Thursday, November 3, 2016

दिल्ली के Pollution और हमारी modern ज़िन्दगी पर मेरी कविता: 'विकास'


हवा ज़हर हो गयी
ज़िन्दगी क़हर हो गयी
AC में उम्र कट गयी
तुमने सुना नहीं?
देश की डेवेलोपमेंट हो गयी!

नल से निकला पीला पानी
गंगा हो गयी गन्दी नाली
जल बन गया बिसलेरी,
बढ़ेगा हमारा GDP!

बच्चों से खाली हुई गलियाँ
कमरों में बस गयी दुनिया
कहाँ गए बगीचे,
कहाँ गयी क्यारी,
पार्क करेंगे एक और गाड़ी

यह खरीद, वह खरीद
मन भर भी गया तो,
और खरीद
कितने Mall , कितने बुटीक
विकास के हैं यही प्रतीक!

खाने में है पेस्टिसाइड
किसान ने किया सुसाइड
मगर घबराना नहीं मेरे भाई  
गंदगी साफ़ करेगा टाइड!

बंद करता हूँ अब यह बकवास
बढाओ टीवी की आवाज़
आने वाला है news hour,
इंडिया बन गया superpower

- अमित

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Shock. Awe. Rinse and Repeat
(Or, If a terrorist drops a bomb in the middle of the forest, does it make a sound?)

Stupid shit is dangerous. I woke up with a friend's phone call this morning who told me about the attack in Paris. "Oh fuck these ISIS people", I muttered instinctively, not entertaining the possibility that it could be someone else. Perhaps the lag between waking up as a person and as a supposedly objective left-liberal is about twenty minutes. Before that, it is all a festival of untainted prejudice. Still half asleep, I opened the web browser on my phone and logged on to a news website. The headline proclaimed 120 dead. 120. Paris. A famous city and a three digit casualty figure. This was something to give a fuck about, my still half asleep brain concluded. Somehow 120 dead in Paris evokes a response that 90 dead in Turkey (who cares about which city) doesn't. Unless of course, it says 'Almost 100 dead in Turkey'. Almost 100 is respectable. The decimal system is the most surreptitiously evil hegemony that humankind conjured. 

The 'terror attack follow up' is a synchronized dance routine the world has perfected over the years, and I am no exception. So, having read the headlines, I was on Step 2: Twitter. #ParisAttacks was 'trending'. The news of the attacks had prompted an out pour of banalities of the haters and the well intentioned. But since I don’t have any hope or patience with the former, it is the stupidity of the latter that annoys me. So for the remainder of this rant, it is them I speak to. First tweet: "Terrorism has no religion". Wrong. What you want to say is that terrorism doesn't have a religion. It has religions. And why just stop at religions? Add states, ethnicities and tribes too. Does anyone say that the shell that landed on a Palestinian farmer's house does not have a state? Or that crusaders did not have a religion? And as long as terrorism has religions, it has your religion, and mine too. Another tweet: "This is not my Islam/another religion". Thank you for making a presumably correct, though ultimately a narcissistic and pointless distinction. It was the gunman's interpretation of religion that motivated him to fire at people in the middle of a concert. And what you are doing is just a secularized version of apostatizing, for you are privileging your interpretation of religion over his, and presuming that yours is the objective truth. There is no pristine, detached, true religion that exists beyond the practices of the believers. This is a misconception that you share with those you despise the most.

Finally, number three: "These people aren't humans." Well, they are, and humans are fucked up. Deal with it. In many ways, this is the ultimate form of apostatizing, which throws inconvenient persons out of the species, and not just the community. And it is necessary, for without it, we will soon realize that asking someone to behave like a human being is probably the worst advice we can give them
                                                                                                                                                Amit Julka


Friday, January 13, 2012

Upar Di Gur Gur

This article was originally written for Viewpoint Online, here

"Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun." A sentence whose incoherence is only rivalled by its meaning, for it sums up all the madness. Not the madness of Toba Tek Singh, but the madness of India, the madness of Pakistan, the madness of partition. It also sums up that madness of the so called saner ones, euphemistically called nationalism.

