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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bol: Interrogating the Human Condition

We all have grown in a specific environment that has contributed to the mental makeup that we possess presently. Our surroundings have contributed immensely to mold ourselves to become the kind of person that we are today. Our current psychological forms are largely a result of the beliefs, values, traditions and culture that we have inherited from our society. Yet, human tendency tends to act in an inchoate and unpredictable manner that sometimes produces such results which not only shatter our long held dogmas, but also provide us a completely new understanding of the material and the emotional. When such rebellious emotions translate on the screen, the result is not upheld for its moral content or philosophical undertones, but is adored, braced, defended and endorsed by all and sundry for the raw energy that it unleashes in the comatose intellect of the social order. 

The Pakistani motion picture, Bol, is the result of such recalcitrant impulse of acumen which questions the deep rooted hypothesis of existence in our community. To sit through the film is a chilling experience, as you feel yourselves connected to one or the other characters portrayed in the story and the situations seem to spring out from your very past contact with the community. Every scene is a depiction of the miseries haunting the humanity around us, every dialogue is a biting satire on the accepted norms of survival. The film is not a moral treatise or theoretical examination of the human condition, rather it is a question mark on the set standards of normalcy and decency that we have created, or rather imposed on ourselves and others.

I am not interested in indulging in a scene by scene dissection of the film. Rather, I am interested in communicating the lessons that I drew from some of the stunning scenes that this film portrayed. An ordinary way to start would be to proceed chronologically in accordance with the timeline of the movie. Please mind that these conclusions are totally my own, and that you are more than free to differ.

What grabs your attention from the start is the farewell meeting between the convicted prisoner, Zainub (Humaima Malik), and her mother and sisters. The prisoner seems to be walking in delirium, and hardly has any sense of existence or belonging. She is escorted to her family members to bid them adieu. As if delivering her final message, she exhorts her sisters and mother to throw away the burqa, which, to her, is a sign of bondage and slavery. She urges them all to become independent and to break loose the restrictions that the society has placed on them by virtue of them being women. 

This, to me struck as a paradoxical interpretation of the niqab or the burqa. Here in our country, I have come across women who fiercely protect their right to wear burqa in public places by defending it as a sign of their independence (independence!) and as an inalienable part of their identity. Similar protests have been recorded in France, Italy, USA and other European countries, who have passed, or tried to pass legislation banning this 'symbol of slavery' from the public places. When it comes to the Pakistani society, the burqa is a symbol of slavery for some, and yet here in India, it is a part and parcel of a Muslim women's identity. Why? Was the character in the movie wrong in reading the significance of the burqa? Or did she really echo the views held by most? The answer I think, is not difficult to understand.

In the kind of fiercely religious and conservative society that Pakistan has evolved itself into today, religious dictum is being taken to be embossed in stone and is regarded to be unquestionable. Even the smallest of divergence from the religious norms is seen to be a sign of bigotry and heresy. The result, obviously, is especially punitive to the historically weaker and under represented sections of the society by virtue of their exclusion from power (in this case, they being the women and the religious minorities). Due to such stringent, rigid and remorseless interpretations of religion, religious symbols and values cease to be a denotation of reverence and morph into a cross of social existence which one must bear, no matter how unbearable the pain, in order to survive. While we, on the other side of the border, have been marginally more successful than our neighbors in enforcing a culture of mutual respect devoid of double standards, our friends across the line of control are bearing the brunt of the selfishness and a culture of contradictions which they promoted since independence. As a result, the burqa, which is a symbol of identity for Muslim women in India, turns into an emblem of subjugation across the border.

The most horrific rendition of remorselessness is echoed in the scene where the father (Manzar Sehbai), kills his own child (Amr Kashmiri), who happens to be a eunuch. The actors have acted so brilliantly, that the intensity of the hatred prevailing in the society towards that uncatalogued and unnamed gender hits you with full force. 

