increasing by 10 percent from the abysmal 20% rate in 2001–2002. The literacy rates compare quite badly with countries like Iran where the corresponding figure is 82% for men and 76% for women. India’s literacy rates were at least 10% higher, and the growth in literacy rates (after accounting for differential starting points) was more impressive. The Musharraf era growth in literacy rates, however, compares favorably historically within Pakistan.

Primary Education

Only 60% of primary-age children in Pakistan attend school, a much lower rate compared to neighboring countries. Moreover, the gender gap is large. There are only 56 girls to every 100 boys enrolled in primary education.

Average new enrollment in primary schools was about 3.42 million in 2000 and 5.04 million in 2005–2006. Growth in primary education enrollment, after accounting for population growth, stands at about 1.4 times. However, the situation remains stark. Out of the 20 million children between five and nine years of age, only about half of them are currently enrolled in primary school. And girls make up much less than half of that number, according to the figures.

Nearly 80% of the students who enroll in primary school ever reach Middle School and only about half of the students who reach Middle School go to High School. This attrition rate has remained about constant under Musharraf.

Musharraf by the Numbers: Corruption Under Musharraf

2 Feb

Hard data on Pakistan is hard to come by. Where available, doubts exist as to its veracity. For example, it is widely believed that the government numbers on inflation are fudged. Since the census is used for distribution of funds, jobs, and enrollment in colleges, political considerations are thought to affect it. Sometimes the numbers offered by different government departments about the same quantity don’t match. And no explanation is offered about sudden wide fluctuations in numbers. For example, the number of students enrolled in the country’s universities nearly doubled from 126,000 to 218,000 in 2003–2004. (I tackle the mystery in a future column on education.)

It’s time to open the bright orange black box!

Musharraf came into power on October 12th, 1999 after removing Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup. He installed himself as the ‘Chief Executive’ and has effectively controlled Pakistan along with his coterie since then. The history of power is the history of corruption—mostly. As Selig Harrison, writing for the International Herald Tribune, argues, Musharraf may contend that he clings to power to protect the country from the scourge of corruption and fundamentalism, his real reasons are banaler—maintaining the $5 billion commercial empire under the control of the military. (The figure is supported by Ayesha Siddiqa in Military Inc.)

Corruption in the third world is endemic. And so are inadequate and inefficient legal structures. Pakistan’s courts carry the yellowing remains of at least 1.3 million (2004 estimate, 2003 figures; Law and Justice Commission) pending cases in its orifice. The situation in India is considerably grimmer with an estimated 30 million pending cases. (RTI India).

Since 1995, when Transparency International started its cross-country surveys on corruption, Pakistan has consistently dredged the bottom. It scored an exceptionally low raw score of 1 in 1996 under Bhutto, and the scores have never gone beyond 2.7 (1998).

“One of the biggest curses from which India is suffering is bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down with an iron hand and I hope that you will take adequate measures as soon as it is possible for this Assembly to do so.”

Address by Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on his election as President (11th August 1947)

Taking Jinnah’s cue, Musharraf signed into law National Accountability Ordinance (1999, amended 2002 and 2003), and launched an anti-corruption drive—National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) in 2002. National Accountability Bureau, an “apex anti-corruption organization”, came into force as part of NAO to enforce anti-corruption measures. A police order (No. 22) was also signed into place in 2002 with the intention of reforming the police. It appears that all this activity had a modest temporary effect, with raw scores rising from 2.2 to 2.6 between 1999 and 2002, and then taking a sharp fall starting 2003.

TI Corruption Perception Ranking for Pakistan*

Year	Rank	Score
1995	39/41	2.25
1996 	53/54	1.0
1997 	48/52	2.53
1998	71/85	2.7
Musharraf came to power near the end of 1999
1999 	88/99	2.2
2000 	Pakistan not included
2001 	79/91	2.3
2002    81/105	2.6        
2003	96/133	2.5        
2004	134/145	2.1       
2005	146/159	2.1       
2006	142/163	2.2
2007	138/179	2.4

Source: Transparency International

To help put Pakistan’s scores in perspective, Pakistan scored lower in 2007 than Uganda, Malawi, and Cameroon. While Pakistan regularly trawls the bottom of the Corruption Perception Index, its neighbor India has done better. In 2006 rankings, it sat in the middle with a rank of 70, though the raw score differential was a mere 1.1 points.

A survey within Pakistan found that the most corrupt province was Punjab followed by Sindh. Similarly, the most corrupt departments haven’t changed much between 2002 and 2006 except taxation, which is now seen as less corrupt, and land department more.

2006	2002
Police	Police
Power  Power
Judiciary Taxation
Land	Judiciary
Taxation Custom
Custom	Health
Health	Land    
Education Education
Railway	Railway
Bank	Bank

Source: Major Findings of Pakistan National Corruption Perception Survey 2006

Further Reading:

The General, Bhutto, and Sharif

2 Dec

It was only a little more than a month ago that Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, after nearly eight years in self-imposed exile, to a rapturous welcome, and a stark threat of violence. Within days, however, emboldened by her reception, the largely salutary attention from the media – both national and international, and her pragmatic assessment of Musharraf’s rather limited options, Bhutto schemed to press home her perceived advantage in the power-sharing deal with Musharraf. A welcome opportunity arose when the Supreme Court led by self-styled messiah of constitutionality, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, appeared set to reject Musharraf’s recent “election” – the entire opposition boycotted this barely concealed charade – as President.

Musharraf preempted Supreme Court’s actions with a declaration of emergency on November 3rd, days before the Court was to hand its verdict. The emergency, which appears to have been declared at least with the knowledge of US if not with its backing, drew swift condemnation from around the world. Emergency declaration spawned the by now familiar scenes of protesting lawyers, undoubtedly with some PPP support, against the ‘illegality’ of Musharraf’s declaration. Musharraf and Bhutto, still hedging their bets, appeared to avoid a confrontation till November 9th when Bhutto declared her intention to lead a motorcade from Lahore to Islamabad on the 13th. Musharraf reciprocated by giving the orders to put Bhutto under house arrest.

The chorus of condemnation and the Western penchant for espousing formulaic naive idealism put enormous pressure on America’s support for Musharraf. From America’s perspective, it appeared that supporting Musharraf and the status quo wasn’t particularly in their interest, given the choice of dealing with equally amenable democratically elected representatives. America, it appears, let Musharraf know as much, and then worked with Saudi Arabia to bring Nawaz Sharif – whom Musharraf had removed in a coup in 1999 had successfully exiled – back to Pakistan.

With the arrival of Nawaz Sharif, who still appears petulant, in spite of his hair transplant, with his threats to boycott elections in January, even though the first thing he did after coming to Pakistan was to file his nomination papers, the electoral equation has changed. There is now a strong possibility that Sharif would perform strongly in the polls. The return of Sharif and the possibility of his electoral success marks the denouement of a political drama thick with intrigue, lack of trust, and greed.

Not so Sharif

Last time Sharif fought elections in 1997, his party managed to garner enough seats in the parliament to change the constitution, which it used first to strip president of his discretionary power to dismiss the government (Article 58 (2b)), and then to enact a law to allow party leaders to expel anybody from legislature who violated “party discipline”. The second measure was rejected by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Accusations of ‘judicial activism’ were leveled against the court and Sharif set to bring the court under his control. After a protracted battle with Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah during which Sharif threatened to curtail the size of the court to 12 from 17, Sharif forced the resignation of Shah by ably recruiting the other justices on the court against Shah. Between 1997 and 1999, Sharif assiduously worked to concentrate power. By early 1999, he felt sufficiently emboldened to suppress media. Between December 1998 and January 1999, his government sent notices to Jang newspapers to remove 16 journalists considered hostile to the government. When Jang refused, they launched cases charging tax fraud, among other things. “In May, two senior journalists, Najam Sethi and Hussain Haqqani, were arrested and a few others were harassed by the intelligence agencies. Sethi was accused of treason on the grounds that he delivered an anti-Pakistan speech in New Delhi.” (Hasan-Askari Rizvi, 1999)

Consumed by hubris, Sharif, whose relationship with the army soured notably after the army failed to deliver on Kargil, set to tackle the Army. On October 12th while Musharraf was on an official tour to Sri Lanka, Sharif dismissed Musharraf and replaced him with a low-level crony from Pakistan’s intelligence services. While Musharraf was still on the plane, the army responded by banding behind Musharraf and executing a coup against Sharif’s government. By the end of the day, Musharraf had taken the newly minted position of ‘Chief Executive’ – since the position of President was already taken – and thrown Sharif into jail.