Much blood has passed under the bridge in the last sixty years. As a third generation descendant of a ‘partition’ family, I never saw the tragedy. I just heard about it. It’s more of a mental abstraction, as is erstwhile Punjab. When I was young, my grandfather would sing “Gaddi aayi Gaddi aayi narowaal di” at night. He never told me where Narowal was. But it nevertheless became a part of my identity. Just like India is, and just like Pakistan is. Fortunately, the human brain has not yet mastered the technique to compartmentalize the mind.

I read Manto for the first time when I was twenty one. The first story of his that I read was Toba Tek Singh. His stories stuck to me because they painted the missing gaps of the picture in my head. Although ethnically a Kashmiri, Manto’s stories were rooted in the secular ethos of Lahore and Amritsar. He captured the extraordinary lives of the ordinary men and women of Punjab, and thus brought to life those who otherwise figured as statistics on the pages of history. Sadly, Manto also narrates how the dream was shattered. The ugliness of that summer when rape and murder occupied the minds of those who, just months ago had sung Heer and had sworn by the message of Baba Bulleh Shah.

In Titwal ka kutta (The Dog of Titwal), I remember an incident when a soldier calls out to the dog, singing “Chan kitthe guzari aa ve raat”, a popular Punjabi folk song. I don’t quite remember whether the soldier was an Indian or a Pakistani. And that’s the beauty of it. The backdrop of the song serves as an effective backdrop to the futile nationalism displayed by the soldiers at the border between India and Pakistan. The song almost becomes a tragic irony, mocking the singer and his so called loyalties.

There are two ways to study history. There is a conventional top-down method. See what this or that leader did or did not do, and then spice it up with some theoretical framework based on one’s particular taste in ideology. Easy peasy. There is also an ugly way to study history, a gutter rat’s view if you will. That is to see history being made by unknown, unnamed actors, and study their individual ugliness. For one can’t really understand collective ugliness without taking into account individual ugliness.

This is the prime reason for Manto’s endearing popularity. He showed people what they don’t like to see. His stories showed the extent to which human perverseness could go, and he did so without any ideological bias. He was neither a taraqqi pasand nor a rujaat pasand, nor a leftist or a rightist. This is not to say that he didn’t espouse liberal/human values; he just loathed the politics of the various camps. In many of his essays, his bitterness towards the progressives is evident, not so much because of differences in values, but the way the progressives used the knife of takfir. All of a sudden, he became a kafir to their cause. Ironically, there has always been a glaring similarity in the modus operandi of the progressives and the religious fundamentalists.

There is yet another reason why Manto appeals to me. I have spent a good part of my life in Bombay (Mumbai in case the reader belongs to the Shiv Sena) and Pune. Manto too spent a lot of time in these cities. What he wrote about those cities still holds true today. Bollywood scripts are still far from reality, the producers run the show and there is no respect for the ‘art’ as such. The only difference is that nepotism is far more entrenched today than it probably was in those days…Oh and we managed to get Akon sing in Hindi…Sigh…

However, Manto, like me, fell in love with Bombay, despite, or rather because of the beauty of its ugliness. Maybe he saw a certain similarity between the city and his stories, for Bombay, like his stories, represents the best and the worst of humanity. Approximately sixty four years have passed since Manto’s abrupt departure. Bombay has grown since. It has become bigger, dirtier and uglier. But what holds the 15 million people wedded to the city is its soul which still remains unchanged.

I don’t know what Manto would think of India if he came back. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t. The rich are richer, the poor are poorer, the mansions are bigger and the slum houses are smaller. People still fight over caste and religion, albeit now it has been legitimised as national politics and democracy. Chacha Sam is still there. Now he sells everything from hamburgers to nuclear technology. Probably Manto will just laugh because it evolved according to his script…or he might just get frustrated and say "Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun."

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Difa-e Pakistan Rally in Lahore and its Implications for Pakistan

First published at IDSA website, here

On December 18, more than 40 religious organizations gathered at Minto Park in Lahore for a jalsa organized by the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council). Prominent amongst those present were Maulvi Sami-ul Haq (the head ofJamiat Ulema-I Islam – Sami and a prominent Deobandi scholar with close links to the Taliban), Liaqat Baloch of the Jamat-i-Islami, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed theAmeer of the JuD (Jamaat ud Dawa), Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi (Sipah-e SahabaPakistan, now renamed as Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat), Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer (leader of Jamiat Ahl-e Hadith) and Hamid Gul, former DG ISI. Fazlur Rehman, the head of JUI-F (the other faction of the JUI) was conspicuous by his absence.

