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Healthcare: Dubious Distinctions

March 20, 2018

By Samia Altaf

Two recent reports about Pakistan’s health system tell of deficiencies of far reaching significance.

The first, from UNICEF, confers on Pakistan the dubious distinction of registering the highest number of deaths in newborns (neonatal mortality) in the past decade. It is now number one in the world, climbing from number three, and ahead of Afghanistan and the Central African Republic. The second, a National Nutrition Survey, informs that 45% of Pakistan’s children are stunted, suffering from chronic, extreme, and irreversible malnourishment that causes permanent physical and cognitive deficiencies. What would this half of future generations be capable of with its severely limited capacity to learn even if the opportunity for education is available? It would fall sick much quicker and get better a lot slower creating a permanent burden on the already constrained health service delivery system.

The situation in other areas of healthcare, though not part of these reports, is equally grim. Measles continues to be endemic with 6,494 cases last year in Pakistan compared to 1,511 in poor Afghanistan and 513 in war-torn Syria. This is a stinging indictment of the national Expanded Program on Immunization, underway since 1988, which provides 50% coverage when 90% is minimum needed for herd immunity. Maternal mortality, deaths in women due to pregnancy related events, continues to be unacceptably high — 286 per 100,000 nationally and 786 in Balochistan. Deficiencies in large city hospitals with patients dying in hospital corridors or refused treatment have forced the CJP to step in the mess that should be cleaned by the Ministry of Health. The story of spurious drugs and the problems of DRAP are too familiar to need recounting.

Isn’t it remarkable that the marked decline in health outcomes has been accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of medical colleges and universities, hospitals, doctors, nurses, and midwives. Advances in technology and fancy apps have facilitated diagnosis and treatment. Donors continue their generous funding — Punjab has received a $65 million grant from DFID and the loan of an equal amount from the World Bank. This has  led to the current reform of the ministry of health — two ministers instead of one and two secretaries instead of one.

What is going on? Is it that we still don’t have enough doctors for our population? It is true that the doctor to patient ratio is half that recommended by the WHO. But then, why are so many young doctors unemployed? Why are so many people going to non-doctors? China’s population is five times that of Pakistan. Its Infant Mortality Rate (deaths in children under one year) is 12, seven times less than Pakistan’s and its Maternal Mortality Rate is 27, ten times lower. Yet, China has never tried to get its doctor to patient ratio up to the number recommended by the WHO.  

“The state needs to take charge,” exhorts an editorial in this newspaper (28.2.2018). But the state is firmly in charge. New programs are launched every few months and plans to control communicable diseases in children and provide services to women are articulated in documents PC-1s. Frenzied activity is manifested in fancy new programs such as the health card scheme, the formation of public companies to manage hospital waste, the engagement of expensive foreign consultants, all amidst regular pronouncements from government officials. The state has a panel of technical experts — eminent doctors working in its system — that has been advising governments for the past many decades and continues to do so now. The results speak for themselves. Why would future results be any different if the same experts continue as advisors?  

There are two sets of problems. First, there is no mechanism to critically evaluate the  recommendations of the experts to determine if they are in the interest of citizens or in the self interests of the experts. No oversight is provided either by citizens or by their representatives who either do not know how to monitor or don’t sufficiently care about the situation. Ironically, suo moto notices by the Court call on the same set of experts to provide answers to the problems they should be held accountable for.

Second, the Ministry of Health lurches from one leaking hole-in-the-dyke to another driven by donor is offering funding, bright ideas of dignitaries, or explanations called forth by the judiciary. There is no overarching systemic vision compatible with the country’s constraints and challenges, none that has stood the test of time, regime-change, or public scrutiny. The mindset that survives is that more is better – more consultants, more doctors, more beds, more ministries. The results are staring us in the face as documented in the reports mentioned above.  

Solutions at the margins in the absence of a robust public health system will not resolve the healthcare crisis. Just as more flyovers and underpasses cannot stay ahead of traffic congestion if the city continues to sprawl, increasing the number of doctors or hospitals cannot make up for the growing burden of disease in an unhealthy environment. Take air pollution as an example, where, on average, the exposure of Pakistanis to critical particulates is 6.5 times the safe level recommended by WHO. Asides from adding to morbidity, air pollution killed about 60,000 Pakistanis in 2012 making the country the fifth-deadliest in that category. Here too, we could be vying for first place with the commissioning of numerous coal-based power plants across the country.

The task is by no means impossible and much can be achieved with a simple focus on the provision of clean air, clean drinking water, safe sanitation, a critical education, and gender equality. In 2012, the Infant Mortality Rate in Bangladesh was less than half that of Pakistan’s although the rates were comparable in 1990. This remarkable progress in Bangladesh has occurred despite the fact that it is only two-thirds as affluent as Pakistan in terms of per capita income.    

The Pakistani story has been one of neglecting the basics and channeling funds to intermediaries on half-baked schemes that yield no benefit to citizens. The global rankings provide evidence that is impossible to refute.

The writer is a public health physician and author of So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan. This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 19, 2018 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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The Death of Classical Music

January 10, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Patiala gharana died on January 4. Classical music in Pakistan died earlier. Nothing epitomizes that more than the headline in a leading newspaper: “Renowned Qawwal Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passes away.” It is just as well one can’t read one’s own obituary – that would have been the unkindest cut of all for the doyen of the khayal tradition of North Indian classical music. Another leading newspaper had referred to Roshan Ara Begum as Gulshan Ara Begum a while back. Mercifully the Malika-e Mausiqi was no longer alive to realize how quickly she had been forgotten.

These kinds of gross oversights in leading newspapers are indicative of the fact that many now have no familiarity with the tradition or the achievements of its leading exponents. One can say that classical music is dead in Pakistan because the art form is not part of the sensibility of a new generation.

This statement is a factual observation without any moral judgement on individuals who choose or not to familiarize themselves with the art form. North Indian classical music may be dead in Pakistan but it remains very much alive in the other parts of the world with many brilliant and exciting young performers carrying it to ever greater heights.

However, the death of the classical tradition has some implications for music in general which remains alive in Pakistan. The reason is not apparent but should become obvious on reflection. Simply put, the classical tradition is the repository of the rules of grammar applicable to all music and those unfamiliar with them are severely limited in their education and thereby in their exposition.

Ghazal remains an enormously popular genre in Pakistan but has anyone matched, let alone surpassed, the standards set by Mehdi Hasan, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum? All these artists were or are classically trained. The same could be said of leading geet singers like Rafi and Noor Jehan and legends of devotional music like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen.

Without knowledge of grammar an artist can become an extraordinarily good mimic, reproducing hits of particular masters, but remain quite limited in the ability to innovate. Only knowledgeable artists like Mehdi Hasan can evolve a new style, moving beyond that of an earlier era characterized in the case of the ghazal by a legend like Begum Akhtar.

This caveat is not limited to singers. The quality of music, embellished by voice, depends almost entirely on the aesthetics of composition. Almost all composers who left a mark on popular music – Naushad, Khurshid Anwar, Feroze Nizami, among others – were deeply conversant with the intricacies of classical music. Only intimate knowledge of the relationship of notes to each other and to particular moods and times can yield memorable music – no accident that film songs that have stood the test of time were composed in particular ragas of classical music.

