Arundhati Roy’s letter to her jailed comrade Shahidul Alam, who has now been granted bail

Arundhati-By Shahidul

Arundhati Roy with a furry friend. Photo by Shahidul Alam.

Read Arundhati Roy’s letter to Shahidul Alam as part of PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer, 15 November. Today the Dhaka High Court also finally granted bail to Shahidul Alam, been incarcerated for over 100 days. He has yet to be actually released — the government is appealing the court’s decision.

Every November 15 PEN highlights the cases of five persecuted writers and activists imprisoned, killed, persecuted or otherwise at risk for their work. This year’s campaign focuses on Dawit Isaak imprisoned in Eritrea, Miroslava Breach Velducea killed in Mexico, Oleg Sentsov imprisoned in Russia, Shahidul Alam detained in Bangladesh and Wael Abbas imprisoned in Egypt. Writers David Lagercrantz, Jennifer Clement, Tom Stoppard, Salil Tripathi and Khaled Hosseini are also participating in this year’s campaign. Continue reading

Harsh Mander and his vision of “a world of new solidarity”

My column in Himal Southasian, published 10 June 2016 –  Harsh Mander on why we should raise our voice against injustice

By Beena Sarwar

Photo : Beena Sarwar

Harsh Mander: Committed, consistent and soft-spoken. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Cross-border solidarity isn’t exactly a new idea. The rallying cry, “Proletarians of all countries, unite!…” that emerged in 1848 from The Communist Manifesto has resounded around the globe in many forms since it was first articulated.

Meeting Harsh Mander, one of India’s foremost activist-intellectuals and a courageous former civil servant, again revived the idea for me, but this time, beyond workers. I had first met the soft-spoken Mander in Karachi, when I worked for Geo TV. He had been part of a small delegation from India visiting Pakistan in early 2004, a visit aimed at improving understanding between India and Pakistan, organised by the social-cultural group Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD). Continue reading

Howard Zinn: from Pakistan with love and respect

The Zinn magic. Photo: Beena Sarwar

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of a cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness”

– Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s death on Jan 27 came as a shock to his friends and admirers around the world. The iconic historian, activist, and academic (Professor Emeritus, Boston University) was 87, frail, but in reasonable health. He had a heart attack while swimming, an activity he loved. As Arundhati Roy put it when she called his old friend David Barsamian of Alternative Radio: “Howard lived a glorious life and accomplished so much and to die swimming — what a way to go”.

Howard Zinn, Cambridge, Oct 2006 (photo: BJ Bullert)

David writes that Howard had rented a place with a swimming pool near the ocean for three weeks and “was thrilled to be escaping the dreaded Boston winter.”

A fluent Urdu/Hindi speaker, David sent this note to friends: “A light has gone out. There are new lights to be lit,” adding the following verse from Iqbal’s poetry:

Sitaron se aage jahan aur bhi hain
abhi ishq ke imtehan aur bhi
(Beyond these stars there are other galaxies
The real test of love is yet to come)

Continue reading

Arundhati ‘Pakistani’ and right-wingers ‘patriotic’

The FMP panel in Delhi, April 15, 2009

The FMP panel in Delhi, April 15, 2009. Photo: FMP

Panel members Arundhati Roy & Aniruddha Bahal. Photo: B. Sarwar

Panel members Arundhati Roy & Aniruddha Bahal. Photo: B. Sarwar


Beena Sarwar

“Shouldn’t Arundhati Roy come from Pakistan?” sarcastically asked a Delhi freelance journalist, commenting on the Facebook posting about a panel discussion, ‘Does Media Jingoism Fan India Pakistan Tensions?’ The cynical remark stemmed from his annoyance, shared by many, at Roy’s consistent exposure of India’s ‘warts’.

The panel, organised by the recently formed Forum of Media Professionals ( ), included four journalists from India besides the celebrated writer and activist Arundhati Roy as well as four Pakistani journalists and The Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent Nirupama Subramanian.