The ‘incomparable’ Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto embodies the conflicts that cleave at the heart of Pakistani politics. She is a Radcliffe and “oggsford” (the college Gatsby went to) alumna and a “deeply dedicated Muslim” , a Shia by birth and a Sunni(?) by marriage, daughter of the last ‘statesman’ – a reputation Zulfikar, (the name of the double-edged sword Husayn used in Karbala, and a name that nicely captures personality of a feudal minded socialist), sealed with Shimla accord– and wife of Mr. 10%, the first democratically elected female leader in the Muslim world and the leader of one of the most notoriously corrupt regimes to lead Pakistan.

Bhutto’s political career rests upon the mythology of her father and the Bhutto name, and she has done little to let PPP grow beyond a personality cult, much like the nepotistic practices of the Nehru-Gandhi family in India. Bhutto, over her career, has not only shown calculating pragmatism – like her marriage to an undistinguished “successful businessman” at 34 in preparation of elections in 1988, or courting the West by playing to its stereotypes, and decisions reflecting deep sense of entitlement and nepotistic feudal tendencies like her appointment of mother, Nusrat, as a senior minister without portfolio, followed by appointment of her father-in-law as chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee, she has also shown a penchant for making brash decisions that come easy to a woman born in luxury, excessively feted by the West, and who was elected a Prime Minister at the age of 35. Her decision to press her advantage – when she saw a beleaguered Musharraf at the center of an international outcry – was one such misstep – and a misstep that is likely to cost here politically.

Pakistan: A country of exiled political leaders

When Sharif was sent to exile in Saudi Arabia in 2000, the heads of Pakistan’s three major parties –the other two being Bhutto (PPP) and Altaf (MQM) – were to all in exile. Despite the forced absence of leaders from parties which rely a fair bit on their leaders, Musharraf still couldn’t cobble together a new political structure – as was his stated intent. Perhaps it was because these leaders were able to rule so effectively from their respective exiles. But the more likely reason is that new political structures aren’t built in elites – they are built by years of demagoguery and pandering. In reality, Musharraf shouldn’t have tried to cloak his authoritarian regime with democracy. By playing a benevolent autocratic democrat, Musharraf clearly took on too much. He replaced politics with something far more inert and calculated, and his self-righteous defense of the charade combined with his increasingly manifest status as a vassal to the US drew people away.

The present and the future

Musharraf imprudently relied too much on continued support from the US, while Bhutto overplayed her hand by pushing too far with her rent-a-day rioters. It is very likely that the true beneficiary of the current fiasco would be PML, which will expectedly fight the election in alliance with Islamic parties if elections are allowed to be held fairly – a relatively improbable scenario.

Bhutto, Sharif, and Musharraf do not trust each other. A game of political brinkmanship, as evidenced by banning of Sharif and his brother Shahbaz by the Musharraf controlled Election Commission and the meeting between Sharif and Bhutto, is now unfolding as each tries to form alliances or thwart the other. It is useful to note that forming an alliance with one on a particular issue doesn’t preclude forming an alliance with another. This game will continue till election results come in and throw the power equation in sharp relief. Election results will also draw accusations of unfairness, and each of the power blocs has a large enough support base to cause major disruptions.

It is going to be a turbulent few months for Pakistan.

Further Reading:
BBC: Pakistan – the balance of forces Added (12/17)

And the News is…An ‘Out of Control’ General, Freedom, Democracy, and Strawberry Tarts

4 Nov

On a slow news day, Western journalists took to telling the world about how ‘Pakistan’s Musharraf’—it was nice of them to put the possessive noun as it is not always clear—had declared an emergency. In doing so, they paid as much attention to a third-world dictator enacting the Martial law, as they have in some time. The calamitous event was reported with the usual combination of scant detail, high impact graphics, half-baked, and sometimes skipping the oven altogether, analysis, all topped with alarmist rhetorical flourishes.

The news day actually started a day earlier with reporting about speculation, and government warnings against the speculated action. The US, proudly and staunchly backing Musharraf at least since the day after that calamitous day in 2001, warned the dictator ‘against Martial law’ (San Jose Mercury News). When the threat of declaring martial law grew, the ‘world grew concerned’ (Guardian) simultaneously. And when a ‘desperate Musharraf’ (Trend Information, Azerbaijan!) declared an emergency, it left the US in a ‘tizzy’ (Calcutta Telegraph), as it ‘reel[ed]’ (AFP) under the blow. The US immediately took umbrage and issued a ‘condemnation’. The ‘world’, not to be left behind, ’roundly condemned’ (Deutsche Welle, Germany), ‘slammed’ (Earthtimes, UK), and ‘rapped’ (The Province, Canada) General Sahib. Rice went further, for she wanted ‘Pakistan to evolve as a democracy’, and appealed for a return to the ‘constitutional course’ (Bloomberg) even as the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” in the US constitution was being debated on to see if ‘coercively inducing a drowning sensation’ met that criteria. All this condemnation must have left Musharraf chagrined.

It was a ‘Sad day for Pakistan’ (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) when an ‘out of control’ (Nation Multimedia, Thailand) Musharraf chose to launch a ‘coup within a coup’ and put Pakistan under his ‘iron fist’ (The Standard, Hong Kong). The wordsmiths at Hindustan Times online division, which doubles as a soft porn website, found time to craft the smart-aleck headline “Under General Anesthesia” to describe the events of ‘Black Saturday’ (Malaysia Sun).

On that ‘black’ day, Western journalist’s thoughts didn’t stay long with people in Pakistan, as reporting on martial law gave way to more pertinent matters like ‘threat of nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands’, and ‘War on Terror.’

After all, the concerns of the media are solely determined by what (and how) they can best pander conditional on what is available. The Pavlovian reactions to international crises, the cues media uses to determine when to cry fire and when to cheer, are all rather simplistic—Democracy is good, autocrats are bad. Forget then that sometimes ‘enlightened moderation’ is the best alternative. Ignore too that nothing has changed substantively in Pakistani politics—control still rests with the General for it was only a ‘coup within a coup.’ Banish any thoughts that Benazir ran a regime true to her name, only if in levels of corruption.

I misstate my point for people who know little don’t need to deliberately ignore. They simply write. Till a new story appears and fuels a new news cycle, provides more cause for alarm, and more time to run ads.

It appears that Pakistan has had its day in the sun. The New York Times is not waiting with baited breath. There is a cell phone jammer in the market that can stop the person sitting next to you from yammering while you try to read about Paris Hilton. It is the Number 1 story on the New York Times website. Yeah, she is back.

Mohajirs, Karachi, and Pakistani Politics

25 Jul

Pakistani politics cannot be understood without paying close attention to the deep ethnic cleavages that line its polity. The seminal moments in its brief history – the 1971 war with India which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the horrific violence that rocked Karachi in the mid-90s both are a reflection of Pakistan’s inability to transcend narrow ethnolinguistic boundaries in either revenue allocation or in crafting policies around language and culture.

Here below, I explicate how the vicious ethnic politics in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan and a city which contributes 35% (in some analysis 60 plus percent) of all revenue to the central coffers, has come to define the ethnopolitical dysfunction that has marked Pakistan’s history.


The Arabic word Mohajir means a refugee and in Pakistan, it generally refers to non-Punjabi Indian Muslim immigrants. One of the reasons why Urdu speaking immigrants are seen as Mohajirs and Punjabi immigrants not is that while the Punjabi Muslim immigrants were able to assimilate very well within the ethnically similar Punjab, the educated Urdu speaking immigrants from the Gangetic plains and elsewhere formed a culturally distinct group in Sindh.

The Mohajirs post-partition formed the educated ‘salariat’ (Hamza Alavi’s term describing the educated British favoring class during the Raj) in the nation’s capital city, Karachi. They were overrepresented in the bureaucracy, media, and managerial positions in the private sector. Politically, they were ardent nationalists who studiously avoided ethnic politics and favored Islamist parties until the reorganization in the mid-1960s. The Mohajirs cynically supported the military and strong central government so as to keep the federalist pressures, as in demands by other ethnicities for ‘fairer’ representation in bureaucracy and elsewhere, at bay. The arrangement fell apart as Bengalis rebelled and won independence in 1971. The same year Bhutto was elected and he ushered in a federalist structure by first revising the Regional Quota system in federal bureaucracy to lower Mohajir quota from 17 to 7.6%, and then by nationalizing some key financial institutions that were owned by Mohajirs. Since then things have changed dramatically for Mohajirs – they have come to be underrepresented in state educational colleges and jobs, and have lost some of their economic muscle.