The relevance of knowing the essentials of a craft goes beyond music. Only a writer deeply familiar with the underlying grammar of a language and its heritage can craft elegant sentences. We do have an innate sense of grammatical structure of the language we speak from an early age but this intuition does not extend to foreign languages. We can observe this in the average quality of written English in Pakistan – it is rare to see a coherent paragraph leave alone a beautiful one. This is also the reason why the vast majority of students memorize passages they hope to reproduce in examinations as answers to questions posed in English. They simply do not have the linguistic mastery to capture abstract thoughts in writing or to craft original sentences in real time. What they can convey relatively easily in their own language they struggle with in a foreign one.

This loss of originality and creativity and the recourse to memorization and reproduction in fields quite unrelated to music is a huge price for the neglect of foundational knowledge of which grammar is a major component. Add to this three other dimensions of classical training. First, the exposure to related art forms. Second, the extended practice under expert tutors that transform formal rules of grammar into integral elements of expression so that they become second nature. Third, the fact that widespread classical training produces not just artists but discriminating audiences that artists have to satisfy. Standards decline rapidly without such audiences which is why a classical education is needed in schools from an early age to sustain an aesthetic sensibility in society.

A digression: Music is a language with a minimal alphabet of seven notes and a fairly simple grammar. The children of musicians encounter this language at birth which is why they can learn it even without any formal schooling. Fateh Ali Khan Sahib conveyed this vividly with the story of a lady of the house who, while rolling dough in the kitchen, was able to reprimand a practicing youngster that he had fallen short of the Nikhad by a shruti. Needless to say, the lady, though not a performer, was the daughter of an Ustad herself. The context was an explanation of why even with such advantages the standards of gharana music were declining over time. No amount of knowledge, he lamented, can make up for the lack of riyaz that is an equally integral part of a classical education. Who is there to step into the shoes of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan or of Roshan Ara Begum?

No real harm was done by referring to Ustad Fateh Ali Khan as a Qawwal nor will the earth shatter with the death of classical music in Pakistan. It is the loss of the classical tradition which renders us incoherent that should be the subject of our attention.             

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 9, 2017, and is reproduced here with permission of the author. A primer on classical music can be accessed at

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A History of the Left in Pakistan – 3

September 1, 2016

By Ahmed Kamran

Chapter One: The Roots of Revolution

The Communist Party of Pakistan’s (CPP) birth was conceived and delivered through a cesarean operation by the Communist Party of India (CPI) in its Second Congress held in Calcutta in February-March 1948. The reporting line of the newly founded CPP  was made to the CPI leadership, probably on the advice of the Communist Party of Great Britain CPGB). CPI was itself operating at a second tier and was reporting to the CPGB in contrast to many other communist parties of the world who were, like CPGB, in direct contact with Moscow (1). CPP was clearly relegated to the third tier in the global hierarchy of the communist organization.

Interestingly, the CPI was one of the oldest communist parties in the world. The struggle for the independence of India had many facets and streams, acting independently in various parts of India with little, if any, coordination among themselves, before these independence movements and revolutionary groups converged in the 1st quarter of the 20th century. The formation of the CPI was one such convergence. Many of the prominent leaders and workers of the independence movement, coming from different backgrounds and experiences converged and joined hands, giving the independence struggle a new organizational structure and a global dimension.

The role of the CPI in the Indian Independence Movement and its subsequent far-reaching impact on Indian society in general cannot be fully appreciated, unless it is seen in the backdrop of three powerful, but largely forgotten, movements of their time. These movements growing independently of each other played a crucial role in the history of the freedom movement of united India. Later, these movements converged in foreign lands and prepared the ground for formation of the first CPI in 1920.

These movements were led and participated in by some brave sons and daughters of united India. The movements, an integral part of the long struggle for the independence of India, were: The Ghadar Party (1913-1931), The Berlin Committee (1914-1918), and The Hijrat & Jihad Movement of the Indian Muslims (1915-1920).

I. The Ghadar Party

The Ghadar Party was founded in June 1913 by few expatriate workers of Indian origin in Astoria, an obscure sleepy town in the north-east of the U.S.A. The town of Astoria, situated near the mouth of Columbia River on the Pacific coast in Oregon State, was a major timber logging station in early 20th century. The party was initially named as Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast but it soon was known by the title of its organ Ghadar that it published in memory of India’s first war of independence in 1857, known as Ghadar or the Mutiny. In it a call was published to prepare for a jihad for the independence of India (2).

The party’s call seemed to have an electrifying effect on the Indian community on the west coast. The Ghadar Party built a sizable following among immigrant Indian workers in many towns of California and North-West America. Indian port coolies, railway and timber logging workers were spread out into many of overseas British colonies where they had been transported, in large numbers, as indentured labour for expanding railroad construction and lumbering projects during last few decades of the 19th century. Mostly engaged in menial work, they were employed in hard labour jobs, living in harsh and repressing conditions. With an amazing speed, Ghadar Party’s call produced an army of volunteers ready to plunge headlong into armed rebellion against the British rulers in India. Soon, party organization cells sprang up in China, Malaya, Siam (Thailand), the Philippines, Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Russia, and Canada. The membership of the party reportedly reached to about 6,000 (3). Prominent among those who had founded the party and led it to the armed rebellion in India in 1915-1916 were Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna (President), Lala Har Dayal, (General Secretary & editor Ghadar), Pandit Kashi Ram (Treasurer), Taraknath Das (Joint Secretary), Kartar Singh (editor, Ghadar, Punjabi edition), Bhai Kesar Singh, Karim Buksh, Maulvi Barkatullah, Santok Singh, V.G. Pingle, and G.D. Kumar. The party headquarter, Yugantar Ashram, was established in San Francisco, California. Later, to comply with the American law, the movement was registered with local authorities as the ‘Hindustan Ghadar Party’ on January 22, 1917, with its headquarters at 5 Wood Street, San Francisco (4).

As the North American economy entered into recession by the middle of the first decade of twentieth century, the good days of the immigrant Indian workers came to an end. Now, largely unemployed, the unruly dark Indian workers were increasingly seen as undesirable elements in the host countries. To curb further arrivals, the Canadian government changed immigration laws in 1907 to require minimum $200 cash in hand for an Indian to gain entry into Canada. In 1910, a further stipulation was added to require a ‘continuous journey’ from the port of origin. With no direct shipping line service available from any Indian port to Canada, it practically made impossible for the native Indians to gain entry into Canada. Many Indian workers already on Canadian soil were expelled and deported on account of small crimes. At one stage, proposals to have all Indians expelled from Canada were also discussed. In order to comply with the requirement of ‘continuous journey’, affluent Indians led by Sardar Gurdit Singh chartered Japanese ship Komagata Maru that sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver via Shanghai and Nagasaki with 352 Sikh and 21 Punjabi Muslim passengers on board, including Sardar Gurdit Singh himself. When the ship arrived at Vancouver in May 1914, the Canadian authorities did not permit these passengers to disembark. The vessel remained anchored at Vancouver for weeks running out of water and provisions. At the end, when the Canadian police authorities climbed over ship to force the vessel to return and turned military cannons towards it threatening with artillery fire, the ship finally turned back and returned to India. But the tragedy did not end here. Upon Komagata Maru’s arrival at Baj Baj Ghat in Calcutta in September, 1914 the inflamed Indian workers protested against the inhuman treatment meted out by the Canadian authorities. To prevent any riotous situation in Calcutta, the local British authorities wanted these returning passengers to be immediately dispatched to their home towns but the angry workers didn’t want to return to their villages empty-handed. They wanted to stay in Calcutta, looking for some work and earn their living. Finally, the British police opened fire on protesters killing 18 passengers and wounding another 25. This whole incident of Komagata Maru and killing at Baj Baj Ghat greatly infuriated people in the villages of Punjab. It also stirred Indian political activists from Calcutta to British Columbia and agitated Indians living in the towns of California, Oregon, and Washington states on the western coast of the USA. Many of the Komagata Maru passengers joined the Ghadar Party.