What compels a father to such an extent so as to suffocate the last vestiges of life out of his own child? The rough hatred towards the 'other' in most of the societies in most of the countries around the world is such that we emphatically refuse to assimilate their identity into the mainstream and furiously oppose any move to normalize their existence. The Character of Amr Kashmiri has startling resemblances to that of Ravi Jhankal's Munni in Shyam Benegal directed Welcome to Sajjanpur in that both are continuously harassed when they try to take part in the ordinary scheme of things. Such an absolute refusal to change our preconceived norms of ordinariness betrays the insecurities of our own society and the egotism of one's own conscience. And the eagerness to prove one to be normal, to be a vibrant part of the mainstream, to be an obedient member of the laws and rules of the community is the driving force behind such rough hatred, hostility and neglect.

The character of Zainub, is a classic example of what happens when the voice of reason and rationality shuns and rejects the set dogmas and superstitions of the humankind. She is rebuffed, rebuked, slapped and showered with myriad forms of abuses for arguing against the ordinary course of thought. Since she is nearly divorced (which makes her a bad company for children, taboo for the outside world and a burden for the family), her status is downgraded to that of a ghost, whose opinion has no value and whose presence is not favorable. No standards of dignity seem to apply to her. Religion fails to protect her and the grinding weight of patriarchy conspires to stifle her voice.

Yet, the overarching theme of the film, which questions the root of all the ills prevalent in the society, is the constant lust for the birth of a boy child due to which the father keeps on impregnating his wife, only to be punished with another girl child. His lust seems to be unquenchable as he goes on producing a girl after another girl even though his income dwindles day by day. This Frankenstein of his own creation lurches him to one problem after another, makes him to commit one bigotry after another, destroys his religion and shatters his reputation in the household, ultimately resulting in his murder by Zainub.

Bol isn't an ordinary Pakistani movie. Its a mirror reflection of the narrow mindedness of our public. Its a documentation of the ffanaticismseeping slowly in our surroundings. Its a tale of the oppressed and downtrodden. Its a challenge to array of accepted beliefs in the world. Its a colour full story narrated through the colour less lens of patriarchy to a colour blind audience. Its a loud resonance of our own shame and contrasting principles.

Bol speaks and silences.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Aman Ki Asha? The Dynamics of a Subcontinental Nobel for Peace

Perhaps the most anticipated announcement of the whole year is that of the Nobel Prize. Awarded in the disciplines of Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Medicine, Economics and Peace, the Nobel Prize, in the eyes of many, is the ultimate recognition of one's contribution to the chosen field. In the past, Indians have won the prize in the fields of Literature, Economics, Physics and Peace. This year, another Indian, Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, was awarded the Nobel for Peace along with the 17 year old Pakistani child education activist Malala Yousufzai.

The announcement has come at a time when both India and Pakistan have seen an escalation in tension along the International Border. The governments of both countries have traded charges of breaking the ceasefire and heavy civilian casualties have been reported from both sides of the border. Add to the fact that both the nations are nuclear rivals with a history of four wars behind them, and you have a world sitting up to take notice of the ongoing escalation of hostilities. A Nobel Prize shared by the citizens of these two hostile neighbors then, is a very subtle hint by the world community to deescalate confrontation along the border.

Tensions in Islamabad

Things had not been this rough from the start. After taking over the reins of government in May 2014, the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi reached out to all the heads of the SAARC nations including Pakistan and invited them to his oath taking ceremony. Mr. Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, was gracious enough to accept the invitation although there was much debate at home before he could do so. At that time, the two Prime Ministers agreed to cooperate to ensure peace in the sub-continent.

However, in the past few months, Mr. Sharif’s government has wobbled at home on account of the twin protests headed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Chief Imran Khan and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) Chief Tahir-ul-Qadri. These protests, calling for the resignation of Mr. Sharif and fresh elections, have paralyzed any activity in Islamabad and have forced the government on back foot. However, Mr. Sharif still retains a strong backing from the majority of parliamentarians who want him to continue.