The rulers and the Mohajirs

Pakistan as a nascent nation got off to bad start. Its ‘father of the nation’ (Baba-e-Qaum), a Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi rolled in one for the country, died a little more than a year after its creation. Whatever little chance the nation had of enlightened leadership vanished as Liaquat Ali Khan, a close confidant of Jinnah, was assassinated merely four years into his reign as a Prime Minister. Then, after a period that saw 6 prime ministers in 7 years, Mohammad Ayub Khan grabbed power in a coup and steered Pakistan into an alliance with the US. Midway during his rule in 1964, he fought and won elections, which were widely seen as rigged, against Fatima Jinnah, sister of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Mohajirs sided with Fatima Jinnah in that election and suffered targeted violence at the hands of Gohar Khan, son of Ayub Khan, for such temerity. Just as an aside Ayub Khan’s son Gohar Ayub Khan was Pakistan’s Foreign Minister in the Nawaz Sharif government and Gohar’s son, Omar Ayub Khan, is Pakistan’s current Minister of State for Finance. Ayub Khan in 1964 moved the capital city from Karachi to Rawalpindi on an interim basis and then to Islamabad, its current resting place. The move was widely seen by Mohajirs as a way to marginalize them. In 1969, he turned reigns over to the only second Shiite after Liaquat to lead Pakistan, General Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan of course famously led Pakistan into another losing war with India in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Following 1971, nearly half a million Bihari Muslims, who had moved to East Pakistan in 1947, demanded that they be expatriated to Pakistan. Out of the nearly half a million refugees, Bhutto – the successor to Yahya Khan – only allowed 100,000 before his Sindhi constituency forced him to abandon the rest. The stranded Biharis live in refugee camps in Bangladesh till today. The issue of these abandoned Biharis further alienated the Mohajirs who had vigorously campaigned for them.

Bhutto was elected at a time when Pakistan felt chastened by the independence of Bangladesh. Bhutto felt that his first job was to let off the steam of ethnic pressures within Pakistan by redrafting the quota system for federal bureaucracy and other educational institutions so as to provide for more proportional representation of different ethnicities. Bhutto, who is generally considered an enlightened statesman within Pakistan- and there are good grounds to think that the authoritarian leader was just that, was also a closet Sindhi nationalist. Bowing to his native constituency, the Sindhis, he instituted urban-rural quotas that resulted in a precipitous decline in the number of jobs to which the predominantly urban Mohajirs were eligible. The interesting side note to this controversy is that given that the regional quota system that was based on the demographic strength of each ethnicity, the census became the most politicized document in Pakistan.

After Bhutto’s assassination, Pakistani Politics was run by Zia-ul-Haq singly for about 10 years. Haq’s rule is legendary not only for his fateful decision to involve Pakistan in Afghanistan, but also for his full-throttle Islamization that he unveiled to support the prior cause. Haq, a Punjabi, also deeply reviled Mohajirs. The war in Afghanistan led to another refugee influx in Karachi that was to change the dynamics within Karachi to the worse once more. This time the influx of Pathans was also accompanied by the wide availability of small arms. “Between 1986 and 1989, the prices of guns went down by 40 to 50% in Karachi. The TT-pistol sold for Rs. 5500 in 1987. In 1989, it was priced at Rs. 3000. In the Frontier, the price of an AK-47 went down from Rs. 40 000 in 1980 to Rs. 16 000 in 1989.”

End of 1988 saw Bhutto being elected as PM of Pakistan in a much-feted election. The time period, of course, ties neatly with the ‘end of Afghan war’ and the reduced utility for the US of a military regime in Pakistan. Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rode to power with a coalition government that included MQM. Post-election, Benazir is widely alleged to have run one of the most corrupt regimes. Just to give you a flavor of the bankruptcy of the regime, Madam Bhutto appointed her mother, Nusrat, as a senior minister without portfolio and her father-in-law as chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee. In addition, ever the Sindhi nationalist and eager to firm up her credentials there, she didn’t throw much rope to Mohajirs. The relationship quickly soured and MQM, in turn, found an ally in Nawaz Sharif’s Punjabi dominated PML. It is important to note that this proved to be a death knell in terms of Sindhi-Mohajir relations against what many saw was Punjabi dominance, especially post Zia, at the center. Bhutto oversaw the worst of rioting in Karachi in the mid-90s in her second stint at the helm. Corruption wise things didn’t change much in her second stint as PM either as she appointed her husband, Asif Zardari, as the environment minister. Of course, Zardari did more than merely handle the environment. After moving through an interim prime minister, Sharif eventually came to power in 1997. He, in turn, was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, a Mohajir, in 1999 – which brings us to the ‘end’. We can talk about Shaukat Aziz but lets not. Most trace the ascent of Musharraf to the top in a Punjabi dominated military exactly because of his status as a Mohajir – the Punjabi military bosses promoted him for they felt that a Mohajir would never attempt, and much less succeed, in a coup d’etat. Musharraf’s relations with the Mohajir community, of course, have been on warm terms but that has attracted the ire of nearly all others. The 2007 Karachi riots hence can be seen as a stage-managed confrontation between PPP led Sindhis and MQM.

Demographic factors in Karachi

Sindh’s urban society was dominated by Hindus before 1947. The native Muslim population was primarily rural. The emigration of Hindus post-partition left a vacuum which was filled by the educated Muslim immigrants from India. In the 1981 census, only 6% of the population identified themselves as Sindhi.

The relative affluence of the Mohajirs was always a rubbing point for the Sindhis.
Post-1971 war with India during which Bangladesh was created, nearly 100,000 Bihari Muslims who had migrated to Bangladesh during partition immigrated to Karachi. Another 300,000 Biharis were left stranded in Bangladesh in over 60 refugee camps as political will ran out as Bihari immigrants became a political liability in Sindh. The Bihari immigrants who speak Urdu have traditionally been seen as part of the Mohajir community.

Then starting with the 1980s, Afghan refugees starting pouring into Karachi as Afghan war got underway. The Afghan immigrants were widely alleged to have brought along with them the ‘drug and arms’ mafia and the number of small arms in city just ballooned as ethnic conflagrations became deadlier. The Afghans threw their weight politically behind the Punjabis, and the nexus worked effectively and to deadly effect in the riots in the mid-80s and then again in the mid-90s.

Language and Cultural issues

Urdu was instituted as the official national language at the inception of Pakistan even though only a pitifully small fraction of Pakistanis spoke the language. In the widely cited 1961 census results, it was reported that Urdu was the mother tongue of a mere 3.7% of all Pakistanis (7.5% in West Pakistan), and only 15% of West Pakistanis were able to speak Urdu at all. It is hopefully already clear that Urdu was the language spoken by the Mohajirs and they fought tooth and nail to keep it the only ‘official’ language.

Language has been a key issue in Pakistani politics. In fact, one of the major rallying points for East Pakistanis was recognition of Bengali as one of the state languages. In Sindh, there was widespread resentment against Urdu. In 1972, Sindh province (Bhutto) passed a resolution instituting Sindhi as the second official language. The act led to ‘language riots’ as Mohajirs, concerned about losing the economic privilege that emanated from their ability to speak Urdu, rioted. Language riots are often seen as a turning point in the city’s history and the relation between Mohajirs and Sindhis.

Revenue Sharing Issue

In 1995-96, Karachi’s estimated contribution to the Federal and Provincial Tax Revenue was Rs 403 billion or just a little over 63%. Karachi metropolitan area’s population of about 12-14 million then was just about 10% of Pakistan’s total population. The Federal Government reallocated just over 2% of the revenues it harvested from Karachi back into Pakistan that year. The imbalance can be largely explained by the redistributive nature of tax regimes in which taxes from rich provinces are often used to provide for public goods elsewhere. While that is largely true, there was also explicit discrimination that led to such neglect of infrastructure that it almost killed the cash cow of Pakistan.

Mohajir Quami Movement

In 1978, Altaf Hussain formed a student organization called the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO). The nascent student organization quickly leached students from Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. In doing so, it sealed its future as an adversary of IJT. APMSO and IJT regularly clashed on the college campuses in the early 80s, and have continued to battle since then.

In 1984, the Mohajir Quami Mahaz (MQM) was set up by Altaf Hussain. Between 1984 and 1986, Hussain worked to recruit its cadre and then launched MQM on the national stage with a massive rally in Karachi on August 8th, 1986.

Between 1986 and 1988, MQM worked towards a Sindhi-Muhajir alliance. In 1988, MQM fought national elections (under the name Haq-Parast) in an alliance with Sindhi dominated Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto. In the elections, it emerged as the third largest party with 13 seats in the National Assembly. MQM also achieved a landslide victory in municipal elections (1987) in Karachi. MQM’s first stint in sharing power was largely ineffectual in delivering real tangible improvements as the governance was marred by both infighting within MQM as well as active sabotage by Bhutto’s PPP. MQM withdrew support from the Bhutto government and fought the next election in an alliance with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML). The Mohajir-Sindhi alliance provided the only real chance to thwart the Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics, and PPP’s parochialism and MQM’s need to deliver to its constituents, led to an early demise to the alliance. MQM’s decision to ally with the Punjabis would soon prove to be unfortunate.