After the outbreak of the First World War and Great Britain joining it in August 1914, the Ghadar Party hurriedly decided to take this moment as an opportunity for launching a revolt in the Indian army against the British rulers. A number of party workers had served as soldiers in the Indian army at some time in their careers. They were vaguely aware of some working of the British Indian armed forces and their organizational structure. They thought that after reaching India they would be able to persuade their compatriots in the army in large numbers to join the rebellion. In their heightened enthusiasm, they naively thought that Indian soldiers in the British army were ready and just waiting for them to launch the rebellion.

A Call for Jihad

The plan for initiating rebellion on the lines of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and launching a revolutionary armed struggle was hastily prepared. This time it was hoped to be a more coordinated and planned effort compared to the failed 1857 mutiny. Amritsar was agreed to be the control centre of the rebellion and initially the date for the armed uprising was fixed for 30 November, 1914. On the appointed day, revolutionary contingents were to simultaneously capture British Cantonments at Lahore, Ferozepur, Meerut, and Delhi and proclaim the Republic of India. Some of the rebel leaders went to Jehlum and Rawalpindi, while few others proceeded to Mardan and other parts of NWFP to organize Afridis and other Pathan tribes. The flag of the revolt was agreed to be a tricolor of green, saffron, and red stripes with two swords crossing each other in the centre. The second Ghadar was supposed to engulf the British Empire from Peshawar to Hong Kong. The party also obtained financial and logistics assistance from German diplomats and agents operating in the USA to make arrangements to procure and ship weapons to India.

The first batch of revolutionaries left Vancouver on 22 August 1914. The second group sailed from Victoria in British Columbia. The major financier of the party, Jawala Singh also left with a group of revolutionaries for India. The number of activists said to return India in the next about three months on the call from Ghadar Party are variously estimated from two thousand to five thousand. They boarded a number of ships sailing into various Indian ports. Many of them, however, including president of the party, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna were promptly arrested on arrival at Indian ports. It transpired that the activities of Ghadar Party were fully exposed to the extensive British intelligence network thanks to the information sharing between different colonial administrations and other friendly countries, enabling the British Indian government to take effective counter measures in advance. Passenger manifests from all leading shipping companies plying in the Pacific region were thoroughly combed. Lists of those deemed dangerous were handed out to various port authorities. Two vessels carrying arms shipment from Germany and the USA to be secretly unloaded at Bengal coast were also intercepted by the British navy after their entry in the safe waters of the Bay of Bengal. Deprived of leadership and with no access to arms, many party activists started contacting local radical organisations. With the help of Berkeley-returned V.G. Pingle and Kartar Singh Sarabha, a new nexus was established with militants in Bengal. By early January 1915, Rash Bihari Bose was inducted into the leadership of the Ghadar movement’. Bose was a fiery revolutionary from Bengal who had gained heroic prominence by organizing a failed assassination attempt by throwing a hand bomb on the Viceroy of India, Lord Charles Hardinge, in December, 1912 in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, when the Viceroy was riding an elephant during a ceremonial procession of Grand Durbar of King George V. Bose managed to escape but his four collaborators, Master Amir Chand, Master Awadh Bihari, Bhai Balmukund and Basant Kumar Biswas were hanged to death and Lala Hanumant Sahai was sentenced for life and transported to Andaman Islands where he was released after seven years (5).

The date for the uprising was extended to February 21, 1915 and instead of Amritsar now Lahore was chosen as the new headquarter for the armed rebellion. Again, shortly before the planned rebellion on 21 February 1915, a large number of Ghadar Party leaders and workers were rounded up at different places in India. The night falling on 19 February, 1915 was a lightning strike on the cities and villages of Punjab. Most of the newly constituted leadership who had earlier managed to escape was now arrested even before the rebellion could formally begin. Rash Bihari Bose, however, again managed to evade arrest and escaped to Japan (6).

This was a major blow to the party and the Ghadar movement was all but crushed. In spite of a severe crackdown on the would-be rebels, militant party contingents in many towns and military garrisons raised the rebellion flag. Large number of arrests were made and a series of Lahore Conspiracy Cases were registered against the Ghadar Party workers. In the first Lahore Conspiracy Case, out of the 97 accused 24 were sentenced to death and 56 were awarded life imprisonment. This harsh verdict gave rise to a public outcry and a wave of general protests all over India. The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge eventually converted the death sentence of 17 leaders, including Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, into life imprisonment, and reduced the terms of imprisonment of seven others. Seven Ghadar Party leaders were, however, hanged to death on 16 November, 1915.

Similar sentences were awarded in the Second, Third, Fourth, and the Fifth Lahore Conspiracy Cases. ‘Mutiny’ also took place in some British colonies outside India. Eight British officers, nine soldiers and 17 civilians were killed in the course of the mutiny. Ghadar Party leaders and rebel Indian soldiers were arrested and court-martialed in Malaya, Singapore, Rangoon (now Yangon), and Mandalay. Thirty-eight soldiers were shot dead in Singapore, twelve were hanged in Mandalay. Similarly, four soldiers were hanged in Rangoon, 69 were given life imprisonment, and 126 were sentenced for varying terms.

It is estimated that in all about 145 Ghadar Party leaders were hanged and about 900 were given either life sentences or long term imprisonments. A large number of Ghadar Party workers who laid their lives were Sikhs but many Hindus and Muslims were also included in the martyrs. These included Rehmat Ali Khan of Patiala, Hafiz Abdullah of Ludhiana, and Mujtaba Hussain of Jaunpur among the Muslim Martyrs, and Babu Kashi Ram of Ropar, Babu Ram of Hoshiarpur, Vishnu Ganesh (V.G.) Pingle of Pune in Maharashtra, and Chailia Ram of Ludhiana among Hindus. Many of them were among the party’s founding members at Astoria and San Francisco (7).

Clearly, organization and the leadership of the Ghadar Party left much to be desired. The party was quite inexperienced and immature for carrying out planning and execution of a secret armed uprising in the face of a tightly run British Indian administration, well equipped with an extensive network of its experienced intelligence services. The plan for rebellion itself was immature, founded more on ‘wishes’ and ‘emotions’ rather than dispassionate analysis of the strengths and weaknesses and the real situation on the ground in India. A far greater reliance was placed on the expectation that the Indian troops would swiftly join the mutiny.

Some serious weaknesses of the Ghadar movement notwithstanding, it is amazing how thousands of Indian migrant workers, mainly Sikhs from Punjab, had swiftly joined the armed rebellion efforts in a very short time. Many social scientists and historiographers, including pioneering works of Dr. Harish K. Puri, Maia Ramnath, (Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania), and Harjot Oberoi, (Professor of South Asian History, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) have attempted to unravel the puzzle and find the root causes of this unique socio-political phenomenon. Instead of ‘the cultural register of Indian nationalism’, Professor Harjot Oberoi traces the ideological roots of the Ghadar movement to ‘the revolutionary theories and practices of the Russian anarchists’ (8).