The protests have had their consequences though. As pressure on the government mounted, many political observers within Pakistan began to anticipate an imminent coup. However, the military chief General Raheel Sharif (not related to the Prime Minister) rebuffed any suggestions towards the same, even when 5 out of the 11 core commanders of the military were in favor of the army intervening to end the political crises. The army chief, however, successfully managed to get the government to ‘cede space’ to the military in the areas of Security and Foreign Policy. This means that the Prime Minister does not have the capability to take independent decisions anymore when it comes to Indo-Pak relations and the decisions are ultimately taken and approved at the meetings of the National Security Council, which has been criticized in the past as providing legal cover for increasing the role of military in foreign affairs.

Tough Response from New Delhi

One of the major reasons for the growing hostilities along the border has been the hardline approach taken by the new right-wing government headed by Mr. Modi in New Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister had relentlessly attacked his predecessor for continuing dialogue with Pakistan even when the latter engaged in a 'proxy-war' of terrorism and militancy in Jammu & Kashmir through infiltrations effected by repeated ceasefire violations.

After becoming the Prime Minister, although Mr. Modi displayed his softer side by inviting Mr. Sharif for his oath taking ceremony and agreeing to cooperate in the future, he was also quick to break off dialogue after Pakistan did not heed a warning to disengage the separatists. The issue of Kashmir has always been a sensitive one for both the countries, and Pakistan’s repeated attempts to engage the separatists operating from the Indian side of Kashmir had been viewed as a way to pinprick the Indian establishment and to keep the Kashmir issue alive in the international arena.

At the recent UN General Assembly session, Mr. Nawaz Sharif tried to remind his international audience about the importance of some sort of resolution of the Kashmir dispute as a pre-condition to the improvement of bilateral ties between the two nations, while Mr. Modi rebuffed his counterpart by stating that bilateral issues would not be solved by raising them on international platforms.

The repeated ceasefire violations by Pakistan are being seen by the Indian administration to be an attention seeking move now that India is not engaging its hostile neighbor with talks and flag meetings. Instead, Mr. Modi's government has asked the border troops to answer a bullet with another bullet which has significantly raised the morale of the armed forces and has resulted in heavy casualties on the other side of the border. Although this tough response has soothed the sentiments of Mr. Modi's domestic audience, on the whole it has only resulted in the escalation of hostilities to newer heights.

Nobel to the Rescue

The west recognizes the fact that a confrontation between two nuclear armed rivals does not only pose a threat to the stability of the subcontinent, but can possibly have catastrophic consequences for the peace and tranquility of the entire world. A joint Nobel at this juncture to citizens of both the countries is being seen by many as a subtle hint by the world community to both the nations to deescalate the tensions at the border.  This is not to say that both these activists did not deserve the Nobel prize on the basis of their own incredibly inspiring hard work. Instead, it is to reaffirm the fact that the world sees more areas of cooperation and a potential for rapid progress through peace and cooperation between the two countries, rather than hostility and strife. 

Sandip Roy of, a prominent digital news website, christened this prize as the 'LoC Nobel'. Predictably enough, 17 year old Malala Yousufzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize and only the second person from Pakistan to be thus honored, expressed her desire to see the Prime Ministers of both the countries in attendance at the Nobel Award ceremony in December. She also exhorted both the countries to stop fighting each other and instead fight for peace, development and progress.

However, the Indian Prime Minister has been reluctant to answer the call. In a statement released to the media, he congratulated both the people for the prize, but remained tight lipped on the proposal by the Pakistani teenager. The Pakistani Taliban, however, has been quick to read the significance of this Nobel. According to a report published in Dawn, Pakistan's leading English language newspaper, members of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have commented that Malala did not represent Islam and threatened that people like her who continued to take 'anti-Islamic' positions would continue being targeted.

As the last lines of this article were being written, India accused Pakistan of yet again violating the ceasefire in its Poonch sector, after a 41 hour calm. Whether this Nobel succeeds in cooling down the tensions between the countries, only time will tell.

(This was published in Youth Ki Awaaz)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: One Life is not Enough, An Autobiography by K. Natwar Singh

I picked up the copy of K. Natwar Singh's recently released autobiography "One Life is Not Enough" from a railway station in Delhi while on my way home to Madhya Pradesh. The book had been the source of much discussion in the media as it contained an insider's account of life and politics at 10, Janpath, the official residence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Close on the heels of the party's devastating defeat in the 2014 General Elections, several books by those who had a chance to work for or in the UPA government have been released. "An Accidental Prime Minister" by Prime Minister's former media advisor and the former Editor in Chief of Economic Times, Mr. Sanjaya Baru and "Not Just an Accountant: The Diary of the Nation's Conscience Keeper" by the former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, Mr. Vinod Rai are few examples.

