Posts Tagged ‘JNU’

Faiz 5: A Tribute to Kanhaiya Kumar

March 6, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Bol)

Now is the time to speak

Lips not sealed
Body unbroken
Blood coursing still
Through your veins

Now is the time to speak

The iron glows red
Like your blood
The chain lies open
Like your lips

Now is the time to speak

For the tide of life runs out

For truth and honor shall not wait

Say all that needs be said this day

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem can be accessed in Urdu, Hindi and Roman here.

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For the Students and Faculty of JNU

March 5, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

For the Students and Faculty of JNU
(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s dar-e umiid ke daryuuza-gar)

Cursing, hurling vile abuse
They came to tarnish, ravish, debase
Parade the tatters of our soul
As emblems of their rule

Hordes swarm the streets
Goose-stepping, flaunting steel
Threatening, intimidating those
Who dare refuse to keel

We collect the shreds they tore
Dyed red in our blood
Sew them back in a banner
Bigger, brighter than before

Faiz’s poem can be accessed in Urdu, Hindi, and Roman here.

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Nergis Mavalvala and Umar Khalid

February 23, 2016

I admire Dr. Nergis Mavalvala as much as the next person. Anyone with a similar track record and set of accomplishments deserves to be admired. What I find incongruous is the Pakistani media taking ownership of those accomplishments simply because she was born and educated up to high school in Pakistan.

There are so many ironies here that it is painful to even point them out. To start with, Dr. Mavalvala has given up Pakistan – by her own admission she has not visited Pakistan much in the last thirty years since she left after high school. No blame is to be attached to her on that account – if she wanted to be and progress as an astrophysicist, she could not have done so in Pakistan.

But beyond that, there was really no reason for her to visit Pakistan since most of her immediate and extended family had settled abroad. Nergis Mavalvala left Pakistan since it could not provide an education in astrophysics – that is typical of poor countries. But Pakistan closed the door to her involvement with the country by divesting itself of her entire immediate and extended family, indeed an entire community, as well – a community that had a tremendous contribution to the civic, aesthetic, and corporate culture of Pakistan. That eventuality had very little to with poverty and everything to do with intolerance. It is indeed odd to drive an entire community away and then lay claim to its accomplishments.

Consider next how fortunate Nergis Mavalvala was to have attended high school in the best institution in Karachi. Would she have achieved as much if the luck of the draw had consigned her to Government Girls High School No. 2 in Abbottabad? Or, if out of financial necessity or misplaced love for Pakistan, she had continued on at DJ Science College instead of going on to Wellesley? Could one stretch the logic to claim that she would have been even more fortunate if she had been born and attended high school in the US in the first place?

What exactly are we celebrating when the truth of the matter is that Pakistani schools and colleges are holding back if not entirely suffocating hundreds of potential Nergis Mavalvalas every year? Nergis Mavalvala was among the lucky few who escaped the destiny of the majority of students in the country. Isn’t that the real question that needs to be asked when reflecting on the achievement of Dr. Mavalvala?

Consider how Nergis Mavalvala became interested in her subject in the first place:

I was pretty young when I started to learn about the night sky. I used to live in the Clifton neighbourhood in an apartment building and would go to the rooftop of the building on certain nights of the year when there were meteor showers and look at meteorites … I had this kind of typical wonder about the universe. I was also extremely interested in how the universe began. That was formed because I did not believe in any other religious explanation for these things even as a child.

Imagine a promising student of science at a college in Pakistan stating that he or she did not subscribe to any religious explanation for the creation of the universe. The very attitude that Nergis Mavalvala identifies as the cause of her later achievements would have led to a fate worse than death for the Pakistani student. Once again, what exactly is being celebrated when the curiosity that is essential to scientific endeavor is simultaneously condemned as tantamount to blasphemy?

This kind of schizophrenic blindness and unexamined duality is rife in Pakistan. Take, for example, the boastful claim that Indian classical music owes its greatness almost entirely to the contribution of Muslims while at the same time insisting that music is un-Islamic? Amir Khusro is Hazrat Amir Khusro when accomplishments are to be appropriated while he is at the same time the inventor of the accursed sitar and table that contributed to destruction of Muslim rule in India.

Shamsheer-o-sana awwal/Taoos-o-rubab aakhir
(First the sword and the spear/At the end the zither and the lute)

Just a little bit of study into the history of music and of the Mughal Empire in India would show how bogus and misplaced such claims are. Not surprisingly, we have eliminated the study of history from the curriculum, there are no worthwhile doctoral programs with qualified faculty to supervise research, and no students who would want to risk their lives with unsafe subjects that would brand them as anti-national and anti-religious at the outset of their careers. At the same time, people hold on to very strong opinions without wanting to subject them to any kind of open inquiry. Even asking a simple question might help initiate a promising discussion if thinking were encouraged as a safe habit: Why was the Mughal Empire in India replaced by the rule of those whose religion allowed not only music but dance and wine much more and openly so compared to that of the Mughals? One might uncover some new and surprising aspects of our history just as Dr. Mavalvala uncovered some new aspects of gravitational waves.

We will never do so because the very act of thinking has become synonymous with being anti-national in Pakistan. There is no protection for the questioner from the guardians of the faith and no safe space for questioning like Government College, Lahore used to be in the 1940s. That India is in the danger of following suit was a point articulated very eloquently by Umar Khalid during the on-going controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. It was quite fitting for him to conclude his address with the call “Anti-nationals of the world unite.”