Owing to its over enthusiasm and lack of practical revolutionary experience, the Ghadar Party organization was almost completely smashed in India but its overseas organisational network largely remained intact, particularly in the U.S.A. The Ghadar Party efforts for the independence of India continued under the leadership of its new President, Bhagwan Singh Gyanee. Hindustan Ghadar Party brought out a new organ The Independent Hindustan from its offices in San Francisco in September 1920. Evidence suggest it was distributed widely in the USA, Mexico and Shanghai. The organ was later renamed as The United States of India in 1923 and continued to be published at least till 1927 with Surendra Karr as its editor.

The ‘Second Ghadar’ attempt in 1915-1916 failed. But it did produce an echo in Indian politics. Many young men and women, fired with revolutionary zeal and the spirit of the Ghadar movement, across India, formed various groups and associations for waging violent struggle against the British rule. Coming from different perspectives and different paths, all of these revolutionaries and freedom fighters converged on one goal – the independence of India.

Echoes of Ghadar

During First World War, about 1.25 million Indians, mostly from Punjab, Garhwal, and NWFP, served in the British army fighting on various fronts in Asia and Europe. More than 43,000 Indian soldiers died fighting for the British Empire. A large number of soldiers demobilized after the war returned home to suffer unemployment, deprivation, significant shortages of food, and epidemics (the 1918 global flu epidemic had taken a toll of 17 million people in India, about 5% of its population at that time). With the wounds of 1915-1916 Ghadar still fresh, the political conditions in India were greatly charged. By 1919, the situation, especially in Punjab, was highly explosive. The explosion, finally, took place at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919. After a provocative assault on an English missionary woman, Miss Marcella Sherwood, at the hands of an unruly Indian mob on a street of Amritsar on 11 April, Colonel (temporarily holding position of Brigadier-General) Reginald Dyer, the local British army commander, carried out a cold-blooded massacre of Indian protesters at Jallianwala Bagh on the fateful day of 13 April, 1919, killing 379 civilian people. He made the crowd trying to flee from indiscriminate police firing to crawl on the streets at the spot where Miss Sherwood was mobbed two days before with policemen firing straight only a foot above the ground. The crawling order remained effective for anyone wishing to cross the street on that spot for a length of 200 feet until 25 April, 1919. To quell widely spreading protests and rebellions the British army resorted to air strafing and bombings two days later at Gujranwala, killing another twelve people. Punjab and India rued these killings for a long time. Rabindranath Tagore wrote in his letter to Viceroy, renouncing his title of Knighthood, in protest, “The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilized Governments… The accounts of insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers…” (9).

Several cases of sedition, known as Amritsar Case and Gujranwala Case, were registered against those who were arrested during Punjab disturbances. Mohanlal and Amarnath were sentenced to death in Gujranwala Case and Muhammad Bashir was sentenced to death in Amritsar Case. Various imprisonments ranging from six years to one year were awarded to Chunni Lal, Mutiullah, Bihari Lal, Haveli Ram, Mangal Sain, Sarabdyal, Jagannath, and Labhdyal in Gujranwala Case and Harkishen Lal, Dhuni Chand, Rambhai Dutt, Allah Din and Moda Singh in the Amritsar Case (10).

Brigadier Dyer was quietly retired from the army with full benefits and pension of 900 Pounds a year. Imperialists in England, however, organized street protests showing their indignation against the treatment accorded to Dyer. They also raised a support fund of 26,000 Pounds to vindicate the honour of the poor Brigadier. Reginald Dyer died of cerebral haemorrhage after suffering multiple strokes in 1927 (11). The Morning Post (later merged in Daily Telegraph) honoured him under the title ‘The Man Who Saved India. His mentor Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab of those days, was killed in Caxton Hall, London in March 1940 by a former Ghadar Party activist, Udham Singh, in revenge for the hated O’Dwyer’s role in Amritsar massacre. Udham Singh was hanged to death in July 1940, in London.

The large scale suppression of rebel fighters across Punjab gave rise to many other resistance movements, including Babbar Akali Jattha (Lion Akali Troops), with Kishan Singh as its leader and Naujawan Bharat Sabha of Bhagat Singh. Babbar Akali Jattha, founded in April-May 1921, carried out many violent terrorist activities in Punjab till about 1926, by which time it was crushed by the Punjab police. A young Bhagat Singh, whose father had been arrested during the Rowlatt agitation in 1919 and his uncle, Ajit Singh, had been expelled from Punjab on charges of leading an agitation against canal rates in 1907, was powerfully inspired by the Ghadar Party. Later, Bhagat Singh went to Kanpur where he came close to another group of revolutionaries who believed that only an armed struggle could bring the independence to India. This group of revolutionaries had founded the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) in October 1924 at Kanpur with Sachindra Nath Sanyal as its prominent leader. Sanyal had been a leader of the Ghadar party who was arrested, sentenced, and transported to Andaman Islands (Kala Pani) together with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna. Upon completing his jail term, Sanyal returned to Kanpur. Other prominent members of the Association were Ram Parsad Bismil, Dr. Jadugopal Mukherji, Ashfaqullah Khan, and Jogesh Chandra Chatterji. The party program called for the establishment of a ‘Federal Republic of the United States of India’. Chandar Shekhar Azad also joined HRA in Kanpur. Bhagat Singh joined the party with Chandar Shekhar Azad becaming his mentor. Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, who went on to become the Secretary General of the Communist Party of India in coming years also joined this group at this time (12).

To raise funds for the purchase of weapons and to carry out its revolutionary activities, the group carried out a train robbery of the treasury money at Kakori station in August 1925. The Kakori Train robbery was a daring act that made headlines in both Indian and British press. Soon, most of the HRA leaders including its principal organizer Ram Parsad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan were arrested. Chandar Shekhar Azad remained in hiding and together with Bhagat Singh reorganized the Association. By now both Azad and Bhagat Singh were inclined towards the newly spreading revolutionary ideology of socialism; they added the word ‘Socialist’ to party’s name to change it to ‘Hindustan Socialist Republican Association’ (HSRA) with its headquarter at Agra, where a ‘bomb factory’ was also established (13). Ram Parsad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Thakur Roshan Singh, and Rajendra Lahiri were hanged to death in December 1927. Sachindrnath Sanyal was again sentenced for life and was transported to Andaman Islands. After getting inflicted with tuberculosis, Sanyal was shifted to Gorakhpur jail where he died in 1942.

On 17 November, 1928, a well-known Indian revolutionary, Lala Lajpat Rai died as a result of head injuries during an indiscriminate Lathi (a club) charge by the police on a public demonstration led by him against the visiting Simon Commission appointed by the British Government. The leaders of HSRA decided to take its revenge by assassinating James Scott, the Superintendent of Police who had ordered the Lathi charge. Together with Chandar Shekhar Azad, Rajguru, and Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh ended up assassinating John Saunders, the Assistant Superintendent Police, on 17 December 1928, in a case of mistaken identity of James Scott. All of the assassins managed to escape after the killing. Few months later, on 8 April, 1929, Bhagat Singh threw two hand-bombs inside the Punjab Assembly hall from the visitor’s gallery while raising slogans of ‘Inqilab Zindabad! (Long Live Revolution!). The British Indian police, on this occasion, however, was successful in tracking the group’s activities. Two members of the party, Hansraj and Jay Gopal becoming approvers, key leaders of the party in Punjab, Bihar, and U.P. including Bhagat Singh were arrested. A bomb factory was also unearthed in Lahore. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were tried in Lahore in a well-publicized case (14).