However, out of all the groups present, the most visible presence was that of the Jamaat-ud Dawa. In fact, this was the first time that Hafiz Mohammed Saeed addressed such a large multi-group congregation. JuD key role in this rally can be gauged from the fact that its flags were visible across the large ground, and some newspapers like Nawa-i-Waqt estimated that attendance at the rally far exceeded Imran Khan’s rally earlier on October 31. The rally focused on Pakistan’s relations with the United States and advised the political leadership to abandon all cooperation with America. Organized at a time when Pakistan-US relations are at their lowest, the primary intent of this gathering seems to have been the consolidation of religious groups to reassert their position in Pakistani politics.

Primarily, the congregation sought to reinforce Pakistan’s Islamic nationalism. The main banner on the podium was inscribed with the famous slogan of the partition years: Pakistan ka matlab kya? La allah ill allah (What is the meaning of Pakistan? The answer is: “There is no God but Allah”). Below it, the main heading proclaimed that Difa-e Pakistan jihad fi sabil allah se hoga (The defence of Pakistan lies in jihad in the path of Allah). A picture of the Pakistani flag adorned one side of the banner; while the other side carried the words ‘Allah hu Akbar’ (God is Great). Images of weapons of war were also prominently displayed on the banner.

The conference thus fused Pakistani nationalism with Islam and conflated Pakistan’s defence with jihad against external powers. Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer was particularly vociferous in his speech and declared that if America decides to attack Pakistan the whole country will participate in defence of the nation. And he added that the defence of the nation was also the defence of Islam.

Such a stand benefits both the mullahs and the military. Recent incidents like the NATO air strikes have clearly aroused nationalistic sentiments in the country. Hence, a public display of patriotism by religious parties clearly increases their popularity with the public. On the other hand, the military had clearly lost popular confidence as the defender of Pakistan especially after the Bin Laden fiasco and the NATO air strikes. Thus, the backing of the mullahs to take on the US gives the military a much needed character certificate.

The show of strength at Lahore indicates that there is some kind of a consensus between the military and the religious parties. At a moment when Pakistan is reeling under a political crisis (thanks to memogate and NATO attacks) such a public spectacle had to have the blessings of the agencies. By allowing such a public outburst by Islamic parties, the military might have killed two birds with one stone: obtain the support of religious organizations on the one hand and reaching out to the jihadi militants on the other, as a promoter of militant Islamic nationalism.

Winning the confidence of the mullahs also serves another, more immediate purpose for the military. As it has become clear that the Establishment has reinitiated negotiations with the TTP (Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan), the support of the SIC (Sunni Ittehad Council) could be helpful in persuading the TTP to take a more flexible stand vis-à-vis the establishment. This could occur in two ways. Either the SIC will try to co-opt the Taliban and persuade it not to work against the military, or the military’s cooption of the SIC would isolate, corner and thereby force the TTP to come to the negotiating table. Many leaders of the Difa-e Pakistan movement like Sami-ul Haq and Hafiz Mohammed Saeed are known to have close contacts with the Taliban. These links will certainly play a major role in any future dialogue.

The second possibility is that the Difa congregation was a political move by the military to put pressure on the civilian government and the opposition parties. Although religious parties in Pakistan have never enjoyed significant electoral support, they enjoy political power through indirect means. Firstly, it is entirely possible that the army is trying to put its political eggs in many baskets. Although not all religious organizations participating in the rally are involved in mainstream politics, they do have an indirect influence. By whipping up religious passions against countries like USA, India and Israel, these groups can ensure that mainstream parties do not stray too much from the military’s line on these countries. This was evident from the numerous allusions to the civilian government’s decision to give India MFN status.

