Atish Taseer-Shashi Tharoor Tag Team v. Pakistani Liberals

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

Atish Taseer wrote a rather mediocre piece in the Wall Street Journal named “Why my father hated India”.  Then Shashi Tharoor wrote a piece called “Delusional liberals” which defended Atish Taseer’s piece.  I wonder if these two gentlemen realize how similar their rhetoric- couched in simplistic terms- is to the 1500 page manifesto released by Anders  Breivik when it comes to Pakistan.

  1. Atish and Anders both believe that Mohammad Iqbal was a founder of Pakistan
  2. Atish, Anders and Shashi Tharoor all believe that Pakistanis are clever scheming rascals out to do substantial damage to the world.
  3. Atish, Anders and Shashi Tharoor believe that there is something genetically wrong with the Pakistani mindset that predisposes it to violence and exclusion.
  4. Atish and Shashi Tharoor pieces were aimed at reinforcing the Pakistan bogey, just like Anders who feared “mini-Pakistans” and “Pakistanis in London”.

The day Atish Taseer wrote about why he thought his father was a bigot, I could not help but find a ripped poster praising Mumtaz Qadri for killing Salmaan Taseer in the Lahore High Court’s computer section ironic.  Sadly Indians – even those as closely related as a son to their father- are unable to understand Pakistan, a country that was only six decades a part of their own.

To say that Atish’s piece was inaccurate would be an understatement. It was a piece that singularly captured in all its tragic sadness the way Indians like him have been unable to come to terms with the existence of Pakistan as a nation state that has much right to exist as India.

 Forget that Salmaan Taseer’s entire career as a politician and a newspaper publisher was dedicated to secular liberal politics but let us highlight the fact that he mocked the failure of Indian missile test.  Simply put in order for Salmaan Taseer to prove his “liberalism” to Indians like Atish Taseer, not that the great man lost any sleep over it, dying for the cause of a poor marginalized Christian woman was not enough. No! The late governor should have instead patted the Indians on the back for a good effort in trying to perfect a weapon of mass destruction! Yes because we all know true liberalism is really about how many Indians you hug. Things like women’s rights, minority rights and standing up for unpopular causes are incidental and at times inconvenient facts that need to swept under the rug.

 Atish got the narrative of partition wrong as well. Muhammad Iqbal, who in any event played a peripheral role in the Pakistan movement, in his famous speech of 1930 was quite clear that the state he was proposing would not be a religious state nor did he envisage a complete separation. Both Iqbal and Jinnah started off as staunch Indian nationalists who believed in the plurality of India and Hindu-Muslim Unity. Iqbal’s poem “hai Hindustan hamara” remains one of the most touching odes to mother India for many Indians. He also forgets that Jinnah, the Darth Vader of the popular Indian imagination who ultimately became the founder of Pakistan and whose name our Indian Harry Potter must not utter, was the only Indian politician to be called the best ambassador of Hindu Muslim Unity.

The truth is that partition of India happened because the Hindu right-wing within the Congress Party was unable to come to terms with the rising secular liberal Muslim salariat represented largely by westernised and secular urban professionals like Jinnah and Atish Taseer’s grandfather, M D Taseer. These people asked for things like a share of jobs, competition in business and a share in sovereignty.  Mahatma Gandhi was much more willing to deal with the rigid Maulanas of Deoband and conservative Pathan leaders like Bacha Khan who were willing to bargain economic and political rights of the Muslim minority for the right to shepherd their flock. Had the Congress Party dealt with the secular liberal Muslim leadership properly there would have been no partition of India. Now this is precisely what bothers Indians like Atish Taseer about Pakistani liberals: they refuse to roll over and play dead.

 Salmaan Taseer was the generation that followed partition and was imbued with a sense of achievement and identity that had internalized the reformist legacy of Islamic modernism. If Salmaan Taseer mocked the failure of India’s test of weapons of mass destruction, it was because those weapons were ultimately aimed at their country. He had consistently spoken out against groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba that targeted innocent civilians in India.  So it was natural that a confident and successful Pakistani like him threatened Indians like Atish who are drunk with their “sudden prosperity” and unable to accept to see a Pakistani like Salmaan Taseer standing up with his head held high and not hailing shining India. Unable to make sense of his father’s liberal and secular Pakistani nationalism, he wrote a book that illustrated for his readers his own personal turmoil about his father and the country he loved. Now this is the real reason why Atish Taseer hates Pakistan and he also hates Pakistan because he does have a parent who is a borderline bigot. It is his mother, Tavleen Singh, a mouthpiece for the right wing BJP and Indian ultra-nationalism.

And if that was not enough, Shashi Tharoor, once the foremost ambassador for brand India, decided to jump to Atish’s defence with an equally ill-conceived article titled “Delusional Liberals”. It was a distasteful rant that played on the readily available anti-Pakistan card and which named people like Marvi Sirmed and Ejaz Haider as “liberals” who were Pakistanis before they were liberal and who were trying to prove a point about their nationalism.  If anything Marvi Sirmed’s rage against Atish Taseer ‘s piece should have given  any reasonable person reason to pause and ponder for anyone who has met Ms Sirmed that she is not your India-baiting Pakistani nationalist type.  She is a rare Pakistani who is perfectly at ease with Pakistan’s Indian cultural heritage and South Asian identity. People like her have courageously stood against the civil military establishment of Pakistan and have acted as whistle-blowing voices of reason.

 To suggest that “Indians need to put aside their illusions that there are liberal partners for us on the other side of the border who echo our diagnosis of their plight and share our desire to defenestrate their military” is tantamount to saying “if you don’t agree with our diagnosis you are not liberal”. While a very large number of Pakistanis, not just liberal ones, might not want to “defenestrate” our military but they do want to bring it under strict civilian control and scrutiny.  Some of them have faced jail and torture for this but of course nothing less than total surrender would be enough for you. One question though: would a Pakistani liberal – who might share your vision for defenestration of Pakistani military- remain a liberal in your opinion if he also expressed a similar wish about your military?

Pakistan – with all its problems and turmoil- will survive and things will get better; this is what history teaches us. For all of Mr. Tharoor and Atish Taseer’s thinly veiled triumphalism, it would be worthwhile for them to remember that time is a great leveler and on a long enough timeline there are no winners and losers.

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