“Immortalised for his pervasive influence on Urdu language and thought, the rising totalitarianism propagated by today’s hard line elements flattens the world of great poets like Ghalib who were admired for their thought provoking verses”
In a letter to his pupil and close friend Munshi Har Gopal Tufta, the great poet and mystic Mirza Ghalib wrote, “I hold all mankind to be my kin and look upon all men — Muslim, Hindu, Christian — as my brothers, no matter what others may think.”
With recent celebrations for Ghalib’s 220th birthday and with the start of a new year, these words have never held more urgency. 2017 closed with yet another suicide bombing at a church in Quetta just before Christmas where nine people were killed and over 50 wounded. This is just one example of the violence faced by Pakistan’s besieged minorities at the hands of extremist forces.
Ghalib lived through a tumultuous age when the Mughal empire ended and British imperial rule started. His poetry bears eloquent witness to this fraught period, capturing the instability and confusion of the time. Today, Pakistan finds itself in another state of dislocation as the society faces takeover by obscurantist groups whose dogma ruthlessly excludes religious diversity and targets society’s most vulnerable.Violence against Christians, Shias, Ahmadis and Hindus, prisoners languishing on death row on charges of blasphemy, the lynching of innocents like Mashal Khan, the destruction of places of worship and violence against women in so called ‘honour killings’ are all effects of this deadly extremism.
Today’s rising fanaticism represents a hypocrisy that Ghalib exposed over a century ago. ‘Kahan maikhana ka darwaza Ghalib aur kahan waaez, Par itna jaante hain, kal wo jaata tha ke ham nikle.’ (Where is the tavern door, Ghalib, and where the cleric! But this I know: yesterday he entered as I was leaving.)
His irreverence towards religious orthodoxy delighted and intrigued his audiences, urging them to look beyond the pronouncements of those claiming to represent religion. In today’s repressive climate, one can only wonder how such words would be received. As a result of increasing religious intolerance, Pakistan’s diversity has been significantly eroded. At the time of independence, Pakistan’s religious minorities made up over 20 per cent of the population. This has reduced to less than 4 per cent as increasing numbers flee the country. In recent years, valiant defenders of minority rights have been ruthlessly gunned down, most notably Punjab’s former governor Salmaan Taseer and former federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
Even though Pakistan’s constitution expressly provides for the protection of minority rights, other laws, in particular Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, are routinely used to target and intimidate citizens belonging to minority communities. These laws contradict the original vision of a progressive, democratic and tolerant society as mandated in the country’s original mission statement. On 11 August 1947, Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah said to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state…”
With increasing sectarian and ethnic strife in Pakistan, Ghalib’s verses on the inherent unity of all creation hold profound meaning, ‘Asl e shahood o shahid o mashhood ek hai, Hairaan hun phir mushaahida hai kis hisaab mein’ (The search, the witness, and the witnessed are the same, I’m bewildered as to what sense to make of this observation). Equally, the despair and disillusionment often voiced in Ghalib’s poetry acquires renewed relevance in a deeply polarised Pakistan. Qaid-e-hayat-o band-e-gham asal mein dono aik hain, Maut se pehle aadmi gham se nijat paye kyon? (The prison of life and the bondage of grief are one and the same, Before the onset of death, how can man expect to be free of grief?).
Immortalised for his pervasive influence on Urdu language and thought, the rising totalitarianism propagated by today’s hard line elements flattens the world of great poets like Ghalib who were admired for their soul-stirring and thought provoking verses. To help address the violent prejudices that have overtaken society, Pakistan must shift its focus away from the invective of extremists and instead place greater emphasis on its rich legacy of poetic masters like Ghalib.