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South Asia’s Apostle of Secular Humanism – Josh Malihabadi (Concluding Part)


By Pervez Hoodbhoy 

Every reader of this essay almost certainly carries a passport: Pakistani, Indian, Canadian, American, or whatever. Our world is presently divided into nations, which we tend to think of as permanent entities while forgetting how utterly recent they are. The League of Nations in the 1930’s had a maximum of 58 members. This is less than one third of the current 192 members of the United Nations. In other words, about 80 years ago, two thirds of the world’s current nation-states did not exist.

Nationalism, Religion, Language: The Fatal Triangle


Even the oldest nation-state is but a few centuries old. I will not take sides in the academic debate of whether Peace in Westphalia, signed in 1648, actually marked the beginning of the first sovereign state. But much before that – fifty thousand years ago or more – our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in tribes. Loyalty to the tribe was natural, a necessary condition for collective survival. Tribal markers – tattoos, piercings, bones through the nose or ears, binding of feet, dances and songs, giving particular names to children, festivals, marriage rules – were bonding elements because they identified who belonged to which tribe. Attachment to one’s tribe was unequivocal and total: the tribe could never be wrong. The individual did not matter, and must be ready to kill or die for the tribe.

Nationalism emerged as an advanced form of tribalism. In Europe, the invention of cannons, roads, and printing presses had made domains of control larger. Coalescing tribes, and larger tribes, could do better than fragmented ones. The notion of a nation slowly emerged. It built upon the myth of a common ancestry, reinforced by similarities of physiognomy, language, culture, or religion. The nation was seen as marching together towards some shared future destiny, and hence that it must work together. This strengthened its capacity to cope with the challenges of a hostile environment, and to compete successfully with other groups animated by similar beliefs.

But there is a downside to nationalism. Wired for “group think”, humans tend to assume that their particular group or nation has no peer or rival. However, since obviously not every nation can be the best of nations, this assumption simply has to be wrong. If it was just a harmless assumption who would care? On the other hand, when one group insists on its absolute superiority, there is high risk because the other is automatically reduced to an inferior position. My nation, the true patriot asserts, is better than your nation. We are spiritually pure, you are intrinsically corrupt. Nationalism can then become the justification for mass murder and genocide.

This is why Einstein called “nationalism an infantile disease, the measles of humanity”, and Erich Fromm declared that “nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity”, and that, “patriotism is its cult”. Einstein and Fromm both, of course, were Europeans.

Europe, which invented nationalism in the Age of Enlightenment, has suffered more than any other part of the world from nationalism, which soon spun out of control. The two world wars left 70-80 million dead and many times more permanently disabled. The lessons of Europe must, therefore, be carefully studied by people from Pakistan and India. It is interesting to see how nationalism laid out its roots in Europe. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, French culture had imposed itself on many parts of continent. Frederick the Great of Prussia and his court spoke and wrote in French, but they really thought of themselves as Germans. Indeed, a nascent German nationalism was beginning to stir. Even before the establishment of a German national state, the romantic German nationalist, J.D. Herder, wrote a poem in protest against the French culture of Frederick’s court in Prussia:

Look at other nationalities!

Do they wander about

So that nowhere in the world they are strangers

Except to themselves?

They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.

And you, German, alone, returning from abroad,

Wouldst greet your mother in French?

Oh spew it out before your door!

Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine!

Speak German, O you German!

About two hundred years later, Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian Nobel-Prize winning zoologist and ornithologist, studied animal traits. But he also explored the biological roots of human aggression. Living in pre-WW II times, he warned against the growing German nationalism:

“We have seen on the screen the radiant love of the Fuhrer on the faces of the Hitler Youth... They are transfixed with love, like monks in ecstasy on religious paintings. The sound of the nation’s anthem, the sight of its proud flag, makes you feel part of a wonderfully loving community. The fanatic is prepared to lay down his life for the object of his worship, as the lover is prepared to die for his idol.”

Konrad observed that men may enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even while they commit the worst atrocities. Indeed, in situations of war, conceptual thought and moral responsibility descend to their lowest ebb. My revered physicist colleague from Denmark, Dr. John Avery, in his remarkable book “Space-Age Science and Stone-Age Politics”, (translated into Urdu and freely available at quotes a Ukrainian proverb that says: “When the banner is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet”. Thereafter, men stop being human and turn into killing machines.