Lastly, by staging such a massive gathering in Lahore, it appears that the military is trying to bring JuD into mainstream politics, which is clearly an ominous sign of the times to come. Co-opting such groups could give an impetus and also a sanction for extremist politics in Pakistan in the future. As they get further entrenched in Pakistan’s polity, civilian governments will find it more difficult to contain them. All these factors could further destabilize and possibly reverse the process of the restoration of democracy in Pakistan.

A Rejoinder to John R. Schmidt, 'Pakistan’s Alternate Universe'

This article was published on the IDSA website, here

John R. Schmidt’s article (‘Pakistan’s Alternate Universe’), published in Foreign Policy, tries to offer a counter narrative of Pakistan’s links with the Taliban. However, it would be more appropriate to term the article as the establishment view masquerading behind a thin film of a supposedly neutral counter narrative. In doing so, the author creates a dangerous veneer of legitimacy for Pakistan’s military establishment and its policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Principally, he argues that Pakistan’s fear of India and internal compulsions force it to seek an alliance with Taliban and other unsavoury elements.

At the outset, there is nothing that is fundamentally new in this assertion; Pakistan’s India complex is well known. Having a bigger, hostile neighbour can be a bit unnerving for any country. However, there is a not-so subtle difference between genuine concerns for security and a deliberate exaggeration of the threat – real or imagined. The author’s tone is striking, for it seeks to acquit Pakistan of all responsibility for its decisions by trying to brush them under the carpet of political compulsions.

The first assertion that Schmidt offers in his (or Pakistan’s?) defence is Pakistan’s discomfort regarding India’s growing presence in Afghanistan. In support of his arguments, he mentions India’s $2 billion aid to Afghanistan and the presence of ‘thousands of Indian aid workers’ in the country. It is impossible to comprehend how the presence of aid workers gives India any strategic advantage vis-à-vis Pakistan, unless of course India trains them to conduct surgical operations across the Durand Line. The same goes for the ‘four Indian consulates’. The bogey of the four (and sometimes eight) Indian consulates has been used by reactionary elements in the Pakistani press time and again in order to drum up anti-India paranoia. Pakistan itself has four consulates in Afghanistan, while Germany has three. What does that prove, if anything?

To be fair to Schmidt, India does have designs in Afghanistan that are not purely philanthropic. However, they are also not necessarily nefarious. It is in India’s interest to see an Afghanistan devoid of extremist groups that may be detrimental to its own internal and external security. India also has an eye on Afghanistan’s natural resources and it wants to develop the supporting infrastructure in order to facilitate its commercial interests. However, it would be a colossal exaggeration to argue that India sees Afghanistan as a second front against Pakistan. India is aware that Pakistan and Afghanistan share a long and porous border, and both nations enjoy ties of culture, ethnicity and kinship. Even if it desires, Afghanistan cannot ignore Pakistan. For India, it would be foolhardy to even contemplate such a harebrained scheme, for it can ill afford the luxury of indulging in such costly and fruitless great games.

Schmidt goes on to make a rather fantastic (and if I may add, unsubstantiated) claim that the “Pakistani army is the only force in Pakistani society capable of preventing a jihadi takeover of the state”. Not only is such an assertion patently false, it is also rather dangerous. It is worth pointing out that Schmidt contradicts himself by making this assertion, for he accepts the Pakistan army’s role in supporting the Jihad in Kashmir towards the end of his essay. American diplomats have a time honoured tradition of putting faith in cruel, autocratic institutions of power in order to counter equally cruel religious fundamentalists. Such (blind) faith gives much needed international legitimacy to such institutions and place considerable checks on the growth of democracy in the developing world.

As far as the Pakistan Army is concerned, its commitment to uprooting extremists is often influenced by concerns for its own survival rather than any deep ideological aversion to such ‘non state’ actors. In her insightful book Taliban and Anti Taliban, Farhat Taj describes how during operation Rah-e-Nijat in 2009 against Hakeemullah Mehsood’s faction, instead of crushing the group the army merely displaced the group from South Waziristan to North Waziristan. Also, the army has been complicit in the brutal repression of anti-Taliban lashkars in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). There is a world of difference between exercising restraint against these groups and wilfully abetting their actions. The army seems to be doing the latter. Moreover, if Schmidt’s hypothesis of Pakistan’s reluctant acceptance of the Taliban is to be believed, how does one explain incidents such as the Kunduz airlift of 2001?

