Monday, November 26, 2007

An Interview with Pankaj Mishra

I have written here before about Pankaj Mishra. At that time, I had linked to his several years old three-part essay on Kashmir written for the NY Review of Books. In that piece I had been impressed by his evident passion to dig below the surface for truth and his caring and empathetic style. Over the years, he has had a special relationship with the NYRB as his non-fiction writing blossomed under the tutelage of that periodical's legendary editor Barbara Epstein.

Mishra continues to be one of the most thoughtful literary and journalistic voices in contemporary India. I enjoyed reading a detailed interview with him in "The Believer" magazine. (Thanks to Amitava Kumar's blog).


"--- but I think the reporter or journalist is well served by having a responsibility to the powerless, to use a much-abused cliché. The voice of the powerless is in some danger of not being heard in the elite discourses we now have in the mainstream media. This is something that I’ve learned late. Obviously, I write for a very elite audience, but is there something else that I’m also responsible to? People who write about issues like poverty or terrorism are a part of the elite, and the distance between the elite and nonelite is growing very fast. You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite. Yet their lives are being shaped by these elites, by people like us. I don’t mean this in a pompous way, but we have a responsibility to articulate their sense of suffering."

"--- some of my students seem to want to be able to write without actually reading, which seems utterly bizarre. When I assign certain readings, they often say, “I can’t relate to this,” which means whatever story we’re reading is so far outside of their experience—which tends to be limited—that they will not make the effort to understand what it is about. I find this a crippling attitude to have toward literature, toward history, toward all sorts of things.
Some of my students don’t have a sense of whether their writing is any good or not. They think it’s good just because it comes out of them and it’s a part of their being. To criticize their writing is to criticize them in some profound way. It’s as if they’ve been taught far too much self-confidence—and maybe not much else."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The New Pakistani Middle Class - New York Times

There is a very interesting article by David Rohde in the New York Times today titled "Pakistani Middle Class, Beneficiary of Musharraf, Begins to Question Rule " (registration required) about the changing dynamics of the Pakistani political scene.

Some excerpts:

As he fights to hold on to power, General Musharraf finds himself opposed by the expanded middle class that is among his greatest achievements, and using his emergency powers to rein in another major advance he set in motion, a vibrant, independent news media.

Since he took power, Pakistan’s gross domestic product has doubled. The number of cellphones has soared to 50 million, from 600,000 six years ago. The privatization of banks has led to a huge increase in the sales of cars, motorcycles and, perhaps most important, television sets. Globalization has taken hold, as it has in other countries.

That spreading economic success — and exposure to the outside world — has filled Pakistan’s white collar office workers, stockbrokers and small-business operators with a belief that their country can be more than the backward fief of a few generals, many said in interviews.
For decades, Pakistan’s moderate elite has been dismissed as “the chattering classes,” who have shied away from the political arena and rarely voted.

Instead the political system has been dominated by feudal landlords who could deliver huge blocks of votes from poor tenant farmers. The key to winning elections was striking the right alliances and spreading graft, not developing a coherent political platform or putting in place broadly beneficial social policies.

Yet the country is slowly changing, in ways that have left a growing number arguing that Pakistan is more prepared than ever for democratic rule.
This spring, the middle class vigorously supported a successful campaign by the country’s lawyers to reverse an attempt by General Musharraf to dismiss the country’s chief justice.

For now, greater mobilization is hobbled by a deep distrust of their political leaders and the United States. A perception is growing that the United States will betray middle-class Pakistanis — Washington’s greatest long-term ally in the fight against terrorism — and continue backing an unpopular military ruler who refuses to give up power.

Many said they believed that General Musharraf had tried to contain — but not eliminate — a dangerous rise in militancy in the country because it allowed him to garner billions in American military aid for Pakistan’s army.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Myth of Musharraf's "Sincerity"

Some well meaning Pakistanis (along with a much larger numbers of opportunists) continue to defend Musharraf's rule even after the November 3rd Martial Law. I have puzzled over this phenomenon of how people can continue to defend the indefensible (overthrow of an independent judiciary, trashing of the constitution, harsh repression of civil society and a gagging of the media). However, in many e-mails and conversations the remaining support for Musharraf seems to boil down to two connected statements: One, that Musharraf is still somehow the least worst option and second, that for all his mistakes he is sincere about building a better Pakistan.