While the Bhagat Singh Case was still in its final stages, Chandar Shekhar Azad was killed during a police shootout in Allahabad on 27 February 1931. During his hiding, Azad was in the Alfred Park in Allahabad (now Chandar Shekhar Park) holding a secret meeting with his comrades when he was betrayed by a colleague. Followed by the police, he let his comrades escape and defended himself from behind a large tree. Shooting from his revolver to keep police at bay, Chandar Shekhar used his last bullet to kill himself instantaneously. The people of Allahabad flocked to the park in memory of this brave man and the tree under which he gave his life became a revered object where women laid flower wreaths and offered prayers. The British administration soon completely uprooted the tree and eliminated any trace of it from the park (15).

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were hanged to death in Lahore Jail on 23 March 1931. His indecent cremation was followed by dousing his corpse with petrol. The old jail in Lahore where Bhagat Singh, together with his colleagues, and many other revolutionaries before him were hanged was later razed to ground in Pakistan in 1960’s and now Shadman Colony is situated in its place.

Years later, while in Multan Jail, what Hassan Abidi had said is, perhaps, more true for the Lahore Jail:

Kuch ajab boo-e nafas aati hai deewaroN se

Ha’ye zindaaN maiN bhi kya log thay hum se pehlay

(A queer fragrance wafts from these walls
What people dwelt within these prison walls before us?)


1 The formal structure of Communist International (Comintern) was dissolved in May 1943 but a Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) was again created only in September 1947 with a view to provide a channel for seeking and providing advice and guidance from the mother party in Soviet Union. Cominform continued till 1956 when this forum was also dissolved.
2 Hindustan Ghadar, 1 November, 1913.
Ghadar Movement and its Anarchist Genealogy, by Harjot Singh Oberoi, Economic & Political Weekly, Dec 12, 2009, Pg. 41.
4 Initially, the Ghadar Party headquarter was established in a rented house at 436 Hill Street, San Francisco. Subsequently, it moved to its own three-storey building at 5 Wood Street, purchased with the funds collected from members and mostly Punjabi Indian laborers. The Ghadar Party office at 5, Wood Street, San Francisco, was handed over to the Indian Consulate office when the party was formally dissolved in the USA. It is now a Ghadar Museum in a building rebuilt in 1975 by the Govt. of India and the local Indian community.
5 ‘The revolutionary of Chandni Chowk’, by R.V. Smith, Daily The Hindu, 2 August, 2004.
6 Rash Bihari Bose lived as a writer and journalist in Tokyo, married a Japanese woman and acquired Japanese citizenship in 1923. Bose was instrumental in formation of the Indian National Army and inviting Subhash Cahndar Bose to take over its leadership. Rash Bihari Bose died in Tokyo in January, 1945.
7 ‘History of the Ghadar Movement’ by Dr. Jaspal Singh.
8 Ghadar Movement and its Anarchist Genealogy, by Harjot Singh Oberoi, Economic & Political Weekly, Dec 12, 2009, Pg. 43.
9 Letter from Rabindranath Tagore to Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India, dated 31 May, 1919, as published in Monthly, Modern Review, Calcutta, July 1919.
10 ‘Passive Resistance in India’ by Lala Lajpat Rai, Monthly Young India, Vol. II, No.10, Oct 1919, pg. 230 published by Indian Home Rule League of America, 1400 Broadway, New York, N.Y.
11 Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer was born in Murree, (in today’s Pakistan). His father Edward Dyer was also an Indian born Englishman who had established the well known ‘Murree Brewery’ in Ghora Gali, near Murree. In 1940’s, the old Brewery was passed on to the Parsee family of Minoo Bhandara (brother of writer Bapsi Sidhwa) whose father had a Liquor shop at The Mall, Lahore.
12 Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, Bhagat Singh aur uskay Saathi (Bhagat Singh & His Comrades), Maktaba-e Daniyal, Karachi, 1992, Pg. 15.
13 I.D. Gaur, Martyr as Bridegroom: A Folk Presentation of Bhagat Singh, Anthem Press, New Delhi, 2008, P. 16.
14 Ibid, Pg.29.
15 Syed Sibte Hassan, in his Foreword to Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, op cit., Pg. 8.

Chapter 1 to be continued...

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Soch Bichar: Podcasts on Development

April 18, 2016

By Anjum Altaf



Soch Bichar is a series of podcasts on development policy launched by Dr. Nadeem ul Haque and myself. We engage in conversations on important issues that are rarely addressed by the mainstream media. We will be adapting the format based on feedback received from our listeners.

The podcasts released so far are the following:

Introduction to Soch Bichar

On the debate on privatization in Pakistan

What is the role of government in the economy

Why does Pakistan economy not grow at a rate required by our demographics?

The economics of decentralization

Should we think trade corridors or an efficient trade system open to the world?

Pakistan Railways has been depreciated. Why? Is this a conscious policy?

Poverty is not a number but a system

ECC-Policy in continuous crisis and hasty decision-making

How Agriculture can grow at potential

Examining Pakistan’s trade policy and institutions

Hear what students say about their economics education in Pakistan

Hear what students say about their economics education in Pakistan

How budgets are made and implemented in Pakistan?

Health Policy in Pakistan

University management and quality

Old wine in new bottles–the New Auto Policy

Cities-Engines of Growth

Pakistanis pay taxes: Blame tax policy and administration

Should we be concerned with GDP or the Quality of Life

Financial Regulation and the SECP

Youth and the Demographic Dividend (?)

What is Corruption?

Analyzing economic research in Pakistan

Why Pakistan economy is not growing at potential

Punjab Education Ordinance Capping School Fees

Governance and civil service

The mess that is schooling

Researching and measuring democracy in Pakistan

Urban labor markets: what do they tell us?

Public service provision, user fees and priorities

Spending more on education not enough

The Role of Industrialization in Development

Pakistan Economy Resilient Despite Policy Issues

Could language may be an important issue in social science research and policy?

Disagreements: An assessment of Soch Bichar

Disagreements: Difference between growth and development

Candles in the dark

Understanding Chinese Growth and drawing lessons

What Kind of Planning do we need or should we do away with it?

Understanding Policy

Pakistan’s Economic Narrative and Policy

Debt, Austerity and Taxes

Aid and Public Policy

“Law and Economics” and Pakistan

Social Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy and the Aman Foundation 

Getting Policy Right- a proposal

Is the Census being done Right?

Climate Change

University and Research Culture in US

Local government

The curious case of Reqo Diq

Soch Bichar Radio show every Thursday 4.30 PM Fourth episode Employment

Economics of the Trump phenomenon

Economic Bullshit

Governance and Development

Understanding our history

Should we revise your GDP upwards every 5 years

Budget is coming

Pakistan and Austerity

Development happens in cities

Policy and budgets

It is the constitution, stupid!

How land is so central to the economy of Pakistan

Congratulations! Pakistan Won

Depicting Tragedy Humorously: Foreign Aid Without Development

February 7, 2016

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan
By Samia Altaf
Lahore: ILQA Publication, 2015, 204 pages, Rs. 895

William Shakespeare was the past master of the art of depicting tragedy humorously. That such a skill can be employed by a medical doctor to illustrate something as removed from the world of fiction as the relationship between foreign aid and development in Pakistan, is quite an extra-ordinary achievement. Academic works and technical reports on foreign aid and its impact on third world countries are legion. The very nature of such writings makes them reading-worthy for experts and for students who take courses on that subject. Dr Samia Waheed Altaf’s book can be read almost as a novel or a play, but it is with hard, ugly facts that she puts together a range of stories, which shed light on what goes on from the time a development plan is formulated till it is “implemented” in the field.