In South Asia, as in Europe, tribalism is generally considered to be on the retreat. But, perhaps paradoxically, in large parts of Pakistan it has been enhanced by technology and protected by modern weapons which tribal people can easily acquire from the developed world. Whether urbanization will create a melting pot, or temporarily lead to a re-olidification of ethnic and linguistic boundaries that will re-tribalize society, is an open question. But the appeal to a larger entity will surely win here too at some point in the future. 

 The enormous power latent in nationalism was revealed in 1947 yet again. Nationalism dovetailed with religion to create abinitio the first Islamic nation-state in history, Pakistan. This world-shaking event posed a fascinating paradox: major Muslim political parties, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, fiercely opposed the creation of Muslim nation state. Nevertheless, the personally secular Mohammed Ali Jinnah captured the Muslim mood with his “Two-Nation Theory”.

In his 1940 presidential address delivered in Lahore, Mr. Jinnah asserted that Muslims and Hindus were two separate peoples who had separate customs, histories, heroes, and outlooks. Thus they belonged to two separate streams of humanity that could never intermingle nor live in peace together. Without this core belief, there would not have been a Pakistan. Mr. Jinnah assumed as a matter of course that Muslims – by virtue of sharing a common faith – could live together harmoniously and they naturally constituted a nation.

The strength of Mr. Jinnah’s Muslim League in the Muslim-majority provinces of India was put to the test during the 1945-46 election campaign. Consequently in the public meetings and mass contact campaigns the Muslim League openly employed Islamic sentiments, slogans and heroic themes to rouse the masses. This is stated in the fortnightly confidential report of 22 February 1946 sent to Viceroy Wavell by the Punjab Governor Sir Bertrand Glancy:

The ML (Muslim League) orators are becoming increasingly fanatical in their speeches. Maulvis (clerics) and Pirs (spiritual masters) and students travel all round the Province and preach that those who fail to vote for the League candidates will cease to be Muslims; their marriages will no longer be valid and they will be entirely excommunicated… It is not easy to foresee what the results of the elections will be. But there seems little doubt the Muslim League, thanks to the ruthless methods by which they have pursued their campaign of “Islam in danger” will considerably increase the number of their seats….

When Mr. Jinnah finally succeeded in creating Pakistan, Josh’s reaction to the partition of India was one of dismay. His Rubaai “Mourning Independence” (Matam-e-Azadi) was written in India in 1948 and Josh recited it to a public gathering in front of Delhi’s Red Fort on India’s first Independence Day:

(A rough translation: Little good does this wine bring. Spring comes without its bright colors. Conversations are limp and lifeless. Even the wine brings little cheer. Drink as much as you want but it still does not help. The night of our celebration is dark and joyless.) 

Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, who was present in the audience, was visibly unhappy with the poem, but then listened to it again in a private gathering. He is said to have protested that Josh should not have read it in front of the general public, to which Josh curtly retorted “but it was meant for them”3

Among josh’s most brilliant and hard-hitting poems, one must certainly include Zindaan-e-Musulus: Lasaan, Adyan, Autan (The Triangular Prison: Language, Religion, Nation).

Some excerpts follow: 

(A rough translation: How long shall this pomp and façade last? These bows and arrows, these knives and daggers? Man, who presides over the universe, the king of our times. When shall he escape the narrow confines of geography? ) 

The essence of the last line above is the concept of territoriality. This is so universal and commonplace that it is simply taken for granted. Individuals internalize territorial dominance as part of the formation of a personal identity. Now an established concept in social ethology, territoriality was once a survival imperative. Like their ape ancestors, humans had to compete for resources necessary for the individual or group. Boundaries had to be defined. Some territorial mammals use scents secreted from special glands, to create their demarcation. Dogs and cats also establish their territories also using scent marks, but through urination or defecation. Humans draw maps.

Shall these boundaries remain until eternity? Josh answers: 

I am grateful to Iqbal Haider for this anecdote.