The coalition Islami Jamouri Ittehad (IJI or Islamic Democratic Front) rode to power in the 1990 elections. Between 1990 and 1992, MQM got a free reign under Jam Sadiq Ali. But with power came dissent and party indiscipline. Aamir Khan, a comrade in arms with Altaf, began muscle flexing. In June 1992, the military concerned about MQM’s rising star launched Operation Cleanup to weed out Altaf Hussain. All of this was done with the express consent of Nawaz Sharif. While the Operation was officially to ‘weed out criminal’, it turned into an all-out witch hunt against MQM. The military launched not only conducted raids but also led a media assault- it released photos ‘showing’ that MQM was a terrorist organization that ran torture chambers, and newspapers, fed by the military, ran expose’ pieces about its gun running operations. Disagreements between Altaf Hussain and the then MQM’s two prominent militant leaders, Afaq Ahmed and Aamir Khan had first surfaced towards the end of 1991. The military-led campaign, sidled with a political campaign, helped create ‘mutiny’ within ranks and led to the formation of “Real MQM” or Haqiqi Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM-H) under Aamir Khan. Funnily, the progenitors of the splinter group were also killed by the avid embrace of its parents, the government. The group quickly lost credibility on the street and eventually just became a front group for the government to wage war against MQM.

Soon after the launch of the Operation, MQM withdrew support from the coalition. The same year, Altaf Hussain went to the UK ostensibly for ‘medical treatment’ and converted the opportunity in to a voluntary exile. Since then he has led the organization via telephone, faxes, and other modern communication mechanisms. It is important here to note the central role of Altaf Hussain in leading MQM.

MQM is seen as a one-man party which deeply relies on the charismatic leadership of Altaf Hussain. Hussain, who was born to a lower-middle-class background in Azizabad in Karachi, is known as Quaid (leader) and Pir Sahib within the ranks. MQM itself is a cadre-based tightly knit organization. The organization prides itself on superb discipline within its ranks. The organization imposes a premium on its cadres for strict adherence to, what it sees, are essential tenets for building a strong organization. In its pamphlet on training workers, it lists four essential elements of a strong movement: “(1) “blind faith” (literal translation from Urdu) in the leadership; (2) elimination of individuality; (3) strong sense of common purpose; and (4) complete knowledge of, and agreement with the ideological basis of the organization.”

MQM boycotted the 1993 elections. The PPP government in 1994 gerrymandered the districts so as to bypass MQM’s ironclad grip on Karachi. 1994 onwards Karachi was under the grip of violence as MQM(A) fought pitched battles with ISI supported MQM(H). In November 1994, the army was withdrawn from law enforcement duties in Sindh, but the paramilitary Rangers were reinforced and specially trained police inducted. During 1995 and 1996, hundreds of people were killed by Rangers and police, including hundreds of members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

In 1997, MQM(A) tried to moderate its stance in terms of ethnicity by changing its name Muthaida Quami Movement (United National Movement). Reflecting MQM’s nature (and need) for forming alliances of convenience, MQM again switched partners in 1998. The ruling PML(N)’s troubled alliance with the MQM(A) in Sindh province ruptured during October 1998. Without the MQM(A), the PML(N) no longer had the numbers to govern in the Sindh province, leaving a clear path for the opposition Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto to join with the MQM(A) to form a majority in the Sindh assembly. Within a year, Musharraf was at the helm of Pakistan as its CEO.

Transportation Riots

The Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Almost right away Pathan refugees started pouring into Karachi. Pathans, on coming to Karachi, largely went into the transportation, rental, and money-lending businesses. Up until 1979, the informal housing market in Karachi was controlled by Punjabis and Mohajirs. Starting 1980, Pathans started taking over the informal housing sector. This created tensions between Pathans and the predominantly Mohajir (Bihari) renters of Orangi. These tensions came to a boil in 1985 during the transportation riots.

Between 1984 and 1985, Karachi minibusses, called the yellow devils, were responsible for on average two deaths per day. In 1985, a Pathan bus driver skipped a light and ran into a group of students of Sir Syed College. The Mohajir and Punjabi student activists from the Islami Jamiat-e Tuleba, the student wing of the Jama’at-e Islami rioted. Bihari basti dwellers of Orangi also joined the transport riots. The rioting saw Mohajirs in pitched battles with Pathans, who formed a partnership with the Punjabis – an alliance cemented by arms trade between Punjabi dominated military and the Pathans. The alliance between Pathans and Punjabis still stands; Pathans are seen as henchmen for the Punjabis in Karachi.


The Mohajir conflict is not an ethnic conflict as Mohajirs don’t belong to a certain ethnicity but come from a variety of different ethnicities. The uniting cultural glue, if there is one, is the shared language – Urdu. The major thing that bound them together, especially initially, was economic interest. Economic interest was also what led them to mouth nationalist slogans as a way to propagate the status quo that distinctly advantaged them. The other part of Mohajir identity – the one which made them see as a different nationality- was formed in the era post-mid-1960s, when ethnic aspirations had started battering Pakistan’s political landscape with gale force winds. Mohajir ‘identity’ formed under the pressure of Sindhi nationalism, and the Punjabi and Pashtun ethnic movements, and most importantly under the economic pressures created by limited resources and ‘unequal’ distribution. Certainly, Sindhis felt that they had legitimate grievances for they believed that it was ‘their land’ and ‘their resources’ that were being ‘preyed’ upon by outsiders. Meanwhile, the Punjabis felt threatened by the economic ascendancy and dominance of the Mohajirs within Pakistan. Additionally, post-ethnic quotas, the only way Mohajirs could demand economic rights legitimately as a group was to be considered a separate nationality on par with that of Sindhis, Punjabis, Pathans, and Balochs. And Mohajirs did just that. Given that Mohajirs were ethnically, and to a large degree, especially post-immigration of poor Biharis- economically diverse, mobilizing them as a “nationality” proved tricky. The earliest mobilization attempts hence were focused on the style of clothing. It is often called the ‘Kurta-Pyjama’ mobilization.

The trajectory of Karachi and Pakistan could have been different had it not involved itself in Afghanistan. The Islamization unleashed by Haq to service the Muhajideen pipeline had a deep impact on the political and cultural fabric of Pakistan – an impact whose ripple effects are still being echoed in the demolished minarets of Lal Masjid, and Shia-Sunni relations in particular. Zia regime, which came at a time when concern about Iranian revolution was high, armed the Sunni extremists within Pakistan and helped perpetrate horrific violence against the Shias in the mid-1980s. Zia’s regime also saw the vicious persecution of other minorities like the Ahmaddis. The Afghan war also made available huge amounts of small arms within the country, something which was abused to deadly effect in ethnic clashes.

The Future

In 1998, Mohajir, Baluch, Pashtun and Sindh parties allied to form the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement (PONM), which seeks to challenge Punjab hegemony in Pakistan’s political life. Another group that represents Mohajirs, Sindhis, and Baluchis is the Grand Democratic Alliance. While these alliances proved ineffectual, there is now a chance that Mohajir-Sindhi-Pathan alliance may take shape with Benazir-Musharaf and possibly ANP coming together to fight elections.

Interview: Bina Shah (Part 2)

28 Jun

Bina Shah is a noted Karachi based author, and journalist. (Part 1.)

In the response to the question about the choice of male protagonists in your novels, you noted, “This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways, at least at that age, than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.” Your observation reminded me of a passage in Ms. Sidhwa’s novel, The Bride, “Miriam, reflecting her husband’s rising status and respectability, took to observing strict purdah. She seldom ventured out without a veil.”

I think what you say is largely right and something which anthropologists have commented on earlier. They argue that it is the necessity of going to work etc. for the lower class that causes these somewhat lax attitudes. What is your take on the issue? Can you also comment briefly on how economics defines culture? Of course, we have heard all about it through the Friedman patented McDonald’s angle that tackles cultural change via globalization. But can you talk about it from a different angle? And how do you deal with it in your own work?

You won’t see women in the rural areas in purdah. They cover their heads with their dupattas and that is the end of it. They have to go out into the fields and work, and you can’t do that in a purdah or a burqa or a hijab. Some of our women-related cultural rituals and habits are affectations or posturing—making a statement about who you are, or who others think you should be, a very considered statement. Real culture comes more naturally; you don’t have to think about adopting it because you live it.

In response to the question about the ‘type’ of novel—elemental versus Intellectual—you said, “I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion… My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?” I perhaps misstated my point about elemental novels for they often have do have opinions and critiques woven in. I certainly think that your novels have implicit critiques, and at least amorphous theories. In fact, I find it impossible that a novel can be absent of ‘comments upon the state of the world’. Perhaps the ‘type’ is more appropriately consigned to the creative process. For instance, I have little doubt that Naipaul first had the ‘idea’ of denigrating revolutionary leaders before he wrote ‘guerillas’. On the other hand, the vicious ‘pettiness’ of everyday life manifest in ‘The House of Mr. Biswas’ seems very much a peripheral part of this sort of unvarnished descriptions. Perhaps I am wrong here and the ‘vicious pettiness’ was indeed a deliberate point. Even if it was deliberate, it was still very clearly made. So is the faux distinction that I draw about types of novels about intentionality? Can you comment briefly on this? And can you talk more about how you craft your own work?