I finally responded to a friend on why this view is wrong-headed and an incorrect framing of the issues. I have decided to share that response more widely given its potential relevance to a broader group(purging any personal details and after minor editing).
An Open e-mail:

The question of "sincerity" is wholly irrelevant to any discussion of Pakistan's political crisis. I have no idea whether Musharraf, Nawaz, Benazir, Imran or anyone else is sincere or genuinely cares about a better Pakistan. I can claim no special insight for looking into people's hearts to divine their 'true' intentions. The only things that I am able to base my judgments on are observable actions and outcomes geared towards the goals that I embrace. If the actions further these goals then I am supportive of those actions, if not I oppose them. If on balance individual leaders do more to advance these goals than to retard them compared with other political actors then they have my support.

Based on my view above, the fundamental question therefore is this: What are the goals and principles that we support and how is any individual leader measuring up in helping achieve these goals? The goals we should support include first and foremost, the strengthening of civilian state institutions and clear progress toward a rule of law based constitutional democracy ( i.e. an independent judiciary, right of people to elect and throw out their governments via a constitutional process, civilian supremacy over the armed forces and intelligence agencies), growth oriented economic policies with sustained social investments in basic education and health and a free and independent media.

How do I judge Musharraf on performing to these goals? A C- before November 3rd and an F after the second Martial Law. Since November 3rd, Musharraf has showed complete willingness to destroy every last vestige of independent Pakistani institutions for perpetuation of personal power, backed by the barrel of the gun. Even actions he was given credit for prior to November 3rd, such as support of a free media, have seen a complete reversal now when the media has refused to play his tune. Macroeconomic growth (without much trickle down, however) is the only silver lining of his 8 year autocracy but it has come at the price of institutional destruction, deep internal political instability, alarming rise in extremism and persistent US interference in all facets of Pakistan's governance to the point where the US Ambassador is a virtual Viceroy meeting government officials, political leaders, election commission officials and media organizations in trying to rescue a "failed state with nukes".

Musharraf equates his own personal interest with the national interest. National interest cannot be determined by an individual or the military. It can only be arrived at with the people's consent and with institutional checks and balances on the behavior of all political actors, including the military. He has been solely incharge for 8 years as a COAS and President with a rubber stamp parliament since 2002 but what greater measure of his failure to build any stable institutional structure that he still had to decapitate his own system by overthrowing the independent judiciary, shutting down the electronic media and locking up most of moderate civil society all while falsely claiming to have done this in the name of fighting terrorism. Are we supposed to take his word that he is sincere after his rigging a referendum, rigging 2002 elections, breaking promises to take his uniform off twice, letting the most corrupt politicians and feudals off the hook as long as they joined PMLQ or were willing to support him (BB recently, MQM since the beginning) and now unleashing despotic and illegal acts since November 3rd? How is this persistent pattern of tyrannical actions and political corruption consistent with the advance of institutions and a "true democracy"? After eight years of misrule, should we continue to wait for General Musharraf indefinitely to prove his sincerity despite accumulated piles of evidence to the contrary.

As part of Pakistan's educated class, I urge you to support principled positions rooted in institutions not individual saviors however well meaning. Choose long term goals over short termism and don't be easily seduced by facile arguments in favor of the rotten status quo in the name of pragmatism. Join the forces and build the capabilities of the developing Pakistani civil society that will provide a more robust check in the future to all errant rulers. You will see me advocating for the same positions when hopefully the constitution and democracy are restored and military is sent back to the barracks because the long term fight in Pakistan is for institutions and a rule of law based democracy not for individuals, whatever guise they come in. Whoever plays by the rules of the law and constitution deserves support, anybody who doesn't should be opposed. The heroes to look up to in this long term fight are people like Asma Jahangir, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Justice (r) Wajihuddin, Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim, Saeeduzaman Siddiqui and others in civil society who have always been in the forefront of this struggle and who have always paid a steep price for standing up for institutions and principle. This is the only way in which Pakistan has a hope of moving forward and overtime evolving a stable and democratically accountable polity.


