May Day and Eid greetings: Solidarity with workers around the world and Southasia

It was activist friend Kavita Srivastava in Jaipur who suggested focusing on ‘Labour Rights and Democracy’ for our April event ahead of May Day. Like all Sapan events since launch in March 2022 – the Southasia Peace Action Network – this was also on the last Sunday of the month.

As usual, we live-streamed the discussion on FB – video at this link. We truly appreciate all the ‘likes’, comments and shares that help ensure that our voices are heard amidst the din.

Thanks to old friend and talented musician Arieb Azhar in Islamabad for agreeing to sing at the last minute. Dhonobad Khushi Kabir in Dhaka for transliterating the first verse of the workers’ anthem, The Internationale in Bangla for him. She knows them all by heart. Arieb also sang some of his own verses in Urdu, reflecting contemporary realities. He’s doing an English translation to add. Here’s the clip – thanks Priyanka Singh in Delhi for uploading it so fast.

Priyanka has a great affinity for music and poetry – she was reciting a poem at the online PIPFPD event in January 2021 where I first ‘met’ her. Not surprised she also took time out to post the extempore song by young Lucky Akter in Dhaka ended her presentation with. A former former student activist working with Bangladesh’s oldest and largest peasant organisation, Lucky’s stirring call for rights is lovely even if you don’t understand Bangla.

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Pakistan Constitution upheld – for now

Rajdeep Sardesai: A stable Pakistan is in India’s interests. Screenshot by Tej Kaul from yesterday’s show.

Thanks to the Pakistan Supreme Court for the unanimous judgement upholding the opposition’s right to a no-confidence motion and declaring as void the ruling party’s attempt to dissolve the assembly and hold fresh elections. The situation had many of us on tenterhooks given its potential to disrupt the democratic political process that has only just begun taking hold in the country.

Since 2008, only two cycles of elected governments have completed their term and handed over power to the next one without the assemblies being dissolved. Imran Khan was the third political leader to grasp the baton of this relay. If he passed the baton on to the next elected government that would be a historic hat-trick in Pakistan’s history and hopefully strengthen the process and pave the way for it to continue. He can still redeem himself by doing that after losing the no-confidence move on Saturday and stepping into the opposition.

Of course elections aren’t the be-all and end-all of a democratic political process. But as the wise know, the process is crucial. As a sportsman, Imran Khan should know that the game is only an event that needs an ongoing, continuous process of rigorous, consistent training.

Unfortunately the former captain of the Pakistan cricket team has turned out to be a sore loser. My commiserations to his supporters, many of whom had placed their hopes in him to improve the system. They need to recognise that an individual can’t do this alone. He has to work with others, and needs to pick the right people for his team. And stay in the game.

I shared my views on Al Jazeera last Sunday, and yesterday on a panel discussion with Rajdeep Sardesai at India Today, both linked here.

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From the Zia dark years in Pakistan to the ‘hijab row’ in India

I was initially hesitant to add my two bits to the ‘hijab row’ in India about which so much has already been written. But I’m glad I did – gained a lot of insights and info that I tried to share with a wider audience. Thanks to Ullekh NP, Executive Editor at Open Magazine in India for prodding me. Published 25 Feb with the headline Hijab Row in India: Just Like Us, with a powchaerful illustration copied below. I’m thrilled that my SAWM sisters, the South Asian Women in Journalism, liked it enough to share it on their website under Article of the Day category. Posting the essay below with materials not used in the Open article, including my 1983 (or was it ’82?) piece in The Star with my own illustrations, HUNDRED AND ONE USES OF A CHADDAR, and link to Fahmida Riaz reciting her poem.

Illustration by Saurabh Singh for Open Magazine

WOMEN ACROSS SOUTH Asia and beyond have for centuries loosely covered their heads and bosoms, regardless of religion, shielding themselves from unrelated men as well as from the hot sun.

Those entering the work force in urban areas have been quicker to shed traditional attire. Those who find these changes threatening sometimes find ways to keep women in their place. Religion offers a convenient pretext.