For me, the story always comes first. The social critique comes as I am writing the story. The characters deal with certain situations, and if it is appropriate to comment on society at large because of what they’re going through, then I do it, but I really try hard to weave it in to the narrative rather than taking a big aside that goes on for pages and comments very obviously and loudly on that aspect of society. I’m always sensitive to what sounds natural and what is very obviously the author taking over the narrative, imposing her own voice on the voice of the characters – to me that is very intrusive and distracting and ultimately weak writing.

In response to the question soliciting your comment on whether most ‘authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly’, you intriguingly started with the phrase, “For me, writing is a therapeutic process”. Was that false start a ‘cousin-of-Freud’ Freudian slip? The point that I was trying to make was that our own histories sometimes make it hard to look at the world objectively, especially in a personal (and seductively powerful) medium like novel that allows, in fact, urges, a novelist to say more or less what s/he wants. Additionally, I think that novelists don’t use the novel to ‘understand the world’ but use it for delivering what they understand about the world.

I meant what I said when I wrote that writing is a therapeutic process. But not therapy for the writer in terms of her own psychological traumas – therapy for the writer as a person existing in a world, a universe, that is difficult and heartbreaking and joyous and eleventeen layers of complex; and coming to terms with all the multiplicities and the multitudes in that world, that universe. There are people that use the novel to exorcise their own demons, certainly. But I will stand by my assertion that novelists write novels to understand the world. When you’re writing or you’re undertaking any sort of artistic project, the process of creation is one that continues throughout the entire span of the project. It’s not that you think and think for five years and you formulate your theories and only then do you put pen to paper and what emerges is fully formed. As you write, your mind keeps working, your theories keep developing. Every day of writing my novel was a new day of discovery, of mental exercises and challenges and expansion and growth. I grew as a person as a result of writing my books. I learned what I knew about the world and what I didn’t. I understood my limitations and where I needed to go in order to overcome them.


Can you talk about how Karachi has influenced your writing?

You are not going to let me get away from that question, are you? Karachi is my inspiration. I couldn’t have been a writer in any other city in the world. Maybe I could now. Like a soldier going into her first battle, I’ve gotten my basic training in Karachi. Karachi is where the stories are. I am a bit of an amateur psychologist and never have I seen another city where people behave in the most contradictory ways. And yet when you examine their motivations and their thought processes, you come up with some amazing insights and illuminations about the human race. It is like a big…what’s the word I am looking for? a cauldron, a test-tube, a type of crucible…where the best and worst of humanity are all thrown together and the results are unpredictable, sometimes horrible, sometimes heartbreaking, but always amazing. I chronicle those results. That is the sum total of all my endeavors as a writer.

This follow-up interview was conducted via email. Questions and answers have been edited for style and content.

Interview: Bina Shah (Part 1)

27 Jun

Bina Shah, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna, is a noted Karachi based author, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories. Her first collection of short stories, Animal Medicine, was published by Oxford University Press in 1999. The collection was followed by a well-received novel, Where They Dream in Blue, that cataloged the return of an expatriate to Karachi. Ms. Shah currently edits the Alhamra Literary Review along with Ilona Yusuf.


How was it growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s under Zia-ul-Haq?

Weird and tense. I remember the day Bhutto was hanged. I was only five but everyone was terrified that there would be some sort of reaction. And there wasn’t. The streets were quiet. Later, I remember “Black Days”, but I didn’t understand what they were about. I touched on those days in my short story 1978 in Blessings where this young boy grows up in the Zia era—the feeling of being out in some sort of wilderness physically echoes what it felt like in this country back then.

You have spent a fair amount of time in the US. You spent your early years in Virginia and then upwards of five years in Massachusetts getting educated, first at Wellesley and then at the School of Education at Harvard. Can you tell us a little more about your time in the US?

Those were the years that formed me. From zero to five, you are absorbing everything and understanding how the world works. Getting your initial programming, so to speak.

When I returned for college and graduate school, it was a time of great freedom, of experimentation, trying my wings. The contrast between a sheltered upbringing in Pakistan and being in the hothouse environment of a Boston education couldn’t be greater. Both of those times in America made me who I am today.

Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What took you and your family to Virginia and what brought you back? What was their attitude towards your choice of profession?

My father was a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, and that is why we went there. We came back when he completed his studies, five years later. My parents are many things to me. They were young when they had me, and in a sense, the three of us have grown up together. They challenge me in ways that nobody else does; they are supportive of me but they will never let my head get too big. My mother, particularly, is good at deflating my ego! They are extremely pleased that I have turned out to be a writer because they see how happy it makes me. My dad always said I should be a writer and he never lets me forget that he was right. :)

What was your experience like attending an all women liberal Liberal Arts college in Massachusetts?

Absolutely fantastic! I would send my daughter there in an instant. You have your whole life to spend with men; you only get four years to spend it in an all-women environment. The amount of support, the building of self-confidence and self-esteem is unrivaled anywhere else. It was a very special time.

Your book Where They Dream in Blue deals with an ABCD’s visit to Karachi. How much of the book parallels your own journey? How hard was it for you to readjust to Karachi when you came back from the US in the 1990s? Can you tell us about some of the challenges?

The book attempts to deal with the questions that any person visiting their homeland would feel, especially Pakistanis who were raised in America. The questions that a Pakistani raised in Britain would have might be slightly different, but I think there are some things that apply to everyone. Certainly, I grappled with many of those questions myself. Adjusting back to Karachi in 1995 was nowhere near as difficult as adjusting to it in 1977 when the differences between the two countries in terms of culture and environment were far different. In 1977, there was nobody like me—a person who’d been raised in America. In 1995, there were starting to be lots of kids like me, who had gone for school there and come back. However, the challenge was the same here as it would have been for any young adult attempting to re-enter the real world after college: what am I going to do with my life?

You began your career as a Features Editor for Computerworld in 1996. That is fairly early in terms of the web revolution, and even the Computer revolution when it comes to Pakistan. Can you tell us a little more about the technology ‘scene’ in Pakistan at that time and how it has evolved in the past decade?

The technology scene in Pakistan was it its embryonic stages. The Internet had just come to Pakistan that year, and those of us who had been in America and used email got really excited about the Web and what it meant. People who were based here, especially traditional sorts of businesses, were suspicious and terrified of the new technology. So you had pockets of great understanding – we were like this little team, spread out across the country but keeping in touch through email and being astronauts in a way: “the Internet, the brave new world and then the larger landscape of resistance. But like they say in the space movies “resistance is futile”. Now everyone’s using technology in much the same way they were using it in the United States around, say, 1999. Mobile phones are part of that boom, by the way. We could be doing more – applying technology more to our everyday lives, rather than making an effort to integrate Blackberries and Wifi, it should all fall into place naturally – but it is always going to be that much more of an effort here.


The heroes of both of your novels, Where They Dream in Blue, and The 786 Cybercafe, are men. Arati Belle, in her review of Animal Medicine, writes, “Curiously, she seems to get into the skin of the boy in this story than any of the girls in the other stories” in reference to the story ‘Going Fishing.’ Was it a deliberate choice on your part to use male protagonists?

Yes, it was a deliberate choice. When you are starting out with your writing, the last thing you want is for everyone to ask you, “Well, is this about you?” Making the protagonist a man was the easiest way I could think of to sidestep this question, which gets very annoying to answer after the twentieth time.

The other reason for using men as protagonists is that there’s a practical consideration: in this society, men simply have more access to certain situations and locations than women do. I don’t like it, but it is true. How many women of a middle-class background do you know who would be able to set up a cybercafe on Tariq Road? So I bring women into the narrative, but then I try to highlight their positions/situations in society.

This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways – at least at that age – than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.

“In the novel, there is room for poetry, for tenderness and violence, for description and investigation, for analysis and synthesis; there is room for the portrayal of the countryside and of characters and of non-characters. That is, the man from within and from without.” Camilo Jose Cela, Nobel Prize-winning Spanish author once said in an interview when asked about the novel. Do you agree with what he says? What do you think is the range of the novel as a medium? What are its limitations?

I had to look up the novel in my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms to answer this question. The great strength of the novel is its freedom from limitations: style, structure, length, content. It is like this form that can absorb and make its own all the other literary forms around. If there are limitations to the novel, they exist in the limitations of the writer. A bad writer is going to write a bad novel, sure, but even a very good writer can be limited by her own limitations of experience, geography, knowledge of other disciplines, lack of worldview, and so on. The novel really challenges you to dig deep within yourself as a writer and bring out everything you know. It will totally exhaust you as a medium if you are not up to the challenge.