The general public relies largely on experts or journalists who ventilate their opinion in the press. On the whole, interested people know that foreign aid achieves little in stimulating genuine development. Billions of foreign aid has poured into Pakistan but poverty, illiteracy, bad health and other such egregious indicators of underdevelopment remain constant and may even have worsened over the years. That corruption permeates throughout our society and the higher you are placed in the bureaucratic and political hierarchy the greater your vantage point to partake in that corruption, including in the misuse of foreign aid, is a commonplace. Then of course there is no dearth of grand conspiracy theories about foreign aid being a devious trap through which alien powers control the destiny of developing and dependent states.

The author shows that the relationship between foreign aid and economic and social development in third world countries in general and Pakistan in particular is much more complex and multifaceted. It needs to be evaluated in the backdrop of the asymmetries of power that exist between the donors and the recipients, the information and knowledge gap and concomitant culture clashes which are attendant in the donor-recipient equation, and in the behaviour of the various structures that mediate development aid in the implementation process. All these different levels have to be included in a holistic framework to understand what goes on. This, the author manages to capture in her very readable book which is rich in vivid descriptions of meetings and visits.

Altaf declares at the outset that her book ‘is about one participant’s understanding of why international development projects fail in Pakistan – and by analogy, why they fail in other developing countries’. She does this by presenting a range of stories from her experience in the delivery process pertaining to the Social Action Plan (SAP) during 1993-2003, when the Government of Pakistan and the World Bank cooperated to provide access to social services, ‘including primary education, with a particular focus on girls; primary health; family planning; the rural water supply; and sanitation – and to improve their coverage and quality’. She does this by presenting a spectrum of stories about the bureaucracies involved in the donor-recipient interaction. She also asserts that her book is about Pakistani women; their vulnerabilities in a society that, despite its rhetoric of inclusion of women in the development process, refuses to accept them as equals. The author was hired on the project as a technical expert by the Government of Pakistan to work on SAP as an external consultant (which means she was not a regular civil servant) to propose incentives to attract more women to work within the rural health delivery system.

I shall present some central characters (whose real names have been changed but who represent actual happenings). From the donor end the typical foreign staff hired by the World is usually narrowly-trained technicians from Europe or the United States who lack an understanding of the social conditions and institutions of a developing country but who arrogate themselves the role of experts and exploit them to the maximum. Lucymemsahib, a Canadian nurse, epitomizes such a character. We find her running away to buy clothes, jewellery, carpets and rugs during her working hours. Not surprisingly Punjabi male bureaucrats are only too pleased to please her. A peculiar blend of sensuality, exaggerated gallantry and colonial mentality place her on a high pedestal as Punjabi men from the higher echelons of the bureaucracy interact with her to discuss different aspects of the development aid. Lower down the order the admiration remains very visible and is represented in great willingness to render small services to her. Interestingly, the author notes that Lucymemsahib does not get the same sort of attention when she visits officers in Khyber-Pakhtunkawa or from men in the streets. She thinks this derives from the fact that in that province because light eyes and fair skins are more common than in Punjab. More substantively, we learn that Lucymemsahib is poorly informed on many matters but has strong opinions which she does not hesitate to express.

Both meet a number of female Pakistani officers as well, educationists, doctors and head nurses.   Some look unapprovingly at the author wearing a sari instead of shalwar kameez since the national narrative has classified it with India and Hindus. She and Lucymemsahib have to listen to self-righteous sermons on the great purpose of creating a separate Muslim state, which with the grace of Allah was bound to succeed as an exemplary Muslim state. The funniest story is about a senior female officer demonstrating pedagogic originality by suddenly displaying an oversized male phallus, which she tells she uses to show women how the condom should be worn properly. It turns out that such demonstration attracts the attention of people around, even peons and clerks, but the lady is oblivious to the excitement her novel method has generated.

Then there is the interaction with the provincial director (PD) of the Provincial Health Department of Punjab on Cooper Road in Lahore. He is an orthopaedic surgeon, who simultaneously continues to be a professor and deputy medical superintendent at one of the government hospitals while me maintains a thriving private practice through various private clinics throughout the city. He tells the author that thousands of female staff would be used to deliver health services in the rural areas. When asked if they would be paid adequate salaries he tells her that they would be volunteers who would be working in their own communities and therefore get the moral satisfaction of doing something for their own people – while he himself draws three government salaries and runs his private practice!

In her extended conversations she realizes that an exhibition of Islamic piety permeates the conduct of the bureaucrats who ‘say things that sound so right but mean nothing’. Some of them blame conservative culture and values as obstructive to education, including family planning. One of them frankly told her that the purdah system is the biggest hindrance to progress and equal rights and status of women. However, the whole system, from top to bottom, is geared to convincing the World Bank to continue pouring in money. One bureaucrat tells her that the dollars are needed to finance the bomb.

All such stories are interspersed with funny remarks of the author, but a limit to such humour ultimately arises when she depicts the sadness and helplessness of young Pakistani women who are part of the SAP implementation chain at the ground level.  She talks to a number of young women vaccinators working in the rural sector. They are given a small to go around and vaccinate children and others in the villages. The social and cultural systems circumscribing their lives are portrayed in sharp relief. Some express the desire to get an education and adopt a career but are told by their families that the proper role of women is to get married and raise families and obey their husbands.

With regard to her own role in SAP we learn that the Punjab bureaucracy reacts harshly to her independent and critical approach, which is treated as intrusive and presumptuous. They make it clear that any intrusion by an outsider like her into their domain is unwelcome. It finally ends with a report which describes Dr Sabiha ‘incapable of handling a task of this magnitude and seriousness’ and recommends that she be ‘relieved of any further  duties related to  the SAP’.

The British man-of-letters, historian, novelist and liberal politician, Horatio Walpole once remarked, ‘life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel’.  Reading Dr Samia Waheed Altaf’s book convinced me that she is battling to maintain some balance between her thinking and her feeling selves. We learn that SAP cost the Government of Pakistan $8 billion, of which $450 million was in loans. She does not categorically say that foreign aid should not be solicited at all by Pakistan, but one is nevertheless led to conclude that such an inference from her book can be drawn. In a way, it is perhaps wiser not to take an absolute stand on it. We do have examples of foreign aid playing a positive role in some sectors. I was thinking of polytechnics which were established with Swedish development aid and some NGOs such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan do an excellent job too. But on the whole, foreign aid has failed to deliver development in Pakistan. I do very much hope Dr Altaf’s book will be used in courses on development theory and practice, not only in Pakistan but worldwide.

This review appeared in the January 2016 issue of Herald magazine. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, (OUP, 2012), won the Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at the 2013 Karachi Literature Festival and the 2013 UBL-Jang Group Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at the Lahore Literary Festival. His latest book is Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), OUP, 2013.

So Much Aid

The book is available online from Readings in Pakistan (at a special price), Buyhatke in India and Amazon elsewhere.

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Faiz – 1: The City

November 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I ‘wrote’ a poem, The City, which appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on Monday, 30 November, 2015.

The poem is reproduced below followed by comments on its genesis, connections with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and some reflections on translating poetry.