The more conservative Muslim women in South Asia also traditionally wore a burqa, more all-enveloping than a chaddar or dupatta. My grandmother in Allahabad, U.P., used to wear a brown burqa that she discarded eventually in Karachi.

Growing up in Pakistan under the military dictatorship of Gen. Ziaul Haq, 1977-88, women like me have first-hand experience of such tactics. We watch in horror as shadows of the ZIa dark years seem to spread across the border into India.

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RIP Saquib Hanif: A meticulous editor, generous friend, passionate cultural aficionado

Death brings people together. I had known Saquib Hanif and his wife Nadia Chundrigar for years in Karachi without really knowing them. We spent a lot of time together when they came to Boston 2015 for the funeral of Saquib’s childhood buddy, the brilliant Nasser Hussain, younger brother of one of my old school friends. Now, it is Saquib’s sudden death, aged just 57, that brings us together again.

Thanks to The News on Sunday for asking me to write his obituary, published on the same page as another obituary, of Tasneem Siddiqui, the top former ‘pro-people” bureaucrat and social activist who died recently from a cardiac arrest, aged 82. We had run into him at the Karachi Gymkhana just a couple of weeks earlier. He had attended a meeting on the morning he died.

In the process of working on Saquib’s obituary, I talked to old friends Amra Ali and Salman Rashid – their contrasting views of Saquib would no doubt have amused him greatly. Also sharing Salman Rashid’s lovely video – he had talked to me about these aspects of Saquib the day before recording it.

I took the photos below the day Saquib and Nadia were leaving. There was intense grief, and yet we found it within ourselves to laugh.

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Remembering Hal Gould, a friend of South Asia


I wrote this piece recently about someone I was honoured to consider a friend although we never met. Hal Gould came to mind when we launched Sapan, the South Asia Peace Action Network, earlier this year. I knew he was over 90 by then, a few years older than my late father Dr M. Sarwar, who Hal had felt an affinity with. We’re in a pandemic and I hadn’t heard from him in a while.

Hal and I had been in touch since early 2008 after he read my op-ed in Dawn, An inconvenient truth” (Feb. 22, 2008) about Pakistan’s ‘return to democracy’, marking the country’s first-ever peaceful electoral transfer of power. He had quoted from it in his column for the then newly launched online magazine South Asia Monitor, in which he urged America and the world to allow democracy to take root in Pakistan without outside interference.

My piece had emerged in response to an American friend’s outraged comment: “What kind of democracy is it that puts the fate of the country in the hands of a Nawaz Sharif and an Asif Zardari?” Trying to put the issue in context, I had written: “It’s surely not worse than a democracy which puts the fate of America – and the world – in the hands of a George W. Bush… TWICE!” I added that India had twice elected a right-wing BJP government-backed by religious militants. This was, of course, before Trump and Modi.

Interesting times, these. As a scholar who has done seminal work on caste in India, I am sure Hal would have had something to say about the Dismantling Hindutva conference taking place this weekend that is under massive attack from those who refuse to distinguish between Hindus and Hindutva…

Then came the sad update about his stroke, followed by news of his passing – shared by his son to the Friends of Hal email list that Hal used to post to. I found it hard to put the piece together in the middle of all that was going on but I felt Hal deserved a proper remembrance.

Hal’s son Armeen eventually sent around an obituary which I’ve drawn from, including a list of the books Hal authored. For the photos I’m indebted to historian Richard Barnett – who I had interviewed years ago for The Frontier Post – who connected me with another friend of Hal and of South Asia, Philip McEldowney at University of Virginia who dug about and sent some.

Obituary on Hal Gould in South Asia Monitor, cross-posted to our recently launched Sapan website. Rest in peace Hal. We will keep learning from you.

Here’s the full piece:

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The continuing trauma of Kashmir

Sharing below a press release rejecting India’s continued violations of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir – from the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), the region’s largest and oldest people-to-people organisation, launched in 1994.

