The book was released in August 2013 at the Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Prof. Mushir ul Hasan held a conversation with the author. A friend present there made this video. Transcript of the discussion follows.
Introductory Comments by Mushir ul Hasan: I’m delighted to be associated with the launch of this book; however, I believe that the subtitle of the book could have been a touch different. ‘The impressions of a Pakistani traveller’ – immediately creates an image in my mind of the ‘distinct other’, and I think it is this sense that we’re probably trying to do away with here. One of the strengths of this book lies with the fact that it does try to bridge the intellectual and cultural gap that exists, or has been created, since both country’s gained independence in 1947.
I particularly noticed the fact that Raza doesn’t actually look at Delhi, its cultural profile and its social profile as an outsider or someone who hails from Pakistan. He demonstrates empathy and respect for the city and has knowledge of the city’s development and its growth. According to me, he relied on skill and intuition to study some of the features of this city – particularly those of you who have read the sections on the Sufi shrines. They’re not only informative to many readers, but evocative at the same time, and yet in a certain sense, they also represent, the true character and complexion of this diverse city. I would like to thank Mr. Raza for writing a book about ‘our city’; as it is a very lively, vivid and comprehensive narrative.
I would also want to bring to the attention of academicians, that in order to understand the book, one needs to draw a distinction between academic and journalistic writing. The thin line that divides the two is blurred nowadays, which is why I would be glad to recommend your book to my students to understand what eloquent and comprehensive writing is all about. The book has a considerable amount of interesting insights, with the exception of certain sections.
The book is incisive from the outset and it looks at a city through a holistic lens. To eloquently describe its history, its past and its present without having lived here is a commendable effort and I am lending my voice and my views, to the number of reviews that have already appeared in the newspapers, regarding the book. Almost all the reviews that I have read are very interesting and I do hope that this book will go a long way in familiarizing Raza’s countrymen and our countrymen with the vibrancy of this city, its multifaceted personality and the manner in which Delhi has grown over the centuries. Thank you once again, for writing such a good book.
Author’s response: ( Raza Rumi): I’m truly honoured to be here in front of an erudite panel and a distinguished audience. Needless to mention, that I’m rather moved by the fact that so many people have shown up for this book launch and have actually bought my work and bothered to read it. As I started to write this, I had my doubts as to whether I’d be able to compile a piece on a place, as complex and diverse as Delhi. In addition, writing it as a Pakistani also posed a challenge, given that in our country we have a particular version and narrative of India and a city which has historical significance such as Delhi. The kind of nationalist narratives that exist here and there meant that breaking from that mould and getting out of that box was going to be a cumbersome process.
So I began to enjoy the challenge from the outset. I will however, have to shamelessly admit that this book is a bit about me as well, or rather it’s about my own discovery of my composite identity that sort of became obscure, since 1947. I came to Delhi before and my first visit was in 2005. During that time I realized that the obscured identity still exists. It informs the way that people live and think in Pakistan, and also on this side of the border as well.
My first visit was extremely important as I managed to benefit from the sort of human interaction, with India, which came in the form of Rohini, who is also coincidentally here. 22 years ago when we were students together at the LSE, I had to tell everybody that she’s the love of my life. She being a Kashmiri pundit, demolished a lot of my Kashmir advocacy as a young student and said,
“Just shut up, you don’t know what we’ve gone through, so stop lecturing me about it”
I guess that was the point when my interaction with India became far more ‘Humanized’. Later on when I worked with the UN, and ADB, I realized that there’s too many of such people with whom a ‘humanized’ interaction can take place, in all shades, forms and with all sorts of expertise. Over the course of the last 6 to 7 years, I switched my professional course towards the media which helped me interact with an array of senior journalists of which some of them are here in this hall.
So in a way my interaction with Delhi is kind of my own discovery of the ‘other‘ factor, which to be honest, is blatant resistance to the stereotypes that all of us have become enveloped into. The problem with the subcontinent today, is that this whole idea of a nation-state and nationalism, along with militarization, war mantras and jingoisms here and there, need to be considered as outdated concepts. In Pakistan we grew up with the idea that the world had started when we gained independence in 1947. However, this is erroneous to say the least. The fact of the matter is that Pakistani culture, cuisine, music, values and the family structure; it is somehow linked to North India, which we must acknowledge.
My interaction with Delhi, which was historically the seat of the Mughal Empire, allowed me to explore this undeniable fact, with more detail. As a Pakistani who was interested in the cultural aspect of my country, such as Sufism, Delhi gave me a vivid picture of historical and modern times and allowed me to explore the paths of my own identity, whether it’s the Urdu language or the Mughlai cuisine which is ubiquitous throughout the city. The poetry that we hear or learn from the great master poets, or the kind of Islam that we’ve grown up was also something I had gotten familiar with.