Towards the end of his essay, Schmidt writes in a very nonchalant manner that “Their decades-old dispute over Kashmir is the reason that the Pakistanis began supporting jihadi groups in the first place, and they are unlikely to sever their final links with them until it is resolved.

Once again, he tries to portray that Pakistan had no choice but to send its jihadi groups to Kashmir. Pakistan’s support of jihadist groups is mentioned in such a matter-of-fact manner that make Pakistan’s course of action look normal, almost legitimate. Also, the claim is factually inaccurate. Pakistan’s use of ‘non state’ actors has a much longer and colourful history, which starts with the invasion of Kashmir in October 1947. Even in 1971, Islamic militias called Razakars were used to repress the Bengali resistance in East Pakistan. Whatever its own ideological inclinations, the Pakistan army has repeatedly used the rhetoric of Islam and Jihad to achieve less than holy aims.

Schmidt’s essay must have come as a breath of fresh air for the khakis in Islamabad. Whatever his aims, the arguments that he has employed do not stand the test of casual perusal leave alone scrutiny. Furthermore, it bolsters the stance of anti-democratic forces in Pakistan, which is regrettable considering the already lop-sided nature of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

The MFN Debate in Pakistan’s Urdu Press: Sign of cracks?

Coauthored with Shamshad A Khan, and first published on IDSA website, here

Following Pakistan’s decision to grant MFN (Most Favoured Nation) status to India, the Pakistani media indulged in a heated debate over the issue. In line with their traditional stance, the English media took a progressive stance and supported the government’s decision. However there was a tangible division within the Urdu media on this issue.

The Pakistani Urdu press traditionally portrays India as an existential threat with which no compromise is possible until all outstanding disputes, prominently Kashmir, is resolved. This time too, many editorials opined that trade relations with India should not be pursued until India resolves the Kashmir issue. However, an alternate narrative has been adopted by some newspapers like Jang and Express - the two largest newspapers in circulation - as well as by the Peshawar based Mashriq daily.

Express, in its editorial1 of November 4, opined that “this decision is a proof of the fact that our leadership not only realizes the changing realities but also is taking practical steps to reflect the change.” On the same day, Jang took the stand that Pakistan has no option but to choose “trade over aid” and added that “pursuing deeper trade relations will create a congenial atmosphere for resolution of more serious disputes.”2 This stance is contradictory to the dominant discourse in the Pakistani Urdu media, which places conflict resolution over trade or other such issues.

However, Jang dialed down its initial euphoria subsequently by advising India to show more flexibility on the issue of Kashmir. >3 Interestingly, the latter editorial on November 12 did not criticize the Pakistan government’s decision on the MFN status. It is possible that the criticism of India could have been a rhetorical ploy and part of a balancing act to satiate the anti-India lobby and reaffirm Jang’scommitment to the Pakistani state.

In line with their traditional stance, a section of the Urdu press reacted negatively to the government’s decision. The anti-India rhetoric was formulated on two planks. Firstly, many editorials argued that increased trade with India would dilute Pakistan’s stand on the Kashmir issue. These arguments coincided with the line taken by Jamaet-e-Islami Chief Munawwar Hassan who termed the MFN status to India as “stabbing in the backs of Kashmiris” by the Pakistani authorities. Secondly, many viewed a liberal trade regime as being inherently disadvantageous to Pakistan and were concerned about the possibility of Indian goods flooding the Pakistani markets.

Newspapers like Ausaf were generally suspicious of India’s intentions and took a pro-military line. The following extract from Ausaf is particularly revealing in this regard: “We will call upon Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, President Zardari, ISI Chief Shuja Pasha and all the patriots to save Pakistan from this kind of agreement.”4 The sequence of ‘patriots’ reveals the inherent ideological bias of the newspaper. Similarly, an editorial in Nawa-i Waqtequated the government’s decision with the “Fall of Dhaka” 5 and criticized the civilian regime for following a policy which was antithetical to Pakistan’s national interest. Similar views were expressed by other regional newspapers in Pakistan like Khabrein, which enjoys considerable circulation in Punjab.

