Open to contradictions

Awami Jamhoori Forum was launched in April 2003 as a magazine that would express the profound change that was taking place in progressive and leftist thought in Pakistan. After the demise of the USSR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, most of the erstwhile Marxist thinkers had been co-opted by the rise of the non-governmental organisations. Those who were used to dissect reality by using analytical vocabulary of a bygone era had given up terms like "dialectical materialism" and "lumpenproletariat" and were now busy with "capacity building" and "empowering the marginalised." At this juncture in the history of critical thinking and writing in Pakistan, it was important to create a platform where all forms of social critique could gather and express themselves. That is the spirit Azad Kausri attempts to capture in the editorial of the first issue (April 2003) still available online in pdf format at 

In the issues that followed after the launch, many students, labour activists, academics, and left-leaning intellectuals expressed their views. All those who were disillusioned with the lack of a proper platform for voicing their opinion in the traditional or mainstream media began contributing to the magazine -- including those who challenged the myths of the possibility of a classless utopia waiting for the proletariat. 

The latest issue of Awami Jamhoori Forum continues with the provision of an all-inclusive space for views on the victory of Barack Obama in the recent American election. The leading article by Khalid Mehmood is on Pak-US relations after the arrival of Obama and discusses how the dynamics of race relations have changed in contemporary America. On the other hand, Obama's victory, according to Mehmood, is not going to provide any great relief for the troubles of the FATA area because Obama, during a visit to Afghanistan, had announced his willingness to bomb the tribal area if it was necessary. 

The highlight of the issue, for this reviewer, is the interview of Agha Khan Sahotra, a 102 years old political activist from the low-caste (dalits, subalterns, masalis, maachis, chamars, changars, deendars) people of South Asia (pages 28-35). According to Sahotra, the low-caste peoples of South Asia are the original Dravidians whose origins go back to Harrapan civilisation. Originally the masalis used to live in the uninhabited and outlying areas. After the British arrived, they started forcing people to live in villages and chaks and started conducting population censuses, according to the residential addresses. According to Sahotra, before the arrival of the British, this society was quite different: "anyone could occupy any piece of uninhabited land and start living and cultivating for as long as they desired" (page 29). The interview recreates a past we have all forgotten. For example, when Sahotra was in school, he had to study Urdu and Persian in primary schools and learnt calligraphy with the calamus and the inkpot on a wooden tablet. In those days, only someone with a primary education could register to cast a vote. Sahotra highlights the attraction of Islam and Buddhism for the low-caste peoples of South Asia because both of these religions do not believe in the caste hierarchy. 

Other sections of the magazine include educational essays on materialism, interfaith harmony, and art history. There are also essays to highlight local issues. For example, an article titled "The City of the Prime Minister" reveals the situation of roads and traffic jams in Multan in quite vivid terms. An essay by Iqbal Bali Dhiloon analyses the thorny issue of the so-called War on Terror. Dhiloon criticises those liberal sections of Pakistani society who are allowing the government to bomb its own citizens because they do not like Islamic extremism. Dhiloon posits that democracy cannot flourish in Pakistan unless the neo-colonial aggression of Western powers and Islamic fascism of the mullahs are both rejected together and the policies of the government begin reflecting the will of the people of Pakistan. 

The most interesting part of the magazine is the various anecdotes which are part of almost every article for illustrating a philosophical argument. In an essay titled "Electricity, Wheat Flour, the Taliban, and our Eternal Disorder," Hassan Wasan narrates the views of a Hindko-speaking taxi driver in Rawalpindi. For this nameless taxi-driver, all the faults of Pakistan are due to the emergence of Islamabad on the landscape. The taxi driver says: "No one in Islamabad can remain sane. We know the Margalla region for generations and it is a haunted terrain. When the government decided to build the capital here, the jinns were disturbed and so they decided that they will not let anyone govern properly. Since then, anyone who comes to Islamabad to rule over Pakistan gets his mind possessed by jinns" (page 14). Interestingly, this argument has also been put forward by a famous poet but, there, the entire country is haunted. 

All in all, Awami Jamhoori Forum makes an interesting read and, because it is a non-profit venture, it remains quite open to contrarian views of the organic intellectual.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated November 23, 2008