This experience prompted me to write this book. I wouldn’t consider it an academic or scholarly articulation. Instead, it is a journey of a Pakistani who heads off and explores a city which can not be more similar than his own.
I would like to extend my gratitude to some of the people who appear in the book such as Sadia Dahelvi, who is here with us today. She acts as a central character in my book as she was my initial guide and friend. I consider her my ‘Sufi’ soul mate, who accompanied me throughout the course of writing this book. Sadia was also going through a transition in her life, and discovering her proclivity towards’ Sufism’, as well. Together, we went to over a hundred shrines around the city, some of which I had never seen before. Snap after snap, I continued to take pictures with Sadia, whether I was standing next to an unmarked grave and trying to figure out what this was or whether I was being overawed by the magnificent Indo-Islamic architecture that lay before us. Sadia was also in the process of writing her own narrative on Sufism and her interfaith journey, and it was through Vidya, that I discovered and acknowledged that all the major religions of India and Pakistan tend to intertwine and intermingle with one another in different ways. Through the language of music and I realized some of the hymns sung for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), with Hindu metaphors would in Pakistan, be considered blasphemous! I seriously hope that nobody reports that!
In a nutshell, my friendship with Sadia was a learning experience as we managed to acknowledge that narratives articulated in textbooks do not reflect on ground realities between both countries. For example, in our poetry and fiction of the 40s, ghastly events and human tragedies unfolded, and hence literature is a great vehicle to explore what both societies had in common.
I would also like to thank Mr. Irfan Habib as well. It’s quite nice to see him here, whom I owe quite a lot in terms of the contemporary debates about India and Islam and Indian Muslims and the term ‘Jihad’ as we see it today. Jihad is not about guns and violence as that’s how it has been boxed and simplified as a political product for many Muslims across the globe. It is about truth, reconciliation and striving to do ‘right’, which is a narrative that mandates change amongst the scholarly community.
Finally I would also like to thank, the editor Ms. Munni Sekhar, who was the most hard working and tenacious individual, especially when it came to my romantic notions of ‘Tara’. I would write something about the ‘Vedas’ and she would correct me and give me the right references to my topic. I would like to stop here and thank you all.
Mushir ul Hasan: Thank you Mr. Raza, Let me begin by asking you about your interest or fascination in Sufism. How did this interest develop? And what is it in Sufi shrines in India, which appeals to you?
Raza Rumi: I’m glad you asked this. I think I have touched upon this in the book, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I think I sort of inherited it from my family, (more out of touristic urge). When we were young, we were dragged to ‘Dargas’ and children were told to not go in there completely. In Lahore there’s a shrine of Data Darbar, dedicated to Abul Hassan Ali Hajvery, who passed away in the, and the shrine stands there, and there’s a small 11th century. There is a corner in that complex, where Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz undertook his forty days of meditation and exercises. This fact always triggered my inquisitive nature, as I would ask my father “Where’s is this guy, and why is he so important?” He would reply by saying that we can’t go there, because it’s impossible.
That sort of a response made me curious as I grew up. I began to read more about my own faith and what it stands and I realized that the essence of Islam or the faith that you practice lays in the kind of Sufi doctrine that has emerged right from the times of the Prophet himself. The unfortunate part is that it is that sort of narrative, which has either been suppressed or distorted by a very powerful clergy in Muslim empires and Caliphates, where that very same clergy began to deliberately give Islam a rigorous disposition. Yet that was not the case all over the Muslim world. Sufis, whenever they were in Iran, Central Asia, India or Africa, managed to reconcile their faith with local traditions and retained the plurality of that particular context. They ensured that their faith and practices were inclusive enough and were not puritanical or vulnerable to outside influence. So when your searching for God in any context, you imbibe local traditions whilst be a devotee of Allah at the same time. The fact to realize is that and there’s no contradiction and I believe that, that’s the kind of idea that was propagated in India and partly, in my family, to whom I owe my conversion to Sufism to.
Mushir ul Hasan: Why then are Sufi shrines targeted in Pakistan?
