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December 8, 2019

End of the future?


December 8, 2019

Imagine that a session of the International Urdu Conference of the Arts Council Karachi is able to discuss a novel, in two or three years from now, that is inspired by the present rising of progressive students in Pakistan.

Imagine also that this novel, by some leading Urdu writer, has a character that you would identify as Iqbal Lala, father of a student who was lynched on a campus by a bigoted mob of fellow students.

This should be very possible in a society that has the capacity to reflect on its own existence and examine the cultural and political dilemmas of the present. But let me first tell you my reason for invoking this idea. Actually, I am trying to link together two important subjects that I have for this week’s column.

First, we should carefully look at the Student Solidarity March in the context of its build-up as well as consequences. Then, there is this immediate impact, also in a personal sense, of the 12th International Urdu Conference continuing this weekend.

Since the Urdu Conference is large and diverse in its presentations, my point of reference is only its inaugural session. It so happens that the linkage I have cited was clearly underlined by the two very erudite and intellectually invigorating keynote addresses by Shamim Hanafi and Harris Khalique.

One question that has lingered in my mind is whether literature and other manifestations of the creativity of a society in crisis are adequately responding to the challenges of our time and, in the process, strengthening our resolve to become more civilised and more human.

I need to talk a bit about Iqbal Lala to explain my grief over what and where we are. I have referred to the Student Solidarity March that was held in different cities on November 29, but its main gathering was in Lahore where the police have registered a case against the organisers and participants of the March on, yes, charges of sedition.

Iqbal Lala’s name is included in the FIR. He was there because the students were paying a tribute to his son Mashal Khan, who was lynched on the campus of Khan Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan over allegations of blasphemy. Charges of sedition against those who were essentially demanding freedom of expression and of association surely make no sense. And to rope in Iqbal Lala, who has earned our respect and love for his courage and commitment to progressive values, is inexplicable.

But that is what it is like in Pakistan. Reservations expressed by some ministers of Imran Khan have had no impact. Irrespective of how this case is handled, the idea obviously is to suppress dissent and create an environment of fear and intimidation.

In his keynote address, Harris Khalique, a writer and poet who is also secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, specifically spoke about this environment and why it could get worse if writers and intellectuals do not speak up against social injustices and it they do not give voice to the yearnings of oppressed communities.

His point was that if the media is muzzled and if a column cannot be published then a short story could also be censored. If an art installation is banned today then tomorrow this could happen to a mushaira. The message here is that art and literature have a social role and must raise awareness of the people.

At the outset of his remarks, Harris Khalique identified two fundamental crises that we face today: climate and society. Though he justifiably concentrated more on the state of society, in the mirror of our literary pursuits, the climate issue is no less alarming.

Coincidentally, a newspaper the same morning reported that the Global Climate Risk Index has now placed Pakistan at the fifth spot on the list of countries which remained most affected by climate change. Pakistan has jumped two places to take the fifth position in the 2020 report. Scary, isn’t it?

There are other measures of where we are placed in areas such as education, social harmony, media freedom, human development and economic well-being and on every front we seem to be in a deplorable position. It is difficult to assess our level of intellect, in a collective sense. But the indicators we have are very discouraging. That is why serious conversation at a potentially festive occasion like a literary conference tends to be so grim and gloomy.

Shamim Hanafi, veteran Urdu scholar who came from India, was equally thoughtful. He stressed the responsibility of writers and thinkers to make a sense of what he described the new age of darkness that we are entering, with reference to the pace of change and an environment of insecurity.

He referred to James Bridle’s highly regarded book, ‘New Dark Age: Technology and the End of Future’ to explain the consequences of the technological revolution and why it may be more frightening than we thought. James Bridle contends that an overload of information has hurt our ability to understand the world.

There is no doubt that globally and locally, we are confronted with very complex issues. In Pakistan, the additional challenge is to contend with obscurantism and intolerance. Unfortunately, our progressive advancement is blocked by an oppressive order that equates revolutionary aspirations for change with treason.

What can and should writers, poets, artists and thinkers do to liberate Pakistani society? This and other related questions are repeatedly raised in the literary festivals that are now being held in greater frequency and with larger participation. It is possible to see some signs of awakening, alternating with shades of darkness.

This is what we have witnessed in the case of the new stirrings among the progressive youth of the country. It is the state that has certified the power of the students’ movement by coming down so hard on it. Can brute force prevail in a world that is governed by ideas – as expounded by writers and poets?

The writer is a senior journalist.

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