(A rough translation: O’ descendant and inheritor of Adam. Until when shall you want peace for yourself and a dagger for others? This notion of the “other” is so primitive. Remember, my friend, there are no “others” on this earth. From east to west we are all one species, one race. All under this sky and upon this earth are the same. Some work to split us into nations. They play God and are Kafirs. Nay! They are not Kafirs but the most sinful of Kafirs! )

In decrying nationalism, Josh could be equally speaking to Americans who have waged dozens of wars in the last century, invaded countries, dropped atom bombs, levelled cities, starved populations and tortured prisoners. Or he could be addressing the Japanese who today are a peaceful nation. But in 1937 they murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese and raped between 20,000-80,000 women in one of the worst episodes of human brutality. It is hard to imagine that the Turks, who are almost integrated into Europe, could have slaughtered 100,000-200,000 Armenians. The list goes on.

It is a depressing fact that today, in a world shrunk by internet and mass communication; we still live in nation-states for which people feel intense emotions of loyalty very similar to the tribal emotions of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Tsunamis of patriotism have again and again brought forth millions of patriots anxious to slaughter those on the other side. Somehow the ape within us refuses to go away.

So should one love the country one was born in? Hate it and love another? George Monbiot, a British citizen and columnist for the Guardian, states his position:

I don't hate Britain, and I am not ashamed of my nationality, but I have no idea why I should love this country more than any other. There are some things I like about it and some things I don't, and the same goes for everywhere else I've visited. To become a patriot is to lie to yourself, to tell yourself that whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others. It is impossible to reconcile this with either the evidence of your own eyes or a belief in the equality of humankind. Patriotism of the kind Orwell demanded in 1940 is necessary only to confront the patriotism of other people: the Second World War, which demanded that the British close ranks, could not have happened if Hitler hadn't exploited the national allegiance of the Germans. The world will be a happier and safer place when we stop putting our own countries The Lessons for Pakistan

This has been a long essay. What should right-minded Pakistanis conclude from the many themes of Josh’s radical, progressive, secular poetry?

At the outset, the reader must recognize that, contrary to what the doomsayers have announced many times in recent months, Pakistan is a nation-state that is not going to go away. But, if it is to be a happy nation, it needs a positive vision. What should that new vision be?

Certainly, Pakistan would not have come into existence but for the fear of Hindu domination. Fortunately, there is now no reasonable basis for this fear. Hence, there is no need for any further two-nation, three-nation, or multi-nation hypotheses. Pakistan and India are not going to become one country any time in the foreseeable future. Except for a few Shiv Sena crackpots in India, no Indian wants re-unification while Pakistanis would be even more allergic to the idea. Therefore one must get the notion of unification firmly out of the way. Instead, Pakistan must aim towards becoming a normal civilized country, where people live normal, happy lives free of needless prejudice. How should it go about seeking this? 

A pluralist democracy is the answer. For sixty years we have feared diversity and insisted on unity. But Pakistan paid a very heavy price because our leaders could not understand that a heterogeneous population can live together only if differences are respected. The imposition of Urdu upon Bengal in 1948 was a tragic mistake, and the first of a sequence of missteps that led up to 1971 – which left the Two-Nation theory in tatters. The faith-based Objectives Resolution of March 12, 1949 had been just as big a disaster for Pakistan because it led to the disenfranchisement of its citizens, and ignored the principle of respecting diversity.

Pakistan is a multi-ethnic, multi-national state – and it must be recognized as such. Its four provinces have different histories, class and societal structures, climates, and natural resources and within them live Sunnis, Shias, Bohris, Ismailis, Ahmadis, Zikris, Hindus, Christians, and Parsis. Then there are tribal and caste divisions which are far too numerous to mention. These cannot be wished away. Add to this all the different languages and customs as well as different modes of worship, rituals, and holy figures.

Given this enormous diversity, Pakistani liberals like to speak for “tolerance”. But this a bad choice of words. Tolerance merely says that you are nice enough to put up with a bad thing. Instead, let us accept and even celebrate the differences! Inclusion, not exclusion, must be the new principle. We must learn to accept, and even celebrate, our differences and diversity. Other countries that are even more diverse than Pakistan have learned how to deal with this successfully. So can Pakistan.

Pakistan must – and can – find a new identity without insisting that every Pakistani be a Muslim. Today almost every Pakistani understands Urdu, which was not true 60 years ago. This is a hint that a new Pakistani identity is in the process of formation. Even if they don’t always like each other, Pakistanis are learning to understand and deal with each other simply by virtue of having had to live together long enough. And so, unless things fall apart because of the irresponsibility of its rulers, Pakistan will surely become a nation one day – even if it wasn’t one to start with.

