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Tag: pakistan


“Social” Media: How Old Newspapers Help Us Understand Partition


Whenever my Pakistani family and acquaintances discuss the original ‘Brexit’, the 1947 transfer of governance to the new states of India and Pakistan, we mostly talk about communal tensions among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, or focus on contemporary political shenanigans in the region. Though most branches of my family were directly affected by the events of 1947, we rarely discuss its personal and familial impact. This interplay of easy conversation and silences around the Partition is a trope in the inheritances of history and family mythology in many Pakistani and Indian families.  

The academic industry around Partition, however, has recently begun to understand that individual and social experiences, as Ilyas Chattha says, are “Partition history’s integral subject, not just its by-product or an aberration”.

We learn more about this world-changing event from the stories of men, women and children who were not in the top tiers of the Muslim League or Indian National Congress parties whose history has come to define this seminal event in the world’s memory.  

As a researcher on The Mittal Institute’s collaborative Partition project, my goal has been to find and understand several pairs of opposites – care and violence, survival and death – as they co-existed in South Asia immediately before and after August 1947. In this massive, under-documented humanitarian episode, the ‘human’ element needs to be better represented in all its complexity.  

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The echo chambers of nationalism present a challenge in developing a three-dimensional model of how the millions of people were affected by Partition, making it harder to conceptualize a true ‘people’s history’. A significant portion of this historiographic focus, certainly in the English language, has been on what would become ‘Indian’ stories, for a variety of reasons.

In the case of Pakistan, at least, the archives that could give shape to a subaltern narrative are lost, scattered or obscured behind concentric circles of privacy, without a will to even look. The country’s fledgling bureaucracy, as well as citizenry, lacked the pre-existing infrastructure and wealth that existed across the border, resulting in a relative flattening of Partition narratives in circulation.  

In the face of this, the rare academics who give time and attention to Pakistan have recently relied extensively on oral histories and also on media analysis to substantiate the description of the human toll of Partition – and, therefore, independence – beyond statistics (assuming these statistics even exist or can be traced).  

Newspapers, along with radio, in Urdu and English, were the main platforms available for displaced people (and those concerned with them) to make a case for themselves. There are classifieds advertizing business opportunities and details of lost loved ones, and passionate letters to the editor that signal discontent to state authorities.

Government organs and functionaries also relied on the tools of media to communicate with their new citizens, as they sought to shape that very citizenry.

There were photographs of politicians in ‘charismatic’ mode speaking and posing among refugees, who were often shown in either classic images of destitution and despair, or occasionally as heroic survivors, much like the new state of Pakistan, which claimed as part of its mystique a resilience in the face of many threats to its independence and security.  

Of course, these resources were most available to those with certain privileges. In a region with relatively low literacy, and where rural areas were particularly affected by disruption and displacement, English and Urdu-language media were not truly representative of the struggles and joys of life of over five million refugees (and the deduction and absence of a similarly-sized population of non-Muslim evacuees).  

The themes that emerge from the layout and content of a newspaper like Dawn, even when addressing the needs of the less privileged, can at best merely hint at the overall picture of what the newly-realized Pakistan meant for the lived experience of each of its constituents, especially those whose experience resisted easy packaging within bigger stories of the successful and best-possible emergence of the Pakistani state.   

With this caveat, I have selected clippings from a newspaper with socialist-leaning bona fides called the Pakistan Times (edited by eminent cultural figure Faiz Ahmad Faiz) to show how news around the partition was expressed and shared by individuals, providing insight into the motivations and struggles that official histories have glossed over.  

To contextualize these clippings, it is important to note that Pakistan was caught up in a frenzy of ‘pioneership’. Reporting on the Partition, into 1948, shared space with tales of battle and suffering in Kashmir and Palestine/Israel, lending an almost cosmological significance to local problems, which seemed to be reflected on the wider global stage.

It is also important to note that newspapers, as the original ‘social’ media, contained multiple voices, including dissenting ones. Hence, we have a remarkably regular series of messages by West Punjab’s civil supplies department, announcements about open meetings with police, as well as expressions of dissatisfaction with government actions, and direct communications between estranged friends and relatives (including non-Muslims).  

Nabil carefully scanning old newspaper clippings

Nabil loading microfilm into the computer at Widener Library

In selecting these clippings, I have chosen to highlight stories of unexpected relationships as well as glimpses into the lived experience of refugees and those individuals and organizations in relationship with these displaced.  