The City

My city bedecks itself in fetters

The carefree walk
The careless talk

No more

The head held high
The feet unbound

No more

No more
I trust

Light from dark
Wine from blood
Joy from mourning

Flowers in my city
Wilt into the dust

After the Paris attacks, Brussels went into a lock-down that continued for a number of days. Faiz’s poem Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho (Look at the City from Here) came to mind and seemed to speak to the situation.

But how could one convey the sense of the poem in English? This brought forth the dilemma of translating poetry. Personally, I am skeptical it can be done especially if it were intended for an audience unfamiliar with the language of the original. (See this essay by Dick Davis on why this may be so: On Not Translating Hafez.)

A poem is not the sum of its words. It is not a vehicle to transfer meaning. Rather, a poem evokes feeling, sentiment, and mood. If I were to annotate the dictionary meaning of every word in a poem, the outcome would not be a poem. For a translation to work, it has to be a poem in its own right. And, this is what makes the task extremely difficult because the images, metaphors, idioms, and rhymes that work in one language do not carry over into another – they may for neighboring languages like Urdu, Hindi and Persian but not when the transition is from Urdu to English or Japanese. A translator must have near native proficiency in both languages to be able to find meaningful parallels. An example would be the metaphor of the owl which would make translating the following Urdu couplet into English very tricky:

har shaakh pe ulloo baitha hai
anjaam-e gulistaN kya ho ga

(an owl is perched on every branch
what will be the fate of the garden)

Going the other way, one could consider the opening lines from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by Keats:

St. Agnes’ Eve – Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl for all its feathers was acold;

The Urdu reader would certainly wonder what prompted the poet to choose the owl to open his poem with.

Recently I wrote a set of posts on Urdu (here, here, and here). In the commentary on the posts, I set out a challenge for the readers. It was to translate the following lines from Faiz into English for a reader not familiar with Urdu:

sabza sabza suukh rahii hai phiikii zard do-pahr
diwaaroN ko chaaT raha hai tanhaaii ka zahr

No one has responded yet but you can give it a try. Victor Kiernan has translated them as follows:

Listless and wan, green patch by patch, noonday dries up;
Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls

And Agha Shahid Ali, a very fine poet in the English language, has essayed the following translation:

On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.

Both these versions convey some of the meaning of the lines from Faiz but, in my view at least, they are literal translations and not English poems. What does ‘the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color’ convey to an English speaker who does not know Urdu? And what does ‘Pale solitude with venomed tongue licks at these walls’ call forth as an image for the same reader? The intensity of loneliness is captured powerfully by the metaphors used by Faiz but English must have its own metaphors that better reflect the aesthetic of its history and culture.

As I see it, the self-inflicted problem of most translators of Urdu poetry into English is that they seem to be doing so for readers familiar with both languages and, furthermore, as if the Urdu readers were constantly looking over their shoulders to judge their faithfulness or lack of it to the original. This predilection, in my view, has limited the appreciation of as major a poet as Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the non-Urdu speaking world.

Why would an Urdu reader need to read an Urdu poem in English when he/she has access to the much richer original? A translation is meant for those who do not know the language of the original and for them faithfulness matters relatively little. What matters is if the emotion, the spirit of the original, carries over and gives some inkling of what the poet was trying to convey in the original. In order to do so, the translation into a foreign language has to be a poem in its own right, good or bad being a secondary issue, consonant with the cultural and literary aesthetic of the target language. The venomed tongue of pale solitude licking the walls stutters on this count. It only works for those who are familiar with the lines in the original.

For myself, one without native proficiency in both languages, I wouldn’t even try and attempt to translate a poet like Faiz whose poetry is laden with context-specific images which breathe life into the emotions he so successfully evokes. Rather, I do away with as much of the imagery as possible and convey the bare-bone skeleton which remains to be dressed with the clothing of images. Hopefully, the skeleton would suggest to the non-Urdu speaking reader what the poet is trying to do and his/her own imagination would furnish the appropriate images and metaphors from his/her particular aesthetic milieu.

This is what I have attempted with ‘The City.’ I would not be so bold as to claim it a translation of Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho. ‘The City’ is a poem in English inspired by Yahan se Sheher ko Dekho for which the latter serves as a point of departure. It is for readers to say to what extent I have succeeded in capturing the spirit of the original.

For those who are interested, the poem by Faiz is reproduced below in Roman script (it can be read in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman scripts here):

YahaN se sheher ko dekho to halqa-dar-halqa
Khinchi hai jail ki soorat har ek samt faseel
Har ek rahguzar gardish-e-aseeraaN hai
Na sung-e-meel, na manzil, na mukhlisi ki sabeel

Jo koi tez chaley rah to poochta hai Khayal
Ke tokne koi lalkaar kyuN naheeN aayee
Jo koi haath hilaye to Wahem ko hai sawal
Koi chanak, koi jhankaar kyuN nahiN aayee?

YahaN se shehr ko dekho to saari khalqat meiN
Na koi sahab-e-tamkeen, na koi wali-e-hosh
Har ek mard-e-jawaN mujrim rasn ba gulu
Har ek haseena-e-raana, Kaneez-e-halqa bagosh

Jo sayay duur chiraghoN ke gird larzaaN haiN
Na janey mehfil-e-ghum hai ke bazm-e-jaam-o-saboo
Jo rung har dar-o-deewar par pareshaaN haiN
YahaN se kuch naheen khulta yeh phool haiN ke LahU

– Faiz (Karachi, 1965)

A translation into English by Naomi Lazard is as follows:

If you look at the city from here
You see it is laid out in concentric circles,
Each circle surrounded by a wall
Exactly like a prison.
Each street is a dog-run for prisoners,
No milestones, no destinations, no way out.

If anyone moves too quickly you wonder
Why he hasn’t been stopped by a shout.
If someone raises his arm
You expect to hear the jangling of chains.

If you look at the city from here
There is no one with dignity,
No one fully in control of his senses.
Every young man bears the brand of a criminal,
Every young woman the emblem of a slave.

You cannot tell whether you see
A group of revellers or mourners
In the shadows dancing around the distant lamps,
And from here you cannot tell
Whether the color streaming down the walls
Is that of blood or roses.

(Source for the transliteration and the translation by Naomi Lazard is here.)

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Meeting Oneself in Pakistan

January 20, 2015

By Vipul Rikhi


Towards the end of September 2014, the Kabir Project team went to Lahore to take part in the Kabir Festival organised by Aahang, a student body in the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Our visas hadn’t come through till the last minute and we hadn’t been sure of being able to go at all. But we finally made it. When we crossed the border at Wagah, we found bright, young students from LUMS waiting to receive us.

It was a wonderful one week that we spent there. We were overwhelmed by the love and warmth with which we were taken care of by the student volunteers. The air in Pakistan felt very alive with political and religious churning (Imran Khan was leading a massive protest rally against Nawaz Sharif while we were still there). We set up a photo and video exhibit of our work at the intersection of mystic poetry and folk music, showed films, participated in some classes, and sang the Kabir and Bhakti songs that we’ve learnt during the course of our own journeys.