The difference in the stance taken by Khabrein and Mashriq, the former based in Punjab and the latter in Peshawar, is particularly striking. Mashriq has taken the view that providing MFN status to India would help rectify past mistakes. 6Although the association might appear tenuous, this difference in their stances is perhaps indicative of the public mood in the two provinces. The Punjabi middle class is traditionally seen as pro-military with a deeper anti-India bias as compared to their counterparts in Peshawar and the frontier areas, where the India factor is perhaps an issue with lesser significance compared to the ongoing conflict in that area.

Another newspaper, which is generally viewed as conservative and pro-military, isUmmat. Thus, it was no surprise when it expressed strong reservations about the civilian government’s decision to grant India the MFN status. However, its editorial was of particular significance because it inadvertently gave an insight into the changing dynamic of civil-military relations in Pakistan. A report in Ummat quoting a “reliable” source stated that during a briefing on the MFN issue given by the Foreign Minister to ISI Chief Shuja Pasha and other leaders, the military was not particularly happy with the civilian government’s policy vis-à-vis India. The paper reported that the DG ISI wanted to know “why the government is so close to crossing the line on national security.” 7 The editorial added that the military leadership was not entirely convinced by the Foreign Minister’s explanations.

This report indicates that there is disagreement between the military leadership and the civilian establishment on the issue of granting MFN status to India. Based on the information given in the article, two possibilities can be hypothesized. The first possibility is that the army reluctantly tolerated the civilian government’s stance in spite of reservations. If this was indeed the case, then it is quite possible that the civilian government and possibly the trade lobbies were successful in over-riding the military’s opposition.

At the same time, it is also possible that the army itself exercised some restraint. In an interview to one of the authors, Muhammad Ziauddin, Managing Editor of the Express Tribune, 8 stated that there is in fact some rethink going on within the military. Although it would be far fetched to say that the anti-India lobby in the establishment has lost influence, it is possible that there is a difference of opinion within the military leadership leading to lack of consensus, which could have been exploited by the civilian government.

Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that the political class in Pakistan is being more assertive than usual. In a recent statement, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhary asserted that any attempt by the army to act without the orders of the federal government would be considered as unconstitutional. 9 Such statements indicate that although the military is going to remain dominant in the near future, it is no longer being treated as a holy cow.

Many observers have said that Pakistan’s fragile economic condition on one hand and India’s growing economy on the other have forced Pakistani policymakers to rethink their equation vis-à-vis India. However, it is still early and one needs to keep in mind that the anti-India lobby still exercises a lot of influence on the decision making process and the local media. Having said that, the approval from some sections of the Urdu media for the grant of MFN status to India is indeed a welcome sign and it cannot be ignored.

Some critics have argued that the MFN status is only a small step and not a giant leap as it is being portrayed. Be that as it may, the importance of the MFN status issue lies in the debate that the agreement has initiated in Pakistan, which could influence both the internal political structures of the country as well as the way it deals with its neighbours.

  1. 1.‘Decision to accord India MFN status’, Express, November 4, 2011.
  2. 2.‘Decision to grant India MFN status!’, Jang, November 4, 2011.
  3. 3.‘Regional peace responsibility of both India and Pakistan’, Jang, November 12, 2011.
  4. 4.‘We should remain cautious while signing agreements with India’, Ausaf, November 12, 2011.
  5. 5.‘Another Mischief’, Nawa-I Waqt, November 11, 2011.
  6. 6.Editorial, Khabrein, November 4, 2011.
  7. 7.‘National Institutions ask for explanation on the MFN decision’, Ummat, November 6, 2011.
  8. 8.Amit Julka’s Interview with Muhammad Ziauddin over Skype, November 1, 2011.
  9. 9.“Interpreting Constitution SC’s job: Action by army without govt nod illegal: CJ”, Dawn, November 13, 2011.

