In conversation with Pervez Hoodbhoy – Part 3: South Asian politics and culture

Published: February 19, 2020
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This conversation with Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy is presented as a three part series. Part 1 covers Pakistan’s education system. Part 2 discusses Pakistan’s language conundrum . Part 3 includes a conversation regarding South Asian politics and culture.

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South Asian Politics and Culture

Hassan Mirza (HM): Was India ever a proper democracy?

Pervez Hoodbhoy (PH): India was a secular democracy in its first few decades but, like Pakistan, is now becoming a majoritarian democracy. That’s very dangerous for minorities. There’s a real danger of the two countries becoming mirror copies. For example, last year I arranged a talk by the anti-Modi Indian liberal politician, Mani Shankar Aiyar, at Forman Christian College in Lahore. I was amazed that within minutes there was a strongly negative response from India. It confirmed to me that madness has risen to very high levels there. I’ve been receiving a lot of mail from Hindutva junkies (all polite so far, thankfully) telling me how wrong I am about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi. India is plunging rapidly but it is still far more liberal and open than Pakistan.

HM: Many Indians at home and abroad support Modi and his version of Hindutva politics. His support seems to be absolute. What’s your take?

PH: It’s true that Modi has taken India by storm. But there is a fairly large section of enlightened Hindus in India and abroad who have spoken loudly and forcefully against the majoritarian tyranny of the Saffron Brigade. Some have put their lives on the line and gone out of their way to defend Muslims and Muslim rights. It’s heartening to see that, for example, they recently succeeded in defeating the BJP in Delhi. There’s nothing comparable in Pakistan’s case, where religious minorities are truly isolated with only a handful of Muslims defending them.

HM: What do you have to say about the South Asian Hindu-Muslim friction? The differences between Pakistan and India seem irreconcilable for now, and Indian Muslims are facing problems at the hands of Hindutva supporters.  

PH: Cause-and-effect, action-reaction can get infinitely muddled. Two groups of people each defined by some conserved quantum number can either coexist or fight until either one remains or the other. It seems to me that you are perhaps suggesting that Hindus and Muslims can never live in peace together. Will you say the same about Sunni-Shia? White-Black? Protestant-Catholic? Jew-Christian?  ​If you’re right then humanity is on the road to hell and one should simply give up hope of any kind of peace. I don’t dispute that Modi is a monster. But what’s new about that? One can easily get hung up on the wrongs committed by those possessed by any religious or political ideology. Who have been the nastiest to others? Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Nazis, Communists?  Not Hindus, yet; unless they somehow manage to take over the world which, thankfully, is unlikely.

HM: For thousands of years the upper caste Hindus have been persecuting the lower castes in the name of religion, despite their claims of being completely peaceful. Now the Indian Supreme Court has given a bad verdict with regards to the Babri mosque issue.

PH: Caste is undoubtedly a terrible thing but modern Indians are more and more able to get over it. With Hindutva the rate has slowed down. But let’s remember that caste-ism exists elsewhere too. Arabs are focused on the tribe, which is just as unchangeable as caste. And they’re just as racist. Just see how they look down upon Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. You’re right about the Babri Masjid judgement – it’s a crying shame. The Indian Supreme Court has also whitewashed a crime by okaying the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA). These are sad times for India.

HM: I think Hindus in general are much more superstitious and anti-science than the Muslim world. Most Muslims are not very superstitious. South Asian Muslims yes, because we share a common culture with Hindus. The vast majority of the Indian population is still steeped in Hindu myths. Al-Biruni observed Indian superstition around a thousand years ago.

PH: Agreed that the traditional Hindu is more superstitious than the traditional Muslim but all religions depend upon unverifiable beliefs. The more people cling on to them, the slower their intellectual progress. You should note that in spite of the recent Modi phenomenon, modernity has caught on much faster in India. Jawaharlal Nehru hugely accelerated it. All major civilizations have contributed towards the development of science. No one has a monopoly.

HM: There is superstition present among developed countries as well. Japan, USA, Europe has it but much less than the subcontinent.

PH: Except that, unlike in Pakistan, crazy superstitious nuts in those countries are kept away from positions of power. Donald Trump is an exception and so the US is spiralling down. However, its institutions are so solid that unless Trump succeeds in destroying them, they will put severe constraints upon his behaviour even if he wins a second term.

HM: What is the state of Pakistani society and economy in general?

PH: Ours is a very conformist society, wedded to things that were imagined to have happened in the past. Our prime minister tells us to dream of Riyasat-e-Madina and believes in jinns and spirits. Benazir Bhutto was just as superstitious. As for the economy: Pakistan put out a begging bowl ever since 1947. Muhammad Ali Jinnah had no vision of what Pakistan should become and the Muslim League was a hodgepodge of big landlords salivating for still more power. It self-destructed soon after Jinnah died. But, let this not be a reason to despair. Societies and social values do change… history is proof. Many Pakistanis have realised the futility of the present course. Today’s minority of enlightened people can become tomorrow’s majority if we keep trying.

