Feisal Naqvi

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Leaving the village

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2012 at 12:04 pm

“Let the bad colour not be seen. It attracts them./Never enter the woods. That is where they wait. /Heed the warning bell. For they are coming”

In The Village, a movie by M Night Shyamalan, the residents of a medieval village live in fear. Dark and mysterious things abound in the woods surrounding them. Dead and mutilated animals show up from time to time. The only way the villagers know how to protect themselves against the evil stalking their lives is through the rules passed by the Elders: no use of the colour red, stay away from the forest and to barricade themselves in their houses whenever the warning bell rings.

The villagers know that they are not the only people and that there are towns out there within walking distance; but these are “wicked places where wicked people live”.

Matters come to a head when one of the main protagonists gets stabbed. As he lies in agony, his girlfriend (Ivy) decides to go to the towns for help. That is when she is told that the creatures in the forest are only make-believe, invented by the Elders to make sure that the villagers don’t wander. In fact, when Ivy finally makes it out of the woods, she finds herself suddenly in the 20th century. It turns out that the village is in the middle of land owned by one of the Elders and that the Elders had decided to wall themselves off from the outside world after various traumas. The movie ends with the Elders still undecided about whether or not to continue their deception.

I mention all of this because I see the movie as a wonderful illustration of Pakistan today. We live walled off from the outside world. We deliberately terrorise our citizens with self-created monsters. And our elders try to keep us in line with fake rules designed to mystify rather than to enlighten.

Let me elaborate. There is a reason why the phrase ‘Indian subcontinent’ exists. Look at a map of South Asia and what you will find is a vast flatland flanked by the Hindukush, the Karakoram and the Pamirs to the West, the Himalayas to the North, the Patkai to the East and the Indian Ocean to the South. Yes, there are vast differences of culture and geography to be found within that landmass. But the cold hard truth is that 80 per cent of Pakistan’s population (i.e. the people living in Sindh and the Punjab) inherited a culture that is largely similar to the people immediately across the border from them.

Does this mean that the two-nation theory was wrong and the Partition of India a mistake? Frankly, I don’t give a damn. What I do know is that guilt is no basis on which to decide questions of policy and public identity. What I do know is that I am tired of being penned up behind the walls of our village and scared with talk of the Indian bogeyman.

Pakistan is once again inching towards a more liberal trade and visa regime with India. Every time this happens, the usual pundits emerge from the woodwork. Some of them talk about cultural annihilation. Some of them talk about economic annihilation. But between the protectionist lobbies of our local manufacturers and the fear-mongering of our religious leaders, the end result is invariably a stalemate; a preservation of the status quo and a continuation of our ghetto status.

The point here is not the validity of economic protectionism. I am not an economist and cannot properly answer the question as to whether free trade with India can help us or hurt us. My friend Savail Hussain, however, is an economist (and a damn good one at that). His view is that the smaller economy tends to benefit from access to the larger economy and that Pakistan will be a net beneficiary of trade with India. On the other hand, there are certainly people who disagree, and that includes well-respected authors such as Ha-Joon Chang. In his well known book, Kicking Away the Ladder, the Cambridge professor argued that most of today’s leading economies protected themselves in the beginning through high tariffs and only allowed outsiders into their markets once domestic manufacturers could handle the competition.

To return to my point, what I want to emphasize is that we cannot allow even legitimate economic fears to justify our cultural isolation. Pakistan today is in danger of becoming the cesspool of the Muslim world, home to all the poison draining out of the lands of our religious brethren. What is needed to counter this growing radicalization is contact with the outside world. Like the residents ofThe Village, we are being terrified through fake monsters created by people who think they are defending us. It is only if we managed to see for ourselves that the outside world is not full of monsters that we will be able to break away from those fears.

To a certain extent, the barriers that isolate us are already being whittled away by technology. Millions of people tune in daily to Indian soap operas. Millions more relax by watching Indian movies. But, at the same time, there is no substitute for people to people contact. It is one thing to read of a different world or even to see it on a screen. It is another thing entirely to see it for yourself.