The future: much depends upon how we deal with Baluchistan. I definitely do not approve of the desire of some Baluchis who want to secede from Pakistan. It is not practical, nor realistic, nor in the interests of the Baluch. Remember, Baluchistan is not East Pakistan; it is part of the same land mass. Baluch, Sindhis, Punjabis, and Pathans must somehow learn to live together. Baluch anger at being cut away from the riches that lie beneath their ground is perfectly justifiable. They are the poorest in Pakistan in spite of being hugely rich in terms of mineral deposits and oil. A formula must be worked out that will appropriately benefit the people of Baluchistan rather than their tribal Sardars. Those in Islamabad need to do more.

Still more depends on how we plan to deal with economic inequity. Pakistan has never had land reform, imposes no agricultural tax, rewards feudal lords with seats in parliament, and its institutions empower the rich at the expense of the poor. The landscape is that of conspicuous consumption and abject poverty.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new vision of Pakistan demands that it renounce religious discrimination and care equally and deeply for all citizens. All the myriad sects of Sunni and Shia Islam must be considered equals. The state must care just as much for its Hindus, Christians, or Ahmadis. This must hold even for the odd Pakistani Jew – although I don’t think there is any left (there were a few Jews during my school days in Karachi but they all left).

Resting all matters of the state upon religion is a prescription for unending fratricidal struggles. This will continue to pit faithful Muslims against other faithful Muslims. Parachinar and Hangu have been ablaze for years, car bombs still continue to explode in Baghdad even after the Americans have announced their withdrawal, and similar slaughters happen around the globe. The very fact that there is serious disagreement even among believers of the same faith – not to speak of faiths hostile to each other – means that there cannot be only one single truth in any religion, or agreement on how to run a religious state.

For this reason, Pakistan, as a country with many Muslim sects cannot be run by the Sharia because, even for Muslims, the obvious question is: whose Sharia? Shafi’i, Hanafi, Maliki? Hanbali? And what about the Shias who accept none of these? These questions cannot be pretended away. They have not been resolved in a thousand years. Nor can they be resolved in the next thousand. It is time to move religion out of politics.

This calls for constitutional reform. Pakistan cannot afford a constitution that discriminates between Muslim and non-Muslim. Therefore every law that discriminates between the citizens of this land must be annulled. Every citizen of Pakistan needs to be declared exactly equal to any other irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or class. We clearly cannot impose jizya on non-Muslims and expect loyalty from them. Thus the law must be secular to be uniform.

Further, if we want unity in the face of diversity, then the majority must stop trying to force itself upon the minorities. Most crucially, the state must stop acting on behalf of the majority.

To conclude, sixty years is not a long time in the life of a nation, but it is time enough to learn from grievous mistakes. As times change, needs change. Slogans and mottos, and the avowed national purpose, should also change. Surely, every nation-state in the world stands somewhere along a learning curve.

Time is running out for Pakistan so the learning will have to be quick. Narrowness of vision has made this into a land of suicide bombers. Shredded bodies and twisted limbs lie all around. So let us harken back to Josh Malihabadi’s clarion call as he pleads for a new global consciousness welding all humans together.

His message rings loud and clear:

(A rough translation: Why are our great preachers silent? They speak of righteousness and illumination by faith. They have announced that God is one. But shall they now announce a new prophet who says humanity is one? )


My interest in the poetry of Josh Malihabadi was stimulated by my participation as a speaker in a symposium organized in Calgary, Canada by Iqbal Haider, founder of the Josh Literary Society. In listening to the other speakers, I found myself entranced by the richness and beauty of the poetry which hitherto I had only been casually aware of. I am also grateful for various pieces of information about Josh’s life and work that I received from Mr. Haider. These were important in giving this essay its final form, leading to its publication in A Conjugation of Art and Science (2014, Amazon Books, ed. Iqbal Haider). In revising this essay, I am happy to acknowledge Syed-Mohsin Naquvi for his detailed comments, and thank him for typing the couplets in Urdu-Nastaliq script as well as correcting a translation.

URL of Part 2:’s-apostle-of-secular-humanism-–-josh-malihabadi-(part-2)/d/98474