Delhi is far cleaner and greener since I was last there nearly five years go, thanks to laws (that are actually implemented) banning diesel and making CNG compulsory. On a more intangible level, another kind of pollution remains, reminiscent of a phenomenon we face in Pakistan: right-wing jingoism fuelled by emotional appeals to religion and nationalism.

The jibe about Arundhati Roy, disguised under an urbane sarcasm, is just one aspect of bigoted nationalism. Going by that logic, those in Pakistan who fight for justice — a struggle that necessitates exposing wrongdoings, or ‘washing dirty linen in public’ according to our critics — should represent India. Another aspect of such thinking is evident in the comments back home when I show my documentary ‘Mukhtiar Mai: The Struggle for Justice’, in Pakistan: “Why don’t you make such films about violence against women in India? Women there have these problems too.”

I wonder at this competitiveness that makes us feel self-congratulatory when we can point out how much worse the other is in some way.

Thankfully, not everyone takes this myopic view. In Allahabad, at a crowded meeting of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), there was none of this one-upmanship or finger pointing. The audience immediately saw the commonalities of the issues raised in the films I showed, on Pakistan’s flawed and discriminatory Hudood Laws and Mukhtiar Mai. They understood that the phenomenon in Pakistan of Taliban ‘punishing’ women for alleged transgressions is not much different from those who rape, kill or lynch women and couples for the sake of ‘honour’ in India itself or indeed in traditional communities in Pakistan.

The difference is that most of these ‘honour crimes’ are committed by relatives of the women who ‘transgress’, as opposed to the Taliban who are taking it upon themselves to enact these punishments as part of the imposition of their own criminal justice system that flouts the writ of the state.

Another difference is that the family in Haryana who hanged their daughter and the man she eloped with (in their own home) will be charged, tried and probably punished. In Pakistan, the ostensibly Islamic Qisas and Diyat (retribution and blood money) laws imposed by a military dictator in the 1980s allow the murder victim’s family members to ‘forgive’ the perpetrators who are often their own relatives.

As for the Taliban and their sympathisers, none have ever been charged for their criminal transgressions, ranging from blackening women’s faces on billboards, to disrupting public events in that involve women (remember the Gujranwala marathon?), to blowing up schools, killing teachers and dragging women out of their homes and murdering them for alleged ‘immorality’.

At the Allahabad meeting, the tone was set by senior advocate Ravi Kiran Jain in his introduction when he stressed on the need for a stable government in Pakistan, and the desire to remove misunderstandings. His words reminded me of Nirupama Subramanian’s appeal at the panel discussion in Delhi urging Indians to “be sensitive to Pakistan as a country that has problems and show moderation in we respond to these problems.”

Many Indians already understand this, but we don’t hear their voices in the media very often. For instance, Utpala, a women’s rights activist during the discussion in Allahabad talked about the need for Indians and Pakistanis to be allowed to visit each other’s countries. Her own visit to Pakistan many years ago, she said had expanded her ‘angan’ (literally, courtyard). She ended by asking, “How can we in India be happy until there is a pro-people, pro-women government in Pakistan?”

The Delhi panel was disrupted for a minute or so by one man at the back of the auditorium who stood up and shouted anti-Pakistan, pro-war slogans. The organisers threw him out. He turned out to be from the Sri Ram Sene, one of the faces of India’s right-wing ‘Sangh Parivar’, who . Three or four others were outside, whom the organisers had refused to allow entry as they were not signing their names in the register. The SRS, which does not otherwise have much presence in Delhi, later claimed it had sent ‘thirty’ men to disrupt the meeting.