The moment I wish to describe is the last evening of the festival, on October 2, when Dr Anjum Altaf, Dean of Humanities, took to the mike to thank us for our visit. He described in beautiful words how our relationship took shape. He said that we arrived as guests, became friends by the next day, and partners by the day after that, and now, by the last day, they were us and we were them. Truly, in that moment, as through the whole duration of our visit, all differences seemed artificial and arbitrary. We mingled together to form one stream. It felt appropriate that a Hindu bhajnik mandali from the Cholistan desert in Pakistan was invited to sing with us on that final evening. As Kabir says, “Ham sab maahin, sab ham maahin / Ham hain bahuri akela” (I’m in all, all are in me / I am many and alone).

Vipul Rikhi is a member of the celebrated Kabir Project in Bangalore. This comment was published in Aalaap magazine in Chennai and is reproduced with permission of the author.

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The Great Cities: A Pakistani Jeremiad

April 10, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

When I was in graduate school, in Baltimore, one of the poems I had to teach my own students was Robinson Jeffers’s “The Purse-Seine.” Among both my classmates and the undergraduates it was one of the least popular poems, which should perhaps have been no surprise, since we were encouraged to use it as an illustration of the term “jeremiad”: “a long literary work… in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” My reaction was more mixed – I liked Jeffers’s long lines; I liked his voice; I liked the imagery, the parallel between the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish and the lights of the city. The first two stanzas are seductive, almost hypnotic (“the crowded fish/know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent/water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame”) – and then, in the third stanza, comes this: (more…)

From Notified Criminals to Denotified Offenders

October 27, 2010

A brief history of the tribal experience in the colonial and modern era

By Vikram Garg

Eviction and ‘Notification’

How do you subjugate a continent of humanity? For the British colonialists, the answer was ruthless aggression. Between 1774 and 1871, the British engaged the various Indian states in a sequence of brutal wars, known collectively as the Anglo-Indian wars [1]. These wars not only set the stage for the colonial occupation of India, but in many cases also resulted in vast, settled populations becoming nomads in their own land [2]. Displaced from the ‘mainstream’ of society, many of these nomads and tribes sought revenge. What was the British response? In 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed. The Act notified certain tribes as being “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offenses” [3]. Examples included, the Boyas and Dongas of Tamil Nadu, and the Bedras of Maharashtra, all of whom had risen up in rebellion against the occupation [2]. (more…)

Making Democracy Work

August 12, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

If we wish democracy to work we need to open the democracy-box and tinker with the innards.

Let me illustrate what I mean with reference to an article that appeared recently. The gist of the article is as follows:

The people in Pakistan are angry and frustrated with their President and wish to see the last of him. But the President, no matter how unpopular, was appointed constitutionally and can only be removed constitutionally. The supporting logic is as follows: “If we accept that we want democracy, we cannot cherry-pick from the package. In the 2008 elections, I held my nose and voted for the PPP. There is not one party for which a sensible person would vote happily. Should we then invite the generals to take over?”

This leads to the conclusion that ‘democracy is the best revenge’: “And therein lies the solution, though banal and unsexy. Democracy, good or bad, is about the inevitability of gradualness. Throw them out when the time comes and punish them thus. That may beget another bunch of jokers but the very fact that elections constitute an accepted succession principle and there is an appointed day when the people can extract their pound of flesh, indicates progress. It makes leaders less arrogant and over time, instills in them a sense of what should be done and what avoided.”

I feel we need to go beyond the confines of this logic and this defense of democracy. Let me first reiterate a few observations that can be inferred from the article and then argue why we need to extend the argument further. The first aspect that strikes one is the characterization of the existing system: “There is not one party for which a sensible person would vote happily.” The second is the recommendation: Let each ‘bunch of jokers’ complete their term to beget another ‘bunch of jokers.’ The third is the logic supporting the recommendation: “elections constitute an accepted succession principle and there is an appointed day when the people can extract their pound of flesh.” The fourth is the outcome expected from the process: “it makes leaders less arrogant and over time, instills in them a sense of what should be done and what avoided.”  The fifth is the characterization of the process and hoped-for outcome as ‘progress.’ And the sixth is the alternative to this hold-my-nose merry-go-round of joker-swapping: inviting the generals to take over.

The first thing I would propose would be to put this theory to the test of experience? Two so-called bunches of jokers have had two turns each on the throne and the one having its third stint is the one people are allegedly fed up with. Where is the diminished arrogance and the sense of what should be done and what avoided that ought to have resulted from these rounds?  What do people have to show for the pounds of flesh they have extracted in each round? How many people in provinces/states with small populations can vouch for the progress that has resulted from the process? I would ask following question: If the jokers know that all they have to do is to sit out a term, should they really consider the pound of flesh a heavy price for the opportunity to abuse the trust assigned to them through the working of the prevailing form of democracy?

The second thing I would propose would be to extend the logic of the process into the future. How long does this swapping of jokers have to go on before there would be something to show for it? At the rate that resources are being siphoned off and the country run into the ground, would there be anything left to fight over by the time this form of democracy matures? What is the empirical basis for the hope in the ‘progress’ that is expected to follow from the process? If we simply give the system time would it surely sprout forth a miracle?

The third thing I would propose would be to question the logic of the defense of the existing democratic dispensation. Why should a dysfunctional system be tolerated in which there is no one party a sensible person can vote for and that only offers the prospect of swapping jokers according to a well-prescribed schedule? Must it be tolerated because the only alternative is a take-over by the dreaded generals? Why should we box ourselves into a scenario in which the only alternative to a dysfunctional democracy is a take-over by the generals?

I would argue that a sick democracy and authoritarian rule are not the only alternatives. I would also argue that ‘an accepted succession principle’ and ‘an appointed day’ when people can extract their ‘pound of flesh’ are not enough to justify the acceptance of a sick democracy.  Principles and appointed days and extractions are fine but it is results that should count in the end. Even in India, with over sixty years of uninterrupted and a relatively more healthy democracy, the progress has been meager for the majority. One third of the districts have lost faith in the democratic process, the states on the extremities are restive, and the rising middle class is developing a softness for more efficient alternatives. Even Indian democracy is squeezed from both ends and does not have forever to demonstrate that it can deliver the general progress that is expected of it.

I would propose that instead of shielding a dysfunctional democracy by posing the specter of dictatorship we should examine its modalities to ensure that it begins to actually empower the citizens. Any number of dimensions can be explored. For example, why should we have a first-past-the-post system? Why should we have Westminster-style democracy? Why should the democracy only offer the voters a choice between ‘jokers’? Why can’t there be a provision for write-in candidates? Why can’t there be a provision for a recall vote? Why can’t ministers be required to be vetted for appropriate qualifications by a neutral commission? Why can’t there be a provision for citizen-initiated ballots that would have the force of law? And, so on.

We cannot treat democracy as a black-box that is a take-it-or-leave-it alternative to dictatorship. ‘Democracy’ is an umbrella term for a system that rests on dozens of norms and procedural rules. These rules have to be examined and adapted and stretched for the conditions of each society that opts for a representative system of governance. The rules that are chosen should be the ones that put into the hands of citizens real choices and the means of exerting real accountability, not the dubious pleasure of swapping jokers according to an accepted principle on an appointed day. The configuration of democracy need not be the same in poor, semi-literate and heterogeneous societies as in affluent, fully literate and homogeneous ones. The rules left to us by the British are not sacrosanct – they can and must be revisited in the light of our own needs and experiences.

There is no alternative to democratic governance. But treating democracy as just the antithesis of dictatorship, being content with whatever we inherited, and hoping that a precisely timed succession of jokers according to an accepted principle would deliver a miracle would be shortchanging ourselves. We can do much better.