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An ism is coming to an end

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By Manini Chatterjee

On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable about the prime minister’s recent attack against the “unholy” and “opportunist” alliance of Opposition parties seeking to dislodge his Bharatiya Janata Party-led government from power in 2019. Political leaders are adept at name-calling, and as elections draw near, the rhetoric is bound to get more vitriolic.

But Narendra Modi’s December 23 address to BJP booth-workers drawn from four Tamil Nadu assembly constituencies should not be dismissed as mere poll-eve hyperbole. On the contrary, the prime minister’s pointed attacks against various Opposition parties were grounded in facts, rooted in history. In the process, Modi drew attention — inadvertently perhaps — to a significant transition taking place in Indian politics.

 

In reply to a worker’s question on the efforts by various Opposition parties to form a mahagathbandhan or ‘grand alliance’, Modi came up with a long response. Asserting that the Opposition leaders were coming together for personal survival and not ideological affinity, Modi said: “Do you know several of these parties and their leaders claim to be deeply inspired by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia who was deeply opposed to the Congress, its ideology and the way Congress did politics. What sort of a tribute are they paying to Dr Lohia by forming an unholy and opportunist alliance with the Congress?”

If that was an attack on the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party whose leaders come from the socialist stream of North Indian politics owing allegiance to Lohia’s ideals, Modi did not spare Dravidian parties either. He recalled how the Tamil Nadu chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran, was dismissed by the Congress government at the Centre in 1980 before highlighting differences between the Congress and the DravidaMunnetraKazhagam over the Jain Commission report (on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination) which had led to the fall of the I.K. Gujral-led United Front government in 1998. “At that time, Congress said it is DMK or it is us but today they want to be together. If not opportunism, what explains their alliance?”

He then went on to target the Telugu Desam Party. “In Andhra Pradesh,” Modi reminded his audience, “it was N.T. Rama Rao who faced the anger and high-handedness of the Congress. He formed a party for the pride and respect of the Telugus at the time when the Congress humiliated a chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Yet today, the party of NTR wants to ally with the Congress.”

Without taking the name of Sharad Pawar, the prime minister took the Nationalist Congress Party to task, recalling how “a party based in Maharashtra was formed in severe opposition to the Congress leadership”. But it later joined hands with the Congress and “looted” the state for 15 years. The prime minister did not spare the communists either. “It was not long ago that the Left was passing resolutions calling Congress pro-imperialist, responsible for price rise, agricultural crisis and much more. But now they sing praise of each other,” he said.

Narendra Modi’s lament, plaintive as it sounds, was not without foundation. For the truth is that all the instances he recounted are but fragments of a phenomenon that has been not just a facet but the very fulcrum around which much of post-Independence politics in India has revolved — a phenomenon called anti-Congressism.

This was, in many ways, only natural. Having led the freedom struggle against the British raj for more than six decades before Independence, the Congress was the overwhelmingly dominant political party of India, with its roots and branches spread across every corner of the country. It encompassed within its fold a multiplicity of thoughts and streams, ranging from the left to the right.

But as democracy deepened and competitive electoral politics took roots in India, its hegemony came under increasing challenge. Much like the joint family of yore which broke up bit by bit with younger generations preferring to set up their own homes rather than living under the — occasionally comforting, more often stifling — embrace of the patriarch (or matriarch), individual leaders and parties started breaking away from the Congress umbrella.

Congress could mean all things to all people. For some erstwhile Congress stalwarts, Nehru’s Congress was too socialist and they broke away to form the likes of the Swatantra Party. For others, like Ram Manohar Lohia, Nehru was not socialist enough. He became Nehru’s most trenchant critic, and his socialism — with its emphasis on lower caste assertion and anti-English mobilization — inspired an entire generation of political activists.

For the communists, the Congress was the principal party of the “bourgeois-landlord” classes which had to be dismantled for ushering in real progress and an egalitarian democracy.

Over the decades, as top down democracy slowly spread to the grass roots, other demands rose to the fore — ethnic, caste, regional aspirations sought their own voices and political outlets, no longer content to contend for space under an overarching all India party.

This tendency was aggravated by the fact that the Congress, as the “natural party of governance” at the Centre and in the states alike, also became synonymous with the Establishment and all its ugly accoutrements: corruption, opportunism, authoritarianism…

Over the last five years, Narendra Modi has sought to focus only on these warts that sprouted on the Congress edifice and his incessant cry for a “Congress-mukt Bharat” stems from the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh’s visceral hatred for India’s oldest party.

But what the prime minister fails to see is that other parties do not share this hatred anymore, if they ever did. And it is not blind opportunism but sound political and ideological reasons that have led a range of political parties to now join hands with the Congress, or at least shed their earlier implacable hostility.

One reason is that the Congress is no longer what it used to be. In terms of power and authority, it is now a pale shadow of its once mighty self. It is no longer a threat to emerging and emergent forces. Paradoxically, the shrinking of the Congress has also brought its core values — such as pluralism, diversity, secularism, equity — to the fore; values that are near synonymous with the constitutional underpinnings of the Indian republic.

But the bigger reason for the Congress’s acceptability among erstwhile political foes is their experience under the Modi regime. The communist parties may have been the most articulate in their formulations, but many other parties, too, had felt that it was necessary to break the Congress’s stranglehold on India for it to become a more vibrant, decentralized and egalitarian democracy.

The opposite has happened. The eclipse of the Congress initially led to the rise of numerous political parties with firm bases of their own. But it was the BJP (and earlier the Jana Sangh) which took maximum advantage of anti-Congressism to first piggyback on other parties and then emerge as a single-party alternative. The decline of the Congress did not lead a hundred flowers to bloom or a thousand school of thought to contend. It only facilitated the spread of the RSS’s “One Nation, One People, One Culture” ethos that has got a tremendous fillip after Narendra Modi led the BJP to a single-party majority in 2014.

The RSS’s deep tentacles in civil society coupled with the Modi regime’s grip on State power has reduced the room for growth and manoeuvre for all political parties and social movements in recent years. Modi may have trained his guns only on the Congress, but Amit Shah’s dream of BJP rule “from panchayat to Parliament” for the next 50 years makes it clear that the real goal of the sanghparivar is a “vipaksh-mukt” (Opposition-free) India. That is why those who were bitterly opposed to the Congress in the past have shed their old antipathy.

We do not know if Messrs Modi and Shah will be able to rid India of the Congress. But they have certainly succeeded in bringing an end to anti-Congressism as the governing principle in the politics of this country.


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Opinion

INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI

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By Shabbir Aariz

This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,

“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..

 

OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….

ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY

(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..

burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.

His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….

YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.

His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.

John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.

As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,

“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..

HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.

Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.

John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.

(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])

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Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer

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By Naveed Hussain

I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.

I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.

 

“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.

Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.

Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.

But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.

Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.

For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.

I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.

Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”

Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.

Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.

Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”

Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.

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Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest

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By Asheesh Mamgain

If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.

“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”

 

“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.

Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.

Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.

“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”

So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.

The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.

“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.

“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”

There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.

“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”

Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.

Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”

More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”

A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.

Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.

Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.

But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”

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