Review – Muffled voices

By: Aziz Ali Dad

Today we inhabit a world where monolithic identities like nation states provide the basis for the international system of economics, politics and administration. The idea of nation state first emerged in the particular historical context of Europe, but it has exceeded its origin by influencing “Other” societies to relinquish their traditional and organic identities for the meta-identity of nation. Historically, different cultures did interact with each other and influenced different spheres of life. It enabled different cultures to provide a common ground for cultural interface to enrich themselves. Ideally, such a healthy interaction can be done where power relations does not tilt heavily in favour of one group at the expense of others. In modern history, the notion of modern state among non-western societies took roots in a period where the reign of power was totally in the hands of colonial masters. This situation coerced the subjugated societies to base their identities on Eurocentric principles. As a result, diverse identities within a particular geographical area were subsumed under the rubric of national identity.

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In the context of India and Pakistan both countries have followed the path of their masters. In their zeal for the unified identity they embarked upon a nation building project, which pathologically abhorred any local identity that does not fit within the meta-identity of nation state. With the help of different institutions of the state, the nationalist elites and ideologues of nation made institutional and legal arrangements, which structurally suppressed local narratives and politics of identity. A corollary of the structural violence appeared in the shape of tendencies that base identity markers on sources in culture.

In Pakistan Sindhi, Bangali, Balouh, Pushtun nationalists reject the collective identity for the sake of an identity based on language. In the post-colonial period, the foci of analysis regarding nationalism remain on regional varieties not local. So far the debate regarding nationalist movements within Pakistan has focused on broad nationalist tendencies at provincial or regional level. This meta-narrative of provincial nationalism rides roughshod over aspirations of minor identities within and tried to subsume these under the category of geographic nationalism where majoritarian politics defines the identities of minority linguistic or cultural groups.

At the core of narratives of regional nationalism in Pakistan lies geography. Geography by itself is a product of nature, but it attains a sacred status in nationalist narratives. In addition, apathetic administrative decisions of the state about demarcation of boundaries for administrative and electoral purposes creates identity crisis among some groups on the one hand, and enable others to bring minority groups under the collective identity reflecting in administrative unit on the other. Hence, the inherent derive of regional nationalism towards majoritarian politics and subconscious fear of difference of identity within a certain geographic area. This is in the case with demands for Mohahir, Saraiki and Hazara provinces vis-à-vis Sindhi, Punjabi and Pushtun nationalism.

Torwali language is one of local languages that remained out the radar screen of cultural politics and discourse in Pakistan. Torwali speakers inhabit the region of Bahrain in Swat Kohistan. They belong to Dardic group of languages and race. But historical development has severed their relationship with people of their own language family. In the particular socio-economic and political setting of Pakistan, communities living on the peripheries of centralized state are always ignored by those controlling the reign of power. In such a situation Zubair Torwali has made it his life time task to fight for rights of minority  languages in general and Torwali speakers in particular through pen and development initiatives. Given the rising tide of religious extremism, Zubair Torwali has also directed his pen against extremist ideas and violent groups in society. His views and opinion about politics, identity debates, militancy, education, progress and economy appeared in different newspapers, weeklies, online magazines and research journals over the period of 7 years.

This time his scattered views have been compiled in a book named “Muffled Voices: Longing for a pluralist and peaceful Pakistan” published by Multi Line Publications, Lahore. The book covers topics related to militancy in Swat and its implications, extremism, terrorism and war on terror, and the minority languages of North Pakistan & (sic) their woes. The chapter on Swat provide an insider view about the conflict as the writer explicates the ravages of Taliban militancy in Swat.

Zubair seems to disapprove most of the commentaries on Swat in particular and Pushtun culture in general because they tend to derive their conclusions from premises of stereotypes. Hence, the collective failure of Pakistan state as well as Pakistani intelligentsia to diagnose the ailment that is deemed endemic but has become epidemic in the country. In Afghan Jihad, Strategic Depth and War on Terror, the players of the New Great Game never bothered about the actual people of the region. He views these issues from anthropological perspective, and pleas to the power wielders to “listen to the Pashtun”.