There are a variety of novels – the intellectual novel in the vein of Joyce and Rushdie, an elemental novel or the simple novel, the kind of novel written, for example, in the style of Dickens, or Balzac. (Cela) And then there are of course myriad hybrids. You, to me, have crafted two elemental novels. Firstly, do you agree with the statement and if so then can you tell us a little more about what went behind the choice?

Yes, I agree with your statement. My first two novels were very simply written. I think I simply was not ready to write a very intellectual novel. I was young, I was inexperienced, and I was not confident. I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion. I wanted to concentrate on my stories and my characters, and do a good job of that; I felt I owed that to the reader first and foremost. My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?

Most authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly. Their inability to come to terms with their own ghosts, their psychological traumas, and their inability to forgive themselves and others, often creates perversions that surface in the form of misplaced viciousness with which they deal with some characters. They are also trying to ‘understand’ the world and often ‘fail’ to understand it. Let me provide an example to illustrate the point. You listed Of Human Bondage as one of your favorite books in one of your interviews. The book is also a great favorite of mine. My friend Chaste recently provided a wonderful analysis of a facet pertinent to the question and I paraphrase his analysis here- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Can you comment briefly on the unduly broad statement with which I start this question by first pruning it and then analyzing it?

For me, writing is a therapeutic process, not to try and heal the writer of any psychological demons, but to understand the world around them in some way. By writing about issues, especially ones that bother me, that nag me, that are complex and not easily categorized or understood, I grapple with them and eventually arrive at a better understanding of them. As for being vicious towards a character, that is an odd thing to do. As a writer, I have love for all my characters, even the ones that aren’t particularly likable, because they are my creations. I try to make them play out the complexities of life that I see going on in the real world, not the ones in my head.

Can you now answer the question that I raise above with regards to your novel, The 786 Cyber cafe, that in the words of one of your prior interviewers is “centered on a story based on the infamous ‘other side of the Clifton bridge.” In response to which you said, “I think people on this side of the bridge are more narrow-minded in many ways.”

People are hemmed in everywhere by their preconceptions and prejudices. Just because you are rich and you are educated doesn’t mean you lack those preconceptions and prejudices. Nor does being rich or educated make you any more open-minded or tolerant. I believe the rich, the elite, those that live on “this side of the Clifton Bridge, which is a bridge that connects the richest parts of Karachi, Clifton and Defence, to the rest of the town on the Saddar side and beyond – think that their intellectual work is done once they have gotten their college degrees and taken the reins of their fabulous destinies as the nation’s leaders. Intellectually they are some of the laziest people I have ever seen: content to expound forever on whatever theories they formulated thirty years ago, without taking in anything else and considering whether their views are outdated or inapplicable today. When you are hungry, in all sense of the word, you stay humble. And humility goes hand in hand with open-mindedness: the ability to realize that your view is only one of many, and only an opinion at best.

Both of your novels and your current collection of stories have been published by Alhamra Publishing. And you edit Alhamra Literary Review along with Ms. Yusuf. Al-Hamra in Arabic simply means “the red”. It is of course usually used to describe the 13th Century “crimson castle” or Alhambra in Granada. Do you see the name ‘Al Hamra’ as an apt title for a Literary Review or for that matter a publishing house based in Karachi? And if so, why?

You would have to ask the publisher, Shafiq Naz, what was in his mind when he chose that name. I think he wanted to capture the idea that the Islamic world and Europe once had a rich, intertwined history in Moorish Spain. Literature is part of that cultural tradition. Maybe it is an oblique association. Going back to a time when art and literature and poetry was very grand and respected by kings and emperors. It is a good vision for a publishing house.

What is your vision for the Alhamra Literary Review?

We want to encourage Pakistanis to write; we showcase their talent and creativity. I would like to foster a future Booker Prize winner. That is my vision.


The late nineties were a tumultuous time for Karachi with MQM boycotting elections, political turmoil, and violence. Karachi has again recently been in the grip of a maelstrom. In the interim the number of Afghans has multiplied, Karachi beach has suffered a major oil spill, the political alliances have turned topsy-turvy, and the economy has sputtered on. Can you talk briefly about the past ten years in the political life of Karachi?

I am not comfortable commenting on politics, so I will take a pass on this question.

Since you are an author, it would be interesting to raise this question with you. I have traveled to Pakistan twice and extensively toured the cities of Lahore and Karachi. I came across some good bookshops but alas not a great one. Should I have searched more or is the bookshop scene really that modest? (Mayank)

The Liberty Books chain is doing great things for Karachi; they’ve brought the best of English publishing to the country, although at high prices. But I don’t really know how to get around that issue. I always find their bookstores a pleasure to be in; they are relaxing, inviting places, the staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and they’re working on promoting Pakistani writers with their new Book Club, which has hosted some fairly well-received launches of books, including my own. But a country like Pakistan really needs to have several excellent sources in each city for sourcing and obtaining books, and not just in the English language. Right now you have to really hunt for good literature. One day there will be a better bookshop culture, I am sure.

Every great city leaves some an imprint on the work of its writers. How has Karachi contributed to your writing?

I would think that is fairly obvious from my work!

Being a young Pakistani writer who writes about young people, how would you chronicle the changing values of the urban youths in the country? Is it difficult to strike a balance between the Islamic heritage and the McDonald culture? (Mayank)

It is not a case of ‘either/or’. It is a case of ‘and’. Understand that and you have understood the young people of Pakistan. They want choices. They do not want restrictions. But they want to choose both options, not to have to choose between them. This is the strength of Pakistani people of all ages: they are open to everything, influences from the East, the West, from Islam, from America, from Britain, from India. We are like big sponges and we are hungry for all of it. We absorb it all and then we distill it into something that is unique to us. I think that is magical and it should not be contained in any way.

Just following up on the title of your novel, “Where the dream in blue” – what color would you pick to describe Karachi? What color would be the dreams of Karachites?

Again, that should be fairly obvious! These days, however, I think the color of Karachi is brown. There is a lot of dust and mud and construction going on here.

Karachi has a multiplicity of cross-cutting ethnic and class cleavages – Sunnis Vs. Shias, Muhajirs Vs. Natives Vs. Afghans, Urdu speakers Vs. Punjabi Vs. Sindhi Vs. Pashto, rich vs. poor etc. Add to all of this a military, whose role according to Ayesha Siddiqui’s new book runs deep within the economy. What is the prognosis for its future?

Oh God, you are really asking me the easy questions, aren’t you? Karachi will survive everything. We already have. We will go on. Underneath everything, the people of Karachi want two things: to make lots of money and to be happy. To achieve both, you have got to get along with everyone else. We know how to do that, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Picking Favorites

Which is the last great book by a Pakistani author that you enjoyed? (Mayank)
The two books I really enjoyed most recently are anthologies: And the World Changed edited by Muneeza Shamsie and Beloved City edited by Bapsi Sidhwa. I am sorry I cannot give you a book by a single author. These ones were fantastic just for the sheer variety of good writing between two sets of covers.

You maintain a personal blog. What are some of the other blogs that you like visiting? (Mayank)

From the ridiculous to the sublime: a variety of friends’ blogs, including Jonathan Ali’s Notes from a Small Island, Greg Rucker’s Glossophagia, Jawahara Saidullah’s Writing Life, and the Second Floor’s blog (that’s the coffeehouse that I frequent). Then there are some gossip blogs I have to go to every day, but I won’t name them here because it’s too lowbrow and I am supposed to be this great Pakistani writer. I enjoy the PostSecret site. I like Anglophenia from BBC America. I used to go to Miss Snark, the Literary Agent every day too, but she closed that one down.

Where do you get your news?

I heard it on the grapevine, where else? Just kidding!

The interview was conducted via email. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for style and content. Questions ending with ‘Mayank’ were posed by Mayank Austen Soofi.

Interview (pdf) with Camilo Jose Cela from which the quotes were drawn.

Interview: Bapsi Sidhwa

13 Jun

Bapsi Sidhwa is the author of Cracking India and The Crow Eaters. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.

What does your name Bapsi mean? Who gave you the name?

My grandmother doted on the British. She gave me what she thought was an English name. Ironically, an English woman asked me, “You’re quite dignified. How come you have a name like Bapsy or Popsy?” They said it was definitely not an English name.

I would have preferred to have a poetic Persian name, but I am reconciled to it now. It’s short and easy to remember in the US.

I gather there is a lot of biographical detail in Cracking India’s Lenny. But it is hard to disinter facts from fiction. Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What school did you go to? Was it a Catholic school? What do you remember most about your time in pre-partition Lahore?

Even I often don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins. My father was orphaned as a child and his mother ran their wine business in Lahore. He acquired wealth after the war and Partition — he had the Parsi business gene. My mother was the youngest of ten siblings. Her father Ardeshir Mama became Mayor of Karachi, built the Mama school for girls and donated generously to hospitals etc. before going bankrupt. Because of childhood polio, the doctor suggested I should not be burdened with school. I had light tuition, thankfully no math. The roar of mobs and the fires were a constant of my childhood pre-partition. A mob came into our house to loot but departed when told that we were Parsi by our cook. I have used this scrambled memory for the ayah kidnapping scene. I have fictionalized biographical elements in the earlier part of Cracking India. Lenny is not me, perhaps my alter ego.