Putin's Russia & Musharraf's Pakistan

Sergei Kovalev, a Russian biologist and former political prisoner is now an opposition politician. In the November 22nd issue of the New York Review of Books he has an excellent piece on the Vladimir Putin phenomenon in Russia and the paradoxical acquiescence of the people to autocracy. He roots much of the rise of Putin in Russia's political history but the applicability of his diagnosis of the problem to Pakistan surprised me. There are passages in the essay that could have been written about most countries (like Pakistan) with stunted and repressive political systems.

Here are some selections:

"Eleven hundred years of history have taught us only two possible relationships to authority, submission and revolt. The idea of peacefully replacing our ruler through a legal process is still a wild, alien thought for us. The powers-that-be are above the law and they're unchangeable by law. Overthrowing them is something we understand. But at the moment, we don't want to. We've had quite enough revolution."

"The members of the political elite are even more profoundly attached than the masses to the idea of the immutable dominance of the powers-that-be, because it is their own position that is in question. But infusing the values of the imperial state into the public mind is only an intermediate goal for the Russian political establishment. The main goal is to entirely eradicate European mechanisms of power transfer in Russia and to consolidate the Byzantine model of succession."

"What should be done if one cannot accept the Byzantine system of power? Retreat into the catacombs? Wait until enough energy for another revolt has been accumulated? Try to hurry along revolt, thereby posing another "orange threat," which Putin and his allies have used, since the 2004 Ukrainian elections, to frighten the people and themselves? Attempt to focus on the demand for honest elections? Carry on painstaking educational work, in order to gradually change citizens' views?

Each person will have to decide in his or her own way. I imagine—with both sorrow and certainty—that the Byzantine system of power has triumphed for the foreseeable future in Russia."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Poetry as an Antidote to "Rulers of the Masses"

This morning I have been listening to Iqbal Bano's beautiful rendition of Faiz's ghazal "Yeh mausam-e-gul garche" and thinking about poetry as the highest of art forms. The subtlety of thought and the economy of expression required for good poetry militates against a lazy, rambling and unstructured mind. The Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodksy starts his collection of critical essays "Of Grief and Reason" with a wonderful quote from W.H. Auden: "Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses, force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self."

It is in the terse reflectiveness of poetry that we, in Joseph Brodsky's words, "discover, in place of the anticipated consent and unanimity, indifference and polyphony; in place of the resolve to act, inattention and fastidiousness. In other words, into the little zeros with which the champions of the common good and the rulers of the masses tend to operate, art introduces a 'period, period, comma and a minus,' transforming each zero into a tiny human, albeit not always a pretty, face."

With that, here are some verses of Faiz's ghazal mentioned above from "Sham-e-Shehr-e-YaaraN" that precipitated this reverie:

Yeh mausam-e-gul garche tarab khez bohat hai
Ahwaal-e-gul-o-lala gham angez bohat hai

Ik gardan-e-makhlooq jo har haal meiN kham hai
Ik bazoo-e-qaatil hai keh khooN rez bohat hai

Kyoon mish'al-e-dil Faiz chupao tahe damaN
Bujh jaye gi yooN bhi keh hawa tez bohat hai

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mohsin Hamid on NPR & Solidarity with Justice Bhagwandas

Mohsin Hamid reflected on the the crackdown on civil society in Pakistan on NPR's show Morning Edition on November 9th. I am glad that a Pakistani of his prominence, who has flirted with the "good Musharraf" in his past, is supporting the civil society's struggle unambiguously.

Also, I received an e-mail from a lawyer friend in Pakistan about an event in Islamabad that was held to honor Justice Bhagwandas on the occassion of Diwali. I was quite touched by the sentiment of the caption under the picture he sent me:

"Citizens of Islamabad gathered outside Civil Junction to celebrate DIWALI in solidarity with the Honourable Justice Rana Bhagwandas, our courageous 'Prisoner of Conscience' who was forced to celebrate this significant event at home. Thank you, honourable Bhagwandas and the 6 other honourable judges for giving 'hope' to our children. We will always be grateful to you and you will live forever in history."