His overall theoretical framework in analyzing extremism, religion, society, language and other political and economic issues are mostly informed by meta-narrative of liberalism. It is the point where he seems to jettison relativity of anthropological perspective and sticks to theoretical unity of universal discourse of meta-narrative of liberalism. This perspective helps him greatly in identifying the perils of merging religion with politics, but at the same time restricts him to take stock of the situation from perspectivalism. Over reliance on universal model of liberalism bars him from examining the local dynamics that defy the theoretical unity of meta-narratives. This simplistic solution for complex issues is obvious in the assumption among liberal class that when people quit religion, the situation will become normal automatically. However, the fact is that the local power relations and social structures remain intact and tend to adjust easily in new power dispensation and structural changes where religion does not have any role. Until now religion has expressed itself through cultural attitude and lenses. Modern radical Islam has increasingly destroy that space for local narrative of religion. Overall, local perspective is missing in the chapter related to terror and war on terror.

Zubair Torwali is at his best when it comes to his forte – minority languages and indigenous cultures. The suffix in his name derives from Torwali, which is one of the minority languages in Pakistan. This is basically an oral language. Therefore, the contours of Torwali culture has all the bearings typical of oral culture. At the same time, it faces the same challenges that are normally faced by oral cultures that have to make transition from orality to literacy, which is a symbol of modernity as modern structure of state, its machinery and processes are based on the culture of compilation not on spoken word. Torwalis, like other minority language communities, are facing the full blown attack of modernity. The challenges are compounded because they do not have a say in decision and policy making bodies in Pakistan to decide about their fate. As a corollary, the historical and collective memory along with indigenous knowledge is rapidly vanishing among Torwals.

In a highly globalized world of today small cultures face future shock if they are not equip with required tricks of the trade. Exposure of such cultures to highly advanced societies with economic prowess and cultural industry, creates a fear of vanishing from the face of the earth. A day is well-nigh when our world will turn into graveyard of languages. Zubair’s efforts to bring the issues of vanishing languages and cultures into the centre stage of identity discourse in Pakistan through practice and pen are laudable. He realizes the perils of losing a culturally rooted worldview and language. His views and suggestions for the preservation of minority languages speak for his empathy and understanding the local dynamics that are changing under the pressure of modernization and globalization. Being a speaker of a Dardic language in Gilgit-Baltistan, I feel intellectual and existential affinity with Zubair’s views and plans regarding language rights and preservation.

However, the book suffers from flaws that makes it a difficult read. It seems that no attempt was made by the publisher to transform wittings about current affairs into a book shape. The title of book on title page provides main title, whereas the inner page provides subtitle. In addition, price of the book is not mentioned. Overall the design, layout and separation of chapters does not follow the standard rules of book.

The book is comprised of three parts. It would have been better if the writer could had provided readers a brief introduction of each sections so that the readers could situate the debate in its proper context. There is no doubt that a lot of thought went into the writing of the articles and papers that are compiled in the book, but less time and mind has been invested at the stage of compilation. With some exceptions most of the articles in the book were written for newspapers. That is why the diction and analysis at time lack academic vigor. This shortcoming would have been addressed if an effort had been made by the writer to provide academic references for the allusions to ideas, events and personalities he makes in different passages of the book.

A general reader of newspaper reads articles about current affair in a particular time and space, but for a book reader it needs elaboration, exact reference to events, dates and context because unlike newspaper book has longer shelf life. All these are missing in the book. The reader gropes in facts and statements without context. In addition, a serious book reader is never serious about abbreviations that are peppered throughout the book. It creates a hurdle in understanding the argument. Similarly, no effort has been made to provide index. Owing to this the reader trawls through pages to search for the entry she/he want to know.

Overall it is a good effort by Zubair Torwali to bring the suppressed, muffled and marginalized voices to the limelight of intellectual discourse in the country. The kind of history we have manufactured and the narrative of identity we have constructed have failed to coalesce multiple identities under single rubric of nation. In Pakistan there is a dire need to rehabilitate peripheral voices on the pages of history and intellectual discourse. Only by getting rid of monolithic and manufactured identities and discourses, we can be able to rehabilitate the unheard voices on national landscape. Zubair Towarli’s book “Muffled Voice” is a loud protest and scream of a muffled voice against the structural violence meted out by the power centres and actors to the communities inhabiting the margins of national history and narrative. 

The writer is a freelance columnist with educational background in philosophy and social science. Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

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