A novelist is expected to be both, an insider, and an outsider. How did each of the following things that made you an outsider affect your writing—contracting polio at a young age, being a Parsi in Lahore, the short stint in India in your youth and contact with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, and your immigration to the US.

That question deserves a detailed answer. I write instinctively and I don’t quite know how to answer the first part of your question. Having polio as a child, and being a Parsi in Lahore or anywhere except in Bombay, marginalizes one. This creates a distance, and also a pressure—I was a lonely child and motivated to give voice to the silences in my life, I guess. Being with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, was a wonderful experience for me. It gave me a sense of belonging I had never experienced. I found I shared the same weird sense of humor, tastes, and enormously enjoyed being with my cousins. I loved and still love Bombay.

Lahore, the City of Sin and Splendour

Do you think the title of your book, City of Sin and Splendour, captures the book (or the city)? Yes, there is Heera Mandi and the Badshahi mosque, but I felt the book was more about people and their ‘undying’ love for food.

It is called ‘Beloved City’ in Pakistan. But I think the Indian title is more chutpatta.

How often do you go back to Lahore? How has Lahore changed from the days of your youth?

I still have my house in Lahore, and I go back about once every two years. I spent the nineties in Lahore to look after my sick mother. On each visit I find Lahore improved.

How much of the book is—to the extent that you chose the stories and the writers—an expatriate’s silver tinted reflection on the city of her youth?

Lahore is not just the city of my youth. Until the late nineties, I was more in Lahore than in the US. I chose the stories and articles for the Lahore book for the quality of the writing, my respect for the authors, many of whom I know, and because the pieces engaged me as a reader. I tried to present a broad spectrum to show the many facets of Lahore. I also commissioned quite a few pieces. One Indian reviewer asked why I hadn’t mentioned street-children. Lahore has virtually none. The Lahoris take care of their own: children are adopted by madrassas or orphanages. Visitors are surprised at how well-fed Lahoris look. There are hundreds of langars in charitable institutes, Mosques, shrines, etc and no one needs to go hungry.

You dedicated your Lahore anthology to your daughter Parizad whom you complimented as the quintessential Lahori. What traits should a person have to merit such a title?

To me, she is a typical Lahore girl of a certain class. She spends nights with her friends doing tapsaras of Urdu poetry and most of her friends are still from or in Lahore. The way she dresses, relates to her friends, the subjects they talk about, her hauteur and reserve with strangers, her mannerisms, gestures, values and her thought process still reflect the culture of that city. She moved to the US in the late nineties and still functions at the rhythm and laid back pace of that city. Please keep in mind, this is a spontaneous, perfunctory answer. Any more and I’d be intruding on her privacy.

Other Books and such

Usually, it is films that are based on books. But your new book Water is based on Deepa Mehta’s film. This is also your first book that is away from your typical setting—no Pakistan, no Parsis. What prompted you to write it? Can you also elaborate on the relationship that you share with Deepa Mehta?

Deepa Mehta called to say that she wanted me to novelize her film Water and sent me a rough edit of the film. I started with much trepidation because she wanted me to write the novel in three months, to time it with the release of the film. I said I would give it a try because I loved the film, and Deepa can be very persuasive. Once I started writing I didn’t find it as difficult as I had imagined. The child widow Chuyia has much in common with the child Lenny in my novel Cracking India, and once I created an earlier life for the child in her village before the film starts, I had a grip on the novel. I enjoyed the challenge, although I have never worked so hard. I would wake up dreaming of sentences and get to the computer to write them down. I wrote late into the night.

I have known Deepa Mehta since she called me to say she wanted to make my novel Cracking India into the film Earth. She wrote the script for the film but I worked closely with her on it, keeping in mind that it was her cinematic vision of the book that mattered. I was at the film-shoot in Delhi for a good part of the time. I think Deepa and I respect each other and appreciate and trust each other’s work.

You put in a fair amount of autobiographical detail in your novels. Can you briefly comment on it?

I write instinctively, one paragraph giving rise to the other, and have a general idea of where I want to go. Everything, everyone I know and every experience I have or hear of are grist for my mill, like Flaubert, who famously said, “I am Emma Bovary.” I am almost every character in my books.

Pakistan and being Pakistani

Your novels “Cracking India” and “The Crow Eaters” captured the flavor of Pakistan at its dawn. In “The Pakistani Bride”, you dealt with the tribal lores of the Frontier. If you were to decide to write a book on present-day Pakistan, which theme would you like to deal with?

I have just finished writing a collection of short stories. I think that will contain the answer to your question. The stories deal with what you mention above and also my new location in America.

Being a woman in Pakistan, did you think it was a risk to put in sexual humor in your novels? Did it upset the readers? In fact, you self-published your first novel “The Crow Eaters”, which had quite a lot of uninhibited sexual comedy, in 1978, the very year General Zia-ul-Haq announced setting up of the Shariah benches. Did anyone harass you?

I wrote naturally about sexuality because I hadn’t realized I needed to censor what I wrote. Although I am very liberated, my writing is more inhibited now. There were no complaints about this in Pakistan. In fact, my candor was appreciated. When I launched the self-published The Crow Eaters in Lahore, there was a bomb scare at the hotel and the function was hastily closed. I realized later that the Parsi community was very offended and responsible for the bomb scare. No one had written about the Parsis before, except books praising the community, and the Parsis could not stand to see characters fictionalized, warts and all. The general Pakistani community loved it. It was not until the book was published in Britain to critical acclaim that the Parsis accepted it.

The only squeamishness about Cracking India has been in the United States. A mom and her pastor tried to ban it from being taught in a Baccalaureate program in a Florida high school. A committee of 30 people decided it was suitable to teach.

Who are the writers to watch out for in Pakistani literature?

Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie are the most prominent. Tahira Naqvi and a few others who write short stories in America. Aamer Hussain has published three collections in the U.K., India, and Pakistan. He is a sensitive and poetic writer. Among the new crop of writers published in Pakistan, I really like Bina Shah’s writing. All of the above have stories or articles in the Lahore anthology.

Living in the US, do you ever face any discrimination because of your Pakistani passport?

I have a U.S. passport now, and it is a breeze to sail through various countries with it. Pakistan is out of favor in America and Europe and this does affect me as a Pakistani writer. Although I must admit ‘Cracking India’ had a spectacular reception when it was first published and is taught in almost every university.

A ‘novel’ medium

Naipaul has talked about the end of the novel as a literary form. Is novel a sufficient medium to bring forth the complexities of modern life?

The novel is thriving. There is no other medium which can bring out the emotional nuances and complexities of modern life as well as the novel can in the hands of a good writer.

Milan Kundera recently wrote that the novel is the only form in which you can convey the pointless. It can convey the pointlessness of violence, the myriad irrational tugs and pulls that define humanity, etc. History, on the other hand, is an exercise in sense-making when none exists.

There is validity in what he says when it comes to violence, although the sequence of cause and effect, even in the most irrational-seeming incidents, are always present. Novelists like myself use the novel to express their deepest emotions and views. One usually writes the truth as one sees it. Of course, no one owns the truth and there are many valid points of view. Many historians have arrived at the truth. But often their narration is imbued with their own prejudice and can slant history to suit their or their own or their country’s agenda. History in the hands of fiction writers like Tolstoy is often more authentic and vivid than history books.

Azhar Nafisi in her novel, Reading Lolita in Tehran, makes a fascinating point about the democratic structure of a novel – where each character has a voice. Nafisi, in my mind, fails at the task herself, as all we hear is her elitist trauma. Nonetheless, I think it is an important point and one if followed can help readers really empathize with a variety of characters. Virginia Woolf to me remains an epitome in that regard. Is the role of the novel to build empathy? What do you see is the role of a novel and a novelist?

The role of a novelist, and by extension the novel, is to reveal the culture and complexities of a society in a manner that is engaging and entertaining. The emotions we hold in common have to be strongly portrayed: without empathy for the characters the novel loses its value as a narrative.


I am often struck by how few of the stories of my parent’s and my grandparent’s generations have been chronicled. We are soon going to lose a lot of those stories forever as the oral traditions die, and the storytellers grow old. What do you think should do to keep some of these traditions alive?

The partition was poorly represented because the memories were too painful, and people were too busy setting up new lives. But storytellers will tell their tales, and very little will be lost. Writers in Indian and Pakistani languages are chronicling the old tradition. As long as there are writers and storytellers most of what is important will be retained. Writers are the new mythmakers.