Thinking of Umar Khalid, imagine a student making a speech like his on a campus in Pakistan. Imagine him or her saying what Umar Khalid said including the statement that he did not think of himself as a Muslim. What would his or her fate be?

Let us celebrate the achievements of Dr. Nergis Mavalvala by all means, keeping in perspective that such achievements are the norm in institutes of higher education in countries where students and researchers are allowed to think and question all orthodoxies. But more than that, let us use the occasion to reflect on why everyone who wants to think independently has to leave Pakistan or fear for their lives to do so. Let us reflect on the need for a protected space like that of Jawaharlal Nehru University and heed the words of Umar Khalid at the same time.

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Reflections on JNU, India and Pakistan

February 19, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

The ongoing row at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) reminded me of the following statement by Vir Sanghvi: “the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense” (The same people? Surely not). I am not convinced of this claim and believe that the underlying social and attitudinal propensities in both countries (towards violence, religion, and nationalism, for example) remain fairly alike. It is only accidents of time and place that lead to seemingly differing outcomes in the emergent landscapes.

I explored this argument earlier in a couple of posts (How Not to Write History and Pakistanization of India?) and the response to the recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) strengthens my conviction further.

Despite its very different political trajectory, India is repeating the patterns observed in Pakistan albeit with a considerable lag in time. We have already seen the injection of religion in politics and now, apropos of JNU, we are seeing manifestations of hyper-nationalism and the use of student proxies of political parties to crush dissent and intimidate opposing voices in universities and courts.

The interesting question for an outsider is why this is happening in India today. The answer points to another one of the contingent events of history. It seems that with the election of Narendra Modi a number of factors have come together in India – the rule of a party with a foundational commitment to a conservative ideology that it believes needs to be universally imposed, a visceral dislike for dissent that it deems anti-national, and the undiluted power to attempt to enforce its preferences. These elements might have existed individually or in pairs before but have never come together as they have now with the outright mandate obtained by the BJP in 2014 that relieves it of the need to placate coalition partners.

In Pakistan, the commitment to a conservative ideology was present almost from the outset, the crackdown on dissenting voices followed soon after, but it was only with Zia ul Haq that the there was a long enough period of unchallenged authority to push the ideological agenda to the maximum and change the contours of society for the generations that followed.

In this context watching and hearing what is happening in India today is like replaying an old Pakistani movie. Consider the Home Minister – stating “If anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared,” attributing the incident to the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), and pressing for charges of sedition. Observe the violence in the premises of a court and the passive role of the police. Consider the sentiment of the MLA caught on video in an act of violence stating he would shoot protesters if he had a gun and articulating his understanding of patriotism: “As I was leaving the court I saw a man raising anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. I lost my cool, like any patriot, and asked him to shut up.” Add to that the government’s hastily passed mandate to hoist the national flag on a 207 feet mast in all central universities in order to better instill the spirit of nationalism in all who may pass thereunder. “Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice would have said.

Seventy years of very different political trajectories in the two countries seem to have yielded very little behavioral variation. To remove any lingering doubts tune in to the talk shows with their indignant anchors with flashing eyes and heaving chests and panelists flinging accusations and determined to prevent anyone from responding. Clearly both countries have yet to evolve to the state where the etiquette of debate precludes shouting. As for the JNU incident itself, going by Pakistani precedents, it would not be a surprise if it eventually transpires that the entire episode was planted and provoked in order to provide an excuse to crack down on those not towing the official line and to send a signal to dissenters in other universities.

Related to this incident, there is, of course, one obvious difference between India and Pakistan and that pertains to the size and scope of the resistance encountered by the state to the use of strong-arm tactics. Once again, this is a contingent outcome owing itself to the fact that an institution like JNU with its tradition of open discussion has survived through all these decades. Similar institutions in Pakistan had their freedoms curtailed and faculties emasculated much earlier leading to the critical loss of public space in which to challenge official dogma in relative safety. At this time it would be hard to imagine a sizable group of students in any public university in Pakistan sufficiently trained to interrogate the convictions and prejudices with which they entered the institution. That this was not always the case is exemplified by the role of students in ending the military rule of Ayub Khan in the 1960s.

This seems precisely the reason why JNU, the premier institution promoting an open investigation of history and politics in India, has been targeted. If the tide can be rolled back in JNU, India will be well on its way to catching up with Pakistan. One can deem it a tribute to JNU that three members of the student wing of the RSS at the university are reported to have resigned in protest against the response of the state. In support of the thesis advanced in this post they have expressed apprehension at the ‘Talibanization’ of India.

It is hard to avoid the impression that if the BJP had its way it would like nothing better than to crush JNU. In this endeavor it seems to have some popular support voiced by those who believe that an institution subsidized by taxpayer funds should not be allowed to question the actions of the state. Once again, this is an opinion shared with that of the majority in Pakistan. However, there does exist more resistance in civil society in India and, unlike Zia ul Haq, Narendra Modi has to go back to the electorate in a few years. What will happen in the interim is up for grabs and what will happen after the elections is unknown. With a little bit of luck it still remains possible for India to escape Pakistan’s fate although its government seems hell-bent on erasing all differences.

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