Book Review: Farhat Taj's 'Taliban and Anti Taliban'

This review was first published on Viewpoint Online, here

When I read Taj’s book, ‘Taliban and Anti Taliban’, I thought a more suitable title for the book would have been A People’s History of FATA, as it has much in common with Howard Zinn’s seminal workA People’s History of the United States. Both books narrate the story of a land from the point of view of the conquered, and not the conquerors. Both books seek to challenge the dominant narrative and conventional wisdom. The only difference is that Zinn’s Native Americans had been vanquished and exterminated about four centuries ago while Taj’s tribesmen are being systematically oppressed and exterminated as we speak.

And this is where the significance of the book lies. It presents the story of a people who have been often been regarded as savages and brutes from their eyes and not the eyes of those who wish to conquer them. FATA has often been termed as Pakistan’s dirty backyard. The state claims that the region is not under its control, and hence justifies oppression against the natives under the garb of the draconian FCR laws. The Americans say that the region is a haven for terrorists. However, no mainstream observer has bothered to tell the story of the people and the way they have been squeezed between the state and the Taliban.

The book starts with the chapter ‘Deconstructing Some Myths About FATA’. In this chapter, Taj questions two fundamental notions that outsiders have about the region and its people. Her first argument is that contrary to popular opinion, the people of FATA are not Taliban sympathizers. She argues that the widespread militant activities in the region have more to do with the state’s policy of treating the Taliban and their ilk as strategic assets. Thus, according to her, the Taliban and other jihadi groups have been imposed top-down and enjoy no popular support. On the contrary, she argues that it is the indigenous people of the region who have tried to resist them, and it is the state’s collusion with the militants that has changed the power structures in the region and destroyed tribal institutions like jirga and Pakhtunwali.

Her second argument is that the state’s attempt to portray the tribal areas as unruly and beyond its control is nothing but insidious propaganda. In fact, it is the state, and especially Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI that has repressed people through legal and extra-legal means. Moreover, she adds that the influx of militants from Afghanistan to Pakistan wouldn’t have been possible without the state’s collusion. This, she claims flies in the face of the state’s claim that some soldiers may have sympathised with the Taliban due to ethnic affiliation or other such factors.

However, I must add that although I agree with the substance of Taj’s arguments, I find her writing style a bit overzealous. For e.g. on page 16 of the book, while countering the arguments proposed by another author, she writes that “The authors’ opinion is rooted in their poor knowledge of the whole crisis in the tribal area”. While her observation about the particular author might have been correct, one just wishes that she could have articulated her views in a more subtle manner.

Further ahead in the book, Taj talks about the controversial issue of drone strikes in FATA. Once again, her research is extensive and she tries to portray the issue sans any ideological bias or political agenda. This is a refreshing contrast to the ongoing discourse in Pakistan, where arguments are a result of a person’s ideological/political motivations rather than the other way around. Taj argues that contrary to the common perception, drone strikes are actually popular with the inhabitants of FATA. However, being an outsider who has never been to Pakistan or FATA, I am in no position to discuss the merits or demerits of her argument.

Besides dissecting the murky politics of the region, Taj also devotes a considerable part of her work to describe the individual personalities that have shaped this conflict. This adds a layer of detail to her work that is otherwise missing in books belonging to this genre. In fact, I would argue that Taj’s entire work is an exercise in micro-analysis rather than macro level geo political approach that most authors have adopted to study this region and its politics. However, I do feel that the book misses one very crucial component which would have made this wealth of information digestible to FATA-laymen like me: a map. This was the one of the few gaping holes that I noticed in Taj’s work.

Towards the end, Taj devotes an entire chapter to Islamic organizations in Norway and their possible connections with jihadi movements in the subcontinent. Although it is commendable that she has made efforts to enlighten the readers about this little known phenomenon, it was a bit out of place with the theme of the previous chapters. In fact, I would argue that this topic deserves another book of its own.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would be received in establishment circles in Pakistan. As I write this review, Pakistan and US are engaged in a bit of a tussle over ISI’s alleged links with the Haqqani network. I wonder what would happen if the revelations made in this book reaches the public sphere. It could indeed prove to be a source of embarrassment for those in the khaki uniforms. It also remains to be seen how Taj’s arguments are received by the intelligentsia. However, I am sure that whether they like it or dislike it, the book is bound to start an interesting debate.

All in all, I would say that although the book is a little rough at the edges, it does succeed in its primary aim: lending a voice to the voiceless people of FATA.