Q : You have also termed the portrayal of Pakistan as a failed state facile. And you think it has become a handy trope tapped unconsciously even by India’s intellectual class.
A : The term “Failed State” is a convenient trope that exonerates its user from in-depth analysis. Every political, social and economic activity in that state is then viewed through this framework; this all encompassing, meta-narrative that has the potential to explain everything in a society. Schools are being targeted in Pakistan. Easy. That’s because Pakistan is a failed state. Shrines have been bombed in Pakistan. That’s because Pakistan is a failed state. After using this term an analyst doesn’t need to understand the sociopolitical context of these events. The term is self-explanatory. I feel the term “Failed State’ can never fully contextualise the nuances of any society. All States of the world fail in certain regards. USA was a failed state when it failed to take actions against armed gunmen in Oregon when they took up a federal building. India was a failed state when a mob hacked a Muslim man to death for allegedly eating beef and Pakistan was a failed state when the security guard of the Governor of Punjab shot him to death in broad day light. States fail in instances not as a whole. This is once again a trope that powerful countries tend to choose in their relationship to weaker countries to feel more “un-failed”.
Q- One gets to read a lot about the terror and the terror outfits in Pakistan but this book talks about a different Pakistan still steeped in ethos of ancient Indian civilisation and struggling to hang onto it.
A : The primary focus of this book is the religious traditions that are still steeped in the ethos of ancient Indian civilisation. However, the book also focuses on the growing Islamic extremism in Pakistan. It was not just these religious practices and traditions that were fascinating. Rather, it was these traditions in the context of this environment that was more fascinating. For example in the book I talk about a couple of Hindu shrines in Punjab which are still revered by Muslim devotees. Now a century ago there would have been nothing spectacular about this religious shrine or practice, but it becomes loaded with meaning after one takes into account the separation of Pakistan from India on the basis of the ‘Two-Nation Theory’. For example another shrine that I talk about in the book is a shrine called Shaheedan da mazaar , a shrine dedicated to the martyrs. This shrine is located at a village which was burned down by Ahmad Shah Abdali in the 18th century. The villagers later constructed a shrine in the memory of all those people who died and every year used to celebrate a festival there. Muslims of the villages after the creation of Pakistan continued celebrating this festival. The shrine on its own has no significance but it becomes a fascinating story when we look at how Ahmad Shah Abdali is celebrated as a national hero whereas at the folk level he is vilified. Similar it is fascinating for me to see these shrines and traditions hang on for their lives surrounded by an extremist environment.
Would you term the current struggle in Pakistan as one between a strict Arabised Islam and its culturally rooted South Asian variant?
A : Historically this struggle between Arabised Islam and its local variant has existed even since the expansion of Islam to a vast territory. Many historians have pointed out that it is because of this reason that Persian Islam took such a distinct turn away from the Arabised Islam. Many sociologists would identify contemporary conflict between Saudia Arabia and Iran in that context. So South Asia too has seen this conflict for several centuries now.
However what is different now is that Pakistan has isolated itself from the broader cultural traditions of South Asia. Earlier we used to live in a multi religious society which is why it was essential to adopt religious traditions that were syncretistic. Now that Muslims dominate the country, there is a constant dialectical process to “purify” one’s religion, which is believed to be the Arabised version of Islam.
This process has further accelerated after 9/11. Feeling threatened in a world which is becoming increasingly unsafe, the Muslims globally and in Pakistan have started searching for their “roots”. Most of the times, completely devoid of, any, historical knowledge, they head in the direction of a more puritanical version of Islam, which is not tolerant of South Asian variants. Another phenomenon that has accelerated the Arabization of Islam in Pakistan is the growth of media. With limited connectivity different regions were free to establish their independent versions of religion, which is what the book looks at it, however now with the uniformity of culture through media one can see that these indigenous religious practices are giving way for a more Arabised version of Islam. One can see parallels of this in Hinduism as well. With no television or printed books, different regions had their own versions of verbal Ramayana and even deities. But now with the spread of media in every nook and corner of the country one can see a uniformity of Hinduism as well.
Q : In your previous book A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, you have written extensively about the plight of the religious minorities in Pakistan. Is their persecution endemic?
A : One of my agendas in writing A White Trail was to show that one cannot make a sweeping statement about religious minorities in Pakistan. There are several distinctions within them that one needs to take into account. For example the issues that Hindus face will not be the same as the issues that Christians in Pakistan face. Then even within Hindus one needs to make a distinction between the Hindus living in, let’s say, Lahore, compared to Hindus living in Karachi. Their sociopolitical conditions would be different. The same applies for Christians. Unfortunately most of the discussions that take place about minorities in Pakistan take place in generalities, about their plight. This is once again due to the fact that it fits a broader framework through which Pakistan is viewed. I am not arguing here that the minorities are not being persecuted in Pakistan. All I am saying is that one needs to be mindful of the different natures of persecution and other distinctions that exist between religious minorities in Pakistan.