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Struggle for Rights

Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed - else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.
~Dwight D. Eisenhower

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
~Thomas Paine

Photo Credit: Protest at LUMS(from the NY Times)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Asma Jahangir's Appeal to Support Lawyers and Judges in Pakistan

Asma Jahangir has sent out an urgent e-mail appealing to bar associations all over the world to support the imprisoned lawyers and judges of Pakistan. This is indeed a heartbreaking situation that demands that civilized people all over the world join forces to defeat Musharraf's forces of oppression and terror. Please read her appeal and support Pakistani civil society any way you can. She is a true hero and as long as there are courageous and principled people like her in Pakistan I refuse to lose hope.

Election announcements from Musharraf are useless and the elections under him have no credibility. The constitution and judiciary have to be restored as they were on November 2nd before any elections can take place. There can be no democracy built on the ruins of a destroyed judiciary.


Asma Jahangir

Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions(Since August 1998)

Subject: Fwd: from asma jahangir

I am fortunate to be under house arrest while my colleagues are suffering. The Musharaf government has declared martial law to settle scores with lawyers and judges. While the terrorists remain on the loose and continue to occupy more space in Pakistan, senior lawyers are being tortured.

The civil society of Pakistan urges bar associations all over the world to mobilize public opinion in favor of the judges and lawyers inPakistan. A large number of judges of superior courts are under arrest. Thousands of lawyers are imprisoned, beaten and tortured.

In particular the cases of Muneer A Malik, Aitzaz Ahsan, Tariq Mahmood and Ali Ahmed Kurd are serious. Muneer A Malik, the former President of the Supreme Court BarAssociation and leader of the lawyers' movement has been shifted to the notorious Attack Fort. He is being tortured and is under the custody of the militaryintelligence. Tariq Mahmood, former President of the Supreme Court BarAssociation, was imprisoned in Adiala jail. No one was allowed to see him and it is reported that he has been shifted to an unknown place. Mr. Ali Ahmed Kurd, former Vice Chair of the Pakistan Bar Council is in the custody of military intelligence and being kept at an undisclosed place. Mr. Aitzaz Ahsan, President of the SupremeCourt Bar is being kept in Adiala jail in solitary confinement.

Representatives of bar associations should approach their governments to pressure the government of Pakistan to release all lawyers and judges and immediately provide access to Muneer A Malik, Tariq Mahmood, Ali Ahmed Kurd and Aitzaz Ahsan. The bars are also urged to hold press conferences in their country and express their solidarity with the lawyers of Pakistan who are struggling to establish the rule of law.

Asma Jahangir

Advocate Supreme Court of Pakistan

Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Struggle for a New Pakistan in the Shadow of Tyranny

A combination of distractions had kept me away from this blog for a few months despite having queued up a number of things I had been meaning to write about such as a piece on Quarratulain Hyder and one on Pakistani writers in English. Depressed by the shenanigans of BB and the politicians, NRO and the sham Presidential elections I just couldn't muster the enthusiasm to even consider writing about Paksitan but then ----

this past Saturday Musharraf defaulted to a state of naked tyranny, declaring a martial law, decapitating the independent judiciary, killing off the independent media and declaring open war on all forces of civility, honor and decency in the country. For a few days I was just glued to Geo TV (which Pakistanis are deprived of) in a virtual state of shock. I still find the hubris, "beghairati" and gall of Musharraf's actions hard to believe. But there it was, Jinnah's Pakistan reduced to worse than a banana republic by a tinpot despot given too much rope by a short-sighted American government.