I am struck by the ‘unconscious feminism’ (Sara Suleri-Goodyear) of South Asian female writers like Ismat Chughtai. South Asian female writers take on feminism bubbles with urgency, humor, and candid pugnaciousness that rejects the system but does so in a rooted and informed way. Can you expand a little more on the South Asian female writers and their contribution to highlighting the gender inequalities?

I cannot talk for all South Asian women writers but I imagine that as women, consciously or unconsciously, we bring out the problems and discrimination women face and project our aspirations. I don’t like to preach about feminism but the way the stories unfold illustrate their position in the family and in society.

While South Asian writers have grown in prominence in recent years, their books reflect more and more reflect inert globalized ideas rather than alertness to South Asia. Is there a future for the distinctive South Asian fiction or are we seeing the end of it with increased globalization?

The vernacular languages embed South Asia in their narratives. South Asia will continue to be written about and by authors who write in English as well. Indian writers in the Diaspora reflect their new experiences if that is what you mean by globalization. As writers move their writing reflects their new locations, experiences, thoughts, and aspirations.

Ms. Sidhwa’s Favorite Books: Pickwick Papers (Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Black Mischief (Evelyn Waugh), A Passage to India (E. M. Forster), Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz), The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams), Waiting For the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee), Things Fall Apart (Achebe), The Last Mughal (William Dalrymple), Poems — Elegies (Rainer Maria Rilke), The Essential Rumi (Translations by Coleman Barks and Joyn Moyne), Urdu Ghazals (by Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Zauk, etc.), Short Stories, essays and novels by Saadat Hasam Manto & Ismat Chugtai, A House For Mr. Biswas (V. S. Naipaul), The Mimic Men (V. S. Naipaul [I like almost everything by Naipaul]), An Angry Tide (Amitav Ghosh), A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), The Collected Short Stories of Kushwant Singh (Kushwant Singh), Difficult Daughters (Manju Kapur), An Obedient Father (Akhil Sharma), Arranged Marriages (Chitra Divkaruni), Baumgartner’s Bombay (Anita Desai), Meatless Days (Sara Suleri), The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (Moyez Vassanji), Family Matters (Rohinton Mistry), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Everything by P G Wodehouse, Thrillers by John la Carre, Ken Follett, etc.

Some of the questions are by Mayank Austen Soofi, who blogs at The Delhi Walla.

Sidhwa’s Lahore, A Lovingly Embroidered Family Heirloom

21 May

Every great city deserves a worthy admirer. Lahore has just found one. Bapsi Sidhwa’s edited volume is a tribute to the city, a celebration of its landmarks, its cuisine, its gourmets, its brutalizing summers, its people, and its stories.

The book strikes an immediate rapport. It is akin to being invited to a Punjabi family gathering. Reading it, I felt, alternately, like a kid sitting on the lap of his maternal uncle and being told stories about the city, a young adult guiltily listening to adult conversations about brutal episodes from the city’s history, and an objective adult reflecting on the city’s history and politics.

There is a warm intimacy that suffuses each of the stories in City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore. The emotional immediacy comes from familiarity with subjects and surroundings. And from the naturalistic storytelling. Authors rarely go beyond what is known. It is an important talent. For authors are often tempted by superfluous cleverness. Here, they practice the Jane Austen method of writing — they write honestly, perspicaciously, and often with great wit about what is known, without flirting with the unnecessary or the arcane. It is grounded writing. The authors use words that are well worn and apt, not those with peripatetic grandiloquent pretensions. The resulting atmosphere is educated and homely.

I have never been to Lahore. Yet the city stands alive in front of me. Though I don’t eat meat, I savor the morning Nihari with Irfan Hussein. I share the pain of partition with Ved Mehta and Sadat Manto. I celebrate the indomitable spirit of Ismat Chugtai. I stand ringside as Bina Shah describes the long-standing tussle between Karachi and Lahore. And I wear my heart on the sleeve when I read Urvashi Butalia’s Ranamama. (Butalia’s phrase, “cracked pistachio green walls” perfectly describes the color of the walls of some subcontinent homes.) I admire the honest revolutionary spirit of Habib Jalib’s Dastoor. How did he know the story of Pakistan before it was ever written?

Third World
Many of the big cities in South Asia are shabby and poor and slung in unending mediocrity. The heat is often brutalizing and the atmosphere, dusty and arid. Trees and grass struggle to take root in face of hot summers, scarce resources, and petty corruption. Globalization, self-serving politicians, immigration, sprawl, and poverty presses from all sides. Yet the cities thrive in crevices, in neighborhoods and families, in visits to each other’s houses, in stories exchanged, in chai, and love. People exchange stories with their doodhwallahs (milkmen) and their kaamwaalis (maids). Everything is held together by talking. It is these relations, these conversations, the unsaid courtesies, that Sidhwa celebrates in her book.

Colonial Rule
The British Raj left its mark on Lahore. Kim’s gun haunts the hollow haunches of the emaciated old city. The gardens and separate civil line quarters for the English are a vital part of the city’s social topography. But more importantly, the Raj has scarred Lahore psychologically. Chastened by West that races ahead, and surrounded by pockmarked skeletons of pre-English architecture, Lahoris are unsure of what to make of their heritage.

Delhi and Lahore
Delhi is seen as Lahore’s twin. The cities have similar climates, both are (or, used to be) Punjabi dominated, have similar histories, similar old-new city Raj-inspired distinctions, and similar heartaches of partition. One can easily find flavors of Delhi in the book—the ‘gates’ of the old city, the civil lines area, the colonial bungalows, the partition stories, and the oncoming McDonald’s culture. In getting to know Lahore, you learn about Delhi.

Contemporary Conditions and History
He whose light shines only in palaces
Who seeks only to please the few
Who moves in the shadow of compromise
Such a debased tradition, such a dark dawn
I do not know, I will not own

Dastoor, Hajib Jalib
Lahore has suffered from the vicissitudes of the people in Islamabad and Washington. The onslaught of globalization and technology, unleashed without prior thought, continues unabated. People try to craft their lives around one technology while being led by their noses to the next. It is unsettling when you stop and take stock of all that will be lost to time.

The Elite Lahore
The remembrances of a city and the love of a city only come naturally to those with time for leisure. To that extent, this book is about the padshahs of Lahore. The book is an ode of the ruling class to itself, to its culture, and to its landmarks. Yet, often, the book is much more than that. The everyday street is never far in this book. The everyday street may not have the kaamwaali in it, but it does have the patang baaz, the halwais, the rickshaw wallahs, and more. It is that everyday street that I carry in my heart.

Ditty for Bush

6 Dec

Seldom has a country reached such levels of obsequiousness that Pakistan reached when officials chose to include a rhyming poem titled, The Leader, praising George W Bush in its English-language course book for 16 year-olds. The poem spells out George W Bush in addition to coming up with lines like – “Strong in his faith, refreshingly real” and “Bracing for war, but praying for peace”.

Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith, refreshingly real
Isn’t afraid to propose what is bold,
Doesn’t conform to the usual mould,
Eyes that have foresight, for hindsight won’t do,
Never backs down when he sees what is true,
Tells it all straight, and means it all too.

Going forward and knowing he’s right,
Even when doubted for why he would fight,
Over and over he makes his case clear,
Reaching to touch the ones who won’t hear.
Growing in strength he won’t be unnerved,
Ever assuring he’ll stand by his word.

Wanting the world to join his firm stand,

Bracing for war, but praying for peace,
Using his power so evil will cease,
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must.

Facts About South Asia

19 Aug

South Asia is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and about 40% of the world’s absolute poor—people living on less than $1/day. Imagine the lifestyle of an American earning $1/day and you will get a window into the poverty described by these figures.

India is home to nearly half of the illiterate population in the world. The adult literacy rate in South Asia (49%) is behind sub-Saharan Africa (57%) as well as that of Arab states (59%). To make matters worse, South Asia’s current annual expenditure on education is 1.9% of GNP. In contrast, military spending in the region is 3.8% of GNP and is as high as 7% in Pakistan which has 50% more soldiers than teachers. A brief zoom in on Pakistan’s education system…. what indeed are people fortunate enough to afford an education are taught? According to a report by an independent government agency, SDPI ( Sustainable Development Policy Institute. See Link at Bottom), ‘facts’ like “Hindu has always been an enemy of Islam.” and “The religion of the Hindus did not teach them good things — Hindus did not respect women…” have been included with the general objective of inculcating “Love and aspiration for Jehad, Tableegh (Prosyletization), Jehad, Shahadat (martyrdom), sacrifice, ghazi (the victor in holy wars), shaheed (martyr)”

Due process of law is often quoted as a key ingredient for a free society. With over 20 million court cases pending at the end of 2002, India doesn’t even pretend. More stark crime statistics in India include—over 1 million people in jail waiting for trial, and a conviction rate of about 1%.

SDPI report on Pakistan Education System (pdf)
World Literacy of Canada