But what will happen to Pakistan then, ask the Elders? Will it not wither away? Will it not become absorbed back into India?

In all honesty, I don’t think so. I have been to India numerous times and would like to go there many times again. But I have no desire to be an Indian or to live anywhere else other than where I currently reside. What I do know is that you can’t thrust nationhood down the throats of an unwilling people. What I do know is that fear is no basis on which to build a country. Our Elders can either learn that lesson now. Or they can wait for the explosion which follows when the villagers learn the truth.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2012.

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The annals of folly

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2012 at 3:16 am

By most accounts, recorded history goes back about six thousand years. During that time, innumerable scribes have written about innumerable kings and leaders. And while what survives to us is mostly the great deeds of those kings and leaders, there is also more than enough evidence to show that humans have a singular talent for acting stupidly, particularly in matters of governance.

In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman makes the argument that mankind “makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. As evidence for her contention, Tuchman examines four case studies — the Trojans’ acceptance of a giant wooden horse without checking to see what it contained; the Renaissance Popes whose extravagance and venality triggered the Reformation; the pig-headedness of the British and how it caused the loss of the American colonies; and finally, America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Before I present Pakistan’s contribution to these illustrious annals, it is worth noting that Tuchman’s definition of folly is fairly precise. In fact, she lays down three criteria that an act has to meet in order to be described as ‘folly’.

The first criterion, self-evidently, is that the act in question has to be dumb, or in politer language, “clearly contrary to the self-interest of the organisation or group which carries out the act.”

The second criterion is that the act has to happen over a period of time and be conducted by a number of people, so that isolated instances of nuttiness — both collective and individual — are excluded.

The third and final criterion is that the policy followed should have been identified even at the relevant time as folly; or in other words, hindsight doesn’t count.

You might ask why I am writing of such depressing matters on a beautiful February morning.

The answer is that it is precisely because of the weather that I am being so forcibly reminded of the folly of our rulers. As I look out of my window, I can see a clear blue sky. What I cannot see are any kites.

I grew up in Lahore. And like any other boy growing up in Lahore, one of my favourite memories is of flying kites. As I grew older, what was once just a pastime for idle boys became big business. Basant became an international festival marked by fashion shows, concerts, culinary extravaganzas and all types of celebrations. Indians streamed across the border every year for the festival as did well-heeled desis living in the Gulf.

The very rise of Basant though contained the seeds of its destruction. As participation in the festival began to rise, so too did deaths from accidents related to it. Children fell off rooftops while chasing kites; others got hit by cars. A number of motorcyclists got injured by kite string and some even died.

Petitions challenging the legality of Basant (or, to quote one agitated ideologue, “the kites of blasphemy”) had provided annual fodder for judges of the Lahore High Court for many years. In 2005 though, the judges took a far stronger view of the proceedings, which position was in turn upheld by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s intervention was then followed by a formal ban imposed by the Punjab legislature, which is in place till today.

In my view, the ban on Basant is stupidity of historic proportions. I concede that there are innocent people who lose their lives as a consequence of it. But we make the same choice between economic activity and terrible consequences every single day. Guido Calabresi once described this paradox as the “gift of the evil deity”, a phrase which he illustrated by pointing out that in most advanced countries, cars are one of the leading causes of death. Framed in the abstract, most people have no hesitation in saying that they would choose life over technological convenience. But ask people to live without cars or electricity and suddenly the decision becomes more complicated.

Basant not only provided seasonal employment to thousands but also greatly helped the economy of Lahore, a point completely missed by the morons who talk of frivolous consumption. Let’s get one thing straight: consumption of domestically produced goods can never be frivolous. Yes, I bought kites but the kite-maker bought bread and sent his child to school.

Finally, Basant was a rare ray of sunshine in the lives of thousands. From the rich to the poor, it was the one time when every Lahori with access to a rooftop — and not just those fortunate enough to have bootleggers on speed-dial — could enjoy himself. Along with the Rafi Peer music festivals, now also dead, Basant was one of the few things we all could boast about.

Not having Basant makes us all poorer. And I don’t just mean that in money terms.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2012.