The economy of displacement included, in small ways, the continuation of connections between Muslim and non-Muslim, as private transactions around property occurred before sufficient government management of property exchange between departing evacuees and incoming refugees.  

The elite and upper middle classes were called out for aspects of their lifestyles during the ongoing emergency, and daily requests for aid to the national fund for refugee assistance (alongside reports of conspicuous donations made by schools, professional associations, townships etc.) emphasized generosity as a civic virtue of the new regime.

Newspapers facilitated communication in a period where other media were not as reliable. Refugees drew attention to the difficulties they faced in navigating their new lives. The government of Indore in India even used Pakistani newspapers to connect with potential incoming migrants. 

This archive, like most, is a static one, so we do not know the antecedents or after-life of any of these pieces of newspaper art and literature (what, for example, was the Hindu or Sikh refugee’s response to the Indore announcement?); nonetheless, these excerpts allow us to focus our lines of inquiry as researchers on the texture of the social fabric of the newly formed dominions, with neatness and linearity in some cases, and deep complexity in others. 

 

Nabil A Khan is a Visiting Scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, led by Professor Jennifer Leaning, at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. This is the first in a series of blog posts about SAI’s Partition Project.

Remembering Asma Jahangir: “Pakistan’s Conscience”


By Mariam Chughtai, Ed.D. ’15, SAI Pakistan Programs Director

Mariam Chughtai and Asma Jahangir at Harvard in 2015

 

The auditorium was full as Asma Jahangir, who passed away this week at the age of just 66, delivered the Harvard Asia Center’s prestigious, annual Tsai Lecture in March 2015. Pakistani speakers at Harvard are quite rare, perhaps because anyone from the country who is consequential is, typically, also highly controversial.

Asma Jahangir was of course both, but the difference was that even those who disagreed with her respected her fearlessness. She was Pakistan’s conscience.

I remember first seeing her when I was a freshman at Kinnaird College, an all-women institution in Lahore, Pakistan. I sat at the very back of a large hall packed with young women, waiting to hear the great Asma Jahangir speak. We sat in awe of her bravery and most of us were also afraid for her life.

There were intense social debates taking place in Pakistan at the time, centred around a case she had taken on; her client was an adult woman who was asserting the right to marry without the consent of her guardian. She was facing down the religious right, which is not something many people attempt in Pakistan. Her fight went all the way to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which eventually ruled in favor of a woman’s unilateral right to marry whomever she wanted without need for permission.

Asma Jahangir took on many of these challenges, any one of which would be enough to gather a lifetime of deserved plaudits. She was not only the most prominent human rights lawyer; she was the most successful.

In a society where women are sentenced to be gang-raped and honor killings are justified in the name of culture, Asma Jahangir relentlessly pursued new laws to protect women.

She represented the most persecuted victims in front of the Supreme Court. At a time when anti-blasphemy laws are frequently invoked to settle personal disputes and persecute minorities, Asma Jahangir represented Christians who were being held unfairly in jail, helping them get a fair trial.

She fought to restore children to the custody of their mothers. She challenged the state to fulfill its responsibility of providing education, health and employment to poor children, instead of trying them indiscriminately as juvenile offenders.

Her life was frequently in danger; she stood up to fearsome Pakistani regimes in the service of human rights and democracy. Tear-gassed, beaten and imprisoned, she led fellow activists from the Women Action Forum in the first public protest against military dictator General Zia in 1983, demanding equal rights for women.

There were death threats, assassination attempts and bullet holes in her office, but she continued to persevere right till the end.

I’ve often wondered how people like Asma Jahangir charge ahead despite these seemingly formidable odds. Religious political extremists labelled her anti-state and anti-Islam, stigmatizing her in the eyes of many. But in her struggles, you find a deep calm, anchored in the perpetual pursuit of justice.

Here is a text message that I received in the wake of her untimely death. To me, this embodies her essence:

 

aur jab jahan’num kay farishtay

fatwa-farosh molviyon ko

seekh maen pero kar

aag par bhoon rahay hon gay

tou aik divani aurat

kala coat pehan kar

khuda ki adalat maen

aen-e-asmani ki shik Ghafur-ur-Raheem kay tehat

gunah-garon ki bakhshish kay liay

dalael day ge

wohi Asma Jahangir ho ge

 

when angels

roast mullahs

on skewers

in hell

this same mad woman

in a black coat

will appear

before the lord

petitioning

for clemency

for the holy sinners