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February 22, 2015

A dialogue with the past


February 22, 2015


Well, it is good to be in Lahore this weekend, now that the Lahore Literature Festival is there. Two weeks ago, Karachi’s older version had brought some cheer to a wounded city. A festival in which writers, readers and spirited members of the intelligentsia can come together is verily a rainbow in Pakistan’s cloud-laden sky. And Lahore appears to be a city more hospitable to a celebration of this kind than Karachi.
Ah, but I am unable to shed the thought on this occasion that Lahore is also the city that has banished Basant. It would tantamount, metaphorically, to outlawing spring. Only those who have had, not too long ago, an experience of sharing that intoxicating joy would know what it meant to the life of Lahore’s ordinary citizens. However, this LLF, with its pronounced elitist clientele, is still a whiff of spring in our cultural existence.
Writing these words in Karachi around noon on Saturday – and depressed by the outcome of our World Cup match with West Indies – I am prompted to refer to the LLF because of the peg that I have found in the published report of the inaugural session. As it is, I had wanted to write on the virtual absence of informed and sensible debate in the media on our present crisis. In the midst of the high-pitched chorus of support for the war against terrorism and the validity of the National Action Plan there is little serious deliberation on what we must learn from our recent history.
Incidentally, the keynote address at the inaugural session of LLF was delivered by a historian of the stature of Romila Thapar. She was introduced by Ayesha Jalal, our own distinguished historian who has chronicled Pakistan’s catastrophic journey into ideological wilderness. I think it is very appropriate for a literary festival to begin with, as Romila said, a “dialogue between the past and present”.
Let me quote: “In fact, present ideologies that form a premise of the nation-state are now in need of reassessment and

we must understand who we are, what we were and where we are going. [The] colonial thought process must be replaced by nurturing independent thought and investigation”.
This, to nurture independent thought and investigation, has been a forbidding task in our society. One would expect this intellectual exercise to flourish on the campuses of our institutes of higher learning. But there is no evidence that this is happening. One measure of this impoverishment is that in most of Pakistan’s universities, the department of General History just does not exist. We have been hiding from history, in a sense.
As far as the level of debate in the popular media is concerned, we can be sure that it is pedestrian and inconsequential. The irony, though, is that our media is obsessed with political debate. Almost all our leading politicians and a brigade of commentators – the usual suspects – are featured in our talk shows that have multiplied on our multiple news channels. What do they discuss in these talk shows and how edifying are their thoughts for at least their literate viewers?
An interesting coincidence it is that I read this column in The New York Times this week, titled: ‘Reviving art of debate in Israel’. In it, Yoni Cohen-Idov, identified as an international debating champion, is quoted as saying: “You notice it in everyday life, you notice on talk radio and on television, nobody lets the other person finish. Elected officials and media people in Israel, they don’t even try to say anything too complex or too deep because they know for a fact they’re going to be cut in 20 seconds”.
Irrespective of our genetic similarity with Israel, having been founded in the name of religion, we know that we lag miles behind Israel in our academic and cultural pursuits. Yet, the comment on the degeneration of the quality of debate at the popular level is very relevant. Columnist Jodi Rudoren has chosen this subject in the context of national elections in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his leading challenger Isaac Herzog have declined a news channel’s invitation to participate in a debate in the presence of leaders of other political parties.
Our problems with ideas and cogent interpretations of events are much deeper. In the first place, it is hard to engage in any meaningful discourse with our religious politicians and scholars who insist on playing a dominant role in our polity. One’s knowledge and understanding of religion and history is of no use because they are unwilling to accept any views that are contrary to their specific dogma.
In addition, the possibility of such a discourse is frightfully limited in an environment of extremism and intolerance. We live in a kingdom of fear. Hence, any objective investigation of the sources of terrorist violence with which we are confronted at this time is not part of the implementation of the overall plan of action. For instance, sectarian violence is now emerging as the urgent issue but our rulers tend to ignore its implications.
After all, sectarian terrorism has been brewing for about three decades and no concrete action was taken to go after the outfits that would openly claim responsibility. It was always easy to see where the incitement was coming from. Our national security policies also appeared to protect this drift. After December 16, 2014, we have the promise of change. Our army and civilian leadership has repeatedly assured that the war against terrorism and extremism is to be waged without any discrimination and that it will continue until final victory.
The point I have raised is that this is also a war of ideas. It is to be fought in the minds of our people. Unfortunately, this other war has not been planned. In any case, there is no evidence that our rulers have sought access to historians and social scientists and thinkers to enhance their understanding of the state of the nation and its complex issues. This investigation will necessitate an acceptance of the downfall of the ruling ideas that have governed our national sense of direction – and December 16, 1971 was a major landmark in this failed expedition.
So, as Romila Thapar said in Lahore on Friday, “We must understand who we are, what we were, and where we are going”. Answers to these questions will not be easy. It would be futile to raise them in a talk show, no matter who the panellists are. We may expect the debate to be initiated on our campuses. But ultimately, these questions must reverberate in the corridors of power with the intensity of a bomb blast.
The writer is a staff member.
Email: [email protected]




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