Also below – a PDF of the just-released report by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, an informal group of concerned citizens including retired Indian judges and armed forces personnel. The Forum aims to ensure attention to continuing human rights violations in the disputed region that both India and Pakistan claim. This is its third report.

#WIthKashmir – courtesy PIPFPD
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Tribute to a nationalistic hawk-turned-peacemonger with a SouthAsian vision

Lahore, 1992: Dr Syeda Hameed with Dr Mubashir Hasan, uncle, comrade and mentor. Photo by Reza Kazim.

With the world in the grip of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to find space for anything else. As horrors unfolded in country after country, exposing the hollowness behind military might, glittering capitalist facades, and exploitation, a gentle soul slipped into the hereafter at his house in Lahore. At 98, he had spent the last half of his life fighting for exactly the kind of egalitarian, people centered system that would have mitigated the ravages of Covid-19. There have been some wonderful tributes to Dr Mubashir Hasan. Two of the best I’ve seen are by his old friend I.A. Rehman and Indian journalist Nirupama Subramaniam in Indian Express, also published in Aman Ki Asha.

Below, my tribute to Dr M. in The News on Sunday last weekend, a follow up to my piece in The Wire earlier. Also below, two previously unpublished pieces I am honoured to present here — a powerful, poignant poem in Dr M’s memory by his niece in Delhi, and a lively little remembrance by a 12-year old based on her memories of the Chaukas collective meetings she attended with her mother, that led to A New Social Contract published by Dr M, 2016. Also linking here this tribute in Mainstream Weekly magazine, Kolkata, founded by Dr Mubashir’s friend Nikhil Chakravartty — “one of the greatest journalists of the subcontinent” as Dr M called him — now edited by his son Sumit Chakravartty.

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Eerie Silence: The Trauma of Kashmir in the Larger Context of the Fight for Democracy and Human Rights

Rafia Bano, 23, was injured by pellets in the courtyard of her house. Photo: Quratulain Rehbar, Kashmir Walla/The Wire

I wrote this piece about the Kashmir issue last week, trying to go beyond the chest-thumping and belligerence to the trauma of the Kashmiri people. Also making the point that brandishing Pakistan flags at protests about the injustice in Kashmir does not help the Kashmiri people. Thirdly, this struggle must be situated in the larger context of the fight for democracy and human rights, relevant beyond India. Published in Naya Daur and Hard News. Some related must-read pieces besides those linked in my piece: ‘Separate Fact From Fiction’: A Letter to PM Modi From a Kashmiri by Salman Anees Soz, India must stop weaponizing the pain of Kashmiri Pandits by Nishita Trisal, Arundhati Roy, The Silence Is the Loudest Sound; and this searing piece in The Wire: Ground Report: Agony and Casualties in the Valley in the Immediate Aftermath of Shutdown. And this: The Mental Health of Kashmiris is Everybody’s concern: Dr KalaMy piece below.

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Badri Raina’s marvelous Professor Higgins poem (But the ‘Equality idea’ ain’t dead)

Prof. Higgins haranguing Eliza in My Fair Lady

Another marvelous poem by Badri Raina in Delhi, published in ZNet, referencing Prof. Henry Higgins’ famous line in the musical My Fair Lady based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I will differ from Badri ji only to humbly offer that far from being dead, the ‘Equality idea’ is alive and kicking. It is in fact the growing prevalence of this idea that so threatens the beneficiaries of oppressive systems that they feel compelled to churn up fascism and bigotry, that get amplified in the news and social media. Am I wrong? 

Remembering Professor Higgins

We raised eyebrows when Higgins asked
“why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
Look how whole nations now build upon
That thought in the Professor’s brain. Continue reading

Shutting down online #fakenews factories

hitler-wa-e1547852735707.jpg

Got this email and image from Avaaz, subject line, “We’ve been hijacked”, that feels too important not to share.  Here’s my biggest takeaway from it:

During Brazil’s election, Avaaz ran an experiment — just six people were given basic training to investigate the propaganda networks, and they shut down online fake news factories that reached *16 million* people. Imagine what ten times as many could do!

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