Raza Rumi The ideology and the kind of the influence of the clergy in Pakistan are the defining factors. I did mention the term ‘Jihad’ before, and the fact that this term is politically motivated is one of the reasons why we see a brazen amount of attacks on Sufi shrines across Pakistan. The problem that Muslims and countries like Pakistan face today is the perpetuation and propagation of the ‘Wahhaabi/Salafi’ ideology, which is essentially a political construct with a strong hold in Saudi Arabia. This ideology has nothing to do with spirituality or faith, but instead, views the world with an aim to dominate it. Wahhabis aim to impose their interpretation of Islam which is exclusive and not inclusive in nature. It shuns away the role of women in Islam and considers non-Muslims to be heretics and blasphemers. Unfortunately, this form of Islam has a stronghold in Pakistan which is why attacks against shrines take place.
The Data Durbar is one such complex which has been unscathed so far, which makes it the oldest Sufi shrine in South Asia. There were several invasions by the Mongols, yet it was never touched or harmed. In recent times, there have been sporadic incidents of blasts on shrines, which target the ‘ Bralevis’, who have a different doctrine to the Wahhabis, and constitute the majority of Pakistani Muslims in the country today. Nearly, forty shrines have been attacked in the last two to four years in Pakistan.
Mushir ul Hasan: Would you then say that this two-nation theory and the principle of partition, was inherently flawed? If you look at it from hindsight, all the assumptions that went into the making of the two-nation theory have been proven to be more or less wrong, whether we take the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, or the horrendous attacks on Shias in Pakistan, today. If such incidents are taking place, and if Islam really is an inclusive religion, which I believe it is, then doesn’t its manifestation in Pakistan and politics, undermine the two nation theory?
Raza Rumi: I would like to draw your attention to Zia-ul-Haq’s era in Pakistan. There was a section in the Pakistani penal code (and its something actually that both Pakistan and India share), where he added a section in which they said that if you were to make a remark against the ideology of Pakistan and deny the two-nation theory, you could actually be imprisoned. I think that answers your question right there.
Honestly, I think the issue is that the two-nation theory has, as you said, undergone a certain test of events, but I think I’m more inclined towards the idea that our founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had in mind for the state of Pakistan which Ayesha Jalal has also mentioned. The arrangement of partition was more of a bargaining counter or a negotiation plan, for the Indian National Congress as well as the British. I believe that the events which formed partition were so rapid, complicated and mishandled, that it eventually did occur. I also believe that the Muslim elite during that period of time, in the minority provinces, had a strong role in pushing for the creation of Pakistan, because their economic and their political power interests were linked to the idea of Pakistan. I briefly touched on this issue in this book as well, and tried to represent them as vividly as possible.
So I am going to adopt the middle road here as a moderate Muslim, when it comes to the question of Partition.
Mushir ul Hasan: The questions were basically to familiarize the audience here, those of you who have not read the book. So, I am not suggesting that you haven’t covered these things, but I just want to see a response from you. Allow me to quality what I meant when I asked about the two-nation theory and bring you back to India – which is, nationalism itself, of which we are legitimately proud of. We had thought that with the withdrawal of the British, and with our notions of nationalism, everything would be bright and beautiful. But the events of the last decades have very clearly brought out the inherent contradictions, divisions, fissures in our society today. It is quite clear that nationalism has not been able to compensate for those fissures. Look at what is happening in the North East of our country, where nationalism is not an active ideology and is more of a semantic force. So we have to basically question, both nationalism as well as communalism.
But let me bring you back to Delhi as well, where in this book, you celebrate the composite character of this city. You celebrate the city, its architecture, its Sufi shrines, and its individuals – but in the process, is there a danger of missing out on the more ugly aspects of this city? You don’t talk about the ugly aspects in this book. The recent book by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, talk about how the elites of Delhi, their arrogance and indifference to the poor, and to the deprived sections of society, are brazen realities. I suspect that that is also a theme which needs to be brought to the fore.
Raza Rumi I subscribe to your point here and the book doesn’t come across as a critique of the way of life in Delhi. However, I have tried to address some of these concerns, particularly with respect to the minorities. I wanted to delve deeper into that aspect, but then I was afraid that the focus of the book would become obscure.
The aim of the book was to lay in front of the readers that 1000 years of a common past is so formidable and so deeply entrenched, that 65 years of turbulent contemporary realities was and is nothing compared to that. That’s the central theme of the book. So I think that’s the kind of stuff that I wanted to bring out.
I also bring up the point on multiple occasions, that it’s not only Pakistanis who need to be aware of why Delhi is important, but for other inhabitants of the subcontinent as well, such as Bangladeshis. If you have a particular Indian or Hindu/Muslim identity, then I believe that Delhi has informed and shaped all of those identities in a manner in which you could co-exist as both a devout Muslim and an Indian, which is a far older, more ancient and more amorphous identity.