But now is the not the time to dwell on how we got here. Now is the time to take an uncompromisingly clear position: these actions of a self-styled savior, supported by his political minions and cowardly, kleptocratic generals will not be allowed to stand. If there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it is in the pictures of resistance that are pouring out of Pakistan. The country should be justifiably proud of its judges, lawyers, human rights activists and students who are showing tremendous courage and paying a steep price for their honorable resistance to tyranny. They are Pakistan's heroes and it fills my heart with joy to know that the country has so many sons and daughters who are willing to pay the price of liberty, even in the complete absence of credible and principled political leadership. It is now up to all Pakistanis and their well wishers to support these heroes with everything at their command to return Pakistan to full constitutional democracy and to send the forces of military dictatorship back to their appointed role under the Constitution.
Here are a few things I want to post as resources that may be helpful to those who get to this blog:

1) Live audio and video streams of GEO TV:

2) Collection of invaluable information on Martial Law 2007 with news, petitions, campaigns, testaments, images, details on detainees and more:

3) Teeth Maestro's Blog which according to the NY Times has become a "hive of information for the resistance" at (LUMS protest, Imran Khan's video from an undisclosed location,'s petition etc.)

4) "The Emergency Times" blog with details on student resistance and protests on college campuses including LUMS, Punjab University, FAST etc.)

5) Another great source of aggregated information on the Pakistan crisis and its global coverage

6) Another petition organized by a group called "We oppose emergency in Pakistan"

7) The following letter was sent by the South Asian American Forum to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate:
November 6, 2007

Dear Member of Congress:

South Asian American Forum Action Fund ("SAAF Action Fund"), affiliated with the South Asian American Forum, a legally registered, bipartisan political action committee consisting of community and business leaders united behind a progressive policy platform, strongly condemns the actions of General Pervez Musharraf and his government for what is, in effect, a second Martial Law imposed by the General who took over the country in a coup in 1999. We urge the US government and elected officials to call for an immediate return to full Constitutional Democracy in Pakistan.

On Saturday November 3, 2007, General Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan as well as its Chief of the Army Staff, declared a state of emergency and issued a "Provisional Constitutional Order" (PCO). Under this PCO, General Musharraf suspended that country's 1973 Constitution depriving the people of Pakistan of their fundamental rights and preventing the actions of his government to be challenged in the Courts. The justices of the Supreme Court of Pakistan were ordered to take a fresh oath to abide by the PCO. The Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and seven other justices issued their own legal order calling General Musharraf's declaration of emergency unlawful and urged military officials not to act on unlawful orders. General Musharraf then dismissed Chief Justice Chaudhry and in his place swore in a pro-Musharraf member of the Supreme Court as the new Chief Justice.

In addition, all independent and international TV channels in Pakistan were forced off the air by the government. Thousands of civil society activists and lawyers have been arrested, including the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Chairman of the Supreme Court Bar Association. Interestingly, even though General Musharraf suspended the country's Constitution after declaring emergency and fired the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he did not dissolve the pro-Musharraf Parliament. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, announced on State TV on Sunday that the parliamentary elections due in January 2008 could be postponed by up to a year under the PCO.

Specifically, we urge you to support the following measures towards restoration of full Constitutional Democracy in Pakistan:

1) Immediate revocation of the state of emergency and the PCO and re-establishment of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan

2) Reinstatement of Justice Chaudhry as the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the reinstatement of all supreme and high court judges who have refused to take oath under the PCO (Justice Chaudhry was dismissed by General Musharraf in March of this year and was later reinstated as Chief Justice by the Supreme Court's special bench)

3) Timely return of the normal constitutional process by regular dissolution of the Parliament and provincial assemblies and holding of free and fair elections under a neutral caretaker administration supervised by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. These elections are to be held by January 2008 at the latest under Pakistan's Constitution

4) Active participation of all political parties and their leaders in the new parliamentary elections

5) Election for the President of Pakistan by the new parliament and provincial assembliesThe

United States and its people have always stood for freedom and democracy around the world. In addition, we believe that in the long term the fight against terrorism will be ill served by backing governments that take away democratic rights from their people. The situation today in Pakistan is such that the US government is stuck dealing with a single individual and is not being seen as a friend of the country or the democratic aspirations of its people. Pakistan remains a front line ally in the War on Terror but we believe that only a democratic government with its roots in the people of Pakistan can effectively fight terrorism while reducing the acute political uncertainties gripping the country. The US government and Members of Congress should act to push for the re-establishment of full Constitutional Democracy in Pakistan.