Acclaimed writer and historian Tariq Ali on Saturday lamented the fact that neither Pakistan nor India had built even a single memorial for the victims of partition.
“It’s a total disgrace that close to two million people died and there is not a single memorial in either country for the victims of partition,” said Ali at the keynote address of the Lahore Literary Festival on Saturday.
“That is more important than parading stupidly at Wagah border,” he said, referring to the change of guard and flag-hoisting ceremonies at the border post.
Ali said he thought it would be hard to move on from the division of India and Pakistan until certain legacies were settled.
“We need narratives of history. Young people don’t know that Bangladesh and Pakistan were the same country. The constant absence of history can wreck a citizen’s capacity to think,” said the writer. Answering another question, he said that our sources of information must be examined. “Wikipedia is not a bible of information. It does get things wrong.” He suggested that people instead read a book once in a while to attain information.
In a session on “Politics and culture: past and present, Ali began by mourning the absence of kites in the sky in Lahore in February. He said celebrating Basant used to cut across every divide and social class and united citizens. Faisalabad, he said, had defied the ban and hundreds had been arrested. “Maybe the arrests were for a good cause.”
Globalisation and capitalism
Ali covered many topics during his session, including focusing in on the process of globalisation. The writer said other economic alternatives had collapsed, leaving a monolithic world where capitalism dominates. Globalisation now means the rampant advance of capitalism without restriction. The state, he says, can ameliorate its citizens’ living condition.
However, he added that the impact of globalisation was uneven and it was hard to stand up against this system. “Private capital has entered domains that were earlier protected. Education, health, housing and broadcasting – nothing can be taken for granted.”
He said that because internationalism exists, we now watch movies and television shows produced in the US in Pakistan.
Using South America as an example, Ali said some countries there have broken from the neo-liberal tradition, not from capitalism and have built schools and universities that educate large sections of the population free of cost. Those politicians, he added, are vilified in the western press, yet were re-elected all the time. “It seems to be a crime to spend on the poor,” said the writer. He went on to explain that in South America, what has been effective is a regulation on capitalism, rather than a break from it.
Literature and English
Turning to literature, Ali said the Venezulan culture ministry distributed millions of copies of the classic “Don Quixote” to households to mark the 400th anniversary of its publication. When Venezuelan President Chavez was asked if people would actually read the book, he said his hope was that someone in the household would eventually get to reading it, as the country was educating its people.
Ali said that once you are able to decontextualise a work, you get a better sense of it. In “Don Quixote”, Spain at that time had rid itself of its Muslim and Jewish populations, explained Ali. It might have been comic to see the hero and his sidekick wandering around empty villages, but Ali stressed that a Spanish reader during the time was able to make the connection that the emptiness symbolised ethnic cleansing.
“We might not admit it but politics and culture are linked.”
Ali questioned why madrassas are needed, and told the audience it was because state education is not available for all citizens.
Ali said that English was used as a preserve of the wealthy and elite. He cited the example of Malaysia, which has made the English language compulsory for all, so that people can access books and go abroad to obtain a higher education. He stressed that English needs to be made compulsory in Pakistan too.
The author also maintains that from 1967 to 1968, Pakistan was united under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto’s economic policies, however, were disastrous, according to Ali. He said Bhutto’s legacy was that, during his term, it was no longer a crime to be poor. “If people felt that they had a stake in the state, they would have come out on the streets to die for him,” he said.
He further illustrated this point by talking about the coup against Venezuela’s President Chavez in 2002. “The poor came out on the streets, and the soldiers told the officers that they would not allow this to happen.” A general told the military band to play the anthem when the new president came out. They refused, even when he insisted. Ali said that the general finally picked on a 16-year-old peasant boy who was the trumpet player. He started bullying the boy into playing for the new president. The boy kept on refusing to play. Eventually, the boy said to the general, “If you are so keen, you play the trumpet, general.”
This is the sort of government that gives people confidence, they feel they have a stake in the state and they vote their politicians in again and again.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 24th, 2013.