Mushir ul Hasan: I want to draw your attention to all these quotes you’ve written in the book, which is not in the text books today. Today’s Delhi is a completely fragmented city, and very polarized at the same time. For example, there is a Muslim ghetto, which is the Jamia Masjid area. Beyond Delhi gate is the Forbidden City and you only go there to have kebabs – otherwise its not part of your mainstream life in the city. I think that’s a reality which ‘Dilliwallas’ don’t quite recognize, or want to admit. Likewise Nizamuddin is where the shrines are and where the Tableeghi mosque is.
I think the kind of compositeness, that Ahmad Ali talked of, is completely absent from this city.
Raza Rumi: I expected you to say that. But I think you have to look at my perspective and see who I am and what I am trying to hint at. I’m not an Indian looking at Delhi, I’m a Pakistani looking at Delhi, and I think that is where my perspective draws from. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Those who stayed’, and I would point the finger at my friend Faiza Khan here, who is the culprit behind most of the chapter titles, that I had initially proposed. Similarly, ‘The siege within’ is a chapter about the Indian Muslims. Faiza said she will convey a wrong impression about the Indian Muslims, because readers might believe that they are harshly treated! So there was that narrative. And then there was the narrative of the highly polished and educated Indian Muslims as well. So you know, I was stuck with all these questions and I don’t know if I’ve addressed them all, because this is a very complex area of study which mandates considerable research.
Mushir ul Hasan: I must assure you ladies and gentlemen that this is a very balanced and objective appraisal of the contemporary situation in Delhi, and I think there are an array of issues that may not figure in this discussion, but are very much part of the narrative as well.
I also wanted to talk about the underlying strain of your book, [which] is on interfaith dialogue. Could you shed some light on that?
Raza Rumi: I think it’s still a very difficult endeavour and one has to be very realistic about that. I think certain things about Indian and Pakistani societies are in a flux. Pakistan is undergoing a major transformation, from all sides, not just demographically. The demography has shifted so radically in the last decade or so that a country where two thirds of people were below the age of 28, might witness the majority of the population being under 35 in ten years time. Now that’s a completely new dynamic. I think in India, its half of the country which is below this age bracket.
There’s a transformation going on in society and the role of the internet and social media for example, also feeds and reinforces stereotypes which spew hatred amongst people of different religions, races and ethnicities. These tools however, are also effective in breaking those barriers and in promoting this kind of interfaith/interstate understanding which his needed. One might not be able to achieve a state of Utopia but the current trends promise a great deal. There is an increase of young people from both India and Pakistan, and I say this because, I’ve been blogging since 2005, as a bureaucrat in various places. That’s when I realized that there are so many young Indians and Pakistanis in the blogosphere wanting to communicate and respond to different issues such as promoting interfaith harmony and mutual coexistence.
In a nutshell, things are transforming and changing and whether they actually result in that interfaith and intercultural harmony remains to be seen.
Mushir ul Hasan: And this book could help? (Laughter). Is it selling well in Pakistan?
Raza RumiIn Pakistan, I would say it’s sold out, but I would dare to say that the bigoted terrorists are reading the book.
Question/ Comment: I’m interested and excited to know about Pakistani writers and journalists these days, and what I found out was very heartening to discern, that people like Najam Sethi, Hassan Nisar and Marvi Sarmed have a fan following and praise India at the same time. This wasn’t the case before, and now again, it’s very pleasant to see. Its really heart warming
Raza Rumi I just want to say that we praise certain things about India but not everything! There is a claim on Kashmir my friend!
Question: How do you view religious seminaries and their tendency to resort towards extremism? What are the factors which can breed extremist ideologues?
Raza Rumi I think the problem is that the influence of petrodollars from the Gulf is simply one of the key common threads that all nations are facing. This is the money that finances newer, modern facets of organized religious seminaries. And there’s no harm in seminaries that give instructions, but when the petrodollar comes with a political ideology and a quest for dominating the non-Muslim model of the world, then it becomes a problem.
Question: How do you view minorities in South Asia?
Raza Rumi: I view the situation of minorities in our region as problematic. There is something wrong with South Asians, or the way they govern. If you look at Nepal or even a peaceful country like Bhutan, if you have a Nepalese minority or migrants, they will be systematically tortured or treated harshly, which makes eve the most peaceful, blissful little nation on earth as appalling. Similarly, if you go to Bangladesh, there are many issues between Muslims and a large Hindu minority. The intensity however, varies but it’s an issue we all share. That problem again relates to the very notion and question, that whether nationalism as a concept has really worked, in these countries or not.