HM: Jinnah was the most astute Muslim politician in British India. Better than Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, in my opinion. He must have had some vision?

PH: Maulana Azad was secular and open-minded. But he was an exception (like Syed Ahmad Khan). Azad went from fundamentalist to secular under Mahatma Gandhi’s influence. Jinnah went from a clear secular stance to a mixed one. Jinnah wanted just one thing – to be the top dog. Nothing else mattered.

HM: What is the situation of minority rights in Pakistan?

PH: Minorities in Pakistan want to hide, not confront. Very wise, I think. They need to keep their heads down.

HM: Some Pakistani ‘liberals’ appear to be insincere since they don’t pay taxes, have a feudal mindset and will support any political actor for their short term gains.

PH: Agreed. We should not confuse liberal thought with liberal lifestyle. The Bhuttos, for example, are liberal in lifestyle but feudal in mindset and don’t think corruption is too bad a thing.

HM: What is your opinion about Benazir Bhutto? She is a hero for many liberal Pakistanis.

PH: She was never one of my heroes. At Karachi Grammar School (KGS) she was a year junior to me. We knew her to be arrogant as hell. She always thought she was born to rule – and she made that evident to all the students. A brave woman, yes, but brave only in protecting her personal and feudal interests. Her corruption in government was legendary, although Asif Ali Zardari took it a step further. So many current senators and acolytes owe their positions of power to her.

HM: There have been efforts by Pakistani Islamic scholars like Javed Ghamdi to modernise the South Asian Muslim mind. Muslims can and have always reformed Islam despite propaganda from opponents. But reformers always face threats from the traditionalists and radicals. Your opinion about this?

PH: Islam is what Muslims make of it, and Islam will modernise if Muslims modernise. I like Ghamdi. He is stretching the limits of Islam in the direction of liberality and taking personal risks. They kill reformers in Muslim countries. Look at Fazlur Rehman. He was like Ghamdi but perhaps a better scholar. He also had to live outside Pakistan. In some ways Ghamdi is not very different from others and his rationalism is limited. For example, during a TV debate that we had soon after the 2005 earthquake he accepted that earthquakes happen because Allah wants to scare people into following the true path. That’s totally unscientific.

HM: My observations about religious reform among European Muslims is that now there is an effort to create a European version of Islam. Could South Asian Muslims learn from this new version of Islam?

PH: You may be right about the new European Islam and it will be interesting to see what forms it takes. Allama Iqbal also tried to create his own version but it ended up being no different from the old. Ijtihad has limits.

HM: What are your observations of the Pakistani diaspora in Europe?

PH: On a short visit to London what hit me in the face was the number of burqas and beards and the arrogance of immigrant Pakistanis who feel that Britain should adapt to their needs rather than they to Britain. If that’s the attitude, then the rise of the Euro-right shouldn’t surprise anyone.

HM: Many of the current problems in the world, such as the Trump phenomenon, appear to be a result of the tensions between localists and globalists. Many think that this is all due to communalism or tribalism and can be overcome through scientific thinking, cosmopolitanism, and liberalism. Is this possible?

PH: Absolutely! There’s just no other way. Tell me if you see an alternative. But, we need a happy synthesis of global with local. The smart liberal will insist on it. Having a modest amount of self-pride and cultural attachment can be a good thing. But communalism is a negative trait because it denigrates the other. Ultimately we all have to learn to live with each other.

HM: What is the future of the subcontinent? Is Pakistan working towards solving the problems posed by overpopulation and global warming?

PH: The subcontinent’s problems are typical of much of the world but of greater magnitude. The globe as a whole is threatened. Our best bet for surviving is to aim for renewable energy, reduce plastics and pollution, decrease consumption levels and work towards a world government that has teeth. I don’t see Pakistani institutions doing any meaningful work on any big issue – climate change, population, water, etc. Nothing is visible so far.

HM: I have read your article “Who’s enemy number one? multiple times. Frankly, it seems like most Pakistanis don’t care about population control and are instead choosing to stick their heads in the sand.

PH: Indeed, you have correctly described the people’s attitude. Water, land, clean air and forests are all disappearing. But religious restrictions on contraception overpower good sense. Ours is a drunken drive into oblivion: “Aye kuch abr kuch sharab aye, Us kay baad aye jo azab aye”.

Hassan Mirza

Hassan Mirza

The writer is working as an applied scientist in Germany and specialises in Computer Simulations, Applied Artificial Intelligence, and Energy Modelling. In his free time he reads extensively in multiple languages (Urdu, English and German) and is interested in writing about scientific and socio-economic issues.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.