Before reading the book, I happened to come across an interview which Mr. Natwar Singh gave to Madhu Trehan of Newslaundry where the latter complains that the amount of Nehru Gandhi family sycophancy evident in the book makes one's teeth ache. I fully endorse this critique after having finished reading the book. What the author has tried to portray as loyalty towards the family is nothing but slobbering sycophancy.

Having said that, one cannot deny that the author presents a very vivid account of his life in the foreign service and instances where his expertise in handling matters relating to international affairs saved the face of the government of the day. Mr. Singh joined the foreign service in 1953 under the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru. He goes on to give his evaluation of Nehru's foreign policy and points out his three major mistakes: "his disastrous handling of the Kashmir issue, his misplaced trust of the leaders of the People's Republic of China and his turning down of the Soviet proposal to give India a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council". By and large, a large number of people well read on the matter of foreign policy would agree with him.

Yet, the author lets go of a golden opportunity to delve deeper into the issues of foreign policy in which he has extensive professional experience and instead makes the book into an expanded slambook by namedropping the who's who of the literary and creative arts field including E.M. Forster, Nirad Choudhuri, M.F. Hussain etc. with whom he came to develop close relationship due to the nature of his work. I was disappointed to see an autobiography being reduced into an egoist monologue listing the bragging rights that the author achieved in the course of his career. One expected better of such a seasoned politician and diplomat.

Then of course, there is politics. Anything to do with Sonia Gandhi or the Gandhi family as a whole elicits a flurry of excitement from our media because:

1) Our media has stopped covering the real issues that are worthy of media coverage long, long ago.
2) The first family of the Congress party has jealously guarded their privacy unlike other families in the public life and their day to day dealings remain one of the favorite subjects of gossip and speculation in Lutyens Delhi.
3) Everyone in the media establishment wants to keep the Gandhi family in good humor as many expect that sooner or later, another Prime Minister would emerge from 10, Janpath.

Hence, one could understand the amount of buzz the release of this autobiography generated as Mr. Singh was at one point of time, extremely close to Sonia Gandhi and had also served Indira and Rajiv Gandhi before her.

The juiciest revelation that the book had to offer was that in May 2004, as the results of the General Election came in and the UPA seemed set to form the next government, it was not the inner voice of Sonia Gandhi, but the tough resolve of her son Rahul, which prevented her from occupying the seat of the Prime Minister. For a decade while the Congress was in power, an aura of sacrifice hung around the UPA chairperson for refusing the PM's post. Mr. Singh busts this myth in a single paragraph by recounting how Rahul Gandhi presented his mother with an ultimatum to refuse the post as he was afraid that like his father and grandmother, she too will become a victim of some future tragedy.

I think this single paragraph is the major selling point of the book. Thanks to Natwar Singh, we now know how political parties in power are adept at manipulating and creating an alternative history of events. In fact, this book has rendered a great service to the historiographers of the future generation by bringing out many secrets of the 10, Janpath Durbar out in the public domain. There is some sentimentality attached to the abuses that Mr. Singh heaps on the UPA Chairperson largely owing to the treatment meted out to him. However, by and large, I believe, the picture painted of the Congress Party as a den of bootlickers vindicates the perception that the party had come to acquire among the public long long ago.

All in all, Mr. Natwar Singh's autobiography belongs in the category of those books whom you just cannot ignore. Peppered with interesting anecdotes and eye catching revelations, the book is a breezy read for anyone interested in Indian politics. Moreover, by busting the myth of sacrifice of the PM's chair by Sonia Gandhi which was perpetuated so successfully by the Congress Party for over a decade, Mr. Singh has shown  that it will take many more books like these to finally bring out the truth.  One hopes that this autobiography turns out to be a trendsetter.