True to form, illustrating the very issues we had been discussing, most media hyped up the disruption which then overshadowed the discussion itself. Pakistani journalists were ‘roughed up’, ‘attacked’, the meeting disrupted for ’15-20 minutes’ and so on. The incident set off a chain reaction across the border, giving right-wing forces in Pakistan the opportunity to condemn the ‘anti-Pakistan feelings in India’. A ‘human rights’ organisation held a demonstration against the ‘attack’. Jamat-e-Islami’s recently elected chief Munawwar Hasan promptly issued a statement saying that it should serve as an eye-opener to those who talk of friendship with India and they should refrain from visiting India (‘ba’az ajana chahiye’).

For such people, obviously the anti-Pakistan slogans raised by one miscreant are paramount over the dozens of people in the IIC auditorium who listened respectfully to the discussion and engaged in a dialogue with the speakers later. The people in Allahabad and at the Delhi Press Club a few days later who came to hear a Pakistani journalist and express their support for a democratic order in Pakistan also don’t count, even if some of them were prepared for a rough time, like Zafar Bakht in Allahabad who had lent his school’s auditorium for the event. “After hearing of the Delhi incident, we rolled up our sleeves and were prepared,” he said later.

In the end, the anti-Pakistan slogans raised by one miscreant hogged the media limelight rather than those who filled the auditorium, heard the speakers respectfully and engaged in dialogue later. This is the nature of the media beast. Who is going to tame it?

India trip, the ‘attack’ and some articles

Allahabad Chapter of PIPFPD: Comrade Kameshwar Prashad Agarwal

No disruptions at the Allahabad Chapter of PIPFPD, attended, among others, by Comrade Kameshwar Prashad Agarwal

Hello everyone, have been traveling with limited access to internet, hence the silence.

I was among the journalists at a panel discussion ‘Does media jingoism fan tensions between India and Pakistan?’ organised by Forum of Media Professionals at the India International Centre in New Delhi on April 15. The event got a lot of play because of misreporting.

The Indian media hyped up a minor disruption, reporting that the Pakistani journalists in the panel were ‘attacked’ or ‘roughed up’. The Pakistani media picked up on the photos and subsequently there were condemnations and even demonstrations in Pakistan about the ‘attack’.

To set the record straight, no one was roughed up or attacked. One man did disrupt the meeting – but very briefly, from the back of the auditorium. The organisers had turned away 3-4 men who refused to sign the register – he must have sneaked in. The discussion was half over when he stood up and started shouting anti-Pakistan, pro-war slogans (someone sitting near him said he’d just come in). The organisers pushed him out. TV cameramen and photographers followed.

Most papers and channels used photos and footage of the scuffle outside, rather than focusing on the discussion inside, which continued, despite the noise we could hear outside for a couple of minutes. The interruption lasted for maybe a minute or so. The discussion started at 10 am and continued till 1.30 pm. It turned out that he was from the Sri Ram Sene, the same group that tried to prevent Valentines Day celebrations in India, to whom thousands of people sent ‘pink chaddis’ in response.

The incident demonstrated what we had been talking about, that TV, being a visual medium, focuses on images rather than words. Hence their running after the scuffle rather than focusing on the discussion. This is the nature of the beast. Those keen to tame it might try organizing mass emails, letters and phone calls to demand meaningful change.

Here is Rahimullah Yusufzai’s article on the incident – `The good, the bad and the ugly’, The News, Apr 21, 2009 <>

Our visit also involved several other interactions with the media. Rahimullah Yusufzai, the veteran reporter from Peshawar was the most sought after for his views on Talibanisation, living as he does in the heart of the storm. Here is the link to a full page ‘idea exchange’ published April 19, a forum that The Indian Express regularly holds: “I don’t think we have reached a stage when the Taliban will take over Pakistan” – <>

I showed some of my documentaries at a meeting of the Allahabad chapter of the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) and at the Delhi Press Club, organised by Youth4Peace. Here are links to a couple of reports on the Press Club screening:

‘In Pakistan, change has to come from within, says journalist’ -Indian Express, Apr 20, 2009 – <>

`Pak journalist’s short take on women’s rights’, Mail Today, Apr 20, 2009 – <>

More later

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